What I Learned On My Cross-Country Bike Trip

By Kari Loya – April 6, 2023

Epic bike trips often produce epic lessons.

In 2015, I took a cross-country bike trip with my 75-year-old father, Merv, who had early-stage Alzheimer’s. During this time, I learned a lot about adventure and what it means to approach life with open hands.

Here are the top three lessons I learned from my bike ride.

LESSON #1. It’ll never be perfect. Ready, fire and aim is sometimes the best approach for a big adventure.

In February 2015, I landed a new job that wouldn’t start until July 1. I realized I had a rare window of opportunity to do something with my dad that we’d dreamed about for decades: bike across the country on the TransAmerica Bike Trail from Yorktown, Virginia to Astoria, Oregon. 

Kari and father.

Credit to Greg Siple and the Adventure Cycling Association

We had a hundred reasons not to do the trip — we needed bikes and gear, we needed to get in shape, we needed to clean out Merv’s house and list it for sale… and so on. Plus, friends and family had growing concerns about Merv and his early-stage Alzheimer’s. 

But I knew three things: we could learn and adapt as we go, we’d never have this opportunity again and this would give me a chance to see Merv up close for 73 days and judge for myself how he was doing with Alzheimer’s. We pulled the trigger, and I’m forever grateful.

LESSON #2: Adapt. Adapt. Adapt. 

When we pedaled out of Yorktown in a cold rain on April 14, I knew the first few weeks would either make or break us since we weren’t in top shape. Even after shifting as much weight as possible to me, my dad walked his bike numerous times in Virginia and Kentucky. At one point, demoralized, we even took a nap on the side of the road.

Then, there was the cold. Because we started earlier in the year than recommended due to my July 1 deadline, that meant snow and ice… and more adjustments, especially around camping. On day 10, after a night of no sleep in sub-freezing temperatures, we nearly threw in the towel. But then, we took a time-out in Damascus, Virginia. We resolved to stay indoors if the temperature would be below 48 degrees. Even though it blew my budget, that kept our trip on life-support.

Finally, there was the big unknown of Alzheimer’s. On day 2, I suddenly feared Dad had wandered off. On day 4, Dad went to the restroom while I set up camp and made and ate dinner. When he returned 45 minutes later, I knew I needed to check on him going forward. On day 5, Dad came out of the restroom in the morning with his Lycra shorts on inside out and the bright red padded crotch screaming like a bullseye. I gently made him aware of his faux pas, then we were off and pedaling.

On day 41, when Merv pedaled up the 11,539-foot snowy Hoosier Pass without a problem, we celebrated. We now had a net downhill of 11,539 feet all the way to the Pacific Ocean. We’d already paid our dues on the hills of Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri and in the winds and thunderstorms of Kansas. As long as we were smart, I was confident we’d make it… and we did.

Person riding bike.

That same person who couldn’t tell you on any given day where we started and where we ended, was capable — with lots of adapting — of biking across the entire U.S. if pointed in the right direction.

LESSON #3: You’ll discover even more magic and meaning AFTER your adventure. 

My dad was never one to puff his chest. But for the next four years until he passed away, when someone came up and mentioned his cross-country feat, Merv would glow. The smiles will continue long after the adventure.

After the trip, I also realized that this trip was a chance for me to show the most important lessons I’d learned from my father: work hard, have fun and be nice. By nice, Dad didn’t just mean pleasantries; he meant really listening to others. So emulating Merv, I had begun “listening” my way across the country, capturing conversations with coal miners in Kentucky, farmers in Kansas, entrepreneurs in Colorado, people walking across the country, and everything in between. 

These 300 short conversations include dreams and disappointments, triumphs and tragedies, and they offer a snapshot of America — especially rural America — in 2015. They became the backbone of the book I published in September 2022, “Conversations Across America.”

So… what will you learn and discover on your adventure? I hope you’ll seize the day now with someone you love.

About the Author

Kari Loya is an educational leader, executive coach, storyteller and adventurer.


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