New York Times

On July 11th, New York Times Reporter and Pulitzer Prize Winner Dave Philipps and Award Winning Photographer Max Whittaker drove to Chester, IL to meet with me and John to discuss A Vicious Cycle.

It was an honor and privilege to be included at the tail end of what is most certainly one powerful beast of an article.  I am very excited to announce that Dave’s moving story, “Finding Some Peace After War” was printed and distributed in the Wed, August 2nd publication of the New York Times.  Read Article

Photos by Max Whittaker

Dave and Max made what could have been a rather intimidating process feel fun and even easy.  VFW Kaskaskia, IL (Post 3553) President and Marine “Paco” welcomed us inside and gave us free reign of the building for our interview portion.  We then set out into the Ozarks for our last ride in the state of Illinois, then crossed the mighty Mississippi into Missouri.

It was good to be able to explain to Dave that I want my journey to honor my fallen Brothers and Sisters in Arms who gave their lives for us.

Part of my journey is connecting with other Combat Veterans who may feel at war with themselves like I do, and to give voice to our issues by being more vocal about my own.  I also need to prove to myself that I not only WANT to be here, but DESERVE to be here…

Max did an incredible job of capturing our lifestyle on the road.  Down to every last detail, he depicted our personalities and our journey both mindfully and creatively.

We toughed out a hilly 100° day, but lucked out that night by finding some cover behind a small church in Ozora, MO (population 183), complete with working outdoor ceiling fans!  Unheard of…

The next morning, we broke down our camp, boiled water for oatmeal, hydrated, then hit the road.  Max and Dave followed us by car to get some action shots, then waved us goodbye and disappeared into the hills.

What a wonderfully surreal couple of days that was…  I want to thank everyone who has encouraged, supported, and believed in me throughout this intensely grueling, yet deeply gratifying journey.  It’s hard to believe we’re almost halfway across the United States. Far too many new milestones are quickly approaching for me to slow down now…

// NOTHING FOLLOWS //

CONTRIBUTE TO SARAH’S JOURNEY

Ups and Downs

Entering Illinois was exciting.  It was via ferry, across the beautiful Ohio River.  Because it was my third state, it really felt like I was finally making a dent in my journey.

I was born in Ohio, living more than 20 years of my life west of Cleveland, and have crossed the Ohio river again and again.  But having peddled over 1,300 miles, then crossing it…  It was completely different, seeing the same sight through more appreciative eyes.  I’ve climbed a lot of trees, hiked many trails, and gotten purposely lost in nature countless times in my life… But this was, thus far, the longest and hardest I have ever worked to enjoy such serenity…

The first town and my stop for the night happened to be home to a mysterious natural wonder called “Cave In Rock”.  The cave’s opening is a striking 55 feet in width, and was formed by powerful winds, water erosion, and by the cataclysmic effects of a massive earthquake back in 1812.  It was truly awesome.

Well, as it turns out, the Ozarks exist…  The mountain range that I can only refer to as the Appalachian’s evil twin.  Was I so geographically challenged that I assumed after Kentucky, the terrain would suddenly bow down to my accrual of climbing accomplishments?  How foolish of me…  Silver lining:  More downhills!!

The heat swept in like some blistering pendullum, forcing me to finally adjust my bed time and sleep schedule.  Early mornings are my current ally, and riding west with the rising sun at my back has been a big advantage.

During my ride on July 16th, at my 21st mile, I stopped and had a few moments of silence to reflect upon and mourn the loss of Army Veteran and dear friend, Eric Ward.  It would have been his 21st birthday…  I’ve known Eric since he was a young boy.  His parents, Kendra and Brian, are two of my closest friends.  Bringing awareness to the 22 Veterans we are losing each day to suicide is an important part of my bicycle journey across America.  It’s been surprising to learn how many aren’t aware of this unfortunate fact…

Meeting other Combat Veterans throughout this journey has been eye opening.  I’ve stayed silent for well over a decade as to not be a burden, to avoid having to funnel my thoughts down into words.  Isolating and internalizing…   But listening to and opening up with other Veterans, particularly Vietnam Veterans, has been overwhelmingly enlightening.  The unspoken bond that exists among service members transcends generation, branch, or circumstance.  We fit in together so effortlessly, like pieces in the most formidable and obscure puzzle ever designed.  These have been real moments, riddled with deep connections, discussing real monsters.  Mouths that smile, but eyes that scream.  Never comparing – only relating.  I believe the ones who are best equipped to help us – IS us.

