California Love

As expected, my welcome committee was lined up and waiting: The Sierra Nevada Mountains. Smirking and chuckling amongst themselves, these summits knew they would be a formidable final test. My body was begging my mind to wind this journey down, but this range is an unavoidable gateway to the Pacific, and a daunting right of passage before I am officially ‘Golden’.

Nearing the border of California via my cycling route, I was a bit confused as to where my Welcome to California sign was hiding. Turns out it’s the smallest sign ever, with California printed on one side and Nevada on the other. This is my 10th and final state… Yeah, that’s a no-go. So, after rolling my eyes and taking a fairly underwhelming photo, I decided to back track 3 miles to a main road in search of a better sign. Boom, found one!!  Yay. Time to get back on route.

Along Rt. 88 (Carson Pass Hwy) were ‘stations’ that date back to the Pony Express and I made it a point to stop at each. The first stop was Hope Valley Cafe in Markleeville, owned by Leesa, the coolest biker chick ever. We had an awesome two hour talk as I sipped coffee and devoured a delicious breakfast burrito. I got a breakfast sandwich to go and they even stuck a surprise cookie in my take out bag! Leesa runs two successful restaurant locations and our adventurous, free spirits connected quickly. The lust for adventure and sense of wonder can be contagious, and it’s been beautiful discovering others who haven’t let that fade away with childhood.

The climb from the border of California to the appropriately named Tragedy Springs campground was a sinister 5,600 foot gain in elevation. The switchbacks were sharp as scalpels and the shoulder was gone with the headwind. Then, out of nowhere, the Appalachians came knocking, delivering a friendly but fierce reminder that not only is this totally possible, but that climbing to the top is now a permanent part of my DNA.

Carson Pass, you sadistic monster…  Your 3,200 foot incline almost got me. But I KILLED that climb in one shot, never stopping or walking once. The intensity may have very well rivaled the climb out of Hayter’s Gap back in Virginia, which was 1,500 feet in only 3.8 miles. Carson Pass ONLY gets steeper and narrower and more chaotic toward the top. It took everything I had left.

During the last 2 miles, I began searching my head for perspective; surely something in my past could humble this hell. This was a legitimate physical and mental struggle. As I rounded the final curve of my final summit and spotted that elevation sign, nostalgia took the reigns. That was it – I had passed the final test… It was important to take a moment of silence at the top and reflect on my climbs since leaving the Atlantic. A lot happened on those climbs. A LOT. The mountains will humble you without prejudice, only accepting payments in pain and perseverance. Their inclines are riddled with discarded demons, and their declines laced with tears of triumph. They are brutal to the unprepared and rewarding for the determined. Cycling up a mountain is like nothing I’ve ever faced. It’s life-altering and liberating. Death and rebirth.

At the summit, Lynne and Larry came out and greeted me with handshakes and ripe cantelope and asked, “Did you just ride up THAT with all THIS??” I loved it… They work at the Carson Pass Welcome Center and explained that this is a special crossroads, connecting the Western Express cycling route with the Pacific Crest Trail.  We had a great talk before I began barreling down the mountain toward the coast.

The plan was to tackle all remaining climbs of the Sierra Nevadas that day, then end at Tragedy Springs. There was supposed to be a campground, but there was not. It was a trailhead with a couple benches, so I began scouting out a flat spot and was very tired. However, when I returned to my bicycle, I spotted a truck that had followed me back to this isolated area. As they looped to come back, I jumped on my bike and rode into the woods and snuck around back onto the main road, losing them. Might not have been anything, but could’ve been the worst thing. Never feel sorry for playing it safe. I rode a few miles up and camped near the edge of the road, hidden in plain sight.

Fresh out of water for the next day, it was slightly nervewracking that the nearest resource was 15 miles ahead. It was all downhill to Ham’s Station to ingest the most well-earned coffee and breakfast burrito of my life, lol. A large family walked in and I offered to move so they could combine some tables and sit together. They treated me to my meal as a result! Turns out, this family was on their way to transport a loved one’s remains to her final resting place. I hugged every one of them so hard – it blew mind that even in the midst of a solemn and difficult day, they would show such generosity to a complete stranger. We talked for a bit, then took a photo with the staff…

I began flying down the mountain with alarmingly loud and worn out brakes, watching for gravel, potholes, chipmunks, pinecones – the silliest little things could literally ‘end’ you on a descent. The turn I was supposed to take came and went at about 35 mph, ha. Before I knew it, I had gone downhill over 4 miles on the wrong road and the only option was to back track up an 8% grade mountain. Thankfully, I happened upon OK Corral – one of the stations along Rte. 88. I was physically done for the day. I asked to set up my camp in back of their property and they graciously made an exception for me. The owner, Eric, was truly kind and even asked if I needed anything before running to the store.

