Priest’s sabbatical takes him coast to coast
By RENEE WEBB, Globe senior reporter
Sabbaticals are a way for priests to become reenergized in their ministries. Typically these entail retreats, study programs or pilgrimages to sacred places.
One diocesan priest’s sabbatical involved time on a bicycle. A lot of it.
Father Kevin Richter, pastor at St. Joseph Church in Le Mars, recently completed a ride across the United States. He noted the diocese was more than happy to give the sabbatical but he knew this was an unusual request – to bicycle across the country.
“As I emphasized to them, I was looking for something in the original sense of the word. Sabbatical means ‘of the Sabbath’ – a time for quiet and solitude,” he said. “I certainly got plenty of that as I was riding my bike.”
Unlike some rides where thousands of bikers participate, Father Richter did this solo.
“People will ask me if I want to do RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) and I always comment that I don’t want to ride with 15,000 of my best friends,” he said. “The alone time was good for me.”
The priest noted he had been approved for a sabbatical in two parts – last summer and this summer. Originally he wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail, but the heavy rains in the East last year nixed that idea.
Father Richter then decided to bike across America. Years ago, two college friends had made the journey and that idea stayed with him. Once he decided to go, he weighed his options for the route on the web via Adventure Cycling.
Choosing the route
“I explored the different national routes that are designated across the country for bicycling and picked out parts of two that I wanted to complete,” he said. “The Lewis and Clark Trail, which followed along the Missouri River, I thought would be good because I could start in Le Mars and get down to Sioux City and follow that route.”
He rode to St. Louis and from there went south about 50 miles and hooked up with the Trans-America Trail, which he followed to the East Coast. He left June 9 and reached Yorktown, Va., July 12.
After a few days with his sister and her family, Father Richter flew to Portland on July 15 and took a bus to Astoria, Ore. where he began his ride back to Iowa on July 16. He arrived in Le Mars on Aug. 15, about two weeks ahead of schedule.
“The second half did not take as long as I had planned for,” said Father Richter, who noted throughout the Appalachian Mountains and the Rocky Mountains he planned covering shorter miles. “It turns out the Appalachian Mountains were much harder than the Rocky Mountains and by the time I got to the Rocky Mountains I was in pretty good shape – the best shape of the trip.”
Time was also clipped off when he was able to bike 120 miles in a day from Bismarck, N.D. to Selby, S.D. courtesy of a north wind at his back.
In all, he biked 3,836 miles. The two halves were divided quite equally. The first half was 1,900 and the second was 1,936.
“I averaged 68 miles a day, riding 5-and-one-half to 6 hours a day,” said Father Richter, who noted he lost 25 pounds on the journey. “It was great not to have to worry about what I was eating. Eventually I had to increase my food intake substantially because after the first week I realized I wasn’t eating enough.”
He usually took one day off a week to rest.
During the journey, Father Richter said every evening he had time for reading and prayer. He camped 22 nights, stayed in a hotel 35 nights and had a few nights he labeled as “other.”
For instance, in Chester, Ill., he stayed in an Eagles Club hut for free.
“In Kentucky there were a number of churches that allowed people to stay in their church – sometimes sleeping on the floor but they would have showers available,” Father Richter said. “If you look at my record, the longer I was on the road the more I stayed in a hotel. Part of it was the weather was so hot out west.”
Along with the demanding Appalachian Mountains, other difficult parts of the trip came with big cities and car traffic. The two most high-traffic parts of the journey came in the St. Louis and Richmond, Va., areas.
While solitude brought enrichment, so did the opportunity for conversations.
“One of the best parts of a trip like that was meeting people and in those circumstances having wonderful experiences with people that I didn’t expect,” Father Richter said.
For instance, the campground owner in Golcondo, Ill., allowed him to stay in a cabin for $10 – the same price as a camping fee. After striking up a conversation, the man asked Father Richter what he did.
“I told him I was a priest. He got a big kick out of that and started laughing,” the priest noted. “He said, ‘I should have charged you a lot more. I’m a Baptist deacon and we should have got you on this.’ We talked about an hour.”
At another campground, fellow campers sent over a home-cooked meal after learning he was a priest.
“In Sebree, Ky., the First Baptist pastor and his wife have a biking hostel at the church so any bikers can stay there,” said Father Richter, who noted the couple had done it for 35 years. “But when any bikers come, they invite you into their home and provide an evening meal. That was a neat experience.”
And while he could have stopped at many tourist attractions and historical sites along the route, Father Richter opted to stay focused on the ride.
“There were three or four times when I did go right by a Catholic church,” he noted. “Then I would make a point of stopping to spend some time in prayer.”
In the end, the unique respite did what was intended.
“I came back feeling refreshed. I think it was very much worth it. It was a good experience,” said Father Richter, who used the ride as a time to be in God’s presence through nature and prayer. “It was nice to have time where I didn’t have to think about anything in particular. I had no calendar or schedule. It was a very reflective time.”
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