A Wisconsin man dedicates a journey of self to his father
“I will never give up on any of my goals.”—Cub Keene
By Dan Woll
Jessop Keene lost his dad, but he never lost his father’s spirit. Jessop grew up to stories of mountaineering, cycling, novel writing and even Guinness World Book record setting. Cub Keene drove a car backwards farther than anyone.
Jessop found a separate peace in high school sports. He was a wrestler, and an outstanding runner, going to state in distance events. He became interested in cycling and tagged along with an older group of bikers. He showed up in gym shorts on his dad’s old bike, but impressed everyone with his stamina and determination. Some of the older guys were good. He took a few beatings on the road, but soon his natural ability began to tell and he became a fixture at the front of the pack. His cycling was interrupted when he went to college and joined the track team as an unknown quantity. By the time his eligibility ran out, he had run 10K in under 32 minutes. Track was over but his adventurous spirit burned.
Jessop read that a jersey manufacturer once offered a prize to the rider who could deliver a cycling shirt cross-country in the shortest time. That got him thinking. He decided to copy one of his dad’s greatest adventures. A coast-to-coast ride. He would go alone and travel light. No panniers or trailers, no tent. His shelter would consist of a small half sleeping bag and a jacket. As a college kid, Jessop lived on the cheap. That included technology. No GPS equipment would guide his trip. He stuffed a small 1997 road atlas into his pack and hoped for the best.
Jessop wore a yellow and white jersey from his cycling home of River Falls, Wisconsin. His one concession to electronics was an iPod for audio books. He listened to Star Wars, cowboy books, Hunger Games and educational pieces—“Ted Talks” and “Stuff You Should Know.”
Leaving San Diego was surprisingly easy. There were only twenty minutes of urban riding before things thinned out. In a few hours he was climbing the Pacific Crest. A relentless wind began to wear him down, peppering him with sand and pushing him back like a bully shoving a kid, hand on chest. Still he managed 130 miles and made camp outside of Brawley, California.
“He invented different riding styles to take weight off the stricken tire. Standing up, then leaning forward on the handlebars, he was Sisyphus pushing a rock only to see it roll back.”
Jessop had discovered a way to grab a good night’s sleep without a credit card through warmshowers.com, a website to help cycling voyageurs find free housing. He received confirmation that he would have a place to stay if he could make it to Aguila, Arizona the next day. That was 180 miles away, a do-able ride under normal circumstances, not so much if Lady Luck turned on him. She cursed him with heavy rain and five flats. On puncture number five, he could not keep wind blown grit out while changing his tire, causing a tiny puncture and slow leak in his last tube. A desperate pump-a-thon started. Bike fifteen minutes. Pump. Bike fifteen minutes. Pump. He invented different riding styles to take weight off the stricken tire. Standing up, then leaning forward on the handlebars, he was Sisyphus pushing a rock only to see it roll back. He eventually reached his host, an 80-year-old female pilot with a plane in her garage.
Showered and refreshed the next morning, he rode to Prescott for more tubes. Slowed by the detour, he only made it to Cornville, Ariz., that night. His hosts were experienced cyclists who originally met on a bike tour. They continually celebrated their meeting by helping wayward riders.
The next day was uneventful except for another flat. Jessop camped off-road and rationalized that the ride had not gone badly up to that point. Day 5 gave him a hint of things to come. Bad things. He was buffeted by a heavy wind and rain. Violent gusts sandblasted his face and hands with desert grit.
Any hope that he had seen the worst were dashed the next day. Jessop’s preparation had consisted of taking finals. Anyone who can run 10K at a five-minute-per-mile pace has a big motor, but it had been a year since he trained seriously. He had embarked on his journey planning to ride himself into shape. Want to make God laugh? Tell Him your plan. Jessop’s plan began to show flaws in Colorado.
Mother Nature was having a tantrum when he woke up. When everything was said and done, he realized that he rode in heavy rains one in every three days. Day 7 was one of the worst. The immense western sky offered a panorama of sand, hills, sky and especially clouds. Jessop took brief shelter in Durango, but when he returned to the road, the storms wailed across the high desert. Scattered across miles of sky, they headed his way. Jessop watched the clumps of clouds and tried to counter their moves like a chess player, but he was up against a grand master. The storms checkmated him. By the time he reached Pagosa Springs, he was exhausted. He had climbed to over 7,000 feet. Storms and thin oxygen had taken a toll.
He decided to shake it off, trying not to think of Tom Simpson’s dying words when he collapsed in the Tour de France. “Put me back on me bike!”
His hosts were not home. Desperately, he called. They were at a party and told Jessop to go to the backdoor and “just let yourself in.” He did. His guests returned. Jessop popped up from his bed to be polite and fainted.
His body went into free fall, stopping when the side of his head hit the bed frame. He quickly regained consciousness, but was woozy. So were his hosts. Marijuana is legal in Colorado. Confusion occurred. There was blood, a possible concussion and little informed advice. Not wanting to cause a scene, he asked to go to bed. Sleep was difficult. The wound was sore and became an egg-sized pain point which woke him up when he moved.
