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Richard O'Hern's Faculty Voices Speech

Richard O'Hern

Good morning. Thanks to Mr. Nelson for asking me to do this. It’s nice to be here to share a little bit about myself with you. For this talk, I’ve chosen the theme of Carpe Diem. Most of you have probably heard the phrase before, and many probably know that Carpe diem translates as “sieze the day.” I’m interpreting it as “take advantage of what life offers, and make good things happen.”

The opportunity and subsequent adventure that I want to share with you today came by way of a friend from college. I grew up in Buffalo, NY and attended a public high school. I enrolled at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio in the fall of 1978. I liked the school and the people there, but the science major I chose wasn’t that interesting and I wasn’t doing too well in a few of my classes. During my sophomore year at Miami, I decided to move back home to attend the University of Buffalo and save my parents some money. Tuition at UB was $900 per semester!

At that point, I changed my major to geology and I loved it from the first course I took. It was during the fall of my first year at UB, the fall of 1980, that I got a phone call from a former hallmate from freshman year at Miami, a guy named Barry. He asked if I wanted to ride across the country on a bicycle trip with him in the summer of 1981. I said “sure; that sounds like fun.” I had never taken a bike trip before, though I had significant experience backpacking, and I knew how to ride a bike! I thought, “What could be so hard about this?”

Fast forward to March of 1981. Barry called me again, asking if I was still interested in the trip. I realized that it was time to say yes or no to this great offer of his, so I told him “yeah, count me in.” It turns out that the trip was to be three of us, with Barry as the lead planner and organizer. We would be self-supported, carrying everything on our bikes. I’d bring a lot of the camping gear including a tent big enough for all three of us, a camp stove and a cook kit, and I decided I’d bring my 35 mm camera and a couple of lenses to be trip photographer since I enjoyed photography. The third participant was to be a fraternity brother of Barry’s named Andy. I’d never met him, but I was fairly confident that I could get along with just about anybody.

I’ve always been a procrastinator, like Ian Cummings, and I waited until three weeks prior to the trip to buy the bike I was going to use on the journey. I probably rode about 200 miles total in training, which really wasn’t very much at all. I was 20 years old, in good 20-year-old guy shape, so who needed training to ride 4000 miles? Certainly not me!

In the third week of May, my parents dropped me off in Akron Ohio at Barry’s house, where I met Andy, and the three of us got a ride from Ohio out to Palo Alto California. We were dropped off at the campus of Stanford University, so, I guess I can say “I went to Stanford.” We spent the weekend visiting friends and relatives in the San Francisco area; I stayed a night with my Aunt Donna and Uncle Bob who were preparing their sailboat for a trip from San Francisco to Hawaii. They never got there: the story of their near-death adventure on the Pacific Ocean is a tale for another day.

So, on to the bike trip. Here is a flyover view of the basic route. One thing you may notice from the map is that we did not just bike “across” the country from West to East. In fact, we would first ride north about 900 miles along the magnificent Pacific coast of California, Oregon, and Washington before turning East and riding across the northern US back home.

On June 1st, we now-three-amigos set off across the Golden Gate bridge headed north. Right away, the trip was harder than I had imagined. I grew up in Buffalo, which is flat. The Pacific coast is decidedly NOT flat. Riding up hills, one encounters this little thing called “gravity,” which for some reason always pulls one downward. I should have paid more attention in physics class. Also, no one told us that prevailing summer winds on that coast blow from the NW, and of course we were riding N. The last thing that made it hard is that I didn’t know as much about riding a bike as I thought I did. My first bike that had multiple gears was a screaming yellow 5-speed Schwinn Collegiate that I bought with money saved from delivering the morning newspaper when I was in high school. I always rode my bike in 5th gear because I thought that made sense. Well, I was riding into headwinds, up and down the coast ranges, on cold days, and my knees were killing me. At one point, on the third day of the trip, I was complaining to Barry about my knees, and he said “gear down and spin faster, doofus” or something less charitable than that. It was a simple adjustment that made a huge difference. Remember that even though you might know a lot, you don’t know everything!

If you’ve not traveled the Pacific coast, I urge you to try and make time for it at some point in your life. It is truly spectacular. Much of our route took us directly along the ocean’s edge, as shown behind me. One legitimate hazard was the abundant presence of logging trucks which never strayed from their lane on the twisty coastal roads and which allowed us very little room as the roads rarely had any shoulder at all. Sometimes we’d just hit the brakes hard and veer off the road into gravelly soil or weeds and hope not to wipe out when a truck was passing us. Scary!

Another challenge was breakdowns, not of the emotional kind, but of the bicycle kind. Barry’s bike was by far the worst, mine second. I had teased Andy the day I met him about his heavy, steel-framed Schwinn bike, yet he got through the entire trip with only one flat tire. Barry and I had lots of flat tires and broken spokes. Barry needed to buy a new wheel at one point. Me, a new freewheel assembly. We carried tools with us, and some days we’d spend an hour on the side of the road trying to fix one problem or another.

While the coast and ocean were mesmerizing, our route also took us inland a bit to enter the forests of big trees, especially Sequoia sempervirens, the coast redwoods. They are Earth’s tallest trees, and they were simply magical. One section of our ride was through an area called “The Avenue of the Giants” in N. California, as you see here. We camped in several state and county parks among the redwoods and were able to swim in the South Fork of the Eel river, one of the few undammed rivers left in California.

