The morning arrived in Durango with my legs curled up on a couch that I knew all too well. It was the same couch where I had spent many drunken nights nearly a decade ago escaping the cold winters in town when I was lost in my addictions. My friend still lived in the same house as he had all those years ago, and it was as if I had traveled through time to be reminded of my old self. I remembered years ago, when his roommates, with good reason, finally told me that I could no longer stumble in drunk and pass out on the couch from time to time. I felt so worthless back then.
I made my way out to his front porch to sip coffee from a steamy mug, listening to the melody of the birds, drifting off in thought. I remembered a distinct moment years ago, sipping whiskey on that porch, when I decided that if I could ever get sober that I wanted to be in the medical field and learn to heal people. It was a strange memory because all these years later, after over five years of cramming medical information and all night study sessions, I had pursued just that, becoming a Registered Nurse.
I also remembered a day when I sat hopelessly staring at the winter snow on the porch, realizing I had overstayed my welcome, wondering how I was going to keep from freezing. I remembered all the mornings that came after that, wondering how I was going to get enough booze to stop my violently shaking hands.
Now many years later, the roommates had changed, but the couch and porch remained the same, and the memories they brought forward in my mind left me a bit uneasy. I walked away from his porch for several blocks with my camera, past the tavern that I used to frequent to drink and sing Karaoke. I passed the Section 8 apartments where a Native American lady had taken me in and allowed me to stay for over a year. This was where I drank 40s of malt liquor while she burned sage and spoke in Apache and cared for me like a son. In the distance was the liquor store that I visited several times per day, and the End O' Day motel. In the corner, I saw my old ratty motel room, a place where I had once accepted the certainty of my pending death.
I was so bound to each drink in those days, so completely alone, so lost. I remembered when I had begun throwing up bile and blood, when all my organs ached — the shaking mornings waking up drenched in sweat, the nights when people would try to pry my window open to rob my few belongings, all the times I woke up bruised and battered but couldn't remember a thing from the prior night. I remembered the winter I had spent in that room with a fractured foot, covered in blankets to keep warm, able to see the fog of my breath because of a busted heater, too behind on my rent to ask to have it fixed.
I made the walk towards the rusted neon sign, which probably hadn't been lit in decades, and I was reminded of all the times I had made the same walk. Memories flooded my brain, and I remembered how scared and alone I was in those days. I thought of the pay phone that was once next to the liquor store, where I had made a collect call to my parents over seven years ago to ask for help finding a treatment program. I thought of the desperation and loneliness that had led me to pray to a God that I was uncertain even existed, to ask for forgiveness and guidance. It was that prayer that I have come to believe ultimately lead me towards Providence House. It was the prayer that led me to receive the help that saved my life.
I snapped some pictures of the place where I had once lost all hope, and then turned around, and decided to never look back. The sun was shining through the drooping leaves in the quiet Durango neighborhoods ahead and I thought about how hopeful my future was now, how much joy I experienced each day, and all the kids I might save from a similar path of destruction through this ride. I had found closure to that chapter and was excited for the life that lay ahead and the rest of my adventure towards Brooklyn.
I had planned several days of rest in Durango to see various friends and spend some time filming. I spent a morning walking around downtown Durango filming vacationing tourists strolling along the decorated streets while window shopping, the coal smoke from the train puffing in the background. I noticed some college kids getting ready to float the river, and others riding their bicycles. I thought about how much the styles had changed since I was a student at Fort Lewis College here some 15 years ago, and was reminded that I was aging.
I ran into Anne, the owner of a book store called the Book Case, and she allowed me to film her story. She talked about her wilder days of youth traveling with a carnival, sticking needles in her arm, and ultimately getting sober almost forty years ago. Despite the "going out of business" sign on her storefront, she was hopeful for the changes ahead in her life and shoved some crumpled bills in my camera case for my cause and adamantly rejected my refusal to take her money.
I found a quiet spot by the river and took some time to relax while Kayakers practiced their rolls not far from me.
I spent an evening catching up with old college friends, then awoke rested, and walked several miles through town and up a hill to the Manna Soup Kitchen. This place had saved me from the perils of hunger many times in years past. The dining room was packed with people down on their luck and I wandered around with my camera, feeling a little out of place, before finding the Coordinator and Garden Manager, Jason, who agreed to let me film.
He offered me a meal, which was incredible: a fresh salad, stir fried beef and pork over a bed of rice, steamed vegetables, and day old pastries from a local bakery. I sat on some picnic tables outside and broke bread with a middle aged homeless man named Doug who agreed to let me film his story. He talked about recovery and mentioned that a girlfriend had stolen his 9 year sobriety chip from NA, but when I inquired about how he had achieved his sobriety, he admitted that he was again addicted to drugs. He spoke about the Spirit of God and how he had been doing a lot of "soul searching" which had lead him to think about trying to get sober again. I told him about my story and explained that I used to eat at the soup kitchen almost every day but had changed my life before leaving him with words of encouragement.
