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My Planning Stages: 4.5 Years Of Hard Work And Determination

My Planning Story Of Bicycling Across America

Steve in Arizona

It was a resplendently beautiful and sunny day in the desert, a perfect day to be on Interstate 8 in southern Arizona. Mind you, I was driving my car at this point and headed to San Diego with plans to begin my adventure by bicycle the next morning.

Here, near the small town of Gila Bend, saguaros, yuccas, palo verde trees, ocotillos, golden barrel cactus and sagebrush dominate the land. Small chocolate brown mountains dot the landscape in all directions in the wide open desert. It was pretty darn warm too - reaching the mid-60's - not bad considering it snowed the previous day on my drive through Colorado, New Mexico and the White Mountains of Arizona.

Near Yuma, I passed a number of bicyclists riding up and down each side of Telegraph Pass, the high point over the Gila Mountains. Seeing them ride right on the highway with bright yellow vests put a smile on my face.

The desert became even more dazzling as I crossed into California. Peachy shades of sand from the Imperial Sand Dunes encroach the landscapes from the road, and seemingly endless fields and hills of ocotillos, with their twirly vertical branches, cover the landscape near the small desert town named none other than as Ocotillo, California.

The western desert has always pulled and grabbed at my soul. It represents a vast swath of contradicitons: Isolation, lifelessness, brutal heat and a symbol of loneliness. Yet the desert's fascinating ecosystem and unpretentious beauty is the most underrated in the world, with cacti and other hearty plants that make-do with the little precipitation it receives. The lonely, wide open roads of the desert enchant those in tune with their hearts, inviting one to pause to explore, wander - and maybe - dare to dream.

Yes, my spirit soared as I traveled to the Pacific coast, just 80 miles away from San Diego. By now, it was already a foregone conclusion that my trip would happen, and a partial mix of excitement and nervousness reverberated inside me.

I arrived on the outskirts of San Diego on various beltways and made a few extra phone calls to friends and family. I called my older brother in New York to inform him about my bike trip, something I should have done much earlier. Of course, he was astonished at my bike plans and was very supportive as I explained them to him.

I also called Charles in Memphis. I knew he believed me when months ago I said I would be embarking on adventure such as this, but maybe I called to reinforce to him that I really was going to do this, although I probably projected my own disbelief and insecurities onto him. Charles grew up in the Los Angeles area, and even though this was San Diego, it was close enough to point out to him where I was.

"Are you sure you are going to be okay doing this by yourself?" asked Charles, "You just be safe out there."

Steve in Arizona Ah yes, be safe. I empathized with Charles' concern, for I had enough bicycling experience to know the dangers of the road. I assured him, with some optimism in my voice, that I would do my best to be safe.

I entered San Diego on a beltway, coming closer to the beach to see Krista and Jennifer, my personal friends and "support team" for my ride. Out of the 45 days it took me to cross America, this day (January 31), on a line of numerical integers was "Day 0" ... the eve before I put my wheels in the ocean's water. I had an extra hour and visited a beach in La Jolla, an upscale suburb with beautiful beaches, surfers, palm trees and trendy restaurants and hotels.

Photos Above: I stubbornly refused to take many pictures until my first day's ride from San Diego to Julian. These two photos are sufficient enough to fit with my narrative. RIGHT - A happy photo of me beside a saguaro in Quartzsite, Arizona. LEFT - A picture of a San Diego Beach while standing on the Ocean Beach Fishing Pier in January 2007.

I looked out at the ocean and tuned into the loud crashes of waves and playful squaks of seagulls, and the reality of what I was doing set in. Oh the excitement and anticipation! I had worked really hard for two months at preparing, training and handling a surfeit of important details. It was clear I was leaving the "planning stage" and entering a new stage: The actual "doing stage" of my ride. No more phone calling, networking among people, map studying and training at the gym. Tomorrow my lifestyle for the next seven weeks would become drastically different. It would be just me, my bicycle and the road.

1998-2003: The Idea Is Born

It all started in 2003, when after acquiring road biking as a hobby, I bicycled across my state of Colorado in ten days. I began at the Kansas/Colorado border on a frontage road adjacent to Interstate 70 and rode west. I finished at the Four Corners Monument in far southwest Colorado, where the states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico all meet.

Adjacent Photos: LEFT - Standing near the border line for Colorado and Kansas. RIGHT - The frame of my bike lies on the western border of Colorado at the Four Corners Monument after ten riding days.

