Taken for a ride on a bike across country?

FI-Robert-WalshAn amazing story is coming to Fairfield County this month, one painful pedal revolution at a time. It’s a story of hope, of redemption … and it requires a faith seemingly in short supply if one is to truly appreciate it.

While there’s never been a scarcity of skeptics, the advent of the Internet has taken skepticism to Kardashian-like heights. This hit home on Monday night as I followed the journey of Eric Hites, a Danville, Ind., native who set off to cross the country on his rickety bicycle two months earlier.

He was woefully out of shape, dangerously unprepared, and completely oblivious to the harsh demands the 3,000-mile trek would ask of him. He became stranded almost as soon as he started when his 560-pound frame bent his bike rims into pretzels. He’s been in Rhode Island for more than a month as he was fitted for a new ride and took care of various medical and planning needs.

I was immediately struck by the heartbreaking backstory he posted on his website, “fatguyacrossamerica.com.” He detailed how his life had careened out of control after a series of bad decisions. “My wife and I separated last July for many reasons … I was a slob, borderline hoarder that was so overweight and unhealthy I could not hold or get a job … I got sicker, grew depressed, kept secrets about money and kept things from her. I tried, but not as hard as I should.

So finally she felt she had to end it to save herself from more heartache … I moved out, I found my drive, my trip, my chance to change my future, to build my life back and be the man she married. To show her how much I love her, that I would cross any mountain, overcome anything.”

He went on to explain that his goals were “to prove things to my wife and to take back my health and lose the pounds I have collected over the years … I hope to encourage others to get up and get moving no matter their weight.”

I was hooked. Noticing he’d planned to ride through Connecticut before heading west, I reached out to offer what help I could. He replied that he’d hoped to be in Connecticut by next week and would let me know when he got close. That’s when I made my fatal mistake: I started following his progress through his Facebook page.

Look, I’ve always believed that audacity breeds contempt. Everyone from Galileo to Gustave Whitehead has been dogged by skepticism, a necessary step one must overcome to validate great achievement. Unfortunately, yesterday’s skeptics, which Merriam Webster defines as those possessing “an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity,” have given way to today’s cynics, who believe “that people are generally selfish and dishonest … in a way that shows no concern about treating other people fairly.”

In other words, rather than treating a trip like Eric’s as an exercise in wild abandon in the hope of reclaiming his lost love for both his wife and himself, it’s viewed in a more sinister light. He’s been raked over the coals in online comments for all manner of ills: Experienced bikers castigate him for his progress (or lack thereof), nutritionists flay him for his food choices, and armchair psychologists feel perfectly equipped to offer unsolicited relationship advice. When he opened a fund-raising page, he was labeled a fraud who was only in it for the money. He’s constantly derided for the frequency of his replies to these online posts even as others berate him for wasting time online in the first place.

What fascinates me is how totally possessive complete strangers become of someone else’s story. People claiming to be his brother and sister-in-law revealed ancient family grudges while others crept through years of Eric’s Facebook posts and public documents to offer “proof” for their views on Eric’s journey. Many people have gone to great lengths to list the many ways they believe Eric will fail.

What’s missing is a wide-eyed wonder at this swing-for-the-fences attempt at getting his life back. Whatever happened to holding our breath and hoping for the best? I’d rather cheer with all my heart and risk disappointment than jeer at each attempt and forever confirm failure’s inevitability.

Cynicism never built anything; it’s never discovered new worlds or uncovered mysteries. I prefer to view Eric’s trip as an optimist, anticipating the best possible outcome. Here’s hoping he makes believers of us all. With any luck, I’ll be able to share more when he passes through town.

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.

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