When others thought I was foolish to embark on a solo bicycle trip across the United States, I proved them wrong.
My bicycle trip was a journey of transformation; I was different at the end of it then at the beginning.
I'd like to think by reading my book, people walk away inspired to be a better version of themselves.
The hardest part of the journey was the mental. So often I wanted to quit and each time I dug deeper within myself and rose to ride another day.
The greatest tragedy of my life was losing my boys.
My hope was buoyed once I started seeing seagulls 18 miles from the coast. My joy was complete as I waded into the Atlantic ocean, two months after dipping my toes in the Pacific Ocean.
In 1981, at 22 years old, Tom embarked on a solo, 58 day bicycle trip from Florence, Oregon to Chesapeake Bay, Virginia. The journey within proved much greater than his trip on the bike. This became a journey of the heart and soul. Events along the way triggered flashbacks from earlier times in Tom’s life, starting with his birth, when the doctor encouraged his parents to pull the plug; to overcoming his disabilities; to surviving the heart wrenching family loss. The story encompasses his experiences as Tom pedals through unexpected snow storms, climbs over 11,000 foot passes, and crosses the Continental Divide. Along the way, he has chance encounters and a near death experience as he struggles to complete his trip, hampered and emboldened by his life reflections.
I paced back and forth in that room for about an hour when the doctor came in to apprise me of the situation. “Your wife was touch and go for a while but I think we can save her; I think she’s going to make it. But your son is another story; I’m not sure he is going to make it.” He paused and then added, “It may not be a bad idea to just let him go; he has a birth defect hand (none of the digits are fully formed) and his face is all deformed. It would not surprise me if he has extensive brain damage as well. I’m thinking it might be better for his quality of life and yours if we just let him go and concentrate on saving your wife.”
I paused for a moment as the reality of his words sunk in . . . “brain damaged,” “birth defect,” “deformity” . . . . My head began to spin with all kinds of thoughts, and then I felt a rage well up inside of me, like I was watching a scene from a movie unfold before me; I found the words pouring out of my mouth coming from a place deep within me, a place I was not familiar with; I shouted “He has every right to live and you will do everything you can to save him. I want to see him right now!”
I’ve seen that look if not
a million times before.
Oh, it’s changed over the years ~
people seem to hide it better as they
grow older, The Stare.
It’s a stare that boxes me
into a fate
I cannot change.
A box that seems forever
to remain the same.
Please tell me if this really is
some kind of a game.
I may look different but
our hearts beat the same ~
I may need more assistance
but I’m not immune to pain.
Oh, please, once, just show me
that you care ~ I care.
My questions of why echo on inside,
the answer seems ever distant
as I wait for a reply.
Don’t get too close, don’t spend too
Don’t touch, don’t share, no one
The stare comes back ~ it always
does, but seldom does
It follows me wherever I roam,
a stare that does not dare ask
A stare I see forever, inside.
— Thomas A. Reis, 1982
Well, this is it, graduation is over and another education begins . . . .
Remember to think. Use your head. Don’t expect Grace to dance with you if you’re not willing to learn the steps. Think discipline, safety, awareness—and let joy find you by surprise. Learn to expect surprises and wonders, but don’t let laziness lull you into danger needlessly. Let the thoughts that will invade your daytime hours flow through your mind like water. Don’t grasp or hold on to them or they will stagnate. Be at peace with your own capacity for silent communion with rhythm, wind, space, and time.
Send forth before you each day hopeful thoughts in all you anticipate that your attitude may conquer the fear in others’ hearts of the unknown that you represent.
Let not your own fears master you. Maintain a healthy respect for your intuition and sense, but do not let fear be your master. Allow others to be generous with you and remember that the adventure they seek that you share with them is payment enough.
Though in the morning, the stars’ appearance fades to invisibility, they are still there. So too are our thoughts and prayers for you as you wind toward us in your circular rhythm.
Bro (May, 1981)
January 13, 1999
God, I never thought this day would come! In a matter of 5 minutes standing in front of a judge, my life has changed forever. Mona has it all now; full custody, full guardianship, and full control over access.
I walked out of court that day without my coat on, in my suit and tie. It was grey, overcast, and cold outside, but I didn’t care. All the color in the world felt lost to me in my depression. Sometimes I think it is easier to die than to live. I put one foot in front of the other as if I were aging with each step, feeling dazed and battered, slowly making my way down the street to my van, oblivious to the cold. I got in to my van and I felt like driving forever into the distance. Anyplace has got to be better than here!
Then I thought of the boys and drove over to the day care and played with them. They had no clue of what I was feeling or how big a day this was. They didn’t need to be concerned with all this adult stuff. I just had to see and touch and hold the boys close, on this day in particular. I just wanted to hug them and hold them close, watch them smile and giggle. It’s good they will never know any of this. I wouldn’t want them or anyone to feel this pain.
