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The Paladin

Furman University's Student Newspaper

The Paladin

Furman University's Student Newspaper

The Paladin

Persistence of Pedaling

Courtesy of Furman Athletics

October 22, 2014

Maia Wellborn (left) and Alex Aboutanos (right) stand at the Grand Teton National Park entrance sign during their May 2014 3-week, 600-mile bike tour in the west.
Maia Wellborn (left) and Alex Aboutanos (right) stand at the Grand Teton National Park entrance sign during their May 2014 3-week, 600-mile bike tour in the west.

The colder-than-crisp air of Winter Storm Zephyr made already barren towns seem like a white-blanketed abyss, pushing most people in the Colorado area to stay indoors, but not Alex Aboutanos and Maia Wellborn.

The then 18-year-olds had the Boulder, Col. roads to themselves as they made their 546 mile trek to Jackson, Wyo. on their bicycles.

The Planning

Aboutanos and Wellborn began preparing for their biking adventure the May after their freshman year at Furman. Aboutanos was ready to go back to lifeguarding in his beach-town home, but had a month-long gap between his last final and the first day of patrolling.

He knew he wanted to make his way to Yellowstone National Park in Jackson, Wyo. to visit a fellow Furman friend, Kate Walker, who was working at the park for the summer. His plan? Bike from Furman University to Yellowstone.

He knew of a cyclist, Maia Wellborn, who lived on the floor above him, and jokingly asked her if she was interested in doing a bike tour with him.

“The planning was awful. First our decision was to go from Furman to Yellowstone, but we soon realized that wasn’t possible in the month time we had,” Aboutanos said.

The duo also considered biking from Nashville, Tenn. to Yellowstone, but quickly discarded that possibility. Finally, Aboutanos and Wellborn decided to drive from Greenville to Nashville, fly from Nashville to Denver, Col., and bike from Boulder to Yellowstone in three weeks.

Aboutanos bought a $320 mountain bike and Maia decided to use her road bike. Both students boxed their bikes for shipping and mailed them to Denver two weeks before their kickstand-kickoff.

Neither Aboutanos’ parents nor Wellborn’s parents had a full grasp of what the next three weeks would look like for the teens.

“My mom told us to stop at a Starbucks if we get tired along the way,” Wellborn said laughingly, thinking in the back of her mind that they probably would not pass even one Starbucks along the way (which they did not).

Aboutanos and Wellborn each packed a backpack with the basics – a tent to sleep in, some food, a few extra clothes, cell phones and sleeping bags.

“We did a very sketchy amount of planning. Our planning was we Google Mapped a road from Boulder, Col. to Yellowstone,” Aboutanos said.

In addition to their Google Maps route, Aboutanos and Wellborn knew they had a flight from Jackson back to Nashville three-and-a-half weeks later. Keeping that in mind as their deadline, they took off.

The First Few Days

Wellborn’s stomach turned into a giant knot as their plane took off from Nashville. The higher they ascended, the more she wanted to turn around.

“I didn’t really want to be there anymore, but I knew I couldn’t do that to him,” Wellborn said.

“This was my first time being off the East coast. So this was my own little sliver of the world, and, finally, I stepped out,” Aboutanos said.

Once the pair landed in Denver, they took a bus to Boulder to pick up their bikes from a post office and to meet up with Lisa, one of Wellborn’s family friends, for the night. Lisa made sure Aboutanos and Wellborn were well fed, well rested, and ready for the tour.

Aboutanos’ mountain bike had approximately 50 pounds of boxed-up gear to tote and Maia’s road bike had about 30 pounds of luggage. The students set a goal to ride 50 miles per day, despite the fact that, before their journey, Aboutanos’ furthest ride was about eight miles and Wellborn’s was 30.

The first day of the tour make an enthusiastic impression on Aboutanos’ mind. Aboutanos remembers thinking that the trek was the greatest idea he ever came up with. He wondered why everyone was not out there with them.

Wellborn was a little more realistic than optimistic. She knew that the winds were fairly calm for the area and that they were going downhill for the majority of the day.