Toward the end of the night, an intellectual and witty man named Jim approached me and we dove into a deep chat. His enthusiasm for my journey pumped me up big time. He introduced me to his wonderful wife, Gina, and they invited me to stay with them. After explaining I’d already set up my camp out back, they invited me to their home for the following night! A beautiful oasis tucked away in the forests of the Sierra Nevada, complete with hot tub and continued hangouts with this awesome couple? Yes, please! We made plans to meet the next day.

While cycling toward Jim and Gina’s, I ran across Pearl’s Cafe in Pioneer, CA. This power couple grows everything they serve fresh and their culinary creativity results in me salivating simply from typing this. I mean, just look at ‘The Lifesaver’ sandwich!! After discovering that I had cycled here from the east coast, they surprised me with some homemade granola to “fuel me the rest of the way”. Boy, did it… P.S. the pinecones in California are bigger than pineapples.

After leaving Pearl’s Cafe, I cycled into a neighborhood tucked away by nature; unassuming, yet grand. I was nearing Jim and Gina’s home. This will certainly be the rejuvenation I need after sleeping on the ground the past six nights. Jim and Gina are an Italian couple, with deep roots grounded in Sicily. Jim even taught me to make homemade pasta! 😀

We talked and laughed on their patio over a delicious meal of tri-tip steak, delicate pasta, and brussel sprouts. It felt like we had known each other for years – the ongoing warmth on this journey never ceases to amaze me. Inviting a perfect stranger into your home, to me, is a very big deal. To work hard throughout your life and give to others out of what you’ve earned is deeply selfless. And opening up your personal life and privacy to someone new really is a brave and a profound gesture.

After 8 days straight of riding, I decided to take the next day off and we went on a guided tour of Black Chasm Cavern. Black Chasm was likely known about by the local MiWok tribes, though gold miners were the first credited with exploring the cave in 1854. The miners described the cave as having vaulted chambers large enough to contain the largest trees and crystals that stood out from the walls in every conceivable direction, turning and bending into many shapes. These are known as Helictites and are an unusual formation in cave systems throughout the world.

These cave walls had to have come straight off a sci-fi set… Geology has become increasingly fascinating while traveling east to west. It all began back in Virginia during my geological dig for unakite with the Gem Institute. From the mountains, plate tectonics and fault lines, down to the smallest Apache Teardrop of Obsidian. It’s remarkable, our planet. There is even a lake at the bottom of this cave and the acidic water is actually potable. H2OMG.

We then went to Indian Grinding Rock Park in Pine Grove, CA. All of the holes shown in the image below were formed over time by rocks and the vigorous grinding of acorns into flour for a variety of essential uses. The way of life the Native Americans mastered has always fascinated me to the core. Brilliant, inventive, resourceful masters of minimalism. There is so much still to learn from their lifestyle. In fact, there is something to learn from virtually everyone. Start surrounding yourself with people who are different than you, then open your ears. Your mind will follow. It’s pretty cool. We’re actually not all that different.

The next day, we went to an original ‘Gold Town’ called Sutter Creek, CA and enjoyed an olive oil and wine tasting at Bella Grace Winery. The owner, Charlie, was an insightful, informative, and knowledgeable man. He and his wife own the winery, which has been in the family for many generations and was named after each of their Grandparents, Bella and Grace.

That night, I met with Dee – the owner of The Mountain Grill at Mace Meadows. Also a long distance touring cyclist, we had some major stories to swap. We loved reminiscing together through familiar territory, and although our routes varied, the sentiments were synonymous.

Gina posted about A Vicious Cycle on a local online group and invited Veterans in the area to come out and meet me. Veterans from every single war showed up and we dove into each other. Every branch and conflict was represented: WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, OIF, OEF. The unspoken Veteran bond transcends generation, war, MOS, and branch. Our hangout very quickly blossomed into a patriotic performance as we all linked arms and broke out into spontaneous song. Not a single dry eye survived in the restaurant, except ours. View Video

We had some unforgettable laughs, conversations, tears, and major mischief. Particularly this decorated WWII Veteran, who was more lively and witty than the restaurant’s total. Even at 93 years old, and after a very unexpected peck on the cheek, the verdict is in: He’s still ‘got it’. Haha. One encounter that will stay with me for life was my heart to heart with RJ “Mighty Mouse”, an OIF / OEF Marine Recon Sniper who is about my age. Our generation of Combat Veteran is a rare breed, and when it comes to certain things, we really are all that we have sometimes. A long, tough talk was followed by one of those notoriously rough military hugs. We’re now family.

