On a Monday afternoon in late July, James Colver and Shepherd, 9, were kicking back and relaxing at a hotel. James said he was tired—but a “good kind of tired”—as he and his son enjoyed a rest day in Zanesville, Ohio, after biking 75 miles east from the Columbus area the day prior. The duo, members of Salt House Lutheran Church in Kirkland, Wash., were on a cross-country bike trip that would end at the Statue of Liberty.
“Shep has a world of energy,” James said. “I’m not sure I’ve found what his limit is. He’s happy to keep going and going. We’ve definitely had really good bonding time on the trip.”
That bonding time was the point of the whole adventure.
“Before we went down this journey seven or eight years ago, I was at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Kirkland, and there was an article posted on a kiosk there,” James said. “The title was ‘The gift of presence.’ It was all about instead of working all the time to buy material presents for kids, most kids would rather their loved ones be there with them and spend quality time with them. I never forgot that; it was always in the back of my mind. And this trip has been about that—just hanging out every day, talking about life.”
Shepherd’s interest in cycling stems from James, who got into the sport when he was a teen and completed several long-distance tours that raised money and awareness for organizations and issues.
James’ first tour was for his confirmation project, which raised money to rebuild a Black church in Florida that had been burned. Later, in 1999, he was featured on the cover of The Lutheran (Living Lutheran’s predecessor) for his cross-country cycling tour that raised money for Prison Congregations of America.
When he was 6, Shepherd came across that copy of The Lutheran and asked his dad if they could start riding bikes together.
“Shepherd had learned about the tours I’d done years ago and, honestly, I’d hung up my bikes and they were collecting dust for 10 years,” James said. “But he thought it would be fun and I agreed, so we started riding together and it built from there. It wasn’t long before he told me it would be great if we could do something much bigger.”
Shepherd’s big dream was a cross-country bike tour like his dad had done. “I wanted to ask Dad if he wanted to ride across America with me, and when he asked where I wanted to go, I said the first thing that popped into my mind—that was the Statue of Liberty,” he said.
James said hearing Shepherd’s request immediately made him recall his former pastor, with whom he’d shared his own idea for his first cycling tour. “My pastor didn’t discourage me; he didn’t talk me out of it,” James said. “He said ‘yes,’ which is significant. It was a pivotal moment in my life. I didn’t want to discourage this big idea [Shepherd] had.”
So, after about 800 to 900 hours of training, the two set out in summer 2019.
“We were going to be starting in the mountains first, with huge climbs—a lot of hard work,” James said. “I figured it doesn’t matter if we finish; let’s have a good time at it. But he just refused to stop.”
Riding through those mountains with Shepherd, James said, transformed their relationship. “When we made it into the plains out of the Rockies, that’s really when my process about the tour changed,” he said. “I started to realize this might actually happen—this 7-year-old might actually make it all across the U.S. on his bike.
“But then Shepherd started not feeling well.”
Their trip came to an end when Shepherd was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at a hospital in Glasgow, Mont. They returned home so he could focus on learning how to manage his diabetes.
“This kid had earned a right to finish,” James said. “On the train [home], he asked that, if we ever had a chance, could we go back to Montana and finish someday. I made a promise we could make it happen.”
The ride resumes
In May 2021 they returned to Glasgow to start where they’d left off. There they were given a big send-off party organized by the hospital staff, with whom they had stayed in touch.
“I felt happy when Dad told me on the train two years ago that we can totally try to do this again,” Shepherd said. “The send-off made me feel really confident, like I can definitely finish this time.”
As their journey progressed, James and Shepherd continued to make connections with people. Media outlets started featuring their tour, and soon people were waiting to welcome them to town when they reached their planned stopping points.
“We started getting a lot of help from the communities we went through,” James said. “A number of times we had folks who saw Shepherd on the news and would stop on the road to shake our hands or give Shepherd some money.”
Several ELCA congregations started contacting them, too, offering to put them up in a hotel or in their church building for the night. “It became an opportunity to accept help,” James said. “We’ve received a lot of generosity from people, which has been very humbling.”
“I’d like to be the kind of supportive dad who is present for his kids and helps make their dreams a reality.”
The pair planned their route using guides created by Adventure Cycling, a nonprofit that identifies safe, well-traveled paths and bike-friendly stops. The route took them through communities of all sizes, each with their own history and context, which provided opportunities for conversation on a variety of matters, from racism to gentrification to economic inequality. “Shep has had a chance to see pretty much everything,” James said. “He’s going to grow up with a better understanding of where he lives.”
The sometimes-grueling terrain and weather they encountered on the tour also brought up conversations on such topics as grit and courage.
“He and I talk about a lot of subjects when we are on the road,” James said. “Mostly I tell him how proud I am of him.”
These conversations and shared experiences get back to the heart of the journey, as Shepherd said he mostly wanted to spend time with his dad.
“I thought it would be really fun, and I definitely thought correct,” he said. “We’ve gotten to learn a lot more stuff about each other, and I hope other kids can try to do this with their dad if they want to.”
James hopes so too.
“Back when I was doing my fundraising work, I was strongly focused on how I was going to change the world,” he said. “But now that I’m older and raising a family, I’ve come to realize that the real question should be, ‘How am I going to be in this world?’ I’d like to be the kind of supportive dad who is present for his kids and helps make their dreams a reality.”
As they anticipated the end of their journey, James and Shepherd said they were excited. But they thought it would also be an emotional moment because of the sheer feat they would accomplish together and because of the many communities who supported them along the way.
“I just hope our story helps people to see what’s really important in life and gets more people to live more deliberately,” James said.
Now, three years after Shepherd shared his big dream with James, it became a reality. After thousands of miles full of memories and conversations, the father-and-son team completed their tour Aug. 15 by taking in the view of New York City from the balcony of the Statue of Liberty.