Then, Aboutanos and Wellborn saw the weather. Winter Storm Zephyr was heading their way. Temperatures were going to be too cold to bear in the country.

“Alex was really for sleeping in a tent that first night, so I had to tell him that we really needed to stay in a motel,” Wellborn said.

Aboutanos and Wellborn woke up the next morning in the motel devastated surrounded by three feet of snow. The drifts trapped them inside for three days, using up money the pair did not have to waste. They killed time by looking out the window, waiting for the sun to thaw the roads.

“We woke up that third day and saw that the streets were clear of snow, so we left,” Aboutanos said.

The setback made the duo even more excited to get out on the open road. Aboutanos and Wellborn biked “a typical Colorado day,” the next day, enjoying the sights and filing their water bottles at gas stations as they pedaled along. The thought of being three days behind schedule, however, haunted the students’ minds while the evening’s projected below-freezing temperatures loomed ahead as a barrier to their progress. Their solution? Hitchhiking during the afternoon.

“We were out there for almost two hours, and nobody wanted to take us,” Wellborn said.

After that, the stressed-out students got back on their seats and started biking to the next town, never suspecting what fears awaited them there.

The Worst and the Best Night

With the feeling of defeat, Aboutanos and Wellborn made their way to the next town against the wind. The sun quickly disappeared and the air filled with a kind of cold that took their senses of smell away. Not a car nor a building was to be seen. Their phones had no service left.

Finally, Aboutanos and Wellborn reached a small town in Colorado, knowing that the projected temperature for the night ahead would be 14 degrees. After their long ride, however, the students were told that there was no place for them to stay within 30 miles of the town. Frustrated, the pair rode around until they came upon the Virginia Dale Community Church.

“I told him to go check to see if the door was opened, and he didn’t think it would be, but I told him to try, and it was unlocked,” Wellborn said.

Luckily, the door was unlocked. It was “the most miraculous moment” for Aboutanos.

An over six-foot-tall pastor welcomed Aboutanos and Wellborn inside and offered them a place to stay in small community church’s nursery. Walking into warm, dry room gave Aboutanos and Wellborn the biggest sense of relief they felt throughout the whole trip.

The night’s events, however, also gave the biking duo a new outlook on their tour.

“It turned from having fun and seeing the world to survival. So we were working as a team to really survive,” Aboutanos said.

The Sandwich Days

The days following the pair’s night at the Virginia Dale Community Church included successful hitchhiking trips and bike journeys through mostly empty of towns.

Aboutanos and Wellborn ate countless amounts of Subway $5 footlong subs, cookies, pizza, quarter-pounders, oatmeal, Ramen Noodles, and Cliff Bars. As the days passed by, the duo passed through abandoned towns, stopped in typical western general stores and saloons, enjoyed the ride (and ate some more Subway sandwiches).

“The further we went, the less stressed we got about where we would stay or when we would eat.” Aboutanos said.

As the students crossed the Wyoming border line, they stayed in yards of churches and on the border of people’s backyards, all with the hopes of finding the next big town.

A two day stretch of 120 miles lay ahead of them to get to the next-safest location, so the pair had to pedal past their tiredness (and desire for more Subway sandwiches).

“If we would’ve camped in the areas we were riding through without getting to a well-populated town, we wouldn’t have been in any shape to have someone help us if we got into trouble,” Aboutanos said.

The land was barren enough for Aboutanos and Wellborn to see hundreds of miles ahead of them. The only thing they could feel was the wind hitting their faces and the only smell they could recall was the sage brush that lined the western roads.

Biking on, Aboutanos’ and Wellborn’s days seemed to get progressively more uphill, and their bodies were wearing down fast, when suddenly, Aboutanos heard a “pop” in his knee.

Meet the Mormons

Wellborn was in a little better bike shape than Aboutanos. Her road biking hobby prepared her for the journey’s climbs and mileage. Aboutanos, however, concentrated more on running than biking. He was not surprised when his knee gave out on him.

“I called my mom who is a physician, because I was concerned I would not be able to finish,” Aboutanos said.

The two then found a Catholic Church to set up their tent for the night and rest. Without any access to ice, Aboutanos packed snow around his knee and elevated his leg to the best of his abilities.

