August 15, 2009 6:22:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Several years ago, Jimmy Richardson''s brother made an astounding suggestion. The two men had completed a cycling trip on the Natchez Trace, and brother Charles floated the idea of traversing America on bikes.
"I thought he was crazy," Jimmy chuckled.
But that may have been the only moment the past president of Starkville in Motion hesitated. Jimmy was soon -- literally -- on board and pedaling his way through the adventure of a lifetime.
The leadership and management consultant began the near 4,000-mile trek from the Pacific to the Atlantic at San Francisco''s Golden Gate Bridge in June 2003. On May 27, 2009 -- six years, six segments and 12 Adventure Cycling Association maps later -- the cross-country odyssey culminated in a flurry of family cheers as the 62-year-old crossed a chalk "finish line" at the Victory Monument in Yorktown, Va. The towering pillar commemorating the final battle of the Revolutionary War is a welcoming sight for any cyclist finishing the Trans America bike trail.
Accompanied for the final 11 miles by his 12-year-old grandson, Jacob, Jimmy''s journey of coastlines, high deserts, snow-capped peaks, lush forests and sweeping vistas came to a close, bringing him a sense of deep fulfillment and gratitude. He completed the task he had set for himself. It''s a habit of his.
"We''ve been married for 42 years, and I have to tell you something," said the Starkville resident''s wife, Robbie. She accompanied him by vehicle on all six legs of the feat. "My husband is a man of integrity. If he sets out to do something and he''s made that a goal, then to the best of his ability, he''s going to accomplish that goal."
Was he ever tempted to quit?
"No, never," Jimmy said, without pause. And he was meticulous in the mission, even when segments were months apart.
"I always started from the exact spot I''d stopped before," he stated. "I never skipped a foot, not even a foot. It was a matter of principle. I wanted to ride it, and I wanted to ride all of it."
Along the road
Jimmy and Charles biked the initial 1,520-plus miles together. Later, grandsons Jacob and Alex Carleton, of Tupelo, joined on various segments. Jacob, at 11, even rode about 200 miles in Kentucky and Virginia. But for much of the way, it was just Jimmy and Robbie, traveling the backroads of America. Often, Robbie would go ahead of her husband, leaving chalk messages of encouragement on the asphalt.
"This country has bike trails across north, south, east and west," said Jimmy, noting much of the route follows the centuries-old underground railroad. "Bikes have to stay on secondary roads, but the maps have every little tiny detail."
His 27-speed Cannondale bicycle proved up to the test.
"I used the same bike for the whole trip, although we replaced a bunch of tires and tubes," he remarked. "That bike has approximately 10,000 miles on it."
The couple''s travels off the beaten path were filled with revelations they will never take for granted.
"Oh, gosh, we met wonderful people everywhere we went," Jimmy enthused. "The best group of people we were in contact with all across the nation were motorcyclists. They''re wonderful. It doesn''t matter what they look like, where they''re going, what bike they''re on. They have a good time, they''re willing to help -- and sometimes they''ll tickle you to death."
From the "shoe tree" in Nevada -- a lone cottonwood clotted with hundreds of shoes tossed into its branches -- to the tiny-town liquor store clerk who cheerfully dispensed lodging tips along with invitations to church, memories are many.
"We live in a wonderful country," said Robbie, noting commonalties among people across this United States. "There were people willing to help if we needed help. To give directions, or just carry on conversation. ... It made me proud to be an American."
America the beautiful
The country''s visual beauty had a lasting impact. Several places made the couple''s favorites list, but the vast, mountainous West left strong impressions.
"Whether you''re religious or not, I just don''t believe people can look at what we saw, especially on those backroads, and believe it can be by accident," said Jimmy.
He recalled Utah with palpable awe. "When you ride those canyons and you see every color of the rainbow, and it''s a mile to the top ... it''s windy, the sand is blowing and vegetation is clinging ... it''s a spiritual experience.
"And how to describe leaving the Golden Gate Bridge area, where its warm and it''s June ... and within three or four days, you''re at Kit Carson Pass (in the Sierra Nevadas.) The temperature''s in the 30s, and you''re looking for clothes to put on. You see this panorama of colors and mountains and you''re thinking: God, you made all this -- just look at it!
At the top of Monarch Pass (elevation 11,312 feet), the Starkville cyclist saw his past and future.
"You can see both sides and see what you just came up, and to know that for 15, 16 or more miles you don''t have to even touch the pedals going down ... it''s so exhilarating, going down that mountain so fast, knowing you earned every bit of it because you pedaled for hours and hours and hours to get up that first side."
As the cross-country odyssey neared completion, everyone made plans. Jimmy''s final segment was a 311-mile stretch. He rode all but the last 11 miles.
With a smile in her voice, Robbie shared, "At one point, Jacob had said, ''Granddaddy, when you cross the finish line, I want to be holding your hand.'' Jimmy told me later, ''You know, honey, there''s really not a finish line.'' But I said, ''There will be.''"
And there was. A chalk conclusion, complete with "tapes" to ride through, provided by a proud family, many of whom had flown to Virginia from Waco, Texas, and Tupelo for the big moment.
And on his bicycle, transported in the truck by "Nana," Jacob zipped over the "finish line" with his granddad, who had biked from sea to shining sea.
Whatever cycling remains ahead for Jimmy, few things will equal dipping the Cannondale''s wheel in two oceans that book-ended the beginning and conclusion of a lifetime achievement.
"There are so many ways to stretch yourself, both mentally and physically," the active cyclist said. "Riding a bicycle across America is just one way to do it. ... Expand those horizons, dream a bit and take that first huge step. You will never regret it."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.