Neither Hemorrhoids nor Heartbreak nor Hurricanes | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

Neither Hemorrhoids nor Heartbreak nor Hurricanes

All that really stands between Stephan Wanger and his dream is about a half a million dollars.

by

comment

As Stephan Wanger pedaled east into Indiana on July 21, 2004, it seemed a perfect day for a bike ride, sunny and not too hot. But just on the other side of Michigan City, he was ambushed by a summer storm. Strong winds pushed his flagpole--flying the flag of the city of Chicago--so far forward that it hit his bike's handlebars, smashing his $270 navigational computer.

It was only the first day of an epic trip Wanger had spent the past 13 months planning. The Continental Pedal, as he'd christened it, was to take him through 23 countries and nearly 25,000 miles--roughly the distance of the equator--in 280 days. To his knowledge, this was a feat never before accomplished by a single cyclist without a support vehicle, though a few similar expeditions have been completed: just last month a 24-year-old British cyclist named Phil White finished an 18,000-mile round-the-world ride in 299 days. Not much of a cyclist beforehand, Wanger was athletic--he ran the Chicago Marathon in 1995--and had a long-standing fascination with historical exploration. The bicycle seemed to him the best form of transportation to re-create the conditions explorers faced hundreds of years ago. But instead of cartography or colonizing, his mission would be cultural exchange and charity: the Continental Pedal was intended to raise a million dollars to be distributed among nine different beneficiaries.

The loss of his navigational computer didn't stop Wanger. Neither did vicious dogs, vicious teenagers, saddle sores, numb fingers, hemorrhoids, his girlfriend's explicit disapproval, or the two hurricanes he crossed paths with. He cycled up and down both coasts, through Florida, Texas, and the southwest, all the way to Ensenada, Mexico, where, on day 105, after 7,700 miles, he called it quits. It was money that did him in: Wanger had started his trek with $2,000 of his own savings, and virtually all the outside funding he'd been able to raise--some $3,000--came from friends and acquaintances. By the time he boarded a bus in Tijuana, he had next to nothing in his pocket and $65 in his checking account.

Wanger chronicled each day of the Continental Pedal on a blog that he and two friends are now editing into a book. One reader, a 25-year-old Chicagoan named Nic Krebill, posted in response to Wanger's final entry: "I read your journal almost every day. I wanted to meet you somewhere in Texas and be your riding companion." Krebill had recently completed his first long-distance cycling trip, some 400 miles from Chicago to Iowa. "I have to tell you that you have given me the strength to really push myself to accomplish my future dreams," he wrote.

When Wanger, then 37, got back to Chicago he had no job and, as he'd sublet his Printers Row loft before the ride, no place to live. He'd broken up with his girlfriend between New Orleans and San Antonio, and now she wasn't returning his calls or e-mails. But Krebill's post, along with those from several others, cheered him. "I was shooting to build a Sears Tower, but I only got a third done," Wanger says. "They helped me to understand that a third of the Sears Tower is still pretty tall."

Wanger found a job at a furniture showroom on Devon and moved into a basement room in a west-side house owned by a manager and a bike mechanic at the Working Bikes Cooperative, a nonprofit that repairs and sells scrap bicycles to support donations of bikes and bike parts to developing countries. In his hurry to embark on the Pedal, he'd sublet his condo for $1,250 a month, $450 short of his mortgage, and now, unable to make up the shortfall, he was facing foreclosure. Nonetheless, he has since spent all his spare time plotting a second attempt at an around-the-world bike trip, now tentatively planned for the spring of next year.

If all goes well, the Continental Pedal 2 will be ridden by a group of around 20 cyclists on a route of 32,000 miles across four continents. Krebill was the first cyclist to sign on, and 19 others have told Wanger they're game, among them Rudolph Winfrey, a blind Chicago man, and his friend Juanita Valenzuela of New Mexico, who is sight impaired. (Winfrey recruited Valenzuela, whom he met a few years ago through Ski for Light, a cross-country-skiing organization for disabled people.) This time Wanger and his team hope to use the trip to raise money for ten nonprofits. But right now their foremost goal is to secure corporate sponsorship through Wanger's nonprofit group, Aspire to Inspire. So far the group has raised $500 to fly Valenzuela and her sighted riding partner into town next weekend for Bike the Drive.

