by Daniel Lee
My bike led me home. Physically. Spiritually. Emotionally. It was Sunday, September 4, 2011. The forecast called for rain.
I pedaled north from my house just outside of Indianapolis. Subdivisions gave way to scattered homes, woods, fields. About 12 miles into my ride, the rain started.
I approached a small white church on a knoll, a spot I’d ridden by hundreds of times before and since – Hinkle Creek Friends Church. A little porch with an overhang offered escape from the downpour. I sat on the steps and listened. Just the other side of the door, a man played an acoustic guitar and sang a folk song. His soothing music blended with the sound of raindrops hitting the trees. He had no idea I was his audience. An unexpected sense of peace and comfort – what I could best describe as a nearness to God – swept over me. I felt tears, and I knew I needed to share this experience. I took out my phone and posted three messages to Twitter:
“My ride today: Seeking shelter literally + figuratively from the storm at a country Quaker church. Thanks, Friends!”
“Man inside church playing guitar and singing folk praise song as I sit on porch + also listen to rain hit leaves.”
Then, just before continuing my ride, I wrote:
“Uplifted, I pedal pack into the rain.”
I was not raised Quaker. Before that day in 2011, I didn’t know who George Fox was. But something about that ride helped to activate a long-dormant spiritual seed planted within me. By 2012, I started attending Quaker meetings and services. In 2014, at the age of 45, I became a member of Indianapolis First Friends Meeting.
Yet this story runs much deeper than that one dramatic moment. I’m convinced that my lifelong love of cycling has been instrumental in my spiritual journey. My odd intersection of cycling and Quakerism started in the mid-1980s, my dad became enamored with the writings and speeches of Quaker author and theologian Elton Trueblood (1900-1994). My dad would travel from our home near Pittsburgh to Earlham College in Richmond to see Trueblood, including one visit in 1986 when I accompanied him. I met with Trueblood before visiting Ball State University, where I’d eventually attend college. Around this time, I also fell in love with cycling. I was motivated by American Greg LeMond’s victory in the Tour de France and by physical challenge and the sense of exploration that comes with cycling.
These two unrelated things – my bike and the influence of an elderly Quaker philosopher – intertwined to define the path of my life.
I attended Ball State University in Indiana in large part because I was impressed during my meeting with Dr. Earl Conn, then head of the journalism department. Trueblood had spoken highly of Conn, also a Friend. What’s more, on my campus tour, my student guide remarked that cycling was popular at Ball State. During college I completed an editorial practicum at Quaker Life magazine, located about an hour from Ball State.
My wife, Jennifer, and I started dating in 1991. We attended a Methodist church near campus. We also traveled to Earlham with my family to hear Trueblood give one of his final public addresses before his death in 1994. We married in 1993 and belonged to Presbyterian churches. Later we attended non-denominational evangelical churches. Church was especially important while living in California away from family. But after moving back to Indiana in 2005, we had difficulty finding a church home. More than ever I longed for a faith that was emotional and logical. A faith that was peaceful and subversive.
I kept riding my bike, and my bike kept providing me with amazing experiences. In 1986, in the most significant passage of my teenage years, one of my best friends and I rode unaccompanied about 188 miles from our homes in suburban Pittsburgh to my grandparents’ home in Bradford, Pa. In 1992, on the decisive climb of the collegiate national championship road race, I watched through sweat-stung eyes as the decisive selection of riders pedaled away. I failed to make the final cut but knew I had raced as hard as I ever had. In 2004, I felt a keen sense of wonder pedaling with close friends along a star-lit mountain road in New Hampshire. Our route of around 130 miles was too ambitious for our pace. Darkness fell. We had one small bike light a nice fellow cyclist, a stranger, gave us at dusk – but also a mysterious feeling of connection with my friends and nature under a sky filled with countless stars. Another time I found an injured barn owl roadside. Years later I pedaled up to a wounded great horned owl. Both times I gazed in amazement at these beautiful creatures while waiting for help from local wildlife officials.
I can’t imagine what George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement, would have said about modern-day, Lycra-clad cyclists. Yet the founder of the Quaker movement experienced physical excursion as part of his spiritual journey. Fox famously recalled in his journal an experience in 1652 that led to the Quaker movement: “As we travelled we came near a very great hill, called Pendle Hill, and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it; which I did with difficulty, it was so very steep and high. When I was come to the top, I saw the sea bordering upon Lancashire. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered. As I went down, I found a spring of water in the side of the hill, with which I refreshed myself, having eaten or drunk but little for several days before.”
The richness of Fox’s walking experience – and how I would relate it to the influence of cycling on my journey – did not hit me until I listened online to Hilary Hinds, a senior lecturer in English literature at Lancaster University. Her talk, entitled “Walking in the Light: Early Quaker Travel and the Literature of Pilgrimage,” beautifully told of Fox’s almost endless walking (and horseback riding), between 1,700 and 1,800 miles in 1655 alone. Fox did many kinds of walking – localized and destination walking, solitary and social walking, mournful and triumphant walking.
I had ridden my bike in all of those ways.
The man playing the guitar on that rainy day in 2011 was Mike Haemmerle. He and his wife, Kelly, eventually welcomed us to Hinkle Creek Friends, which we attended before moving to Indianapolis First Friends. They invited us into their home. We talked about our backgrounds, our kids, our faiths. It turns out that Mike had done quite a bit of bike riding years ago, so we talked about cycling, too.
Banner image drawn by Daniel's daughter, Bethany.