As I announced earlier, I received a message from Dave Philipps, a reporter from The New York Times.  He said he would like to include me in his upcoming story, and I was honored and thrilled – and nervous.  However.  No more hiding.  If I’m going to be vocal about my issues and this journey, and if I am being given the opportunity to do so via the largest newspaper in the world, it is NOT the time to be shy.  He and Photographer Max Whittaker made the process comfortable.  We met at the VFW in Chester, IL for an interview, then took some photos and video.It just so happened they met us the day we crossed the mighty Mississippi River into Missouri – state number 4 of 10!

The people of Missouri have already outdone themselves in friendliness.  Almost every oncoming car waves at me and Bicycle Route 76 is very well marked.  The drivers have been courteous and allow me plenty of room as they go around.   And of course, I’m still scooping up and naming all the little crearures along the way.

The lodging available for cyclists throughout the state is impressive.  One of the overnight highlights was an old prison converted into a Cyclist Hostel called Al’s Place, located in Farmington.  The decor is spectacular and amenities include a kitchen, showers, beds, bike storage, and laundry.   After a long, exhausting day, walking through those doors was a dream come true, quite honestly.

Meeting and getting to know locals as well as other cyclisys on the TransAm is a continued treat I thoroughly enjoy…  It’s encouraging and heartwarming how genuinely interested others have been in my journey, A Vicious Cycle.

A beautiful truth has been unfolding itself since the start of this journey: My military family is far larger than I could have ever imagined.  Our talks have been intense.  Veterans from every war we’ve had have been synonymous in their sentiments and struggles.  We miss it every day.  The camaraderie, the significance of service, being actively engulfed in what we believe was our one true calling.  The military is the only thing that’s ever made complete sense and now a hole remains that nothing can seem to fill.  There’s another war going on; a silent war we fight, a secret war that time can’t tick away.  Part of me was hoping I was the only one.  That it was just me and I could fix this myself.  That the storms in my mind that disrupt my day to day and interrupt my nights, would eventually dissipate on their own.  It’s tough to learn they won’t.  However, an even larger part of me is relieved I’m not alone.  That even the strongest mountains are being eaten away by the same stream of thoughts.

Off I go into the flat lands of Kansas, celebrating my first day of level land with a delicious 60 miler in just over 4 hours.  Much like the upcoming route depicts, my pounding heart will slow and steady on this terrain and finally allow my mind to race.

// NOTHING FOLLOWS //
Support Sarah’s Journey

1,000 Miles

With the Appalachians in my rear view, I’ve been making some serious tracks and hitting some major milestones.  Last week, Eastern Time turned into Central as I entered into the second time zone of four.  July 2nd marked exactly 1,000 miles into my 4,300 mile journey. Today, I bid a fond farewell to Kentucky and cross the Ohio River into Illinois via Ferry, entering my 3rd out of 10 total states.

The rolling hills of Kentucky have been beautiful and graceful.  Although they aren’t nearly as tall or steep, the long flat stretches and head winds between the hills require constant pedaling, making the milder inclines feel much more challenging than I’d assumed.

Meeting other cyclists along the way has been fun and inspiring. We were honored to say “Hi!” in passing to Evan Deutsch, who finished 1st place and set a new speed record in the 2017 Trans Am Bike Race.  We got to talk with Jon Lester (who finished 2nd place), met an awesome father / daughter racing team, and other cyclists like us who are touring cross country.

