On the toughest bicycle trek any of them had tried, Day 7 ranked as the toughest day. As the team pedaled on State Route 375 through Nevada’s hottest desert, July temperatures soared well into triple digits.
Four cyclists biked nine straight hours on a shadeless road. So relentlessly shone the sun that they used the meager shelter of their panniers for shade on short breaks; one considered crawling into an irrigation pipe. Between towns stretched 110 merciless miles. When their last bottle ran out, they were forced to wave down passing cars to plead for water.
“I told myself, if I can make it out of this alive, I can do anything,” said Dasha Yurkevich, 18.
Maybe she and her friends can. Three recent graduates of San Francisco’s Ruth Asawa School of the Arts embarked on the adventure of a lifetime on July 1. Despite the pandemic, they aimed to bike from coast to coast to discover the country and push their limits.
Mentoring the ambitious teens was Andy Padlo, a teacher with Tuolumne County roots who lives much of the year in Cold Springs. Padlo biked across the country when he was 17 and has guided at least ten groups of students on the John Muir Trail over the last 15 years.
“I really believe in the power of youth-planned and led adventures in helping young people develop leadership skills and confidence to affect change,” said Padlo, 59. “What these young folks are learning about organizing and communicating, achieving ‘grand vision’ and making things happen by exercising their own developing skills is transformative.”
Nevada’s desert was just one of many challenges along the way. California provided the first. After camping their first night beneath Mount Diablo, the bikers crossed the Central Valley and climbed fearsome Priest Grade to Yosemite, ascending some 5,000 feet. Every muscle ached as the still-green team made camp.
“Is that the toughest day we’ll have?” asked Emmet Forde, 17.
“No,” Padlo replied.
The next day required even more uphill as they cleared 9,943-foot Tioga Pass and the Sierra Nevada crest, their first mountain range but not their last, nor their highest.
Besides sun and suffering, Nevada delivered the Extraterrestrial Highway, an other-worldly vibe, a glimpse of Area 51 and the first of many kind strangers. A store owner near aptly-titled Caliente invited the crew into his home for pancakes, sausage and their first showers in nine days.
“People are really kind hearted and generous,” Padlo said. “It felt great to sit down, talk and come to see them as not that different from ourselves.”
Utah won favor as the scenic highlight as the group rolled through Red Canyon, Grand Escalante National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park. “In terms of environment and scenery, Utah is a beautiful marvel of nature, with red rock walls that shoot straight up,” said Julian Jordan, 18.
“Utah was the only state you couldn’t compare with anything else,” agreed Forde. “With all that red rock, it felt like being on another planet, like Mars. Scenery like that boosted our morale.”
Colorado required the steepest climb over the Rocky Mountains via 11,312-foot Monarch Pass, the highest point of the trip. “Climbing that mountain made me so happy,” said Yurkevich. “A beautiful nine-mile climb through the Rockies to the top of the Continental Divide was the most incredible and surreal experience.” A century (100 mile) ride the next day led to a friend’s home in Colorado Springs for a welcome break and desperately-needed showers.
“Kansas was emotionally draining,” said Padlo. Rather than flat and fast, the terrain proved hilly and slow, with strong headwinds, heavy rainstorms, heat, humidity and countless truckers who crowded them on narrow roads. Strangers approached to pray for them. Crossing the state took six days, double their estimate. “I’m never going back,” vowed Forde.
Missouri, the Show Me State, showed the first cornfields so vast that the travelers were compelled to covertly camp in them for two weeks. “It was shocking to see just how much of the country is corn. In California, that’s so foreign that they make it part of sci-fi movies,” said Jordan.
Illinois saw an encounter with police. Two officers stopped the cyclists, checked their IDs and questioned them. “We still don’t understand why we got pulled over,” Yurkevich said. Though the police offered kind words during the exchange, the teens called the meeting “unsettling.”
In Indiana, armed protestors rallied outside the Capitol to claim “the China virus is all just a hoax” and “medical professionals are lying” and “masks really just make you more sick.” The event bewildered the four Californians, resting on a nearby lawn, who avoided most big cities and nearly canceled their trip because of the coronavirus.
“That rally was really a shock. Their guns were almost as big as I was. Their fingers were on the triggers and there were no police in sight,” said Yurkevich. “Those people showed me how different the country is.”
Ohio gave a more welcome surprise. While fixing a flat tire in Columbus, the bikers met a fellow cycling enthusiast who let them camp in her yard, fed them, and helped tune up their bikes.
In West Virginia and Pennsylvania, the Appalachian Mountains awaited. But instead of another epic climb, the weary crew found a bike path on an old railroad bed which inclined only gradually. After 45 days and some 3,000 miles of riding, the team appreciated the break.
“I was really thrilled to find that,” said Padlo of the Great Allegheny Passage. “The trail winds along a river and past little towns, bike hostels and cafes. We almost didn’t feel like we were climbing the Appalachians.”
In New Jersey, a well-wisher awaited them with cold water, one of thousands who read about the adventure in news reports and followed along at instagram.com/youthbikeamerica.
Finally on Aug. 21, the group reached New York, visited Times Square and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. Several new biking friends joined them on the final miles. “The whole day felt like a dream,” Jordan said. “‘The kindness of the local bikers made us feel like we were part of the community.”
At Brighton Beach, family, friends and a television crew awaited. Seven weeks earlier, the cyclists dipped their tires in the Pacific Ocean. Now they did so in the Atlantic. For good measure, Jordan jumped in the water. “It felt like the right thing to do,” he said. Tears of joy flowed.
In all, the Californians rode 3,614 miles, climbed 155,706 feet uphill, averaged 69.5 miles a day and repaired 65 flat tires.
But more than the numbers or even the destination, the journey and its discoveries defined the feat.
“Everyone we encountered was so kind to us and so welcoming. It showed me how we’re all just human. I would never trade the experience for anything,” Yurkevich said.
Not least of those discoveries was the group’s own potential. All four hope to take more ambitious bike tours and suggest that others consider doing so too.
“If more people knew their potential, they could do this as well,” said Forde.