Paul Neal’s life is about to come full circle – once again turning south and then due west, spinning back into the unknown like the wheels of his bike.
In 1967, when his goal appeared to be setting a record for the number of schools that had expelled him, the 18-year-old set off on a 3,000-mile wild hair from his hometown of Rock Hill, aiming his Schwinn Paramount 10-speed beyond anywhere he had ever been, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
He entered Atlanta weaving through rush-hour traffic on Interstate 85 with a police helicopter on his tail. He slept in jails in Texas, rode at night with the help of two Western Auto flashlights taped to his handlebars, and he helped save a boy’s life in New Mexico.
Clint Eastwood, who was making “Hang ‘Em High” at the time, pushed his martini aside to shake his hand in the bar of a Ramada. When the then-emerging movie star took the boy outside for a photograph, Alan Hale,“The Skipper” from Gilligan’s Island, snapped the shot.
At points along the way, when he rode into wind gusts all day or napped at night in the middle of some desert two-lane to avoid the nesting tarantulas, the teenager made a promise to himself: If he could make it all the way to Los Angeles, he’d set out on the very same trip, 50 years in the future. What teenager ever looks that far ahead?
Paul Neal did. Now, the 68-year-old is about to make good on his lifelong IOU.
On Monday, Neal again will leave from the Holiday Inn in Rock Hill just after sun-up and start peddling south. He’ll travel roughly 100 miles a day, retracing as best he can his earlier route. With few nods to age and technology, Neal plans to arrive in southern California in the same 38 days he took to discover America – and himself – a lifetime ago. As of now, he’ll ride almost all of it alone.
Some of his friends think he’s nuts. Neal also is traveling at the wrong time (into worsening heat) and in the wrong direction (directly into the prevailing, westward wind). Eastwood, in a line from “Two Mules for Sister Sara,” sums up the skeptics’ sentiment pretty well: “Everybody’s got a right to be a sucker … once.”
To the surprise of absolutely no one who knows him, Neal doesn’t see it that way. The impromptu pledge made by the boy he had been, which he was reminded of by a friend two years ago, carries even more significance today, he says.
“I never expected to live this long. Now I have lived too long. Now I’ve got to do this,” Neal says. “You wake up one day and wonder where your life went. Now, I feel like I can complete a circle, and then I can get old.”
Then and now, there’s a certain Gumpian quality to Neal’s adventures, which have always been buoyed by an optimist’s faith that the unexplored roads of life will lead him where he needs to be.
Libby Neely, a longtime friend and bike-riding companion, puts it this way: “Paul doesn’t hesitate. He puts it out there. I think it’s kind of disrespecting to Paul to say that there’s no way he’s going to make it.”
Jennifer Glenn, a Rock Hill massage therapist helping plan Neal’s itinerary, says the trek offers an example to others.
“Too many of us are too chicken**** to go for the Full Monty,” she says.
Neal, while he puts it less colorfully, doesn’t back away from the impact the odysseys have had on his life. The first ride, he says, proved that he was not just a screw-up. “It taught me that I could do anything I wanted to do, if I really wanted to do it, and if I didn’t give up.”
Thirty years later, that knowledge would lead Neal to make a second promise, one that probably saved his life.
Today, he says he has no intention of breaking the 50-year promise, even if it was made by a hell-bent kid.
And here’s one of the best parts: Neal fully expects to meet up with Eastwood along the way.
‘I was raised better’
Neal has always been pretty good with a bike. As a boy, it was his life that kept ending up in the ditch.
He was popular, charismatic and had the short-haired, bright-eyed look of a choir boy. But Neal kept getting thrown out of the Christian boarding schools that his parents hoped would salvage something of their youngest child.
As a student at the highly conservative Bob Jones Academy in Greenville, S.C., he and five of his classmates spent an afternoon at a mall seeing who could shoplift the highest retail value, a competitive crime spree brainstormed by Neal that got them all booted from the Christian school. Back home, his father resigned as deacon and song leader at his Baptist church because he could not control his family.