On my way to Sacramento, I stopped into the VFW Post 6604 which is located in the Folsom Veteran’s Hall. The Hall was extraordinary inside with a beautiful lineup of branch flags in the back lawn. Julie, the bartender, treated me to a glass of wine and the commeraderie commenced! After goodbye hugs, they gifted me a nice sized flag to attach to my bike.

From Folsom, CA clear past Sacramento, there is an elaborate network of trails and over 35 miles of my route is included! I barely had to touch the road or listen to traffic, and it was nicely paved and well manicured with lush landscaping. I took a little time off route to explore Sacramento.

While on the trails, I met a fellow cyclist named Rob and we partnered up for a bit. He is over 70 years old and cycles around miles nearly every day. It was wonderful learning about the trails and surrounding area from him as we rolled along. We had an unforgettably intense conversation, to include discussions on suicide and friends lost to it… We even passed by a beautiful memorial bench with his friend’s name engraved across the back. It was a delightfully deep ride together. I thoroughly believe adventures like this are best experienced and enjoyed while solo. The availability required for these incredible daily unforeseen interactions just doesn’t happen otherwise. Also, rattlesnake!!

After a while, when people would ask “Where ya headed?”, I would just reply “West”. Next, they would say, “Well how far are ya goin?”, to which I’d reply, “Til I run outta road.” 🙂 Well, guess what? It finally happened… My route includes a ferry ride from Vallejo down to the Port of San Francisco’s Ferry Building via the San Francisco Bay Ferry. Ticket is bought and bike is loaded. One ferry ride and a 5.5 mile bike ride, and I will come face to face with my finish line: The illustrious Golden Gate Bridge.

I’ve been asked countless times, “What about your journey scares you the most?” My hesitant but honest reply has always been, “Finishing.” I have fully embraced this journey and allowed it to help me heal. In spite of my physical limitations, despite negative influences, I actively bent every bar in the prison I had created for myself and even broke a few. This journey was meant to disrupt my darkness and offer me an opportunity to lock myself back into life. And I am TAKING IT. I am no longer afraid of finishing, and the next Chapter has been written. Alongside the completion of my journey, I have been building a program that I have named Waypoint Vets.Waypoint Vets will afford small group nature-based outings and social activities, exclusive to Veterans. After discovering first hand how much healing happens while detaching in nature, I want to facilitate these opportunities for other Vets to experience this together at no cost to them. I am adamant about making a real difference for my fellow Veterans, and I believe those best equipped to help us ARE us. We have an obligation to our Fallen and each other to pull ourselves from the ashes and keep fighting the war inside.

If you would like to contribute to the building and launching of my Veteran Program, Waypoint Vets, please click here.

// NOTHING FOLLOWS //

Lost and Found

In the Great Basin, the concept of “distance” exists solely as an optical illusion. The lack of moisture in the dry desert air results in crystal clear scenery that throws off your frame of reference completely. Upcoming ranges that appear to be within just a couple miles are 20-30 miles away in actuality. Its relentless trickery is both frustrating and fascinating as you pedal for what seems like an eternity toward the horizon. However, the horizon out here isn’t all that bad…

I met a wonderful woman named Karen at a market in Milford, UT just before crossing into Nevada. After talking for a few minutes, I went out and bungeed my groceries onto my bike. My plan was to set up camp in their city park under a pavillion. She came outside and surprised me by offering up their entire rental house in town! What an unexpected treat… The front yard was lined with these hilarious yet beautifully painted toilets. Karen is an incredibly talented artist in nearly every medium, and porcelain is no exception. 🙂

Karen’s husband, Mike, is a Vietnam Veteran and we got to spend some very special time together the next day in Baker, NV. We chatted and laughed together as I set up my camp for the night. Upon leaving, they paid me an ultimate compliment by saying that if they’d had a daughter, they would have wanted her to be just like me. I texted them this photo as they pulled away.

