It was my idea, and so if something were to go wrong, I was ready to take the responsibility. But when I first thought of it, I wasn’t thinking of things going wrong. I could foresee only success. What I proposed to do was lead a group of college students on an 865-mile bicycle ride across Texas, from El Paso on the western border to Texarkana on the eastern border.
It wasn’t meant to be merely an adventure. It was intended to be an intensive learning experience for the students. As a professor of management and leadership at Hardin-Simmons University and director of the university’s Leadership Studies Program, I am continually looking for ways that my students can practice and develop the skills and principles that they study in my classes. A bike ride across Texas would be a complex, challenging and interesting project that would take a lot of effort to plan, organize and execute, all of which the students would do. They would have to practice critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, communication, organization, planning and leadership skills while preparing for the ride and while completing it.
Like many things that seem a good idea when they are in the future but become less appealing the closer the time comes to their happening, the bike ride came to seem to me a really bad idea as the day of departure approached. Despite having easily secured lodging, bicycles and funding for the ride, I began to feel anxious. Worry about the safety of the students was foremost in my mind. We would be spending eight days on bicycles. What could happen over eight days and 865 miles of highway? Uncertainties about equipment, route, road conditions, traffic, lodging, possible medical issues, the weather, as well as a host of other horrible things that could happen to us had me close to calling off the trip during the few days that were left before we were scheduled to start.
Bob Sanderson, a retired high school teacher and coach, was my co-instructor on the bike ride across Texas (or BRAT, as it came to be called). At a rest stop on the 450+ mile drive from Abilene to El Paso to begin the ride, I began to see how big this journey actually was–huge! Seeking reassurance, I asked him, “Bob, are we crazy for trying this?”
“Yes. Absolutely,” was his reply. That wasn’t what I needed to hear from him.
I felt we were in good enough physical condition. Bob, for one, had a lot of trail-riding experience and had participated in a number of charity rides and races. He was used to intensive bike riding, although the longest ride he had completed was a 100-kilometer (62 miles) ride. One of the students had completed a two-day, 100-mile ride with a group of riders from his church in California while he was in high school. None of the other riders had done anything more than training rides of up to 30 miles. Some of the group had ridden together in a fun ride sponsored by the City of Abilene. Others had done no more than ride exercise bikes in the Hardin-Simmons gym. For my preparation I rode my mother-in-law’s 21-speed hybrid bike in my neighborhood. On the Sunday before we departed for the BRAT, the whole group rode around the track at the university’s football stadium.
The group consisted of eight riders, including Bob and me, and was divided into two teams of four each, each with an SUV/pickup truck to serve as their base as we progressed. Each day, two riders from one team–team No. 1–would start at that day’s beginning point and say whether they wanted to ride for ten or 15 miles. As they rode, with their two other team members following in their vehicle to provide safety and support, the team in the other vehicle, team No. 2, would drive ten to 15 miles ahead to begin their leg without waiting for team No. 1 to reach them. At the point where team No. 2 would begin their ride, they would place an orange bandanna–tied to a sign or tree (if one could be found) or fence post, or placed on the ground and weighted down with a rock. The bandanna would serve as a marker to tell the riders in team No. 1 where to stop, get off their bikes and drive in their vehicle to catch up with and pass team No. 2. This leap-frog procedure would be repeated every day. When the pair of riders’ miles were nearly completed, the support vehicle’s driver would pass the cyclist and park on the side of the road to let the riders know where to stop.
We carried walkie-talkies in the vehicles so the teams could communicate with each other, but we found out they pretty much only worked when we were in sight of each other. We also had cell phones, but they didn’t always work well out in the lonely vastness of west Texas. (The phones would not become useful until we passed Abilene as we rode eastward.) Our other equipment included tents, cooking gear, lawn chairs, air mattresses and sleeping bags. We also carried a large stockpile of food–particularly fruit, protein bars and PB&J sandwich makings–plus water and Gatorade mix. We carried a first-aid kit, too.
One of our sponsors–Biketown, in Abilene–lent us four road bikes. They were 20-speed bikes with light frames and skinny, high-pressure tires that are designed for fast and efficient long-distance riding. Biketown also provided us with a supply of spare tires and inner tubes and various other bicycle parts.
Our first day on the bikes, riding east from El Paso, went remarkably well. We had already seen what that part of Texas looked like. The last 200 miles we had traveled heading into El Paso didn’t have either a town or a gas station. The first day of riding took us into hills. There was a mountain range that we had to ride over as we left El Paso behind us. My team started its first leg at the foot of the mountains. Riding the bikes uphill for the first ten miles of the trip was enough to discourage the whole team. We knew we had hundreds of miles ahead of us and we forced our legs and lungs to take us up one mountain and then another, moving at a snail’s pace for the first hour. We became worn out very quickly, and some of my doubt began returning at the same rate.
Once we got past the mountains, though, and had made a couple of exchanges with our other team, we began to put some miles behind us. Encouragement followed, as we saw how fast we were moving then. We rode into a Border Patrol checkpoint, and every one of the eight of us was required to stop and talk with the agents, who decided we were not illegals who had developed an elaborate scheme to get into the country.
When we at last concluded our first day’s ride, we checked the bike odometers and learned that we had ridden 98 miles. There was a tremendous sense of accomplishment and confidence among the whole group then, damped only by the realization that we had only just begun. Even so, I began to think we could do it after all–unless there was something ahead of us, lying in wait.
We stopped in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, amid breathtaking scenery atop one of the mountain peaks, and there we pitched our tents. After getting our campsite set up and a meal eaten, I and the other members of team No. 2 rode out of the park and ten miles down the mountain to a rest area where we would start the ride the next morning.
