It’s July 4, and as I ride my bike through Chicago, the same place where the leader of our country started his own journey for change, I’ve been thinking about what America means to me. The list is long, and not everything on it is good. But that quintessential American value, our right to the pursuit of happiness, lives on.
My idea of happiness strikes many as odd. Here’s what I enjoy: biking across America on a three-month, 14,000-mile journey where I climb the highest peak in every one of the lower 48 states. Or running 100 miles in 24 hours, from New York City, where I live, to Long Island, in the dead of summer. Or running more than 2,500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from Canada to Mexico in 60 days —averaging more than 40 miles a day.
Preparing for and carrying out these events is hard, it’s tiring, it sucks, but when it’s over it can be the best experience imaginable. Why do I do it? Because I’ve realized my pursuit of happiness means using whatever I’ve got to help make the world a better place. For me, that means raising funds for research to help cure Parkinson’s disease, an insidious brain disorder my mom was diagnosed with when I was 12.
Figuring out how to take the future into my own hands was anything but obvious at the time. The speaker at my high school graduation told me I could fix the world, but the world’s problems seemed so big and numerous. Where would I begin? For many of my classmates at Yale, the road ahead was clear: a job on Wall Street or in a law firm. But it didn’t seem like they felt they were creating a better future — for themselves or for our country. Were they pursuing happiness or just a healthy salary?
Then, five years ago, an impromptu solo hiking trip through one of our nation’s greatest natural wonders changed everything. Back home, my mom’s Parkinson’s was getting worse, and though she didn’t want her kids to worry, we couldn’t help it. On a road trip out west, running through the Grand Canyon seemed like a good distraction. At the end of the day, nursing a beer on the Canyon’s south rim, I reviewed a trail map. Tracing my route with my finger, I was shocked to discover I’d covered 40 miles in just a few hours in the hot sun. I checked and re-checked the map. It was no mistake. Was this my “road less traveled” — my way to pursue happiness and contribute to a better future? Maybe I was born for the trail.
I’m grateful to my mother most of all for this: her determination in the face of illness literally put me on a path to my life’s purpose. Only months later, I would be working at The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and planning crazy fundraising feats like the one I’m on now, Tour de Fox, in her honor.
And I’m grateful to my country. While it’s far from perfect, on July 4, let’s not take for granted the incredible freedom we are given to pursue our happiness… and our right to determine for ourselves what that is.
Sam Fox (no relation to Michael J. Fox) is passing through Chicago today, 33 days into his 103-day cross-country odyssey, Tour de Fox (tourdefox.org), which aims to raise $1 million for The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. He invites you to pursue the happiness that comes from contributing.