Mark Mansell gets ready to leave the High Peaks Campground in Newcomb on the morning of Thursday, Aug. 2 on his way to Ticonderoga.
When Mark Mansell gets back to school in the fall, he can easily answer the question of “What did you do this summer?” with four simple words: I rode across America.
Mansell is the superintendent for La Center Central School, a small district of 1,500 students in southwest Washington state in the shadow of Mount St. Helens. On June 16, he left the West Coast on a seven-week bicycle journey from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine.
On Thursday, Aug. 2, he traveled through the Adirondack Park and into Vermont, leaving Newcomb and staying the night in Ticonderoga on his way to Vermont.
“I can see why people love this part of the country so much. Simply gorgeous!” Mansell wrote Aug. 3 on his blog at www.crazyguyonabike.com.
The mission for this 52-year-old amateur cyclist was to raise awareness and funds for Leader Dogs for the Blind, which provides guide dogs and other needed services for people who are blind. It was started by the Lions Club in 1939. Since that time, they’ve given away more than 14,000 dogs to clients.
“And so raising awareness and those funds to provide those dogs is a cause that’s near and dear to the Lions and, as a member of Lions, it’s therefore near and dear to me,” Mansell said.
After spending a night at the High Peaks Campground in Newcomb, Mansell stopped at the Newcomb Central School parking lot off State Route 28N for an early morning interview before heading to Ticonderoga.
Mansell said he started bicycling as a cross-training sport for his long-distance running regimen. Several years ago, a fellow superintendent said that when he retired, he wanted to ride his bicycle across America.
“And I thought, ‘That’s nuts. Who would want to do that?’” Mansell said. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to ride across in a car for the fun of it, let alone a bicycle, and yet here I am three years later. I’m doing it.”
Pondering the idea, Mansell thought a bike ride across America could have meaning beyond a solo trek for the fun of it. So he began to think about his community service work with the Lions Club, and he thought about his students.
“The idea sort of rooted in my mind, and one thing led to another, and I’m always up for a good challenge,” Mansell said. “And what’s interesting as a school superintendent, as an educator, we challenge our kids all the time to do things, to push beyond their limits, but I wonder how many times as adults we do that ourselves. And so I thought, heck, why not give it a shot and see if I can do it. And the tie to the Lions and the leader dogs was a natural connection, and as they say, the rest is history.”
This wasn’t a personal trip for Mansell. He didn’t know anyone who had used a guide dog or had the experience of being blind.
“To hear the stories and to begin to know people who face those challenges, turn them into opportunities, has been very inspiring for me,” Mansell said. “So the personal piece that started was just the challenge to see if I could do that, to put yourself in a situation where you challenge what you think is possible. That’s what I was looking for, and what I found was that and so much more.”
What Mansell found was a beautiful America, one with spacious skies, amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties. Yet it was those face-to-face encounters with strangers where he found the inner beauty of America, even as tragedies unfolded, such as the July 20 killing of 12 people in a Colorado movie theater.
“The scenery is wonderful, being out in the fresh air, but it’s the people, it’s the people in this country that are amazing,” Mansell said. “People have invited me into their home, they’ve stopped me alongside the road, they’ve asked me about what I’m doing. They’ve been tremendously kind, and with all the craziness that’s going on in the country and Colorado, to know that there are so many people that just are so unselfish and caring and excited about their communities and about life. It is just uplifting to me personally.”
For his accommodations, Mansell camped out, spent nights in motels and stayed with Lions Club members. He always felt at home in communities — such as Newcomb — that post the Lions Club logo on their welcome signs.
“When I come into a community and see that ‘L’ there, a big smile comes across my face because I know there are other Lions just like me that are doing what they can,” Mansell said. “Not everybody can ride a bike 3,500 miles, but everyone’s doing their part ... It’s been very inspiring for me to meet them and get to know their causes and see their efforts in each of their communities.”
And everywhere he went, Mansell never forgot his mission, proudly wearing guide dog tags around his neck. He and his wife spent three days in April at a leader dog school in Rochester, Mich., where he received those tags.
