A Guy Who Unicycles To South America. And Back.
In 2013, Cary Gray applied for the Evolution of Balance Award with an application that frankly would have sounded unbelievable if not for his already impressive record of self-supported unicycle rides. Cary had proposed a convoluted, 24,000 km route along roads and trails through every single land-based country in North and South America.
Two and a half years and 26,000 km later, Cary is still riding his KH36, writing, drawing, and speaking about his experiences with no end in sight. I caught up with Cary for a few questions before he embarks on the next leg of his trip.
Your journey is huge, criss-crossing all over North and Central America. How has the trip evolved for you? Not so much in where have you been, but how has it affected you?
Obviously when I applied for the EOB Award, I had no idea that what I was doing would make such a positive dent in the unicycling world and in my life. I also had expected I'd ride all the way to the southern tip of South America without a hitch. Yeah right. The trip has been extremely challenging, and in Colombia, after having just arrived in South America, I got my passport stolen. That was the middle of 2014, almost one year after the departure from Baltimore. I flew back to St. Louis, MO with the intention of returning to South America pronto. A few months turned into a year, or so I expected. Instead of unicycling to Florida and flying back, I had decided to ride up to Alaska because I "missed winter." I got plenty of wintry weather in BC, riding through temperatures as low as -8 C (18 F) and racking up a record number of broken spokes (3 in one day, 16 in 3 weeks). I pushed on and made my way down to Seattle, where I hoped I'd save up money, continue to LA, and fly back to Colombia. That was one year ago. The trip has lead me in crazy and wonderful directions, and the exact opposite direction of South America, to which I will eventually return. But I'm beginning to believe there are no accidents in life, there are only occurrences which challenge our plans and flexibility. I've learned to roll with the punches, and in the process my tendons, muscles, gear, and most of all my attitude have improved vastly. I'm thinking I'll need all those for my looming return to South America!
One of my favourite sections of a movie is in Forrest Gump, where Forrest embarks on a "little run" that lasts for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours. Everyone keeps asking him if he has some kind of goal in mind but he's fully living in the present, running simply for the sake of it. Clearly your route is not the shortest path from Canada to Tierra del Fuego and back, and you've had periods of continual touring as well as months of staying put. What are your motivations?
As I said, life provides plot twists, and the best of us will simply use these to our advantage. In the beginning I imagined that the trip was a trip to South America. Even with the very first two weeks being a northward ride to Toronto, and every subsequent detour thereafter, I held some image of South America as the final destination. But what I've learned is that it wouldn't matter if I had no clear image of a destination in mind, because I'm working on myself here. I'm working on others. I'm working on how to empower myself and others simultaneously, and that is my motivation.
Clear destination or not, you’re obviously motivated to spend long days in the saddle. Can you tell us about that?
The original trip was documented for Guinness World Records, but because my zip drives with a lot of data documentation were stolen, I was unable to officiate the record. Because the guidelines for that were strict, I didn't include of lot of incidental riding, like repeat days and rides within a city during a break. The distance that would have been in Guinness was about 22,756 km - that was recorded by GPS and can be seen on my Strava account. All the unrecorded mileage since July 2013 brings that figure up to about 26,000 km (just commuting to work daily in St. Louis in 2014 was about 1800 km). It's hard to say, but the mileage becomes less and less important to me. Big spurts or big days will always be fun for me, though, as a personal challenge. My personal best for longest day is 137 miles from Dallas to Temple, TX and my longest continuous hill climb was 4,400 ft at about 7% grade. These challenges are all done with a fully loaded 75-85 lbs rig. Also a fun challenge I have for myself is most consecutive riding days averaging 100 km per day, and I broke that record when I left St. Louis in 2014 and rode 17 days in a row to Rapid City, SD.
75-85 lbs is a huge load! How did you carry it?
When I designed my fender and panniers in 2012, there was almost nothing available. After much trial and error, and many cracked welds, broken zippers, and crooked, wobbly fenders, I've landed a pretty solid design. I was one of only a few unicyclists ever to use a fully loaded rig to tour, and it has become such a pleasure to be able to pack everything I need without the use of backpack (it's imperative to take weight off the bum!). I used to sell my panniers, but for the next year or two I will be unable to do so. Unicyclists should feel free to use my designs, but please provide credit and a link to my blog (and let me know about your trip!) Check out the fender and pannier setup on my blog.
Towards the end of 2014 and in 2015, you began giving talks at elementary schools to spread a message of positivity, health, and sustainability. How did that come about?