Yesterday, as I was cresting the rolling hills, it dawned on me that I’m really going to miss the declines.  Letting my legs rest while the breeze hits my face and uses the sweat that I shed on the way up to cool me on the way down.  Gravity graciously alotting me just enough recovery time to take on the next incline.  I’ll never forget.  Those Blue Ridge climbs killed me and brought me back to life every time.  Breaking, then building me.  Breathing in cadence with the pedals, anxious to receive my visual reward at each mountain top…  Making my body switch to auto pilot, as inclines are very much a MENTAL endeavor.  It was a whole system that I had figured out pretty well, and even grew to love and embrace.  I honestly look forward to the Rockies…  Until we meet again, mountains!

While looking around a grocery store in Booneville, KY, I received a phone call from my riding partner, John, who was only a few miles behind me.  Typically, we never make calls while riding, so this was concerning.  He had crashed his bicycle into a ditch on a steep incline, sending him over the handlebars and bending the front tire rim badly.   I tracked down a police officer, who had an ambulance pick me up at the store and drive me out to John’s location, where we loaded up his panniers and bicycle.  The paramedic, Wendy, then loaned us her personal vehicle for 3 DAYS so John could be seen by a doctor and to have his bike repaired at Mike’s Hike and Bike in Richmond, KY.  Luckily, he is able to continue this journey and is experiencing little to no pain while riding.  Marines are basically superhuman, turns out.  The generosity Wendy showed us was beyond anything I ever imagined…

I’ve met some seriously incredible Veterans and civilians alike throughout this state, including Navy Veteran John Briody, who served aboard the actual USS Intrepid!!  The Intrepid is now a Sea, Air and Space Museum, located at Pier 86 in NYC.  He shared some incredible stories with me – I could’ve listened all day!!

In Berea, KY, we met up with a Marine that John served with named Russ Carson.  What a solid human being…  Served in the Marine Corps for 8 years, continued his service as a Contractor overseas, coaches kids’ sports, and plays semi-pro football for the Kentucky Patriots on the side.  Plus, he’s laid back, fun to be around, and also helped support my journey!  He treated us to Gold Star Chili, which is a 5-way chili chain similar to Skyline, which we have in my home state of Ohio.

I had the pleasure of meeting Tara and her two sons (ages 10 and 7), who are cycling across the country on a 3 person Tandem Bicycle.  Unbeieveble.  Imagine the experience they will gain at such a young age!  They’re acquiring invaluable skills and overcoming challenges that most people won’t be introduced to until adulthood, if ever!  Huge kudos to Tara – a brave, brilliant, and loving Mom.  We got to spend two nights together, including sharing a small cabin at Alice Lloyd College to hide from a massive storm and flash flooding.

Another highlight was running across Rick and Theresa and getting to stay in their 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom vacation home.  Seriously, the kindness and generosity of people never ceases to amaze me…  Cyclists!!  Check out City Gone Country Inn, located near Sand Gap, KY.  They will pick up you and your bicycles and make you feel like royalty!  What a TREAT…

Whelp, as it turns out, my “no flat tire” luck has finally run out, haha…  I had THREE flat tires in the span of 5 days recently, and I couldn’t be more grateful to Stephannie and the staff at Halcyon Bike Shop in Nashville, TN for the maintenance and repair class they gave me before beginning.  Each flat was quickly and successfully patched and I’m still using my original tubes!

On Tuesday, June 27th, the most amazing early birthday present in the world awaited me at the Brook’s Cafe in the tiny town of Sonora, KY.  My PARENTS!!!  My amazing, wonderful, loving parents.  My biggest fans.  My heart.  I was completely taken by surprise!!  Everyone knew except for me!!

My parents mean everything to me.  They’re exceptionaly kind and warm to everyone they meet.  They raised me to be selfless and empathetic, encouraged my individuality and creativity, and taught me how love should feel and be shown. They’ve believed in and supported every single one of my dreams.  All I want for this lifetime is to continue to make them proud and all they want is for me to be happy and at peace.  <3

We spent a couple days together in Falls of Rough, KY and enjoyed a cozy cabin, putt putt golf, good food, and made plenty of memories.……followed, of course, by a “Kniffin Goodbye”, which are notoriously the longest goodbyes in the history of goodbyes.  <3

Thank you all so much for the birthday wishes!!  I celebrated my 34th birthday on July 1st (Saturday), and the week has been full of surprises!!  I spent the day cycling 43 miles from Falls of Rough, KY into a town called Utica, KY, then slept at a Volunteer Fire Station.