In late 2003, when Wanger first told his friends about his plan for the Pedal, they responded with cautious enthusiasm. "His visions are big," says John King, a 37-year-old software sales executive who's known Wanger for 14 years. "He's determined. He lasers in on something and it's hard to shake him off." At one point he and Wanger "came very close to canoeing down the Amazon." Once after they talked idly about making a movie, Wanger went out and bought three books on screenplay writing.

Another buddy, art director Wyatt Mitchell, recalls a product Wanger dreamed up: a camera built into an automobile that would function like the black box on an airplane. "He thought it'd be a big hit, and there is something to it, but it never went anywhere," Mitchell says. "He has a way, once he has an idea, of making that idea bigger and bigger in his head." When Mitchell first heard about Wanger's plan for the Pedal he says he thought, "'Oh, Stephan's gone nuts now--what's he talking about?' But as he started to train and plan, it was pretty quickly obvious that he was serious."

Wanger is tall and lanky, with blue eyes, short brown-blond hair, and a wide smile. He frequently wears a weathered blue cap featuring the seal of the city of Chicago, and on his right shoulder is a tattoo of the Chicago flag superimposed on the skyline. Wanger loves the city with the passion of a convert. Born in Germany, he grew up poor with a young single mother. Food was scarce--he remembers her fixing large batches of soup to tide the family over for days. By his own account, Wanger was a troublemaker at school and home. He got into fights, stole things from the house, and ran away several times.

When Wanger was 12 his mother married a man in the West German navy. He made frequent trips overseas and brought back small gifts for the boy from places like Mexico and Indonesia. "I was always more curious about the rest of the world than my own country," Wanger says.

At 15 he commuted by bicycle to a bakery apprenticeship in the village of Upschoert, 12 miles from his hometown near Hamburg. After that he worked briefly at a bakery in West Berlin, driving there in a Ford Escort he'd painted in the pattern of the Union Jack--he was wild about Simple Minds at the time--which made him an occasional target of harassment by neo-Nazis. In Berlin the sight of grim East German guards toting machine guns at checkpoints depressed him. Less than a year later he enlisted in the navy.

Wanger visited 20 countries during his four years as a sailor. He remembers being struck as a 19-year-old by living conditions in Venezuela: huts of scrap metal, the foul odors of clogged streets. "Germany has it so good," he thought. "Any skinhead, instead of being sent to jail, they need to visit these cities." It was aboard a destroyer called the Hessen in the late 80s that Wanger first came to Chicago.

The next summer he used all his vacation days to travel in the United States, and within a year he'd decided to move here for good. On his 23rd birthday, in 1990, Wanger flew to Chicago with two suitcases and an invitation to stay with a female friend he'd met during his travels. He and that friend soon married, in part so he could get a green card--they divorced a few years later. Wanger studied English at the Lakeview Learning Center, got his GED, and earned a degree in marketing and public relations from Columbia College. He waited tables at Maggiano's, where he also filled in as a baker from time to time, and interned at the Field Museum. And he volunteered to organize lodging and transportation for the U.S. Soccer Cup, held in Chicago in 1993. That led to paying PR and marketing jobs with the host committees for the 1994 World Cup and the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

For the next few years Wanger continued to do freelance and contract work in PR and marketing, often for the city, but the late 90s were a struggle. "There was never enough of anything," he says. In 2001 John King got him a job at the financial software company he worked for, Longview Solutions. After two years there working as director of business development, Wanger had saved enough money to buy a two-bedroom loft in Printers Row.

But a week after closing on the condo, he was laid off. He spent the next few months floating around cafes, landing occasional contract work, and trying to figure out what to do next. His girlfriend (who doesn't want her name used) liked his idea of starting a bakery. But he wasn't sure that he did.

For years, Wanger says, he'd had one big idea that he'd largely kept to himself. He envisioned a grant-supported "training vessel" that would employ disadvantaged youth. The ship would represent Chicago as a kind of roving cultural and historical center, bringing promotional exhibits, artifacts, and souvenirs--maybe work by Gallery 37 students, Wanger suggests--to citizens of other countries, who would pay admission. Aboard the ship, kids would experience the group solidarity, personal responsibility, and exposure to different cultures that Wanger loved about his time in the West German navy. He says he could "see it so clearly" that the idea had become frustrating. "How do I go after this," he wondered, "with no collateral, so to speak?"

Wanger says he had the training vessel in mind when he founded Aspire to Inspire in July 2003. But Aspire's first effort, he decided, would be the Continental Pedal, which would "gain credibility on a worldwide level."