The soup kitchen coordinator, Jason, took me on a tour of their facility, which had added many services since I lived in town. They had a new building which was used as a culinary arts school for homeless people to learn job skills, a meeting area for NA and AA meetings, and an organic garden. I wandered through the beautiful garden with its rows of organic vegetables and herbs marveling at the project which included a bee hive to make fresh honey.
I thought of days of old, limping up the hill with a broken foot and an empty stomach to get a meal then staying to play games of chess on the porch. I met some of the best chess players of my life at that soup kitchen, brilliant people that were either addicts or lacked the social skills to get their lives together for long enough to manage to hold job or function in society. It had been a refuge for all the community misfits, and I was glad that they had expanded their services to give people a hand up, not a hand out.
I wandered further up the hill to the homeless shelter where I had once lived. I wanted to do some filming, but I was told I could not film anything without the permission from the shelter's higher-ups, so I spent a moment gazing at the building that had once saved me from freezing in the winter cold. I remembered achieving a month of sobriety there, beginning to rebuild my life, and then stopping for a beer sample at a brewery on my way home from work one night, promising myself that I would just have a tiny beer, just this one time. I remembered the deep shame I felt when the little beer sample turned into a three day bender, causing me to get kicked back out onto the streets. I was so powerless back then.
The next morning I contacted Beau, another college friend, and met him downtown for coffee. He had become a probation officer, and allowed me into the court house to film one of the judges talk about drug court and some of the community efforts related to addiction recovery. Strangely enough, I had sat in front of the same judge, ten years prior, from a drinking related incident. I thought about how much had changed for me to be here all these years later, sitting in her office, talking about solutions to the community's addiction problem.
My friend gave me his address, and I packed my bike, and rode to the South end of town towards his house. I rolled past a house that I had lived in my Sophomore year of college and thought of all the great memories I had living with my friend Jarrod before my alcoholism had fully progressed to rule my life.
After navigating far into a side neighborhood I saw Doug, a homeless guy I had talked to the night before, riding a bike towards me with his dog. He stopped next to me and mumbled, "You must be my guardian angel. I thought about our conversation all night, and I am going to a treatment program. It is only 60 days, but I know what I need to do from there. I've done it before. I guess you must have chosen to talk to me for a reason, so I spent the whole night thinking about it. It is time."
Chills rushed down my spine as he spoke. It was another example of the strange "coincidences" that kept happening on this trip to remind me of my purpose. I hope Doug's words become actions.
The next morning, Beau let me know that he could join me to ride out of Durango if I waited a couple hours while he did some work, so I packed my bike and rode to Bread, a local bakery and favorite community hotspot for cyclists. The owner saw my bike, asked about my ride, then immediately started handing me free food: a bag of house made trail mix, a sandwich on fresh bread, several cookies, and a strong coffee.
I sat at the outdoor tables for a couple of hours while I waited for Beau, talking to the bakery's customers about the ride, swapping stories of their own cycling tours. I later got an email from one of the cyclists, who informed me that he "cried like a baby" when he learned about the reason I was riding. He too was in recovery, and had escaped some pretty dire circumstances, and said he felt a special connection to me in that parking lot.
Beau arrived and we took Florida Road towards Vallaceto, which was a bit longer of a route than 160, but was far more scenic. The ride consisted of a gradual climb next to streams and ranches tucked into the mountain landscape, with intermittent showers overhead. It had rained most of the night and everything was lush and green and smelled fresh and vibrant.
Beau turned around after a couple of hours to head back to Durango, and I continued toward Bayfield, just as the drizzling rain became a violent thunderstorm. For several hours I rode through the chilling rain until I made it to the Lower Piedra Campground and slopped my way up the muddy road to a camp site. I stuffed my wet dollar bills into the campsite's pay slot, and watched the rain form a puddle in my tent while I set up. Once my rainfly was intact, I dried the floor of my tent with some rags while I waited for the arrival of my friends Jeff and Jen.
Jen is a good friend and the director of Providence House, and Jeff and I became close friends during the years spent completing my nursing program in Lamar, Colorado. Jeff and Jen had planned to join the ride through Colorado, but Jeff had some things come up and could no longer join, but he had offered to drive Jen down from Denver anyway.
With no cell service, I sent a GPS signal out and relaxed on top of my sleeping bag while listening to the rain drumming overhead on my tents rainfly. After a couple of hours, I heard a car's engine and an inquisitive, "Spencer, is that you?," followed by cheering when I unzipped a slit in the tent and awkwardly poked my head out with a goofy smile. The rain had stopped and I hugged my friends, relieved that they had found me. I set my camera up and recorded Jeff as he spoke to me about recovery, relapse, and hope. He described the moment, several years ago, when we had started to plan for this trip, together. This trip had once been both of our dreams, but had become a solo adventure as Jeff had to manage his responsibilities as a new father.
I retired to my tent, excited to spend a week riding with Jen. Thanks for reading and all the likes, shares, donations, prayers, and support. It means the world to me to have so many people express that they believe in this dream!