This journey seems surreal some days.  There’s no quick fix to any method of self help.  Consciously taking small steps in the right direction will slowly begin creating a peace inside, accompanied by subtle results that might go unnoticed at first.   Big changes that happen gradually tend to be more successful and sustainable.  There’ll be exciting little realizations throughout the process that feel almost like a dream.  As I look at the beauty around me, listen to my tires tread the pavement, feel my legs burn and the sun hit my back, I realize this is actually happening.  I didn’t just talk about it…  It’s really my reality!  🙂  I’m being patient and trusting the process, but I’m anxious to feel the real healing begin.  Maybe it already has…

July 2nd in Dixon, KY marks the 1,000 mile mark…  My goal?  Cycle the next 1,000 miles in under 25 days.  As the elevation flattens, I can’t wait to discover and tackle the new challenges that await.  I believe taking the inclines out of the equation will allow for more energy to explore my mind while cycling.  Get lost in my own thoughts.  I’ll be honest.  The most treacherous terrain I’ve traveled through is my own mind, but it’s time to get unguarded and let this journey do it’s job.

// NOTHING FOLLOWS //

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Hello Kentucky

Virginia has been good to me. Unapologetically beautiful, both in its spectacular landscapes and local communities.  The drivers were cautious and courteous – not a single close call throughout the entire state.  Thank you so much for your patience with the delay in my update – I’ve truly been off the grid.  Today, having Wi-Fi is a treat I will thoroughly indulge in.  🙂As with any journey, unforseen factors, set-backs, and challenges do arise.  My Marine riding partner, John, experienced the loss of a dear loved one and needed to travel home for funeral services and to spend precious time to mourn with family and friends.  Leaving him behind was absolutely NOT an option in my mind, so I waited in Lexington until his return.  We start together, we finish together.  Rick, a retired Navy Chief, and his amazing family in nearby Vesuvius, graciously took me in for almost a week.  They opened their home and hearts at what couldn’t have been a more perfect time.

Chief Rick showed me around the City of Lexington, giving me a tour of downtown, Stonewall Jackson’s gravesite, and other significant landmarks.  We visited the Virginia Military Institute and I had the honor of meeting Marine Officer Colonel Coggins, as well as other Officers and countless new Navy and Marine Recruits.

The Virginia Gem and Mineral Institute had a geological dig in the area, searching for the indigenous rock called Unakite.  It’s a gorgeous stone, boasting brights shades of pink, green, and is infused with crystals of granite.  They invited me to be an official member of the Institute, which I of course accepted!  After we detonated a large rock of Unakite, I picked out a piece to keep, and found one both shaped like Virginia and colored like its mountains.
Spending time with Rick and his family truly felt like a gift and their tremendous generosity will never be forgotten.  They even toyed with the idea of filing adoption papers, but I had to press on with my journey…  🙂

The day John returned, we attended a Memorial Day service and he was able to meet Colonel Coggins, who delivered an emotionally pungent speech in dedication to the fallen.  I spent some time with the Colonel and also the Buchanan Police Department afterward.

Memorial Day is always tough.  How can we ever sufficiently thank our fallen Brothers and Sisters.  Deployments seem to result in an exchange of pride for guilt, esteem for disdain; and it’s not necessarily obvious upon returning home.  It creeps up and compiles up over time.  Our friends gave their lives in our place.  We were responsible for one another.  We left as a complete unit and our hearts and minds returned with missing pieces.  Sometimes, it feels as though I’m living on borrowed time.  They paid the ultimate price for me, and there is a debt that I will always feel I owe, but can never repay.
That is why such a huge part of my cycling journey is to HONOR them by LIVING and attempting to make the most of each day.  Letting days pass by cannot be an option any longer.  No more standing by while your heart and mind fight each other to the death…  Deliberately feed your mind with healthy new thoughts and refuse to allow what’s already inside consume you.
Thank you SPC Sam Bowen, 1LT Charles Wilkins, and PFC Ryan Martin, with every beat of my broken heart.  Your loving sacrifice will NEVER be forgotten.

