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Pedaling to be with pals

Shortly after one o'clock Thursday afternoon, the odometer on Merle Knotts' recumbent tricycle broke 3,400 miles. Sixty-nine days after leaving his Marietta, Ga., home shortly after 5:45 a.m. Knotts was standing near the Deception Pass Bridge, beaming to be but miles from his alma mater, Oak Harbor High School.

Knotts left May 19 to tricycle across America to be at his 50th class reunion that will be held Aug. 3 and 4. More importantly, the 68-year-old Knotts did so to raise awareness and funds for Multiple Sclerosis research.

Don't get him wrong. This ride isn't about bragging rights. Knotts wants to raise money for the Georgia Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Knotts was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, the auto immune disease affecting the central nervous system, in 1980. It was discovered after he visited the doctor because he'd lost feeling in his right arm.

"At first it was scary but then when I realized what had been causing all my problems it all made sense," he said. "Then I could start to take control."

Following the diagnosis he spent a couple of months unable to walk, but since then his MS has settled into mostly a sensory impairment pattern, lying mostly dormant, allowing his to do most any activity he desires.

"I would venture to say that only a few of my friends even know that I'm afflicted," Knotts said. "Having MS isn't about deciding to do something about it. MS is going to be itself no matter what you do, it's a strange disease, you just have to make the most of it."

That he has. The retired computer programmer and systems analyst has remained active by hiking local Georgia mountains, as well as Mount Kilimanjaro in 1999, stopping just short of the 19,340 foot summit. When he's not pushing himself physically, he's an accomplished trombonist now playing with the Atlanta Wind Symphony, and other groups.

Although Knotts has raised about $10,492 as of this week, that's far from his goal, so he's now hoping people will hear about his trek and donate.

"We have to raise awareness," he said. "Anyone who's been diagnosed needs to realize their life isn't over."

GEARING UP FOR THE JOURNEY

Knotts spent close to a year preparing for the trip. He scoured maps and consulted his son, Michael, for the best route. Previously the longest ride for Merle was 52 miles, which was what he calculated would be his average daily ride on the trip. He trained for the trek by taking extended bike rides and walking routes with incline to help boost his stamina and endurance.

Simultaneously he began outfitting the RV, which would be his support vehicle driven by his wife Jan. With their dog, Brandy, as her co-pilot Jan would drive ahead in their small Dodge conversion RV to assess the route for Knotts and warn him of any unexpected road hazards or closures.

"We had quite a few detours and changes to the route," Knotts said.

Riding a recumbent tricycle, seated extremely low to the ground proved to bring its own sense of adventure.

"Speed bumps and chuck holes can be real issues at times," he said.

Guest bicyclists accompanied Knotts on parts of the journey, helping to smooth over the bumpy ride. Groups of well-wishers would meet him at pit-stops or carry on pedaling with him for a few miles.

And while it may feel like the trip aged him, it really did. He celebrated a birthday on the route.

SHARING THE ROAD

He ground through the brutal hills in Alabama before whizzing down a steep hill at 35 miles per hour coming into Fort Payne, Ala. But that wouldn't be Knotts' top speed. Steep declines helped him reach close to 50 miles per hour at times.

He fell under his Scottsboro jinx of bad luck every time he rolls through the Alabama city.

"This time my mirror vibrated off during a fast downhill ride coming into town. It actually broke off and popped into my lap at about 35 miles per hour," he posted in his online journal. "I was able to catch it and stick it in my pocket to look at later."

Duct tape came to the rescue until a new mirror could be purchased. But even that mirror wasn't safe, breaking three more times before another mirror was purchased in Washington.

"Whoever said that tricycles are hard to see has never ridden one in northeast Alabama," he wrote. "A driver was so intent on watching me in his rear view mirror after he passed that he ran off the road and into the ditch. He was able to drive right out with no damage but he was lucky."

He enjoyed the flat parts of the route that didn't requiring using his "granny gears." He cranked hard through steep hills of the Shawnee National Forest, the Ozarks and the high elevation of the Rockies.

"One problem with going up so many steep hills is that the insects can keep up with me. It's somewhat embarrassing to be passed by butterflies," he wrote. "But I always win in the end because I don't dart around everywhere. Just more proof of the power of concentration."

Knotts rode every single mile, from his doorstep in Georgia to his final pedals to Oak Harbor, except for a 10-mile stretch of road under construction in Wyoming that DOT workers insisted he get driven over.

The trip had its mishaps such as digital cameras skittering across roads and a fair share of flat tires. Matching up GPS routes and those pictured on paper maps added another factor to the adventure.

It also had its moments of awe at nature. He faced 30-mile per hour winds and threats of tornadoes in Kansas. He came face to face with a steer in the middle of a Colorado roadway.

PEOPLE OF AMERICA

Once people learned Knotts was pedaling for a good cause restaurant owners picked up the tab on dinner, store owners let the Knotts' park their RV and hook up for electricity and RV campground managers invited them to their homes for breakfast and donated stays. Some made donations to the MS Society. Those were the moments that made Knotts the happiest.

He held countless interviews with television and newspaper press along the way which helped boost his message.

Knotts found he wasn't the only one attempting a cross-country journey. He found camaraderie in others who decided to take the long trek on two or three wheels. He even found a couple of gents who were hiking all the way across America.

Although swift, Knotts still peddled at a pace slower than most people take to appreciate the little things in life. He found beauty in the small town parks he passed where children played softball. He found beauty in the cattle that curiously chased him along the fence line, inviting him to become part of their herd.

"I feel lucky to see the country this way," Knotts said.

MAKING FRIENDS, KEEPING FRIENDS

Thursday afternoon, Knotts was teary at the thought of reuniting with his classmates the next day. The class of '57 is a close-knit bunch.

"We talk to each other all the time," said Margaret (Jenkins) Grunwald.

It's easy to do when a core group of the 69 graduates still lives in Oak Harbor, another two-thirds are in the surrounding area and others are dotted about the country. They feel lucky to have almost everyone still around after these years.

The class is an accomplished bunch that claims the ranks of educators, retired military, engineers, business owners, politicians and more. All the same, the years created no barriers between them. The bonds of friendship have only grown.

"We stopped hiring bands and DJs because no one listened to them," Grunwald said. "When we get together everyone talks their heads off too much."

The classmates were abuzz when they heard about Knotts' trek. This week they were filled with excited anticipation of his arrival.

Bud Walgren, the eternal president for the class, said the '57 grads are known for getting things done.

"We had pretty good seasons for football and baseball and always organized good functions," he said.

Grunwald said Knotts has a lot of perseverance and guts.

"Which doesn't surprise me because the rest of our class is stubborn too," she said.

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