In early 2004, Wanger set out to raise start-up money to cover the Pedal's costs. He figured $20,000 would be a safe amount. He also began soliciting donations for his chosen beneficiaries, a motley assortment including the Working Bikes Cooperative, the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, the Wikipedia Foundation, and the Chicago Multicultural Dance Center.

Several of Wanger's friends were skeptical of this multibeneficiary approach, among them Jamie Solem, one of his former colleagues at Longview. "I think that's part of the lack of direct focus that was needed on the front end," Solem says. Wanger argued that it was savvy PR: publicity for one, publicity for all.

Sam Swett, a close friend of Wanger's who helped launch the Aspire to Inspire Web site (www.aspiretoinspire.com), thought the approach made sense. He devised a system where online donations could be made separately and directly to each beneficiary, with 4 percent of each donation withheld to cover credit transaction costs. "We got the ball rolling," he says. "We took it partially on faith that once the plan went into effect publicity could be generated. Donations would come in, we'd help the [beneficiaries], and they'd help us."

As it turned out, Wanger got very little response or support from many of the intended beneficiaries. A handful of small companies provided in-kind support--panniers, water bottles, sunscreen. Wanger's Trek 520 touring bike was donated by Josh Squire, who runs Bike Chicago Rentals and Tours. (Wanger already owned a mountain bike, but it wasn't up to the Pedal after thousands of miles of training, so he gave it to Swett. The month before the Pedal he also gave his Ford Probe to a friend's daughter who'd just graduated from high school.) Karyn Calabrese of the raw-food restaurant Karyn's Fresh Corner, who'd met Wanger at a dance class, agreed to ship him supplements and dehydrated meals on the road. "I thought he'd be a good example to show that you can have the strength and vitality to do something like this on a vegan diet," she says.

Wanger tried bike manufacturers. He says many told him the project sounded great but that they didn't have money to commit or that it was too late in the fiscal year to fund anything new. He also approached the city's tourism office, thinking that he could act as a "traveling kiosk" for the city during the Pedal, but all it could offer him were some brochures to take along.

"Stephan's great at the creative side of marketing. He's an incredibly creative, passionate person," says John King. "But he's not a very good businessperson. Every time we'd try to counsel him he'd be like, 'No, no, no, this is so big.' He believed so much in what he was doing that he was like, 'People will line up. People will see.' But I knew he needed a lot more money than he had. I was really concerned, but Stephan was so determined, and at some point he'd crossed the Rubicon."

Wanger's girlfriend also had doubts. "The public is still not supporting this project," he says she told him as early as his fourth day on the road. "You need to consider folding." He sorted through his thoughts in his journal. He admired his girlfriend's pragmatism, her maxim "moderation in all things," and figured she had a point. But her lack of support got under his skin. He mused on August 7 that her friends "think I am crazy and that [she] deserves better than a cycling gypsy. If I was a millionaire all that constant questioning and doubt would disappear. Why do people want to see me in a box within corporate society? What am I supposed to do with my energy, vision, and creativity? I still can't believe I am doing this. Sometimes it seems like a dream, and sometimes it feels like a nightmare and I want to get out."

To prepare for his trip Wanger began volunteering with the Working Bikes Cooperative, where he picked up the basics of bike repair. He began cycling as much as possible, five or six hours every day at his peak. But setting up the infrastructure of Aspire to Inspire and pursuing funding, he says, cut into his training time.

Nevertheless, he held steadfastly to his chosen departure date. Jamie Solem began to needle him with logistical questions: "Stephan, have you really thought this through? Where are you going to sleep? What happens when there's a problem and it's just you?"

"I'm in great shape. I can do this," Wanger told him.

"Once he had the departure date locked down, he wasn't going to change it," remembers Wyatt Mitchell. "I think part of him just wanted to get out on the road and start something because he was sick of just going to meetings with various corporate folks and having them act excited but then never dish out the cash."

"Sometimes you just need to go," Wanger says. He later wrote that on the morning of July 21 he felt "like a sailor that is leaving the home port for an unknown time."

He hadn't ever taken a test ride with all his gear, which filled two panniers and a bike trailer. Before he left the lakefront path he could tell he was he was carrying too much weight. At his first stopover, at a friend's house in South Bend, he dumped a Spanish-language guide, some repair equipment, and all but the most essential clothing. One item he couldn't bring himself to abandon was a two-pound grapefruit-size chunk of the Berlin Wall, which he'd pried from the wreckage in 1989.

