In June of 2016, I lost my wife, Susan, after a 19 year battle with late-stage breast cancer. In the months after she passed, I had big decisions to make: Do I stay in our home and try to keep what was left of my life the same, or do I make some significant changes and move on?
As you might imagine, living in the home where Susan passed away was very difficult. So many memories of our life together in a home that we lived in for 21 years. After some deliberation, I decided to sell our home and sell it fast; this is something that Susan thought I would do. In her waning days, she had the forethought to think about me and what I would do after she was gone. That tells you what kind of person she was. At the time, I focused all of my energy on her and making her comfortable. She didn’t ask what I’d do or where I’d wind up; she just knew that I wouldn’t stay.
I wound up taking the 5 or 6 months after she passed to recover a bit from the loss, often using rides with my friends as a coping mechanism. I eventually developed a plan for putting the house up for sale in the spring of 2017. I cleaned out my home with the help of my brother Joe and a friend of his, working our way through a lifetime of “stuff” that you think you’d need or want later, now relegated to the trash bin. After more than a few trips to the local dump and the Goodwill store, the house was ready to be listed.
After about four months on the market, our house had a motivated buyer. As is the case with most home sales, there were repairs to be made and yard sales to be had. I would have a moving sale to sell off everything we owned; I needed it all gone so that I could travel light on my impending trip.
After some contemplation on where to go, I decided to move across the country to Bellingham, Washington. Assuming that you’re reading this because you’re a mountain biker, and also assuming you don’t live under a rock, Bellingham was a pretty easy choice to make. I figured that the best way for me to make this next step count would be to head to a place where I had developed some friendships over the years, particularly at Transition Bikes, located in town. The mountain bike riding opportunities are well documented, and its proximity to other world-class locations only adds to the appeal. The flip side to this move is that I’d be leaving my family and friends behind on the east coast. Of course, I wasn’t exactly getting any younger, so no time like the proverbial present as it were. Now was the time to make this happen. I was already reeling at the loss of my wife and best friend, and this was the step I needed to take to try and live the best life that I could.
After having the closing date moved a few times, we lost the buyer. During the winter that would follow, my brother Joe and I would talk about a change of plans for our home. We came up with a list of repairs and alterations in an attempt to increase the value of the house. By March, we had replaced the roof and added a fresh coat of paint in addition to other improvements. It was time to list it again. I wound up closing on the house on November 5th. That would also be my last day at work for the Federal Aviation Administration. I walked in, said my goodbyes, shook hands with everyone, and then walked out. It felt as fast as it sounds.
From here, it was a drive to Philly to pick up a U-Haul trailer. I remember thinking as I drove west on the Atlantic City Expressway towards the city, “Wow, is this happening?” I spent so many days dreaming and planning, and now it was a reality. I have to say that it was starting to hit me pretty hard at this point.
That night I had dinner with my brother, his wife Laurie, their son Michael, and our dad. Afterward, I had a brief chance to relax a little before reviewing my route and getting in touch with friends whom I had planned on seeing during my trip.
The next morning before I left, I had an interaction with my dad that I’ll never forget. He really loved my wife, and it was hard for him when she passed, and now I would be heading west. He said all of the right words that morning before watching me pull away. That would be the last time I’d see him.
My first stop would be an overnight stay in Indianapolis, IN, before heading to Kansas City, MO, where I would meet my friend Kim and planned for a ride with Dustin, a mountain biker who used to live in Philly. Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas. Cold temps and ice canceled our plans for riding. Fortunately, dinner and margaritas aren’t weather-dependent.
A day later, I headed for Denver, CO, to catch up with my buddy Dave, aka Lev. Lev and I have ridden a lot with each other over the years, so I was looking forward to catching up with him. Dave and his wife Sarah had just given birth to their son, and his schedule was tight.
We wound up having time to ride at Red Rocks and Dakota Ridge in Denver, before grabbing dinner with friends of theirs that evening. That was a tough ride because I was out of shape, and we were riding at elevation. Riding bikes had taken a backseat to getting my house sold. It didn’t matter now, as I was out exploring someplace new with an old friend. Later that night, after getting back to my hotel, I got a text from Lev advising me that I had better hit the road early as a snowstorm was on the way. Despite hitting the road at 5:30 in the morning, an inch of snow had already accumulated and it was falling fast.