Later that night at home, I walked around the house in silence. I went to the bathroom and saw their bathtub toys ringing the tub. I saw the little bottle of baby shampoo next to my shampoo. I wondered if I would ever be able to give them a bath again.
I opened the doors to their rooms. I saw the covers all messed up like they had just left the scene, their teddy bears standing guard as if waiting for the boys’ next visit. The room felt chilly and dark, like the space in my heart. If I listen hard enough in the darkness, it’s like I can almost hear their little voices filled with laughter.
How I wish they had left some kind of scent on their covers so I could breathe them in and bring them back to life in this barren place.
So this is what grief is like—this pining, this knot in my stomach, this constant swallowing and anxiousness. The flip side of the coin of love is always grief. How I wish things were different!
Reflecting on my trip across the United States in 1981, the most difficult moments involved people, and the most unexpected joyful moments also involved people. In Idaho, one of each happened to me.
I was ugly, I was unlovable, and I had no self-worth. The world was not a kind and loving place. But in Gramma’s class, I became somebody. She didn’t see my hand or my crooked face. All she saw was a beautiful human being. In the movie Avatar, to greet one another, instead of saying, “Hi,” they would say instead, “I see you,” meaning “the essence of me sees the essence of you.” That’s what it felt like being around Gramma. She was that rare person who could look beyond my disabilities and see my essence, see the beauty that no one else bothered to look for. She saw things in me that I never knew existed. It was one thing to get positive messages from my mom and dad and my siblings. But I would always write it off as family—they had to say nice things about me. But Gramma wasn’t family. Here was this kid of average intelligence, just getting by, with no self-esteem, with a deformed face and hand, and yet I was special in her eyes. She was the first person outside of my family who thought I was beautiful. She didn’t see my deficits, only my assets—assets that were so well hidden, I didn’t even know about them.
It is a wonder that I write anything at all after surviving the trauma of freshman English. When I decided to attend St. John’s, I had the mistaken notion that the brothers and priests in the Benedictine Order would be mostly meek, compassionate, sensitive souls, ready to support and nurture me on the road to higher academic success. Father Renee McGraw certainly fit my stereotypical image of a priest. However, the brother who taught freshman English was quite a departure from this stereotype. In fact, he didn’t come remotely close. (That his name escapes me may be repression, which they say is a defense mechanism that may on some level help preserve some of my mental health.)
I remember him being a rather large, rotund man with his black monk outfit making him look even more imposing. He wore the typical white tassel rope belt and hood to complete his black ensemble. He had dark red hair, parted to the side, with a full beard and black, geeky looking glasses. He didn’t look like he missed too many meals. I got the sense that he was teaching freshman English out of penance and not some great desire to help us become grammatically literate.
In making my living today as a professor, I was taught early on to never mark a paper in red ink because it was considered “the color of shame.” So I mark my papers today in blue, black, green, and sometimes even purple ink, but never red. My professor of freshman English never got the memo on red ink equaling shame. My essays dripped shame. I dreaded getting my papers back from him. There would be more red ink from him correcting my paper than the black ink I used to type it. The only thing he didn’t seem to correct was my name on the paper.
In an old Peanuts cartoon strip, Peppermint Patty is sitting at the desk in a classroom and she says to Charlie Brown, “I wonder what my teacher thinks of my paper?” Just then, an essay crumpled into a paper ball floats into her lap, as she states, “I guess he didn’t think too highly of it.” That cartoon strip pretty much captures about how I felt around my freshman English professor.
…….At this point, I have my students open their eyes and write for a few minutes about what this meditation was like for them. Then I ask them “How many of you know the names of all your grandparents?” Almost all, if not all, of the hands go up in the classroom. Then I ask how many of them know all the names of their great grandparents and only about a quarter of the hands go up. Then I ask, “How many of you know all the names of your great grandparents,” and none of their hands go up. Then I tell them to look around, to notice that no one’s hands are up.
That’s when I say, “See, you are all 100 years from your own extinction. In the arrogance of our temporariness, we think we are so important. We can’t imagine the world going on without us, but it does. The world has been going on without us for millions of years and it will continue to go on without us, hopefully, after we are fertilizer and pushing up daisies for another million years. How many times do you mention your great grandma’s name, or what do you even know about your great grandfather?”
Most students answer, “Never,” or “Very little.”
“Your life will be summed up in a sound bite.” I ask them, “So what do you want your sound bite to say about you? Do you want to be known as an alcoholic? Will they say ‘I don’t know much about Grandpa, but he sure was an ornery old cuss!’? Or will they say about you, ‘She was a great mother,’ or ‘He was such a loving, devoted husband.’?” Then I challenge my students by saying to them, “You are creating your sound bite, your legacy, every day. You are the author of your life. You write the story of who you are every moment, every day of your life. Every action you take, every choice you make, is an act of self-definition. So I ask them, “What story are you going to write? What legacy are you going to leave? What sound bite will you create with your life?”