I had such an enjoyable and memorable experience on that trip, and soon after, the idea occured to me: I did quite well bicycling across this fairly large and mountainous state. Why not bike across nine or ten states in succession and go across the entire country? Just break it down to bicycling across one state at a time!

A great idea was born, but actually, this notion surfaced to my consciousness one other time when I was 27 in 1998.

I was on the phone with a girl named Nancy, and somehow, the conversation arrived at bicycling adventures. "You know, I would love to ride a bike across America and write a book* about it." I blurted it out without much thought.

"It's already been done," said Nancy.

Ouch. That shot the wind in my sails. I do not know how she meant it or much else from our talk, but I took it as discouragement. Okay, that was stupid. The only bicycling riding I have done was in my childhood neighborhoods in New Jersey a long time ago. And write a book? Ha! That is an ambitious thought, but I doubt I could ever be up for such an endeavor.

* - It remains to be seen whether I ever write a book someday, either about this bike trip or something else. All I will say is, at this time, I am focused on writing everything that needs to be written for my own peace and perservation of memories, and the writing keeps flowing three months after my adventure. I know little about book writing, publishing and the book industry, but I am open to any possibilities of this idea coming to fruition.

2003-2005: Money vs. Time dilemma

In that same year, I worked a "normal job" with a salary, benefits (albeit very modest) and two weeks of paid vacation each year. Squeezing in a 10-day bicycle trip was not too difficult for such an endeavor, but what if I wanted to cycle across the country in 2-3 months?

The key issue for most is finding the time and money for such a long distance journey. Most people simply do not have the luxury to take such a sizable amount of time off from a job. Even if one could obtain such a large work hiatus and keep their jobs, costs of the trip coupled with not being paid would likely be a major killer. Of course, family and parenting responsibilities are a significant hurdle as well. Some say the most conducive points in one's life for riding across America are young people who just graduated college, retirees or those in between jobs and have the extra money. I was far from any of those categories. I was quite trapped in the "time versus money dilemma," and I was not even getting paid that well considering my degrees and credentials. With the average type of jobs I had, like most people, I would have needed a nearly unbelievable situation with a boss who really liked me to allow me to take off for 2-3 months. I probably had a better chance at winning the lottery than landing a situation like this. Still, I remained open to any possibilities of how I could do this bike adventure.

Through a suggestion of a friend, I contacted a woman who already bicycled across America a few years earlier and lived in my town near Colorado Springs. I boldly called and introduced myself, even though we already casually knew each other from spending time at a local coffee shop hangout.

"Can you tell me, how did you do it?" Um, was that not the most general and useless question to ask? I was such a novice that I did not even know what were good questions to ask at this point.

She seemed confused with how to answer me, and talked about wearing out some tires and gave some other basic facts. I did not have too much to say because I felt constrained by the money versus time dilemma. Looking back, I probably should have asked her directly how she overcame that obstacle. Our was conversation was awkward, and I felt like I was no less closer to any new developments or ideas to help me ride across the nation. She probably sensed that too. Later I learned through others in my small town that she did not think I would bicycle across America in the near future, at least from our conversation. I probably would have had the same view if I were in her shoes.

Still, I kept an open mind that maybe I could do this someday: Think about it now and then, be open to possibilities, talk to God about it in prayer, just put it "on file" in your mind and maybe get back to it. And remember, you already have one positive and successful experience (riding across Colorado) under your belt.

Two years later, March 2005 was a pivotal month in my life. I quit my job and moved in a new direction by starting my own business in my field. Sparing all the details, I was ready and willing to take on the risks of starting a new business. I was much happier and worked entirely on my terms with scheduling and partaking in my business philosophy, even if I was a typical small business owner with poor cashflow at the onset. At least now I was the boss - and that boss was very motivated to push along with biking across America.

As I began to work for myself, my free time and bicycle riding increased. Around this time I installed an odometer and speedometer on my road bike. This transformed my bicycle habits for the year. I rode almost daily, going about 10-30 miles per day on some very hilly and mountainous Colorado roads. I was in fantastic shape. Like a little kid with a new toy, I relished in checking the odometer and observing how my rides were quantifying into a grand mileage total.

