The Story

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The American Dirt Project is my effort to complete the first transcontinental USA bicycle crossing on a route that is almost entirely on soft surfaces. It will be THE most difficult east-to-west bicycle crossing of the United States ever attempted. This lofty goal is bold to be sure, for no such a trek has ever been suggested, let alone attempted - outside of my 2012 unsuccessful effort. My hope is to document this trek with a film documentary and a book. 

Now back in 2011 I initially thought I could accomplish this goal by both riding across the country and doing recon "on the fly". I'd used such a tactic in my 2009 6200-mile road cycling trip across Canada and my 2010 4000-mile road cycling trip across the US. But after employing that strategy during two consecutive American Dirt efforts I came to the indisputable conclusion that there were numerous flaws with such an approach when used on soft surfaces. Last year for example, in what I thought would be a successful effort, I still came up far too short of the goal despite having put in mega-hours of study on the route. I only managed to put down two thousand miles of off-road in a four-thousand-mile cross country trek. Time and financial constraints always seemed to force me to cut corners and make compromises when it came to the big picture - staying off and away from paved roads. What's more, I learned that my "home study," where I poured over volumes of atlases, county maps, USGS quadrangles, GPS data, and where I spent many hours of time on Google Earth, just wasn't enough to get the job done once I was out in the field cycling. Each and every one of those days on the road I was faced with inaccurate road surface information and a multitude of inconsistencies among maps, gazetteers and GPS data. I had just about given up on American Dirt after that second trip. Then during the winter of 012'-013', amidst a good deal of soul-searching, I decided not to accept defeat, and to acknowledge the fact that American Dirt wasn't a quick "run & gun" project, but a multi-year task that could only be realized through a slow, methodical state by state approach that would entail two year's worth of recon trips which would either confirm or deny my home-study route preparations. In hind's sight, those two futile attempts coupled with my recognition of the true depth and scope of such an endeavor impressed upon me just how special the American Dirt Project is. With that being said, I can't walk away from AD without one last gasp effort. It's an amazing adventure and a monumental piece of work...that's totally off the charts, bloody difficult! 

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May thru September of 2013 and 2014 I began working on the American Dirt Project with my recon-trips approach, and was finally been able to put this whole crazy puzzle together. Not only did I lengthen my route east of Washington D.C. all the way to the Atlantic Ocean in Delaware, but I also took the route over the deserts, high plains and mountains of Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. Now with that being said, I still have far too many sections where I'm forced to use the grass and gravel berms of paved & chip-seal backroads and paved Rails to Trails paths in order to reconnect with my soft surface routes. I also have numerous sections that I had to either canoeabike or hikeabike in order to remain off of hard surfaces. Some of these sections are up to seventy miles in length. For those sections I used a "collapsable" single-speed bike that I either shouldered in a backpack with straps, or carried on a solo canoe.  

For the 2015 trip I had to put together two separate American Dirt routes: one for myself and the actual cycling/hiking/canoing, and one for my support  vehicle. I had to work through the fall and  winter of 2014/2015 on amassing all of this map and computer information such that I could turn it into a kind of AAA "TripTick", along with a schedule of the estimated ETA and ETD's for the states we'd be traveling through.   

Well, after over three months of riding, carrying, canoing, climbing, navagating, pushing, and struggling, that 2015 American Dirt trip turned out to be the first X-country trip out of the five attempts that I just couldn't finish - mentally and physically. So that in itself was not pleasing to me, especially when I had that thing wrapped around me like a second skin for the prior several years. Just getting finality to American Dirt would have been a massive burden off of my shoulders. Yet in late July of 2015 I was faced with the fact that I had to get my game face back again for yet another year in order to complete the trip in 2016. My savings grace was the fact that I’d already completed 10.75 of the 13 states, so the daunting nature of what lay ahead of me in May 2015, that would not be present in May of 2016. 

But my mood perked up when I compared 2015 to my unsuccessful 2012 American Dirt attempt, where I did make it to the Pacific Ocean, but had far too much hard-surface riding. Looking at it that way, 2015 was a success. I mean I had to throw in the towel and start riding asphalt in 2012 back when I was in Athens, OH for goodness sake, and I’d started in Washington, DC. This year, heck, I started in DE, and I took this thing all the way to Lynndyl, UT. And quite honestly I’d be stunned if I had even 100 miles of asphalt in this attempt. I think, just off-hand, I counted about 80 miles asphalt miles in I don’t know how many thousands of miles of travel. So that in itself pretty much quelled my disappointment in not completing the whole trip in 2015. 