A month later he reflected that one of the delights of the trip was being alone and handling problems by himself. At the time, it didn’t seem like a plus. Phoning his mother was out of the question. She was worried enough without the fainting story. He assumed that it was probably fatigue and altitude related, but what if it were serious? He decided to shake it off, trying not to think of Tom Simpson’s dying words when he collapsed in the Tour de France. “Put me back on me bike!”
Jessop woke up feeling weird and weak. His head hurt. His helmet pressed against the sore goose egg. Doubts crept into his mind. Could he really do this? If he couldn’t, how would he get out of it? He thanked his hosts, and headed off for the continental divide. On the windswept ride up, he rode by the great sand dunes which peppered him with grit. He found a sleeping spot in a highway rest stop near a small town called Mt. Blanco. For shelter he crawled under a picnic table. A cold wet nose woke him up. A police dog nose. After officers determined he was not a threat to national security, he was permitted to pack up and ride on.
Perhaps it was the confusion of the dog wake-up or maybe the inadequate road atlas but his hopes of grabbing breakfast on the route were dashed when he realized there were no towns on the morning route. That meant backtracking 18 miles out of the way for a convenience store breakfast and then another 18 to get back on track. His legs were coming around, however, and he rode the last pass comfortably, reaching the trip’s peak altitude of 9,000 feet. He coasted down to a motel in La Mar, Colorado.
The storms of Damocles
Ultra riders find relief in a variety of treats. For Jessop it was ice cream. He went through a lot on Day Eight, a relentless slog. He wished he was like Dorothy and Toto. Not in Kansas. A brutal wind carried intermittent storms into his path all day. With his tight schedule, a rest day was out of the question so he ducked his head and rode on in a trance until he pulled into Garden City, KS at 10:30 pm.
He rode past a small school. Strange whims haunt Jessop. One was to sleep in a football field press box. He found one, but it was locked. He desperately needed to get out of the rain. Near the football field in a deserted lot were school vehicles. He checked some nice looking vans. Locked. He moved onto maintenance trucks. Locked. Finally, he spotted the orphan of the fleet, a rusted pickup truck, all by itself, like a homely girl at a dance. It had dents and peeling paint, but it was unlocked. He crammed himself onto the lumpy front bench seat.
The seat springs poked him through the old seat and his rest was fitful. He got up early and rode to Jetmore where he fueled up on a can of beans, an apple, a banana and a two pound bag of vanilla wafers which he strapped across his handlebars to fortify himself for the day’s struggle. Headwinds gusted to 25 mph. It took every one of those cookies to get to Great Bend where he found the cheapest motel in sight.
The next day’s ride to Allen, Kan., was one of the thirty-three-percent days – rain. He pressed on, piling up another 165 miles before reaching a town sign he misread as “Alien,” perhaps a Freudian slip. He felt like an alien in a strange land as he searched the darkening barren landscape for shelter. The weather was so miserable that he settled for a dark abandoned grain elevator that might have been the cover of a Stephen King novel. He crawled in to the musty cave-like retreat and nestled in on the dirty floor, hoping that his arrival had shooed away rats.
Some say life has a sound track. The next morning had an ominous serendipity. Jessop awoke to a mournful trumpet playing Taps. It was Memorial Day. The storms were gathering. Again. Adding extra protection by wrapping himself in a garbage bag he soldiered on, encountering nasty downpours outside of Kansas City. On the vast horizon he could see storms massing and slowly sweeping toward him like the sword of Damocles. He made it to Excelsior Springs, but there was neither the money nor opportunity for a warm night’s sleep. He poked around in a grocery store and got a few supplies. The air conditioning chilled him. Circling the town he spied an isolated church. Beside the church was a carport sheltering the church van. Its doors were locked. He had to get out of the rain. The sides of the carport were completely exposed, so he clambered up on top of the van. Snuggled up, inches under the rafters, he slept, awakening every now and then to check that he was not sliding off the roof.
Jessop woke to the sound of cars pulling into the parking lot. He jammed his gear in his pack and pedaled away to the astonishment of the early-rising congregation.
Anxious to make time, he bought Fig Newtons which would sustain him all the way to Hannibal, Mo., which was a turning point. The symptoms of his concussion were gone, he had decent weather, the mountains were behind him and the thought flashed through his mind, “I’m gonna make it!” With his best day of riding and 180 miles under his belt, he celebrated with a motel.
Jessop awoke determined to make miles. He rode through the day, making only quick pit stops. Feeling good, he kept biking as the sun set. Darkness came. Jessop rode on until midnight. Exhausted, he decided to go to the well again with his church yard trick and soon found a likely place of worship. As he was unloading his bike, a police car pulled up and blinded him. The cop asked for his identification. Things warmed up as the officer began to grasp the enormity of the young rider’s challenge. Satisfied that Jessop was not looking for anything other than rest, he instructed him to set up his camp while he directed the squad car’s lights to help. The adrenaline rush from the close call helped Jessop ignore the pesky mosquitoes that buzzed around his head.
