Riding for Redemption : The Conna family set out to cross the country by bike, retracing their grandfather’s trek 71 years ago. They braved illness and searing Mojave heat. All in hope of a sign of love from a dying man.
The battered and dusty mountain bike leaned against the wall of a roadside market, looking as forlorn as the building that supported it.
Few motorists usually stop at the Afton Road exit of Interstate 15 between Las Vegas and Barstow. But on this 100-degree Tuesday in July, business was brisk as hot, tired gamblers returning to Southern California pushed through the doors in a steady stream.
Inside, David Conna, 32, paced in his cycling togs, sweating and appearing on the verge of collapse. At a nearby table, his 22-year-old sister, Sheri, stared vacantly, her eyes puffy from two days of crying. Their mother, Mary Lou, 61, appeared to be sleepwalking as she returned to the table with a soft drink for her daughter.
This bedraggled clan from Massachusetts was winding up a tortuous two-month journey that was part bicycle excursion, part quest for intergenerational redemption, part test of the human spirit. The route mimicked one pedaled 71 years earlier by a stubborn young Easterner--the now-infirm family patriarch whose approval they are seeking.
“My grandfather rode his bicycle from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in 1923,” Conna explained. “It was a single-speed bike called an Arrow. We’re following his same route.”
He went to the car, rummaged through the piles of clothing, food and empty soda cans and retrieved a copy of a thin, soft-covered book titled, “Frisco or Bust--Frank P. Kolbe on the Ride of his Life.”
Inside the front cover, a photograph depicts his grandfather, Frank Kolbe, holding the sweeping handlebars of his bicycle, which he nicknamed “Black Beauty.” His young face is a mask of fierce determination.
Kolbe, 91, lives in Doylestown, Pa., outside Philadelphia. He is blind from the effects of glaucoma. Arthritis and an untreated back injury caused by a traffic accident cost him the use of his legs. He has been bedridden for more than two years.
Conna, an energy conservation consultant from Weston, Mass., nodded toward his family’s table: “Mom rode her bike with us from Westboro (Mass.) to Philadelphia, but she could only do about 40 or 50 miles a day. Now she’s driving that green Subaru out there. She keeps us in food and water.”
And his sister?
“Sheri got real, real sick outside Las Vegas,” he said. “It’s been one incredibly long trip, and the last couple of days have been real, real tough.”
The journey began, Conna said, with very little preparation. Neither he nor his sister had been on an extended bicycle trip; his mother hadn’t been on a bicycle for years.
Last year, when Mary Lou and her children began making plans to duplicate her father’s bicycle adventure, she went to tell him the news.
“My dad has been praying to die for I don’t know how long,” she said. “When the kids told them about their trip, he said to them, ‘Well, I’m going to try to stay alive until you return.’ ”
“He’s a distant character, and hard to get close to,” David said. “He doesn’t even know our names. He refers to Sheri and me as, ‘that boy’ and ‘that girl.’ ”
“I’m probably as close to Dad as any of my brothers or sisters,” Mary Lou said, “and I don’t think I really know him, either. I don’t think anybody does.”
In fact, the family members weren’t sure what drove them to attempt to duplicate Kolbe’s feat and spent the next three days, in roadside restaurants and campsites in the Mojave Desert, discussing it. After consulting with other family members, they reached a consensus: The arduous trip was undertaken not as a tribute to Kolbe, but to make some kind of connection to him--a last-ditch effort to win his approval.
“That’s a tough thing to do,” said Bill Kolbe, a Garret, Md., high school English teacher, one of Frank Kolbe’s six children and the unofficial family historian. “He’s not a guy you go and talk to.”
Bill Kolbe’s bid for approval came when he decided to apply his writing skills to a huge crate of letters and newspaper articles about his father’s bicycle journey. After three years of effort, he presented the finished product to his father--the same booklet the Connas used as their trip guide.
“His first comment was, it wasn’t thick enough,” Bill Kolbe recalled. But he read the narrative to his now-blind father, and the old man said he could see his exploits in his son’s words. “That made me feel good, and that was all I could ask for.”
Franklin Pierce Kolbe was born in 1903, the son of a Presbyterian circuit preacher. His father, Frank Kolbe Sr., was one of four brothers who emigrated from Prussia in the late 1800s. Before long, the Kolbe brothers would own large chunks of real estate in the business district of Doylestown.
Two weeks after Frank Jr. was born, his father died while visiting Arizona.
As a child, Frank was a loner, and one of his few friends was another loner: James Michener, an orphan who lived at the county poorhouse nearby. Even after Michener became one of America’s most popular authors, he continued to visit the Kolbe home, Bill Kolbe said.
When Frank turned 20, he had an urge to travel. He took out a classified ad in the Bucks County Daily News announcing his intention to cross the United States by bicycle. He finally raised enough money to buy a bicycle and head out of town with $8 in his pocket.
During the two-month trip, he watched as President Warren G. Harding’s funeral train passed by on its way to Harding’s Marion, Ohio, home. Along the way to California, he sold postcards at county fairs and did odd jobs. He also mailed a steady stream of reports back to the Bucks County newspaper, which published his accounts. These dispatches formed the basis for the book assembled years later.
At Salt Lake City, despite his “Frisco or bust” declaration, Kolbe veered south, deciding he would brave the Nevada desert to cut hundreds of miles from his route to Los Angeles.
