The sun filled my tent at a park in Plain City, Ohio until I was slippery with sweat in my sleeping bag. I boiled some water for my morning coffee and oatmeal and returned to the hilly green roads of rural Ohio, navigating up and around the outskirts of Columbus towards the quiet suburb of Mt. Vernon. I arrived at Dick and Barb's house, my Uncle's friends. My Uncle had flown in the Air Force with Dick, and they had remained friends for years. The outside of their home was decorated with flowers and had a lawn the size of a park, which was an astounding display from the living room doors facing it.
Dick was stuck in the hospital after a routine appointment had ended up requiring an overnight stay, so I was greeted by Barb's brother, David, and mother, JoAnn, and was made to feel at home in their immaculate house by David as he showed me to the shower and helped me to feel at ease. Dick's mother in-law, JoAnn, who was 80 some years young, served me sandwiches, local sweet corn, and cherries while Barb settled Dick in at the hospital.
With a full stomach and laundry in the washing machine, I took to a recliner in their basement next to JoAnn as she told me stories of her own adventures traveling across America (in a car) with her sister staying in KOA campgrounds. This was not a normal pursuit for two ladies in their 80's, and I was inspired by her enthusiasm for life, sense of adventure, and cheerful spirit. Barb returned from the hospital and was equally hospitable and friendly, explaining that she had spent part of the day riding her own bike around Monroe with some friends.
In the morning, I had a peaceful breakfast circled around their kitchen table which overlooked the vast lawn with David, Barb, and JoAnn. They sent me with sandwiches, a bag of cherries, some of JoAnn's famous cinnamon rolls, and handed me some money towards the cause. I was touched by their gracious hospitality and encouragement towards my dream of helping others with addictions.
I was overjoyed to find out that I could travel out of Mt. Vernon on the Kokosing Gap Trail for 23 miles. The overhang of the trees blocked the rising sun, and I found a rhythm that mirrored the trickling streams and waking wildlife along the trail. This was bicycle touring at its best: shade, a gentle breeze, and a feeling of oneness with the surrounding nature.
The trail ended, and I found myself on a series of steep, windy hills on pothole-riddled farm roads through Ohio's Amish country. I began to hear the clopping hooves of passing Amish buggies and see men and women of all ages riding bicycles in Colonial attire. It was as if I had been transported through time. At one point, I had my phone in my pocket helping me navigate while I passed an Amish family on bicycles and I watched them stare at me with bewildered looks as a voice interrupted the silence and directed me to "turn left in 1000 feet." I imagined how peculiar it must be to be separated from technology as the world around you evolved until one day you pass a crazy looking guy like me, decorated in neon yellow, huffing along on a talking bicycle covered with electronic gadgets.
I later found myself standing in the heat, untangling cords and plugging in various chargers to my portable power packs, searching Google for a place to stay for the evening, responding to texts and emails, and growing impatient with the slowness of my 2 bar browsing speed, I began to wonder if they might be on to something. Have we traded the stillness of life for all these devices with their incessant beeping reminders? We have this endless persuasion towards somewhat meaningless digital communications with people, while the Amish remain grounded to each other, the earth, and God in such a simple fashion.
I reached the top of a treacherous climb arriving at the Guggisberg cheese factory, which had a Swiss themed restaurant called Chalet In the Valley, featuring their award-winning cheese. After 7 hours of climbing mountains, I decided it was apropriate to order "The Mountain Climber," a one pound burger with three cheeses on a pretzel bun, which I gorged on while chatting with my waitress about my trip. After finishing perhaps the best burger of my life, she paid for my meal out of her own pocket. Filled with gratitude (and cholesterol), I continued toward New Philadelphia.
In the morning I set off on the Conotton Creek trail. The trail was lined with wildflowers, red berried bushes, and over 40 birdhouses which attracted plenty of chirping and swooping tree swallows and bluebirds. I arrived in Steubenville, a moderate-sized industrial factory town, and climbed one last steep hill to my motel.
After a good night's sleep, I crossed over a massive bridge and began to climb toward Pittsburgh, a little discouraged by my assumption that I had a traffic-filled day ahead, but found myself pleasantly surprised to discover that my route took me onto the Panhandle Trail. The trail guided me away from civilization for over 30 miles into a completely isolated gravel path which etched its way through the overgrowth of rural West Virginia and into Eastern Pennsylvania.
I had a conference call scheduled with a non-profit looking to donate and assumed that my cell coverage would improve the closer I got to Pittsburgh. It was a poor assumption, and as the time for the call approached, my signal was waxing and waning between 0 and 2 bars. I pushed hard to get closer to the next town in hopes it would improve until the time to call arrived. By the grace of God, I managed to give my presentation while sitting in the middle of nature with two bars of service, and they donated $7,500 toward the cause, raising my total raised for Providence Network to over $50,000.
Feeling relieved, and a bit celebratory, I stopped to eat and fill my water bottles at Walden's, a small restaurant in Burgettstown, PA. I chatted with my waitress, Vikki, about my ride. She pointed at a two year old boy in a corner booth and explained that he was her great-great grandson. She was in her seventies and had recently been forced to raise him because her grandkids were locked up as a result of their heroin addictions. She further explained that half of her granddaughter's high school class had been killed from a bad batch of heroin in one weekend, completely devastating the town. Tears began rolling down her cheeks, as she told me about all her kids and grandkids that were being destroyed by drug and alcohol addiction.
