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Pedaling across America in 66 days

November 10, 2009

Pedaling across America in 66 days

By DIEGO M. ORTIZ • SPECIAL TO THE DAILY RECORD • October 11, 2009

This summer, three friends and I traveled 3,500 miles — from Virginia to California — pedaling our bicycles for charity. That 66-day journey also gave us something: a lesson about the power of a dream.

We rode to raise money to help survivors of traumatic brain injuries and to raise awareness of Parkinson’s disease.

My friend William Darche, 23, of Morristown, and I had tossed around the idea of this trip two years ago. But it wasn’t until last November that we made a pact that “no matter what,” we’d start this trip on June 1, 2009.

In December, we recruited our friend Gary Conger, 23, of Summit.

By January, we’d created a bicycle club at the County College of Morris in Randolph, where we were finishing our associate’s degrees. At the weekly club meetings, we discussed and prepared for our adventure.

Choosing our charities was easy. Five years ago, just days after graduating from high school, Conger survived a traumatic brain injury that happened during a car accident. Riding to aid brain injury survivors was easy and personal. Raising awareness of Parkinson’s came from a shared interest in neuroscience and because one of Darche’s uncles has the disease.

In February, Jaraun Wright, 23, of Morristown, whom I’ve known for many years, heard about our plan and jumped on board.

Everything then quickly fell into place: In April, we discovered the nonprofit Community Foundation of New Jersey. With the help of Nancy Hamilton of the foundation, we created The Golden Interior Fund to accept donations. That same month, Conger, Darche and I bought bicycles — Surly Long Haul Truckers — designed for long-distance touring.

The first day I had the bike, I attempted to ride from my house in Morristown up Sussex Turnpike to Randolph, but the steep hill was too much for me.

“What are we getting ourselves into?” I thought.

None of us had any cycling experience except for riding our Huffys when we were younger. And even though we’d agreed to train, before leaving on the first day of June, our longest ride was 12 miles, from Morristown to Summit

This summer, three friends and I traveled 3,500 miles — from Virginia to California — pedaling our bicycles for charity. That 66-day journey also gave us something: a lesson about the power of a dream.

We rode to raise money to help survivors of traumatic brain injuries and to raise awareness of Parkinson’s disease.

My friend William Darche, 23, of Morristown, and I had tossed around the idea of this trip two years ago. But it wasn’t until last November that we made a pact that “no matter what,” we’d start this trip on June 1, 2009.

In December, we recruited our friend Gary Conger, 23, of Summit.

By January, we’d created a bicycle club at the County College of Morris in Randolph, where we were finishing our associate’s degrees. At the weekly club meetings, we discussed and prepared for our adventure.

Choosing our charities was easy. Five years ago, just days after graduating from high school, Conger survived a traumatic brain injury that happened during a car accident. Riding to aid brain injury survivors was easy and personal. Raising awareness of Parkinson’s came from a shared interest in neuroscience and because one of Darche’s uncles has the disease.

In February, Jaraun Wright, 23, of Morristown, whom I’ve known for many years, heard about our plan and jumped on board.

Everything then quickly fell into place: In April, we discovered the nonprofit Community Foundation of New Jersey. With the help of Nancy Hamilton of the foundation, we created The Golden Interior Fund to accept donations. That same month, Conger, Darche and I bought bicycles — Surly Long Haul Truckers — designed for long-distance touring.

The first day I had the bike, I attempted to ride from my house in Morristown up Sussex Turnpike to Randolph, but the steep hill was too much for me.

“What are we getting ourselves into?” I thought.

None of us had any cycling experience except for riding our Huffys when we were younger. And even though we’d agreed to train, before leaving on the first day of June, our longest ride was 12 miles, from Morristown to Summit.

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As of the end of May, we thought it would be just the three of us because Wright didn’t have a bicycle. But Marty’s Reliable Cycles in Morristown, where we had bought our Surlys, acquired a used touring bike. The shop tuned the Trek and sold it to him for $200.

The November pact was becoming a reality, and nothing was stopping us from hitting the road.

We’re all single, without children. We were fortunate to have our employers’ support. They gave us the summer off and promised to hold our jobs for us: Wright is a tattoo artist and musician. Darche, Conger and I are students and work part time — Conger at a gem shop, Darche doing shipping and deliveries at his family’s plumbing and heating equipment and supply business, and I am a waiter at an Italian restaurant.

Our parents at first were not happy with our plan because we were novice cyclists with no mechanical skills. But once they saw how much work we were doing to make this trip happen, they slowly stopped worrying and supported us.

