Cycling Over the Hill

Former EPA President Brian Peterson's story of an AIDS ride in Africa.

(Note: Former EPA President Brian Peterson wrote this piece after taking part in an AIDS ride in Africa. The global AIDS pandemic was EPA's "Cause of the Year" for 2003.)

Last September I turned 40. It happened on a mountain bike tour through Africa, with all my body parts telling me in unison that middle age is not a dread of the future. It is now.

Shunning the typical mid-life trip to the dude ranch, I greeted 40 on an ill-fitted contraption with no front or rear shocks, in the hills of Africa's rural Mozambique, a place where the meaning and benefits of asphalt are unknown. On a very steep hill, my hams and quads screaming for mercy, I tried to remember why it earlier seemed so right to spend this milestone in southern Africa.

There was a good reason: I had first visited and loved this place at age 20. Now, two decades later, I joined 20 international cyclists on World Vision's AIDS Cycle Relay, a journey through nine southern African countries and 3,600 miles, traveling by mountain bike and bus to spread the message of AIDS prevention.

The ride jerked me from one reality to another: endless stretches of dirt road and silence, only labored breathing and the crunching of gravel under bike tires--then suddenly bullhorning and honking our way through African towns. Within me was a silent resolve to scale each hill, despite a new obstacle stalking me at every turn. Nausea and diarrhea. Hot tempers. Impassable roads. Bike and truck breakdowns. Injuries. Drop-to-the-ground exhaustion. Holey tents and mosquitoes that enter them.

After a day's cycling we'd pitch a pup tent at sunset, to the delight of hordes of children, snickering and pointing and gawking as white men clamored for a shred of comfort and sleep. One evening, as we settled for a campsite next to a cow pasture, a South African guy announced in his refined accent, "I can't complain about the accommodations, because I don't see any."

But I couldn't be distracted by the conditions. Like others on the ride, I was on a spiritual quest. I wanted to return a better man, ready to conquer my 40s with beer-commercial gusto. On this ride it would be just God and me, talking to each other as I cycled into red sunsets. Nice dream, but far from reality.

Contrary to my expectations, God expanded our twosome to include boisterous and fleshy people, terribly flawed people, drinkers and smokers whose wisdom and compassion far exceeded mine. His lessons came through them, and through HIV-positive children and women. God had me in a full-nelson heartlock, and wouldn't let me go until I had finished an advanced course in the School of Life: Three Lessons Every Man Must Learn to Thrive Past 40.

Lesson One: Be willing to give and receive leadership. One night in the middle of Mozambique, when our five-ton bus got stuck in the sand, I found we had lots of experts with differing opinions--and plenty of guys to curse our sad situation. But leadership? Not much to be found. The young delegation looked at my 40-year-old face and yielded to my leadership.

Being the leader was completely devoid of glamour or special treatment. It was instead a blow to my ego, as I insisted that we all take orders from a drunken man who wandered by. He ordered us to work, digging holes, fetching boards and attaching cables, and soon we were free. Looking back, my decisions as leader were informed by decades of trial and error with very different scenarios. But the point was clear: Being older can make us better leaders, but few are stepping to the plate. Where are the older men who are willing to take God's invitation and serve people with their leadership?

Lesson Two: Be inspired by unsung heroes. In Zambia I met Cyrus Phiri, a short and soft-spoken man who redefined manhood for me. At age 43, this Baptist pastor and World Vision programs coordinator envisions himself running from Cairo to Capetown, about 7,400 miles, drawing crowds along the way and sounding a warning about AIDS. Cyrus lost his brother to AIDS in 1989 and immediately began a running campaign from Livingston to Kitwe in southern Africa, a distance of 750 miles. Seven years later, in 1996, AIDS claimed the life of his sister, "my very best friend in my family," and with rage and a crushed spirit he ran again, 500 miles, from Lusaka to Kitwe and back. The experience severely blistered his feet, so he now is training barefoot on gravel roads to prepare for his next run.

When I need inspiration I now think of Cyrus. His determination borders on scary, yet he warms a room with his humble presence. Cyrus found a cause, and he's sticking with it. Cyrus is a hero for me, and he moves me to follow his example. Combine that with the wisdom of 40 years, and a man can be unstoppable.

Lesson Three: Be a champion for women and children. My next lesson in middle-age manhood began when I met Tiyanjane Kayira, a 32-year-old mother who invited me into her home in Blantyre, Malawi. She contracted HIV from her womanizing husband, who died in 1995. She now does housework to feed and educate her 12-year-old son, Yesaya. Telling her story on the floor of her small rented room, she said her greatest worry was dying and leaving her son alone with no money for school.

I found that women and children were feeling the brunt of the AIDS pandemic in Africa, and the same would be true as infection rates begin to skyrocket in places like India, China and Russia. As I faced this mother and her son, I realized it was this type of encounter that I needed, hoped for--and feared--before this cycling journey to Africa began.

I was the father to my own child; but was I ready to feel God's father heart toward children and women outside my own family? The scriptures about caring for widows and orphans came alive, and I thought about the untapped capacity among older American men. What would happen if "over the hill" American Christian men collectively applied their skills and experience to fight the global AIDS crisis or some other need of our world's disadvantaged children and women?

The real mark of maturity, and bedrock for great reward, is when a man's heart and mind expands to bigger problems and bigger solutions. A man could ignore these bigger problems all the way to his grave, because they don't affect him directly. But he makes a choice to leave a legacy.

On this cycling trip to Africa, I laughed—and cried—more in four weeks than I did in the past five years. I had no time to sniffle over the creaky knees and graying hair of midlife. Instead I was reminded of a cause, a spirit-born legacy, waiting inside me. It's inside every man, waiting for him to find it and accept it.

Why do some men get calloused and cranky and smelly in their old age, while others make history and leave legacies that extend many generations? I found out while cycling over the hill in Africa.

Brian Peterson was the founding editor for New Man magazine. He is now a communications manager for World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization serving the world's poorest children and families in nearly 100 countries. For more information, visit http://www.worldvision.org