As I approached the outskirts of Ely, NV, I ran across a group of bikers at a bar / restaurant in Major’s Junction. They were in the middle of their 16th annual ride that had turned into a memorial ride in honor of a brother they had lost, and had stopped for drinks. Loads of veterans were participating and of course, we quickly figured out who we were and started in on each other.  🙂

They asked my plans and when I explained they involved tent camping behind the restaurant for the night, they said, “Ummm, no. You’re coming with us.” I was grossly outnumbered and thought it best not to argue, haha. So off we went to Ely for one of the most incredible and unique experiences of my journey.

They treated me to dinner and drinks all night.  I felt like part of the club – we had a special and meaningful connection.  I stayed with Keena and Darin, brother and sister-in-law of the man they were riding in memory of.  It was a crazy and unforgettable night.  Needless to say, I took the next day off riding…

About halfway between Austin and Fallon is a little oasis called Middlegate Station. The heat had me convinced this was surely a mirage, but to my relief, there it was. Restaurant, cabins, amazing people, live music. It was heaven. I opened the door and walked into the most eccentric variety of decor I may have ever seen in my life. Amazing.

Middlegate Station is family owned and we grew close during my stay. Especially with Travis, a Navy Veteran who served alongside the Seals in northern Iraq around the same time I was over there. We bonded bigtime. I was excited to add my 1st Infantry Division Combat Patch to their wall. The ‘Big Red One’ is now represented alongside hundreds of other service patches.

The next day, the guys took me off-roading up the desert mountains in a Wolverine, then shooting with a 7mm bolt action rifle that had a kick like a Clydesdale. I could have stayed there forever.  ‘Murrica.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Bleed the Stone, a metal band that had stopped there for gas while on a tour, but ended up staying and performing two nights in a row. The lead singer, Michael, hand wrote his lyrics from their hit song on a napkin for me and the band signed it. One of the cooks at the restaurant hand sketched this skull in a matter of minutes. So impressive, all of it…

Off I go, back into the sandy, salty abyss… The Nevada terrain is simple and predictable; crossing a basin then cresting a range, crossing a basin then cresting a range. The width of Nevada is mainly made up of these two elements: vast open spaces cut vertically by mountains. There can be beauty in simplicity and substance hidden in emptiness. Clipped in and zoned out…

While VFWs were scarce on my route, I have been very fortunate to have gotten to meet with other Veterans in nearly every single town. Little did I know, Fallon, Nevada was about to curb my VFW craving. At Post 1002, walking through their door means you are family. It was like having a giant blanket of badassery wrapped around my exhausted, weathered cyclist self.

I cannot speak highly enough of this Post. VFWs are a safe haven for us, both to cut up and break down. Veterans, I am telling you… GO to your local VFW and experience the closeness. Make the first move – start a conversation and let the commeraderie alleviate your alienation. “No One Does More For Veterans.” – their motto is spot on. The Commander (Mac – Navy Vet), Quartermaster (Jim – Army Vet), and their members treated me like total royalty.

Mac, the Commander of VFW Post 1002, took me out to the Naval Air Station for a tour. We looked through the aircraft and memorials, and saw the tower where the famous “fly by” scene in Top Gun was filmed.

In Stagecoach, NV, I met an incredible woman named Elise at a restaurant called Maddy’s Place. It was named after her daughter. Her children are Veterans, including a daughter who is a Marine, and part of the illustrious Marine One. I ate a delicious sandwich and talked to Elise and my new friend Rudy for quite some time, then Rudy treated me to my meal!  Elise set up an impromptu interview with Denise, a journalist from the Dayton, NV Dispatch newspaper, then paid a kindness to me that I never ever saw coming…

Elise’s surprise would rejuvinate me in every single way… She made arrangements for me to stay in a King Spa Suite at the Gold Dust Casino Hotel in Carson City for two nights – free of charge. I soaked my tired and tattered body for hours and hours in the jetted tub. It was a gift that refilled my sails – my morale is at an all time high. Thank you so much, sweet friend…

Inside everybody you know, there is someone you’ve never met. Take the time and make the effort to understand one other. Vulnerability is the key to connection. Kindness bridges the gaps in unity. Effort paves the paths toward happiness. Don’t compare – relate. And remember: Let no one steal your smile. Onward and upward – the Sierra Nevada summits await. My final climbs. There is now So Much in my rear view mirror…  🙂

I have a very smokey date with my tenth and FINAL state. California, I am so excited to experience you and take in what you will teach me. Only 243 miles to my finish line: the Golden Gate Bridge. I am rolling slow and allowing this last wave of healing to sink in before it is all over. Of two things, I am now certain… Treading water no longer works for me and drowning is no longer an option.

