We would wake up early at 3:30 in the morning while it was still dark, take down camp, eat as much as we could, then saddle up and hit the road at first light— usually around 5 AM.
We would bike about 80 miles a day, and sometimes over 100. We biked a lot. Every morning was the same: breakfast in the dark, a spectacular sunrise, and stories on the road. Church groups and small communities would often have meals prepared for us when we reached our destination for the night. Our group would eat a lot of mac and cheese and BBQ pulled pork. Fueled up again in the morning, we would have a goal to bike 20 miles by 7AM and 40 miles by 9AM. By that point the southern heat usually began to creep in and slow us down.
Some days were flat… like SO flat… and we would finish our miles by lunch time.
Other days were more challenging, and hot… and on those days the miles dragged on. There would be gear malfunctions and flat tires. Additionally, one of the girls, Merritt, was diabetic, and if her blood sugar was too high or too low, we had to stop, and wait for it to return to normal before riding again.
But it was the joyous simplicity of biking, genuine friendships that were forming, and the drive to reach the Pacific Ocean that kept us going. We had 6 weeks- and man did I learn something about patience. We could only think about the miles in front of us. The miles behind us were gone and there was no saying what the next day of riding would bring. We could only focus on the present- the miles we could do that day.
I learned a lot of patience from Merritt, too. Merritt never showed frustration when we would stop for insulin breaks. Her patience was immovable. I can only imagine how she must have felt during those times when the group had to wait for her blood sugar to return to normal. But feeling bad, or wallowing in self pity just wasn’t her style. Instead, Merritt motivated our group to make the best of the situation. She was our driving source of positivity, our rock.
So we’d dress up, order waffles at 4:30 in the morning, wear mustaches for the hell of it, bike through the Drive Thru lane at Wendy’s, anything to keep things fun. Our journey was the most challenging thing any of us had ever done, but the rewards were great. Merritt had a way of cheering on the rest of us when things got really tough- the hottest days, the steepest climbs, the earliest mornings- she was there, always encouraging the group with a whoop or, “Here we go team!” She was relentlessly compassionate.
Soon the miles began to fly by. State line after state line… we were doing it. We were biking across America.
The students started a game that involved doing a pushup for every mile. We’d take a snack break, and crank out 30 “shups” for the last 30 miles we just biked. If you missed a set, you were expected to make them up later. They meant business. We had done nearly 1,000 of our estimated 3,000 pushups when our journey took an irrevocable change of course.
On July 2nd in 2013, a 21 year old driver hit our group in McCrory, Arkansas traveling 45 mph on a flat, open road, with no other cars for miles. It was 4:30 PM. He was texting and driving. Six of us were hurt. But Merritt, our rock, was killed. The driver faced a $6,000 fine for failing to overtake a cyclist, and some community service. Texting and driving is not illegal in Arkansas.
18-year old Merritt Levitan Hit and Killed by a Distracted Driver, July 2, 2013
Weeks after the accident I met Merritt’s parents back in Boston and at once understood where her endless supply of optimism and courage came from. The integrity and grit Merritt bore across her face was reflected like a mirror on the faces of her parents. They were fierce. They told me, “You can’t stop doing what you love. You have to keep going. Live your life, every moment. That was Merritt’s Way.”
Merritt’s Way is about living life inspired and to the fullest, taking positive action, embracing potential, and holding kindness and goodness as life’s highest pursuit.
She never failed to be completely attached to what was happening right in front of her. She embodied life in its truest form. She biked, skied, played tennis, surfed, and embraced the outdoors and life around her.
Such were the beginnings of the Merritt’s Way Foundation, which eventually inspired the Text Less, Live More campaign started by friends of Merritt. In an effort to reduce the number of distracted drivers TLLM started having “cell phone free days” at over 100 schools across the country. Merritt’s story has since reached over 250,000 people.
Overland Group Leaders Wearing the TLLM Blue Bracelet in Honor of Merritt at Williams College, Willamstown Massachusetts
I’d like to show a short video from the TextLess Live More campaign. http://textlesslivemore.org/psas/treasure-most/
94% of teenagers call texting and driving a serious threat, yet 35% admit to doing it.
This number is scary. But the other piece of Merritt’s story that I want to share with you is about being present, and using technology in a mindful way in our everyday lives when we aren’t behind the steering wheel. Merritt’s story is a reminder to live life, to embrace potential, and to not allow ourselves to be hindered by the barriers we put up between ourselves using technology. I know I can speak for a lot of us when I say we can do better at being more intentional about cell phone use. Merritt’s Way is a reminder. A reminder to choose to engage with what’s in front of you- to be present. And to never text and drive.
The journey we set out on depended on living in the moment, taking each day as it came, and making the most of every opportunity in front of us. I think we’re still on our journey, heading somewhere, but on a new path. Like most journeys, it’s not always about the destination but the steps you take (or the miles you bike) to get there. Whatever the journey is, we can all enrich our experiences by staying present, and choosing to Live More.
TextLess Live More is a student-led initiative that relies on high schoolers just like you to keep the momentum going. Visit TextLessLiveMore.org for more information about National Text Free days and how you can get involved.
Emily was Merritt Levitan’s Group Leader at Overland. Emily was one bike behind Merritt when she was tragically struck and killed by a distracted driver on July 2, 2013, on a country road outside McCrory, Arkansas.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Emily