Anxious to escape the Hoosier state and feeling good, he left in a hurry. His early morning hubris was extinguished by the unmistakable bump and then hard rolling feeling that cyclists recognize as a flat. Dismounting, he discovered that there would be no quick fix. Not only did he have a flat, his whole tire was coming apart. A friendly pick-up truck driver offered a ride to a bike shop, which was against Jessop’s solemn solo vow, but on a solo ride there are no rules, only guidelines. He accepted.
… on a solo ride there are no rules, only guidelines.
The first Tour de France riders put tacks in front of their rivals. Perhaps a ghost of one of those ancient cyclists haunted Jessop because that afternoon, the ride became a puncture-fest in the bone chilling rain. Stopped at a traffic light, a drenched motorcyclist pulled up. The motorized rider looked over at his bedraggled counterpart, shook his head sadly, pointed at a bank sign reading 40 degrees, and roared away. Jessop surrendered and fled to a church porch, where he shivered to warm himself up through the night. When Jessop recounted the trip, this writer was compelled to interrupt and say, “At least your worst day was over.”
Jessop’s answer: “Not even close!”
No ark in sight
He woke up feeling like Noah. The hardest downpour yet was roaring with no ark in sight. Being miserable on the road was better than being miserable in a fetal position on a church porch, so he threw a leg over his bike and headed off. The 1997 road atlas he was using barely had the state borders correct, let alone road conditions. Soon he found himself on a long stretch of highway with potholes so deep they could be used as silos for intercontinental missiles. Jessop could not ride around many of them because the deepest ones filled up so completely with rain that they were indistinguishable from the road. Bang! Bump! Thunder! Rain! Bang.
Nine miles of road horror led him to Cleveland where he ran into urban traffic with no shoulder for cyclists. Every time a car sprayed him, he gave thanks that at least it was not steel hitting him. His fingers grew numb, a sign of the coming nerve damage that would leave him without feeling for weeks after the trip. The longest day came to an end with a flat in a small housing development. He fumbled for his repair kit but could not unzip his pack. His fingers were swollen and frozen like popsicles.
Jessop wobbled to the door of the nearest house. An ancient little woman answered the door. At first, his appearance scared the octogenarian, but she could tell that in his frigid state, he was no threat. As he thawed out, so did the relationship. Soon, she was feeding him baked chicken and applesauce. Meanwhile, hurricane level winds were knocking down heavy branches and trees.
Staying at Norman’s
The next morning, saved by the kindness of a stranger, he cut across the narrow neck of Pennsylvania separating Ohio from New York. His enemy, the wind, no longer had its sidekick, rain, He warmed up enough that he could go back to his staple of ice cream to fortify himself as he cranked out 180 miles. The day’s work justified a motel. He dug into his dwindling stockpile of cash to rent a room in Warsaw. His lodging reminded him of Anthony Perkins’ Bates Motel. The desk man said that the water was not potable. Something with the storm. There was wi-fi advertised, but it didn’t work. Something with the storm.
A knock on his door startled him. Perhaps it was the clerk with bottled water or good news. He opened it a crack and a grotesque figure pushed in, pointing to his mouth. “Hey man, look at my teeth. Do you have Tylenol?” Jessop looked. Bloody chicklets. Jessop is a non-drug person, including Tylenol. He informed the wretched intruder of his non-status as a cycling pharmacy. That did not faze his new best friend who answered, “I was thinking we could hang out.” Using a combination of courtesy and high school wrestling moves, he ushered his buddy out and dead-bolted the door.
When he woke up, the hills around the beautiful Finger Lakes region awaited. It was tough riding, but a good day. When evening rolled around, he treated himself to a meal at a food outlet called Choppers. It was not a sit down place, but it had a roof and was warm. While he huddled over his food and chowed down, the girl who worked there began to chat him up. He was anxious for company and they began to talk. He asked where he could camp. She advised him of the best park in town and offered to walk him there. While walking, she revealed that she was from Hastings, Minn., Jessop’s childhood hometown. If you are expecting more at this point, remember: This is a bike story. She left. He slept.
Massachusetts awaited him in the morning. There were a few wrong turns, but he made it to Springfield, the city of his mother’s family home. They welcomed him with a gigantic dinner and old stories. He made his way to Boston as Day 21 dawned. No one had told him that you do not ride city highways into Boston at rush hour, but like he had done for the past three weeks, he survived.
He made it to a rocky shoreline and tiptoed out to dip a toe in the Atlantic. A tear ran down Jessop’s cheek. He could not put into words why.
Three thousand miles of “Ted Talks” couldn’t provide the answer, but a noted cyclist named “Bill” Shakespeare did,
“When a father gives to his son, both laugh: when a son gives to his father, both cry.”
Dan Woll is the author of North of Highway 8, and co-author of Death on Cache Lake and the Sarah Saves childrens’ series. He is currently working on a screenplay for Death on Cache Lake. You can reach Dan at [email protected]”