Fee rides to honor brother, raise autism awareness
Knoxville Journal-Express - 7/1/2018
KNOXVILLE - Chris Fee hit the brakes on a 780-mile bicycle journey Saturday, but its inspiration and impact will roll on.
Fee pulled into the driveway of Candie Mumm in Longmont, Colorado, just after 10 a.m., ending a 10-day trek that began in Knoxville on June 21 but was dreamed up long before. Mumm is the daughter of Fee's brother Mark, who convinced Chris on Nov. 6, 2014, to bike from Mark's driveway to Candie's.
Three days later, Mark's heart stopped. But the idea lived on in his younger brother's mind.
"The equation could have changed when Mark died, but I couldn't let it go," Chris said Saturday. "It was just one of them things. Three and a half years and it's nagged me ever since."
His brother gave him the challenge. His sister added purpose to it.
A sense of connection
Autism has a presence in Fee's family and affects most people he knows in some way, he said. Fee's sister, Sara Johannes, works with people who live with special needs and suggested that if he was going all that way, he should do it to raise money for and awareness of autism.
"Just to fulfill a challenge is one thing, but to be able to some good along with it, it just gives it more meaning," Fee said. "It gave me more drive to stay committed to doing this once it got difficult."
Johannes set up an online donation page and gave Fee an autism awareness flag to fly on his bike. It flapped across three states alongside a flag honoring Mark and sparked conversations all along the way.
"People could relate to someone in their social circle or their family," Fee said. "Almost everybody had a connection to it."
The cause is far more important than the guy who promotes it, Fee said.
"I pedaled the miles, I made the trip, but it's all bigger than me," he said. "In the back of my mind I knew I'd find a bigger cause than just the challenge.
"If I go on a bike ride, maybe my legs will hurt for 10 days, but the aches will go away. If a person is autistic, they can't just saw 'I won't be autistic today.' Their mother can't say 'I won't deal with it today.'"
Fee said he hopes people will visit websites to learn more about autism so that they might be more understanding when they encounter people and families who live with it.
"People fear what they don't understand," he said. "If I've raised some awareness, then I've done my job."
Putting in the miles
Fee, who sells cooking ingredients around the Midwest, saw his fair share of it from the low-slung seat of his recumbent tricycle over 10 days. The first 10 minutes were among the toughest, he said.
He headed south out of Knoxville, and it started raining just past the airport. But the rain wasn't near as bad as the drivers, Fee said.
"It's not for the faint of heart, I will say that," he said. "Oh my gosh, I went right down Highway 14 and man, I'll tell you what, nobody would cut me any slack."
Day 2, from Mt. Ayr to Nebraska City, was the longest day, as Fee pedaled 97 hilly miles.
Day 5 ended with a special treat at the hotel. A room with a hot tub was available.
"We said 'Yeah, why not?' It was only like $10 difference. Hot tub? Ten bucks? Yeah, I'll take a hot tub all day long for $10!"
The heat came for free later in the ride, Fee said. His thermometer read 105 a couple of days.
"It was so hot, the blacktop like that, it just pulls the water right out of you," he said. "You're just cooking!"
Twice he loaded his bike into the support vehicle driven by his wife, Dawn, and headed on to a hotel up the road. They'd return to the road in the early evening to finish off those days' miles.
Fee endured tornado watches, thunderstorms and plenty of wind in his face throughout the ride.
Worse yet, perhaps, was the traffic. Another tough 10-mile stretch came Friday.
"It was horrendous," he said. "I got yelled at. But the majority of the drivers were very friendly. I got a lot of waves and honks and thumbs-ups out the window."
Along for the ride
His biking buddy Terrill Campbell joined him for about 88 miles as he passed into Nebraska, but Fee wasn't alone for the rest of the journey. Reminders of Mark were constant,
"There's just things that you just know," Fee said. "You can just tell."
Mark was known for his Markisms - quick truths he popped into conversations.
"It is what it is," Fee said to his wife when faced with a rainy morning. Markisms marked many miles to come.
So did historical markers, which Fee usually pays little attention to. He stopped at every one along the way. When Fee finished in Longmont, Mumm made an interesting remark.
Her father always checked them out.
"Somehow I was intrigued to stop at every one of them," Fee said.
The deepest connection happened in the final miles, he said. When Mark raced dirt trucks, his number was 52. Mark was 52 when he died.
"The final highway into Longmont was Highway 52," Fee said, with a happy gasp. "It didn't occur to me 'til I was just riding down the road. I looked at the sign. It was an aha moment. Like, wow!"
Miles yet to go
"So how'd that work out for ya'?" was another Markism. An hour after getting off his bike Saturday, Fee said things worked out pretty well. But another long ride along dangerous roads won't happen without a wife-ordered head examination.
There is RAGBRAI, however. The Fees sponsor team "Ah Jeez" in the annual bike ride across Iowa, which this year covers 428 miles from Onawa to Davenport. Fee will ride again, flying the autism flag, posting daily Facebook videos and raising money online.
"The more we can do for for autism, the better we are," he said. "If somehow it changes some lives, then it's all worth it."
Learn and help
To learn more about autism, visit www.autism-society.org. To make a donation, visit www.gofundme.com and search for Ride 2 Colorado 4 Autism & 52.