Sands of Time

Utah’s terrain will leave you feeling convinced that you’ve left our planet.  Mesmerizing 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 sprinkler 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, families, 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′ canyoneering rappels, 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 complete.  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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