Think about the most unusual person you know, then spend some time with retired East Carolina University math professor Carroll Webber. See if you've discovered a new No. 1. Webber, 77 and minus two teeth he knocked out this month in a downhill spill outside of Fredericksburg, Va., passed through Durham last week as part of a group bicycle ride to promote the East Coast Greenway, a work in progress that will eventually become a paved trail for non-motorized travel that will run the length of the East Coast.
The greenway, still a decade or two from completion, is a dream come true for Webber and his wife of 57 years, Edith, who have been diehard bicyclists for more than three decades.
One of my earliest memories of the pair was seeing them shortly after their arrival in Manhattan in May 1978 following a six-day ride they took on a tandem bicycle from Greenville to the First United Nations Special Session on Disarmament.
Carroll, who had sat at the controls for the trip, was weathered, to say the least. His face was scorched by the sun, and his lips were flaked with broken skin from many hours of wind burn. I remember spending much of my time in New York that weekend telling scores of people about the Webbers and their pedaling for peace.
Like most Americans, Carroll Webber was raised in this culture of conspicuous consumption. Unlike most of the rest of us, Webber has spent a great deal of his later life trying to reduce his reliance on fossil fuels. He and Edith sold their last motor vehicle about 20 years ago, and they've been relying primarily on bicycles and buses for travel ever since. Trips to the grocery store, trips to the Greenville Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and trips to faraway places have been by bicycle for the Webbers. They've biked the 80-plus miles to Raleigh more times than they can remember.
Webber said the summer of 1968 was "a giant step" in his cycling life. He and Edith bought three bicycles in Madrid and, with their 11-year- old daughter, Eleanor, they "climbed the hill to Escorial" and were off on a tour of some of Europe's great cities: Bilbao, Bordeaux, Tulle, Angers, St. Malo, Southampton, London, Liverpool, Dublin, Belfast, Glasgow, Loch Lomond, Perth, Edinburgh, the Lake District, York, Dover, Bruges, Rotterdam, and the Hague (where they sold the bikes). They stayed in youth hostels or camped most of the way, and the total cost of the 88-day vacation was $435 a person, Webber says--and that included train rides from Amsterdam to Barcelona and a rental car to go from Barcelona to Madrid.
He also remembers the time in 1979 when he bought a $50 bike at Sears in Chicago, assembled it with phone advice from a friend, and rode to Pittsburgh, selling it there for $25.
Webber, a vegetarian who always travels with a bag of dry gruel to munch on, might join you at a restaurant table, but he's likely to eat from his own bag--or grab someone's abandoned leftovers.
Using his math skills, Webber can calculate quickly how much his body weight will lower the efficiency of a car engine. He has often passed up car rides for that reason.
In the future, humans will have to learn to survive without reliance on fossil fuels, Webber says. Our cars, factories and homes, "all of them are burning up what the sun spent at least tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of years in storing in frozen energy, so to speak. There's only so much."
Webber says oil will likely run out in about 50 years, gas in 100 and even coal in a few centuries, leaving the Earth on empty except for renewable options such as hydropower, geothermal energy, wind energy, tidal energy, biomass and solar energy.
Webber says humans should learn to find ways to convert the renewable forces of energy and to conserve energy and "perhaps live a little bit more Spartanly than sometimes we normally do."
Webber joined the greenway tour for its third stage from Washington, D.C., to Charleston, S.C., a distance of 696 miles.
Tour organizer Tony Barrett said he has been impressed by Webber's intellect. "He is a sharp guy," Barrett said. "He's very quiet and very unassuming. He's determined and persistent."
Despite a 911 call after his crash, Barrett said Webber refused treatment and got back in the saddle. "I'm going to continue with this ride," Barrett says Webber told him. Despite injuring his shoulder and losing two teeth in the spill, Webber seemed more disappointed by his broken electric razor than by his broken teeth.
"I just feel better when I can use less," Webber said in an interview on the tour's rest day in Durham. "This morning I felt bad shaving because my electric razor broke down. I had to repair it. It broke down again and so I'm using a razor blade and hot water, and that's less efficient than using an electric razor. So I did use quite a lot of hot water to shave and that's something I don't feel good about."
What Webber does feel good about is all the friends he has made on his many biking trips.
"Cycling has enabled us to cover America's vast distances, during which we've made many new friends," Webber says. They were friends who rescued him and Edith from mosquitoes in South Carolina and shared their warm homemade bread in Italy. He remembers the house key a friend in Galveston left for them because the home owner was out of town--"We've not met her face-to-face yet," Webber said. Another time in Texas, the Webbers were left "as sole overnight custodians" of a Texas church.
"The East Coast Greenway will offer millions of cyclists, old and new, their own unique adventures in a healthy, economical and ecological way that is safe and open to non-motorized people of all ages and abilities, including walkers, skaters, skiers, wheelchair users and equestrians," Webber says. "It will connect town to city and homes to schools and workplaces. It will contribute mightily to community, arguably the greatest need of our troubled world today."
Before he got off the phone, Webber had one last word of advice.
"Just emphasize that it's a healthy thing to do; that we're obese and it's not just the environment we're saving. We're saving ourselves directly."
For more information about the East Coast Greenway, go to www.greenway.org.