By the early summer, 3,000 miles became my goal for 2005, which I reached in November on a snowy Colorado day. I added some memorable rides that year: A two-day round trip from Manitou Springs, CO to Denver, CO with Dave Ortiz (155 miles), a one-day round-trip from Salida to Buena Vista with some sizable mountainous climbs (70 miles), and a grueling uphill ride to Monarch Pass on the Continental Divide.

I realized bicycling 3,000 miles in a year was far from the pinnacle goal of cycling across the country, but it was a milestone to definitely be proud of, and 3,000 is an average mileage range for biking across many parts of the country.

Photos Above: LEFT - Standing with my bicycle when my odometer reached the 3,000 mile mark near my home. RIGHT - A self-portrait of me that shows the snow coming down on that day. It snowed hard and it was really cold! (Click either photo to see them at a larger size.)

2006-2007: Laying The Groundwork To Bike Across America

In 2006, my first full year living in the small mountain town of Buena Vista, I did not bicycle as much because I did not have any goals. I am generally not the type to ride in circles around town for mere exercise. After I ride a particular route, I find it really hard to do it over again, especially by myself. (2005 was the exception because I was so focused on reaching 3,000 miles.) Nevertheless, I did accomplish one successful ride over Cottonwood Pass on the east side from Buena Vista, arguably one of the most difficult paved passes to climb in America.

I was not as physically active as I usually was, but I gave myself grace. My lack of activity was okay, because I was working hard at growing my business. This was going to be my panacea to break out of the money versus time dilemma.

Riding across the country someday was always the optimum example that drove me to work harder. In fact, I even convinced myself: I am on my bicycling adventure across America right now ... This is just the foundation building phase. Taking care of this is one of the many mountains I will climb before I actually get on the bike and ride those thousands of miles!

In 2007, I also did not regularly ride much, although biking across America grew on my mind and heart. My cycling behaviors were more focused on achieving a particular goal when it grabbed me, similar to mountaineering habits. I had decent rides over Poncha Pass, Independence Pass and my first century ride (i.e. 100+ miles of riding in a day) for example. Again, besides those, I rarely engaged in leisure riding for the fun or exercise.

Right Photo: My bike lying against roadside snow on my ride to Independence Pass on June 9, 2007.

By the fall of 2007, I realized I could probably make the long bike trip happen. I was far from wealthy even at this point as a business owner, but savings and finances were decent enough and the timing seemed right. I could even handle some of my work responsibilites as I trekked across the nation. A litany of life realities compelled me to seriously considering riding soon: What if I get married and have my own family? What if I am not physically able to do this later on? All is clear on the family front ... Do I want to risk the possibility that a family emergency could halt me?

I visited my family in New Jersey for Thanksgiving 2007, and I made a strategic decision to not allow myself to even think or fret about the planning details of the trip until I returned home in December. Then, I made the important decision to commit to making this adventure happen.

Action Stage - Shifting From "Wanting Mode" To "Doing Mode"

Actions! Plan with actions! Genuine commitment is backed with efforts and attitudes that support the principles of the commitment decision. It was crucial that I handle all considerations with tenacity and an expectation of success.

This determination quickly became an exorbitant amount of pressure on myself, and it was partly driven by an incident the year before. Just one year ago, I declared that I would bicycle across America in February 2007, only to back out when I deemed finances and other circumstnces were not suitable just yet. In retrospect, I was not quite determined enough to follow through on my commitment.

Granted, I did not tell many people about this, although I did announce my shaky plans to "Internet friends" on a forum. Still, my words were empty and I hated that. I quickly forgave myself for my inaction and chalked it up as a lesson learned, but I knew I could not allow that to happen again. During this new and final planning stage (December 2007 to January 2008), I was often uneasy to disclose my plans because I feared disappointing myself, contradicting my words and looking like a fool. Yes, there are many times in life where "fate" shapes and steers our lives regardless of our plans, but there are also instances where one's actions speak louder than words. My mindset focused on the latter principle.

And yes, planning I did! I finally purchased clip-on shoes and their specialized pedals. For the past four years, I had stirrups on the pedal, which take away about 30%-40% of one's pedaling power. I also had my bicycle, a bright red Giant OCR3 road bike, looked at and inspected, which generally seemed in good condition.

I worked out six days per week at my gym with rigorous cardiovascular workouts during December and January. Keep in mind I live in the chilly and wintery mountains of Colorado, where the temperature did not exceed 35 for much of those months, and that is not including windchill factors. Most of the roads were covered in firmly packed snow and ice anyway, making it impossible to train outside on the bike.

