By Aaron Tannenbaum
“We’re so inspired by the sacrifices that you all are making this summer,” the pastor’s wife announced to the hungry crowd at the Oil City, Pennsylvania Second Presbyterian Church. “It’s amazing what you guys are doing to support those of us who are suffering from cancer.”
Just six days earlier my 22 teammates and I cycled out of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and began our 70-day journey to Seattle with the Ulman Cancer Fund’s 4K for Cancer. That day I also began a paradoxically self-serving charitable bike ride. I’d been passionate about cycling for years and have long dreamed of riding my bike across America, so when I saw the eerily targeted Facebook ad for this cross-country ride whose mission is to raise funds and awareness to support young cancer patients, I applied and committed in a matter of days. Never mind that I didn’t actually know any young adults who were fighting cancer or much about what the Ulman Fund did — I was in it for the travel, the riding, the photos, the bragging rights. The charitable aspect of the ride was just a feel-good bonus.
The pastor’s ebullient wife made me wonder – What did she mean by “sacrifice?” What made me so inspiring to her? Her community just fed and housed our group of 22 rowdy strangers, and now she was thanking us? Apparently, I’ve managed to inspire some of the kind strangers I’ve met during the past 18 days of biking, albeit for reasons that I don’t quite understand. These mystifyingly appreciative people, on the other hand, have moved me with the utter simplicity of their unquestioning generosity.
It’s hard to say who was more excited that night — the community waiting to meet us 4K for Cancer riders or us riders waiting for the feast they had prepared for us. The two faces in the room that beamed most brightly, however, belonged to the pastor’s 17- and 15-year-old sons. (In case you couldn’t guess, Oil City is a small place where it isn’t every day that 22 travelers from every corner of the country sit down to eat dinner with some local kids).
“We like living in Oil City,” the oldest said to me. “I like my friends and I like my school.”
“It’s beautiful here in the mountains, but something like 60% of the people from some radius around Oil City never leave that radius,” another local high school student said. “That’s part of why I want to join the Marines.” That, he explained, and that there are no well-paying jobs for young people here.
After the kids had told us their stories of childhood in the Rust Belt, an older man spoke to us proudly about his family’s local roots. When his grandfather, Joe Gil, immigrated from Europe and settled in rural Pennsylvania, he was the first person in Oil City’s Polish neighborhood to own a car. “You all have that same story,” he reminded us. “You all came from somewhere.” While just my street in New York is likely more populous than this whole town, I felt oddly at home.
Over the next few days of riding, the towering Appalachians flattened into gently rolling farmlands. Massive tractors gradually replaced the Amish horse-and-buggies with which we shared the quiet roads. We pedaled across maddeningly flat Ohio with no scenery but endless cornfields to protect us from the brutal headwinds.
On the morning that we geared up to cross another state line and ride to Ann Arbor, Michigan, a local couple (who had apparently read about our group in the paper) approached us. Mia and her husband were avid cyclists and lovers of the outdoors, but they worried that Mia’s recent breast cancer diagnosis would permanently change their lifestyle. They tried to tell me that the were inspired by what we’re doing and that they’d be thinking of us during their ride later that day, but I’m certain that the conversation should have been reversed. It’s people like Mia, people who keep their heads up and legs moving through the toughest of times, who I try to think of when I feel my summer is tough.
Despite my attitude at the beginning of the summer, I would not be able to do this ride if I were only in it for myself. From Baltimore to Ann Arbor, every pedal stroke of mine has been fueled by the warm food, quirky stories, and unrelenting strength of the great people I’ve met along the way.
Aaron Tannenbaum is a rising sophomore Applied Math major in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.