The temperature dropped into the 40s during the night. We felt the cold in our tents, even though we were prepared for it. The next big thing was a dead battery in my SUV, which meant I couldn’t get the SUV started when we were ready to set out on the morning of the second day of the ride. Because we didn’t have electricity at the campsite, the students had charged their cell phones in my SUV during the evening before and the morning of the second day. That killed the battery, and we had to jump start my SUV with the battery of team No. 1’s pickup truck. Not a good way to start the second day. Not a good omen.
The two-lane road that we set out on that second morning, going toward Orla, Texas, was hilly at the beginning and very remote. The road had narrower shoulders than the highways on the first day–which made me very nervous for the entire group. We occasionally encountered oil trucks that seemed as if they were mere inches away from us when they passed us. To make matters worse, there were long, thick thorns on the plants along the edge of the highway. The thorns were stout enough to pierce the tires not only of the bikes but of the SUV and pickup truck when we would pull over to let traffic pass us and when we stopped to change cyclists.
New worries cropped up: Flat tires on our support vehicles. What would we do if our support vehicles got flats out there, many, many miles from a service station, a tow truck or a tire store? Now I got really anxious.
On one particular transfer, I was very concerned that we had run over a patch of thorns as we pulled off the road. After stopping on the shoulder, I quickly got out to remove any thorns that might have stuck in the sidewall of the tires on the SUV’s right side. I found some. While pulling them out, I managed to step backwards into a another patch of thorns, and several of them penetrated deep into the bottom of my sneakers. I removed as many as I could with my fingers, but one of them, which had gone through the sole of the shoe and was sticking into my toe, broke off very near the bottom of my shoe when I tried to pull it out. It was in much too deep, and there was too little of it to grasp with my fingers to pull it out. What I needed was a pair of needle-nose pliers. We had brought a pair, but they were in the pickup truck, miles ahead of us.
It hurt, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. It was my turn on the bicycle, and I couldn’t pedal without shoes. The pedals have little spikes–like a serrated edge–to keep the rider’s foot on the pedal, and riding barefoot or with just my socks on would be even more painful than the thorn. I would have to tough it out. I thought I could.
I got on the bike and took off. My team was riding five-mile legs that day with one person biking at a time, and so I was facing five miles–at least twenty minutes–of enduring the hurt, before a partner took over and rode to the bandana that would be waiting an additional five miles ahead of us. With every push on the pedal, the thorn jabbed into me, and the pain increased. I began to wonder if I could last out the five miles. I also wondered about getting an infection from the thorn. This was one of those unforeseeable problems that I had started thinking about in the last days before the ride began, worrying that the whole venture would be ruined by some such thing. Still worse, it was happening to me, the group’s leader, who was supposed to be able to carry on, no matter what.
As I was just about to reach the extent of my painful endurance, my support team passed me in the SUV, indicating I was near the end of my five-mile leg. It came to a stop a distance ahead of me. The students in my group got out of the SUV and began removing the bike for the next rider from the rack attached to the rear of the vehicle—his five-mile leg would take our team to the bandana dropped by the others ahead of us in the pickup truck. I rode up to the front of the SUV to stay out of their way as they unloaded the next bike and the new rider prepped to begin.
When I got off my bike, the thorn, now with solid ground beneath it, pushed hard into my toe. I lifted my foot and tried again to pull out the thorn with my fingers. It wouldn’t move. I told the others that I had just completed the ride with a thorn sticking into my toe and that I really needed a pair of pliers to get it out of my shoe.
“There’s a pair of pliers right behind the car,” one of the students said. He then walked away and came back and handed me a rusted pair of channel-lock pliers that looked as if they had been lying in the open for years.
“Where did they come from?” I asked him. He said they were on the shoulder of the road about four feet behind the SUV. The students who had been in the SUV hadn’t noticed the pliers when they pulled off the road and, of course, had not been aware that I needed them. In a 200-mile stretch of deserted and desolate west Texas highway, we had come to rest within inches of the thing I needed the most at that moment. Amazing. Everything had worked together perfectly to provide for my immediate needs at that moment.
I took off my shoe, pulled out the thorn and suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of protection and provision–a feeling I knew could come only from God. From the very beginning of the trip I had prayed that He would watch over us. Now I had experienced His watchfulness. At that incredible moment the whole trip turned into one of enjoyment and revelation. That moment marked the end of my worrying, and from then until the conclusion of the ride in Texarkana I was able to enjoy the sights, sounds, smells and experiences of the trip.
For the next six and a half days of the ride, I was able to soak up the things that are missed when speedily driving through the countryside in an automobile. I discovered a beauty in nature that I would have completely missed if I had continued to worry about all of the possible calamities that could ruin the ride–but didn’t.
The pliers and thorn came home with me and now reside in a trophy cabinet in my office–a daily reminder of God’s watchful eye and provision. God is good. I know it.
As I prepared for one of my riding turns today on the stretch of road leading to Orla, Texas, I stepped on a nasty inch-long thorn that went through the sole of my shoe and poked into my toe. It broke off near the sole so close that I couldn’t pull it out with my fingers. The needle nose pliers were in the other truck miles away. After mentioning to my team that I seriously needed pliers to remove the thorn after my ride, Josh Groves (one of the students) says “There is a pair right behind the car.” Among the 200 miles of desert road without a single gas station, we happened to stop a few feet in front of a pair of rusty and discarded pliers that look like they had been sitting there for years. CRAZY! God is good. The pliers and thorn are coming home with me.
Facebook post from May 13, 2013 from overnight stay at First Baptist Church in Kermit, Texas.
Coleman Patterson near the end of Day 1 of cycling at base of Guadalupe Pass.
A MapQuest satellite view of the road to Orla, Texas. The pliers were found in the desolate section of road in the center of this image.
At the finish line in Texarkana, May 21, 2013. Eight days on bicycles and 864 miles completed.