Eric Hites was 567 pounds, living in his parents’ house in Indiana after his wife left him for another man, unemployed, and had a choice to make. He could do the easy thing (nothing) or he could make a lifestyle change to get a handle back on his health and his life. It was while listening to The Proclaimers’ 1980 hit “I’m Gonna Be” that he realized he could get himself back in shape and win his wife back in one grand gesture; he would bike over 3,000 miles, from one coast to the other, in the name of health and love.
He has created a blog dedicated to the experience and given it the self-deprecating title “Fat Guy Across America.” Just recently, he hit New York City and is heading towards Philadelphia.
As Hites slowly winds his way across the states he’s pedaling against more than just a strong wind. His ride has a strong online following (26,000 people are tracking the journey on Facebook), and with that online following comes some people who are critical of his quest. They think he’s lying about biking all the way across the country, and they criticize him for still eating junk food and for still smoking cigarettes as he bikes.
A recent video he posted about his progress has 110 comments on Facebook, and a large number of those are comments from people who are skeptical about whether or not he’s lost weight or is actually improving his health at all. They put his photos under a microscope. One commenter does a side-by-side analysis and concludes that he’s gained weight on the ride rather than lost it. Another commenter says “I’ve looked for discrepancies in the pictures that would explain why his face looks so much bigger now,” while another asks for him to give health information like blood pressure measurements, heart rate, and lung capacity as evidence that he is, in fact, healthier in light of the accusations.
“[The critics are] probably the hardest thing about this trip,” Hites wife, who got back together with him in Rhode Island and is accompanying him on the trip for moral support, told the New York Times.
That’s a big statement, seeing as almost anyone would imagine that the hardest part of the trip would be the 3,000+ mile journey that is being chipped away at in 15-20 mile increments. Instead, it’s not the physical feat that feels most trying, but the attempts to stay above the criticism.
Hites is still pedaling on despite this because he seems to be a remarkably grounded person, both in regards to his health and his goals for the ride. To even begin a feat like this required a grounding in the fact that he was facing a downward spiral out of which the only way was to get a handle on his health.
His health problems, in fact, played a large part in the dissolution of his marriage. He was unable to engage with people the way he wanted; he gained so much weight that it was tough to find a job, and his wife speaks openly about how problematic it was for their marriage. It’s hard to be engaged, present, and deeply attentive when you are in excess, and 567 pounds was certainly an excess.
Rather than ignoring that fact or resigning himself to it, Hites grounded himself in the reality of his weight. He got in touch with the way things were, rather than how they should be, and made space for change. First, he considered getting surgery to lower his weight first, but then realized that he could make a romantic gesture and get in shape at the same time.
It is that groundedness and centeredness that leads to his ability to weather the critical comments about his ride. In response to the person inquiring about his blood pressure and lung capacity on Facebook, he wrote “I know I can do it, but I have to deal daily with your group doing everything in your power to stop me […] I’ve said in posts how I’m breathing better able to pedal longer, ride longer distances. My clothing fits better and I have more energy. I’ve said all of this, but when I say that your group asks for something else every time.”
Because he focuses on what he knows to be true (that he’s breathing better, can pedal longer, etc.), the critics have not yet gotten to him enough to cease his ride. He grounds himself in the purpose of the ride, in the reality that he’s bringing into the journey. Even though he’s working to be healthier, he is still an overweight smoker.
Ditching the cigarettes and fast food, which were prominent features in his life for years, is simply not going to happen overnight. So he doesn’t give himself a hard time about the occasional digression, and doesn’t listen to the people who accuse him of not being serious enough about the ride because of it. He knows that the ride is also a way to sight-see the United States, so he doesn’t pay attention to those who are upset that he is taking a zig-zag route to the West Coast. The ride is, mainly, a way to lost weight, have an adventure, and win back the woman he loves.
To make it better, he sees a lot of good out on the road too. People, for the most part, are kind and generous when they hear about his goals. Kids were cheering him as he biked into New York. A bike shop gave him a newer, nicer bike after hearing about the trip. A fan let him and his wife stay in her house for two nights, and cooked them dinner while they were there. Each of those people were strangers who have given time or goods to the cause, to a brave mission that makes a huge statement and will hopefully change a couple’s life for the better.
When all is taken into consideration, it’s easy to rise above the haters.
Photographer: Andrew Louis