Cycling into the sunset
The wheels have stopped turning for cycling legend and world peace advocate ‘Hutch’, an old friend who was going on almost 80 years young.
American national and global citizen Mr F. A. Hutchinson (I never did find out what those initials stood for) was a force for good, trying to make the world a better place as an active ‘doer of things’, life philosopher, philanthropist, cycle pilgrim and loving human being.
Charming, cultured, sociable and polite, he acquired names in each country around the world where he lived – Haqi in China, Nima (meaning ‘sun’) in Tibet, Hache in Bolivia. At one stage he was signing off his emails with ‘The Magic Dragon’, his serpent name.
‘Or just call me a bum on a bike’, was tagged to the end of his signature. Some knew him as ‘The Hutch’ or ‘The (old) American cyclist’. I just knew him as Hutch.
Giving and supportive, sometimes overly generous, he also adopted adult children, accumulating a family of daughters and sons in China during his half decade living in the Tibetan borderland cities of Xinjiang and Lijiang.
While his trusted bike Ms.Fetes (sometimes known as Mr Fetes depending on his fancy) was loaded with pannier bags front and back, he didn’t carry much baggage from his past, which had seen him serve in Vietnam, work for decades in TV sports production in the US, and establish a talent development agency in China in 2007.
I first heard of Hutch in early 2009 when I referred a German friend to a sign on the wall of an Italian restaurant in southwest China’s Lijiang, seeking cyclists as company for day trips around the area. The deal was, Hutch would pay for lunch. Later, he bought bikes for some participants who became his long-lasting friends. That’s the kind of person he was.
When I did finally meet Hutch in person, I found a small-framed, serene, smiling man in his late 60s eating pizza with an entourage of younger English-speaking Chinese. He invited me to join them, as after pizza, there was going to be cake and dessert. Hutch, with designer stubble giving him a dashing appearance, was wearing cycling shorts, with spindly yet muscle-toned legs.
Over the couple of years I knew him in Lijiang I can only recall a few occasions when he was not sporting padded cycling shorts. More often than not he turned up to cafes, meetings and events on his bicycle, sometimes not bothering to take off his cycling helmet indoors.
That cycle helmet proved its value one day when we were out cycling in the hills, returning from an alpine lake around 2,600 m above sea level not far from Lijiang. Hutch was a cyclist with remarkable stamina, and his slow and steady approach could burn off others 40 years his junior on hill climbs.
While Hutch had cycled all over China for a number of years, without major incident or accident – a fact which impressed all who inquired about the safety and sanity of cycling in The Middle Kingdom – while out with me that 100% safety record was broken.
Coming down a winding hill late one afternoon the wheels of his bike skidded on icy gravel and he ended up falling off his bike and landing on the side of the road, a large truck behind him putting on its brakes just in time to avoid running him over.
Worried he was requiring an ambulance or hospital treatment, I rushed over to Hutch to find him un-fazed by it all. He cycled back to where he was living, and tried to tend to his battered and bloody knees, elbows and hands himself, a wry smile over his beard-stubbled face.
One of Hutch’s most impressive achievements in China was to cycle from Lijiang across Tibet to Lhasa and onto Mt Kailas, a feat made more incredible by the challenges and dynamics of a group ride (participants from several countries included the larger than life Elvis), and then the breakaway split by some cyclists which jeopardized the whole expedition.
I helped with some of the logistics during the year-long adventure, and am still in awe of anyone who can cycle for weeks at altitudes over 4,000 metres across the Tibetan plateau. The tale of the 70 year old American who cycled across China over the TAR made newspaper headlines, and he featured on the front cover of cycling and outdoor magazines. We gave him a hero’s welcome – and cake – when he returned to Lijiang. To this day, his story still retold by expats and locals living in north-west Yunnan.
As well as his cycling pilgrimage to the capital and holy mountain of Tibet, we worked on a housing project for small Tibetan-style eco-houses with wind and solar energy made for US$10,000. In Lijiang, he helped his friend Irlin set up a small eatery (possibly to ensure he had a reliable supply of Western food), and he was a regular visitor to my cafe ‘Lijiang Millionaire’s Club’ and the crosstown cafe (and salsa dance studio) ‘Through the Window Cafe’ run by fellow New Zealander Stephen Dalley.
After Hutch’s years in China, he was ready for a change. He often carried a green canvas shoulder bag with the words in Mandarin of Chairman Mao ‘Serve the People’ – and found occasion to show that to shopkeepers, bank clerks, ticket sellers or government officers – anyone who was stonewalling him or telling him ‘mei you’ (don’t have).
