Family rides coast to coast to fight cancer

`Voice Across America' runs 4 months, 3,900 miles

July 19, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The McQuins of Mount Airy just logged 3,904 miles on their bikes, from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts, through 12 states, two deserts and four time zones.

The journey, dubbed "One Voice Across America: A Ride to Fight Childhood Cancer," was inspired by 19-year-old Bobby McQuin's recovery from leukemia. Their goal was to raise money for cancer research and increase awareness of a disease that claims more victims younger than age 15 than any other.

It took the cyclists four months to climb seven mountain ranges, cross countless rivers and visit more than 350 children hospitalized with cancer.

When the riders dipped their bikes in the surf at Virginia Beach, Va., two weeks ago, they could hardly believe that the journey was over.

"We made it; what a great feeling," 18-year-old Sean McQuin wrote in one of the final entries to a journal posted on the Internet. "We finished something we weren't sure we could really do."

Bob and Beth McQuin, their developmentally disabled foster daughter and seven other children ages 23 months to 19 years, spent months preparing for the trip. They wanted to celebrate Bobby's recovery and send a message of hope to hundreds of children battling cancer.

Bobby was 8 when his acute lymphoblastic leukemia was diagnosed. Five years of grueling treatments and a bone marrow transplant from his younger brother Craig, then 4, followed. The family stayed by his side throughout the course of treatment; then it joined him when he decided on what cyclists call the ultimate ride.

While biking cross-country, Bobby stopped at 17 children's hospitals to offer encouragement to children with cancer."I would tell them they can fight this and they can beat it," he said.

The McQuins have kept in touch by e-mail with many of the patients they met on the tour and their families.

"A doctor is not the same as a parent who has been through what you are going through," said Beth McQuin. "I could say, `Here is my child and he is well now.' "

The three oldest McQuin children kept a journal that details the many kindnesses shown the family along the way. Strangers offered meals, rooms, showers and hair cuts. One woman sent them coupons for Dairy Queen after their favorite place to stop had to be eliminated from a tight budget. Truck drivers handed the riders $5 bills along the road. Marriott Hotels, where Bob McQuin works as a telecommunications analyst, gave them free lodging in every town with a Marriott.

The most useful gift of all came from a Baltimore businessman who lent them his $100,000 recreational vehicle. Jeff Carter had read about their planned trip in The Sun and knew that his 37-foot Winnebago could smooth the way. He had it serviced, painted with the One Voice Across America logo and handed it over to the McQuins with a full tank of gas.

The McQuins put 9,000 miles on the vehicle, driven most often by Mom while Dad cycled with Bobby, Sean and Megan. The family acknowledged that the vehicle was a little worse for the wear when they returned it last week.

"The condition didn't matter," said Carter. "If this trip saves one kid's life or even made one sick child smile, it was all worth it."

The McQuins are now honorary citizens of several towns, with certificates and keys to the cities to prove it.

"I was struck by the extraordinary friendliness all along the way," said Beth. "I can't even begin to tell how many helped us."

As they approached the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge, La., a police motorcade met them, escorting them into the city with lights flashing and sirens blaring.

"We looked like `CHIPs,' " said Sean, referring to the television show about California motorcycle police officers.

When they left San Diego on March 15, they rode into icy rain. They hit snow in Arizona and dodged a tornado in Texas. The last leg of the trip, when their energies were nearly tapped out, was the hottest and most humid.

They had to scrap their carefully planned itinerary often, because of fatigue, a persistent bout of strep throat that made the rounds of the family and unexpected van trouble: The brakes went out on one steep downhill ride.

The family returned with hundreds of photographs, well-wishes and Trek, an abandoned kitten it picked up in Kentucky. The family's only disappointment was that it fell short of their fund-raising goal.

"We raised awareness, encouraged children and remembered them, [and] celebrated Bobby's health," said Beth McQuin. "That was four out of five goals."

Bobby made the last journal entry:

"We have learned that it is a big, beautiful country, that most people have good and generous hearts, that too many kids are out there suffering that you can't count on a tailwind to push you along, but oftentimes have to battle a headwind for every inch forward, that you'll never know how far you can go, if you think you can't, that life is precious and people are the most important thing in life "

Pub Date: 7/19/99

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