After making it to Seattle and spending a few days playing tourist, we rode north for one more day before turning our bikes to the east to get about the business of heading across the country. We rode right into, up, and over the North Cascades, which are beautiful, jagged snow-covered peaks in Washington state. We crossed our first two legitimate mountain passes that day, both at about 5,000 feet of elevation, and on the summer solstice, June 21st , we threw snowballs, helped a guy get his car out of deep snow in a parking lot, and then had a 15 mile uninterrupted downhill ride through the valley you see here on the Eastern slope of the Cascades. That was the fastest 15 miles of the trip!

One of the most interesting and unexpected pleasures of the entire trip was the large number of opportunities to meet people from all walks of life. People saw us with lots of equipment on our bikes and invariably asked us where we came from and where we were headed. Many offered food or a place to stay. One couple stands out. We were riding across the far northern panhandle of Idaho. Here I’ll read a short passage from my trip journal that highlights the generosity of people we met. “Friday we rode along with my slowly leaking tire and finally got to Sandpoint, a real nice little town that had a bike shop. I spent $21 on two new tubes and one new tire, and put them all on my bike. Five miles East of town, I got another damn flat tire. How frustrating was that? SOOOO frustrating! Then, when we were working on my flat tire, as if by magic, along came a little blue VW camper, and out stepped a white-haired older woman to ask us how we were doing, and bingo! – we got an invitation to dinner and a place to sleep for the night. We rode to Jim and Donna’s along beautiful Lake Pend-Orielle and found their summer trailer and their 5 month old dog Chocolate Charlie Brown. We went for a swim in front of the house, shared our life stories over several hours and beers, had a homecooked meal, and pitched our tent in their yard.” We met wonderful people all along our route!

From Idaho, we rode into NW Montana. Glacier National Park was a highlight. We spent a couple of days in that gorgeous place, and I’ve since gone back to visit again. The U.S. National Parks belong to all of us, and I encourage each of you to find time to visit parks both local and farther away, especially west of the Mississippi River. You won’t regret it.

From Glacier, we rode south in Western Montana, which was the prettiest part of the entire trip, with fabulous landscapes. Our destination was Yellowstone National Park. Put that park on your bucket list. It has more geothermal features than any other place on Earth. The wildlife includes elk, bison, deer, moose, and in the last 20 years, wolves. We came across this elk when we were riding into the park along the Madison River at 7:30 on a July morning. We spent a couple of days sightseeing and riding a lot (the park is huge), visiting geysers, and we crossed the Continental Divide in the park at nearly 8400’ above sea level.

Moving faster now (both me in this talk, and the trip), we rode East out of Yellowstone along the Shoshone River and within a few hours lost some elevation and all the trees and entered the high plains. It was hot. Really hot. Did I mention there was no shade? Did I mention the jerks who threw stuff at us out of pickup trucks, and who tried to pick fights with us in bars? Don’t get me wrong; we had some good experiences and met some fine people there as well, but when we crossed into South Dakota, we decided that a week crossing that nearly treeless state in mid-July was not something we wanted to do. Barry and Andy bought bus tickets to Minneapolis, and I, being relatively money-free at that point in the trip, decided that hitchhiking 600 miles with a bike and all of my gear was a pretty good option. OK, the only option. It turns out that my bike and I had good karma (bikema?) and got a series of 5 or 6 rides with some cool people, including a farmer who was towing a trailer with 140 cute little pink piglets. I hitched the entire 600 miles in one very long day and was dropped off at the fraternity house in Minneapolis where Barry and Andy had arrived earlier in the day.

From there, we rode to Madison WI and visited a couple of days with Barry’s older brother. Barry stayed with his brother for an extended time while Andy and I headed north through the Wisconsin countryside where we encountered a huge irrigation sprinkler. It was a drive through bike-and-body wash! We continued north into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Lake Superior, where I completed my quest to swim in all 5 Great Lakes. We met up with Barry again in Western Michigan after he took a ferry across the lake. We did some sailing with friends on beautiful Torch Lake, and we then rode our final couple of days together to SE Michigan. At that point, we said farewell to Andy as he headed home, south into Ohio. Barry and I then crossed the border into Ontario and rode one more day together along the north shore of Lake Erie. He left me and took a ferry across the lake to Ohio, and I was on my own for the last two days. I was ready to be home; in fact, I rode 140 miles the next day on the single longest ride of the entire trip. I arrived home to the warm hugs and kisses of family and friends, 10 weeks to the day after we had started the trip.

So, life presents opportunities. My life has been richer for the opportunities I’ve taken along the way, and for a few that I’ve created. If, as you get older, you ever find yourself in between jobs, a situation that I call being “in between opportunities,” consider that itself as a chance to do something different. Take a trip with a friend. Build something. Help someone. Take a class at a local college. Fix something. Or, if you’re Phil Rittenhouse, paint something.

In 1985, I was in between jobs, had saved some cash, and wrote a letter to a dear friend Margo from my time at Miami, asking her “why don’t you be irresponsible for once, quit your job, and take off with me to travel across Europe this summer?” She said “yes.” That was a fabulous trip! In 2005, my wife Polly was traveling in Namibia, pursuing a goal she had to study elephants, laying some groundwork for a full-year sabbatical she would take the next school year. I chose that opportunity, her absence, to buy a boat! Life is full of opportunities. Carpe Diem! Thank you.

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