I awoke in Doylestown, PA at a moldy motel that smelled like a wet ashtray. The area was undergoing a heat wave, and the circa 1980's AC unit had vents covered in black mold that were making me ill.
Each time I would turn it off, my headache and cough would improve but I would start to sweat, and found myself turning it back on to sleep. I played this game of off and on all night and by the time morning arrived, I had a terrible cough and felt completely worn down. I spent the morning ride coughing up black death and drinking lots of water. I could feel the fresh air helping me detoxify from the exposure, and my spirits were being lifted from the peaceful views of the river beside me.
. I pulled up to Washington's Crossing Memorial Park, where Washington and his troops had crossed the Delaware river in the Winter of 1776 to turn the tide for the revolutionary war. I sneaked next to a guided tour and eavesdropped as the tour guide brought the history to life with a passionate description of the events. I took a moment to peruse the statues and such and crossed over the bridge, arriving in New Jersey, my 13th state.
As I rolled over the bridge, I pictured Washington and 2,600 starving and freezing men crossing the ice-choked river on Christmas in 1776. Picturing their struggles and dedication really put my little mold exposure in perspective. The ride from there was rather peaceful as it took me on a scenic trail with the Delaware on one side and a slow moving river on the other. The smaller river produced a stunning mirror image of the trees above, highlighting the subtle hues of the colors of the coming Fall.
I navigated back onto a busy road and arrived in Princeton, stopping to tour around the well manicured Ivy League campus. As I stood there stretching my arm into the sky for a selfie, I realized that I had been standing directly between a wedding photographer and a bride and groom for several minutes and an entire crowd had been staring at me with disgust. I was so embarrassed that I hopped on my bike and sped away from the crowd.
I made it towards the outskirts of the city and onto a busy highway and arrived at my motel. As I had moved closer towards the coast, the increasing population density had made it hard to find camping options and the motel prices became astronomical. One of the cheapest motels I could find, turned out to be the nicest accommodation of my trip and I welcomed the clean spacious room in light of the moldy death trap in Doylestown.
I awoke rested and felt much better and headed on towards Hazlet, NJ on the jersey shore. Navigating through the traffic was challenging and I found myself making most left turns using pedestrian walkways for safety as the motorists had become more honk happy and aggressive. I arrived at a cheap motel, about 6 miles away from the Jersey Shore. It had taken me over half an hour to get across the highway to the motel entrance and I was too spent to return to the rush hour traffic to go see the Atlantic coast. I had waited over 100 days for it, and it could wait one more.
The next morning I had a video interview with the Christian Post in Manhattan and woke up early and left without my bike to take a train followed by several subways towards the city. I missed the first train after neglecting to see a sign that all services were leaving from the opposite side of the tracks. Google suggested that I would arrive at the building at 1258 for the 100 interview, assuming I made my subway transfers flawlessly. After months of mostly solitude riding through quiet farm country all across the US, the hustle and bustle and busyness of New York was somewhat overwhelming. I managed to swim through the sea of pushy and noisy people, figure out two subway transfers, and arrive at the building just in time for the interview. They set me up in a chair surrounded by lights and cameras. Beyond the gorgeous Australian reporter, out the 30 story skyscraper window, I could see the World Trade Center memorial. It was such an exciting feeling, I had made it to New York, although not quite yet on my bike.
After the interview, I walked around the city with my camera, stopping for a couple slices of New York pizza, visiting the WTC memorial museum, and taking pictures of the magnificent architecture.
By the time I made it back through the subway, and rode the train to my motel in Jersey, I was again completely exhausted. I decided that reaching the Atlantic coast with my bicycle could wait yet another day.
The morning brought on such an exciting feeling. This was the day I had been dreaming of for so long. I coasted through the honking traffic towards the coast until I began to smell the ocean and hear the seagulls. After looking at all my options, I had decided to take a ferry into Manhattan as there was no safe way to get there with a bicycle and for all intents and purposes, I was about to reach the coast, marking the completion of riding coast to coast. I made it to the shore at about 8 in the morning, and bought a ferry ticket scheduled for 930, so that I could see the ocean. I rode over a ridge and down to the beach until my tires began kicking up clumps of brown sludgy sand. I stood next to my bike as the tide sifted over my sandals. I picked up the hulking machine of steel and wheels and camping gear that I had dipped in the Pacific ocean a little over 3 months ago, and dropped its wheels into the wavering tide of the Atlantic. This is a custom for transAmerica cyclists, and it was an amazing feeling.