“We actually got to do a blindfold walk where we got to experience firsthand what that’s like to trust the dog and let the dog guide you across streets and so on,” Mansell said. “They asked me to carry the tag of a leader dog, a yellow lab named Lacey, that actually served 12 days short of nine years. And so I carry this tag with me. The original hole actually wore through and they had to drill another hole, and the edges are all curved, but 6035 is the tag number, and so it’s like I have my own leader dog with me.”
Mansell explained that when a guide dog dies, the tag is returned. It’s a time-honored tradition, and the tag is a badge of courage, one that is well respected among leader dog owners.
While walking with his bike in Niagara Falls, Mansell saw a young woman, Maria, with a leader dog. She was there with her father, and they were both from Croatia.
“And he came up to me and was saying, ‘leader dog, leader dog,’ and he was tapping me on the shoulder,” Mansell said. “Maria, she turned around and got all excited. She’d actually been following me online and wanted to meet me. And here, serendipitously meets me at Niagara Falls, and one of the first things she says is, ‘I want to see the tag. I want to touch the tag.’ And so I pulled the tag out and she was just feeling the edges, almost to the point of tears.”
A couple stopped Mansell in Three Forks, Mont. after they saw his yellow shirt. They had donated a dog to Leader Dogs, which has its own breeding colony and training school.
“They were so proud that the dog made it through training and helped a client go to law school, and so they proudly announced to me that they had a lawyer in the family because the dog went through law school,” Mansell said. “It was like their own kid.”
Mansell grew up in Idaho, where the mountains are much taller than in New York. So his first impression when biking through the Adirondack Mountains was, “What mountains? These are hills.” He entered the Adirondack Park from the west, leaving Boonville on his way to Old Forge, and traveled northeast along State Route 28 then 28N through Inlet, Raquette Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, Long Lake and Newcomb.
Mile after mile, he warmed up to the region and started to respect its rolling “hills.”
“The more I ride these mountains, I’m becoming more used to saying, ‘Yeh, that was a pretty good mountain I climbed right there,” Mansell said. “The ups and downs mixed with the lakes and the forests ... it’s very pretty here, and I can see why people love to come back in the fall with all the leaves turning. Everything is so green. It would be nice to come back in the fall, but I’ve got a school to run. Maybe when I retire I’ll come back.”
Adventure Cycling in Missoula, Mont. picked the route for his trek and sent him through some of the most remote parts of the Adirondack Park. On paper, it looked like the quickest route. Yet Mansell wasn’t prepared for the technological challenges that face residents and visitors every day in the Central Adirondacks.
“The challenge is finding cell coverage,” Mansell said. “I anticipated having better cell coverage here in New York and New England than I’m having. The last time I had this was in central Idaho in the Salmon Wilderness Area, so it’s a sign of remoteness, and some people probably come here because of that. For some of us trying to journal every day, it can be a real challenge, and thankfully I had a chance to find a place that had Internet last night in town and got caught up.”
With a Bluetooth headset and a smartphone, Mansell was used to communicating with the world from his bike — making and taking phone calls, blogging and uploading GPS coordinates so people could live track his progress.
Mansell was supposed to take the Blue Ridge Road from Newcomb to North Hudson on his way to Ticonderoga, but he missed the turn. Instead, he continued on Route 28N and didn’t realize his mistake until he got to Minerva.
“Once I sorted it all out I found a new route to Ticonderoga,” Mansell wrote on his blog. “What a great little exploration (never lost) I found myself on. In the end, with beautiful quiet roads like this I am glad I missed that turn.”
After getting wet in the rain and spending extra time on the road, Mansell decided to stay the night of Aug. 2 in Ticonderoga. His original destination that day was Middlebury, Vt. He posted a note on his blog about the decision the morning of Aug. 3.
“Even though I began yesterday thinking I was going to wake up this morning in Vermont, I am really glad I stopped in Ticonderoga and got a motel,” Mansell wrote. “Having the chance to really dry everything out and do my laundry in a actual washer and dryer instead of in a sink or the shower (my normal process) has become one of those small joys in life for me after these many weeks on the road. Clean, dry clothes is a beautiful thing!”