By the end of day two Wanger was still adapting to cycling with his load. Balance and steering became especially difficult when semis barreled past, and their drafts often pushed him into the ditch. His fingers ached from gripping the handlebars. That evening, outside Pokagon State Park in northeast Indiana, he was chased by the first of many dogs. His research had prepared him for this, and in his handlebar pouch he carried a screwdriver and pepper spray, but he was too busy trying to outstrip the dog to get these out. In Ohio some teenagers in a pickup truck lobbed a full beer can at him that missed his head by inches.

But not all strangers were so cruel. Also in Ohio, Wanger met another cyclist, Joe Jarrell, who invited him to stay a night with him and his wife, Julianna. Wanger wanted to do something to thank the Jarrells and commemorate their role in the Pedal. In the morning he broke off a small piece of his chunk of the Berlin Wall and presented it to them. Thus began a ritual: Wanger would break off pieces of the wall for everyone who harbored him over the next three months, leaving bits of it in homes all across the country.

By mid-August, Wanger had saddle sores the size of quarters. He tried to sleep with his legs spread to air them out. He'd missed his second shipment of Calabrese's food and vitamins and was subsisting mostly on salads from McDonald's and other fast-food joints, where he'd chat with patrons and employees about the Continental Pedal. In Virginia he came across a German couple in a Waffle House who happened to be reading a feature about him in Amerika Woche, the largest German weekly in the U.S. They asked him to sign his picture in the paper and gave him 20 bucks. In North Carolina a Hardees manager started to cry when Wanger told him about the Pedal's charitable objective. "I just lost a friend that has left everything to charity," Wanger says the man told him. "I am so moved by people like you that I thought didn't exist anymore." The manager offered to try to arrange an interview with the local paper, but Wanger had to keep going.

When he entered South Carolina on August 12, Wanger began to hear reports of Tropical Storm Bonnie and Hurricane Charley. (He says that he thought about hurricane season when planning his route, but he'd always enjoyed storms at sea.) Bonnie had spread across central Florida a few days earlier, and now Charley, having made land at Port Charlotte, was headed for Myrtle Beach. So was Wanger. A toothless old man in a roadside diner teased him, telling him he would need strong legs to face 110-mph winds.

Wanger proceeded toward the coast on August 13. Rain stung his face, and traffic streamed past him going the opposite direction. A few miles from Myrtle Beach he stopped at a hotel where rooms cost $80. The receptionist advised him to book two nights, and Wanger reluctantly agreed. On TV he watched the governor of South Carolina order the area's evacuation. All lanes of Route 501, which he'd just been cycling, were now dedicated to westbound traffic. If he'd kept going, he realized, he would've been ordered to turn back.

Charley hit Myrtle Beach around 11 the next morning, and early the following day Wanger resumed his course. The day's 92 miles were lonely and wet. He occupied his mind by counting downed trees--51 by day's end. That night he lay awake in his tent listening to rain fall steadily. "I swear, I am growing fish scales now," he wrote. He awoke from an uncomfortable dream in which he'd been checking for them between his toes.

Wanger made his way south to the Keys, then back up through central Florida toward the panhandle. Roadkill now came in the form of armadillos, snakes, and turtles. Spanish moss (which Wanger called "hairy stuff") dripped off live oaks, and the land turned swampy and lush. He spotted sandhill cranes, red-tailed hawks, and great blue herons. On the Tamiami Trail he was told to keep an eye out for panthers and alligators. He saw a few of the latter.

In Saint Augustine, where Juan Ponce de Leon first landed in Florida in 1513, Wanger spent a day sightseeing and drank from the legendary fountain of youth. "I wonder how in the world did the Spanish explorers get through this land with all that gear, guns, and wagons, without any roads," he wrote. "I tell you this, I would not make it to push my bike over any one of these sand dunes with my trailer."

In Miami, Wanger stayed with a couple who were friends with a volunteer at the Working Bikes Cooperative. Sheila and Tom Boyce are both professional yachters who have rebuilt and sailed old boats for 20 years. Sheila took an immediate interest in the Pedal. "It's the kind of thing that appeals to us--an adventure," she says. She sent him an e-mail offering him a place to stay. "I was just thinking, do unto others, right? If it were me, I'd be really ready for a bed." Sheila also arranged for a reporter from the Miami Herald to interview Wanger while he was in town.

