It has been three weeks since we rolled into Maputo, Mozambique, the end of our quest to cross the Africa continent from the Atlantic Coast in Namibia through five countries arriving on the Indian Ocean. We rode over 2,500km, with over 12,000 meters of climbing, crossing the Kalahari Desert with freezing nights and broiling days. I had been training for three years, ever since I became aware of what a handcycle was. No one had ever hand cycled across Africa before, so I did not even know if it was achievable, let alone by me. We called this epic adventure Bidii Yetu; it means Our resilience.
Sixty-six years old, six years in a wheelchair, the result of a rare neurological disease which obligates me to use a catheter when I ride, and a serious asthma attack just before the trip, raised doubts as to whether I was up to the task. On top of that, in the year preceeding the Bidii Yetu adventure, I tore my left long biceps tendon, my supraspinatus tendon in my left shoulder and broke my right hand.
Together, these reinforced my sense that Bidii Yetu was going to be an epic physical challenge and the question, until reaching the destination would be, could I do it? There are no limits to what people with disabilities can do once the barriers to their impairment are removed. I just did not know if my age and health were too big a barrier.
Packing up my handcycle and flying to Johannesburg, I knew that I could ride one-hundred kilometers per day for a couple of days and I was pretty sure that I could do so for several days at a time. I was ready and I braced for the biggest physical challenge of my life. Still, the corners of my mind collected doubt like cobwebs as to whether I was going to be able to complete this epic adventure.
From Johannesburg, we flew to Windhoek where we assembled and tested our bikes. A pit in my stomach as we pedaled out of town on a test ride, confirmed that crossing the continent would be every bit the physical challenge I had anticipated for several years. What I quickly came to realize however was that the physical challenge was not the principal one that would confront me.
What I had not trained for, could not have trained for, was the emotional and psychological intensity of my encounters with people, both adaptive and upright, along our path from Swakopmond, via Windhoek to Maputo. I had not anticipated the way that Bidii Yetu, reached well beyond us like the ripples in a pond when a stone is thrown in. The intensity of the connection I felt connecting to other people living with disabilities took me by surprise. Every day, I woke with my head spinning from the previous days’ recollection of conversations stripped of superficial banter and replaced with a curiosity about what it is like for any of us living with a disability whether from birth or circumstance.
With each pedal stroke the physical challenge posed by Bidii Yetu faded, as I gained in strength. With each pedal stroke, something was happening inside of me. I found myself tearing up at the smallest things. I cried more than I can recall crying in years. With each pedal stroke, the path pulled me deeper into an awareness of a world to which I had been blind before losing the ability to walk. In that world, I felt less constrained by my disability, but more aware of how it shapes who I am.
One example of this comes from my dreams. Though I thought I had long come to terms with not being able to walk, and using a wheelchair to get around, in my dreams I was always upright. In these, I ran, rode a bicycle, as if I never had the disease that held me back. In some, I found myself walking and explaining to others how I no longer needed my chair, that I somehow had recovered. Then in Maputo, for the first time I dreamt that I was in a wheelchair, but I was not bound to that chair. I was strong and powerful in my dream as I am in my waking hours. Since returning home, I have had more of these dreams.
A pilgrim (from the Latin peregrinus) is a traveler (literally one who has come from afar) who is on journey in search of a higher and often spiritual state of being. Typically, this journey is not an easy one. Pilgrimages generally require some degree of suffering and deprivation. The walking pilgrimage, the Camino del Santiago, is a well-known example. Perhaps the physical hardship, day after day, and the building exhaustion, increases ones willingness to interpret normal every day events as spiritual or metaphysical. If this is the case, then I confess, I would have been vulnerable to such interpretation. But perhaps, the spiritual experience is more than an exhaustion induced vision.
And so, I became an accidental pilgrim. Bidii Yetu had the power to change me if I let it , and over the 39 days it took us to pedal across the continent, I allowed it to. Our upright companions, our tour company’s support, the growing support we received from passersby and those who joined us, allowed me to let go of many of my otherwise daily preoccupations. I was often too tired at the end of the day to take a bunch of photos and I tended to retreat to my journal. My role had shifted from organizer and architect of Bidii Yetu, to an observer of how people around us were taking ownership of it, making it something important to each of them. I had become a channel through which amazing things were happening; around me, through me, by others around me, and just as often by hands I could not see.
We encountered so much beauty, both physical and of spirit, so much generosity, so much kindness by adaptives and uprights around me, that without exploring from whom blessings flow, I arrived in Maputo, with a powerful feeling of being blessed.
I say this without naivete. Of course, there is evil in the world, in all of us. Somehow, however, we were protected, cared for, looked after so much that our guardian seemed a more cosmic force than the many people who make sure we were okay.
For two months, aside from deep soft sand, and steps too steep to negotiate with my chair, I drew strength from those around me, adaptive and upright.
It is now a month since I returned to my home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When people ask, I tell them that Bidii Yetu was an incredible epic adventure, 2,500 km, 12,500 meters of climbing, across five countries . Bidii Yetu, is likely the first time hand cyclists have crossed the continent unassisted by anyone except their upright companions. But that is not the whole story.
Bidii Yetu was a pilgrimage, a journey in which I became a channel for change, awareness, and inclusion. I say channel because the impact of Bidii Yetu went so far beyond anything that I could have achieved on my own, and I dare say, went beyond the sum of what any of us as individuals could have achieved by ourselves.
I am not the same man that I was when I began this pilgrimage. To all I met along the way who touched me, thank you. Whether God or circumstance, I am grateful for delaying cycling across Africa until now. I would not have been ready for this pilgrimage when I was upright. For this, I feel very lucky.