On Aug. 3, Mansell crossed Lake Champlain on the Ticonderoga ferry, biked through Middlebury and stayed at a campground in South Royalton.
“As I left the shores of Lake Champlain, I traveled steadily up hill on my way towards Middlebury, VT,” he wrote. “There was mostly open farm ground with a mix of dairy cows, hay fields, some corn (albeit only waist high stalks) and a few orchards.”
On a typical day during his cross-country trip, Mansell woke up, got his gear together, ate breakfast, rode for 8-10 hours (eating lunch on the road), stopped for the night and spent the evening posting on Facebook and journaling on his blog. Sometimes he attended special events to talk with people about Leader Dogs for the Blind.
Asked what his best meal was on the trip, Mansell said, “When you burn seven to 10 thousand calories a day, when you’re hungry, any meal tastes really good. But I have been known for my love of bacon cheese omelettes, and probably the best bacon cheese omelette I had was after I went through the Salmon Wilderness Area. Basically I lived off some fruit and some Pop Tarts. I came into this lodge at the ranger station and, oh, it tasted so good. So bacon cheese omelettes with lots of crisp bacon it is my favorite. I could probably write a book on where to get the best bacon cheese omelettes across America.”
How about the worst meal?
“Oh, the worst meal, I don’t know. Probably those Pop Tarts,” Mansell said. “When you get to the bottom of the food bag, every morsel tastes good ... I don’t know if I could say the worst meal, other than my own cooking.”
Mansell stopped in Inlet to pick up some canned fruit, oranges, bananas and peanut butter, which he liked to roll up in soft tortillas. Along his journey, he tried to find grocery stores with healthy food.
Riding by himself, there was plenty of work to keep him busy.
“And so, keeping that schedule, keeping communications online, keeping fed, keeping the bike working, it’s just a giant juggling act, not too much unlike my job as a superintendent keeping everything going,” Mansell said. “So it’s been a fun challenge. I like those things. And it’s definitely been a summer of adventure for sure.”
Mansell had no accidents or injuries on his trip, only a couple of flat tires and a stretched chain. He rode what he called “a touring bike with custom pieces.” It was a blue Surly Long Haul Trucker bicycle with a roll-off speed hub, and the front-wheel Dyno hub generated power for his safety lights. He pulled his gear in a yellow-and-black Burley trailer, decorated with Lions patches and accented with an small American flag waving in the wind.
With a front-wheel tire in the Atlantic Ocean, Mansell finished his trip in Portland, Maine on Monday, Aug. 6. He spent 45 days bicycling (with some rest days), traveling 3,343 miles across America and a portion of Canada. He raised about $70,000 for Leader Dogs for the Blind. All the money goes to Leader Dogs; he and his wife financed the trip by themselves.
Rumor has it that Mansell will be riding his bicycle in a community parade when he returns home. He’ll also be incorporating bicycling as part of the physical education program at La Center Central School.
His trip’s impact on the La Center community has only just begun. It started on June 16 and continued throughout the trip, as people live-tracked him online.
“One of my students actually did that, caught me just outside of Livingston, Mont.,” Mansell said. “They were going to see their grandmother, and a van pulled over, and out popped one of my second-grade students, Steven, and I was so excited, I’ve got some pictures of him online. But it’s fun and heart warming to see they’re excited about it as well ... From my board to staff to community members to our students, (they) have tremendously supported this effort, and I’m excited to see what this next school year will bring, more than my normal enthusiasm for school every year.”
So when people ask Mark Mansell about his summer, he can proudly tell his students that he “talked the talk” and “walked the walk.”
Asked what he learned on the trip that he didn’t know before, he said there wasn’t any lesson that stands out, but there was a confirmation.
“I think that you realize that you are part of something that’s bigger than you, with Lions. You know those things when you’re a Lion, but then to actually be out there and experience it. And I think the other thing I confirmed is that when you set your mind to something, you can do it. And if you don’t dream big, don’t be surprised that big things don’t happen in your life. And so I love to dream big and here’s another example of, you know, who would have thought that a 52-year-old school superintendent could say, ‘I’m going to ride across the country,’ and then go out and do it and then have the chance to meet so many wonderful people.”