He had lost his canteen while traveling through Pennsylvania and, for some unaccountable reason, never replaced it. With no water supply in the desert, he wrote, he took to flagging down passing trucks to beg drinks of water out of the canvas bags drivers carried to refill their radiators.
Despite his precarious circumstance, he adamantly refused other forms of help from passing motorists. In his journal he expressed his contempt in florid prose for passing motorists who would try to help him--people he described as “pale tempters who wear the false face of prudent counselors whispering in my ear to quit.”
After arriving in Los Angeles, Kolbe was interviewed by a local newspaper, saw the sights and went to the beach, where he poured out a jar of sand he brought with him from the beaches of the Atlantic.
After hitchhiking back to Doylestown, he taught school and started a furniture business. His enterprises were wiped out three times by legal problems, fire and the Great Depression. But Kolbe takes pride in the fact that no creditor ever lost a dime and that his family still operates a successful chain of specialty furniture stores in eastern Pennsylvania.
He now lives in a modest three-bedroom, 40-year-old ranch house where nurses attend to his every need. Although his mind wanders, he is still lucid and spends much of his waking time listening to radio evangelists and Philadelphia Phillies baseball games. It’s difficult, his son said, to find nurses willing to put with his demands.
“He may be blind and flat on his back,” Bill said, “but he still wants to be in control.”
Mary Lou’s husband, Ted, a child psychiatrist, could not join the ride because of sore knee ligaments, and he warned his wife about the dangers of such a trip.
“But she was determined to do it,” Ted said. “I told Mary Lou I was surprised to see her being this unreasonable.”
“I’m stubborn, Ted,” Mary Lou responded. “Stubborn is a Kolbe family trait.”
Ted relented and became a reluctant supporter of the venture.
At first, Mary Lou hoped to make the entire cross-country trip on her bicycle. She changed her mind near the end of the 375-mile ride from Massachusetts to her father’s home. She crashed her bike trying to keep up with her children. Aching and bruised, she decided to drive the support car instead.
She also found herself mediating frequent fights between her children, who quickly came to realize that they hardly knew each other.
“David’s 10 years older than me, so when I was little, he was already out of the house,” Sheri said. “We were never in a situation where we had to deal with each other day in and day out.”
The going got particularly rough in southern Wyoming, where they had to battle 45 m.p.h. head winds.
Then came Nevada.
The relentless heat south of Las Vegas made Sheri feel as if she were trapped inside a convection oven, drawing the water from her body faster than she could drink it down. It hurt to breathe.
“A policeman pulled over and he told us we were crazy and it was 112 (degrees) in Las Vegas and the road heats up to 150 to 175,” Sheri said.
Despite the warning, she cycled another 20 miles. At the California border, her mother helped her into a motel room and asked the front desk for medical help. Two emergency medical technicians came to the room and promptly ordered Sheri to bed.
For Sheri, the cycling was over. “The EMTs highly suggested I (not) get on the bike and ride in the desert again. Of course, when I was so sick, I was like, ‘I’ll do anything you say, I don’t care!’ ”
So while her brother pedaled on and her mother drove, Sheri curled up on the front seat of the car and cried.
With the desert winds too strong to allow them to pitch a tent, the family slept on the ground that night. The following day, the exhausted family tried to force down food at a coffee shop in Barstow.
“You know,” Mary Lou told her son, “We could throw your bike on the back of the car and we could be in L.A. in two hours.”
“Damn it all,” David shouted, “I don’t need you telling me that! I need you giving me support!”
After more mind-numbing travel and a restless night in a motel, Conna was at the Cajon Summit on Interstate 15. Below him lay San Bernardino and miles of cool, green citrus groves.
“Just look at this!” he shouted into a tape recorder strapped to his handlebars. “I’m psyched! I’m psyched!”
He shot down the 12-mile grade at 45 m.p.h. and reached his brother’s house in Van Nuys by mid-afternoon.
After a day’s rest, he made the final ride from the San Fernando Valley to the ocean. He crossed the stream of traffic on Pacific Coast Highway and dropped his bicycle in the sands of Topanga Beach State Park.
For a few minutes, he watched the waves. While his father, who had flown out from Massachusetts, and mother looked on, he walked down the beach a bit, made a sharp right turn and wordlessly walked into the water, fully clothed. He emerged, a few minutes later, shook salt water from his beard and smiled.
After 3,650 miles on a bicycle and 61 nights sleeping in campgrounds, youth hostels and cheap motels, there was nothing to say.
The physical part of the journey was over.
But the journey’s emotional conclusion is yet to come.
In a few weeks, they plan to visit Frank Kolbe in Doylestown. Since the death of his wife last year, Frank has mellowed somewhat, they say. In fact, just a few months ago, Frank told his son Bill for the first time that he loved him.
The Conna family is prepared to take whatever comes.
Mary Lou, who kept her father posted on the progress of the journey by telephone, isn’t expecting any outpouring of emotion from him.
“I kinda think he wants to talk to the kids, say his goodbys and let loose,” she said. “I’ll be surprised if he lasts another year.”
David plans to give his grandfather a handful of sand he scooped up from Topanga Beach to symbolically replace the sand from the New Jersey shore that Kolbe carried with him during his own cycle odyssey.
“I hope maybe he’ll say he’s proud of me,” David said, “but I don’t expect any of that to happen. It’ll just be neat to stand there and say I did it.”