People will go to great lengths to support a cause they believe in. For the Rev. Chuck Monts, this summer he took two months away from his congregation in Lehigh Presbytery and traveled 3,000 miles to benefit The Bowery Mission, a soup kitchen and shelter that is the oldest in New York City. And he made the cross-country trek on his bicycle.
The recently turned 62-year-old temporary supply pastor at Pleasant Valley Presbyterian Church in Brodheadsville, PA, spent 40 of the 56-day journey pedaling from Los Angeles to New York, biking 80 miles a day five days a week from June 5 to July 31 in the summer heat. Despite plenty of flat tires (15, to be exact), rides through the desert and up the Rocky Mountains, Chuck was able to finish at The Bowery Mission right on schedule. Along the way, he had plenty of time to experience the world and all that is good in it.
“God’s grace is why I’m a Christian,” Chuck said. “Almost every day had moments of grace. The hospitality – we were hosted by very gracious churches and church people. That’s a very Godly thing when people show you such hospitality.”
Chuck spent a couple years at The Bowery Mission in the Community Life Department before coming to Pleasant Valley Church earlier this year. In the Manhattan neighborhood shelter, Chuck was responsible for helping to organize meal distribution (300-400 per meal per day, three times a day prior to the coronavirus pandemic that has since moved the meals outdoors), a shower program (serving 220 men per week), a clothing program (after the showers the clients’ clothing was disposed of and they were given new) and a transitional program for nearly 50 men who were moving from homelessness to independence.
With a goal of raising $100,000 through this ride for The Bowery Mission, Chuck admitted he was disheartened when he finished the excursion knowing he had only received $40,000 in donations to that point.
“Because I was so focused on raising money, my air was a little deflated,” he said, recalling his emotions at the finish line. “Doing this ride at 18 and again at 61, you have a sense of the nature of life and the end of the journey. I ended my journey and will probably never do something this rigorous physically again in my life. So that’s sort of bittersweet, when you realize this may be the peak of your health and strength. The reality is you don’t know what tomorrow brings and it gets you in touch with your mortality.
“I am grateful for all of the donations. Probably 200 people have made donations. Churches have made donations across the way. We received a lot of generosity but hopefully there’s more coming our way.”
(Donations can still be made to support Chuck’s ride across the country by clicking here.)
Yes, this is the second time Chuck has ridden his bike from coast to coast. As a teenager in 1978, he and a friend went east to west on a more northernly route, raising $7,000 for CROP. That 45-day bike ride set up to be a little more difficult than the more recent one because it went against the trade winds that blow west to east. However, the 2021 route (which had more headwinds and crosswinds than Chuck had hoped) was more southernly – thus warmer temperatures – because Chuck wanted to experience the desert, which he had missed out on 43 years earlier.
This year’s trip started at the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, which is part of a family of shelters around the country that The Bowery Mission is also connected with. Originally, Chuck hoped to start a move-a-thon that would spark interest in bikers in other parts of the country to do rides in their areas to benefit a shelter near them, but this idea never gained traction. In researching the group of shelters for the move-a-thon, Chuck stumbled upon Union Rescue Mission in LA.
When he contacted CEO Andy Bales about starting his ride there, Andy was agreeable and excited for this opportunity as it also coincided with a move-a-thon rally the mission was holding there in early June. This connection became the start of a relationship that not only saw Andy purchase two bikes for Chuck to use on his trip but also one that resulted in Andy becoming a co-sponsor for Chuck’s ride and donating more than $10,000 to The Bowery Mission. It solidified that Los Angeles was the perfect starting point for Chuck’s southernly ride across the United States.
“Starting in LA gave me the great adventure of making it through the Mohave Desert, which I really didn’t mind and looked forward to being a challenge,” Chuck said. “It was pretty difficult and challenging in terms of the water issue. You can’t carry enough water to stay hydrated.”
Chuck’s wife, Debbie, drove a support vehicle that followed the same route. They would start the day by eating breakfast together, then she would do some sight-seeing in the area where Chuck was riding before meeting up with him mid-day to refill his water and give him food. Debbie, a registered nurse, would then drive to the town where they were scheduled to spend the night for more exploring while waiting for Chuck to arrive that evening.
“We both agreed that it would be the end of our marriage if she had to follow me at 10 mph for 3,000 miles,” Chuck said, with tongue in cheek. “She did a lot of wonderful adventures of her own sightseeing across the country. The issue was that we didn’t have cell reception most of the time in the first half of the country. She couldn’t find me to resupply me with water.
“The Mohave Desert was as hard as I expected but we survived it. I just had some dehydration issues for the first couple of weeks, but I made it through and have good memories of it.”
Chuck, who trained hard in the gym for this ride but only used four 100-mile day rides in the month leading up to the trip as preparation, struggled getting used to new pedals during the first week of the ride.