My journey; a mission of post-war healing, of uniting my fellow Veterans, of honoring our fallen family’s ultimate sacrifice, of shedding light on our issues and becoming vocal about my own ~ soon, I will be seeing it through to completion. The Golden Gate is in my crosshairs. Crossing bridges. New beginnings. Just as I had hoped. I am so grateful. So humbled… I CAN’T WAIT TO FINALLY ANNOUNCE MY NEXT CHAPTER!!!

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// NOTHING FOLLOWS //

Back to Business

I have arrived back in western Nevada and will be officially setting out tomorrow. Thank you all for your incredibly touching and overwhelming support in my having to return to Nashville to say goodbye to Kittums. I can’t express my level of appreciation for each and every one of you and your sympathy / sentiments during these difficult weeks…

Before leaving for Nashville, I had the honor of having breakfast with a decorated Vietnam Veteran, Captain Dennis Vehe. Dennis and I, along with our mutual friend CPT Jerry Bell, enjoyed some nostalgia and commeraderie, and had a wonderful time getting to know each other. A thorn between two roses, I assure you…

CPT Vehe served as an Air Mission Commander of the Army Aviator Rotary Wing in the 128th Assault Helicopter Company and was in charge of the entire Combat Assault Operation while Airborne. He has 1,010 combat flight hours under his belt, and was awarded the prestigious Air Medal with Valor. He served 12 months in Phu Loi, Vietnam from Sep ’70 – Sep ’71. The photos he shared truly painted his stories to life.

It was intense and surreal to put his phone to my ear and listen to an actual audio recording CPT Vehe made while firing up his Huey before heading out on an assault mission. To personally be sitting next to him and watching his expressions while hearing that Huey and his voice from 48 years ago was riveting.  Every hair on my arms was standing at attention by the end. According to numerous Vietnam Vets, to hear the sound of those blades approaching was to experience solice, even in hell.

CLICK TO EXPERIENCE AUDIO

“One of the most beautiful sounds an Infantryman could hear. They were our Angels”, explained CPT Bell.  CPT Vehe also took these photos while in flight. One boasts a beautiful sunset-silhouetted Huey and in the other, he caught a 2.75″ rocket being fired from one of their c-model gunships during routine LZ prep fire.  Incredible. These images are invaluable and it is an absolute privilege to be able to share them.

While home, I received word that a cancerous tumor was discovered in CPT Vehe’s throat – a rare parotid malignancy…. He had begun chemotherapy in Las Vegas, close to the airport, and it was obvious for me to go visit him!  🙂  After many more laughs and stories, we shared a long goodbye…

My current status – heading north toward my leave-off point. There are reports of huge California wildfires that have crept to within 200 miles of my route. The resulting smoke has already found it’s way to me and is rather thick and worsening. My balaclava will be crucial.

One map set, 335 miles, and the last state out of 10 remains. One final massive climb over the Sierra Nevadas, then it is finally “all downhill from there”. Just a quick stop to see some friends I made while in Middlegate last month, then I am rolling out!

The Utah / Nevada blog post is almost complete – hopefully by this weekend. I cannot wait to play show and tell!  🙂

// NOTHING FOLLOWS //

Who Saved Who?

On Thursday, July 19th at 11am, I found out that my cat Kittums has cancer.  An aggressive lymphoma that had already reduced her to nearly half her body weight in only three weeks time.  The Veteranarian warned that she would almost certainly not survive until I finish my journey.  Kittums and I have been joined at the hip for 13 years and she may very well be the closest thing I will ever have to a child of my own.  It is baffling how illnesses such as cancer can just storm in and steal away something so happy and healthy that unbearably fast…  I do not understand.  All I know is that it was out of the question that she endure this process without me.

I immediately found a round trip plane ticket and arrived home in Nashville just in time.  My return flight to Nevada is on Tuesday, August 7th, and I will resume and complete A Vicious Cycle with only 385 short miles left to go.  I am preparing to say goodbye to Kittums while home, as she has such a very short time left to live.  I will be honest with you all: I am devastated to lose her.  This post is to honor her life, her love, and her memory.

Kittums has been by my side since coming home from my 14 month tour to Iraq, 2003 – 2005.  The sad truth is that a lot of my life before and shortly after my deployment is a vague, distorted blur.  I don’t know what it’s like to live without her because as far as my memory allows, I’ve really never had to.  I was a different person after returning from war and she has loved me without question or measure.  She has been my greatest joy, my safe place, my therapy, my light.  That little ball of fluff has been my rock behind the scenes.

