Pete Cornell, left, and son Dan Cornell in a happy moment before Pete was killed in a bicycle-semi-trailer truck collision. (Courtesy of the Cornell family)
When he was stirred from sleep by another of his nightmares, a few days after his dad's shocking death, Dan Cornell knew what needed to be done. And he knew who had to do it.
"I actually woke my wife up and said, 'Damn it, I gotta finish that ride.'" Cornell recalled Tuesday in a phone interview from Clewiston, Fla., where the 41-year-old South Lyon resident was doing just that, pedaling his way through 800 agonizing miles of pavement this week to finish his late father's final cycling quest.
If all goes according to plan, Cornell will reach the end Friday afternoon in Key West, capping a nearly 5,500-mile journey his father, Pete, a retired Ann Arbor businessman and former All-American wrestler at the University of Michigan, began with friends Joe Muscato and Tom Clark early this past summer.
The three retired Michigan natives — Muscato and Clark are from Waterloo Township — were struck by a semi-trailer truck early in the morning on July 26 on a highway near Dawson, Ga. An investigation into the accident remains open, with no charges yet filed, but Cornell, 64, was killed in the crash. Clark suffered serious injuries and was hospitalized for weeks, while Muscato was treated and released and is now back on his bike, riding along with Cornell's son this week.
Why? Well, that's as easy to understand as it is difficult for his two children to say.
"Because my dad never quit anything," said Amy Armstrong, Dan's older sister, who lives in Saline.
"He was a list-completer, not a list-maker," Dan agreed. "So it really would've bothered him, not finishing this trip."
And that nagging thought is what is driving his son as he searches for closure.
"I haven't gotten it yet, and I don't know if I will," Dan said. "That was kind of the hope. I've had so many people tell me, 'That's great that you're doing this.' But as I've told every one of them, it's more selfish than anything. I'm doing it to help myself. ...
"I was so close to my dad, I had a real difficult time with his passing the way he did, and I was hoping that maybe by me finishing the ride it would give me some sort of inner peace. I felt like until I finished the ride I couldn't move on with my day-to-day life. I couldn't really do anything."
So he left his job as vice president of sales at a local mortgage company, bought a touring bike — "I hadn't been on a bicycle in 25 years," Cornell laughed — and started training. A muscle-bound weightlifter, he's not exactly built for cycling. And his sister, an avid cyclist herself, was more than a little skeptical, especially after riding with him a few times in August.
"But he was pretty adamant about it," she said.
Enough so that he spent the last couple months living in his father's home in Port Charlotte, Fla., and training in warmer weather. He'd go for daily rides with the Big Dogs, the hardcore over-50 crowd in the 500-member Coastal Cruisers Bicycle Club his father joined after he moved to Florida in 2004. And though they're a generation apart, it was as if father and son had become one.
"I kind of fell into this role here the last month or two," Dan said. "It's like 'Groundhog Day,' except I feel like I'm him, which I don't know if I like or not. Some of my dad's biking friends, we'll be in a group and they'll forget and call me 'Pete.'"
His father was hard to forget, though, friends say, with a big personality and a bigger passion to succeed. A two-sport star at Lansing Everett in the mid-1960s, he began his collegiate career at Michigan playing football and wrestling, before focusing on the latter and becoming a three-time All-American and team captain. After college, he built a successful career in real estate, owning his own company and serving as CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Board of Realtors for a decade before his retirement.
His love for athletics never waned, but a bum ankle forced him to give up running and triathlons and focus on cycling, which he eventually did — to an extreme — upon retirement. He traveled to the four corners of the U.S. on cross-country cycling trips — down the Pacific coast from Canada to Mexico, and across the southern U.S. from California to Florida.
Back in 2006, he planned a trip that started in Portland, Ore., and finished in Portland, Maine. Only he had to schedule it around Amy's wedding that summer, timing the 100-mile legs so he'd be close enough to Michigan to make a detour to give his daughter away.
Problem was, he and Muscato got so far ahead of schedule on that trip that he decided just to keep on going, promising Amy he'd finish in time to make it back. He did, but with only a day to spare, renting a van in Maine and racing back for the wedding.
"He made it," Armstrong laughed. "He could barely walk down the aisle. But he made it."
Realizing a dream
Other trips followed, including this ambitious attempt to cross the continent diagonally, beginning on the Arctic Ocean in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and ending in Key West. Last summer, the trio of Michigan riders dodged potholes and wildlife on the Dalton Highway (of "Ice Road Truckers" fame) at the start of a 2,400-mile trip to Edmonton, Alberta. This summer, they picked up where they left off and headed south on a 3,100-mile journey.
"He swore this was going to be his last one," Armstrong said. "But I don't know if I believe him or not. Because he used to send me lots of emails, saying, 'I'm never doing this again.' And I would laugh, because I knew he would."
He would, and he still is, thanks to his son, who began this last leg Dec. 7 with Muscato and a few local cyclists who'd arranged a police escort near Dawson where his father was killed. Since that day, there have been other gestures of kindness, like the woman, Cherie Starr, at the 24-Hour Fitness Center in Lake Placid, Fla., who drove to a nearby town to buy a new tire Tuesday after Cornell had a blowout. (During the three-hour delay, Muscato, a retired tool-and-die maker who's now a personal trainer, ended up teaching a class to a group of senior citizens at the gym.)
"It's amazing," Cornell said. "I was telling my sister, you know, everyone's so cynical about how our society has become. But when you get out and about and meet people, I mean, they amaze you, left and right, wherever you go."
When they finish, they'll be greeted by a few dozen friends and family in Key West, gathering for a weekend celebration of his father's life and his dream to finish that ride.
Which he will, by the way. Because after a dinner with one of his dad's best friends back in Michigan, Dan Cornell had another middle-of-the-night epiphany. He went out and bought a mini-urn to carry his father's ashes with him on this bike trip.
"So my dad's been with me the whole way," Dan said. "He is finishing it. I'm just pedaling."