My tired brain was bursting with a jumble of nouns, adjectives and verbs when I rolled into tiny Walnut, Kansas on my bicycle late on a long-ago October afternoon.
Per usual, I made a beeline for the library, intent on snagging a public computer to spill out the next installment of a digital journal chronicling my solo “Heals on Wheels” cross-country trek. I had organized my ride as a cancer research fundraiser and the hospital in Wisconsin where I directed the money posted my entries on a map so readers could track my progress.
“Shoot,” the library director told me when I voiced my request. “Usually we would be happy to help. The problem today is that our internet is out. Which way are you headed?”
By the time I answered “east,” the resourceful woman was proposing a solution. She would call the library director in the next sizeable city—Girard, about 20 mostly flat miles away—and reserve computer time for me.
“Oh, thank you so much,” I said. “You Kansans just keep stepping up on the kindness front.”
In the meantime, Walnut would be my home for the night. I scoped out a tent site at the nearby park and wheeled over to the B & J Café. My dinner, of course, was cooked by the equally friendly and also red-haired mother of the library director.
Over the meal, I paged through the lengthy observations and insights about people, geography and weather I had scribbled in my notebook. I filled a few pages with key points I wanted to include in my next entry so I would be better prepared in Girard.
One sentence I highlighted was a shout-out to libraries and the staffers who keep them ticking. I had launched “Heals on Wheels” in 2000 after my Wisconsin oncologist declared me five years cancer-free. For more than a decade, I had duked it out with melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—that had spread to my lymph system, lungs, liver, spleen and beyond.
It was a leap of faith to think that I would be able to complete any digital journal entries along my 10-state route from the Pacific to the Atlantic. I wasn’t carrying a cellphone and internet access could be sketchy and cumbersome, especially along the blue highways I pedaled.
Still, public librarians and their associates had come through since I had swung my leg over my bike at the mouth of the Columbia River in Astoria, Oregon.
For instance, I remembered how small and intimidated I felt in Ennis, Montana when I stopped at the library to rough out a journal entry and examine my route on an atlas in early September. The librarian laughed heartily when I mentioned I’d never before visited a library that rented fishing poles and life vests by the hour.
Then, there was the affable teacher at the Carbon County Higher Education Center in Rawlins, Wyoming who granted me unlimited free access to a campus library computer. And, even though I paid for screen time in Pueblo, Colorado, it was a librarian that eased that access.
In Walnut, I didn’t know yet that savvy college librarians at Southern Illinois University, home of the famed Salukis in Carbondale, and Radford University in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains would also come to my electronic aid.
When I arrived in Girard the morning of Oct. 4, Terri the no-nonsense library director was expecting me. After I told her I planned to write quickly and pedal off to Missouri she gave me a stare only a mother can deliver.
“You’re staying with my family tonight,” she ordered, explaining that her nearby house had plenty of space because two of her three children were grown. “If you don’t agree, well, I’ll just revoke your computer privileges.”
After I poured out a journal entry, tended to chores and toured the city on the eastern edge of Kansas’s Flint Hills, Terri invited me to dinner at the appropriately named Mom’s Restaurant.
Our conversation was robust and animated. Terri was a bright, open-minded and inquisitive individual who was tuned in to current events and comfortable balancing two opposing ideas in her mind simultaneously. She hinted how much she cared about people with thoughtful queries about my cancer.
That night in Terri’s cozy living room, I joined her family to watch a series of VeggieTales videos. Everyone else knew the scripts by heart, but this was the first time I had watched stalks of celery and carrots act out Bible stories. What a riot.
While drifting off in the pink-themed guest bedroom, I fretted about my pitiful mileage that day. Then I reminded myself that the whole point of my journey was to connect with fellow humans. And thanks to a librarian, I already had more fodder for my next journal entry.