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November 8-15, 2006

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Riding the spine

Riding the spine: Three UCSC alumni set out on an epic journey.

Riding the Great Divide

Three UCSC alumni embark on a cycling extravaganza from Alaska to South America

By Laura Mattingly


In the middle of a long and hairy workweek, one might wistfully say to a co-worker through a thin, oppressive, cubicle wall, "I wish I didn't have to go to work tomorrow. I wish I could leave this tedious routine behind. I just want to get on my bicycle and ride far, far away, through mountains, valleys and deserts, sleep under the stars every night, and really feel alive."

The co-worker might grunt in agreement before continuing to alphabetize his file drawer.

Rarely do people take these impulses seriously.

But while some settle for riding their bikes to work and back, others quit their jobs altogether.

Jacob Thompson, Sean Monterastelli and Goat, all UCSC alumni, split town with their bicycles three months ago, and Santa Cruz might not see them again for a few years.

Beginning their ride after a plane trip to Alaska, the group have made it through Canada and are back in the United States, now pedaling vigorously through Montana. They just keep going. Their anticipated destination is South America.

I first speak to the group before they leave Canada; they're on a pay phone in Dawson's Creek, a town located between British Columbia and Banff, I'm sitting in my cubicle at the Metro Santa Cruz office. I ask how their trip is going so far, and Thompson replies, "Pretty good overall. Nothing too dramatic. The northern lights are pretty."

Upon further probing Thompson divulges that he's actually had a wolf encounter within the first days of the journey while still in Alaska, a chase from which he nearly didn't escape.

Thompson documents the encounter in his blog. "It was clear to me that the wolf was going to catch me, and I began fumbling for the bear repellent in my handlebar bag, riding as hard as I could, all the while so as to buy some time. ... Eventually, I managed to get it out, but saw that the wolf was now within 10-15 feet and I haven't taken off the safety. ... I finished taking off the safety and saw the trucker driving behind me swerve and hit the wolf, and quickly pulling to the left to avoid hitting a very appreciative me."

Surprisingly, Thompson didn't hate his job. He talks about their bike trip as an adventure rather than an escape.

"I actually love my job. But we'll be working for most of our lives so it's nice to do this now before we get too old and have to buy an RV to travel. I expect to go back to teaching when I'm done with this."

Since completing his master's degree in teaching at UCSC, Thompson taught history at Fisher Middle School in Los Gatos.

One may wonder if these guys have some altruistic cause--world peace, or ending world hunger. Forrest Gump ran around the country for years on a whim.

"Ideally we're going to be doing it for childhood obesity," says Thompson. "We hope to start going to schools and doing slide shows about active living. When we get to Central America we might start going to orphanages."

Thompson says that the problem of obesity came to his attention during his time teaching.

Freeze frame

Freeze frame: Suffering through the cold season, the riders have encountered temperatures reaching below zero.

The group has contacted organizations that address obesity, including the American Heart Association, the American Obesity Association and Shape Up America, to request sponsorship, or some degree of collaboration, but none has responded.

"We're hoping at some point we can use some publicity positively and accomplish something more than just riding our bikes, but so far we've had no luck accomplishing that."

Through our last email correspondence in late October, I find the group to be still in good spirits despite some injuries and colder weather, though by now I've caught on to Thompson's habit of understating uncomfortable conditions.

"No bear attacks still ... some crazy elks at night that huff and puff ... but leave us alone," writes Thompson. "Miserable squirrels yell horrible noises at us every morning. Irritates me something terrible. Life is mostly off-road and away from cars now. More swimmin' holes, but colder weather. Mostly blue skies. ... I'm thinking it's the calm before the storm. As of today we are officially supposed to be off the Great Divide trail (as per Adventure Cycling Association's advice), with the window of appropriate seasons/weather behind us."

Even less-than-life-threatening injuries can take their toll, as the group depend on their bodies working optimally.

"Every day is wonderful and catastrophic it seems. Crashed yesterday on a gnarly single-track section, landed on my head (helmet, fortunately) and dislocated my middle finger ... makes life fucking miserable. It's difficult to imagine how useful that middle finger is ... and not just for flipping off those homicidal RV-ers. Should be better soon.

"We are in Seely Lake, Montana, right now. Heading into Lincoln (home of unabomber) today or early tomorrow."

But their ride has become increasingly dangerous and painful with the onset of the cold season, and the group endures temperatures of below freezing on a daily basis. Goat has suffered frostbite on his big toes and the bottoms of his feet. Their computer and digital camera have ceased functioning due to the cold.

Months ago, while the trio was still in Canada, I asked Monterastelli if, when cold and camping long distances from the nearest city, he ever thought about the Donner Party.

"Not specifically that, but I have been thinking about the African rugby team that got stranded in the Andes and they had to eat two of their members who were already dead."

Monterastelli says if it gets to that point, Goat would be his first pick for dinner.

"I think Goat has the most meat on him; he weighs the most. If Jacob and I ganged up on Goat we could probably beat him," says Monterastelli.

The three cyclists left Santa Cruz with only about $5,000 each, and anticipate running out of funds at some point midjourney. When this happens they plan to get jobs until they've saved enough money to continue. They anticipate being on the road for about two years.

As for the return trip, nothing is certain.

"I don't know how we're getting back up yet," says Thompson. "We're thinking about kayaks."


For regular updates on the whereabouts and well-being of Jacob, Sean and Goat, or to donate a little cash to their cause, visit ridingthespine.com.


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