After they saw him off the Boyces made donations to Aspire to Inspire and the Alzheimer's Foundation. Around this time Wanger spoke with John King, who agreed to put up several hundred more dollars but urged him to come home. Wanger was about to fall behind on his mortgage payment, but he told King he wanted to make it to Interbike, the biggest annual bike industry trade show, in Las Vegas in a few weeks. If he wasn't able to bring a sponsor aboard there, he would give up. King thought the plan hopelessly naive. "My background is in sales," he says, "and I just knew you weren't going to go to a trade show and have people line up with the kind of money that would be required."

Wanger himself was beginning to suffer pangs of doubt. He missed his girlfriend terribly--hardly a journal entry went by in which he didn't mention her--but their conversations rarely went smoothly. She suggested to him that he was being selfish. At one point, Wanger expressed his frustration about how little interest the organizations he was trying to raise money for had shown: "All we asked for was a little outreach," he wrote. "Folks, people are making donations because they believe in the mission of this project. If you don't want to be a part of the Pedal please let me know, and we will take you off. You have all the skill, the infrastructure in place, to assist. I have high expectations of you. Why are some of you ignoring the effort and contributions that are being made by so many?"

That day, fighting a stomach virus that gave him terrible diarrhea and cycling through decimated Punta Gorda, where Charley had done the most damage, he broke down and cried. Then he told himself to get a grip. "Gosh, Stephan," he wrote, "folks lost their houses here and rebuilt their lives again."

Later that night the manager of a booked-up Days Inn let him sleep in the meeting room. Outside, rain poured down. Wanger felt revitalized by the manager's generosity. The Pedal had developed a familiar if irregular pattern: things would look wretched, and then a stranger would come along and help him out enough to make it all seem worthwhile.

Over Labor Day weekend, Wanger learned that he was on a collision course with another significant storm: both he and Hurricane Frances were headed for central Florida. His outlook soured: "I feel like throwing away my cell phone as I am craving good news from Chicago, but none is coming," he wrote. "It's all getting personal now. I can't even hold a fork correctly, because my left hand pinky has been numb for weeks now. My clothes stink, the roadkill stinks, and it's hot all day long. I fell asleep while riding a couple of times. It is indeed possible to fall asleep on a bicycle. Man oh man, I am in the woods now and I feel very lonely."

Two days later Frances veered west and was expected to hit Panama City the next afternoon at one o'clock. Wanger was just a few hours southeast of there. The hurricane was about 400 miles wide, which meant that Wanger needed to stay at least 200 miles ahead of its eye. He rode until a quarter after midnight that night, camped at an RV park, and got back on the road at 4 AM. He was now 35 miles west of Panama City, where Frances was due in eight hours. Battling strong side winds, he crossed a long bridge into an industrial part of Mobile, Alabama, at 9 PM and checked into a Ramada Inn. Cycling 286 miles in 48 hours, he had successfully evaded his second hurricane in 48 days.

Things got better before they got worse. After bad roads littered with nails in Louisiana and Mississippi that took him past many scenes of rural poverty ("I had no idea that the USA is in such bad shape in some places," Wanger wrote, noting also the abundance of "Support Our Troops" signs and ribbons along the road), Texas proved to be a "bicycle heaven" where motorists gave him wide berth and nobody honked. Chased by a trio of dogs, he wrote that he felt like the "Rattenfaenger von Hamelin"--the Pied Piper. But by now Wanger had learned that a stern, loud "No!" would usually do the trick.

With his deep tan, dirty clothes, and dusty, bleached-out panniers, he saw himself in the lonesome cowboy pictured on the Texas license plate. He was averaging 90 to 100 miles a day, and his tires needed replacing. He was eager to get to San Antonio, where he expected to receive a new package of supplies from Josh Squire and Bike Chicago. He also looked forward to meeting a woman named Sarah Neathery who'd come across the Aspire Web site through a link on a bicycle-seat manufacturer's site. Neathery had arranged interviews for Wanger with local CBS and Fox affiliates and persuaded a local bike shop to give him a free tune-up and replacement parts. (Wanger's shipment of parts from Bike Chicago ended up arriving a day late, after he'd left San Antonio.)

