Kraig Sheetz doesn’t remember exactly where he was when he met the old man. Somewhere in Nebraska, he guesses, or maybe Kansas.
Regardless, it was hot, and Sheetz was tired. He’d stopped his bike in front of a convenience store and was on his way to buy a Gatorade when a grizzled, callus-handed man — Sheetz estimates he was in his 90s — shut off his truck and struck up a conversation.
When it was over, the man held out a small, round buckeye seed.
“He said, ‘This will bring you good luck. Keep this with you for your journey,’” Sheetz recalled. “So I tucked it into my bike jersey, and I’ve rode with it every day since.”
Last Sunday, after eight weeks, 14 states and 3,800 miles, Sheetz — the vice president of Mount St. Mary’s University — completed his decades-long dream of cycling from coast to coast. He grinned widely, eyes shining, on the eve of his final ride.
He’d decided his takeaway was simple. It was a lesson taught to him over and over again as he wove his way across the country — by the buckeye man and so many others.
This world has wonderful people,” Sheetz said.
Dozens of colleagues, friends and family members gathered at Smoketown Brewing Station in Brunswick — just a few blocks off Sheetz’s route along the C&O canal — for a party last Saturday evening, the penultimate day of his journey. Bluegrass music floated into the streets as patrons sipped a beer brewed especially for the occasion.
The next morning, Sheetz would rise, hop back on his bike, and ride the final 55 miles.
The “Tour de Sheetz” raised more than $60,000 for the expansion and renovation of the Mount’s School of Natural Science and Mathematics, built in 1964. The school’s new dean, Christine McCauslin, said the project — still in the concept and design phase — will aim to boost the computer science, cybersecurity and neuroscience programs. The updates are becoming more necessary each year, she added.
We’re kind of bursting at the seams,” she said. “We have the very good problem of having growing enrollment in all of our majors.”
The number of students in the School of Natural Science and Mathematics has increased more than 30 percent over the last four years, according to the Mount. For Sheetz, the trip was a way to weave together his passions for science education and cycling.
Sheetz’s wife, Lori, was the “master logistician” of the journey, he said. Before they left, she crafted a spreadsheet, mapping out how many miles Sheetz would ride each day and where they’d sleep each night. Lori rode a few miles alongside Kraig each morning, she said, before doubling back to fetch the camper and the dog and set them up at the next spot.
“All I had to do was pedal,” Sheetz said.
Sheetz uploaded regular video updates so his colleagues and friends could follow along with the journey. At the end of each, he’d smile and wave from a roadside somewhere between here and Oregon. “Go Mount!” he’d shout.
Sometimes, as he wound his way along back roads and rail trails, Sheetz would mount his phone on his handlebars and tune into Zoom meetings while he rode.
There were frustrations and fatigue, of course. The heatwave that gripped the country in June and July proved especially challenging, Lori Sheetz said last Saturday. Some days, Kraig had to call it quits early.
But Lori said what she’ll remember most is the tapestry of human and natural beauty the pair encountered along the way.
There was the chat with the man who moved out west after leaving the military because he wanted to live somewhere that looked like a postcard. There was the family who rescued Kraig when he ran out of water — on the Fourth of July — in a tiny Missouri town where every business was closed. There were the masses of butterflies along Idaho creek banks and the quiet rain in the woods of Indiana.
“It just gave me hope,” Lori said.
Sheetz plans to spread his multitude of stories out over the coming months. As friends surrounded him last Saturday — hugging him, shaking his hand, peppering him with questions — he mostly kept his answers short. It was amazing, he’d say. And it’s good to be home.
He didn’t hesitate much when asked what he was most looking forward to. It wasn’t the creature comforts that come with finishing the ride.
It was returning to the Mount.
“The bed and the shower,” he said, “are a distant second and third.”