Pets are family, and service animals deliver an unspoken understanding and level of healing that humans simply cannot.  They gauge your demeanor like mindreaders and will take in your happiness and pain as if it were their own.  You are their sole priority, their only focus, their entire universe.  Kittums has helped me power through more dark nights than I care to disclose.  Her light was always brighter than my darkness.  She is my confidant.  My constant.

The days begin and end with Kittums delivering smiles to my face and unwavering love, especially during my long stretches of isolation and seclusion.  She has been my daily go-to for peace, warmth, and refuge.  I don’t know how I can ever thank her enough, aside from pouring my love and gratitude into all of her remaining moments.

On the nights I am able to get tired, she positions herself centered on my chest until I fall asleep.  Her body warmed my heart and her rhythmic purring calmed my mind.  Before closing my eyes, for as long as I can remember, I would ask her: “Hey Kittum?  What did I ever do before you?  What will I EVER do without you…”

As I wept over her, she mustered up the strength to reach out and wrap her paw tight around my finger.  She pulled my hand into her chest, and looked directly into my eyes.  Suddenly, her message for me entered my mind as clear as day… She said, “Live Like My Love Made a Difference.”  So we made some keepsakes…  <3

On Tuesday July 31st, cancer took Kittums – she passed away in my arms shortly after I took our photo.  She stayed strong and fought to live until I got home to her, and remained so loving and beautiful, even though her very last breath.  It’s sobering, holding a small wooden box in my hands that used to be my best friend.  Less than an hour after she passed, I recieved this Facebook memories notification from 4 years ago, on this exact day.  Unreal…

Some of her ashes will accompany me on the remainder of my journey. Upon reaching the Pacific, I will scatter them along the shore and watch the waves sweep them away.  Last night, I created a tiny 1.5″ tall glass vile, which will help ensure her safe transport to my finish line: The Beautiful Golden Gate Bridge.

She was so very much a source of strength and love throughout my adult life.  I highly recommend a service pet for anyone who lives with daily social, mental, or physical ailments.  It is almost supernatural, the way they ease your soul and fill the voids in your mind, heart, and life.  Kittums showed up as a stray, but I’ve questioned every day: “Who Saved Who?”

I already miss you every minute.
…thank you forever, Sweetheart.

A Vicious Cycle post coming soon!

// NOTHING FOLLOWS //

Sands of Time

Utah’s terrain will leave you feeling convinced that you’ve left our planet.  Mezmorizing extraterrestrial backdrops contrast the barren foregrounds.  Mesas and mountains are lined up like a fleet of freeze-framed battle ships crashing through a sea of sand dunes…

As I made a dent in the Beehive State, temperatures hit the hundreds, resources were scarce, and signal was nonexistent.  Preparation and hydration have become key to survival and it can get a little scary.  But I needed this.  In some ways, I feel this perceived torture is not only deserved but desired, and it is indeed graduating into a new found will to live and lust for life.  Comfort and convenience leave NO room for appreciation.  Some would call this quest crazy or take an opportunity like this for granted, but one man’s trash is indeed another’s treasure.  The right kinda wealth.

I spotted some loose rocks on the side of a mesa and formed them into a giant heart, clearly visible from the road.  Maybe this little bit of Sunshine can coax a smile or briefly lighten an emotional load… You really never know when someone has decided that it is going to be their last day on earth.  Be kind.  Kindness can turn wolves into shepards.

Over time, white wings began forming on my back like a Rorschach inkblot.  Salt from sweat, serving as evidence of this grueling, but necessary ride – climbing onward and upward.  An expedition such as this is the healthiest Hell to endure.  Detaching, braving the elements, and facing the unknowns alone.  Using your body to power yourself across the continent.  Trading your vices for victories.  Breaking chains and cycles.  Rewiring and repairing your own mind.  Using your demons to earn your wings.

80 mile intervals without a hint of human.  Perhaps a powerline or two will slice apart the landscape in passing, but that is all.  Another day, another mountain.  Summit after summit.  Scenery, sweat, and silence.  My 2004 Iraq deployment instilled a new found gratitude for silence.  Nothing manifests a deep seated appreciation for the sounds of peace like the sounds of war.

Mesa Farm Market…  A beautiful farm and store oasis nestled between Hanksville and Torrey, UT.  The owner, Randy, said he had been running it since the day he could walk.  Every item was fresh from his farm and made with labor and love.  When asked for insight pertaining to his lifestyle, he responded, “It is heaven and it is hell.”  I smiled and flashed back over the months, “the most beautiful outcomes are raised by contrasts.”  His eyes softened and he returned my smile, then gave me a short tour.  Our talk was brief, but deep – it was nearing noon and I had to beat the heat.