During his stay with Sarah and her sons, Stephen and Brian, Wanger confided in Neathery about his idea for the Chicago cultural training vessel. "It really put the whole thing in perspective for me," Neathery says. She later attempted to coordinate press interviews and tune-ups at bike shops in the U.S. cities Wanger had yet to pass through. Several bike shops signed on, she says, but the papers and TV stations she contacted ignored her requests.

When Wanger left San Antonio, after a day off to tour the Alamo, the Neatherys rode with him for 55 miles. Saying good-bye to them, Wanger felt like crying again. But he wasn't alone for long. A couple he met at a gas station let him camp in their yard the next night, and two nights later he boarded with some folks who included him in a sweat-lodge ceremony to celebrate the fall equinox. "All this sounded and smelled so 'Wild West' to me, for lack of a better term," he wrote. One of the participants called out to the ancestors on his behalf: "Stephan has important work to do. Please allow him to continue his journey, as it will benefit many people."

Vegetation grew sparse, mostly scrub brush and cacti. Wanger rode past mesas, barbed-wire fences, tarantulas and snakes, bleached bones. He sang loudly to himself and watched vultures swoop in on roadkill. "My bike is performing well, my body feels fine. It is my soul which is struggling," he wrote on September 22. He had decided, during another difficult phone call, to break up with his girlfriend. Now he asked himself if, perhaps, he was being as selfish as she claimed. "I can just not see it. I know I am doing the right thing; I just don't know why I am doing this," he wrote. A few days later, he added, "I have never felt so alive, so broke, so beloved at the same time. The project feels so right despite my struggles to keep it going. I should have done this a long time ago."

But by the time he reached Phoenix, he was achingly lonely and even more broke. With the exception of Sam Swett, who remained resolutely neutral in their almost daily phone calls, his close friends now actively pressured him to throw in the towel. John King told Wanger that the project didn't seem feasible anymore. Jamie Solem offered to buy him a plane ticket home and told him, "A lot of the great explorers don't succeed on their first try. If this is something you're passionate about, then come on home and reevaluate and try again."

"Don't let them foreclose on your condo," Wyatt Mitchell told Wanger. "Come back, sell it, and then continue." But Wanger was in an "all-or-nothing mind frame," Mitchell says. "I don't think he ever considered taking a break as being an option."

Whether Wanger wanted it to or not, the Pedal had become a deeply personal quest, a struggle against circumstance that seemed of a piece with the pattern of his life so far. More and more frequently he would ask himself why he felt so compelled to press on. Only a couple thousand dollars had been raised for the nine charities combined. But the reactions of the people he met convinced him he was doing the right thing--until the next wave of doubt or loneliness swept through him. "I can understand this feeling on a ship, when I am two months at sea, but I never thought I would have that same exact feeling cycling on land," he wrote.

He reached Las Vegas on October 3. With credentials from Josh Squire, Wanger walked around the trade show for two days, talking to reps about his accomplishments. He made some contacts, but before long a new physical problem diverted his attention. "After an investigation of my rear I am introduced for the first time in my life to hemorrhoids," he wrote. "Everything hurts, I can't sit or walk or turn in bed without experiencing pain." Though the hemorrhoid segment reads as a bit of comic relief on his blog, Wanger says now that he wishes he'd kept this condition to himself.

The next eight days, during which he biked more than 600 miles, were a study in contrasts: 98-degree heat and wind in Death Valley, which left his lips cracked and his mouth sandy, followed by the steep grade and chilly temperatures of the Tioga Pass, which took him into Yosemite. Cycling at night in Mammoth Lake, California, he came close to colliding with a bear. Wanger says he was about 30 yards past the animal when it started growling and shuffling toward him. He could see its outline clearly in the lights of a nearby visitors' center. The next night, at his campsite in Yosemite, a loud thump against his tent woke him up, "as if you air out a heavy carpet with a broom," he described it. He shouted and heard something scramble off into the woods. In the morning, he says, there were paw prints as big as his hands in the sandy earth around his campsite.

Wanger kept cycling for three more weeks, through rainstorms for much of the time. He came down with a cold, and as his morale plummeted he wrote that not a day passed when he didn't seriously consider quitting. "Please believe me when I say that my disappointment in failing you far exceeds the energy that I have placed into the last 7,000 miles," he wrote on October 15.

On October 31 Wanger crossed into Mexico. He'd been looking forward to that leg of the journey all along, thinking everything would be much cheaper. But he found the roads narrower, the hotels just as pricey, and the dogs more plentiful. Their carcasses littered the ditches beside the highway, and Wanger speculated that people fed them not for companionship but as cheap alarm systems--easy come, easy go.