I strapped my bike to the bow of the ferry, and sat at a window seat, gently rocking back and forth as the statue of liberty grew in size while the boat approached the clustered grandeur of the Manhattan metropolis. I thought about all the immigrants over the years that had arrived after long journeys and had stared at the same statue as it welcomed them to a land of promises and opportunity. I walked my bike off the boat and began riding in the general direction of the Brooklyn Bridge until I found myself directly under the massive strings of coiled steel. A friendly girl named Soomi rode up on her bicycle and started inquiring about my ride. She explained that she had also crossed the country with a bicycle, twice, and in seeing my bags, she knew what I must be feeling. After giving me a long list of directions to ride to the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, she said, "You know what, I am off today, I'll just show you how to get there." Soomi was a local girl, and was clearly more seasoned than me at navigating through the insanity of New York traffic, and I followed behind her nervously weaving around delivery trucks, taxicabs, homeless people, and through busy alleyways. In following her, I realized that you had to take on the aggressive mentality of the city or you would be forever waiting behind people. It still felt incredibly dangerous to plow in front of and in-between the sea of honking vehicles and hollering people. She stopped and yelled, "quick, there is a gap, hand me your phone and ride out in the middle of the road." Without hesitation, she snapped a picture of me in front of One world trade center, before the next stream of cars arrived, then took me all the way to the entrance of the bridge.
I thanked Soomi for her generous help, and stood there for a moment just feet away from the Brooklyn Bridge and thought back to the first time I remember really beginning to visualize this trip.
It was a couple years ago, and I recall sitting at my computer for the third night in a row writing papers for school. I found myself taking a break and staring at a photograph my friend had given me of the Pacific ocean at sunset. It was a simple photo of what looked like Malibu, with radiant pinks and oranges resting above an infinite blue ocean. On this particular night, I had placed the photograph under my computer screen to remind me of my dream of crossing America on a bicycle, and it stayed in that spot for the coming months. At the time, I worked the night shift at a rural hospital and kept the same schedule on my days off, staying awake all night so that I could minimize my distractions to keep focused on my educational goals. I woke up at the same time each evening, and sat in that sterile office typing away by myself under a special lamp that I had bought to mimic the sunlight. For many months, I would stare at that picture periodically as a mental escape from the long hours of work and school and solitude. I imagined dipping the wheels of my bicycle into the Pacific ocean that I saw in that picture, then getting on my bike and riding until I hit the Atlantic. I pictured boiling water with a camp stove and making coffee next to a tent each morning in different towns across the country, and spending each day talking to people about the miracle that had happened in my life. I pictured filming the stories of people from many different walks of life. I wanted to spread a message across all of America. A message of encouragement. A message of hope. For I had experienced a spiritual shift in my life that was nothing short of a miracle. My life had been fully restored, and yet I couldn't forget the life that I had been saved from. For I remember when I was not at all hopeful.
I remember combing through the carpet looking for lost crack rocks for hours on end. I remember the taste of blood in my mouth, that salty metallic taste, as it would pool behind my swelling lips all those times I got beat up on the streets. I remember a needle dangling in my arm as I awoke to the loud knock on a bathroom door as some friends found me slumped on the floor, teetering in and out of consciousness. I remember running from terrifying hallucinations after a week long meth binge, stopping in a motel lobby and pleading with the motel clerk for a glass of water before "they" took me away. In my mind, the motel I had entered on that day was surrounded by a swat team, and I could hear helicopters circling in to get me. There were no real helicopters, just me, another crazed addict begging for a glass of water and frightening the poor clerk with my drug induced psychosis. Drugs came and went in my life until the later years when I narrowed it down to my true obsession and preference, alcohol. I remember shaking so bad that one hobo had to hold my body and trembling head while another poured a jug of vodka into my mouth to keep me from seizing. It took about a quart to get the shaking to stop in those days, and I recall lying there one day thinking about what I had become. A helpless baby wearing adult rags being fed out of a big plastic bottle. My hazy, pickled brain knew only one thing to be certain in those days- I knew I had passed the point of no return. I knew my life would soon end. I hoped that the next life, if anything was to come next, would be less difficult to manage. I remember lying on the side of the road in winter, being dragged into a police car to be rescued after nearly freezing to death. Come to find out much later, this was always my mother's worst fear. She cried herself to sleep many nights praying that she wouldn't get that call that her son was found frozen. They had tried everything to get me to change but the bottom line is change has to be an intrinsic desire and it took a long time for me to decide I wanted it. I remember all those sobering moments when I would awake from a drunken stupor and think about all the people I had once loved, and had lost, and all the hurt I had caused everyone from my selfishness. No words are capable of describing the depth of the loneliness and regrets and guilt that I felt in those days. They were feelings that were impossible to handle without masking them with booze. I deeply longed for the people that were once in my life. I grieved every day for the loss of my parents, my brothers, and my once close friends. I grieved them because I didn't think I would ever see them again, let alone have much of a relationship. I also thought a lot about the closest person I had ever had in my life. Someone that loved and understood me far more intimately than the short years I had with her could explain, my grandma Bobby. I often wondered what my grandma was thinking as she looked down from heaven on the stumbling selfish mess of rags that I had become.
