Eight years after pedaling away from his home in Newport, Oregon, to increase cancer awareness, Stephen Swift is on his way home – for good, he says.
Swift and his bicycle passed through Maricopa on Friday on his way to Yuma, with plans to hit San Diego and then travel up the coast. He has been crisscrossing the country since May 7, 2012, with his bike and trailer.
He is a two-time cancer survivor, but it was a series of tragedies that had him in deep depression and with the barrel of a gun literally pointed at his head before he started grasping for reasons to keep going. His wife was killed in a car crash that left his younger daughter Savannah in a coma. He had just received the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and given 18 months to live.
“I just didn’t know what to do,” Swift said. “I didn’t want my daughters losing both their parents; that would be stupid.”
Though now in remission from pancreatic cancer and bone cancer (which took a finger from his right hand), he was only the first in his family to have a cancer diagnosis. His father, grandfather and sister have since died from it.
“My sister said, ‘You’ve got to get over this. You’ve got to do it. It’s your daughter,'” he said. “And finally, I did. But it was hard. Nobody understands that. It was hard.”
A construction landscaper by trade, Swift said he is usually an upbeat character and hard worker. The personal crisis changed that.
Savannah, who had to re-create a life after her injuries and coming through the three-month coma, came up with the idea of Swift taking a cross-country bike ride to re-discover himself and a purpose.
After some short excursions, he started a trip down the West Coast and shortly after his start was hit by a car in California and broke his foot. He continued on, bringing along a crutch he barely used. There after he “gypsy-camped” across the country, pausing in various places to do a bit of work and getting to meet a wide swath of Americans.
“Sometimes you’re out of fuel. Sometimes you’re out of food. Sometimes you’re out of this and that, but you always can get whatever,” he said.
The first trip, Swift pedaled down to Baja, Mexico, and over to Mexico City, where he stayed to weeks with a family. He tries to gauge his routes to be within distance of an acquaintance or two along the way. That brought him up to Corpus Christi, Texas. He went on to New Orleans, where his father had always wanted to go, and then along the southern coast to Florida to see another family he knew.
He biked up to the northeast – “Never ride a bike in New York City. Never. It’s way to crowded. Can’t even walk in that town” – and on to Boston. He estimated it took eight months to bike from Oregon to Massachusetts. After reaching Portland, Maine, he crossed over to Canada to visit more family for several weeks before heading back west along the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The journey eventually brought him to a Utica, New York, train station where he had met his wife. He took photos for his daughters. Biking through Upstate New York and Pennsylvania in autumn, he discovered glorious fall colors while getting a little lost on back roads. That was how he came across a small church in Harford, Pennsylvania, that was creating a memorial garden. Swift paused to put his trade skills to work for the church.
“I spent six weeks out there to do that,” he said. “It was so beautiful. Made the sidewalk for them. Brought in a wall and stuff.”
It took more than a year and a half to make his first circuit of the country, spending holidays with strangers and often relying on the kindness of strangers. He’s received free help many times along the way. He’s also been robbed more than once during his travels, including the theft of his bike.
“If people were less selfish, this world would be a whole lot better,” Swift said.
After his first loop, he started on a central path, cycling from Oregon to Illinois and then south. His routes have taken him to all corners of the United States during the past eight years.
“I’ve already got what I wanted out of it,” he said. “That’s 2 million friends.”
He does no fundraising for cancer organizations, he said. He just wants bring awareness to the reach and pain of cancer and bring together survivors in celebrating life.
This was his first trip through southern Arizona. He spent Thursday free-camping near Casa Blanca, which he found a dusty experience. He expects to stay with friends in Somerton, in Yuma County, before returning to the West Coast.