Along a rural road in the deep South, a woman slowed her car and cruised alongside a young man pedaling a bike with a small trailer attached to its rear axle.
“Hey, what are you doing?” she called.
John Napier explained that he was biking from Oregon to South Carolina. The reason for the cross-country trip, he told her, was to raise money for Children’s Wish Foundation, an Atlanta-based organization that grants the wishes of children who have life-threatening illnesses.
The woman nodded and waved good-bye. Several days later, Children’s Wish received a check. The attached note read, “From the lady in Alabama.”
“She had three kids in the car. It was old, a 1970s Chevrolet. It looked like she needed money pretty badly herself,” says John, 30. He pauses. “People are so willing to help. They just don’t know how to go about it. I think I gave them a way to contribute.”
John’s ride began as a personal challenge and evolved into a mission. After graduating from the Air Force Academy and serving four years, John, ever the adventurer, made a list of “things to do someday”: going to Africa, working in a vineyard, biking across Europe…but he soon realized that while he was playing out the ideal life, he might also help others.
He decided to contact Children’s Wish Foundation because “it fit right in line with what I was doing—living my dream.” He suggested that he publicize their organization as he biked the back roads of America—another item on his to-do list.
Lori Rauschenberg, special events coordinator, was delighted. “We get publicity in big city newspapers, but by going through small towns, John would reach people who may not have seen those stories.”
John’s employer, Western River Expeditions, for which he is a white-water rafting guide, gave him $1,000 to get started. His sister, Kathy Vaughan, contacted family and friends who contributed more. With this, he bought a touring bike and trailer. He stuffed the trailer with a sleeping bag, one change of clothes, cooking gear, a flashlight, cell phone, and portable CD player.
On Sept. 5, 2000, he set off from Astoria, Ore.—the head of an established bike route. At first it was “pretty grim” riding alone, mile after empty mile. Then he remembered things he’d learned from his childhood in Haughton, La. (pop. 2,792). “Growing up in a small town was the best preparation in the world,” he says. “I knew that going to the grocery store wasn’t as much about buying food as it was about talking with your neighbors.”
That sentiment was more than evident on his trip. In each town, he stopped by the local newspaper office and talked about Children’s Wish Foundation. In Redmond, Ore., (pop. 13,481) editor Judy Barnes did more than run a story. She notified friends across the country that John might be giving them a call. “Just in case you need someone,” she told him with a motherly smile.
“It was like this giant chain of people, all helping me, all wanting to help the children,” John says. And that chain carried him from town to town, where he continually saw the human spirit at work.
When he arrived in Sheridan Lake, Colo., it was almost dark and he was out of food.
Dejected, he stopped at a house where children were jumping on a trampoline in the front yard. “Is there any place in town to grab a bite to eat?” he asked them.
“I have a big table,” said their mother from an open doorway. A short while later he was sharing meatball stew, mashed potatoes, and Jell-O with the woman, her family, and three high school exchange students from East Europe.
In Senoia, Ga., (pop. 1,738) rain pounded his tent all night. The next day as the rain continued, he took refuge in the library, where a policeman he’d met the previous day caught up with him. “I arranged for you to stay at a B&B tonight,” he said. Since the B&B didn’t have a washing machine, the town mayor did his laundry.
Seventy days and 4,150 miles after he began, John pulled into Charleston, S.C., met with much gratitude.
“John raised more than $10,000 for us, mostly in donations of $20 or $30,” says Christy Andrews, vice president of Children’s Wish. “But just as important, he helped raise awareness. Now parents with children who face life threatening illnesses know they can call us and their children’s dreams can be fulfilled.”
But John doesn’t think he deserves any thanks. As he puts it, he was the trip’s main beneficiary.
“Because I saw America at its finest.”