I was so cold bicycling through Yellowstone that I would stop at every rest stop in the park, spaced about 10 miles apart, get under the hand dryer and punch it about 20 times to warm up my hands and body until feeling came back in to my extremities, only to rush back out and pedal in the cold for the next 10 miles to stop at the next rest area and sit under the hand warmer another 20 minutes before heading out yet again. This was my ritual of survival as I inched my way through Yellowstone. This is what I remember most about Yellowstone, outside of its panoramic beauty.
It was in Yellowstone that I was hit by a vehicle. I was riding on the shoulder of the road, near some elk and buffalo. At times in the park, because of high vehicle density, it was not unusual to see bumper-to-bumper traffic—not the place to be if you are in a hurry. Actually, it is a wonder there are not more accidents in the park, because there is so much to see. That’s the problem; you have a bunch of drivers becoming completely distracted behind the wheel, looking at everything but the road ahead. It was not unusual to see tourists hanging out the windows, leaning out taking pictures of bear, buffalo, and sometimes mangy looking bicyclists.
At one point, a large Winnebago I had passed earlier was inching its way up, meandering out of its lane, and onto the shoulder I was on. Good thing it was only going one or two mph faster than me, because the next thing I felt stunned me—its side-view mirror slapped me on my upper back. Luckily, their window was open and I could yell out, “Hey, what are you doing? I’m biking here!” They immediately slowed down, aghast with the sudden realization that they had run into me, and pulled back into their lane.
“……..Anthony de Mello said that, “We fall in love with our idea of that person, what we need that person to be. Seldom do we fall in love with who they really are.” I have my students ponder and debate this for quite some time. Most end up agreeing with this statement. Seldom do we truly see the truth of anyone. We see what we’ve been conditioned to see, what we hope to see; but seldom do we see what’s really there. Our perceptions are always biased and always partial. So much of what we call love is our hope, our desire for what we think that person is. So much of what we think is love is need-based. Many of us enter our love relationships from a place of diminishment, a place of our own woundedness. No wonder love becomes so elusive, coming from this state of being. So many of us look for love outside of ourselves, when we have yet to find love within ourselves first.”
Four Stars (out of Five)
A cross-country bike ride serves as an allegory for perseverance in this inspiring memoir.
This autobiographical work from professor Thomas R. Reis weaves a travelogue into a memoir, and the inspirational result is a work that shows how determination can help to overcome adversity.
When Reis was born, a doctor intimated to his father that certain aspects of his conditions might drastically impede his quality of life and made a suggestion that no parent wants to hear. But Reis’s parents fought for him, and then taught him to fight for himself. Reis grew up headstrong and found ways to work around his disabilities to pursue athleticism and other vehicles of normalcy. Challenges here are related honestly, including childhood cruelties and adult insensitivities, though Reis does not write with self-pity. By the time he graduated from college—as the class-elected valedictorian—he was confident and brazen enough to undertake a cross-country bicycle ride, pedaling three thousand miles from Oregon’s beaches to the East coast.
The trip is presented as the core of the book, though word of it is interspersed throughout the whole work, interrupted by chapters more fully fleshing out Reis’s life tale. Readers mainly interested in the billed travel tale will have to be patient, though the bridging material proves to be fascinating reading.
Through Reis, we get a glimpse of what life was like for those with visible disabilities just decades ago, prior to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and those realities are both shameful and humbling. Reis’s maturation from a tenacious and rightfully defensive youth into his adulthood and professional life, in which he first served as a family counselor before settling into academia, is as a journey worthy of admiration. Readers will be charmed by the credit he affords those around him and by the gratitude with which he writes.
The memoir’s tone is intelligent and controlled, even when Reis is discussing tough subjects like the overt racism of small Southern towns—he presents pictures, offers introspection, and encourages rather than forces conclusions. Sentences are evocative and quietly didactic, appealing to collective memory and humanity while relating these experiences.
The trip itself comes to serve as an allegory within the broader work as proof that perseverance, no matter which tools you have to work with, can produce great results. Reis tells readers he biked farther on his first day of the trip than he had in whole weeks of preparation leading up to it, and so physical challenges are predictable and understandable. But, despite pushy drivers, mountainous terrain, and unpredictable weather, Reis pressed on and finished. He’d been advised not to start out—those discouragements poignantly align to those offered to his parents early on—but Reis took his dreamed-of ride despite nay-saying and found the rewards well worth the challenge. And he’s since been back for more.
Headwinds is a beautiful book that alludes to the advantages waiting in all of life’s adventures, particularly for the audacious and brave of heart.
Thomas presents on the wonder of who you are through his life story and experience. Both as an educator and therapist, he shows us steps we can take to more fully love and accept ourselves.
Thomas presents on a deeper understanding of poverty in this country and why the poor remain hidden.