RANTOUL — Rantoul native Justin Brown was not an avid bicyclist. So riding for 2,800 miles cross country was kind of a shock to the system.
Brown and fellow members of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity pedaled from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., on the Journey of Hope, a national project designed to raise money for and awareness of people with disabilities.
“I enjoyed it, but I’m definitely glad to not be on my bike for a little bit,” said Brown, speaking from Macomb, the home of Western Illinois University, where he recently started his senior year, majoring in political science.
Brown said many of the people with disabilities on the route avidly look forward to the visits each year. But he said he got as much out of the experience as they did.
“Some will be so upset when you have to leave that they cry or give you like 10 hugs,” Brown said. “It’s definitely given me a ... new perspective on myself and the world and my university. That’s part of what the experience is supposed to do. These people that I’ve met have impacted me as just as much as I have impacted them.”
Brown and his fellow cyclists heard the stories of many of the experiences of what the people they visited have gone through.
“A lot of people think they aren’t able or capable to do what you or I are able to do,” he said. “Just seeing the positivity that a lot of them have, they still have a smile on their face or are super excited and live life to the fullest.”
The group of bicyclers stopped each day at camps designed for people with disabilities and helps to raise money for grants to camps for the disabled.
That experience helped to motivate Brown on the 63-day journey.
Brown said there were times during the trip when he wouldn’t have minded taking a break or being elsewhere.
“But the minute you get to some of these organizations and see the smiles or they see you across the room and run to you,” it makes it all worthwhile, he said.
Brown and the others who were not avid cyclists took part in a five-month training regimen in January to take part in the trip, which started June 9 and ended Aug. 10. The regimen included “a lot of cycling” and strength exercises that works on the legs and the core muscles.
Twenty-nine people were part of Brown’s “route,” with seven of those being support individuals. They were one of three routes that totaled 86 people.
The cyclists typically rode in a pace line of three to five. They started at different times of the day, but the pace lines tried to stay within 10 miles of one another. They averaged 75 miles a day, although some days got up to 125 miles.
“Typically at the end of each day we would do a friendship visit with an organization who has a similar mission to what we had,” Brown said.
It wasn’t all work. There were some off days in which they participated in friendship visits with various organizations. Activities such as wheelchair softball games, dance parties and water balloon fights brought out the smiles.
“We helped people travel,” Brown said, including one stop in Steam Boat Springs, Colo., where they took a group of wheelchair-bound residents down a trail to a waterfall they’d never visited before.
A memorable time
The trip created memories that Brown said will last a lifetime.
“A lot of them wait a whole year for us to come back and are excited when we get back into town,” he said.
Brown especially enjoyed seeing areas of the country he’d never visited, most of them out west. And going by bike on two-lane highways or back roads provided a greater experience than traveling by car on interstate highways, said Brown, who was struck “by the beauty” of the route.
Brown didn’t mind one bit having to bike up mountain roads in Colorado, which he said was probably the favorite part of his trip.
A mountaintop experience
“Seeing the snow peaks” was a thrill, he said. “People were still skiing in the mountains in July. We went through a ski resort. Snow was everywhere. And just being able to go the top of that peak 12,000 feet up and seeing for miles.”
Brown, who traveled with his bike to San Francisco by plane, was met in D.C. by his parents, Tony and Beth Brown. Police gave the cyclers an escort and blocked the road for them up to the U.S. Capitol. The Browns were all able to attend a Journey for Hope banquet in D.C. with their son.
Although Brown said he isn’t likely to cycle cross country again for the cause, he said he will continue to advocate and share the message about the value of people with disabilities.
“It’s important to do what we can in our local communities,” he said. “I met a lot of guys along the way who were supporting us who did this (bike trip) 15-20 years ago.”