Father’s death inspires living for moments — and a 5,000-mile bike ride
When Bil Gangl found out he had terminal cancer, he had three important moments he wanted to live to see: his 30th wedding anniversary, his daughter’s wedding and his son’s graduation from UW-La Crosse.
Bil was there for the first two events, but he died in November 2009, a month before his son, Joe Gangl, graduated.
Today, Joe, age 31, thinks a lot about the blessing of moments with family and friends. Yes — the anniversaries, weddings and graduations — but also the little ones that aren’t necessarily milestones, but are relived in memories throughout a lifetime.
He thinks of the time growing up when his family took a week-long bike trip through the hills of Wisconsin’s Driftless region. Each morning at the campsite while he and his sister ate breakfast, Bil loaded up the trailers attached to their tandem bikes with 60 pounds of camping gear. And — secretly — each day he would pile a little bit more onto the kids’ tandem bike, lightening the load for he and his wife.
By the second to last day of the trip, the typically high-energy teens were lagging far behind. “When we finally caught up, Dad was laughing,” recalls Joe. “He said, ‘I have something to tell you at the end of the ride.’”
Bil was a loving father, teacher and track coach with an “enthusiasm for life and unbridled ambition that was something to be reveled in,” says Joe.
As an adult, Joe continued to value moments he had with his father that connected him to nature and to family. When he graduated from college, he wanted to plan another adventurous trip — biking across the U.S., hiking mountain ranges, or even living abroad. But he launched his career instead, becoming a lighting quotations supervisor at an electrical wholesale company in Minnesota. He and his girlfriend and fellow UWL graduate, Libby Freis, settled into working life and bought a home in the Twin Cities.
Joe thought many times about leaving his stable life for the adventure he never took. But each time he thought about it, he came up with a number of good reasons why it wouldn’t work: He didn’t have enough money. He would risk never getting another good job. He would disappoint those around him.
But when Joe turned 30, he realized he was only 22 years away from living to the age that his father did. If his life was cut equally short, he wanted to make sure he was living it now the way he wanted. “It was a wake up call,” he says.
Childhood adventures — revisited
Freis remembers Joe walking into the kitchen one day after work, clearing his throat and announcing, “I’m going to quit my job and bike across the U.S.”
She laughed and replied in disbelief, “Well, you’re not going without me!”
As he explained his thought process, she watched his eyes light up — especially when he spoke of the importance of doing something personal in memory of his dad.
“It was then I knew that this was something we couldn’t not do,” she says.
Joe was surprised to find that not only Freis, but all of his family and friends were supportive of him taking the journey. And Freis would be going along for the ride.
“I’ve always loved his adventurous spirit and we’ve always wanted to take a grand adventure together,” she says. “I think we both hit a breaking point, realizing that nothing is easy and you just need to go for it.”
Joe knew from his frequent family bike trips growing up that long treks can get to be “a physical slog.” He bargained for that. What he didn’t plan for was the unseasonable heat. When they departed from Astoria, Oregon, in August 2017 temperatures were above 100 degrees. Because it was the first day, Joe’s adrenalin was up and he pushed off at a quick pace anyway.
By mile 55, he had stopped sweating and was starting to feel cold. He called Freis in the support van behind him and asked her to drive a little closer. He made it to mile 65 when he had to stop, concerned he may have heat stroke.
The couple had meticulously charted out how many miles they’d travel each day and where they would camp each night over the more than 5,000-mile trip. On day one, they realized much of that planning was unrealistic. One cannot predict bad weather, flat tires or the compounding fatigue of riding for thousands of feet up mountainous passes.
Still Joe calls some of his most grueling physical rides, some of the most peaceful — like the 3,800-verticle-foot-climb on a scenic Oregon byway. It was quiet as his pedals clipped along, past thick forests of tall pines, steep rock walls and waterfalls. His mind wandered into meditative-like states. He thought about a previous day’s Wikipedia search or the potential cost of putting in a Chipotle along the the route.
“Most of the time in our day-to-day life in a job and career, you never take time to sit somewhere and think. On this 90-day trip, six hours a day I was thinking to myself,”Joe explains. “At first, it was a challenge to overcome and not be bored. But once I got more comfortable with head space, I opened up.”
Joe thought a lot about his future and replayed moments from his past — many with his father. He recalled family bike trips and playing cribbage at the family cabin. Friends, family and the kindness of the numerous healthcare and social work professionals, made many more moments with his father possible at the end of his life. Joe thinks the care his family was extended at the end of his father’s life helped him live longer in order to see that 30th wedding anniversary and his daughter’s wedding.
Spreading the joy of moments
After Bil died, his wife, Megan, set up the Bil Gangl Memorial Fund, which has brought families faced with a diagnosis opportunities for moments with the ones they love. They’ve provided funds for a mother to put together a memory book for her four-year-old daughter, flown a father to attend his daughter’s wedding in New York, and rewarded patients with a dinner out after completing a round of treatment. The funds is managed through Regions Hospital in St. Paul.
Joe says through ongoing conversations with the Regions’ team, they’ve learned of many more families who could use this kind of support. It inspired him to turn his 5,000-mile bike ride into a fundraiser. Over the trek from Astoria, Oregon to Key West, Florida, Freis and Joe raised more than $12,000 for the Bil Gangl Memorial Fund.
In addition to giving other families moments with loved ones, Joe says the ride gave him many needed moments to himself. He thought a lot about what he wants most from life and how grateful he is for the moments he has lived thus far — particularly with family and friends. He realized this is where his values live.
The ride was “easily the best decision of my life,” he says.
“I was always making decisions based on what I thought I was supposed to do rather than what I wanted to do,” he says. “It was a shake-it-up moment.”
Now he and Freis are looking to downsize their home and plan another wild and adventurous journey. As he sees it, he can always earn more money, find another job, and restart life. But moments with people he loves make the strongest memories.