During our 2015 drive back home, somewhere east of Grand Jcn, CO, I was thinking of good comparisons from my past athletic life to what I’d just experienced with American Dirt in 2015. And my immediate thought went back to when I did my first few marathons in the 1980’s. When I’d gotten done with marathon #1 and #2, I was lying on the ground just beat to hell, sore and tired, swearing up and down that I’d NEVER do another marathon - NEVER. And then the very next day, as if I’d just experienced a split personality moment, I was raving about how I wanted to do it again, to try to do better, to get back on the horse so to speak, and ride that puppy all the way to the finish line yet again. So on that drive back east I was wondering if I’d get that same feeling for American Dirt, feeling like I wanted to pick it up again and go for it. Well, I can definitively say that I did! And I knew that feeling would grow and flourish as the clock ticked down again to the restart of American Dirt in May of 2016. 

We arrived back in western Utah in spring 2016 so I could finish the mission. Yet something just wasn’t right with me. For the latter part of 2015, and all of 2016 I just wasn’t feeling right. I seemed to just not have the gas, the endurance and the vim and vigor that I’d had for all those years of X-country cycling. I chalked it up to several things: age, lack of proper conditioning, and maybe even burnout.  As soon as I began the march west on May 2 from Delta, Utah I absolutely knew I was in for a LONG, LONG haul. I just couldn’t generate good power, and my endurance was terrible. My riding days sometimes ended just 3 hours in because I was absolutely gassed. So my progress west into and across the Basin & Ranges of Nevada was painstakingly slow. Even a 40-mile day was a challenge. 

Then on May 11, I did the ride that literally changed my life. Here is an exerp from my blog to actually describe what happened that day. 

BLOG: Temp was cool and conditions were ideal to ride - not a cloud in the sky. Got rolling in shorts with a polypro long sleeve top. Things felt pretty good other than my shoulder blades again feeling kind of tight again, something that was becoming more prevalent as this ride’s gone on. But nonetheless, I was able to ride at a good clip of 13-16 mph all the way up Monitor Valley to the FR004 split. Got to the split, bid the ladies goodbye, and was on my lonesome for the next 23 miles with two 8K passes to surmount. 

The climb began gradually, on some pretty good road, but as the miles ticked off the inclination became steeper, and the road deteriorated from a very solid gravel/dirt lane and a half wide road, to a one lane rutted out jeep track. No way in the world would the van have come close to making this section. So as I climbed higher this stream on the side of the road began to flood over sections, enough so that in certain areas I had to ride across half a foot of water which was 8-10 feet wide. Then there were other areas where it was just rivulets of fast moving water anastromosting across the road like veins and fingers. And this was incessant. As I got higher in altitude this became almost like a flooding situation, and some of the crossings had this really silty muck at the bottom, so I’d have to shift into the little ring and just power through - or else I’d be trapped in the middle of the floodwaters having to dismout. 

Finally got to where this freaking stream veered to the north, out of and away from the road and the climb. By this time I was a good 7.5K high, amidst all this bristlecone pines, really quite beautiful and enjoyable - had the road not really pitched up even higher. So I got to a point to where the pitch was tough, but seemed doable, yet I just had no gas! And I’m thinking to myself, “man, this just isn’t me, what the hell?” So there I am again, hike-a-biking, pushing, stopping, breathing, over and over. I was just so disappointed in my fitness at that point. 

Got to the summit, and I was thinking, “OK, feel like shit but the rest of this pup is down, so I’m good. We’ll just chalk it up as another (yea, one of many thus far) bad days. Strapped my Gopro to me helmet, turned it on, and began the descent - which lasted about 10 minutes. But within that short descent I had to stop to carry the bike over freshly avalanched deadfall and more rivulets of now another stream next to the road, flowing in the opposite direction from the last. But as I said the descent was short, then suddenly I was on this plateau, and cruising over all these rollers and power climbs. 

Stopped, took the GoPro off, got the map out and found that I had a solid 6-7 miles of this which added up to a net gain to put me right back at 8K again. At this point the road was more of a sandy trail with shitty tracking for the mt bike tires, and it was just a ton of up and down rollers. Half way through this my shoulder blades, lats, neck and chest were just tight as hell, almost as if I just had to stop and get that freaking pack off of my back asap or it was going to crush me. And actually I did on several occasions stop, take the pack off and stretch like heck to loosen everything up. What’s more I just felt totally spent. So I pushed on, riding this high plateau track rolling, dipping, climbing, with an overall altitude gain the whole time. It was almost like torture, to feel so out of gas and uncomfortable and then to look at my altimeter and see that I’d only gained like 150 in the last mile or two. 

And it was at this point that I said to myself outloud, “Jesus, I just can’t ride like this for another two weeks. Something’s wrong here.” Seemed like forever, but I eventually got to the second 8K pass, and then began what would be a well deserved descent back into the basin I’d started in yesterday, and where the ladies would be waiting for me. But it wasn’t without some tough riding that’s for sure. I had this power climb/descents that took me across that stream over and over. I mean I’d look off to the right or left and see the track take this steep pitch up, then a steep pitch down and across the stream. Then…I get to a fork in the road where there’s this plastic signage on each fork: to the left dead end; to the right FR004, my route. BUT my gps was telling me to take the left. I’ll admit, that when you’re programing the gps to do a turn by turn of the route for you, YOU create the route, so somehow, I must have used that left branch to finish the descent. 

I know I’ve been blaming all the maps and Google Earth, and Garmin and all the other mapping apps. for problem, but actually when you program a route, YOU’RE the programmer! So when I open up the map in MapMyRide I have to use USGS topo maps, and actually draw the lines myself, which involves bringing the resolution up to as high as it gets. Sometimes what happens is you end up with this mass of tracks criss-crossing everywhere, so it’s hard to delineate what was your original main track, and what’s just these dead-ending wagon wheel tracks. 

So, that all that being said, I kind of figured that I screwed up and took the wrong track when I programmed the route. Thank God for the plastic signage. Took the right branch and stayed on FR004 and just descended like a maniac, wanting nothing more than to get done and get that pack off of my throbbing back and chest. Saw the van for about 2 miles up and just mashed it. My gosh, how sweet it was to see the ladies there, with the camp chairs out, just sitting in the warm sun cheering me down. Got to the van and I could barely dismount from the bike. I just leaned on the bars for a bit. Then when I did dismount, and sat in one of the camp chairs, hoping to savor another tough ride, I just couldn’t feel comfortable. It’s like my shoulders and chest were tight, rigid and sore. I felt nauseous and every so slightly dizzy. 

And I was thinking to myself, “you know under any other circumstance I’d have sat in that camp chair, drank an ice cold coke, sucked down a Powerade, and eaten something, enjoying the sun and savoring the day’s ride. But right now I feel horrible, I have no appetite and I just want to curl up in a ball and sleep!” So we got going back to our motel in Eureka, with me pretty silent in the back seat just wondering what the hell’s going on. Once back in Eureka, I jumped in the hot bathtub, figuring that the hot water would loosen up my shoulders and chest muscles. Well, it felt good for a few minutes, but then I began to notice that my pulse was somewhat irregular, kind of like beat, beat, beat, followed by a profusion of beats, then back to normal beating, then a profusion of beats. Was I severely dehydrated? 

Ok, time to play the trump card…call my sister the doc. Drained to tub, dressed and then walked outside in the parking lot so I could talk to Kim without Vic or Judy hearing the conversation. I just did not want to alarm them with what could just be assumptions. Well, Kim put me through all the typical questions, and agreed that I did indeed have some kind if A-fib going on. Could be dehydration, could be TOO much water and not enough electrolytes, could be cardiac issues, but she wanted me to see a doc in town asap, and sent me a list of everything she wanted him to check me for. Now remember, this is a town of 600 people, so there’s no real emergency or anything here, just a little med center with a doc and an attending nurse. So I filled the ladies in on the situation, and Vic got directions to the center from the motel desk lady. By this time I could just feel my heart beating irregularly in my chest, and my shoulders and back felt tight as banjo strings. Just couldn’t get comfortable, and tell you what, I felt the same as I had after that hypothermic ride the prior Saturday. We hustled in the van and went to two wrong spots, as we’d been directed. Hell, the people here don’t even know where the med center is? Finally got to the right building on the east side of town….and the office had just closed 10 minutes earlier!

Ok, called sis, told her of the situation and she told me we should drive to Elko or back to Ely where there are Emergency centers open, and get checked out that night. But me being the hardhead that I am, figured that if I was indeed really dehydrated again, that I’d rehydrate that night as I did the prior Saturday, and I’d be ok come morning. Kim wasn’t happy with my decision, nor were the ladies, but I did promise that I’d go straight to the med center in Eureka the next morning before I did anything, this just to see what the local doc thinks. Went back to soak in the tub while Judy and Kim had several phone conversations concerning me. Felt pretty descent soaking in the tub, save for the A-fib thing going on with my heart.

Wasn’t hungry at all, and I forced myself to guzzle down Powerades and some canned Progresso Chicken Soup. But other than that I just had zero appetite. Then came the sleep part, God, I just could not get comfortable. My heart is beating funkily and my shoulders and chest are so tight I just want someone to dig their fingers into my muscles to relieve this massive cramp. When lights went out, I was wide awake, uncomfortable as heck, and feeling really listless. I was in every imaginable sleep position, with no respite from the HR and muscle issues. Hell, I even went to the floor and propped myself up against the foot of the bed in a sitting position to try to get sleep, to no avail. This WAS definitely a big step worse than that Saturday ride.

Well, at the age of 59, I had suffered a mild heart attack on that warm spring day. What followed the next day was a trip to Elko, NV where I was diagnosed - via a heart catherization - with severe coronary artery disease, despite the fact that I appeared to be in excellent condition for a man my age. American Dirt was over, after only nine days or cycling. From there I returned to OH where I immediately entered the Cleveland Clinic. After seven hours of open heart surgery, five bypasses, months of rehab, and plenty of time to think, a few questions dogged me: Was I one of those guys who after some 30 years of high intensity/high volume aerobic activities, bear the detrimental effects of what’s call the Excessive Endurance Exercise Syndrome?  if so, should I have done things differently? And what could I do today to help save a life tomorrow?

Before answering these questions, I want to provide a quick synopsis of my several decades worth of decisions and activities which may have set me up for this affliction. First, I have to admit that ever since my early 20’s when I dove full throttle into fitness and endurance sports, I pretty much believed such behavior would render me invincible to “lifestyle” diseases like arteriosclerosis, diabetes, stroke, obesity etc., this notwithstanding a family history of heart disease. Now the high volume stuff, well, that kind of evolved - I never really had a more-is-better mindset. Quite simply, my love of training, racing, and the whole world that surrounded it - the people, the travel, the venues, the personal satisfaction of having given my best in pursuit of an athletic goal - all coalesced into a massive catalyst for increased exercise volume. 

Training, racing, and working out became my M.O., and across many years I went through multiple phases of cycling, marathoning, triathloning, hiking/backpacking, and ultra-distance cycling, where on any given week I could log twenty to thirty hours of activity.

Fast forward to the May 11th, 2016 when I was riding my mountain bike across the US on dirt and gravel tracks. Amidst a sunny day, way up in the middle of nowhere land, on an 8000-foot mountain pass in central NevadaI I suffered a mild heart attack. Somehow I managed to pedal back to civilization. The lead cardiologist at Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital told me that based on the severity of the blockages I was lucky to be alive. I was stunned. Heck, everyone who knew me was stunned. I was healthy, fit, and really didn’t display those typical CAD (coronary artery disease) symptoms. 

Now the questions? World-class cardiologists both here at the Clinic and in NV have told me it’s very plausible that the excessive endurance exercise coupled with my genetic propensity for cardiovascular disease could have worked against me, eventually melding together into a catastrophic double whammy. I will say without hesitation, I would not have altered my workout history had I known then what I know today about the Excessive Endurance Exercise Hypothesis. I loved those years of training and racing that much. 

BUT, as I look back at the several years prior to my heart attack, I indeed recall sensing a few subtle warning signs, namely a steadily decreasing cardiovascular output, a progressing malaise, and infrequent bouts of shoulder blade tightness. Those were symptoms I regret brushing off as aging manifestations, and those were years of denial that almost killed me.

So I say to you men in your 40’s and 50’s who have been involved in years of high volume aerobic activities…and may have a family history of heart disease…and may perchance be experiencing seemingly minor physical aberrations that just don’t feel right…I implore you to get a thorough physical…now. Don’t try to be as lucky as me.

I was determined to finish AD, so in 2017 on June 6 myself and my riding partner Dave Jolin began the last stretch of American Dirt - from central NV to Mendecino in Northern CA. And man oh man was it ever a freaky feeling starting up where I was forced to end the journey back in 2016. I just cannot tell you how surreal it felt for me to be back in that same place after my med issue. I especially felt that weird feeling down at the end of the 20-mile gravel road, where I’d begun that final ride in 2016. I have to say, contrary to what I’d envisioned as my ride through NV, it was just a stunning place to riding gravel tracks. NV proveded me with some amazing memories as well as rides. 

Our ride was especially wonderful on the NV-CA border as we entered the Sierra Nevada Mt. ranges. Then we entered the Central Valley of CA where temps soared up into the 100s, and gravel tracks turned to hot, radiating pavement. I struggled in the heat as Dave just thrived. But we made it to the Coastal Ranges and finally to the coast, just south of Mendecino, CA. On June 22 2017 my American Dirt journey ended. The adventure wasn’t the way I wanted it to go, nor was the route, not even close, but I just had to roll with the punches to see it through to an end. I’m hoping there’s some adventurous men and women out there who will take up the cause and improve upon what I was able to put together. There’s a ton of work to be done on creating a seamless X-country route across the country that eliminates all the water and pavement travel that I had to embrace.

So this is my contribution. Now it’s up to you!