The Rev. John Beach is a bicycle evangelist--in the sense that he's a Gospel-sharing priest who bicycles, yes, but also because he thinks everyone should have one.
"I invite everyone to get a bicycle," the 65-year-old Beach said during a Zoom interview the other day as he was about to leave on a big trip. He noted that he hasn't owned a car for most of his adult life. He's not much of an athlete, he said, but he does have difficulty sitting still, and physical activity helps keep him balanced. "It's improved the quality of my life, physically and emotionally," he said of cycling.
So much so that on May 15 he set off on a 3,000-plus mile solo bicycle pilgrimage from Seattle that, if all goes according to plan, ought to have him back home in Saugus by Aug. 25.
He's done this once before. In 2012, while serving a parish in Geneva, Switzerland, he took a sabbatical and bicycled for about 2,000 miles through Europe.
"This is bigger," Beach said of this summer's sabbatical ride. It has long been in the works and was announced two years ago to his current parish, St. John's Church in Saugus, where he's been the priest-in-charge for three years. "I'm taking it more slowly as well, with relatively easy days of 40 to 50 miles a day, so it's not going to be a Tour de France or anything like that," Beach said. "I'm delaying retirement so that I can do this now while I'm physically able to do so."
From Seattle, Beach's route will take him across Washington and the tip of Idaho, then south across Wyoming and into South Dakota before dropping down to the Cowboy Trail through the Nebraska Sandhills east to Omaha, then across Iowa to Chicago, then through Michigan and the little chunk of Ontario between Detroit and Buffalo. Then he'll pick up a trail along the Erie Canal to Albany. He'll be meeting up there with his mom, who is 91. She wants to drive along for the last few days of the trip from Albany through western Massachusetts back to Saugus, which is about 13 miles north of Boston.
The main thing is to keep the prevailing winds that blow from the west at his back, he said. He's planning to swap out his mountain bike for an electric one for an assist over the Rockies; even so, the descent from Cody, Wyo., will be something to look forward to, he said.
He'll be visiting Episcopal churches and staying in homes and with friends along the way. There will be a couple of family meet-ups, but mostly he'll be on his own. With the exception of his European ride a decade ago, he said, he's never really been alone. "I've always had a large family. Then I went to college and got married and had my own family, and so this is only the second time I've ever been alone. For those of us who are not used to being alone, it's a strange experience."
He's undertaking the bicycle pilgrimage as a "prayerful exercise," he said.
"I'm open to be surprised and, in fact, I realize all my expectations are likely not going to correspond to reality," he said. "I do have expectations of being still and in the stillness hearing God's voice in a way that in the clutter of my life I sometimes find difficult."
He hopes to be in communion with the surrounding geography as well, he said, citing Ernest Hemingway's avowal that you learn the contours of a country best by riding a bicycle, sweating up the hills and coasting down them. Feeling the wind, smelling the vegetation, watching the road change, Beach said, "is to travel both within and without."
If there's a scriptural mantra he'll be keeping in mind as he's pedaling along, it's likely to be questions arising from recent study of the Book of Wisdom, he said: "What does it mean to pursue wisdom? What is the legacy we wish to leave behind and, when we talk about eternal life, what is there about our life that is eternal? Because so much of our life is consumed with things that will pass away." He'll be reading reflections by the Desert Fathers as he crosses the Rockies and wilds of Wyoming, and re-reading MIT professor Sherry Turkle's book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Techology and Less From Each Other.
"We are rendered less capable of having meaningful conversations and relationships because all of our communication tends to be electronic, and I think it's contributed to a profound loneliness," Beach said.
That said, he will be blogging along the way at https://bikepilgrimageusa.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at email@example.com, though he doesn't expect to be checking his e-mail regularly. "Very often the busyness of our lives is an attempt to justify our share of the oxygen, and to be delivered from that for a short while is a blessing," he said, "and it its own way, a little scary."
Over the past couple of years, Beach has been leading book discussion groups at the town library and over Zoom to facilitate conversations about how to speak across ideological divides. He said he's looking forward to encountering people whose lives are very different from his own. "This is a very culturally diverse country, and to listen to those who have lives very different from mine is something I'm really looking forward to. Hopefully, in being quiet all the way, it will enlarge my capacity to listen."
He also will be discerning, he said, who he'll be and what he'll be doing in retirement from active ministry, his next passage. Wherever that takes him, it seems likely he'll get there by bicycle.
--Tracy J. Sukraw