Hesston, Ka., population 4,000, is just one small town among others on America's Midwestern plains.
But the town left an indelible impression on John Windsor and Jonathan Zorn after their short stay there during a recently completed 73-day transcontinental bike trip.
"It was the one town that stuck out," said Windsor, who like Zorn, is a 2007 graduate of St. Paul's School. "The people in Hesston were the nicest we met along the way. We were in a grocery store, and so many people wanted to know what we were doing. … We stayed with one family that made us dinner. Even after they asked us to stay overnight, there were two other people who offered us a place."
But Windsor and Zorn weren't two friends just exploring America.
To date, Windsor and Zorn have raised more than $10,000 for the Johns Hopkins Hospital Eating Disorders Program. The two set no per-mile fee for pledges — they simply asked people to contribute whatever they could. There was no corporate sponsorship, either, though Kelly Benefit Strategies in Hunt Valley donated biking outfits.
"I'd never done any kind of fundraising in high school or college," Windsor said. "I didn't know what to say when (the Hopkins people) asked me for a goal, so I just said $10,000. It means a lot to get there."
Windsor, a 22-year old Towson resident and recent graduate of St. Mary's College of Maryland, wanted to do something unusual before heading into the full-time working world and at the same time help a worthy cause. The longest bike trip Windsor and Zorn previously had taken was a three-day jaunt to Pennsylvania in 2010.
Zorn, a Sparks resident, suggested a much longer route for their next trip. Windsor saw the opportunity to not only raise money for, but also increase awareness of, a disease that affects an estimated 11 million Americans, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
"I chose eating disorders because a member of my family has been struggling with it for about a year," Windsor said. "As soon as Jon came up with the idea of a bike trip, I knew I wanted to do something where I could see where our money was going and have some impact.
"There's a lot of pressure on people to look a certain way, and the disease really is not given the awareness that I think it deserves. A lot of families are tentative about talking about it, but keeping this issue under the carpet is not the best way to deal with it."
During the Pennsylvania ride, during which the duo covered 50 miles a day, Zorn mentioned the possibility of going cross-country. Windsor was skeptical at the time, and the two sat on the idea for a while. But it resurfaced in a February conversation.
"At that point, I knew I wanted to do it as soon as Jon said it," Windsor recalled.
The two were collegiate athletes, with Windsor earning four letters in lacrosse at St. Mary's and Zorn playing golf at Towson University. And when the idea of the trip took hold, they couldn't wait to plan it.
"We got out a big map of the U.S. and a bottle of wine," Zorn said with a laugh. "I remember being really overwhelmed, but so excited."
Pedal with a purpose
Before the trip began, Windsor created awareness about their upcoming journey by establishing a website that linked to the Johns Hopkins' Eating Disorders Web page. He also sent letters to about 250 people, and publicized the trip and accepted donations on his Facebook page.
At the outset of the trip, their bikes, filled with clothes, food, and extra tires to replace the inevitable flats, weighed approximately 90 pounds.
"We learned on the trip how little we actually needed," Windsor said. "We just rolled up everything in the morning, then looked at the bikes and realized that what we had was our whole lives at that point."
On July 28, Windsor and Zorn began the trip by dipping their tires in the Pacific Ocean in Seaside, Ore. The actual trip route began in Astoria, a small town in northwest Oregon near the Columbia River where explorers Lewis and Clark finished their famous trek. For the first 45 days of the adventure, they were joined by Zorn's friend Raphael McGowan, whom Zorn met when he studied two years overseas at the University of Sunshine Coast near Brisbane, Australia, from early 2009 to early 2011.
They followed the Trans-America Trail, which extends from Astoria to Yorktown, Va., and detoured off the route briefly to St. Louis. McGowan was also raising awareness for beyondblue, an Australian charity that helps people with depression and anxiety. He left the trip early to visit friends elsewhere in the United States before his visa expired.
"It was nice to have three people who were compatible and committed," Windsor said. "There wasn't one person who had much doubt at any time."
They averaged between 60 and 80 miles per day. At day's end, they found lodging in local churches, campgrounds and fire halls.
"We stayed in one hotel in West Yellowstone (Wyoming), and some people offered us the chance to stay in their homes," Windsor said. "The majority of the time we slept in churches."
The trip had its share of rough spots. Windsor and Zorn fought through tough conditions, including high winds in eastern Colorado and an unusual cold spell in western Virginia.
"Giving up was never an option for either of us," Zorn said.
During the course of the trip, the two East Coasters were surprised by the consistently positive attitudes of the people they met.
"You hear all the awful things and older people talking about how things were so much better back in their day, but it was unbelievable to see the kindness that is still out there," Windsor said. "The trip really reaffirmed my confidence in America."
They also gained a greater understanding of the benefits of small-town life. Initially, Zorn couldn't understand why anyone would want to live in places that often contained just a general store, a gas station and a restaurant.
"You see how warm and welcoming these people are," he said. "We stayed at a lot of churches, and you saw how everyone in the town would just treat everyone else like family and basically bend over backward for each other. Then I felt really comfortable, and I finally could see why people would want to live there."
After 73 days on the road, their trip ended on Oct. 8 when they reached Virginia Beach, Va. After traveling nearly 4,500 miles across America, Windsor and Zorn wet their tires again, this time in the Atlantic Ocean.
"It was just nice to get there and take it all in," said Windsor. "It was a peaceful and surreal time."
Windsor and Zorn appreciated the support and encouragement that they received from the Johns Hopkins Eating Disorders Program. The people at Hopkins were equally flattered that the pair used their ride for a purpose.
"They have educated a number of people who might not have known about this disease," said Barbara Verrier, the senior associate director of development for Johns Hopkins' Department of Psychiatry, which includes the Eating Disorders Program. "There are a lot of misperceptions, and the more we can educate the public, the better off we'll be."
Verrier mentioned that Windsor's parents are planning to host a thank-you reception for people who supported the trip.
"Even after completing the trip, they are still working to raise awareness of eating disorders," Verrier said. "The trip was a testament to their character. They did it on a grand scale and really spread the word."
The proceeds will be donated primarily to research into the cause of eating disorders.
Since their return, Windsor and Zorn have had time to reflect on their journey and the profound effect that a trip across America has had on their general outlook.
"I wanted to prove to myself and people close to me that little dreams can come true," Zorn said. "You really have to put your mind to certain things, push through those mornings when it's windy and hot, and you need to get through 80 miles.
"We met so many people along the way that wanted to escape society and get out of this crazy world for a while. But I thought about how we were relying on people every day for the things that we needed along the trip. It proved to me that human relationships are way more important than you think."