Most cyclists travel west to east to condition themselves for these unforgivingly steep grades.  I’m proud to say that I have not walked my bike in the Blue Ridge Mountains AT ALL.  Not once.  So many people said there’d be times I’d have to.  That it’s the norm.   But they don’t know me.  People have discouraged and doubted me throughout my life, and it’s been fun to continuously educate them.  However, the truth of the matter is: The people that you have to prove wrong have NO place in your life.  Remember that.

The Blue Ridge are said to be the most physically demanding portion of my journey.  But each section of the country will present a new set of challenges…

The rest of the ride through rural Virginia was loaded with unique sights, intense climbs, and quirky surprises.

It’s been a pleasure taking my time through this gorgeous state.

I feel that I’ve learned a great deal about my bike, gear, the daily routine, and have gained a strong understanding of what is expected of me both physically and mentally.

The last monstrous climb of the Virginia Mountains was a gruesome 1,500 foot, 30% grade, 3.7 mile long, that took every last piece of me to conquer.  I swear, part of my soul itself is still scattered on that mountain top.  Not once did I stop – not once did I walk.  It required me to reignite a part of my body and mind that I hadn’t tapped into since the military.  Eric Ward, this climb was for you, Brother.  You are loved and missed endlessly.

Kentucky has been calling my name for quite some time now and I’ve been very anxious to experience the “Unbridled Spirit” of a state I’ve only ever driven through.  I will miss the mountains, but I’m excited to begin those high mile days.  That being said, it’s official.  I am in Kentucky.  State 2 out of 10.  620 miles down.  3,700 miles to go.

Recap Video:

//NOTHING FOLLOWS //

The Climb

Everything is going well and I am safe!  It’s been rumored that there is limited cell service upon entering the Blue Ridge Mountains, but little did I know I’d be entirely off the grid for such a length of time!  There is so much to share, and I’ve been finding it difficult to formulate a proper post that will do this past week justice.

Last week, I got a glimpse of what was to come.  In the distance, beautiful mountain ranges in shades of blue that belong on color swatches in every paint store on the planet.  More majestic than intimidating from afar, but as I approached the base, it began hitting me how physically challenging this would truly be.

As I neared Charlottesville from Palmyra, there were signs for Monticello; Thomas Jefferson’s famous home.  It was decided right then that I would take a day to go back and explore this historic landmark and learn all I could on the guided tour that’s offered.  That evening, I made arrangements with a local couple to stay at their home, which doubled as a shared space / hostel for travelers.  They were very accommodating – I highly recommend Fair Haven, owned by Flame and Raven; a very warm and welcoming couple just east of Charlottesville.

Monticello was built in 1772 by our 3rd President and one of America’s Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson.  This neoclassical style home is located in Albemarle County on an 850 foot peak in the Southwest Mountains of the Blue Ridge.

Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of our Declaration of Independence and served as President from 1801 to 1809.   He briefly practiced law, at times defending slaves seeking their freedom.  During the American Revolution, he represented Virginia in the Continental Congress that adopted the Declaration, drafted the law for religious freedom as a Virginia legislator, and organized the Louisiana Purchase.   He was an inventor, architect, linguist, mathematician, horticulturalist, philosopher and brilliant writer.  His final resting place is near his home in Monticello Cemetery.  What a privilege it was to tour his home and visit his grave site…

Before heading out of Charlottesville, I stopped at The Bike Factory for a little tune up before approaching Afton Mountain, which is notoriously difficult for cyclists.  The shop’s staff was very helpful and informative – great guys.  The owner informed me that roughly 50% of westbound cyclists quit their journey while attempting my upcoming climb.  He also mentioned that I would most certainly need to stop and walk my bike up at some point.  I smiled and said, “We’ll see.”  While at a late lunch at BJ’s Brewhouse, a man by the name of Greg Trojan, a fellow cyclist, approached the table and asked about A Vicious Cycle.  We chatted for a while and as it turns out – Mr. Trojan is the CEO of the BJ’s Brewhouse National chain, and was visiting from L.A. to attend a local graduation.  Incredible…