I love this lifestyle of bare minimum.  Having to carry everything you own – an effective rule in deducing necessity.  My entire self-supported gear load, including bags and tent, is under 24 lbs total.  Self sufficiency is a powerful gift that you can give to yourself, and turning nothing into something is extremely satisfying.

One of the toughest rides of the west was the climb into Boulder, UT.  The grades varied between 8% and 14% that day and the heat hit three digits.  I made it to Hell’s Backbone Grill and was greeted by my server Kasha, who is also a cyclist. We talked for a while about A Vicious Cycle and when it came time to bring my bill, she instead brought a note.  It simply read: “Enjoy Your Ride”.

On top of it all, Kasha offered to join me the next day on my ride to Escalate!!  I was so incredibly excited and flattered she would do that with me.  I mean, she IS in a magazine – and one of the most beautiful souls I have ever encountered.  Then the staff all yelled, “Go Sarah!!” from the back porch as I rolled out after dinner.  My heart melted…

That night, I stealth camped under a lawnmower shed in the city park, narrowly escaping their underground sprinker system.  It was like an episode of American Gladiator getting to the port-o-john dry, lol.  The next morning, I was invited to breakfast by a large group of Yale Alumni!  We had a blast and they sent us off in style.

The stretch between Boulder and Escalante was likely the most intriguing and magical landscape thus far.  About 13 miles from Boulder was the delightfully unexpected Kiva Koffeehouse, which was built directly into the side of a mountain.  After eating lunch with Kasha, I met a few Veterans and enjoyed some bonding time.

Escalante Outfitters is a full service campground equipped with tent spots, cabins, restaurant, gear store, showers, and laundry. Down the street, Escalante Mercantile offers all natural local ingredients; including the smoked salmon filet, cream cheese, fruits and hummus that I excitedly purchased.  I set up my camp, spent time with some awesome people and ate like total royalty at my little picnic table.

I stopped just shy of Tropic, UT and stayed at Cannonville KOA.  The next half hour consisted of laughing with the staff followed by a job offer by Karen & Judy.  🙂  I set up camp, then spent quite a bit of time down the road being formally educated by a local on the intricacies of Mormonism.  It’s always interesting to learn the foundations of different faiths.  The next morning, Judy invited me into her home for coffee and a quick hangout.  She told me about an upcoming waterfall that was only a short hike off my route.  Totally doing it.

While paying my respects at the Tropic Veteran Memorial, I was greeted by a retired science teacher.  As I fine tuned my gear, we talked for almost two hours about my journey, concepts and theories of life, nature, and then he and his son treated me to coffee.  Plus, one of the best post office experiences ever.  People are genuinely great – everywhere.  Spoiler alert, America: We are NOT as divided as we may think. Not even close.

Between Tropic and Bryce lies Mossy Canyon and Trail, just as Judy said.  It was a half mile hike or so back to the waterfall and cave.  It was a blast, meeting and going on spontaneous adventures with other Veterans, familes, and groups.

After cresting my summit near Bryce, I got to secretly treat Marine Vietnam Veteran Tom and his wife Pat to a slice of Bryce Canyon Pines‘ famous pie.  I heard a “pssst!” and when I turned around, Tom shot a straw wrapper right at me.  The waitress blew my cover, haha.  But it was the best ‘thank you’ EVER.  I loved hearing about his service – Vietnam Vets always leave me hanging on their every word.  I kept the straw wrapper, too.   As evidence…  🙂

The day prior to my 35th birthday, I rolled into Panguich, UT (or Penguin Sandwich as I call it).  I contacted a local guide named Scout, who was touring with the Yale alumni.  She scooped me up and we headed to Zion for my birthday – bicycle, gear, balloons and all.  We instantly connected and our first conversations were incredibly thought provoking…

On our way toward Zion, I met Chuck, a Navy Veteran who had been living on the road via his motorcycle for over 18 months.  He even gave me a shout out on his YouTube Channel!!  We’re obviously kindred spirits – and a little crazy…  View Our Clip

Scout took me to some of her secret hideaways within the petrified sands of Zion National Park.  We felt like kids again, running barefoot along the silky smooth surfaces – care free and laughing.  It was blissful.  I do always try to be a giver when it comes to others, but I don’t think I’ve ever taken so much away from an experience with just one person…  Thank you, Scout.  Infinitely.

