October 23, 2018

Going the distance

Members of the Class of 1968 embark on an epic Reunion ride
by Rita Savard

Like so many dreams that come and go, this one began with beer and a conversation. It was Reunion Weekend five years ago, and Peter Quinlan ’68 and Christopher “Kit” Bennett Rawson ’68 rolled into the festivities via bicycle from Vermont.

“We were back on campus, just talking and catching up with each other, when an idea was tossed out that presented a unique challenge,” recalls Quinlan. “Feeling a little bold after a daylong bike ride, it was suggested that we ride cross-country for our 50th.”

Life takes alumni down many different paths after high school, but for Quinlan, Rawson, and classmate John Barclay, one thing remained unchanged: Their camaraderie and competitive spirit felt as fresh as it did in 1968. Logistics were debated. Route revisions were made. The decision that followed after six months of planning was unanimous: The trio would embark on an epic 1,968-kilometer road trip beginning down South and ending at Andover.

Riders on the steps of George Washington Hall

Kit-Rawson-’68-Edited-Cropped.jpg#asset:50629

Rawson, an avid cyclist and meticulous planner, combed over every detail of the Reunion ride with Barclay, and in summer 2017, they were ready to go public. “It was a big step,” Barclay says, “because as soon as you say it out loud, people hold you to it.”

He emailed Rawson, wondering if his longtime friend had any thoughts to share before the big reveal. He never replied. Rawson’s wife, Kathy, reached out a day later. Rawson had a heart attack and died on Aug. 7, 2017. The loss was devastating. Since meeting as teenagers at PA, away from home for the first time and through college, careers, marriage, children, and grandchildren, the three
 Kit Rawson '68                            friends had become more like family.

For Rawson—who friends described as a “strong, fast, lovable bear”—life on a bicycle was soulful wonder. And thoughts of “the bear” with the wind at his back, mouth curled up in a wicked grin, while making the most painful uphill climb look easy, sparked inspiration.

“We’re a team,” says Quinlan, “and you don’t let the team down.”

It was time to go public. Barclay shared the news with Andover, family, and friends: The Class of ’68’s 50th Reunion Tour—pedaling 1,968 kilometers (1,222 miles) to PA—was on. Three friends in pursuit of a dream.

Make no mistake,” says Quinlan. “This wasn’t a memorial ride. Kit was with us, the whole way.

It was raining steadily when Barclay and Quinlan took off from Winston-Salem, N.C., on May 18. Friends and family followed on social media, and Barclay’s wife, Wendy, followed in a trusty Ford Explorer stocked with supplies and decked out with PA 50th Reunion Tour flair.

“Sixty-nine miles of gorgeous, lush countryside covered with lots and lots of rain,” Barclay reported at the end of day one.

Determined to grind it out, through more rain they rode. Past long swaths of fields and farmland, and over dirt roads with “potholes that taught potholes how to be”—where “every bicycle-chasing dog” you can imagine seemed to pick up their scent. When the rain let up, they baked under a blistering Virginia sun.

John Barclay ’68, his wife, Wendy, and Peter Quinlan ’68

Steep climbs can test your willpower, make your calves and hamstrings cry for mercy. This was when Barclay’s voodoo juice—straight shots of pure pickle juice—came into play. It's a remedy, he says, to ease muscle cramps. Think of it as smelling salts for the weary. That, and a little philosophy gleaned from PA pushed them to the next mile, and the next.

“You can get lost in your thoughts when your eyes are glued to the road,” says Barclay. “One mile turns into 60, and there’s nothing like a long climb to snap you back into the moment. That’s when it all goes back to Andover. The mantra was always the same: You can go a lot farther than you think you can.”

Even the most well-planned adventure can have its fair share of complications: rough riding conditions, inclement weather, a shortcut that turned into half a day of backtracking due to road construction, a malfunctioning tire. But the journey is the reward. And their worst day, muscling through an agonizing climb, showed them that.

The uphill ride through the Delaware Water Gap was a Hail Mary kind of experience, where the body pauses and the mind says, “Hell no!” Wendy Barclay, driving ahead of the guys, was the first to see it. When Barclay and Quinlan reached the top of the pass, there it was, like a wink and a nod. A black bear ambled across the road, paused, and stared directly at the two men.

“Of all things,” says Quinlan. “On the toughest day. It was an amazing and powerful reminder of Kit.”

Barclay’s travel log on June 5, after 18 days on the road: Over 80 2-ounce pickle juice shots consumed. Sixty-four large bottles of orange Gatorade. Unimaginable amounts of water. Approximately 1,006.2 miles covered and 55,778 feet of vertical gain. Along the way, other ’68ers and friends joined the ride: Carter “Bink” Bacon in Otisville, N.Y.; John Buchanan, Dick Dumez, and Jim Harman in Norfolk, Conn. In Massachusetts, the group added Rob Freedman and Brandt Andersson in Wilbraham; Abbot alumna Karen Seaward and Nick Barber ’03 in West Boylston; Mary Hynes Johanson and Secretary of the Academy Thom Lockerby in Acton; and Al Alessi, Stan Crock, Rob Barber, and Head of School John Palfrey P’21 in Billerica.

Thursday, June 7, was a bright day as the peloton headed toward Andover. It was also Kit Rawson’s birthday. A coincidence? Maybe. But for the Class of 1968, it seemed like there was something greater afoot.

Along the road from Paresky Commons to George Washington Hall, friends and loved ones cheered the arrival of 16 riders, making arguably the grandest entrance ever recorded on a Reunion Weekend. Looking around at the group, Barclay says he could not think of any other circumstance where these same people would be standing together like this.

“That’s the magic of the ride,” Barclay says. And, on Rawson’s 68th birthday, a toast was made to lifelong friends and to finishing at the place where it all started. “I will always have a powerful memory of Kit pedaling up the steepest grade I’d ever encountered as if it were a Sunday afternoon ride around the block,” says Barclay, remembering his friend’s adventurous spirit. “Quinlan warned me of this. As Kathy (Rawson) and I pushed our bikes a few hundred yards behind, we looked up as Kit disappeared over the rise, around a sweeping right hand curve.”

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