My biggest concern was that I wouldn’t be able to attend Rutgers University in the fall because the trip cost nearly as much as tuition, $5,500. The bike cost $1,100, with an extra $500 for equipment, plus we estimated that at 70 cents per mile, we would spend $2,450 on the road, and we needed to set aside at least $300 to get home.

For a few days, I considered abandoning the trip. But I knew — we all knew — this was too important, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, something we needed to do.

We left Morristown on May 31 in Darche’s father’s truck and drove to Yorktown, Va., where we started the trip. The following morning we loaded our bikes with full equipment for the first time — sleeping bags, tents and gear, with each bike weighing about 90 pounds — and rode inland from the ocean to the Virginia capital.

The first day we rode 85 miles. We proved we could do long distances. The next few days we averaged about 65 miles.

We documented the trip for friends, family and supporters on our Web site — www.charitybiketrip.com — as over the next two months, we earned an intimate relationship with the road.

We met dozens of people who took us into their homes as if we were family. We climbed mountains and crossed rivers.

The most challenging day was in Colorado, when we peddled up Monarch’s Pass and over the Continental Divide at more than 12,000 feet. We were hungry, dehydrated, tired, dirty and uncomfortable as 60-mph wind gusts stopped us every mile.

But we made it up the mountain — a great metaphor for any challenge in life.

On the way up, you curse and complain as you push to the top. Sometimes, you want to quit. Once at the top, you can see all around for miles and appreciate your accomplishment. The true reward is the descent: the euphoria, the rush felt while riding 55 mph downhill, feeling like you’re about to take flight.

The trip gave us so many stories, so many memories. We won the Silveo Conte award from the New Jersey Brain Injury Association for raising more than $5,000 through donations and spreading awareness about brain injuries.

We returned home on a Greyhound bus, the journey having taught us that in order to make dreams come true, you need to have a dream, dedication and desire.

After that, anything is possible.

HOW TO HELP

DONATE to the Golden Interior Fund

Journey to raise funds becomes road to empowerment

August 12, 2009

Photo Courtesy Gary Conger and friends – From left, Jaraun Wright and Diego Ortiz of Morristown and Gary Conger of West Orange, during their bike trip this summer to raise funds and awareness about brain injuries and Parkinson’s, make a stop in Elizabethtown, Kentucky at State Police Headquarters. On the lawn next to the building they discovered a Vietnam-era helicopter. Staying true to the moment, they put on camouflage jackets.
By Mark Sanchez, Correspondent
Published:

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 2:52 PM CDT

WEST ORANGE, NJ – Gary Conger was a typical West Orange youth. He grew up in town, attended public schools, and played baseball and wrestled for West Orange High School. However, in 2004, shortly after graduating, his life came to a screeching halt. Literally.

Conger was involved in a devastating car accident in which he crashed into a telephone pole on Pleasant Valley Way. Although he suffered a serious brain injury, he, in his own words, made an “amazing recovery.” After his recuperation, Conger moved on to Morris County College, while never forgetting about his injury.

This summer, five years later, Conger and three of his friends, Will Darche, Jaraun Wright, and Diego Ortiz, all from Morristown, set out on an extraordinary journey to raise awareness and money for brain injuries and Parkinson’s disease, but also to justify Conger’s recovery — to prove that resiliency can overcome any obstacle.

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On June 1,  the four adventurers waved goodbye to their New Jersey homes and set off for California. However, instead of boarding an airplane or driving a car, they kicked up their kickstands and began pedaling their bicycles to reach the Pacific Ocean.

“We were trying to combine our love of bike riding with our love of being able to help the community,” explained Conger. “And trying to get the message across of the ability to do things. My main message is love and kindness throughout the country and empowerment, and also wear your helmet. I’ve consistently worn my helmet; it’s an important message to get out there.”

Equipped with little money and few material goods, the bicycle quartet relied heavily on the kindness of strangers along the way. Much to their pleasure, the Americans the group encountered showed the young men an overwhelming amount of love and generosity.

“People have treated us amazingly with love. So much love. I’ve found that love is the universal language across America. People have taken us in as their own children, their own sons, their own daughters, their own brothers. They fed us, gave us our own beds, and had beautiful conversations with us all throughout the country.”

The courageous group has shown love, and received love in return. While thrilled about this, they also ask America for a little bit more. They have started the Golden Interior Fund, which allots the money raised to help fight brain injuries and Parkinson’s Disease. Will Darche, one of the four riders, had an uncle die of Parkinson’s.