After Lijiang, he went to Australia, New Zealand, and then to South America, before moving to Europe a few years ago to live in Spain, Germany and Greece.
He was on a personal crusade, to promote peace and understanding, and wanted to get more people on bicycles, by holding inclusive, inexpensive cycle tours. ‘One of our slogans, Burn Fat, Not Oil’ he wrote at http://www.haaqi.com. He put into practice the words of Jose Mujica, revolutionary and ex-president of Uruguay ” I am not poor, I am modest, travelling with light baggage. I live with what is fair so that things don’t rob me of my freedom.”
One of Hutch’s key talents was to enlist others to join, and get them working together, even though he admitted he didn’t like groups. However, despite a number of successes, the laziness or greediness of others sometimes meant that his efforts floundered into anarchy and stagnation.
While often on the move, Hutch wasn’t a ‘rolling stone gathering no moss’ kind of person. Instead, his gentle and genteel nature meant he acquired more friends, supporters and hosts everywhere he went. I never saw him play the age card, and I enjoyed hearing his wisdom acquired from a long and interesting life.
Occasionally he would mention something from his past, like how in his former life he was part of a wild group known as the ‘Wrecking Crew’, and once he had to bail out the group of TV producers and entertainment industry execs in the Caribbean after one of the members had thrown out all the furniture from the penthouse suite into the hotel swimming pool below.
He had some strong opinions on various subjects. Once you met Hutch and he got your contact details, it was like being on an email subscription list you could not get off. A few times I got fed up with the email exchanges, not so much from Hutch, but from some of his old friends and associates, and despite requests to opt out, found myself back on the list a few months later.
Taoist Hutch believed we needed to change the world, and to change ourselves. He quoted Mahatma Gandhi on his site (www.cyclingpeace.org) ‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world’. He rallied against capitalism, materialism, money and greed. He complained about how money was god, the world was going mad, and against the failures of democracy with widespread corruption of its leaders. One year his favourite slogan was, ‘We have met the enemy, and he/she is us’.
Hutch urged ‘women of the world to unite’. He called for urgent measures to address what he saw as the biggest and most un-recognised problem facing the human race: over-population. Each day he posted comments with news articles under the title ‘Pathology in America’, or with his take on issues, written in upper case: SLEAZE-BAG TRUMP’S AMERICA.
He cursed wrongdoers, and hoped they would face the consequences. ‘WOE BE UNTO TRUMP FOR ALL THIS! MAY ALL THE 7 DEPREDATIONS, FULL UPON HIM AND HIS CHILDREN’S CHILDREN, FOR 7 GENERATIONS’, he penned recently after a second child died in government custody at the US border.
Sometimes his missives were written as poems or as cryptic riddles. Likewise, he was prepared to consider other views, new information or the different opinions of those better informed, and he would figuratively smoke the peace pipe.
‘As I get older, I seek peace and tranquillity,” he wrote in one of his emails. ‘What has been important to me is a different life, one seeking answers to the riddle of life.’
In another he sent last year, he said he was getting closer. ‘Closer to what? The peace of mind of having overcome materialism.’
He wrote latterly that he had wanted to live in Meteora in Greece, having fantasized about it while in Germany, visiting his longtime friend and patron Rucha. The rock formation in central Greece has a stunning hillside Eastern Orthodox monastery, second in importance only to Mount Athos. Almost prophetically, he said recently, ‘We never know when our time has come, so better to act Now!’
On Christmas Eve last year, just over a week before he died, after a good day out cycling around Meteora, the 78-year-old wrote a poem which began:
What a cycling day this has been,
What a rare mood I’m in
Being the Light
Screaming Delight. . . .
It was in the small main town of Kalampaka below Meteora where Hutch died, around the 2nd of January 2019 – according to his close friend Xu Tan who was notified of the death – after coming down with a bad cold a few days before. He was cremated this week in a holy, sacred place at the base of the Meteora rocks, in the ancient nation of the mythological deities Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Dionysus. How appropriate for our hero, the man who cycled to holy Mt Kailas, and who once carried the Olympic torch.
‘I’m not much big on goodbyes,’ Hutch posted in 2011. ‘I usually slip out the back, Jack . . . get a new plan, Stan’ – and basically get myself down the road.’
Talking about death, he said, ‘There is no reason to be sad when someone dies and sheds their body. In fact, we should celebrate such a transition.’
This week, candles are being lit in memory of Hutch, in China, Australia, New Zealand, South America, in Europe, in the USA – all around the world.