Thank you all so much for all of your amazing Birthday calls, messages, posts, and comments!!  The Yale alumni couple who invited me to breakfast in Escalante had also unknowingly treated me to a surprise day of Canyoneering!!  Because of their generosity, I got to spend my 35th birthday scaling and repelling off the cliffs of Zion with Scout and Joe the Marine – a fellow Global War on Terror Combat Vet.  It was incredibly therapeutic on many levels.

After a couple 60′ and 70′ cayoneering repells, the Marine Officer gave me a curious look.  “You know… you look really comfortable with this.  How would you feel about repelling from three times this height?”  My face lit up like the sun, “TAKE ME THERE.”  He smirked and said, “Thought so.”  So he did.  …and it was glorious.

After a night of camping at Jacob Lake, it was time to say goodbye to Scout and push south.  I began digesting the fact that I was about to lay my eyes on the Grand Canyon for the first time in my life.  As much as I have mastered holding back tears, I knew this would be an ultimate test of temperament – for several reasons.

On the way into the National Park, I pulled up alongside two couples near the entrance sign and asked them to take my photo.  Shortly after, a herd of wild buffalo appeared by the road.  Woah.

This was the spark of an incredible friendship and some major Veteran bonding time, as one of the husbands was a decorated Marine Vietnam Veteran.  They invited me to their campsite for a ribeye and jumbo shrimp dinner on the grill!!  I literally dream about meat and the next four meals were nothing short of heaven for me…

The North Rim awaited me without angst as if it had been there for hundreds of millions of years or something…  Patient and steadfast, the earth had caved over time to form the planet’s most vast cradle, carefully lulling the inevitable reactions and emotions of the masses.  After approaching the rim, I walked backward toward the ledge hesitantly, took a deep breath, then finally turned to look.

My eyes instantly welled, darting around undeservingly.  My jaw disappeared through the canyon floor.  For the first time on this trip, the words are not presenting themselves and I will not try to find them.  It is an experience you will have to define with your own mind and through your own eyes…

Before leaving, I both celebrated the life and mourned the death of my Army Brother PFC Eric Ward, Veteran and beloved Son and Brother of my dear friends, Kendra, Brian, and Baylee.  It hadn’t rained once over a month, but today, storms were rolling in from every single direction. Standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim, I threw Eric’s commemorative rock as hard and as far as I could.  I saluted and wept silently as it cut through the air and vanished into the depths.

Eric had never seen the Grand Canyon – it was the first time for us both.  And now he will be part of it forever…  I’ve known PFC Ward since he was 8 years old and watched him grow into a handsome, talented, incredibly loving young man.  His memory is kept alive and well through his family via the 4WARD Project.  Honoring him has been a priority throughout my journey.  I hid a silver commemorative rock at the famous rim to rim Kaibab Trail to be found later…  A tough, but incredibly special experience.

My good friend and 1st Infantry Brother CPT Jerry Bell (Vietnam Veteran / Bronze Star and Air Medal recipient), made a special trip from southern Nevada to join me for Eric’s rock throwing.  He certainly helped put an uplifting spin on an otherwise solemn day.  The four of us had a moment of silence on the cliff, then enjoyed lunch at the Grand Canyon Lodge.  #BFFs #IGY6

So, the elevation profile on my next map set looks a freaking seismograph reading.  Bring it.  😉  On some of the more menacing inclines, mental strength is everything and mind games are key.  Sometimes, I’ll tip my helmet down so the climb is out of view and only allow myself focus on what is right in front of me and what is behind me.  When what’s ahead seems dismal or unclear, nothing refuels your think tank like shifting your focus to how far you’ve come.  That said, I hit my journey’s 3,000 mile mark right at the hiker / biker campground at the Grand Canyon!!!

The high desert and Great Basin ranges of Nevada will present their unique challenges, just as each part of the country has.  Vast stretches of emptiness by day.  Sleeping under a blanket of stars by night.  Nevada.  My 9th state out of 10.  My 4th and final time zone.  Two map sets remain out of 12.

My head has much to sort through while navigating these high highs and low lows…  I am now surrounded solely by positivity and peace, and the healing has become instantly noticeable.  Renewed momentum, empowered, and happy.  Just me and my bike and the sand and the stars.  My circle is seamless.  Keep moving forward, don’t let anyone steal your smile, and always leave people better than you found them.  Thank you all endlessly…

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// NOTHING FOLLOWS //