It nearly got much worse. During his junior year, he and a classmate from a Christian school in Savannah walked into a country store, each carrying a loaded pistol. To his relief then and now, his hands and legs were shaking too hard for him to go through with the plan. “I was raised better than that,” he says now.
Neal needed a change. In early June 1967 and with next to no training, he left Rock Hill on his bike with two white T-shirts, a pair of bike shorts and some tennis shoes he bought at his hometown Belk. He lined up a few sponsors, and as a promotional gig arranged by his mother, he stayed at Holiday Inns for free. But by Montgomery, Ala., with only a few days of riding behind him, Neal already was sunburned and sore-legged and thinking of turning back.
Instead, he says, he took a day to rest. He drank a lot of sweet tea. He fell in love with a girl he met at the Holiday Inn pool. And then he pressed on – covering in reverse the path of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march from two years before; bunking for a night in a frat house at all-black Grambling University in Louisiana, where Neal says he was welcomed despite having a Confederate flag on his handlebars.
Neal kept a journal. He appeared in the newspapers and on the TV and radio shows of the big and little places that glided by. At every state line, the boy who had never been west of Tennessee stopped to commemorate another first.
Sometimes he traveled by night. When he needed a break, he’d scan the horizons for headlights, then stretch out on the still warm pavement for naps. Invariably, he says, the tarantulas he tried not to disturb in the roadside desert would have crawled out to greet him when he awoke.
On June 29, Neal was a half-day late getting out of El Paso, Texas. He crossed into New Mexico under darkening skies, and peddled straight into a storm.
The boy under the shed
Neal was a mile from the Holiday Inn in Las Cruces when the combination of wind, rain and sand raked across him, and he took cover at a service station. By now he’d ridden close to 2,000 miles. He could have been anywhere. Turns out he was right where he needed to be.
“A small 11-year-old boy came running across a field,” Neal wrote in his journal. “He said that his friend had been fallen on by a house.”
Neal told the station owner to call an ambulance. He took off running, back into the storm. A football field away, he heard a boy crying under a collapsed shed. Lorenzo Romney was 10.
Today, Romney is a doctor living in a small town, outside of Kansas City. On his Facebook page, the 60-year-old is photographed with his bike.
Asked in an email by Neal’s friend, Libby Neely, if he is the same Romney, the doctor replied, “I am the boy! Please convey my appreciation!”
A second promise
Neal’s trip officially ended with a plane ride home.
One year of college led to a tour with the Marines. Neal owned a bike shop in Rock Hill, then a limousine service. Now he drives for Uber. He went bankrupt once. He had several marriages that did not last, which led to one that has. Neal has never gotten off his bike, and for decades has been considered among Rock Hill’s best competitive cyclists in what is still a bike-riding town.
For most of that time, Neal was deep into heavy drugs.
He was introduced to marijuana in high school by a classmate – a preacher’s son – at one of his Christian schools. In the Marines while stationed in the Far East, he took a liking to opium. On his trip home, he says, he stowed two hits of high-grade LSD under an insignia on his dress uniform.
Twenty-five years later, Neal’s life nearly ended in a Rock Hill motel room when he snorted a three-day supply of cocaine in a single afternoon. In the throes of the resulting overdose, he made himself another promise: Never again.
As with an earlier long and uncertain journey, Neal found himself bound by his word. He has been clean and sober for 22 years. Now, he has one last big promise to keep.
When Neal takes long rides, the tunes from the songbook of his life often slip into his mind. The other day it was “Sherry” by the Four Seasons, which showed up in record stores 55 years ago.
Neal remembers every word. In the middle of a phone interview, he breaks out into a couple of bleats of the song’s trademark falsetto, in which a boy asks a girl to “come, come, come out tonight,” regardless of where the moment might lead.
It’s easy to see that the road again is serenading Paul Neal.
Or maybe he is beckoning to all of us.
Researcher Maria David contributed.
Follow Paul Neal on Facebook
The 68-year-old rider will make daily posts during his 3,000-mile journey. You can read along at https://www.facebook.com/Paul-Neal-126102731290339/