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Riding for Redemption : The Conna family set out to cross the country by bike, retracing their grandfather's trek 71 years ago. They braved illness and searing Mojave heat. All in hope of a sign of love from a dying man.

August 01, 1994|JIM MITCHELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The battered and dusty mountain bike leaned against the wall of a roadside market, looking as forlorn as the building that supported it.

Few motorists usually stop at the Afton Road exit of Interstate 15 between Las Vegas and Barstow. But on this 100-degree Tuesday in July, business was brisk as hot, tired gamblers returning to Southern California pushed through the doors in a steady stream.

Inside, David Conna, 32, paced in his cycling togs, sweating and appearing on the verge of collapse. At a nearby table, his 22-year-old sister, Sheri, stared vacantly, her eyes puffy from two days of crying. Their mother, Mary Lou, 61, appeared to be sleepwalking as she returned to the table with a soft drink for her daughter.

This bedraggled clan from Massachusetts was winding up a tortuous two-month journey that was part bicycle excursion, part quest for intergenerational redemption, part test of the human spirit. The route mimicked one pedaled 71 years earlier by a stubborn young Easterner--the now-infirm family patriarch whose approval they are seeking.

"My grandfather rode his bicycle from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in 1923," Conna explained. "It was a single-speed bike called an Arrow. We're following his same route."

He went to the car, rummaged through the piles of clothing, food and empty soda cans and retrieved a copy of a thin, soft-covered book titled, "Frisco or Bust--Frank P. Kolbe on the Ride of his Life."

Inside the front cover, a photograph depicts his grandfather, Frank Kolbe, holding the sweeping handlebars of his bicycle, which he nicknamed "Black Beauty." His young face is a mask of fierce determination.

Kolbe, 91, lives in Doylestown, Pa., outside Philadelphia. He is blind from the effects of glaucoma. Arthritis and an untreated back injury caused by a traffic accident cost him the use of his legs. He has been bedridden for more than two years.

Conna, an energy conservation consultant from Weston, Mass., nodded toward his family's table: "Mom rode her bike with us from Westboro (Mass.) to Philadelphia, but she could only do about 40 or 50 miles a day. Now she's driving that green Subaru out there. She keeps us in food and water."

And his sister?

"Sheri got real, real sick outside Las Vegas," he said. "It's been one incredibly long trip, and the last couple of days have been real, real tough."

The journey began, Conna said, with very little preparation. Neither he nor his sister had been on an extended bicycle trip; his mother hadn't been on a bicycle for years.

Last year, when Mary Lou and her children began making plans to duplicate her father's bicycle adventure, she went to tell him the news.

"My dad has been praying to die for I don't know how long," she said. "When the kids told them about their trip, he said to them, 'Well, I'm going to try to stay alive until you return.' "

"He's a distant character, and hard to get close to," David said. "He doesn't even know our names. He refers to Sheri and me as, 'that boy' and 'that girl.' "

"I'm probably as close to Dad as any of my brothers or sisters," Mary Lou said, "and I don't think I really know him, either. I don't think anybody does."

In fact, the family members weren't sure what drove them to attempt to duplicate Kolbe's feat and spent the next three days, in roadside restaurants and campsites in the Mojave Desert, discussing it. After consulting with other family members, they reached a consensus: The arduous trip was undertaken not as a tribute to Kolbe, but to make some kind of connection to him--a last-ditch effort to win his approval.

"That's a tough thing to do," said Bill Kolbe, a Garret, Md., high school English teacher, one of Frank Kolbe's six children and the unofficial family historian. "He's not a guy you go and talk to."

Bill Kolbe's bid for approval came when he decided to apply his writing skills to a huge crate of letters and newspaper articles about his father's bicycle journey. After three years of effort, he presented the finished product to his father--the same booklet the Connas used as their trip guide.

"His first comment was, it wasn't thick enough," Bill Kolbe recalled. But he read the narrative to his now-blind father, and the old man said he could see his exploits in his son's words. "That made me feel good, and that was all I could ask for."

*

Franklin Pierce Kolbe was born in 1903, the son of a Presbyterian circuit preacher. His father, Frank Kolbe Sr., was one of four brothers who emigrated from Prussia in the late 1800s. Before long, the Kolbe brothers would own large chunks of real estate in the business district of Doylestown.

Two weeks after Frank Jr. was born, his father died while visiting Arizona.

As a child, Frank was a loner, and one of his few friends was another loner: James Michener, an orphan who lived at the county poorhouse nearby. Even after Michener became one of America's most popular authors, he continued to visit the Kolbe home, Bill Kolbe said.

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