Gym workouts do not bring about the "deep breathing shape" one has from riding a bike regularly, but I did not have a choice and trusted my fitness would improve as I pedaled in California and Arizona. At least I had this going for me: I was an experienced bicyclist enough to know I would get into suitable riding shape as I went along.

Right Photos: Two examples of snowy roads that made bicycling outdoors nearly impossible. The terrain largely looked like this throughout December 2007 and January 2008. The winter weather took a break from the warming climate change trends of recent times and reverted back to "old winters" that long-time locals often remember.

I constantly changed tire tubes inside my kitchen. I will admit this was undoubtedly irrational, but I have an intense fear about being unable to fix a flat and feeling like a loser on the side of the road. Thus, many evenings I would let the air out of a wheel, take the tire off the bike, put a new tube in and air it up. Sure, I have replaced many tire tubes in my years of cycling, but the fear nevertheless remained.

I bought new cycling clothing (t-shirt, socks, cycling shorts and long pants), tubes, water bottles, a new pump and helmet. One day I even drove to Canon City, Colorado, a town known for its comparatively warmer climate, and I rode my bike with all my gear and paniers on a 40-degree day.

There were other important logistics to handle. Deciding how to get myself and my bicycle to San Diego was an issue. A train runs from Colorado to San Diego, but the particular Amtrak train on the route did not allow any kind of carry-on bicycle. They did not even have a bicycle rack anywhere on the outside of a train car. I owned two Hondas, a newer car and an older one that both ran great, and so if I drove to San Diego with my bike, where would I park my car in San Diego?

There were quite a few instances like this where I was forced to lean on God's help with specific needs, and almost always, things fell into place. Regarding the parking issue, I contacted Krista in San Diego, who agreed to allow my car to sit in front of her house. Jennifer, another friend in San Diego, agreed to drive me to the beach on the first morning.

Another major need was how to reach Jacksonville, Florida (and particularly the airport) after I arrived at my tentative destination of Jekyll Island, Georgia. I suppose I could have bicycled to Jacksonville, either after reaching Jekyll Island or riding directly to the north Florida coast, but I had the distinct feeling that I would not want to do anything but the shortest and easiest ride at the end. (When I finally reached that state of Georgia, I realized I was indeed correct about this.)

One night, I sat in the living room of Derrick, a local friend, and gave an update about my planning efforts and this particular need.

"What I really need is to figure out how to get to Jacksonville when I finish on the Georgia coast," I said.

"Maybe my sister in Savannah could help you," he suggested. That sounded like an encouraging prospect, and in fact, we were already acquainted with each other. Then, within seconds of Derrick finishing his sentence, the phone rang.

Ring! It was an old style ringer from a landline phone, and what do you know? It was Monique in Savannah, Georgia! After a short conversation, Monique wholeheartedly agreed to drive from Savannah to wherever I was on the beach and drive me to Jacksonville. Another need was scratched off the checklist! :)

I constantly networked among friends and acquaintences to find free places to stay. Camping is not my style and I stayed in the cheapest inns I could find in the towns I rode through. I sent e-mails to churches, where I introduced myself as a bicyclist who would be riding across America (and included this web site) and asked if they could give my contact information to any bicycle friendly people at their church. Maybe I could make a connection via e-mail that could turn into a real-life contact out on the road. This kind of "cold contact" did not produce much fruit, but it was worth a shot.

I also recruited what I called "team members." I could not afford to have a support vehicle ride along with me, but I did my best to have one person in each state who would serve as an emergency contact if the situation was dire. I just wanted a small measure of peace of mind that someone might be reachable and willing to help if they could. Special thanks to Jennifer in California, Glenda in west Texas, Jennifer in Oklahoma for covering east Texas and Lacey in Georgia for stepping up in this respect. I had no "team members" in Arizona, New Mexico, Mississippi and Alabama, but looking back, I may have made a larger fuss about "team members" than I needed to. Yes, it was nice to have someone in a state who I knew cared about me and was willing to do their best to support me, even if some lived hundreds of miles from my route and had jobs and family responsibilites that limited them. In the end, I learned if I could not handle an issue, there was probably a stranger somewhere out there who might help me.