My grandma had a thing for butterflies. Before she passed, she told me that when she died, if she could, she would show her presence in my life by showing up as a butterfly. Years later, after the spiritual restoration had begun in my life, and I was working to rebuild everything I had destroyed, her words about butterflies became rather significant for me. I recall as I first trained for my nursing career, I spent a lot of time doubting if I would ever be good enough to make it. I remember the first day I put on scrubs and I got in my car and was on my way to clinicals at a hospital after triple checking that I had my name badge, my stethoscope, and my penlight. I was so nervous that I was shaking. I pulled up to a stoplight and a butterfly landed on my windshield and I felt a calm come over me that lasted through the entire day. I knew somehow, that it was my grandma. I was no longer nervous, and I entered each room with confidence, and began helping patients. I realized that nursing was not only something that I could do, but something that filled me with so much joy that it practically radiated out of me. I also knew that my grandma was watching over me, and I knew that she was proud of me. She was proud of me when I bear knuckled the first few months of sobriety at Providence House, and even more proud when months became years. She was proud of me when I went back to school. She was there when I failed that first test and she listened as a teacher told me that she thought I had a learning disability. She listened patiently when the teacher told me I should consider dropping her class. She was proud of me when I refused to quit, and when I brought my grade in that class up to a B by the end of the semester. I felt her presence each night as I studied harder, semester after semester, until one day I looked at my report card and saw nothing but A's. I stepped out into my garden that day and kid you not, a butterfly flew next to me fluttering its wings with rhythmic grace. My grandma was there with me when I started helping other addicts get sober. I remember one afternoon as I left the salvation army after volunteering my time to counsel other addicts and there she was beneath a ray of sun as I got into my car, my grandma, flying around my head, making sure I knew that she was watching, and making sure I knew she was proud. She was also there when I decided to risk my future and career by putting it all out there to the public- the shameful actions of my past, the drunkenness, the drug use, all the things that could stigmatize me and close doors in my future career and relationships. I remember a moment of panic as I was first developing this fundraiser when I realized that I was beginning to reveal intimate details about my past that could one day come back to haunt me. As I considered filtering my message with vagueness about my past, I stepped away from my computer and out into the yard and saw her flying next to me and I knew the answer. I knew I had to talk about all this embarrassing stuff that I felt so inclined to keep private. I knew I had to, even if I didn't want to, because it might help addicts and their family members gain hope. I also knew that even if all this disclosure about my jagged past closed certain doors in my future, it would open even better ones. My grandma was there with me countless times as I crossed the country sharing my message of hope with my ever pedaling bicycle. Even though there were many times that I felt like giving up on this journey, and many times where I became frustrated, scared, lonely, uncomfortable, and exhausted. There were a whole lot of butterflies.
I pulled up to the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge on the same bike that had glided through a swirling fog on the Golden Gate Bridge a few months before. My once shiny neon bags were now wrinkled and caked with dirt, sweat, and even blood. The camping and rain gear in my bags smelled like mildew, and my water bottles had been filled from camping spigots, motel sinks, gas station faucets, and the garden hoses outside of the homes of friendly Americans across 14 different states. As I approached, I thought of all the new friends that I had made on the journey to get there, all the prayers that had kept me safe, and all the times that I had felt I was in way over my head with this crazy idea. I had thought of this day, every day, for over three months of pedaling, and realistically, for years before that. It felt so surreal to be riding up to a place that I had envisioned for so long in my mind. I thought of what this trip had signified for me, and all the people that might find some hope from the message that I brought with me and shared freely everywhere I went. I had talked to parents that had lost their kids to addictions. I talked to kids that wanted to call their parents but were still getting high. I had shared my story with countless addicts that were contemplating relapse, hoping that my example might stop even just one of them from doing so. I shared my message with cyclists, restaurant workers, motel clerks, townsfolk, dog walkers, farmers, ranchers, homeless people, shopkeepers, and town drunks. I gave talks and filmed interviews at churches, homeless shelters, and recovery homes as I passed through hundreds of towns over mountains, plains, deserts, and busy cities. All the places and people and conversations had lead to this beautiful coiled structure of steel and granite sitting beyond the New York skyline- The Brooklyn Bridge.
I had contacted a videographer from Craigslist named Samuel, to film for the day and I met him near rows of hot dog and gyro stands where tourists swarmed towards the entrance to the bridge's walking and bike path. Tourists were everywhere with cameras dangling around their necks, speaking in a variety of accents. As I casually talked to Samuel about filming, my friend from childhood, Ted, walked up behind me and I nearly jumped as he tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Hey, I think I know you from somewhere." He had driven 6 hours from Pittsburgh to surprise me and celebrate my finish. I was overjoyed.
My parents, and Karen and Denise, two Providence Network staff members, flew out from Denver to celebrate my finish as well, and I saw my parents approach, followed by Karen and Denise. My mom had rented a bicycle to cross the finish with me and my dad passed out signs for Karen, Denise, and Ted to hold while they cheered me on. They made their way further up the bridge to await our crossing as so many emotions began coming to the surface. All the times where this had seemed like an impossible reality, all the doubts, all the pain, all the planning, all the struggle, everything had all lead up to this very day.
We walked our bikes a little ways up the bridge and found a good clearing to stand and take some photos of the city behind us before fully crossing. I looked at the towering skyline and the pigeons flying downwards in groups for breadcrumbs at the open public space between my bicycle and the bustling metropolis. A group of street performers were arriving with PA speakers on dollies and preparing to wow the tourists with their talents in the park at the end of the bridge. The sky was a clear blue and the sun gleamed and sparkled off of the rows of glass and steel towering in the distance. It was so beautiful. I looked next to me and saw something far more beautiful, my mom, standing there, equally as stoic as those buildings, full of pride, and sporting a Colorado cycling jersey, ready to join me as I fulfilled my dream. This was the same woman that had accepted that she would have to bury me a little over seven years ago. The same woman that had tried everything to get me help, but eventually had to detach, and grieve the loss of me, waiting for that dreaded call. Yet none of that really mattered now to either of us. Forgiveness is such a beautiful thing. God had healed us to the point that it was as if it had all been forgotten, and we were now just two close friends out for a ride. A butterfly fluttered down out of nowhere and landed on my moms jersey to rest. We were on the bridge, far away from any flowers, and yet there it was. It was my grandma. My moms eyes swelled with tears of joy and she said that same thing she always says when we see a butterfly, "hi grandma". Tears were now rolling off her cheeks as it circled around me and flew off. In that moment I could feel her there with us, just as I had felt her the entire trip, and she was so proud.
She was proud that I had made it through all the physical challenges to get there. She was proud of all the money I had raised for the new youth recovery home for Providence Network. She was probably most proud though, to see our family restored to the way it used to be. To see my mom and me finishing this journey together, with my dad and friends by our side.
The pedestrian and bike path on the Brooklyn Bridge is set up with one side for pedestrians going both directions and the other for cyclists going both directions and has a line dividing the two in the middle. The area was barely wide enough for two bikes to cross, so riding together was a little difficult, especially with the swarms of other tourists taking photos, oblivious to the fact that one side was for cyclists. We waited for a gap in the cycling traffic, and took off riding away from the city. We crossed the bridge together, weaving in and out of careless tourists and other cyclists commuting to work.
As we approached the end of the bridge, I could see the glowing faces of my loving dad, Ted, Karen, and Denise, holding signs and hollering, "Yay Spencer, you did it!" It was one of the best days of my life.
This trip and blog is for the addicts and alcoholics still bound by the limitations of their addictions. May they find themselves free one day, as I have. It is for the people in early sobriety that know they will never make it. May they one day know that they will never need to drink or use again. It is for the people with a year or two of sobriety that are fantasizing about going back out. May they stop fantasizing, and hang on, and learn to enjoy all the other things that they have gained back with their sobriety until life becomes exciting and adventurous again, just like mine has become. It is for the people that think that they will never have fun while being sober. May they seek adventure, and go out and explore the world, and find all the good and wholesome people that I found on this journey. It is for the parents that have lost loved ones to addictions. May they find acceptance and peace. I can only hope I honored them with this ride in some way. It is for the lives of the young people that will be served by this new home. May they experience the grace that I have, and go on to see the world that was revealed to me on this trip- adventurous, hopeful, and brimming with random kindness around every turn of the handlebars.
Thanks for reading and all the prayers, shares, comments, and donations. I have raised over $57,000 for the new youth home thanks to all of your incredible generosity. The fundraiser is open until 10/1, and I still remain hopeful of somehow reaching my goal of $100,000. If you haven't yet donated, please do so, and help other young adults experience the transformation that I experienced at Providence House. Thanks to all of you that believed in my crazy dream, and all the love and support along the way.