I finished a plate of spaghetti as she filled my water bottles, grabbing each one with both hands and walking slowly toward the kitchen with the signs of an aching back, returning to my table with each bottle filled with ice water. I wondered how she would summon the energy to raise a little boy if filling water bottles was so taxing on her. As if she read my thoughts, she said, "How am I going to raise him? I'm too old for this. It is people like you that are going to save my grandkids' generation. You have given me more than you will ever know by coming in here today. You are not paying for your meal, by the way."
Before I could refuse, she returned with a paper bag stuffed with homemade chocolate chip cookies and said, "You will need your carbs for strength." Before I left, she pulled me in for a bear hug and with tears still glimmering in her eyes, she held me tight for about a minute, kissing my cheeks and whispering, "thank you for what you are doing." I realized that I hadn't hugged anyone in a long time, and it felt good to feel so loved and encouraged.
All those years of being ashamed of my own life had left me unsure how to respond when people commended me for my life today. After living by myself out of bags for three months, I really needed to hear her words and feel her hug in that moment.
As I continued on the trail I couldn't help but think about the fate of our country. Every little town I had passed through across the country I had heard the same stories as Vikki's. Stories from mothers that had lost their kids to addictions. Entire communities with a good portion of their young people addicted to meth and heroin. Rural hospital ER's full of overdosing teenagers. City streets flooded with homeless kids.
I thought of myself when I arrived at Providence House at the age of 27 after years of letting addictions run my life. I remember being shown to my room and deciding that I could play the game long enough to get a job and save enough money to go back out. As much as I wanted to be well, I was pretty sure that I had passed the point of no return. My mind was in a place in which I believed that living a normal life would never be manageable without substances. It was a terrifying realization. As I first got sober, I recognized that despite the ease with which I could say all the right things and follow the rules, the real voice of reason—the one that was hidden from all the counselors and family members, tucked way below the surface—accepted that it would never actually happen.
I wanted sobriety as badly as anyone that had lost everything. But I also knew that my mind compulsively thought about drinking and using. It consumed my every thought, it seeped into my sleep. I spent nearly every dream of every night guzzling booze, sniffing powders, and putting needles in my arms, and I would wake up sweating and scared and ready to leave.
I faced a reality each day that was unimaginably difficult to cope with: my mood was unpredictable and simple daily tasks were chaotic jumbled puzzles being tossed at me faster than I could solve them. For a kid that was once pretty gifted, this presented additional blows to my self-esteem, and the minor failures of daily living seemed devastating, even catastrophic. A song would play on the radio and I would need a drink, a whiff of perfume and I would need a drink. A commercial on TV, drink. Bad day, drink. Good day, drink. I was hopelessly trapped by the inevitable approach of my relapse. I didn't know when it would come, but I knew it would, as it was consistently being developed and molded by my own mind.
Something happened to me at Providence House. Something that was much more profound than the mere healing of brain chemistry. This was a spiritual shift, and while it occurred gradually, its significance to my life was cosmic. By nothing short of a miracle, I escaped the fate of my own mind, and have avoided that inevitable drink for seven years and counting.
This ride and blog is for the people out there in early sobriety that are saying all the right things but KNOW in their most honest of inner voices, that they will fail. It is for the people with a year of sobriety that find the world dull and meaningless and are toying with the fantasy of going back out. It is for those who can't imagine ever having fun while being sober. It is for the hopeless. To each of you, I want to share the message that it gets better. There is a world of adventures out there if you can persevere past the cravings and boredom of the first few years of sobriety. In time, the cravings weaken their stronghold, and life becomes rich, meaningful, and rewarding. It gets so much easier to manage. This trip is for you — do anything and everything in your power to hang on.
I made it to Pittsburgh as rush hour filled the roads with the roaring and honking of Friday afternoon traffic, pulling over at one point as the road narrowed below an overpass. There was no shoulder, and no end to the rapid stream of fast-moving cars — I had no way to get across without risking an accident.
Just as the overstimulus had begun to feel catastrophic, a turning motorist idling behind me hollered, "I'll get you through, go," and waved me in front of him, timed perfectly with the slightest gap of traffic. He then swooped out in front of the stream of cars to block me, slowly riding behind me until the shoulder returned on the other side of the overpass. I was once again provided for by the random kindness of a stranger, and made my way safely onto a pedestrian bridge. After pausing for a photo as I crossed the bridge into the city, I wrestled my bike down a steep staircase until I reached a bike path next to the river.
I met my friend Ted in front of his apartment and gave him a big hug. Ted and I had been close friends since grade school, and we have traveled to 19 countries together over the years. I remember calling him years ago and telling him that I was almost 90 days sober and he told me something that really stuck with me. He said, "If you hang in there, eventually we'll be in our thirties and everyone won't always meet at the bars and want to rage it. Drinking will become progressively less of a focal point of our social interactions and it will get a lot easier." He had been right, drinking was much less important these days amongst our circle of friends, and it had become a lot easier. I wheeled my bike to his elevator and up to his sixth level apartment and took a look at the sprawling metropolis below. I was so excited to spend a few days catching up and checking out the city. Thanks for all the prayers, shares, likes, comments, and donations. I truly appreciate all the love and support.