I woke up at my campsite next to the peaceful sounds of a stream in Burnt Cabins, PA at the historic Grist Mill, a river-powered flour mill from the 1750's that was still functional and churning out flour products. The owner explained that I had a decent climb ahead to get out of the Allegheny Mountains but the rest of the day would be milder, rolling hills. I dropped into a low gear as a fog sank over the trees and found a steady pace while thinking about the satisfying fact that this was the last major mountain range of the trip. The Sierras, Rockies, Ozarks, Appalachians, and Alleghenys all about to be behind me. At the summit, I found Cowan's Gap State Park, a magnificent 42 acre lake surrounded by dense trees. I coasted around the lake with a feeling of accomplishment, and began the decent towards Chambersburg.
After a restful sleep at a Chambersburg motel, I returned to the quiet and green rolling hills which were starting to show some glimpses of Fall. Yellow, orange, and red leaves were appearing in patches to contrast the green crops and trees, offering me a taste of the beauty that would be arriving in a month or so. It dawned on me how strange it had been, watching the seasons come and go from my ever-pedaling bicycle seat. I started this journey with freezing temperatures, numb fingers and toes, snow, chilling rains, and balls of hail that pierced my face. I watched the flowers start to bloom around me as the air became warm and floral. Then came nights in my tent stretched out as puddles of sweat formed between my skin and sleeping bag while the Summer temperatures climbed towards their peak. Now Fall, my favorite of the seasons, would soon begin, and I was still huffing along on the same bike seat, cranking away at the pedals, welcoming the new colors and breezes. It was truly a unique opportunity to experience the way the world around me subtly became new and different each day.
I passed my fifth large billboard with a grey-bearded man wearing a top hat, advertising for Mister ED's Elephant Museum and Candy Emporium. Several miles later I reached the place and was too curious not to stop. The outside of the building had several elephant statues and the inside sold fudge and other homemade candies, as well as hundreds of varieties of elephant-related novelties: figurines of all sizes, keychains, coasters, and anything else you could think of putting an elephant on. Although disappointed that there were no real elephants in the elephant museum, I enjoyed some fudge and chocolate bacon soda, before continuing to Gettysburg.
I rode next to the Gettysburg battlefield and took a reverential moment to appreciate the history of the civil war battle before continuing on to York to meet my Uncle Buzz.
My Aunt Sheri, Uncle Buzz, and cousins live in Harrisburg, and my route traveled just South of their house, so my Uncle Buzz picked me up in York for the visit. On the drive North, my uncle reflected on his own days roughing it on the oil rigs, eating cans of franks n'beans and I shared with him some of my own camping concoctions like sausages and ramen, a calorie dense favorite. They ordered a Philly cheese steak pizza from a place around the corner and we drove to cousin Steve's for birthday cake with his wife, Stephanie, and their teenage boys, Chris and Cameron.
I have always idolized my cousin Steve. As a kid, I remember coming to visit Steve and his brother Tim, and from a 10 year old's perspective, they were about as cool as you could get. Steve had long hair, was the biggest Broncos fan I had ever met, listened to metal, and was a rock DJ. He is now a local celebrity as he works as a meteorologist and newscaster at the local CBS station, and he arranged for me to meet another reporter in the morning at the Bethesda Mission to film a little news piece about my ride and my work with the homeless.
I was granted a tour of the mission which looked like an old church on the outside but had a tremendous amount of modern services inside. They provide shelter, meals, and medical/ dental care to hundreds of men, women, and children in the Harrisburg area. They also have drug and alcohol counseling and services and I had the privilege to meet some of the graduates and interview graduate who happened to be volunteering at the mission cooking residents' meals. It was so encouraging to see that other people were getting sober, and then turning around and giving back to others, as was the spirit of my ride.
My uncle took me to a bike shop to get some repairs.
While we waited, he took out his phone and showed me a map of Harrisburg and explained the historical significance of Harrisburg in the civil war and then took me on a cruise bringing the battle to life. This trip had afforded me a lot of time to learn about American history, making me appreciate our country more than ever before. In the evening, I met a videographer named Kurt that I had contacted through Craigslist to help with the film. We drove to a park that overlooked the city and he filmed me riding while the sun was setting across the city skyline.
We got to talking, and he explained that he had felt compelled to donate his time to help with the project because he was also in recovery and was five years sober. He agreed to let me turn the camera around on him and interview him about his story. I felt like I had made another important friend, bonded by our similar desires to help others.
In terms of produce, I had arrived at the perfect time for fresh vegetables and my Aunt made me BLT's with lettuce and tomatoes grown out of the garden by my Uncle Buzz.
The next day, my cousins Chris and Cameron came over with Steve and we played whiffle ball in the yard. I remember Steve showing me how to pitch "like Roger Clemens" with a whiffle ball as a kid, and it was an amazing moment to be all these years later, playing the same game with his kids.
My uncle and Chris dug fresh potatoes out of the garden and cooked an enormous feast of steak, fresh sweet corn, mashed potatoes, and garden veggies.
