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Vol. LXI, No. 37
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
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Princeton Cyclist's Cross Country Ride Raises 32K for Middle Earth Charity

Linda Arntzenius

"An amazing adventure." That's how Natalie Morawsky described the cross-country bicycle ride that she began on May 20 when she dipped her back tire in the Atlantic Ocean and ended three months later when she dipped her front tire in the Pacific.

Ms. Morawsky, who grew up in northern New Jersey and lives with her husband Paul Mudge on Governors Lane, took a leave of absence from her job with National Starch and Chemical to undertake the trip.

Besides achieving a personal goal, Ms. Morawsky raised $32, 490 for Middle Earth, a charity she became involved with through her employer, which pledged of $2 for every mile she covered, up to $8,200.

Always a keen recreational cyclist, Ms. Morawsky, who is in her early forties, began serious cycling after a 150-mile ride from Cherry Hill to Ocean City five years ago. The idea for a more challenging cross-country ride had been in her mind for some time, she said.

At first, she thought she might try a 500-mile ride from Fairbanks to Anchorage in Alaska but when that just didn't seem big enough, she set her sights on tackling a cross-country trip.

"The idea really took on texture and meaning when it dawned on me to link my personal goal with the charity fundraising goal."

As a board member for Middle Earth, Ms. Morawsky had been impressed with the non-profit's track record. Middle Earth operates two community youth centers in Bridgewater and Bound Brook, where adults provide a safe, supervised environment for more than 500 kids. In addition to recreational activities, the centers run programs focused on career and education development, decision-making skills, community service, girls' and music groups.

"Natalie brings a great deal of business acumen of the sort that is important for a non-profit such as ours," said Middle Earth Director Don Puntillo. "Unlike most of Middle Earth's funding, which comes in the form of grants that are earmarked for specific needs, the funds raised by Natalie are unrestricted," said Mr. Puntillo, a veteran of four bicycle trips himself.

Anticipating Ms. Morowsky's fundraising success, the agency invested in a movie camera and editing equipment, which the kids have already used to create DVDs, learning the technology and marketable communication skills at the same time.

"We work with kids who don't get a lot of direction and are challenged in terms of the opportunities available to them, so any chance we have of increasing their communication skills and making them better prepared for the future is greatly valued," said Mr. Puntillo.

"I know this trip was a dream come true for her and I had no doubt that she'd do it," he said.

3 Million Spins

Throughout her journey, a Web site:, recorded Ms. Morawsky's progress. Taking its name from the number of wheel spins estimated for the 4,400 mile trip, the site recorded each day's of cycling from day 1 in Yorktown, Va., at the start of the Trans America Trail, until day 78 in Florence, Or., exactly 4,092 miles or 3,057,000 bicycle wheel revolutions later.

As Ms. Morawsky's journal records, she reached a maximum speed of 44.5 mph, near the Colorado/Wyoming border.

Highlights include meeting and greeting a 700 pound black bear named Henry on day 73 while crossing Oregon. Henry had been adopted by the owner of the Oregon hotel where Ms. Morawsky and her husband Paul, who formed the New Jersey cyclist's main line of support during the trip, stayed overnight. Introduced to the tame bear with the help of a bagful of apples, Ms. Morawsky had the unusual pleasure of feeding him from her own mouth.

As Ms. Morawsky pointed out, although she may have cycled alone, she did not undertake the journey without the support of friends and family.

Besides donors and supporters at Middle Earth, the National Starch and Chemical Foundation, the Rutgers graduate (she earned a BS in chemical engineering in 1984 and MBA in 1993) singles out her sisters and her husband for spending time on the road with her.

"I think Paul started in the camp of people who didn't quite understand why I wanted to do this, but because it was important to me, it became important to him. I could not have completed the journey without him," she said.

"Early on members of my family were worried about my safety. I guess in some ways, so was I," she recalled back in Princeton. "However, if the endeavor was sterile and safe, it would have been a lot less interesting to undertake."

Besides her bear encounter, Ms. Morawsky said that she learned much about her native land from the trip. "Stepping back, there are a few overarching lessons: First, we have a stunningly beautiful country. There were so many times that I thought the landscape couldn't be more beautiful and a few days later it was completely different but equally jaw dropping.

"Second, our country's people are incredibly kind and generous. Over and over, people went out of their way to help even though they didn't know me and would never see me again.

"Lastly, a lesson about perceptions, particularly that appearance and initial perception is a poor predictor of what someone is like. Taking time to talk to many, many people over the past few months, it became clear that everyone has a story, almost always rich and multi-faceted. There seems to be a lot more that unites us than divides us.

"The first glimpse of the Pacific over the dunes was incredible." Her bicycle had carried her over 4,000 miles, so it seemed a fitting homage to carry it the last few yards to the Pacific. "It was an immensely serene, proud and satisfying moment."

On completing her journey, Ms. Morawsky enjoyed an omelet, hash browns, toast, and coffee. Now back in Princeton, she said she's enjoying some much-missed coffee from WaWa before taking time to determine future plans.

Ms. Morawsky's cross country trip followed the Transamerica Bicycle Route, but in the opposite direction to the traditional West-East trek that takes advantage of the prevailing winds. "There was something about the head-west pioneer spirit that appealed to me," said Ms. Morawsky, who attributes her "can-do" spirit to her Ukranian origins.

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