Alive at 55

Jen Kocher
“That’s the thing, when people see what he’s doing they remember their best selves.” Melody Gilbert, documentary film maker.
When Mark Wollemann trudged across the desolate cold, wind-whipped Oregon beach to dip his back tire into the Pacific Ocean, he wondered who on earth ever thought this was a good idea? Even in mid-June, the temperature was bone chilling, and as the salty, cold air leaked through the seams of his light windbreaker, he groaned at the thought of tromping back across the spongy sand to get to the road where his journey would begin.
The warm car where his wife Melody sat idling beckoned him.
Mark shook his head; he didn’t want to be that guy. The one who talks a big game and in the end fails to deliver. At age 55, he’d spent the past several months training and planning for this cross-continental 3,200-mile journey by bicycle, or what he and Melody dubbed Mark’s “55 and Alive” tour across America. He’d purposely told a lot of people about the trip, so when he hit this point, he knew he’d have to keep going. So, he got on the bike and started pedaling.  
He pushed through the pain and the doubt as he pedaled through the lush-green forests of Oregon and along the sunburnt, high-country desert roads in Idaho. He steadied himself through 30-mile gusts from passing semis for a 40-plus mile white-knuckling stretch along Interstate 84 and clenched his teeth for the 12-percent thigh-burning ascent up through the Tetons. 
Finally, July 7, 25 days and 1,360 miles later, the pair landed in Converse County, where more than anything, they were eager to meet and greet locals and share their personal stories. More than anything, they want to hear what others have to say and it takes some chiding to get Mark talking about why a guy in his mid-50s who’s never been serious about cycling one day decides to jump on a bike and take a three-plus month tour across America. 
Mark laughs. 
It’s about feeling alive, he explains, and despite the miles of wear and tear already under his belt, he’s feeling great. And he’s not just saying that either to be cocky, he explains. He really feels good.
With barely graying hair and a less than compact body, Mark loads up on a carb-heavy spaghetti dinner at the Depot in Douglas after a 60-plus mile day. Although he dresses and eats  like a cyclist, he’s not a real cyclist he insists, and laughs at how out of shape he’d once been despite his earlier years as an athlete. Having spent his career as a sports journalist and editor for major daily newspapers in Minnesota and other large metropolitan cities, Mark got tired of an exhausting life dictated by deadlines punctuated by the intermittent two-or-so odd weeks of yearly vacation. He’d begun to feel spiritually dead, so five years ago, he quit his job and went with wife Melody, a documentary filmmaker and university professor, to Bulgaria where they taught at a university for four years.
The experience in general, along with the four-month break between semesters, opened up Mark’s eyes to a whole new way of life, as cliché as that may sound. Not only did he enjoy teaching — something he had never done — but no longer was he a man tied to a desk and a career he’d grown tired of. What else was he missing? 
“It’s one of those things we often forget,” he says, “to step out of our lives and try something different.”
And after four years when the couple grew homesick and returned to the states, Mark was not exactly thrilled at the idea of finding a new job and entering right back into the grind. So he did freelance, cashed out some of his retirement money, and started spending time in the gym again, something he’d let go at some point over the years. He’d always cycled for exercise back home in Chicago, so he started doing longer trips, all of which started and ended in the same place. Though he never considered himself a serious biker, nor had he ever aspired to do a cross-country trip, the idea started to become more appealing when he thought about how much fun it would be to explore parts of the country he’d never been, namely small-town rural America.  At this point in their lives, too, they felt like it was time to start living. Too many people they knew had died young or were waiting for their retirement to pursue their dreams. Melody and Mark didn’t want to wait. Now was the time to regain their footing and enjoy life to the fullest.
Along with physical challenge — which he admits is important to him as a guy — there was also the challenge of putting himself out there in the world and engaging in an entirely unknown experience.
Ignoring the well-documented routes of seasoned cross-country cyclists, Mark mapped out his own.
“He didn’t want to see what everyone else saw,” Melody explains. “He wanted to see the world. Talk to real people and hear what they have to say about what about makes them tick.”
That’s part of the journey, too, according to Melody, who along with documenting Mark’s physical journey, has her own questions to ask, namely what makes people feel alive, which she’s compiling in a documentary film of her own.
The answers to this question have ranged from the predictable (sex, love, nature, family) to the more surprising teenager in rural Idaho who feels alive when belting rock lyrics, and more disheartenedly, the middle-age farm wife who can’t remember the last time she felt alive.
Overall, there has not been one universal theme, which has surprised the couple so far. But there are still miles to go.
For now, the couple is appreciating the response people are having to Mark and the ways in which his journey by proxy is inspiring others to think about their own dreams and questioning their own respective passions. Mark, in particular, was touched by a Vietnam vet who called him a hero and took the time to approach him and just start talking. That meant a lot to him, he explains, the fact that this guy took the time to tell Mark how happy it made him to see Mark on his bike.
“That’s the thing,” Melody says, leaning into Mark’s shoulder. “When people see what he’s doing they remember their best selves.”
It’s about being alive, she insists. Not just passing through life on the way to some destination, but igniting a few fires along the way.


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