There are days that the sheer, jarring reality of the journey hits Andover’s Joe Kuykendall.
Days when he realizes he is thousands of miles from home, and still has thousands of miles to cover on his bicycle before his trip is over.
“The first day you start out and ride 55 miles and the endorphins are kicking in and it is so exciting because it is something new,” said Kuykendall. “Then you realize you still have about 3,700 miles to go. It was very overwhelming.
“But then I think about why I am doing it. It’s intimidating, fascinating and incredible all at the same time. It’s hard, but it is worth it. I tell myself, ‘Never underestimate the major impact a minor action can have.’”
Kuykendall, the former Golden Warrior volleyball star, could have spent the summer before his sophomore year at James Madison relaxing with friends in Andover.
Instead, the 19-year-old set out on a cross-country cycling trip with a group that by the end will have covered 3,794 miles from Virginia Beach (Va.) to Canon Beach (Ore.) for the charity Bike & Build which benefits the affordable housing cause in the United States.
“It’s hard to put into words how proud we are of Joe,” said his mother, Laura Kuykendall. “I can’t talk about it without getting emotional and teary. It’s amazing what he is accomplishing, and I think he and his group will be changed both physically and mentally by the experience. I can’t wait to bring him home.”
Joe is a member of a 29-person group, all strangers prior to the trip, that is taking part in the “Central America” route — one of 10 organized by Bike & Ride — that began on May 31 and is expected to finish on Aug. 10.
“It’s been crazy,” said Kuykendall by phone from Idaho. “I expected it to be certain things and it’s been a lot of different things. It’s been a great growing experience personally, and I have learned a lot about the affordable housing problem in America.”
Kuykendall first learned of the program through his mother’s job with the health and wellness company “Boulder Brands.”
“The program has been around for 11 years,” said Kuykendall. “My mom’s company is a sponsor for the charity and in 2011 the CEO’s daughter took part in the trip. They had sent something out with the employees asking if anyone’s children wanted to take part in the program. I knew I wanted to do it.”
Kuykendall’s enthusiasm for the journey came as a shock to his parents since, by his own admission, Joe was far from an experienced cyclist, only riding to do the occasional errand.
“We were completely surprised,” said Laura. “A cross-country bicycle trip was not really something I imagined Joe would ever choose. But I think doing it for a good cause was the most appealing thing to him, and as an athlete we felt he could figure out the physical part.”
But the preparation for the trip was far from as simple as signing up and hopping on a bike.
“First you had to fill out a long application and were put into a lottery to see which of the routs you would take part in,” said Joe. “There were a lot of doctor’s appointments and you had to do 500 miles of training.
“Each rider was also required to raise $4,500. After all your expenses are paid for, the rest is donated to the housing charity. My team has raised over $150,000, and so far the program has donated $4 million.”
When the trip kicked off on May 31, the group began with a grand gesture.
“We all dipped out bikes in the Atlantic Ocean,” he said. “And when we are done we are going to dip them in the Pacific. It’s pretty surreal to think we would be crossing the country on human power alone.”
An average day for Kuykendall and crew begins between 4-6 a.m. and consists of approximately nine hours of cycling.
“We wake up, eat breakfast and have a half hour to pack our bag and get it to the support van,” he said. “We hit the road and we are on our own to do what we want as long as we get to our next location by 4 p.m. You can’t listen to music, so the best thing to do is find someone to have a good conversation with. But when you are on your bike by yourself for eight hours riding through Kansas, there is a lot of time to think.” The group stays at a host location at every stop, usually churches (“about 90 percent of the time”), but also schools, host families and even camp sites. While most have been solid, a few have stood out for both good and bad reasons.
“On July 2, we rode into this really small town called Clay Center, Kansas,” said Kuykendall of the town of 2.8 square miles. “It just happened to be on a day the bank was giving out free meals. Then, one of the guys was at a pharmacy and mentioned what we were doing, and we got invited to this great Fourth of July party. It was a great slice of Americana.
“The worst was when we were biking through Bloomington, Indiana and our host called and said they couldn’t host us. Luckily one of the guys goes to the University of Indiana. So 29 of us crammed into his college apartment, with the air conditioner broken. It was rough.”
Making a difference
Throughout their trip, Kuykendall’s crew has made 10 stops in various states for “Build Days” in which they help build low-income housing.
“The build days are great because it’s very moving to make a difference,” he said. “Most of the days are working with Habitat for Humanity. We build and paint, whatever they need.
“People don’t understand the need for affordable housing. Did you know the average age of a homeless person in the US is 9-years-old? That is crazy and disheartening. And in no county in the US can a person work for minimum wage and pay for full rent.”
Kuykendall’s journey is scheduled to end on Aug. 10 when he arrives at Canon Beach, where parents Laura and Dave will be there to greet him.
“It’s amazing all the challenges he has overcome,” said Laura. “He has hit a few walls, but he has continued and done an amazing job. It will be a relief to have him home. I can’t say I don’t worry every day about their safety. But it will be a bit of relief with a lot of pride and admiration.”
As for the emotions Joe expects to experience when it is all over?
“I don’t even know,” he said. “I think it is going to be a greatest sense of accomplishment in the world. We just biked across the country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There are those long, hard days when you don’t think it’s ever going to end. But you realize you overcame the struggles and really accomplished something.”