After spending some time at the shop, picking up a few things at the store, I rode to White Hall, VA and set up camp behind a community building across from Wyant General Store.  The local gas station had Campbell’s tomato soup in stock and I was taken right back to childhood.  Even found some grilled cheese crackers to dip and ate dinner under a little wooden lean-to.  It was really special…

The next day, we went across the street to the General Store, which has been owned by the Wyant family since the 1800’s.  Even got to spend some time with John Wyant and the amazingly talented locals of White Hall.

I was honored to meet Dale, a decorated Air Force Veteran, who hand made me a beautifully crafted wooden top on the spot and also gifted me an original Army pocket watch he’d been holding onto for many decades.  It was incredibly meaningful and emotional hugs were exchanged…

After packing up the camp site, we met back at the General Store to listen to some amazing, spontaneous, authentic Bluegrass Music, played by the people of White Hall.  Talk about being in the right place at the right time…  It’s always a treat to get a behind the scenes peek into their every day lives and an honor to be included in the local traditions.

The time has come to take on Afton Mountain.  I’ve been hyping myself up, but not psyching myself out.  All that I can do is give everything that I have.  Numerous cyclists have warned me of this climb, and the grade of the incline is a menacing 20% – 30% for miles at a time, nothing like the mild, timid grades the signs warn you about on highways.  I was determined, forbidding myself from getting off of my bicycle and waking.  I set out and began the climb:  Mile after mile of unforgiving inclines, sharp curves, and non-existent road shoulders.  I began using my entire body to power my legs, using my clipped in shoes to pull up on the pedals as well as push down, taking in massive breaths of the ever thinning air.  All of a sudden, I realized…  I made it.  I DID IT.  I was in Afton. I didn’t walk – not ONCE!!  I pulled my phone out and immediately made a video.

I arrived in Afton around 9pm, just after dusk, and took in my first breathtaking (and very much earned) view of the mountains from a guard rail by the Inn at Afton.  The next morning, as I returned to the same guard rail for a day lit version of the view, an older gentleman approached me and introduced himself.  He had lost his beloved wife a few years back and frequents this very spot and view regularly.  I was touched that he’d want to talk to me during his alone time here.  After a few minutes of conversation, we quickly realized we were both Army Veterans, and he had an impressive 40 years of service under his belt, separating from the Army as a First Sergeant.  The stories he must have – I wish we’d had more time to talk about our shared military sentiments.  But, he was heading home and it was time for me to head toward the famous Blue Ridge Parkway and continue my journey.

On Monday, I entered the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway.  Although I’ve driven it in the past, the opportunities to experience its tremendous beauty would be much more abundant and intimate while on a bicycle.  Nature never seems to disappoint, so always make and take the time…

After tackling an obnoxious number of inclines, I arrived in Love, VA, at a really neat destination called Royal Oaks Cabins and Campground.  The owner, Keith, still happened to be at their general store 2 hours after closing time, so not only were we able to stay at the campground, but Keith fired his grill back up and made us delicious, hot paninis and we enjoyed an ice cold beer.  This was seriously a huge treat…  Keith and his wife, along with their son and daughter, run this hiker / cyclist friendly establishment, which I HIGHLY recommend.  I also got to witness a bicycle with a 14 speed automatic transmission, apparently invented and patented by the creator of Porche.  Fascinating.

I set back out into the Blue Ridge Mountains, coming across inclines that were challenging, but mild in comparison to previous climbs.  That day, it became official – I had reached the peak of the mountain.  On top of the world…  Scattered sunlight decorated endless layers of cascading mounains.  A gentle breeze made use of my perspiration to coax a chill.  The storms in my mind dissipated briefly and laid placid.  It was quite a moment.  What was left of the air in my lungs was stolen away by the breathtaking scenes waiting to reward me with the title of Cyclist.  Can’t wait to know what’s to come as I descend from this mountain top and continue my journey…

// NOTHING FOLLOWS //

Video Recap: