If there was a way I could have cycled across the country and not told a single person, I think I would have been all for it. Telling people things means there are questions you have to answer, decisions you have to explain, and, perhaps my biggest fear, expectations you can disappoint. Before our trip, I would go into bike shops and try to find a way to ask all of my questions without telling the clerk what we were doing. I was terrified of failure, but really I was terrified of disappointing people by failing, even complete strangers.
In December 2017, my friend Katie texted me and said, “I think we should ride across the country.” My answer was pretty immediate: “Really? Okay!” At the time, the idea was exciting, but I could hardly imagine it as a reality. Ten months later, we were standing on the beach in San Diego with our bikes.
Katie and I had met the previous summer working for Voyageur Outward Bound School in Minnesota. We bonded over a shared love of hugs and became fast friends. The fall found us both at Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School in Maryland. As instructors, we led students on wilderness expeditions ranging from five to 50 days. The intended outcome has less to do with camping and more to do with character, confidence, and building leadership skills. Many of our students will never go into the wilderness again, but we hope they will leave with skills that will serve them regardless of where life takes them.
Before I started working for Outward Bound, I never would have considered cycling across the country. Katie and I were riding the high of an inspirational six months of exposure to the expeditionary lifestyle. We had heard many stories of coworkers’ amazing personal adventures. Plus we’d never road cycled before. Our lack of experience probably seems more like a reason not to ride across the country, but for us that was part of the appeal. We wanted to put ourselves in our students’ shoes and experience the challenge of doing something outside of our comfort zones.
Within a week of dreaming up this trip, we decided that we wanted a larger mission for the expedition. I asked Katie, “What about mental health?” Both Katie and I have personal and family experience struggling with this particular issue, and it seemed like a clear choice. However, now we needed to learn to bike tour while also spreading awareness for a cause. The preparation stage felt like a frantic gathering of information from people and internet searches that ultimately led to confusion and eventually delivered us to random decisions made while hoping for the best. The process was overwhelming and exhilarating. We built a website, chose the Southern Tier as our route, gathered gear, attended a conference with Mental Health First Aid, and found time for one 48-hour practice ride, which culminated in a glorious thunderstorm.
Because we chose to bring awareness to mental health through our ride, telling people what we were doing was a required part of the exercise. When we first printed business cards, I would carry them around without giving them to anyone. I was afraid that we were going to fail. When you have never done something before, it’s hard to imagine yourself as capable of the task. Our goals of getting across the country and spreading awareness consumed my mind because I could not even picture the small steps it would take to get to the top.
By the time we were standing on the beach in San Diego, I was done with the stress of preparation but equally terrified about starting. It was hard for me to believe that this was the first day of us riding across the entire U.S. by bicycle. We had done our homework, but I still felt far from prepared. In fact, at this point I had ridden about 120 miles on my bike since we had begun planning. It was on that fateful day that we met Sam Dove. Sam was riding the same path as us on his usual morning ride. He was enthusiastic about our trip and introduced us to the magic of kind strangers. Sam guided us through the confusing streets of our first city and then took us to see the beautiful Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá on our way out of town. Pedaling away from our new friend, we felt a little more prepared to take on the weeks ahead.
Our goal was to start conversations, share resources, and ultimately break down stigma.
After unsuccessfully begging for lodging at more than one random door in Alpine, California, we settled into our roadside campsite, stuffed our faces with ramen, and went to bed. The next day we got a Facebook message from Sam:
“You asked me if I had any last piece of advice before you pedaled away. I remember saying that if some body part is bothering you to not … push through it, to get some professional help. But as I thought about those words later, I realized that is also the reason for your ride. You want people to give light to their inner pain and get professional help. The bike is the analogy, but the same issues are the reason you are pedaling!”
It felt magical to have someone validate our mission in this way. Sam knew what we were doing, and he thought it was a good idea. This vote of confidence was the first of many interactions that regrounded me in our original idea. I began to believe that there was potential for us to make a real impact. As illuminated by Sam, one of the main barriers to treatment and support for mental health is stigma. We chose to interview people about mental health in each of the nine major cities along our route. We would then write blogs with these people’s stories to be shared via our website. Our goal was to start conversations, share resources, and ultimately break down stigma.
