NewsAug 22, 2017

Cycling cross-country for a cause

Lesley employee Brendan Walsh completes 3,800-mile bicycle ride

Brendan Walsh arrives in Seattle after 3,800 miles of cycling across the country

Brendan Walsh admits he had some romantic and slightly misguided ideas about his coast-to-coast cycling trip.

For starters, he packed a guitar, planning to play in exchange for lunch money every day. A few legs into his 3,800-mile journey, however, the idea of singing for his supper fell by the wayside, and the guitar as well as a French-press coffee maker, a camera, a spare pot and a copy of Jack Kerouac's “On the Road” were in a box heading back to his apartment in Allston.

“You don’t really need that much stuff,” says Walsh. “You really just need to sleep and eat food. Everything else falls into place.”

Brendan Walsh arrives at the Continental Divide. Poses in front of the continental divide sign announcing elevation at 2025 meters.
Brendan Walsh arrives at the Continental Divide.

An audio-visual specialist at Lesley since 2016, the 24-year-old Walsh began cycling three years ago when running became too much for his knees. In addition to exercise, biking quickly became his preferred form of travel.

“It’s the perfect balance of speed and distance,” he says. “I really got into it for the sense of adventure.”

And a cross-country trip would certainly be an adventure. The idea niggled in a corner of Walsh’s mind for about two years, and with the plan to fundraise for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital as part of his ride, he got the blessing to take a leave of absence.

Go west!

Walsh set out on his Surly touring bike on a snowy April day with a one-person tent, a sleeping bag and the aforementioned excess baggage. He had a vague route in mind, but Walsh isn’t exactly big on itinerary or planning.

Before the trip, he’d never done a multi-day bike ride. In fact, his longest trip clocked in at a mere 105 miles. But, according to Walsh, “the people who plan a lot don’t make it.” The more detailed the itinerary, the easier it is to get discouraged when the undertaking doesn’t go according to schedule.

That’s not a problem Walsh had. His journey, at times, was one of trial and error.

Early on in the trip, Walsh began hallucinating due to a lack of food and water. Then, about 500 miles along, he got four flat tires in 12 hours. Undeterred, Walsh bought a new set of tires and kept going.

The kindness of strangers

Always ready for adventure, Walsh sojourned with locals he met along the way.

“I’m pretty boring, but my bike is a magnet,” he says. “I’d be sitting there all dirty and people would be like ‘dude, where are you going?’”

People were often impressed by Walsh’s determination as well as his fundraising efforts for St. Jude’s.

“Everyone has had at least one person they know affected by cancer,” says Walsh, who has had two grandparents suffer from the disease.

Speaking about his cause and his trip often led to home-cooked meals (guitar prelude not needed) and a night in a warm household.

“People went out of their way to help me,” says Walsh.

Much of the time, however, he set up his tent in whatever spot presented itself around the 80-mile mark.

“I was super in touch with nature.” Without missing a beat, he goes on, “I almost got trampled by a pack of wild horses.”

A bird's eye view of North Cascades National Park
A bird's eye view of North Cascades National Park

Wild kingdom

Somewhere outside of Glacier National Park, Walsh found himself almost face-to-muzzle with the feral quadrupeds. At the last minute, they veered into the woods, leaving Walsh intact and in awe. Another time, while biking on the Erie Canal, Walsh and a fellow cyclist he met along the way encountered a family of geese. Protecting his young, Father Goose turned his wrath on the intruders, giving Walsh “three right hooks” with his wing.

Uninjured and amused, Walsh says gleefully, “I almost puked I laughed so hard.”

Still another time, on the road to Minneapolis, Walsh was caught on the road as a storm loomed. The lime-green sky overhead gave way to gumball-sized hail as he crouched over his handlebars.

“I felt like I was getting shot with a paintball gun,” he says.

Wide open spaces

Walsh had other, less harrowing, encounters with nature. Having never been west of Pittsburgh before his journey, he was in awe of the “big sky country” of Montana, bald eagles dipping into the mighty Mississippi River and especially North Cascades National Park in Washington.

“That’s the most beautiful place in the whole country,” he says. “There are year-round glaciers. The water is so blue it looks like blue Gatorade.”

The blue water of Diablo Lake at Cascades National Park
The "blue Gatorade" water of Diablo Lake at Cascades National Park

Even the more boring stretches of drought-weary “yellow, yellow, yellow” grassland allowed Walsh to “spin out” his thoughts.

“It’s like you could solve all the world’s problems when you’re on a bike,” he says. And then the scenery would shift to a lush landscape, and, “it was like someone shocked me with paddles and I was back to life.”

No landscape was too monotonous in the cyclist’s 13-state trip expedition … except Ohio. “I did not like Ohio,” he says, noting the grid of endless streets labeled along an ABC, 123 pattern.

“That’s the only map I threw away.”

Yes, he preferred to be guided by old-fashioned, multifold maps rather than his iPhone’s GPS. He developed a collection of worn and torn charts, often with the AAA seal, that were dug out of drawers and glove compartments by people he met along the way. Those maps eventually led Walsh across the Continental Divide and to his final stop, Seattle, about 2½  months after he set out.

Now, back at work, Walsh is fairly nonchalant about his accomplishment, for which he raised $4,630 for St. Jude’s. And he’s still convinced biking is the best form of travel. There will likely be more epic trips in his future, but for now, he’s satisfied with shorter jaunts.

“I like to go and get lost,” he says.