When Don Bell started his postretirement trek, he figured he’d prove a point to everyone else. Instead, everyone else proved something to him as well.
After retiring as a Child Protective Services family case manager in May at age 62, Bell decided he was going to ride his bike from Fort Wayne to the Clearwater, Florida, area where his family had regularly spent spring breaks. He’d have something to train for and a goal to stay focused on.
Before that, he had never ridden farther than 10 miles at a time, but Bell and wife Paula started pedaling around downtown Fort Wayne.
“I wanted to be able to prove to myself that I could complete this challenge and prove to my kids that I could do it and they could do whatever they wanted,” Bell said. “If they set a goal and they had a plan and worked the plan and were diligent, whether it’s an endeavor like that or raising a kid or whatever, they could do it.”
After buying a bike in May and training all summer – riding between 2,000 and 3,000 miles – Bell, a former Franklin College football player, wanted to prove that he was disciplined, strong and mentally tough enough to accomplish such a goal.
There was also an opportunity to raise money for the Boys and Girls Club in Danville, Illinois, with help from a friend who grew up there and serves as president of the organization’s board of directors. The friend’s Renewable Energy Group would help defray some of Bell’s costs such as meals and hotel rooms on the way.
Bell left Fort Wayne on Sept. 8. He gave himself a goal of finishing in two weeks, riding between 8 and 10 mph to cover the approximately 1,200-mile trip. He carried about 70 pounds of gear on a rear rack, including extra clothes, a small laptop and a cooler with drinks and snacks.
After staying in a hotel each night, Bell got up at 5:30 a.m. so he could start as soon as the sun provided enough light. He’d start out praying, and then talk with his wife and sister Nana Peevler by phone. Other times he’d listen to his Jimmy Buffett albums.
He’d stop for lunch to recharge and then take off again, riding around 30 more miles depending on where he could find the next hotel. Because of COVID-19, he never needed a reservation, but he also didn’t want to get caught on the road when it became too dark for drivers to clearly see him.
After dinner, Bell would relax in his hotel and update his Facebook page to let family and friends know how far he’d advanced and any interesting tidbits. Partly because he stuck to secondary and country roads, there were no accidents, no close brushes with vehicles, no injuries and no problems with the bike, but there were some challenges.
“My sixth day I was in Tennessee and I’m sure I was pretty physically exhausted,” Bell recalled. “It was a hot, sunny, humid day and the hilliest day I had. That was really, really difficult physically and I only rode 38 miles because there were really long and steep hills. I stopped many times that day and when I finally got to the town, it was all I could do to walk my bike to the top of the hill.”
After that, the road flattened out, but Bell ran into the rain from Hurricane Sally in Georgia, though the wind and the rain weren’t bad enough to push him off the road. He escaped the weather about halfway through the next day.
As the trip progressed, the more response and encouragement Bell saw on his Facebook page. High school friends he hadn’t seen in 40 years reached out. Brenda Peck’s fifth-grade class in Veedersburg, Indiana – the school district Bell grew up in – asked for a Facetime visit. Bell asked the kids for help finding his hotel and a restaurant that night as he crossed into Florida. The kids came through.
“That about melted my heart, that was super cool,” Bell said, telling the students, “You helped raise my spirits and lifted me up.”
The trip finished with a 65-mile ride Sept. 20, or about two full days ahead of Bell’s goal.
“It started out as a selfish trip for me to prove to myself I could do it,” Bell said. “It became a whole lot more than that, and I had so many people on Facebook commenting every night, so many people checking on me and giving me best wishes and praying for me. The trip that I envisioned, physically it became much bigger than that, much more than that, which I was really, really thankful for.
“It touched me and I’ll never forget it. I remember twists and turns and every place I stayed. I remembered many, many miles that at some point I may forget that, but I’ll never forget the human aspect of it that took place. ... It just reaffirmed to me that the majority of people are really good folks who are generous and kind and giving. They care about kids even though they don’t know who they are.”
As of Sept. 27, Bell’s GoFundMe link at gf.me/u/yw7a3a had raised more than $8,000 of the $10,000 goal for the Danville Boys and Girls Club.
As for his own kids?“One day we can tell our future kids this and it’s just something that will keep everyone inspired and something to live up to when we all retire,” Bell’s daughter Shelby said.