In early June, Esteban Duran-Ballen completed a trip across the United States on a bicycle.
Embarking on a trip across the country is not something one simply wakes up and does. It takes training and preparation—mentally, physically and financially. But nothing can prepare a person for the experiences they will encounter along the way—and they run the gamut—from close calls with wild weather, to “stealth camping” in an array of unfamiliar places; even the unexpected kindness of strangers.
It isn’t a story you hear every day, but it is one many find compelling. Some may say it’s not necessarily the destination that matters, but the journey. This is one of those stories.
Esteban, 28, originally from Ecuador, finished his bike tour alone, but he left Los Angeles on April 1 with his 24-year-old wife of two and a half years, and Pulaski native, Sarah. The couple shared the beginning of their experience with friends and followers through a personal blog—www.estebanysarah.org. Their first excerpt shares their enthusiasm and some insight into what they were about to do:
“A year and a half in the planning and many more in the dreaming, we are finally packed and ready to go. We’ve made the journey from quitting our jobs in Ecuador to visiting family in Virginia to now our friends’ home in California. Our bikes are tuned, our gear checked and all we have to do now is wait until our scheduled departure Monday morning.”
The initial blog post goes through a list of the top eight questions they have been asked most often about their impending trip: Where are you going to sleep; what are you going to eat; how many miles a day; how did you train for this; are you following a route; what kind of gun are you carrying; is this going to cost a fortune, and why?
Each is answered honestly and optimistically. A theme you’ll notice if spending any length of time with the couple.
“We started right off the bat from Death Valley, Calif., in the Mojave Desert,” said Esteban. “Which was quite a challenge. Painful. Lots of big hills. Very, very hot. It was early April, but it was already really hot. And then we got to Vegas.”
The couple actually passed through Vegas and made it to Arizona, 11 days in, and Sarah was beginning to show signs of knee trouble. They were traveling around 60 miles a day, carrying their gear on their bikes and in spite of the training they had done, it was more than Sarah’s knee could handle in the end.
“I think what ended up happening is my tendons started trying to do the work for my muscles and they were giving out,” said Sarah. “So we were lying in the tent in Arizona and I woke up in the middle of the night and my knee had been hurting anyway… but this was the first time where it was hurting and I couldn’t do anything.”
Sarah said she woke up with such a realization—a fear—because she had so much pride because this was supposed be “her journey.”
“So I laid there for a couple of hours really meditating on ‘what am I going to do?’” she said. “I love hiking and kayaking and biking and I was like, ‘am I going to risk my future plans just for this time?’ So it was really hard for me to decide, but I’m probably going to blow out my knee if I don’t stop, but I really did make … such a really mature decision to stop then, when I did.”
Sarah said the two of them were scared because neither of them had really mentally prepared for anything. They were moving from Ecuador to do their bike tour and then came what followed, she said. “It changed into ‘Sarah goes home, Esteban stays…he’s all alone.’”
“It was literally overnight,” said Esteban. “The next morning, we hitched a ride back to Vegas and she flew out, and overnight, literally, everything changed.”
“I was on the plane and suddenly I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! I just left my husband in the desert on his bicycle!’”, Sarah said. She was completely heartbroken.
According to Esteban, the trip took a major turn at that point, and losing Sarah 11 days into the tour hit him on a lot of different levels.
“Then I’m by myself. I’m almost sort of competitive with myself, like, ‘how many miles can I do?’ I sort of pushed myself in a different way then,” he said.
For Esteban, then, the trip became spiritual and solo, and just a lot of mileage. A lot more, Sarah said, than she would have done every day. Alone, he began averaging 80-85 miles a day, with his biggest day being 127 miles. And in the end, Esteban said, he was doing 90-95 miles a day, which makes them really hard.
Asked about the more dangerous parts of his trip, Esteban simply said: “Well I went through Oklahoma.”
He crossed into Oklahoma on May 1. “Everybody talks there, and tornado season starts May 1, so it was bad timing on that part,” he said. “About two days into Oklahoma, there was a big tornado warning but there wasn’t quite a tornado. I believe it was 94 degrees during the day and it went down to 29 at night and people were talking about how there was going to be a bad tornado.”
He had to stay indoors and avoid the whole thing, which he said was kind of scary, but nothing happened while he was there.
“After I left, unfortunately for those people…And I went trhough both towns, I went through El Reno and Moore, both towns that were hit pretty badly,” Esteban said. “I was there and I talked to the people who were there. Everybody there seems to talk about tornadoes. It’s just a daily routine, I guess, at this time of year.”
There were several reasons for the trip across the U.S. One was simple: they wanted to see the U.S. Esteban said he wanted to do something different; something that would require a lot of physical effort and sort of make it a spiritual journey as well.
“It would be something that would motivate me to get up every morning and do something hard and see different things,” he said. “It’s a good story people like to hear about and I wanted to—in the good sense of the word—take advantage of that attention and focus (it) on something good, or a greater cause, if you want.”