One week into our expedition, we arrived in Phoenix, Arizona, with tired legs and saddle sores that had caused some of the most uncomfortable hours of my life. At this point, I felt pretty disconnected from our lofty goals of changing lives and was deeply worried about my own ability to survive the trip. Enter Kristina Sabetta and Gloriana Hunter, our first interviewees. Kristina is the executive director of Mental Health America of Arizona, and Gloriana works with the Arizona Peer and Family Career Academy. Kristina and Mental Health America helped put us up in one of the few hotels we stayed at (we mostly camped), and after many successive 107°F days, that air conditioning felt like heaven.
A couple of hours at Gloriana’s kitchen table eating homemade enchiladas was enough to remind me why I was riding across the country on a contraption that made me feel like I was sitting on hot lava. They educated us on the concept of “peer support” programs. These initiatives, run by laypeople, allow affected persons to seek help and offer support within their own communities. Individuals struggling with mental health can talk to people who personally know what it’s like to find a way out of the woods and are aware of the resources available. As we got ready to leave Gloriana’s home, she said, “Wait, I have something to show you!” She returned with a small rock. “This is a discarded piece from an archeological dig I did in my 20s,” she said. “It’s about 5,000 years old.” Then she leaned in and said, “Do you see the fingerprint?” On the corner of the rock was a small indentation that was clearly a fingerprint. “When I first saw this, I thought how amazing it was that this person’s fingerprint could impact me 5,000 years after they lived. Like me, you two have a heart for making change,” she explained. “I want to be the fingerprint now.”
As soon as you think you have figured things out, something new comes up. As we pedaled into Texas, we began facing both literal and metaphorical headwinds.
Moving into our second and third weeks of riding, our bodies started to become acclimated to riding and we found our rhythm. Waking up at 3:30 am to beat the heat, we would ride until noon or 1:00 pm, stop at a gas station, devour ice cubes, eat dinner, and be in bed by 7:00 pm. The heat was relentless until we finally climbed out of it and, to our bewilderment, sailed down one final hill into the idyllic town of Silver City, New Mexico. It was my birthday, and the trees and cool air were better than any present I could have asked for. The town’s local renaissance woman, Rebekka Van Ness, offered that we camp at her beautiful B&B. Our time at Serenity House was magical. Many of the guests return year after year, and it felt as though we had briefly joined a family. Rebekka is passionate about her community’s health, and we felt her relentless care firsthand. Despite being one of the busiest people I have ever met, Rebekka found time to take us on a hike, interview us for her local radio show, and answer our questions.
In each interview, we asked, “What’s one thing you wish more people knew about mental health?” Rebekka’s answer was a succinct summary of what we heard at some point in almost every conversation: “It’s okay to feel anxious, fearful, unsure, or irritable. We all have a story. Finding people who can listen, this is the key to feeling comfortable enough to get help.”
As the journey continued, Katie and I ironed out our traveling systems — we were efficient now. However, the great thing about a constantly changing landscape, both internal and external, is that the challenge never ends. As soon as you think you have figured things out, something new comes up. As we pedaled into Texas, we began facing both literal and metaphorical headwinds.
The West Texas wind is no joke. There were some days of hard pedaling downhill, and I began to take the wind’s gusts personally. However, one of the hardest and most unexpected parts of our ride for me was more internal. During the 54 days it took us to cross the country, I often felt very alone. Hours and hours of silence every day felt intense, even for an introvert. Katie and I learned that it’s hard to share space all day every day partly because you have nothing new to talk about. At this point, we could cook dinner, set up the tent, and even plan for the next day with virtually no speaking.
It was a challenge to stay grateful for each other, and inevitably the decisions and stress of traveling put a strain on our communication. Taking care of ourselves, asking for what we needed, communicating our struggles to one another, these were all things I anticipated as challenges before the trip, but the reality of them was a wake-up call. Maintaining a healthy traveling relationship is both incredibly hard and vitally important to any successful expedition. I’ve always prided myself on being a good communicator, but this felt like the Olympics of communication. Spending this much time together brought out parts of myself I did not like very much.
While I would love to believe that I have Gloriana’s “heart for change,” the changes that I wanted to see in the world around me uncomfortably mirrored my own struggles. Just as I hesitated to ask the people in bike stores for help around our trip all those months ago, I did not want to share how much I was struggling because I did not want Katie to judge me. This hesitation held an uncanny resemblance to the themes in our interviews. I was inspired by other people’s stories of opening up about the hard stuff, but applying what they had learned to my own life was uncomfortable. I’ve heard so many Outward Bound students say, “This is too hard. I can’t do this!” I finally understood how they felt. However, as Katie and I say to our students, “You’re doing it right now!” We were already working through what felt impossible. It was a daily process, but I learned that I felt best when I was vulnerable with Katie about how I felt.
As I puzzled out my internal struggles, we were nearing the halfway mark. After a brief hiatus to see some state parks and drive around blasting country music, we arrived in Austin, Texas, ready to give our bikes a tune-up and sleep in a real bed. We were welcomed with open arms by Martha Martin Wall and Trey Wall. Martha and Trey ushered us into their stunning modern home and offered up their flat-screen television so that Katie could cheer on the Eagles. On our last night in Austin, we had the chance to sit down with Martha and her friend Laura Lucas, once again over enchiladas, to discuss their perspective on mental health.
Martha works with the Veterans Yoga Project in Austin, and she has written a book about her own experience with life’s headwinds. She shared her thoughts on walls and stigma, saying:
“I learned not to ask for help and that to open up and be vulnerable was to make myself a target. Those same walls I built to protect myself were what kept me from asking for the help I needed. There was shame in truth … I broke before I broke those walls.”
Laura, a grief and spiritual counselor, added:
“People go into a helping profession to figure it out. As you get older, you realize that no one has it all figured out. It’s so freeing when you know that — ‘You feel like that too?!’ When you see people on social media, you’re like, ‘They don’t have any mental illness or grief.’”
Here were two more role models reinforcing what Sam had told us on our first day. They were “giving light” to their inner struggles. We pedaled away from Martha’s house with homemade chocolate chip cookies and a determination to tackle the rest of Texas.
Many people we met would respond to our journey with the encouraging comment, “It takes me three days just to drive across Texas!” At this point, I felt I could say with authority that Texas is huge. The second half of Texas in particular seemed to stretch on to infinity. The day we finally crossed into Louisiana, Katie and I flung our bikes on the ground and gave each other a big hug. We were two-thirds of the way through our journey.
Backroads eventually wound us into Baton Rouge, where we were greeted by four welcoming faces that represented Louisiana’s chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI). They ushered us into their office with lunch waiting on the table and proceeded to take a couple of hours out of their day to talk with us. It probably comes as no surprise that Louisiana has some unique mental health challenges. A lack of resources and the trauma of numerous natural disasters have had lasting effects on the mental health of local communities. Nevertheless, the NAMI spokespersons had no shortage of inspiration to share.
One of NAMI’s nationally certified trainers who works in the Baton Rouge community previously struggled with severe mental health issues and was not able to hold down a job. “Now job opportunities are coming to him because of his desire to help others, and he has a restored sense of purpose,” explained Program Director Savannah Wright. “People are excited that there’s a place that they can go and talk. Now this person that was once isolated can tell their story.”
Our stories are worth telling because every moment of vulnerability makes us all a little less alone.
As the trip came to a close, I realized that telling people about your failures is just as necessary as sharing your successes. Often a person’s courage to share their mental health story is the difference between someone else continuing to struggle or getting the help they need. Gloriana Hunter from Arizona shared this anecdote:
“I went to a women’s conference a few years ago and I thought ‘I don’t want to share my story, I don’t need to.’ Eventually, though, I decided it was too important, so I said something. This woman across the circle teared up. We talked afterwards, and I helped her get the support she needed. I saw that I couldn’t stop telling my story.”
The primary issue that came up in almost every interview we conducted was stigma. The context varied from stigma as a barrier to communication and treatment, stigma as an internalized mindset of “toughing it out,” to stigma as a driving force toward fear of mental illness in general. The theme held up all the way from California to Florida. Just as stigma reemerged again and again, so did its antidote — vulnerability. People told us that they intentionally share their story because they know it has the power to help others. This process breaks down stigma and builds a narrative of shared experience.
In more ways than one, this stigma–vulnerability battle is also present in expeditions. Sam, Gloriana, Kristina, Rebekka, Martha and Trey, Laura, the staff of NAMI Louisana: all of these people supported us because we shared our vision with them. It felt scary to tell people what we were doing and ask for help because we might fail. I was scared to tell Katie I was struggling because she might judge me. The people we met had spent years breaking down their internal walls. They taught me that the more walls I put up, the further I ended up from the support I needed.
As we pulled into St. Augustine, Florida, I didn’t know what to feel. I’m not sure what this story will become for me; I’m still learning how to tell it. But one thing seems clear. Our stories are worth telling because every moment of vulnerability makes us all a little less alone.
This story originally appeared in the Aug./Sept. 2019 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.