By ERIN ROLL
Tim Kennedy, a 2008 graduate of Montclair High School, decided that he would go on a bike ride this summer.
A very long bike ride.
Kennedy, a mental health professional who specializes in working with individuals with autism, decided to bike the Trans-America Trail — all 4,500 miles of it — this spring and summer to raise money and awareness for Autism Speaks, a national education and advocacy nonprofit based in New York City.
Kennedy officially arrived in Astoria, Oregon, last week, two months after setting out from Yorktown, Virginia, on May 8.
“I guess ‘tired’ would be one way to describe it,” Kennedy said in a phone interview on Friday from Seattle, when asked how he was feeling. “Right now I’m still a little bit in go mode even though I’m off the bike.”
Now living in Vermont, Kennedy became a specialized community support worker after graduating from St. Michael’s College, where he’d studied developmental psychology. He specializes in working with children and adults with developmental issues, and takes a special interest in individuals who are on the autism spectrum. He is now looking into graduate programs in applied behavioral analysis.
“I knew before pursuing that avenue that I’d really wanted to work with kids,” he said. He had been a counselor at the Montclair YMCA’s Camp on the Lake in high school.
The Trans-America Trail was dedicated in 1976 in honor of America’s bicentennial.
The trail has two eastern trailheads: one in Virginia and one in North Carolina. The two routes converge in the Midwest and continue west before splitting in Pueblo, Colorado. There, bikers have the option of continuing north through Wyoming and Idaho into Oregon, or continuing south to California.
Most of the trail goes along back roads and gravel roads, although there is a stretch of the trail in Wyoming that goes directly along I-80. Kennedy remembers having to do a double-take when he saw I-80 on the map, noting that the Wyoming section of the interstate is one of the few sections where bicycling is permitted.
While in high school in Montclair, Kennedy said, he played team sports and was active in community theater, but outdoor sports generally weren’t of interest to him. Then, while in college, he got interested in skiing and day hiking. He eventually worked up to doing a thru-hike, or end-to-end hike, of the Long Trail, a 272-mile trail that runs through Vermont’s Green Mountains from the Massachusetts state line to the Canadian border.
The idea for a cross-country bike ride hit him while he was hiking the Long Trail. As he was descending the Camel’s Hump, a steep section of the trail, he thought, “Man, if I could find a way to roll down the mountain, that’d be really cool.”
And he decided that he would do a cross-country ride as a fundraiser for Autism Speaks.
Kennedy’s parents in Montclair, Tim and Nancy, were supportive of the idea. “My father told me that it’s his job to worry,” Kennedy remembers.
And his employers welcomed the idea too.
For the physical aspect of the trip, he prepared by continuing with outdoor sports: hiking and rock climbing. But 75 percent of the preparation was mental, he said.
He also took bike maintenance courses so that he wouldn’t have to worry about his bicycle breaking down on the road.
“Once you hit the road, plans kind of go out the window.”
The first leg of the trip through Virginia and Kentucky took him through the Blue Ridge Mountains, one of the most difficult sections of the trip because of steep climbs up the Blue Ridge Parkway.
He wore a Grateful Dead bicycle jersey. The jersey ended up being a political barometer of sorts — in some places he rode, he got compliments on the jersey, but in Kentucky and Missouri, he remembers, a few people heckled him about it, including “hippie” with a few expletives attached. And more than once, there were dogs chasing after him.
From Missouri, the route took him along the southern tip of Illinois, and then into Kansas for long stretches of flat terrain.
For most of the trip he camped outdoors, but he spent some nights staying with friends or at specially designated shelters for long-distance bikers. One such group, Warm Showers, is a network of families who invite bikers to stay at their homes; Kennedy himself is a host with the network.
He remembers staying in a hostel in Virginia and meeting hikers who were traveling the Appalachian Trail. During the trip, he also met at least eight people who had hiked all of the “big three” trails: the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide and the Pacific Crest Trail.
There were a few scary moments, like being caught in a tornado in Missouri.
Well, not quite IN the tornado. “It was definitely rolling next to me,” Kennedy remembers.
He’d been setting up his tent in a local park, after notifying the local police that he would be doing so. “Before I knew it, hail was falling down.”
He grabbed his gear and took shelter in a park bathroom until the wind died down, and then made his way to a FEMA shelter, since his gear was soaked.
And while traveling through the Colorado Rockies, a sudden hailstorm forced him to take shelter in a ditch.
In Colorado, he made a six-day stopover in Breckenridge to visit friends, go to the Vail Music Festival and do some whitewater rafting and hiking.
The last third of the route took him through Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park, up into Montana and then south into Idaho. He spent the Fourth of July in Eugene, Oregon, before making the last push to Astoria.
He’d planned to dip the bike wheels in the Pacific Ocean when he arrived, but discovered when he arrived that Astoria, a shipping community, did not have any beaches. So instead he did a “mental” wheel dip.
His fundraising page for Autism Speaks will be remaining online for a little while longer; he raised $3,600 during the trip, and at press time had reached $3,715, or 87 percent of his $4,228 goal.
Kennedy will be returning home this week, and is going back to work full-time in August.
He’s already planning his next outing. “Just looking for the next adventure, whatever that may be.”