On Aug. 10, I had the honor of leading more than 50 Pi Kappa Phi cyclists into the U.S. Capitol. The Journey of Hope this summer was the best experience of my life. Throughout the two and a half months, 13 states, and 4,000 miles, I learned a lot about myself and saw both the joy and the struggles of people living with disabilities.
For some, fraternity is a house. A structure of walls and rooms where men live and pass time. But my fraternity this summer had no walls, except perhaps the snowy banks of White Pass on Mt. Rainier, or the walls of corn in Kansas, or the concrete skyscrapers in Denver and St. Louis.
For some men, fraternity is a collection of photos on a wall. But for me, it’s the photos I took with my iPhone camera that I kept in my back jersey pocket. It’s the photos taken in front of the welcome signs as we crossed state borders. It’s the countless snapshots taken with clients with smiles so wide you could see every tooth and most of their gums.
For some men, fraternity is in the parties or in a cup of beer. For me, it’s in the gallons and gallons of water that sustained me. It’s in spotting the support vehicle every five miles or so, where I could always count on a word of encouragement. It’s in the songs that play over and over on the Sirius radio stations that become the soundtrack of my summer. It’s in the faces of the kids who talk to puppets like they are real people. It’s in the children asking for autographs, and kind, incredible strangers who reach out to thank me for coming, when really, they are the ones who should be thanked. It’s the hug you give to sponsors you don’t even know because a simple “thank you” cannot express our gratitude. It’s in the cry of excitement I hear from the girl in the wheelchair as I ride up for the picnic when she’s been waiting patiently for an entire year for “the bikers” to visit. It’s the smiling faces of the clients that make all the physical and mental pain vanish instantly.
For some men, fraternity is the pin on the shirt or the trophies in the case. But my fraternity was in the proclamations in the dozens of small towns celebrating our arrival. It’s in the trucks that move one lane to the left and honk their horns to say hello. It’s in the spaghetti dinner prepared by people I’ve never met, or the grease mark that just won’t scrub off my right leg. It’s in the gym floors where we slept and the lump I got in my throat when a kid says goodbye and “see you next summer.”
For some men, fraternity is in the party that ends in the early hours of the morning. For my fraternity, it’s in the sunrises. It’s in those quiet hours on the Wyoming plains or through the Indiana farmland when the world is asleep, and all you hear is the sound of a dog barking in the distance or the trees rustling in the breeze. It’s in my T-shirt that desperately needed a washing two days ago, and now is simply disgusting. It’s the smile when I finally got my first flat tire in Emporia, Kan.
For some men, fraternity is about impressing sororities. But for me, it’s the 26 degrees and freezing rain outside of Yellowstone, which forced me off my bike with signs of hypothermia. It’s in the words of encouragement in the van while I was shaking uncontrollably with every body part numb saying, “You did great out there Brett.” It’s about the volunteer in Farmville who hugged me like she’s always known me. It’s about getting our butts kicked in wheelchair rugby or softball. It’s in shedding tears as I see my parents and the look on my mom’s face as I ride up to the steps of the Capitol and the pride in my dad’s voice as he shouts, “One last push!”
For some men, fraternity is about getting another event T-shirt. But for me, fraternity is forgetting that I’m standing in front of a few thousand people in a baseball stadium, wearing Spandex. It’s riding next to Bruce Rogers into Boulder, pinching myself because I’m riding next to the guy who started this journey in 1986. It’s dancing with the young woman with the walker who makes me blush when she shamelessly hits on me.
It’s about those times when we get off the bikes and just look out at a piece of scenery so breathtaking that no one says a word. Then, one guy turns away to wipe the tears from his eyes with his forearm and says, “Let’s get back on the bikes, fellas.”
For some men, fraternity is about pledge class unity, or leadership positions. But for me, it’s the crazy crew stop challenges of eating ghost peppers, Saltine challenges, chugging soda, eating watermelon with no hands, and choking down the awful tasting fruit called durian. It’s that moment when I realize that these guys riding beside me have become my family, and that soon this incredible journey will be a memory.
For some men, fraternity is about four years. But my fraternity was 71 days on two thin wheels with 18 other riders.
• Brett Butler is a senior at Arizona State University studying kinesiology. He went to Corona del Sol High School in Tempe. His fraternity is called Pi Kappa Phi and the annual bike ride they do every summer is through their fraternity’s philanthropic foundation, “Push America.”