Throughout their journey, the quartet has informed those that they have encountered about the fund  — and about the blog. Diego Ortiz, another rider, has kept a daily log of their adventures, along with an extensive photo diary which chronicles their voyage through the United States.

The trip, for the most part, has been flawless. For four amateur bicyclists to ride along the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains safely is nothing short of amazing. “Except for a couple crashes and a couple flat tires,” says Conger, “it’s been pretty routine.”

On July 27, Conger and his companions finished the impossible task. They reached the Pacific Ocean with memories aplenty and Diego’s photographs to aid all of these memories. The plan is to stay in California until August 10, when they will take a bus back to New Jersey in order to attend college in the fall. Conger has one more year at Morris County College, while Darche is attending William Paterson University, and Ortiz is enrolled at Rutgers Newark. Jaraun Wright, the fourth adventurer, is a tattoo artist who aspires one day to          attend college.

All of their futures seem bright, but their present is still worth admiring and cherishing, says Conger.

“The fact that I suffered a brain injury and I was able to do this trip is an amazing thing. I owe a lot of it to my family, people who have helped me, and myself. It was a lot of hard work.”

Conger has also grown spiritually on the journey, originally feeling lucky to have made it as far as they have; but then realizing that it is more than luck.

“I was interviewed in a couple of different towns, and I said I was surprised that we made it this far. I was wrong; I feel empowered that we made it this far — come as far as we’ve come. Considering all the hard work, I feel empowered.”

And at his relatively young age, Conger now has advice to offer for anyone who ever felt intimidated about trying something new.

“Anything I come up to in my life, anyone who has a self-doubt, I feel empowered for them that they can do it themselves. If they put in the work and the effort, they can do it.”

With the emphatic tone and powerful words, Gary Conger allows his emotions to shine through. In five years, he went from a devastating brain injury to the ultimate bike ride. Feeling empowered may be an understatement.

To make a donation to the Golden Interior Fund, visit http://www.cfnj.org/index.php. To get a firsthand account of the incredible summer that these four young men are still enjoying, visit Diego’s blog at www.charitybiketrip.com.

Mark Sanchez is a graduate of Seton Hall Prep and will be attending the University of Maryland in the fall to major in journalism. He can be reached at wochronicle@thelocalsource.com.

Our Mission Stated.

August 8, 2009

Through Gary's eyes. We miss you man.

Through Gary's eyes. We miss you man.

On the charity bike trip our route may have changed but the mission remains the same: To use our hobbies and talents to help others. The 3,500 mile cycling trip from Atlantic to Pacific was a self-generated social movement. We made the decision to stop talking and to take action. The result is proof that we are all capable of effecting positive change. The adventure put us on the path to meet dozens of people on human terms. We’ve been inspired by humanity’s natural propensity for good.

We have completed Charity Bike Trip. It is now the time to reflect on our journey and tally our donation totals. Once we determine the total amount our supporters have donated we will reach out to our partner institutions– the Traumatic Brain Injury Association of New Jersey and the National Parkinson’s Disease Fund. These institutions will encourage individuals and their families to write a letter to The Golden Interior Fund. In turn we begin meeting with individuals living with Parkinson’s Disease and those who have survived traumatic brain injuries. Inevitably, the final decision and allocation of the funds you’ve donated will be a profound job.

This trip will continue at home. We are social entrepreneurs and for the remainder of the summer we’ll maximize our effort of raising money by extending ourselves. In the upcoming weeks we’ll hold garage sales for the Golden Interior Fund, collect bicycles to send kids to school, and start accepting letters of requests from individuals wishing to receive assistance.

The Golden Interior Fund continues to grow. Charitybiketrip.com was only the first journey for our philanthropic adventure. In the years to come we will send more teams across the country using the Golden Interior Way. We will recruit philanthropic adventurers in our communities and universities. Even though we made the trip “out of our pocket” and with the help of close friends and supporters, this fall we will partner with businesses across the country to sponsor the next group of riders. In the spring we will help the next group of philanthropic adventurers train for the trip and encourage them to use bicycles as alternate transportation.

Our goals are to give to others and pass on the gift. It is important for us to give of our time. We believe in a responsibility to lead with action and example.

