Elkins man’s life is memorialized

I have the habit of striking up conversation with everyone. And so, in the wee hours of the morning, as the bus headed to the start of the first Kingsford Allegheny Highlands Trail 20-miler in 2016, I talked to Michael Stennes. He was the only person awake near me.

I was thinking about Stennes this month. I had not talked to him since that bus ride, but was going to reach out. I had even saved his business card. I was going to ask if he wanted to bike or run near Elkins, his home. And then I read that Stennes, age 57, was hit and killed by a driver while riding his bike in Massachusetts, Saturday, July 21.

Stennes was soft-spoken on that bus ride. After peppering him with questions, he finally shared some glimmers into his life. He had recently tried to complete a full Ironman, but could not due to heat. He was not embarrassed to share this.

He spoke about his Norwegian roots. He had enjoyed a recent visit to Norway. He was building a stone wall and pizza oven. For twenty-four years, Stennes was an electrical engineer at Greenbank Observatory. He had spent a life contemplating the cosmos. The West Virginia Mountain Bike Association’s Facebook page stated he was a father of four.

His resume says he coached WV Youth soccer in Green Bank for fifteen years, and was a volunteer librarian for twelve, and at various times served on the YMCA Board of Directors, the Pocahontas County Wellness Board and Pocahontas County Free Libraries Board.

It is unusual for someone from New England and studied at MIT to move to West Virginia. And to stay. Why had he? Perhaps it is because we have the darkest night skies in the East Coast and extraordinary nature.

When I looked up his name for this article, I read that Michael Stennes was registered to compete in the full ironman in Lake Placid on July 28 of this year. Our hills, forests and lakes are perfect for cultivating such ambition as long as we alter driving laws and change infrastructure to protect cyclists on the road. This year on Lake Placid, had Michael been there to compete, I’m sure he would have finished.

In 2011, I had the great privilege to live in the Netherlands thanks to a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship sponsored by West Virginia Rotarians. I observed the most bike friendly country in the world. And it’s no coincidence that their quality of life is high. In Holland, there are 2.1 bikes per person. A cyclist is always given the right-of-way. Bike lanes are wide as car lanes. Cars drive with caution because they know if they injure a biker, they will be legally responsible. Biking is as acceptable and common as driving.

Now home, I bike on the West Virginia roads. Like everyone else, I bike scared. While motor vehicle deaths have declined from the eighties, each year since 2001, the number of cycling deaths have increased. Cars are the past and much of the present. They should not be the totality of our future. Cities are starting to embrace the bike revolution.

While I feel a fragment of relief that Stennes was not hit by a driver in West Virginia, it could have been here. The most rural areas in America often are the most dangerous for pedestrians and bikers. Rural roads often lack shoulders. Ironically, rural America is also the most beautiful America. Plans and studies are necessary to build bike access and awareness. But what is needed more, is action.

I only talked to Stennes for thirty minutes. I know very little about him. But I do know that his death was preventable. It was far too early for this thinker, father and athlete, to join the stars.