International Voices: The Summer That Changed My Life

I recently returned from a 70 day bicycle ride from Austin, Texas, to Anchorage, Alaska, with Texas 4000, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading hope, knowledge and charity in the fight against cancer.

This ride was the longest annual charity bike ride in the world. When people ask me about my summer experience was, I struggle with words. It seems impossible to express how these 70 days were spent and what they meant to me, but I’ll try my best to tell you a story about the things I learned along the way, and how I came to take part in this life-changing experience as in international student at the University of Texas at Austin.

Rita at Alaska Sign

It all started with a leisurely walk on the Forty Acres. It was my first month in the United States. It was my first week of school with thousands of students and hundreds of student organizations. I stumbled upon the Texas 4000 table and instantly felt drawn to learn more about it. The idea of cycling across a continent to fight cancer struck me. I knew I needed to apply and be a part of this. No matter how physically and mentally challenging this was going to be, I knew I needed to do it. I applied, got an interview, and made the team. I made the team!

After 18 months of fundraising, volunteering, route planning, physical training, and friendship building, the summer ride started on the 31st of May 2014. We took off and started the summer of our lives. Everything was new to us in the first few days of riding. It felt like it was yet another form of training. Not only were we exploring our physical limits, but we were also expanding our mental limits too. The ride was divided into three different routes. This helped us reach out to as many parts of the country as possible. The routes separated on day 2 and met again on day 60 to ride together during the last 10 days. I rode what we referred to as the “Sierra” route, the most Westerly route. We cycled through New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Yukon Territories and finally Alaska.

Rockies Canada

It is difficult for me to name some of my favorite places along the way but a few rides stand out. The beautiful California road shadowed by colossal redwood trees in Avenue of the Giants was mesmerizing. The steep slopes and mountain ranges that lead to Lake Tahoe, California were exhausting but even more rewarding. The national parks of Zion and Crater Lake offered some of the most beautiful natural scenery of the kind that inspires. The isolated Canadian roads, surrounded with nothing but impeccable mountains and lakes, presented trails of self-discovery on our way to the stunning state of Alaska. One of my favorite moments was reaching the Alaska border sign. There the 2013 Texas 4000 team had left us a letter which said: “They say Alaska is the last frontier, but maybe the last frontier is really the rest of your lives. It starts here.” Those words will forever be carved into my heart.

There is something special about being on a bicycle and seeing the world from its perspective. It was great to see some of the most beautiful parts of the United States and Canada from this very unique point of view. On the bike, we felt in direct contact with everything surrounding us. We felt the heat, the cold, the sun, the rain, the wind and our legs burning on a steep hill. We were flooded with feelings.

Often times we camped outdoors. At other times we had a roof above our heads thanks to the overcoming generosity of strangers and longtime friends of the organization. We slept in homes, churches, gymnasiums, schools, a farm, a police station and even a bowling alley. The people who took us in and hosted us are one of main reasons of why we can do this. My faith in humanity was restored by experiencing firsthand the extent of people’s generosity and by seeing how much people are willing to give and to help. It has been truly special to witness this.

Every day before getting on the bike, we did a ride dedication circle to share our stories and to talk about whom we are riding in honor of and dedicating our ride to for that day. Our hosts often joined the circle and shared their stories with us and who they wanted us to ride for. Every ride dedication touched each one of us and always reminded us of our purpose while giving us more reasons to keep at it. Their stories become our shared sources of inspiration and motivation. We were able to open up, be ourselves and experience the importance of being vulnerable and of sharing experiences, passions, hopes and dreams.

The difference we made and the impact we on had on people’s lives were becoming more tangible through every story shared and every person met. The people we met along the way introduced us to their lives and helped me form a better idea of how I want to live mine.

Lake Tahoe

I felt so much personal growth and I felt it in each one of my teammates. Many things were put into perspective along the long way and we learned to savor, appreciate and find the joy in the little things. We experienced the importance of living every day with purpose. We felt the joy and satisfaction of pursuing our passions, being open to opportunities and not being afraid to jump at them. A Texas 4000 alumnus once told us: “Don’t let this be the best thing you’ll ever do. Take it and do something bigger with it”. That’s what I’ll do.

That leisurely walk that lead to a purposeful ride across a continent also taught me that every step has the potential to change a life. Where will your leisurely walk take you?

by Rita Bitar Nehma