I spent the evening sitting in my Aunt's office as she told me stories until late in the night. My Aunt is one of those rare people that has the ability to engage you in interesting conversation for hours enabling you to forget that time even exists. She has such a fascinating way of looking at the world and is one of the few people that I know that makes people instantly comfortable by her conversation. I thought about how I would have lost these moments had my addictions continued to rule my life. You only get one family, and spending time with my Aunt, Uncle, and cousins reminded me how important family really is since in my worst of days, I had not only lost the connection to my immediate family, but my extended family as well. I fell asleep feeling grateful for their forgiveness and the time I got to spend getting a glimpse of their lives in Pennsylvania.
My Uncle dropped me off where he had picked me up in York and I coasted through the Amish farm country sharing the road with buggies and Amish cyclists while dodging horse manure along the roadside. The streets were lined with fruit and vegetable stands where the Amish sold produce and baked goods. My Aunt had reached out to a friend in the area who had arranged for me to stay at a recovery home called Revelation of Freedom Ministries (ROFM) near Blue Ball, PA.
I pulled up and was greeted by several young guys who had been eagerly anticipating my arrival. The residents were mostly in their twenties, and were in their first 6 months of sobriety. They showed me to a shower and a clean bed and cooked me an incredible dinner of grilled chicken, burgers, and Lancaster County sweet corn.
After dinner, they built a bonfire and we sat around the dancing flames as I shared my testimony while the sun escaped behind the hills. It grew dark and the stars emerged and each guy began praying for me, some of them opening up about how my story had helped them gain hope. One of the guys told me about how he had lost his health to his addictions and explained that he probably wouldn't be around much longer but it was okay because he had found Jesus. Joyful tears rolled off his face as he told me that he knew he would see me in heaven. I encouraged each of them to hang on and to dream big and could feel the presence of God connecting and healing us.
As I watched them living in the community setting, helping each other with their struggles, I was reminded of living at Providence House in my own early sobriety. There was something powerful about coming home each day from work and sharing meals and bible studies with others who knew, to some extent, what I was going through. Although some of them didn't make it, many of my closest friends today developed out of those early dinner conversations at Providence House. I remember Barb, who was covered in tattoos and had battled years of addictions and abuse. I recall one day when she showed me her ankle monitor and talked about all the stresses in her life at that point. I remember thinking how impossible it seemed for her to deal with everything she was up against holding a job at Blockbuster, dealing with legal issues, strained relationships with her daughters, and all the emotional baggage that came from being a domestic violence survivor. While I was on the trip, she graduated college and is now a certified addictions counselor running her own women's recovery home and is over 7 and a half years sober. Barb is just one of many that were healed at Providence House, that went on to dedicate their lives to serving others. I could see the same type of healing happen at ROFM that happened at Providence House, and it was a truly spiritual experience. I couldn't help but wonder if some of these guys would end up close friends like I had become with Barb and so many others from those early meals together at Providence House. It was the sense of family that made Providence House really work, and this place reminded me so much of that special time of healing for me.
In the morning, I joined Larry and Richie, two of the staff members at ROFM for coffee on their back porch. Larry had been sober over 11 years, and radiated with kindness and humility. Richie is a writer and artist, and explained that he planned to write a poem about the trip for me, which he later posted to Facebook, and it was both touching, and showed incredible writing talent.
We said our goodbyes and I headed up the road to meet Connie, my Aunt's friend, for breakfast at Shady Maple Smorgasbord, a world famous buffet restaurant. As I approached, I pictured a small diner restaurant with a salad bar line, fitting the size of the nearby towns. As I pulled into the parking lot, my stomach rejoiced at the sight of all the cars, since lots of cars usually means lots of food. I cut it a little too close to an Amish buggy on the way into the parking lot, nearly getting trampled by the horse, which added to the authenticity of eating at Pennsylvania's most famous restaurant. I found Connie and we proceeded to join hundreds of others in the dining room. The buffet itself stretched for thousands of feet in different sections and offered every breakfast item I had ever dreamed of. It even had some I had never even heard of, including regional items like scrapple, whoopie pies, and shoe fly pie. I filled plate after plate with delicious fruit, greasy meats, and baked goods.
I could see why my Aunt had been friends with Connie for so many years as I was immediately put at ease by her friendly conversation and charm. She shared with me that it was her 56th wedding anniversary and that her husband had passed away over 6 years ago. I felt touched that I could share a meal with her on such a special day.
I left fully fueled for a long day of cycling out of Amish country towards Philadelphia, before shifting directions North to Doylestown. I passed a prison, then circled through a mental health hospital, and then watched a homeless man escaping into the woods with a tall can of beer. I felt like God was reminding me of where I would be, had I not decided to change, if I would be alive at all. As I coasted next to the long stretch of curled barb wire, I thought about how close I had been to finding myself on the other side of the fence. If I had lived to see 34, I would have certainly been in one of those places. I realized how blessed I was to be rolling along taking in the fresh air and views, no longer trapped in the misery and loneliness of my addictions. I had been set free, to live a life of adventures and purpose and hope. Thanks for all the prayers, shares, likes, comments, and donations. I truly appreciate all the love and support.