By Tom Haley
Imagine the scene: You’re pedaling your bicycle on a Texas highway and a car passes with the lyrics of “Against The Wind” by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band spilling out the window. It was one of the big hits of that year and a cyclist’s anthem if there ever was one. Tumbleweeds somersault across the treeless plain. Then, you see the sight you will never forget: The majesty of Big Bend Country is upon Steve and Chris Zeoli. The gorgeous mountain landscape is among the most beautiful vistas anywhere.
Steve Zeoli, asked for a highlight of the bicycle odyssey he took with his brother Chris and two cousins, did not hesitate. It was the Big Bend section of Texas, he said.
“That was our first taste of the real West,” Steve said, pointing to the Big Bend National Park on the map tracing their journey. The map hangs on the wall of his parents’ log home in Hubbardton.
The bicycle journey began on Oct. 5, 1980 and ended on Aug. 20, 1981. The better part of a year and 13,050 miles produced plenty of stories and memories for a lifetime.
You want stories? Walk into Nick and Jody Zeoli’s home on Beebe Pond and you’ll hear some incredible ones.
Nick, Steve and Chris’ father, is 93 and has a storehouse of stories to delight you for hours and hours.
He can tell you about how he grew up in Westport, Conn., with Paul Newman as his neighbor, and played quarterback for Staples High School.
Or how Bruce Jenner — now Caitlin — struggled to get into college due to a learning disability. It was Nick, a longtime athletic director and coach at Wilton (Conn.) High School, who finally helped Jenner land at Graceland College in Iowa. You know the story from there — Olympian, TV reality show star and so on.
Even the story of how Zeoli’s football career ended at Arnold College is notable. If you are going to have someone terminate your football career, it might as well be a player who goes on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams star defensive end Andy Robustelli is the one who delivered the hit during practice at Arnold College that ended it all for Nick Zeoli.
“He hit me right here,” Zeoli said, pointing to his shoulder. “Put me out of commission. I never played football again.”
The late Darrell Sawyer, a legendary high school coach and official at Brattleboro, was a classmate of Zeoli’s at Arnold College, and Fair Haven Union High School Principal Brett Blanchard was a student athlete under his watch at Wilton High.
Zeoli was on the sidelines of the Castleton football team for one of the program’s most exciting games ever, a 38-34 victory over Mount Ida College in October 2010. Mount Ida was driving in an attempt to take the lead in the final minute. Zeoli was halfway out on the field screaming, “Watch the hook-and-ladder. Watch the hook-and-ladder.” Sure enough, the next play, Mount Ida ran the hook-and-ladder play.
Nick got his master’s degree at Columbia, where one of his professors was the famous cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. In 1991, he went to Pakistan to instruct teachers in how to coach those with physical disabilities to play soccer and track. Two years later, he was off to Bangladesh to do the same thing.
He still plays 100 rounds of golf a year at 93.
There are enough stories about Nick Zeoli for a book and one probably should be written. But like most parents, he and Jody would rather talk about the kids. Why not? Daughter Nikki was a national champion in bodybuilding. Chris has competed in the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. Both of their photos hang on the wall.
Then, there’s the map. Always the map. They are proud of Steve and Chris for enduring that 13,050-mile journey. Steve was 24 when he left, and 25 upon returning. Chris was 22 and came back at 23.
It was an unforgettable experience, something the family still treasures.
“I believe you can’t really appreciate America driving as much as you can bicycling,” Steve said. “You can feel the change in the landscape and experience all the smells and all the sounds.”
They saw the Badlands in South Dakota live up to its name. They witnessed a dramatic lightning bolt just before what Steve calls “a super big wind” overturned campers. They learned that a tornado had touched down nearby.
They allowed themselves the luxury of a motel in Starkville, Miss., for Thanksgiving.
“About two nights a month we stayed in a motel,” Steve said. “All four of us stayed in the same room. Just being in a motel felt like splurging.”
They would eat at diners sometimes, to drink in the local color.
They met an Englishman named John bicycling in the Everglades. His original plan was to ride around Miami. Instead he rode all the way to California with them.
After arriving in Oregon, they saw a memorial to the Oregon Trail. Steve had done some reading on the Oregon Trail, and it suddenly hit him how much better they had it on bicycles than the pioneers attempting to navigate the Oregon Trail in horse and wagon.
“On a really good day, their travel was 15 miles. That is what we did in an hour,” Steve said.
They learned how big the country was.
They also learned how small it can be. It was at the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico that they spotted a jeep with Connecticut license plates. It turned out to be a couple named George and Betsy from Greenwich, not far from the Zeoli home in Connecticut. They would encounter George and Betsy again at the Grand Canyon and at Sequoia National park in California.
Steve still casually rides a bicycle. Chris, who lives in Middlebury, is more zealous about the pastime. He and his wife will do a double gap ride before breakfast — Middlebury Gap and Brandon Gap, Chris said.
Nick could go on about Robustelli, Newman and Jenner. But like all good parents, he and Jody would rather talk about the kids.
The road map of the cross-country bicycle odyssey is filled with stories, just like Nick Zeoli’s life.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @RHSportsGuy