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Veterans biking across country make stop in Hebron

Times - 6/20/2021

Jun. 20—HEBRON — Veterans biking 3,800 miles across the United States arrived at the future site of the Northwest Indiana Middle East War Memorial on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

Their route along the Great American Rail-Trail is taking them from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to La Push, Washington.

Paul Cook, a Navy veteran from Boulder, Colorado, and Jay Waters, an Army veteran from Alexandria, Virginia, were the first two to arrive.

Cook said he is taking the ride to improve his mental health. "It's not just camping and camaraderie, it's also meeting people," he said.

Cook teamed up with Warrior Expeditions for the journey after suffering depression so deep that he contemplated self-harm, he said. A Veterans Administration hospital has helped him address unhealthy eating and other bad habits and got him connected with the organization, he said.

Their journey along the future route of the Great American Rail-Trail — about half of which has been built — is the first cross-country trek along that route, said Mitch Barloga, active transportation manager at the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission. When the trail is completed, many others will come through the Region on the cross-country route — some biking the entire route at once and others riding just a segment of it, he said.

Waters said their journey began from the steps of the U.S. Capitol on May 26, less than six months after the insurrection there. The Capitol Police officers might not have noticed the bear spray on their bikes or chose to ignore it, so the journey's beginning was uneventful, he said.

"We haven't been bitten by dogs yet or chased by bears," Waters said, but there have been some adventures.

Near Marion, Indiana, Waters gave first aid to a biker who had a serious accident and had to be hospitalized, he said. It was challenging trying to pinpoint the location for the 911 dispatcher because he wasn't entirely sure where he was, Waters said. A young woman from that area who stopped by helped Waters get a closer approximation of their location so the ambulance could find them.

"Forty-eight degrees in western Maryland in the rain was kind of frustrating," too, but Waters and Cook powered through it.

Waters, 56, said he thought he would be the slowest of the group but has kept up with Cook, 34. Also riding the route are Allison and Alan Garrigus, Navy veterans from Greenville, South Carolina, and Joseph De La Garza, a Navy veteran from Laguna Vista, Texas.

In Ohio, they stopped at a religious university where Father Dennis "came out and did the blessing of the bikes with water," Waters said. Thirty minutes later, however, the riders were told they had to leave the campus because they were considered a security risk.

Cook got the first flat tire, near Hancock, Maryland, just three days into the journey. His bicycle pump didn't work, but another bike rider loaned him one. The biking community has been very supportive, he said.

Cook said they ride about 10 to 13 miles per hour. Among the sights they've seen is Amish territory in Ohio, with "Amish buggies that want to race us on the streets. Amish girls on electric bikes, and they were passing us."

The Trek bikes are outfitted with bear spray, water, tent, sleeping bag, extra clothes, a bike lock and a handlebar mount for a smartphone. A water pack they carry on their back is also reflective for safety and has a dog whistle built in for protection.

Waters and Cook planned to see a Cubs game at Wrigley Field before continuing their journey through the Chicago Southland on their way to the Quad Cities.


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