Biking for Books ... All the Way Across the Country

Rich McKinless believes books are the way to open the windows of the world to children. So he spent the summer pedaling across America to raise awareness and money for literacy.

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Rich McKinless and son Chris

McKinless, 57, of Arlington, Va., ended a 4,351-mile, “sea to shining sea” cycling journey on Sept. 28 and raised more than $45,000 for First Book, a nonprofit that provides access to new books for children from low-income families. He became acquainted with the organization while working at audit and tax firm KPMG, from which he retired in 2011.

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“A lot of these kids have never had anything new,” which makes brand-new books so special, McKinless says. Beyond owning the book, “If you learn to read and love to read you can explore the world.”

So the father of four, who had long wanted to bike across the country, decided now was the time to make the trip and do something for a worthy cause. He set up the blog and fundraising site Biking for Books. Meanwhile, McKinless’ oldest son, Chris, 30, had just completed his medical residency and agreed to bike with him. And his wife, Kathy, handled trip logistics, driving the support van and arranging for food and accommodations along the way.

The three drove from Virginia to the West Coast, kicking off the journey at Seaside, Ore., on July 4. They followed the Lewis and Clark trail to St. Louis and then made up the route from there, experiencing a lot of small-town America. The openness and kindness of people along the way was “an eye-opening experience,” McKinless says, so much so that he set aside his big-city cynicism and gained a new perspective on everyday Americans.

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McKinless, center, with Chris and father, Robert

A highlight was the week when McKinless’ 87-year-old father, Robert, also an avid biker, joined in. “That was special,” McKinless says. “He’s my hero.”

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The trip also included two visits to the emergency room – one when flying gravel scratched Chris's cornea and another when a dog bit McKinless and he needed rabies shots.

But in the end it was worth it. After all, the whole thing is about books for kids. “You’ve got to get kids early when it comes to reading,” McKinless says. “Once they fall behind, they’re permanently behind.”

Photos: Courtesy of Rich McKinless

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