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'Shadow of a Wheel' documentary continues this week on PBS

Riders pose at the Grand Canyon. Riders pose at the Grand Canyon.

“Shadow of a Wheel,” the four-part documentary by filmmaker Paul Bonesteel about the ride across America 31 teenagers made in 1982, premiered Thursday night on PBS-NC and continues for the next three Thursday nights. Here's the Lightning's feature on the film by Bonesteel, who is from Hendersonville, from June 7. Go here to watch the trailer.


Oh, let it rock, let it roll
Let the Bible belt come and save my soul
Holdin’ on to sixteen as long as you can
Change is coming ‘round real soon
Make us women and men

'Jack and Diane'

John Cougar Mellencamp, 1982



In the spring of 1982, Chuck Williford sent out a news release seeking teenagers from North Carolina willing to bicycle across America to raise money to combat M.S.

A 16-year-old kid from Hendersonville, Paul Bonesteel, was one of 31 teenagers who said yes.
“I had been riding my bike pretty seriously for a few years, and I had done some racing, but I was mostly intrigued about being gone for the summer and accomplishing something really kind of exciting,” Bonesteel said.
“I was similar to a lot of kids on the ride. We had all had some exposure, whether it was through Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts or fundraising in our schools, where we knocked on doors (to raise money). I wanted to be gone for the summer and I wanted to see the country. Every 16-year-old wants to get out of the house. That was me.”
So the kid with wanderlust and a decent bike, joined by West Henderson High School student Randy Wulff and 29 other “Spokesmen for America,” boarded a passenger jet at the Charlotte airport bound for Long Beach, California, where the coast-to-coast ride would begin.
Forty years later, Bonesteel, a documentary director and producer based in Asheville, has completed a feature film and a four-part television series on the Coast to Coast Ride for M.S.. Bonesteel and several riders will celebrate the local premiere of “Shadow of a Wheel” when it screens at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Fine Arts Theatre in Asheville.
While the 31 riders and five adults who made the trip bonded from the challenges and triumphs of a 3,600-mile ride across American, they never stayed in touch. Facebook had not been invented yet. The first reunion of riders happened in 2012 at Cape Hatteras, the cross-country finish line. Starting around 2012, Bonesteel and a core group branched out to try and find everyone. They used 1982 addresses and home phone numbers — in a few cases finding parents still living in the same home. They combed local newspapers for wedding announcements and obituaries and, this time, used Facebook and email.

 * * *

Because rider groups at times were separated by as much as 30 miles, Bonesteel realized as he mined memories that his fellow riders had stories and scenes he’d never known existed.
“That’s when all the layers and all the variations on the experience started to come together,” he said. “It made me intrigued to want to talk to and interview people because my experience was just one, and I wanted to hear what it was like for other folks that had had time to ruminate and think about it.”
Adventures were countless and often harrowing: pedaling through sun-drenched 130-degree heat, stinging sandstorms and brutal headwinds, climbing 10,850 feet to summit the Rockies, outrunning thunder and lightning in Kansas, enduring road hazards, drafting behind tractor-trailers, suffering from homesickness, saddle soreness, hunger and thirst. Luckily, the journey was captured at the time by Williford’s video camera and by still photos made by Rick Foster, one of four adult riders. Weaving the images into the documentary, Bonesteel bridges the visual with interviews of the riders. Amazingly, the sleuthing tracked down nearly all the riders; 20 of 26 people who made the eight-week journey sat for interviews — enthusiastically.

As a score of interviews cracked open one personal account after another, a theme emerged. Like Bonesteel, everyone had drawn on the experience all their lives, especially when times were hard, especially when a hill seemed too steep to surmount.
“Did we do that? Damn right we did,” John Ballas said of the trip. “And we did it successfully. We kicked ass. No matter how tired you were, no matter how hungry you were, no matter how much you missed home — every morning you just got on your bike and rode. You just get on your bike and ride.”
Valerie Groesbeck drew on the experience when she was “going through a period of divorce with three itty bitty little kids, no child support. But I was at peace,” she said, “that I can do this.”
“The longer you do something physical,” Mike Uhrich observed, “you start to realize that it’s more mental than it really is physical.”


 * * *


Toward the end of the film, Bonesteel reports that he got the answer to the question that became the movie’s subtitle, Can one bike ride change your life?
“After many days of interviews and a deep dive back with many of my fellow riders, it’s pretty clear that these 54 days on a bike in the summer of 1982 had a massive impact on our lives,” he says. “It was many things, of course, but the exposure to Chuck and his big dream during those influential teenage years was huge. It took some time for most of us to realize it. But there’s no doubt it changed us and maybe we changed the world a little bit.”
He points out that rides across America have continued to raise millions of dollars for M.S. research and also boasts that Chuck Williford’s dream in 1982 remains the only M.S. ride across America by teenagers.
The kids had no way of knowing that after they parted ways at Cape Hatteras, they’d never seen Chuck again. A private pilot, he died in plane crash in November of that year at age 28.

 * * *


A longtime documentary filmmaker (“The Mystery of George Masa,” “Muni” and “The Day Carl Sandburg Died”), Bonesteel, 57, said the movie was warmly received when it premiered in April at the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem. In Asheville on Thursday night, he and several other riders will be seated on stage for a Q&A.

“As we produced the thing and asked questions, I really didn’t know if everyone felt the same way about the ride as I did,” he said. “I try to do documentary films that are actually an investigation of sorts. I wanted to investigate the reality of whether my sentimentality or my passion for looking back at this was consistent with the others. I learned that everyone faces challenges in life. If you haven’t proven to yourself that you can survive some stuff — we kind of learned that when we were teenagers on our bikes — life can be really hard.”
He points out that, although the desire to join the ride came from him, the decision came down to his parents, Georgia and Pete Bonesteel.
“Our parents said yes,” he said. “They could have said no. That was a huge game changer for me.”
So, he puts it on parents to liberate their children from the safe, the sheltered, the risk-free. We’re only as impressionable once. Listen, he might advise, to John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane,” the soundtrack of the summer of 1982:


Holdin’ on to sixteen as long as you can
Change is coming ‘round real soon
Make us women and men


“I hope people take away that kids doing hard things when they’re young is really important,” said Bonesteel, filmmaker and veteran Spokesman for America. “Those things just broaden your universe, and they’re more impactful when you’re young.”

* * * * *

“Shadow of a Wheel” has its Western North Carolina premiere at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 8, at the Fine Arts Cinema in Asheville and will be screened at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (High Gravity Room) at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 28.  For tickets click here. The four-part series airs on PBS-NC starting Thursday, July 6, and for the following three Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.