A young Kerryman has cycled more than 3,000 miles from San Diego, CA to St Augustine, FL. Tomás Mac an tSaoir from Ballyferriter thought the coast to coast cycle the perfect way to keep fit and raise money for a mental health charity.
Speaking to IrishCentral, he said he chose the route tactically, “The weather had a huge impact on it, it was still 36 degrees in Arizona in late October, whereas if you did it during the summertime it’d be up to nearly 45, 50 I’d say.
“The distance 3,000 miles, it was a lot but it wasn’t too much. I was happy to go to because I’d never been to America before, it was my first trip. So I said first time over, why not cycle across? With hindsight, it was probably a bit of a daft decision to make but luckily everything worked out in the end! But I didn’t do much planning, I just booked my flights, bought my bike, got a couple of maps and just took off from San Diego.”
And despite never having visited the US before, Mac an tSaoir found that in almost every town he ended up, there was someone willing to let him stay.
“I didn’t actually get stuck anytime; there were a few times when it got to 5, 6 o’clock and I had no place to stay but it all worked out fine in the end. Facebook helped a good bit as well because if I ever did get stuck I’d put it on Facebook and so many Americans and Irish people followed me that someone always had a contact somewhere.
“The Rotary Club has a group in almost every town in America. A lot of them took me in, my friend in San Diego works for them and every morning I’d look at a map and pick out a few places I might stay in and then text my friend and she’d e-mail all the Rotarians on the way and I got taken in by a lot of them.
“One was the guy in Lake Charles, he was so nice, I got into town pretty late at 4 o’clock [on Thanksgiving] and he stopped having his dinner, dropped everything, picked me up, took me back to the house and fed me about two or three plates. Him and his family were just so so nice to me.”
But it wasn’t always plain sailing; conditions in and around West Texas were difficult and in the end, he had to ditch his paper maps in favor of Google maps.
“I knew where I was going, I had the official maps but I went through a dodgy stretch between el Paso down to Del Rio which is very isolated in West Texas and after that I stopped using the maps, used Google Maps and local advice.”
And whilst he met hundreds of people on his trip through the arid deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, it wasn’t until he reached the Lone Star State that he met another Irish person.
“After I left San Diego the next place I met a proper 100% Irish person was in San Antonio, Texas. I met a few Irish in Austin but I did meet an American woman in a store and as soon as I walked in she came up to me and went 'Erin go Bragh', 'Póg Mo Thóin,' all this kind of stuff - I had an Ireland jacket on the whole time! - and as soon as she saw it she came running over, speaking a few Irish words to me and that was really nice.
“Although I did stay with a guy from Waterville, which is only two hours drive from me in West Kerry, he was the first Kerryman I met! There are a lot of Americans who are proud of their Irish heritage even if they don’t have family here.”
And he was stateside for one of the most era-defining moments in American history - the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. Even if the 45th Commander in Chief enjoyed solid support across the south, America’s election day didn’t seem as lively to Mac an tSaoir compared to those back home.
“I crossed into Texas on election day, I kinda expected more, maybe I was in the wrong part but there wasn’t much going on because you know here in the general elections we have all the signs of politicians up and there were houses and cars with Trump signs and one or two ones for Hillary but not many at all.
“I saw the fiasco in the cities on the TV but down south, I’d say everyone would be pretty happy that Trump had won. It was kind of disappointing really, I expected more but not really much happened, to be honest.”
But even if the election result was a surprise, the support for the charity he was raising money for wasn’t. Although he hasn’t got round to adding it all up yet he estimated he’s raised between $4700 and $5200 (€4,500 - €5000) for the Donal Walsh fund, a local mental health charity.
The fund was set up by Donal Walsh’s family to promote his anti-suicide message after the courageous teenager passed away from a long battle with cancer in 2013.
“Mental health issues in Ireland are just crazy, to be honest, it just seems to be getting worse and the government isn't really paying much attention. So this is the first of many cycles I’ll be doing to raise awareness. It’s a worthy cause, everyone I was talking to, even before I left Ireland I was telling people I was raising money for the Donal Walsh foundation and people would open up and say, just loads of people I know on a personal level, they told me about the tough times they went through and how Donal inspired them.”
After two months away Mac an tSaoir received a mighty homecoming from his family and friends in Ballyferriter. A bonfire was light outside the family’s pub Tigh an t-Saorsaigh in West Kerry, the Star Spangled Banner flew beside the Tricolor and there was music and dancing the night he cycled home.
Looking ahead to 2017 he’s not sure exactly what he wants to do. He was minded to train as a teacher until the training course was extended from one to two years by the Irish Government.
“Now I’m more inclined to maybe something with tourism because I love this country and I love trying to get people to visit it!”
But either way, he hopes to someday return to the States to cycle thousands of miles more to raise money for the Donal Walsh Foundation.
Link to donate here.