So Esteban began allowing people to donate for different causes and he would ride for them, saying he didn’t just want to pick one, because a lot of them do great things, “so I let people do it; sort of look inside themselves and see what it is they like…what inspires them. So people would say, ‘Hey, I gave $100 to the American Cancer Society,’ so then, okay, the next 100 miles I would ride for (ACS), in a symbolic way.”
And the donations continued. Relay for Life; ASPCA; Humane Society, all kinds of causes. He said he could also feel people praying for him and pulling him along. Was that encouraging for him?
“Yes it was,” said Esteban, explaining that for the first couple of weeks you just go at it and battle the elements and ignore the soreness, but after a while you want to quit. “If you don’t have something that motivates you anymore, you really just don’t want to go anymore, so having that definitely helped…people are looking at you like, ‘hey, he’s riding for me,’ so you have to perform. So just thinking about those people suffering from cancer or even if it’s just dogs in a shelter or something like that… you think about that and it gives you strength.”
Esteban described the different landscapes as “incredible,” for lack of a better word. He said starting out there was just a lot of desert, and it seemed like all of a sudden he was in Oklahoma.
“Everything’s green and lush and really pretty,” he said. “But before that you go through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas… it was a lot of desert, a lot of the same.”
But he maintained there was beautiful scenery everywhere. “It’s just such a big country and so beautiful in so many ways, as far as scenery,” he said.
New Mexico was described as a “very interesting state,” but Esteban said every state had its challenges and its great things. That’s the state he said was one of his favorites, because of the “scenery, being very bike friendly…a lot of youth, a lot of vibrant communities and things,” but it was also the state in which he racked up the most flat tires. Thirty-four out of 37, in fact.
And it also seemed that, throughout his story, with every ounce of trouble came a pound of kindness.
“I was on the side of the road there, and again trying to fix (a flat), it’s been a long day and I’m tired and I’m just trying to find a place to sleep and it’s still like 5 p.m., still got a few hours of daylight… but this guy pulls over, very nicely dressed and he just starts talking, just chatting with me and asking what I’m doing,” said Esteban. “No big deal.
“But then this other guy pulls over in this old pickup truck…and he gets out. Beer cans fall out of the truck, and I’m like, ‘oh, boy,’ you know… a little scared. But he comes up to me and he’s very insistent, and he’s asking how he can help me… you trust people but you want to be careful too, and he’s like, ‘alright, man go ahead,’ so he leaves and I’m still putting the tire on my bike and I finally get it (fixed) and I put it back together and he pulls up again. The other guy is there just talking to me… But this guy pulls up in this pickup truck again and is like, ‘Can I help you?’ again and I’m saying, ‘No, no, really, it’s okay.’ He (asks), ‘Well how about this?’ and he pulls out a piece of paper and (says), ‘I just paid for a motel room for you back in town and everything is taken care of.’”
Esteban smiled as he told story after story like this one, of kind strangers inspired by his story and just trying to lend a hand.
Esteban wasn’t only on the receiving end of the help in those situations either. In fact, the influence went in both directions. He shared another story of a long-distance truck driver from Los Angeles whose path he crossed repeatedly on the trip, named Dale.
Once again, Esteban had a flat, and Dale pulled over in his rig to help. They shared stories and exchanged phone numbers; Esteban even spent a night in Dale’s truck. On a return trip Dale passed through with his bike and rode a little distance with Esteban and shared how his story was helping Dale change his life.
“We were talking about all of this and he was like, ‘You know, you’ve inspired me.’ He said he was giving up the long-distance trucking, he said he needs to be home, he needs to be more healthy … so he’s giving up,” said Esteban. “He’s done actually this month. He said (will be) his last trip. He said he’s just going to be driving locally and then next year he’s going to do a long-distance bike trip, too. He said he’s got to lose some weight and get back in shape… he sent me a message yesterday saying his family is very grateful for the inspiration he’s got to quit that, and now they have him home every night. It’s really neat to see that effect on other people.”
Esteban’s trip rolled on through Arkansas, and his terrible allergies (he almost gave up at the Mississippi River), Tennesee’s hills and valleys, and finally into Virginia at the beginning of June, while Sarah waited patiently here in Pulaski, keeping updated and taking care of her knee.
“That was definitely my motivation at the end,” said Esteban. “I just wanted to get back to her, and that’s why I biked so hard… 95 miles a day in Tennessee and Virginia, that’s… Whoo!”
Sarah drove to meet Esteban in Marion the day before he biked the last leg of the tour.
“We were so awkward,” Sarah recalled. “We are so familiar with each other, so happy to be with each other, but it was so funny because we were both like, ‘Let’s just hug,’ because we were so shy at first.”
The next day Sarah’s family made and placed signs along the route home to encourage Esteban in his final miles, bringing him to the Draper Mercantile. From there, Sarah and Esteban rode the final six miles together.
Esteban said he would encourage others to go for their dreams as well.
“Go for it!” he said. “If I could quote people they would all say, ‘I wish I could do what you’re doing,’ but I said, ‘No, that may not be your thing.’ Whatever your thing is, though, just go ahead and do it, because it’s a matter of just dropping whatever you’re doing and just embarking on this journey.”