“The first week was the most painful week physically,” he said. “I fell a lot because I had never ridden a bike with those clip-in shoes. I didn’t even practice. I hit the dirt probably 15 times during that first week, and that’s a hard crash. There were a lot of aches and pains. The bumps wreak havoc on your wrists and arms.
“I’m not a biker. I bike for a purpose. I love the purposeful adventure of biking, but I don’t do it for fun.”
Two friends from Westminster College north of Pittsburgh joined Chuck for part of a week after the Mohave Desert portion of the trip, which continued to be a hot, grueling stretch of the country east of Las Vegas. (One of those college friends also met back up with Chuck and rode with him from Canton, OH, to his home near Pittsburgh.) Chuck counted on their companionship to help get him through stretches of the ride where there were no towns or places to stop for food and water.
Scaling the Rocky Mountains in Colorado was another memorable part of the trip for Chuck. He made climbs of 2,000 and 3,000 feet near Vail, but on the bright side, when he descended 4,500 feet at Loveland Pass, he was able to coast for nearly 25 miles.
Chuck experienced some trouble in northwest Kansas when he decided to take a shortcut using a dirt road and instead of saving time ended up getting three flat tires because of thorny “goat head stickers” he rode across. He also crashed while using his phone near Canton when he hit a rumble strip along the side of the road.
“Don’t text and bike,” Chuck said with a laugh. “It threw me off onto the shoulder of grass. It could have ended my trip and that would have been a terrible way to end it.”
Of the 15 flat tires Chuck experienced, many came during the roughly 250 miles he spent riding on major interstates in the Midwest. That’s because when truck tires explode, they leave small, needle-like metal shards along the side of the roadway that are not friendly to thin bike tires.
Rain was not too much of a factor for Chuck who counted just five days of precipitation during his trek. One of those days, however, was a full nine hours of biking in steady rain.
“I did not resent it at all,” Chuck said. “It was sort of refreshing. When you go through the desert, it’s so dry. The rain was like sweet refreshment. It was very refreshing to have the moisture along the ride instead of losing moisture.”
Prior to the start of the trip, Chuck searched for churches of any denomination along his route to contact in hopes of staying there for a night or two. He called roughly 300 churches asking for lodging, many of whom never returned his call.
“We are not independently wealthy, and we didn’t have a lot of income because we are part-time, so our income was virtually nil for two months,” Chuck said. “We could not stay in hotels, so we had to rely on the old-school way of calling up churches.”
Debbie carried cots in her vehicle, and they were used regularly in churches who opened their doors for them. In some instances, the church paid for a night in a hotel for the couple or found people in their congregation who were willing to put them up for a night. In only five towns during their 56-day trip did they not have a pre-planned place to spend the night, and in those places Chuck sought out a church he had tried to contact by phone to make a connection.
“One of the things I learned through this trip is that when you’ve experienced in-hospitality, I look at myself and realize there have been times in the past when I have not been as hospitable,” he said. “I want to be more gracious and hospitable in the future because of the experience of in-hospitality but also the experience of extraordinary hospitality. Both of those experiences make me want to be better at going the extra mile.”
Two days a week Chuck would take a break from his rides to rest, with one of those days being a Sunday. On those mornings, he would preach to the Pleasant Valley congregation by video conferencing program Zoom from where he was staying along the route.
“The theme of the sermons was the journey,” Chuck said. “It was pretty simple to come up with illustrations for the spiritual journey from my physical journey each week. I broke it up into themes that, when you’re biking, they come to you. When you’re in the wilderness, obviously that Sunday is going to be about wilderness times on our journeys. When you make bad choices and take wrong turns, then that week was about taking shortcuts in our journeys of faith. It was very simple and easy to explore the spiritual theme based on my physical week-to-week experiences.”
Chuck’s route through Pennsylvania was especially meaningful for him. In case he had fallen off schedule, he backloaded some lesser mileage days for PA in case he needed to catch up, but with everything going as scheduled, it allowed him to enjoy the trip through his home state.
“We stopped at churches where I had either attended as a kid or served in some capacity,” he said, adding that he was not able to stop at Pleasant Valley Church because its location was too far north for his route.
His last night on the road was in New Jersey where Chuck’s father was a pastor in the mid-1960s. Chuck’s son and three other employees at The Bowery Mission joined Chuck for the final 75-mile leg of the ride into New York City where a warm reception was waiting for him. It was a perfect low-humidity day that was part of a celebration of a two-month experience that was beneficial for both Chuck and The Mission.
“To imagine being almost 62 and being able to do this, I’m so blessed,” Chuck concluded. “Forty days of bicycling at age 62. That’s crazy. And being able to afford it. These are blessings that we would be able to afford a two-month vacation. A lot of blessings counted.”