I like to tell people that getting my passport stolen in Colombia was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I had gotten into a rut. I had run out of money, and run out of patience with people. I was sick of repeating the same story to people. It felt like a selfish story. I needed an attitude adjustment, so I stayed at home and worked, unicycling 16 km each way, 5 days a week. I wrote on my time off, and hung out with my family. I felt a shift inside me, much in the same way I imagine someone would feel if that person happened to recognize that he or she was indeed, at last, no joke, growing up. I decided that it was time to share. As I left St. Louis in September headed northwest, I hatched an idea. I practiced a speech out loud to myself (trust me, there's plenty of time for that.) I started telling folks that I had plans to share my story at elementary schools and inspire them to eat healthy and get out. In Montana, one of my hosts said, "Well, would you like to give a talk at our school in Kalispell?" I said, "Sure." And the next stage of my life began. It's been nothing short of exhilarating and personally moving to talk to youngsters about my trip. I tell them, "Anything is possible." When they ask me how I ride it, with eyes bugged out of their little heads and expecting me to say "magic," or "innate talent," I simply smile and say, "Practice. Lots and lots and lots of practice."
Over such a long riding journey my guess is that you've experienced a full range of emotions from intense joy to discouragement and frustration. Can you share a bit about the highs and lows of your trip?
I'm sure from what I've said any reader might have gleaned that I've gone through an intense period of growth. It's true, and any touring cyclist will know this: touring is an emotional roller coaster. It's something that everyone should try at least once, and only some can stick with it. It brings out the best in a person, and oftentimes the worst, too. One of the most emotionally high moments I experienced was while riding through Missouri on the first crossing. I left my friend's parents' home, and they had filled me up with food and motivation. It was 10 in the morning, and I had no hope of reaching a friend's house 110 mile away in Springfield. After a short spell and a break for a snack, I was off on a long spurt. This spurt turned out to be quite long--my longest fully loaded spurt, in fact. 77 km, fully loaded, without stops. I was listening to the rock band Bush's "Golden State" album, sunlight baking my face and tears (...from the wind) streaming down my face. I made it to my friend's house at about 11 pm, after 179 km of riding and countless Vitamin Waters.
I had plenty of bad moments, involving some of the most inventive combinations of curse words imaginable. I had one day in New Mexico where I ran out of water. I had a tank top that I had sharpied on "I Need Water." I shook my empty bottles and waited. No one stopped. So I boiled some dubious liquid from the tank behind an abandoned house. I mixed gatorade powder with it and went to bed on an empty stomach. I had one day in Panama, after running out of food and cash (the previous town had only one ATM, which didn't work. I had my last chocolate milk and left.) Without patience or solid food, I continued on through the heat, huffing and puffing my way through a misdirection and up an unnecessary hill. Although I only listened to music half the time, this was one of those days, and you can imagine why. I had jazz playing. You can imagine why. At one point, a half-dismounted/half-fell off the uni. I let the rig and my body fall where they fell. I lay there motionless, the gentle jazz beat more obvious than the one in my chest. I felt weak.
Of course, that day also turned out to include one of the best moments of the trip, since 5 miles after that moment, after deciding to walk and push on, a bus passed me with a couple cute girls waving to me. I had seen them at a hostel the day before, and I was winning the race. One minute later, I took the turn that put me heading back towards where I had intended to head. The correct direction, and oh look, downhill, and oh look, tailwind. That day ended very well, and very fast.
Any thoughts about how 2016 will shape up for you? Nomad or Settler?
2015 was my brief settling year. I had a serious girlfriend for over half of it, lived in Seattle in several locations, including the girlfriend's car, her mom's apartment, her dad's art studio, a hammock, a boss's house, and then moved to Whidbey Island, where I'm staying in a pop-up camper til my departure. I'm ready to continue and 2016 will be explosive. I'm riding down the West Coast to San Francisco, where I will finish the children's book I'm illustrating entirely with my foot. The kickstarter for that will run from March 15 to April 15 and the book is called "Luno," about a boy who unicycles to South America. I'll also be publishing the book that I've written about my journey, which is called "The Naked Unicyclist." And around this time I hope to be running the American Ninja Warrior course for the second year.
From San Fransisco I will head east and then north to the headwaters of the Mississippi. The plan is to kayak the entire length of the Mississippi River with a packraft, so that I can pack the unicycle and switch from river to land and back for school talks and visits. At New Orleans, after a brief detour to see my brother and his wife (I'll be an uncle in June!) I'll get set up with an ocean kayak and continue along the Gulf of Mexico and around Florida. I will have the unicycle brought to my destination in Venezuela. The plan is to get set and train in Miami area for the 6,400 km kayak trip through the Caribbean to Trinidad and Venezuela. This trip was done by John Dowd and team in 1978-79, and then repeated by two young Canadian brothers Henry and Russell Graham in 2014. Mine will likely be the first solo passage from Florida to South America by kayak. I hope to reach South America by the beginning of 2017, but who knows? Anything is possible, but nothing is guaranteed.
Eager to start your own adventure? Apply for the Evolution of Balance Award now!