Eight years ago yesterday, I woke up in a holding cell in the Black Hawk County Jail in Waterloo, Iowa. I had been arrested for drunk driving for the second time in less than a year. What happened after that day was a sort of forced reinvention, starting with court-ordered substance abuse treatment and a short jail sentence, then moving out West to Montana, where I eventually made my way into the mountains to see what was up there.
After a couple years, which were at first depressing and sad, and awkward, I found something else to do with my time besides sit on a barstool and act like I knew something about life because I had just drunk eight beers. I dug into the mountains, learning how to backpack, and climb, ski in the backcountry, rig rappel lines and assess avalanche potential. I started to spend weekends climbing, sitting by myself on tiny ledges paying out rope for my climbing partner, not talking to anybody, watching wind blow through pine trees and birds fly by. I found a new identity.
And then, my pal Nick bought me a bike. And that’s changed my daily life, since summer 2006. And if it wasn’t for that bike, I wouldn’t be here, sitting in a hotel room in San Marcos, Texas, after a “short” 50-mile day that puts us a little over halfway across America. Tomorrow, we head into Austin, and after that, we start counting down the miles we have left.
Sometimes I have little moments in which everything crystallizes for just a second, and I can’t believe this is my life, and I get to do all this crazy stuff — whether it’s sitting in the parking lot of Devils Tower with Nick absolutely wrung out from 11 nonstop hours, or jumping back over the rail on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon after climbing Mount Hayden with Mick feeling like we just got away with something, or walking behind my girlfriend on a lonely trail in southern Arizona as the sun goes down, not even feeling the heavy pack on my back. I’ve had several moments like that on this trip, and I remember how lucky I am. I also have to remind myself that the guy pedaling his bike behind his pal Tony for thousands of miles is that same loser who used to get drunk enough to put cigarettes out on himself and pass out on the kitchen floor.
I believe in bicycles. I could write a million love stories about my bike, and how it put me in touch with some of my favorite people in the world, and how I don’t know how much I like riding my bike but I know how much I hate not riding my bike, and the Breakfast Ride, and the time I spend thinking late at night riding by myself, and all that. I can tell you the fastest bike, the best bike in the world, is the one I’m on right now, whatever it is. It makes smiles and creates peace and saves the planet, and for two months, it’s helping inner-city kids get a chance to find out something about themselves in the mountains, like I did.
There is a story about this bike ride, probably several of them, maybe about America’s small towns, maybe about old friends, maybe about two kids who grew up in a small town and want to prove something to someone, but some days I like to think about the self-congratulatory one: How I could still be sitting on that barstool, burning another Camel Light and drinking more whiskey, wondering what it would be like to bicycle across America — and then ordering another drink and forgetting about it, again. But I got lucky, and one day an old pal asked me if I would, realistically, like to try it.
Today, my liver and I are celebrating eight years of sobriety. I don’t know too much, but I know if you can go every single day for eight years without drinking a single cold beer, other things seem less scary. Like getting on your bike and mashing out 60 miles every day until you hit the other ocean.