By Katie Lovett
---- — MERRIMAC — Keith Harris will spend his summer in a much different way than other people. He won’t be visiting the beach or hanging out at backyard barbecues. He’ll be spending much of it alone -- and he’s grateful for that.
On June 7, Harris, 49, will begin a 4,400 mile trip across the country -- on his bicycle. The Merrimac resident is “Pedaling for a Purpose,” as he’s dubbed his adventure: he’s raising money for The Rotary Foundation and Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport.
For Harris, his trip is the culmination of a “mid-life wake-up call” following a serious health scare several years ago.
In 2008, Harris and his wife Christina, the owners of Choice Graphics printing company in Rowley, were living in downtown Newburyport when their lives changed forever. It all started simply enough. Harris was playing in a softball game, and got a scratch, which he chalked up to a routine, minor part of playing sports. Only, it ended up being anything but that.
Harris developed a staph infection, which traveled into his heart, and destroyed his mitral valve. When he arrived at the emergency room at Anna Jaques with a 104-degree temperature, Harris had gone into organ failure. He was dying.
His team of physicians at the Newburyport hospital were able to stabilize him and Harris was transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston where he underwent open heart surgery, followed by months of recovery.
During his stay in Boston, and his recovery period, Harris says he was lucky to have “an immense outpouring of support” from family and friends. Without that support, he and his wife couldn’t have made it through the harrowing experience, he said. But, for many of his fellow patients, that was the case as they faced their serious illnesses alone.
It made him want to give back to others in need, and to those who gave to him, Harris said.
“It made an impression on me,” he said. “I didn’t make it through to go back to my regular life. I wanted to say thank you to the people who helped me, and I wanted to do something and to reach out to others. I wanted to live every moment to the fullest.”
As he healed, he turned to exercise, including cycling. Last fall, Harris completed a triathlon, and he didn’t stop there. He started making plans for his second “once in a lifetime experience.” After all, 21 years ago, one year before got married, Harris completed his first bicycle trip across the country, during which he raised money for Alzheimer’s research.
Now, he’s doing it again as he spends 7 days a week training for his grueling trip. Through his ride across America, Harris wants to give back, and he is hoping to raise $25,000 for the Rotary Foundation, which serves 170 countries around the world through its service projects, and $2,500 for Anna Jaques Hospital, as a way to express his gratitude for the care he received during his illness.
“Anna Jaques was great through the entire process,” Harris said.
Harris will start his journey in Seattle, where he’ll spend a few days touring the Olympic Peninsula before heading East. In total, he plans to visit 14 states, averaging about 75 to 90 miles each day. His travels will take hm through eastern Washington, Idaho, the Rockies in Montana, where he will stop at Glacier National Park, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois. Along the way, he’ll visit with family and friends, as well as make stops at Rotary clubs and the Rotary headquarters in Chicago.
The cross-country journey offers a chance for solitude and introspection, Harris said.
“You have a lot of time to concentrate and reflect,” he said. “You have to be the kind of person that likes that.”
It’s also a trip where you don’t bring a lot of luggage, he added. He’ll carry supplies that are suitable for a range of weather, a tent, sleeping bag and other essentials. He will stay mostly at campgrounds and fair grounds. Unlike his trip 20 years ago, Harris will also carry his iPad and smartphone so he can blog about his experience and keep in regular contact with his wife.
“Last time, I had pay phones and my Walkman,” he said, with a smile.
To make a contribution or to learn more about Harris’ trip, visit his Web site at http://www.pedalingforapurpose.com/. Donations can also be mailed to Keith Harris, 56 West Main St., Merrimac, 01860.