The morning sunrise revealed more troubles for the pair; despite their push to bike 120 miles in two days, the students were behind schedule. Still trying to repair Aboutanos’ knee, the pair decided to sit down in a Dominos across the street from the Catholic Church.

The caravan family that Aboutanos and Wellborn met there soon became some of the most memorable characters that the pair met on their trek.

Kelley, an ex-fireman for the Los Angeles Fire Department with Alzheimer’s Disease, his wife Theresa, “the only one who understood what was going on in the world around them,” and Brandon, Theresa and Kelley’s grandson stopped for pizza while Aboutanos and Wellborn were resting at Dominos.

Theresa saw Aboutanos icing his leg and her motherly instinct kicked in. The family offered Aboutanos and Wellborn a ride in their RV to the students’ next location.

The ride was more than a just a bus ride, however. The family was “of the Latter-Day Saints,” as Kelley kept repeating to the students. He told Aboutanos and Wellborn about an accident he had working as a LA firefighter. Brandon filled the students in on the lawsuit he was in the middle of with work. Naturally, the family also taught Aboutanos and Wellborn about Mormonism. Asa religion major and a philosophy major, the pair soaked it all in.

After dropping the pair off, Kelley’s family sent the Book of Mormon to Aboutanos’ and Wellborn’s home addresses. Wellborn remembers feeling like they were saying their goodbyes to true family members after just 120 miles of riding in the RV.

“They were insane. They were looking for young people to connect with, and we were looking for a family to comfort us, so when they dropped us off and said goodbye, it was really sad,” Aboutanos said.

Some More Sandwiches

A few evenings later, Aboutanos and Wellborn found themselves in the middle of nowhere – more so than any night before. It was too dark and the pair were too tired to keep riding, so they pitched their tent on the side of the highway.

“This was the scariest night for me,” Wellborn said.

The duo could hear coyotes howling around them and animals shuffling outside their tent. Alex stepped outside before going to bed and held eye contact with a moose “for a solid 30 seconds.” They saw bison, which both students thought were extinct, while worrying about the grizzly bears that lived in the area.

“We didn’t even have bear spray. There was no one around, and I’ve never been able to see so much land in front of me. That’s how flat it was,” Wellborn said.

The night was terrifying, but ended up being one of Aboutanos’ and Wellborn’s fondest memories of the trip.

Days went on and the pair left their fear behind them with every stop they made.

Through the rest of the trip, Aboutanos and Wellborn stayed in their tent or found host families to stay with thanks to www.warmshowers.com, a website that lists families willing to host bike tourists. They met small town legends and bike tourists going the same direction. They found a sense of community everywhere they stopped.

“I think the best part really was meeting all these different characters along the way,” Wellborn said.

The Final Days

When they finally reached Jackson Hole, Wyo., Aboutanos and Wellborn were stoked to see their friend, Kate Walker, in Yellowstone–the whole reason they took the trip in the first place. With a few days left to spare before their planned meeting, Aboutanos and Wellborn hiked, camped, and met families along the way.

When they finally decided to look for Walker, they approached some park rangers to find her location, but to no avail.

“They actually never got to see me,” Walker said. “Our cell phone reception was really bad and we could never get in touch until they had to catch their plane home.”

“We had no idea that Yellowstone was so big, and that’s when we realized that we probably would not be able to see her,” Wellborn said.

Although Aboutanos and Wellborn were disappointed not to be able to see their friend, they were proud of everything they just accomplished. After 546 miles, 3 hikes, 12 nights in a tent, 1 snow storm, 8 churches, about 50 foot longs from Subway, 3.5 hours of climbing into Yellowstone, 2 times hitchhiking, 11 total showers, 3 headbands (Aboutanos is growing his hair out), 1 grizzly bear, 80 pounds of weight on bike racks, oatmeal, 8,000 feet above sea level at the Rim Station, 4 public libraries, 0 flat tires, 3 weeks on the road, 2 disposable cameras, and five flights to get back home Aboutanos and Wellborn had the experience of a lifetime.

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