The next stop would be Moab. Unfortunately, the cold weather was already in place, and I wouldn’t get the opportunity to ride all of the popular trails there. I instead opted for a comfortable trip and pedaled across town to sample a few trails that were highly recommended. After a couple of days of sightseeing, I was off to Boise, Idaho for a night before my final leg to Bellingham.
Driving through the Cascades up and over Snoqualmie Pass was like driving into another world. I remember thinking to myself just how spectacular everything was. The massive wall of evergreen on either side of the road was the complete opposite of where I lived for the past 21 years. The landscape is much more striking in the Pacific Northwest.
I’d arrive in Bellingham in the evening after eight hours on the road and settled into my hotel room for the night. The next day I was off to U-Haul to get a storage locker and return the trailer. Everything felt slightly surreal. I felt like I was on autopilot; all of this change and newness wasn’t sinking in yet.
For the next two weeks, I would house-sit for my friend Gretchen Leggit. I found Gretchen through a network of shared friends on Facebook and was fortunate for the opportunity to watch her house while she was away, as it enabled me to look for my own place. From here, everything seemed to fall into place. I would wind up renting a quaint bungalow from my new friends and fellow mountain bikers, Ansel and Hillary. I was now ready to settle into my new city and move forward with my new life.
Unfortunately, our family was tested once again when we lost both of our parents in quick succession. In December I got a call from my brother Joe telling me that our dad had passed. I was fortunate to have talked with him over the phone a week before his passing. Again, his love and support were there, and I’ll hold onto his words forever. I should mention that our mom had been on a steady decline with Alzheimer’s disease and was living in an assisted living facility at that time. After our dad’s passing, my brother and his wife Laurie went to tell her of dad’s passing. We felt that she had enough and wanted to be with him. She passed away four days later.
I returned to Bellingham after the funeral for our parents, and everything felt new again. I thought to myself, “OK, now I can start this new life.” In the coming weeks and months, my time was spent riding as much as I can while learning all of the local trails, participating in some trail work with the WMBC, and figuring out where I could find good Thai food in town.
Everything that I’ve described thus far, I feel, is a lot for one person to handle. It’s a lot of change in such a short period of time. I have had days where I question this move but I then get on the bike, and I go for a ride. I see the beautiful landscape around me, and it starts to feel right. I think to myself, “Susan wouldn’t want me sulking; she’d want me out doing something.”
Change is never easy; you can tell yourself that everything will be OK, but there are times when doubt will creep in. I found that the loss of my wife is the worst thing that could have happened to me, and after three and a half years since her passing, there are still days that are crushing. Moving to a new city in search of a fresh start sounds exciting, but it can be daunting. When this happens, I have found that if I get up and get out for a ride, all of this despair melts away. I believe that you need to make things happen for yourself. Call or text a friend and say hi. You can’t wait for anyone to make a change for you. Take the step. Be the change.
Despite all of the changes I’ve mentioned, I find myself fortunate to have wound up in Bellingham. There is so much beauty in the landscape surrounding this city. Despite having lived here for a year, I’m still finding my way. However, it is my growing circle of friends here that stands out in my mind the most. I’m so grateful for their caring words, and for the connections that I’ve made. Life after cancer – for me – started the morning I said goodbye to my wife, Susan. Now I wake up in this town with unlimited riding opportunities and a supportive group of people surrounding me. Change is hard, but you have to get up and get after it, no matter what “it” is.
I’ve been riding a bike since I was a little kid. Back then, I could barely touch the pedals, and my marbles took a beating from time to time, but I loved the freedom that a bicycle gave me. Over the years, I progressed from a cruiser bike, delivering newspapers to racing BMX to riding road bikes. The love of the bike never changed, just the bike. At a point in time, I spent 10+years as a bike mechanic, becoming immersed in bikes and the community.
Now, I’m very involved with and am passionate about mountain biking. As a former enduro racer, I still promote enduro racing through www.eastcoastenduro.com and a dedicated East Coast Enduro Facebook group. I have spent many years advocating for increased mountain bike access in my community in NJ, through JORBA, the Jersey Off-Road Bicycle Association. Now that I’m in Bellingham, I look forward to helping build and maintain trails with the WMBC. I’d like to have more opportunities for the sport to grow so, by creating and maintaining my local trails, I’m hoping that more people get out and ride.