The afternoon of his second day in Mexico he was about to head up an incline in the highway when he saw a rottweiler start toward him from a small house on a nearby hill. "It was so fast. It was on a mission," he recalls. The dog charged through a broken barbed-wire fence and headed straight for the road. There were about 75 feet between them, Wanger says, but he could also see traffic coming toward him, around a curve up ahead. A few seconds later he heard a loud noise and knew that it was the dog colliding with the first in the line of cars, a silver Honda.

When he looked back, all he could see at first was the Honda, which had stopped. Certain the dog had been killed, he decided to turn around and talk to the car's passengers. He could tell them where the dog had come from. As he got closer he saw that the rottweiler was still alive, limping back toward the house it had come from. The Honda's spoiler was damaged. Wanger explained what he'd seen to the younger of the two men in the car, who spoke English, and all three decided to approach the dog's owners.

The dog had collapsed near the house, blood leaking from its mouth. The owners called the police, who came about an hour later and told Wanger he'd need to come to the station to file a report, along with the dog's owners and the two men from the Honda. As Wanger was loading his bike into the owner's truck beside the injured dog, which apparently needed to be presented as evidence, another policeman arrived, took a report, and told Wanger he was free to go. He continued on for about 50 more miles and spent the night at a $30 hotel. By the morning he'd decided not to go on.

"I was tired of dogs," he says. "I took this one as a sign. Somebody was saying, 'Stephan, it's your last one. This one we took care of in the form of sending traffic in between. But get back to the drawing board again.'"

Wanger took a bus to San Diego, where he boarded a train for Chicago. He says he wanted the time on the train to prepare mentally for what he feared would be an ignominious homecoming. He stared despondently out the window at a landscape he'd cycled through only weeks earlier, remembering how train passengers had waved to him.

Sam Swett says he felt guiltily relieved to have his friend back. Wanger spent a few days at his place, and another few with Wyatt Mitchell, watching Star Wars DVDs and playing video games. He talked with John King about his work options. Wanger was considering heading back to Germany, and King thought it wasn't a bad idea. He thought Wanger could get a good job as a liaison for a German company. When Wanger decided, instead, to stay put and take another stab at the Pedal, he got an e-mail from King that read simply, "You are insane."

King says he was kidding his friend, but he says also that "part of me wishes that Stephan would settle into more of a conventional lifestyle. The logical part of my brain says, 'What's going to happen to Stephan years from now?' But at the same time, what a boring world it would be if there weren't people like him out there."

In March, Wanger quit the furniture store for a construction job that he says pays better and allows him more time to dedicate to working on the Continental Pedal 2. He persuaded his mortgage company to hold off on the foreclosure to give him a chance to sell his condo, but says that when he does he'll still be taking a significant loss and will incur about $20,000 in debt. He's not worried. "I am certain that I will be out of debt by the end of the year," he says.

He and the Aspire to Inspire team meet at least every two weeks at Dearborn Station. Recently they've decided to rebuild discarded bikes that have been donated to Working Bikes Cooperative to use in the next Pedal. (Most "consumable" parts, including the wheels, tires, and brakes, will be donated, the team hopes, by manufacturers, or purchased with grant funding.) Wanger would like to find an airline sponsor so the cyclists' loved ones can visit them on the road from time to time. The full 32,000-mile journey, it's estimated, will now take about 15 months. All told, the crew wants to raise at least $500,000 to cover the ride's cost by the end of next May. Krebill plans to make a documentary about the journey and is seeking additional sponsorship to cover those expenses. He and Wanger want to be able to post footage on Aspire to Inspire's site as the ride progresses. Donations can also be made, as before, directly to the beneficiaries.

Wanger and his girlfriend have not gotten back together. But, he tells me, there's forward movement on this front too: they're e-mailing and talking again. He hopes they still have a chance.

In March the Aspire team completed the first of several team-building, or "qualifying," rides, this one from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Chicago, a distance of 145 miles. One of the cyclists, a 23-year-old who goes by the name Squeaky Clean, posted a paragraph summary of the trip to the Aspire site. The roads in Michigan were glazed with slush and ice, he noted. Also, "huge dogs chased us across the state line into Indiana."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson, Stephan Wanger.

Add a comment