On June 12, 2021, local resident Wayne Aho sat on a charred tree stump about 10 miles from McKenzie, Ore. Nine months earlier, the McKenzie fire decimated over 173,000 acres along the Willamette National Forest’s upper McKenzie River. When Aho visited, the smell of smoke was still in the air amid the scorched, blackened skeletons of trees.
Three days before Aho found himself on the stump, the 74-year-old retiree had mounted his Seven Cycles Axiom XX titanium frame bicycle in Astoria, Ore., and set out to ride the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail. He was 275 miles in, with 3,930 miles and 58 days to go before his final destination in Yorktown, Va. His back, triceps and neck hurt. “I thought, ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?’” He recalls. “That was a critical moment.”
At that moment, looking beyond his pain and exhaustion, Aho observed the residents of the area who had lost their homes, possessions and livelihoods. These individuals were living in virtual tent cities but soldiering on, looking ahead and rebuilding.
No stranger to personal loss and tragedy, Aho soon realized his cross-country journey was just the start of his life’s next big undertaking. “The trip was such a profound experience I became determined to turn that experience and the discoveries I made into a book that could hopefully help others,” he says.
In January, Aho self-published Journey of Discovery: A Narrative of Loss, Aging, Training and What’s Important: 62 Days on the TransAmerica Trail. The book is more than a day-by-day narrative about his nationwide cycling trip. It relates his personal inner journey and has sections devoted to revelations and advice — for example, grit matters more than talent.
An intriguing idea
After a successful 40-year career in dental equipment sales, in late 2014 Aho bade farewell to corporate life. He and his wife, Pam Aho, had moved from Oregon to Asheville in 2012 to be closer to her family and their youngest son and his children.
After his first retirement at 67 years old, Aho returned to school and was hired as an adjunct instructor for a variety of business subjects at Western Carolina University. He earned doctorate of business administration from George Fox University in 2017 and subsequently secured a tenure track position in the management department at WCU. He passionately loved teaching and detested the online protocols demanded by COVID restrictions — so much so that he began seriously considering a second retirement.
Then in January 2021, he and Pam were shattered by the death of David, the eldest of their three sons, to an accidental fentanyl ingestion. “There is no understanding the death of a child,” he recalls. “It becomes ‘what will you do now?’”
Aho had lost friends and family his age and witnessed others even younger suffer debilitating health issues. Though he was in tip-top physical shape, he couldn’t help but be concerned about his own aging. He felt compelled to do something, and he was not unfamiliar with the high of challenging activity. A lifetime of running was curtailed when he was struck by a car in his 40s. Familiar with cycling from triathlon competitions, he picked up a bike and joined the Blue Ridge Bicycling Club.
COVID canceled the club’s popular large group rides, but smaller, informal groups formed. Among those in Aho’s group was a new member, Rusty McCain, whose claim to cycling fame was a 3,200-mile ride he’d taken across America in 2011. He shared with Aho that to mark the 10th anniversary of that trip, he intended to traverse the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail.
The TransAmerica Bicycle Trail traverses 10 states across 4,205 miles and requires 217,000 feet of climbing. Several thousand cyclists attempt the trail each year, but there are no figures on how many complete it. Aho was intrigued.
After his series of life-changing events, Aho says his plan to join McCain on the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail crystalized rapidly. “I think at first he thought I was kidding about it, but pretty quickly he realized I was serious, and we began having lunch to talk about it,” Aho says.
Plans progressed rapidly. McCain’s wife, Mary Ann, an experienced nurse, agreed to drive the support vehicle — a Ford truck. Another couple, John Navin and Dana Stoller, whom McCain had befriended through triathlon events, signed on as riders as well. The quintet chose the dates of the trip — June 9-Aug. 9, 2021 — to accommodate everyone’s schedules.
McCain studied the maps of the trail created by the Adventure Cycling Association. He determined they would need to cover an average of 70 miles each day, with a rest day every six to eight days. The duo agreed they had no interest in carrying all their gear along the route and camping along the way, so they booked motels in advance from the first night to the last. “There was no Plan B,” Aho says with a laugh.
Planning, training and using the correct equipment were essential to a successful completion of the trail. Aho purchased several books about long-distance cycling to prepare himself. “They were OK, but none of them really gave thorough tips on how to train to ride 70 miles in one day, what types of bike suits you, what equipment, clothing and gear you’ll need and nutrition along the way,” he explains. Instead, he relied on his experience as a member of the BRBC and followed McCain’s lead.
Before embarking on the trip, Aho created a blog to keep family and friends informed about their progress and well-being along the route, as well as preserve memories.
Aho recalls his first day on the trail as exhilarating. “It was just one of those beautiful, West Coast sunny [days], blue skies, no wind, great roads, hilly but not terribly challenging,” he recalls.
Just three days later, Aho was sitting on that burned-out stump near McKenzie, questioning his motivation and determination. That night, he consulted a book he’d purchased in Astoria called The Nordic Way. It’s an examination of the characteristics of Finnish resilience: remain calm in a storm; be stubborn; when life trips you, get up; remain focused on your goal; give it your all.
Aho’s renewed sense of resolve would come in handy as the group encountered torrential rains, strong winds, searing heat, altitude and two extremely grueling climbs. Recounting the experience 18 months later, he says the group visualized the trek in three sections. Part one in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado were “sheer, breathtaking scenery.” Part two, commonly referred to as The Dreaded Middle, is Kansas and Missouri and the most challenging mentally. “You get on these Kansas highways and as far to the horizon as the eye can see, there’s nothing but plains or prairie on either side and the road stretches on forever,” he recalls. Part three, in Illinois, Kentucky and Virginia, he calls “idyllic.”
Biking through Kentucky also brought an unexpected emergency. On day 50, three dogs that appeared seemingly out of nowhere attacked Aho as he was pedaling on the road. They ripped deep gashes in his left calf before Aho managed to break free. He was never more grateful for Mary Ann McCain’s presence and nursing skills; she performed emergency aid until he could be transported to a local county hospital.
For five days, Aho had to accompany Mary Ann in the support vehicle until his leg healed well enough for him to ride again. “After the dog attack, we were all hyperalert,” he recalls. “Post-ride, I learned that eastern Kentucky is pretty notorious for unleashed dogs.”
Twelve days after the dog attack, the foursome rode the final 74 miles from Richmond, Va., into Yorktown. Family and friends, his wife and youngest granddaughter greeted the entourage with cheering, hugs and champagne, and Aho felt a profound sense of accomplishment.
Even so, he pondered what came next. “I was thrilled to be home and see my wife, but at the same time … I could have kept going another two months,” he explains. “It was a real adjustment for me.”
Once again, Aho did something entirely new: He wrote a book. In addition to his personal story, it has an extensive section on preparation, training, nutrition and equipment.
Aho isn’t finished with adventure yet. In September, he and McCain will cycle the Blue Ridge Parkway, and in October, the Natchez Trace Parkway. Then in 2024, they’re planning to cycle the 2,655.6-mile Atlantic Coast Route from Bar Harbor, Maine to Key West, Fla.
“Regardless of your age, you’re not too old to break out of your safe, predictable routine and take part in an adventure,” Aho says. “It doesn’t have to be cross country cycling. Just get up and do something out of your norm.”