PORTLAND, Oregon, U.S.A. – In Western Missouri, a few days out from Kansas, the weather took a turn for the worse.
The pressure dropped in the area, the first sign of the beginning of a tornado, formed by the movement of a cloud close to the ground, rapidly rising, creating a mini vacuum beneath it.
A cloud has to be of just the right size to become a tornado, of course. If the cloud is too big, it will not precipitate uniformly, and so not rise uniformly, but rather, in sections. On the other hand, a cloud that is too small will not produce enough precipitation to create the pressure underneath needed for the formation.
On that day, it was Tom Foley Jr., Trey Meyer, and James Groeneveld’s luck that the clouds were just right.
The three university students had a range of luck last summer, when they spent nearly two months pedaling coast-to-coast across America to raise money to buy bicycles for Zambian children.
Shortly before the bikers spotted a tornado ahead.
Foley, from Connecticut, and Groeneveld, of Brisbane, Australia, attend Harvard University, and Meyer, of New Orleans, is a Williams College student. They left Yorktown, Virginia’s Atlantic coast on June 22, and by mid-August, their wheels were wet with the saltwater of the Pacific in Astoria, Oregon.
But on this July day near Ellington, Mo., they rode along, on nearly 20-year-old bikes fixed up for their cross country trip. They were aware of the change in the weather, but too far out in the country for anyone to tell them of the imminent tornado.
It was when they peddled past a house beside the road that they got their real warning.
The people there were packing in a hurry, in and out of the house, in and out again. The three stopped, and watched.
“What’s going on?” Foley recalls one of them asking.
“There’s a tornado warning! We’re evacuating our house!” replied a member of the family, the group already piling into the pickup truck sitting in the driveway.
“Listen, if you guys need shelter, there is a house about two miles down the road!” they said as they began to speed off. And then, the truck disappeared from sight.
Foley, Groeneveld and Meyer kept riding, eyes warily upon the horizon. We’re on bikes, what are we going to do? the three remembered thinking, as they rode along.
The area where they found themselves at that moment was a mass of hills – nothing too big, but enough to keep the ride a tangle of trying ups, and relaxing downs.
The logical decision was to follow the direction of the pickup that had sped away in such a hurry, to try to get to the house a couple miles down and that’s exactly what they did.
But the day wasn’t done dishing out excitement yet, and as the three rose over the next hill, an amazing sight stretched out before them.
Ahead, in the very direction of the ‘safe house,’ lay a dark funnel cloud, swirling angrily.
They all knew one thing at that moment, Foley said: that they had to go in the opposite direction of this mass of destruction.
They turned around, back down the hill, riding for nearly a mile and a half, searching for whatever safety they could find.
A church finally loomed up ahead. They headed towards it quickly with no idea of how near or how far that tornado was, or if it was even coming their way.
The trio was frustrated to find the doors to the church locked, but it was low ground, and the awning provided a little shelter, and so they stayed, hanging onto the metal bars of the awning … and waiting.
The rain poured, and still they stood, anxiously, with hopes for the best and fears of the worst thudding through their minds.
The tornado, thankfully, went another way and the three riders logged another day on the road.
Tom Foley Jr., left, and Trey Meyer and taking a break in the heart of the Appalachian mountains.
Almost a year ago, the three began to form the idea for this journey. Meyer and Foley met when they were both high school students, attending Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. Since high school, they’d wanted to take a bike trip across America, and though they went to separate colleges, the idea stuck.
Then Foley met Groeneveld on the crew team at Harvard, and told him the idea.
All three loved the idea of the bike ride; but they wanted it to be something more, for their journey to have a point.
Each of them had done charity work in the past, especially Foley, who had done work for World Vision, helping to build a school in Uganda.
Foley said his mother had worked with the non-profit organization many times in the past, and as a younger boy, he’d also helped, so he reached out to World Vision again.
That’s how the three young men formed Team Ride to School, building their trip around raising money for Zambikes, another World Vision project.
Zambikes supplies children in Zambia with bikes to help them get to school. Some Zambian children can’t get to school because they live too far out for it to be possible for them to get to the classroom every day.
For other kids, walking isn’t safe because they live in a dangerous area and may not be able to get to school on foot without encountering violence.
Zambikes supplies the means for the children to achieve their dreams of education, something kids in the United States usually don’t have to think about.
Only the oldest American grandfathers tell tales of having to walk 10 miles in the snow to get to school anymore, but in many places in the world, it still happens, and – even worse – it isn’t just snow in the way of these children.
Bullies and violence face them along the way, posing a far greater impediment than the cold.
Foley, Meyer and Groeneveld all loved the work of Zambikes. They also liked the way it tied in neatly with the concept of their ride – three young men, off from school, pedaling across the United States for bikes for underprivileged children so that the Zambian kids could then make the ride to school for themselves. It was poetic, they said, and definitely worthwhile.
“It was perfect, the way it all worked out,” Groeneveld said.
The stories they tell about the ride across America are awe-inspiring, inspirational, full of testimonies to the human spirit and the kindness of strangers.
Of course, on a ride lasting 54 days and covering nearly 4,000 miles, there are ups and downs, and they had a few.
They rode more than 100 miles on many days, dealt with bike breakdowns, slept in parks, motels, private homes, in churches and at a fire station. They crossed the Appalachian, Ozark, Rocky and Cascade mountains, got chased by a big dog, saw a grizzly bear and coped with blistering heat and high winds.
One night, in Colorado, they mistook a resort for a public campground.
“It was dark out, so we rode right past the campsite,” Groeneveld said, and they woke up to an angry resort manager demanding they leave.
“He really wanted us to get out of there,” said Foley. “But they had guests coming.”
Angry resort managers and tornados aside, they found a lot of goodwill along the way.
“One night we didn’t have a place to sleep,” said Meyer. “We were talking amongst ourselves at this pizza place about it.”
After they’d eaten, they continued to discuss where they could spend the night.
“We are talking to ourselves,” Meyer said, “’cause now we don’t really know where we are staying for the night, and we ask the waitress, ‘Hey, do you mind if we camp out in your backyard, or something?’ And then this guy, who had been listening in, comes over and says, ‘Hey, I’m a doctor from Portland, I don’t mean to be listening in . . . but it’s really cool what you are doing, and I think my kids would love to meet you.’ So, we had a place to stay that night.”
The doctor’s generosity was just one of many memorable kindnesses along their way. The three agreed that probably the best part of the experience was getting to see America from the inside out.
The three bikers route across America. See their Ride to School website.
“You go on camping trips, maybe family vacations, and see things growing up,” said Foley, “but it is nothing like this was. You really learn a lot about people that you wouldn’t usually think.”
Their original goal was to raise $25,000 for Zambikes. By the time they’d reached the West Coast, they had $14,000, and even afterward, the number continued to rise.
The riders marked the trip as a success.
“Fourteen thousand, three hundred dollars,” Foley and Meyer said in unison.
A whistle could have easily accompanied the words.
Reaching more than half their financial goal and with the experience of a lifetime under their belts, it’s probably safe to say they managed to take summer vacation and make it a little something more.
Will they ever do something like this again?
“I hope we do more things like this. I definitely want to,” said Foley. But, he said, “It feels like a once in a lifetime experience.”
Talon Bronson is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.