Overcoming Obstacles And Attacks At Morale

I suffered from a lot of stress - some stress no doubt of my own doing. I did not want another disappointment like last year's "talk and no action" mistake and pounded myself to proceed with actions. People do not bicycle across America by accident! I allowed way too much anxiety to dominate my sleep and my inner-thoughts.

Woes pummeled me in a way that almost seemed like a concerted assualt on my morale. The holiday season was particularly lonely and difficult, landing a few blows to my attitude. Then suddenly, just a weeks before my trip, a series of financial blows dwindled my once robust surplus of savings. I fretted unnecessarily about this matter - there was no way at this juncture, just 3-4 weeks before "Day 1," that I was going to fold.

The weather was downright depressing too, with it being one of the coldest and snowiest winters since the mid-20th century. Snow covered the ground in early December and no one in our town would see much of the land until April.

I am confident that an outsider, looking in at my life, would have been impressed with my planning, yet writing lists on paper was not enough to bring lasting calm. All those remaining items nagged and provoked me to anxiety: What if I don't find someone to pick up my mail? I need someone to go through my mail! New tires must be put on the Accord (my old car) and business matters must be attended to as well. (I eventually handled all of those matters.)

I also struggled with a general anxiety about doing the trip. Are you sure you are ready for this? Will I really succeed? All those factors about my route, the possibility of poor weather and marching into the myriad unknowns of a new experience.

Then it happened. My self-inflicted anxiety manifested into a painful physical reality. Shingles. Shingles is an awful condition related to the chicken pox virus that forms an itchy and painful rash that is often stressed induced among younger people and more common among the elderly. Thankfully, I had a milder case of shingles on my left midrift, appearing like a horizontal band on the left side of my body from front to back. (You can read more about shingles here: Shingles Information and eMedicine Health Slide Show.) The shingles condition was quite painful and induced a fever for approximately three days. I finally saw a doctor on January 15, about 4-5 days after having the symptoms, which rendered the medication less effective. Shingles 20 days before my bike across America ride!

Despite laying in bed and forced to being physically inactive for a week, my fitness, at least based on my assessment, still felt decent. The doctor said I would likely feel better in the next 15 days and she encouraged me to ride. I worked out at the gym minimally in those final two weeks, which created added concern about my physical readiness, but alas, I realized any more worrying was what created the shingles in the first place.

During the first 14 days of my bike journey, I occasionally felt a soreness in the shingles area, but I was okay. My riding was not affected at all, although I felt some discomfort while twisting and turning in bed sometimes.

All these thwarts: Financial hits. Shingles. Depressing weather. The holiday season. No outdoor bike riding for two months and relegated to the gym. Fears about flat tires. Overload from handling logistics. Not keeping my word.

No, this was the time I was going alright. The window of opportunity was wide open. Sometimes I recounted all the reasons why I should go now, and even talked over and over with friends to vent about it. My singleness at age 36 and relatively simple lifestyle would be the best time to go. Go before you get married and have kids! Sure, perhaps I could find a sympathetic spouse who would support a trip like this, but it would be so much easier now. My financial state was weakened, but I still had the ability as a business owner to go. I also realized future family crises could be an issue that could halt me from taking this on. In late 2006, my last living grandmother, Grandma Grace, died at age 91 and I am not sure I would have had peace about riding around that time. Go now! Now is the time! That became my motto that I put that on my signature in an Internet forum I frequently visited.

Back in San Diego, on that evening at the beach, it very much felt like an ordinary day: A casual stroll along the beach, meeting with two friends (Krista and Jennifer) I had not seen in awhile and dinner at Panda Express, one of my favorite restaurants. Yet a small voice inside me continually reminded me of the largeness of this trip. The vastness of this grand adventure, much like the beguiling Arizona and southern California desert I had driven through earlier, pulled and lured me for years and now I was answering its call.

All the mileage I would be riding was very ambitious alright, but the requirements of hard work, courage and help from God to even reach this point was an massive accomplishment in itself.

Photos Above: LEFT - The Pacific Ocean at Del Mar in San Diego on the first day of my ride. RIGHT - Krista in San Diego poses next to my Honda, which she allowed to sit in front of her house for seven weeks.


-Steve
(Written June 28, 2008)

-This article was written by Steve Garufi who bicycled across the southern tier of America in February-March 2008. You can read his trip reports of all 45 days of his journey here: 2008 Bike Across America.

His personal web site is www.ColoradoGuy.com and his myspace page is www.myspace.com/stevelonghair.

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