During the summer of 2015 I had planned to hike the John Muir Trail, a small part of the Pacific Crest Trail that runs through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Due to an unusually heavy snowfall, we opted to postpone the backpacking trip and scrambled to come up with an alternative adventure. I decided a bicycle tour could be put together pretty easily, and we went for it!
We took a long train ride from Los Angeles, CA to Portland, OR where we assembled our kit and began the journey. Our time was limited, so any hopes of cycling the entire coast would be dashed. We would cycle north from Portland to Astoria, which is separated from Washington by the Columbia River. From there we cycled southbound, primarily along the main coast route.
Along the way we stayed in beautiful camp sites, which were available for hikers and cyclists at a cost of only $5 per day. We met many interesting people, including a fellow named Harold who was a part-time clown (literally) and full-time recumbent bicycle nut. We ate in the best restaurants and never wanted for food or beer. It was a truly a great trip to reconnect with my oldest son, Josh, and my dear friend, Ben, who I have known since Cub Scouts.
Since we were road-bound, we carried everything including the kitchen sink. My bike was weighed down by about 50 pounds worth of gear and rather unwieldy. We were newbies and it showed in our daily mileage accrued- averaging about 50 miles per day. Somewhere along the trip I got the idea to do a mountain bike camping trip. Some preliminary research revealed the “Tour the Divide” trek from Banff, Canada south along the Rocky Mountains terminating in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. I downloaded a book detailing one rider’s account to my Kindle and finished it over the course of two nights. I was hooked. 500 miles into our “comfortable” tour, I was ready for a bigger and badder challenge.
Where would I find the time? I had just finished my first year of law school and knew my next few summers would be spent in internships hustling to find employment upon graduation. I had just retired a year earlier from the U.S. Marine Corps, and I was headed straight into the rat race I had successfully avoided my entire life. Finding the time, let alone gaining the requisite permission and support of my family seemed futile.
After nearly two more years of school combined with a steady number of internships, I was consumed by my budding career. I was struggling with trying to balance my health and recovery from service with my school and career ambitions. I was drifting away from my identity as a Marine and worse still, had drifted away from the Marines with whom I had served. I tried to keep up with some on Facebook, but found it hard to connect. I needed to get back to my tribe.
Many readers are familiar with the suicide epidemic amongst the veteran community. Despite any political opinions you may have, the threat is real and the damage done to the families is devastating. Over the years, I have known several Marines and sailors who have taken their lives. They were once my charge, my responsibility to ensure their welfare. Now they were alone, broken, and contemplating ending it all. I felt helpless. I was helpless.
During the spring of this year, I learned of another Marine with whom I had served succumbing to suicide. It was devastating. He was the third Marine I had known personally to take his life- THIS YEAR. That’s right, three Marines so far in 2019. It was the catalyst I needed to change course. To do something, anything.
I decided to take on the 2,700-mile “Tour the Divide” challenge as a tribute and a memorial to those Marines and other service members I had known who were killed in action, wounded in action, died in training, or took their own lives following combat. I would carry a folded American Flag, along with dog tags identifying the fallen. I would carry the weight of their suffering while undergoing my own ordeal. In the process, I would hope to raise awareness, raise funds for some especially great charities, and encourage my fellow vets to find their own mission. I would get out from behind my desk and once again go on patrol. I would Patrol Forward with their memories. I would Patrol Forward for their families. I would Patrol Forward for my own sanity. And upon completion of my mission, I would hand the flag and the collection of dog tags off to the next veteran who was ready to Patrol Forward. Perhaps we could save ourselves by remembering those we’ve lost, honoring them, and challenging ourselves.