Blue Hills Teacher Bikes Across America
October 20, 2011
by Judy Bass
When most of us think of taking a bike ride, it is probably around the neighborhood or to a local park. But this summer, biking enthusiast and Blue Hills Regional Teacher Jonathan Palmer decided to undertake the ride of a lifetime, thus setting a "borderline unattainable" goal for himself - traversing the entire United States from coast to coast strictly by bike, going solo from sea to shining sea.
Not only would it be the ultimate test of Palmer's physical stamina, but of his mental durability as well.
On June 25, the day after classes ended for the summer at Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton, where he teaches math, Palmer set off on his journey from Boston at 5:30 a.m. "I [symbolically] dipped my rear tire in the Atlantic Ocean and took off," he recalled.
Some 32 days and 3,397 miles later, he reached San Francisco on July 26, suffused with exhilaration, exhaustion, and pride in himself for achieving a milestone that even the hardiest cyclists can't imagine.
Palmer, 31, of Waltham, is now in his second year teaching at Blue Hills. He has long been athletically inclined, he said, first as a student at Tantasqua Regional High School in Fiskdale, Mass., then at Stonehill College in Easton, where he was recruited to play tennis.
His first attempt at a semi-Herculean bike trip came in June 2008, when a friend of his was getting married in Chicago. Already training for an Iron Man Triathlon, Palmer figured he would bike to the Windy City. Traveling over 150 miles per day, he got there in six days, expending so much energy that although he consumed "an insane" amount of food, he shed 15 pounds.
Looking back, Palmer said that he learned a few key lessons from that endeavor. Don't put yourself under an arbitrary time deadline; don't set a particular destination to reach every day; and don't ride too many miles daily (amazingly, Palmer did 150 miles every day.)
Armed with that first-hand knowledge, Palmer began his epic cross-country odyssey exactly three years later. Equipped with plenty of convenient, high-energy snacks like Nature Valley bars with peanut butter crammed into his saddle bag (it's actually called a pannier,) Palmer was on his way, about to embark upon an "incredibly lonely" yet truly unforgettable adventure.
He says now that he wondered if he could push his body through such a punishing ordeal. Just over a week into it, Palmer found out when he faced his biggest obstacle.
Somewhere in Ohio, at the start of a heat wave that brought the mercury soaring to nearly 100 degrees, he woke up in a cornfield behind some houses where he had camped feeling isolated, daunted, and ready to quit.
Seeking helpful advice and encouragement, Palmer said he phoned a friend who had hiked the Appalachian Trail. That call proved to be a very smart move. He said his friend told him that if he ended his trip then, he'd surely be right back there again eventually, intent upon finishing what he began. Filled with renewed determination, Palmer clambered back on his bike, reaching Bowling Green, Ohio in time to watch the Fourth of July fireworks.
Every day resembled the day before, with Palmer hitting the road, "just pedaling and pedaling" in a monotonous routine, munching on bagels, cheeseburgers, salads, and "everything in between." His only shelter was a humble tent; he also had a sleep sack and a blanket. Palmer said that his emotions often ran the gamut from jubilation to subdued weariness as the miles behind him steadily mounted.
His ups and downs continued. Palmer said he fractured his hand when he crashed his bike and displays the still- reddened injury weeks later. Then there were glorious highlights, like going through the spectacular Sierra Nevada Mountains and Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Camped at a community college near the athletic fields, Palmer witnessed a breathtaking sunset that remains emblazoned on his memory.
He kept pushing himself forward, finally reaching California. There was no splashy celebration, merely a low-key phone call to Palmer's parents and sister to say he made it. "I had tears in my eyes when I was standing in the [Pacific] Ocean," he said.
His mission finished, Palmer flew home to Massachusetts to contemplate what he had accomplished. Today, he says doing it "was a question of willpower and determination."
"I'm very comfortable with who I am," he explained. "If you can't deal with the thoughts in your head, you can't do something like that. I was pretty exhilarated that I was able to do it."
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