by Annie Velasco

This summer, I was one of 85 University of Texas student riders who spent 70 days biking 4,000 miles from Austin, TX to Anchorage, AK. As part of Texas 4000 for Cancer, we did it all to spread hope and raise money for cancer research and support services. I knew the experience would be life-changing, but I did not imagine I would walk away having learned so much over the summer. 

1. Humanity is generous. – I got several glimpses of the generosity of others throughout fundraising, seeing people so willing to give money to fight cancer whether they knew me or not. The most surprising part of the journey was my team’s innate need for simple necessities and how people responded across the continent. A laundromat owner in Wyoming started all our washing machines for free and gave us unlimited time in his showers. A family restaurant in Claresholm, Alberta fed us a buffet-style breakfast and dinner to the point where we were stuffed once we got back on our route. Being on the road and not having the smaller luxuries like ice in our water bottles put my team in a state of constant need, and it was always fulfilled. My faith in humanity, especially total strangers, was restored. People are incredibly loving and giving. 

2. Support makes you stronger than you think. – I truly believe that anybody can bike to Alaska. I’m not athletic or strong, and I could have easily given up when the heat hit me leaving Austin on Day One if it had not been for everyone’s support. My team carried me up mountains and through headwinds, mostly in their spirit and encouragement, but sometimes they quite literally put their hand on my bike and helped push me up the steepest of  hills. It was clear that my team only wanted to make it to Alaska together. My family and friends cheered me on, showing they believed in me and the mission. They sent letters and messages of love on social media and my high school friends even recorded a podcast for me to listen to on my bike. There was something special about humbling myself by leaning on others, especially when I was doubting I could even do it — and I know now that I would not have made it to Alaska otherwise.  

3. There is great beauty in suffering. – There was a lot about the ride that stretched me beyond comfort. But I found early on that there is so much beauty in suffering, especially when it is done in love. I rode for my dad; he died of cancer last December and I wanted to persevere by his example of the strength he showed me during his fight. My reason to ride made every little suffering I encountered meaningful. It was a struggle that I was choosing each day to unite myself in a small way to my dad and what he went through. Even in the greatest suffering, like losing a loved one, there is greater beauty still, like fighting to bring goodness out of even the worst situation.

4. It’s easy to love everyone, if you choose to. – The team was diverse. We all had different backgrounds, beliefs and ways of thinking. Yet, we are all stuck together for 70 days, and there was  literally no way to escape it. You had to actively choose to love every day. You had to choose to spend time on the bike to listen to their stories, to truly understand who they are and why. And at the end of the day, you had to choose to recognize that we are all tied together by the common thread of cancer and wanting to make a difference in the fight. Most people in the world are. And if we could come together and love each other no matter what little annoyances or big issues came our way, I believe that anybody can always choose love first. 

5. Be grateful in every circumstance. – Thankfulness was one of the biggest themes of my summer. Whether it was for food donated when we had nothing else to eat or the basic health that gave me this opportunity to ride, I’m grateful for it all. No matter how tired or sore I was, and no matter how much I dreaded getting back on my bike, gratitude always came first. It kept me going and kept me positive, no matter the road or weather conditions. I’m grateful I had this opportunity and I would not trade the early mornings and endless roadways for the world. I’m grateful for each day post-ride because no matter what comes my way, it is a gift.