by Nathan Warner
James Rienstra cycled across the finish line in Anchorage, Alaska, ending his 75-day adventure with its goal of raising $10,000 for Pedaling for Pennies, a cancer research fundraiser in conjunction with the Randy Shaver Foundation.
The journey covered almost 3,000 miles and garnered over $15,000 in donations, beginning in the auditorium of Westwood Elementary in Zimmerman and ending in the untamed reaches of Alaska.
The Pedaling for Pennies fundraiser is in honor of Rienstra’s father, Wally Rienstra, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2005.
“Life is not about being secure, stable and content,” Rienstra said about his journey. “Life is about the unknown. It’s about chaos, vulnerability and being open-minded. When we are ready to surrender and use our talents and strength in life, that’s when God calls on us.”
Rienstra knows about chaos. The epic journey took an unexpected turn in June, when he was denied entry to Canada at the Montana border, vaporizing months of planning in an instant. Looking back, he says that moment was the toughest moment of the entire trip. “It ripped my core out and I just screamed at the sky, ‘Why!’” He said he broke down and prayed after the rejection, but got the courage to go on and came through the difficulty, regaining faith in life and humanity.
He forged a new path to Washington, where he boarded a ferry and sailed to Alaska, planning to make up the miles he pledged to do by cycling a circuitous loop from Anchorage to Fairbanks and then back to Anchorage. Eager to complete his last 1,000 miles, Rienstra set out into the “wild west” of Alaska with fresh determination.
Once on the road, it wasn’t so much the long stretches between towns, spotty Internet connection, or the bears that were hard to cope with, it was the 20 hours of solid daylight. “It really messes with your mind,” he said with a laugh. “You can’t get to sleep because it’s daylight all the time.” He said it was a blessing when he’d stop for a night at a lodge or hotel and could close the curtains, shutting the sun out.
Rienstra said Alaskans still refer to the lower states as the “United States” and are independently minded, but also share an amazing sense of community. “I couldn’t pause for a break on the road without a car stopping by, asking me if everything was all right,” he chuckled. Up the road, Rienstra said he was blessed to see Denali, the elusive peak of Mt. McKinley, which is often shrouded in weather for weeks and rarely seen by tourists.
Alaska visitors Steve and Norma stopped their RV to offer him water and when they heard about the fundraiser, Steve opened up about his struggle with cancer, which is currently in remission. He and Norma are in Alaska doing his “bucket list” of things he’s always wanted to do in life. They were encouraged by the fundraiser and wanted to spread the news.
Staying a day in Cantwell to catch up, Rienstra bumped into James and Sara, a married couple from England who are taking two years to bike from Alaska to South America for the fun of it. “Their determination and positive attitude was contagious,” James said, and he pedaled fresh miles behind him. Just out of Fairbanks, he entered the “North Pole,” a small, dreamlike town where the residents celebrate Christmas year round. Christmas lights hung everywhere, reindeer grazed in a park, and even the streetlights looked like candy canes.
The next day, Rienstra pedaled to The Knotty Shop, a gift shop in the middle of nowhere, and bumped into a tour bus from the Midwest carrying 26 Minnesotans. “They knew about the Randy Shaver Foundation and joked that they were going to give me a ride the rest of the way,” he said with a laugh, “but I just couldn’t wait to get back on the road, sneak around grizzly bears, startle moose in the river, break down near a restricted Air Force base, and learn how to wheel fish.”
With only 70 miles left to pedal into Anchorage on Aug. 2, Rienstra’s emotions whirled and he wondered what his father would have said about this adventure in his honor. “I could hear him in the back of my head — he’d say, ‘Have fun but just stay out of trouble.’” Rienstra wrote. “Well Dad, I had a blast and this trip has been life changing.”
On Aug. 3, Rienstra cruised into Anchorage without a welcoming committee, marking a quiet end to an incredible journey. Crossing the finish line, he shouted, “Thank you for everything!” to the sky and envisioned his father nodding and saying, “I’m proud of you, son.” Now at the end, James reflected on what drove him to undertake this task.
“Before I left on this trip, I had no faith in humanity or life,” He said. “I was angry and mad at the world for taking my father. His death shook me to the core and my life unraveled, but this trip has shown me what is real. My father’s death was not in vain. Walter Rienstra did his part in this life and I just had to find out why he was taken from me and my family. Over the course of this trip, I’ve come to realize that for me it was to find my faith, to find the Randy Shaver Cancer Foundation, and to make a difference in this world. I don’t see cancer as evil anymore. An angry man cannot see the light, so fighting this with anger would do no justice. I see the cure for cancer as a challenge now and challenges can be accomplished. I love a good challenge!”
The Pedaling for Pennies fundraiser raised $15,000, far exceeding the goal of $10,000. All donations went to the Randy Shaver Cancer Research and Community Fund. Now that he’s back in Minnesota, Rienstra is already planning his next fundraiser for the Randy Shaver Foundation. “I’m working on a trip for the spring of 2013 from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina on the Pan American Highway,” he said with a smile. “I’ve always wanted to do it, but I wanted to test my resolve and show people that I meant business with this Minnesota-to-Alaska ride.” He’ll be seeking sponsors and hoping to hook up with other bikers through Mexico, with a goal of raising $150,000 this time. Rienstra is certain this is a lifetime calling for him and he’s excited about the possibilities and encouraged by the amazing support he’s received from people across the country.
“I would like to thank each and every one of you that has helped, followed and supported this fundraiser.” He said, “I feel honored and humbled with the amazing people I have met through this adventure. Please get involved and help with the next one, so we can work to end cancer together.”
Visit Rienstra’s blog at www.pedalingforpennies.info or at www.facebook.com/pedalingforpennies for updates or simply to catch up on his epic journey.