Donate now by clicking on the “donate now” side bar or the “donate-online” link. Find The Golden Interior Fund and select an amount or send your tax-deductible contribution to

Community Foundation of New Jersey
PO Box 338, Morristown, NJ 07963-0338

c/o the golden interior fund

Homeward Bound

August 5, 2009

There’s a major difference between being on the road and being on the streets. Los Angeles, as good as she was to us at first, forced us to spend our final night on the street. We could have stayed there another week, waiting for August 10th to arrive, but we could not allow ourselves to settle into that lifestyle. Our team traveled the entire country in 55 days encouraging people, inspiring others, leading by example. We are not elitist but we are fortunate to have a place we call home, so it is not for us to sleep on the street. We were blessed to receive aide from dozens of individuals and families along the way, I’m sure they would applaud us for making it this far and in making the final decision to come home.

Today, Jaraun Will and I find ourselves on a Greyhound bus, retracing our steps, reminiscing about the time we spend learning this country’s curves, moods and habits. Gary was able to stay in California. He is in San Francisco spending time with his relatives. We are living out the remainder of the trip vicariously through him. We love Gary. As soon as we all get home, everyone we know will feel the benefit from our adventure.

As I ride this Greyhound bus I am excited, empowered, motivated to return home and continue working to improve my community– as Joel and Peggie S would say, Pass it on!

What a summer its been! 60 days on the road! We all made it, and most importantly we all made it together. I don’t mean just the four of us, I am referring to all of US, all of you. We are a world separated by one degree.

Now we will return to our lives as students, artists, journalists, but we will never stop living as philanthropic adventurers This is our calling. In the days, weeks, months and years to come we will continue to spread our message by using our talents, interests, skills and hobbies to help others. We aren’t selfless necessarily, because in truth, all four of us gained from this experience, but now that we’re on the bus heading back home to New Jersey, no one can take this experience away from us. Our work will forever echo in time.

The bell of freedom, of social justice, of truth, of humanity does not ring just once. It will continue to be sounded until all men and women hear it’s ring.

Think, act, be free. We have all been given life for a reason.

Stay tuned for more updates about our summer and interviews with the four philanthropic adventurers, as well as new photos,  more stories, and sideshows. Plus, we are working on a live video conference.

We paid for a year of ownership for this domain, we’re going to keep updating as regularly as possible.

Please start donating today. We rode 3,500 miles. Anyway you want to donate, Please let’s do our part to MAKE IT HAPPEN.

Thank you.

L.A. gives you gifts before revealing her true nature.

July 30, 2009

The first few days in Los Angeles have been great. It’s hard to imagine we’ve been here for close to a week. Yet, looking back, we have kept busy in our time here. We’ve explored the city, spent time at the beach, made new friends, and we even found time to volunteer for the city library system.  The photos we posted in the last updates tell part of the story. For some strange reason most places in L.A. don’t allow you to take pictures inside. Maybe they’re afraid of the paparazzi, i don’t know.

The highlight of our time in L.A. has been meeting Noel Wax, VP of CBS Radio  Sales. We met him at a restaurant and he invited us to tour the Radio studio on Wilshire. On Tuesday we rode our bikes from Huntington Beach to the Long Beach Metro on Pacific Coast Highway. We got off the train to early and had to ride 8-miles from the Staples Center to CBS. We earned that meeting! Things went well. Noel called in some producers from the television division because he envisioned a show about NFL “tailgate party crashers” with us as the “crashers.”  That would be a great opportunity for us. Let’s see what happens. Our first priority is school.

L.A. has a way of giving you gifts early on; it baits you and hooks you, and once your on the hook, it slowly reels you in. The same night we had the CBS interview and ate lunch in Beverly Hills we were basically homeless. In reality it was our fault. We got tickets for The Price Is Right and were told to show up at 6 a.m. So we had to stay close to the studio, but we learned that Hollywood does not treat their homeless with much respect. In fact, and I hope I’m wrong, but there is very little humanity in this city. This is no time to be cynical.

We are asking our supporters to reach into their Rolodex and find their Los Angeles and San Francisco connections, friends and relatives. We will be out  here until August 10, and because we arrived early we’re very close to exhausting the hospitality our hosts have provided. Please make a call on our behalf, and if you find someone who can help, call me directly at 201-572-5703. Or if you have any advice or knowledge of the city. Thanks guys.

A pleasent lunch at a Greek restaurant near Beverly. The Grove and Farmer's Market.

A pleasant lunch at a Greek restaurant near Beverly. The Grove and Farmer's Market.

At the Farmer's Market/ The Grove. It's like an out-door Short Hills Mall.

At the Farmer's Market/ The Grove. It's like an out-door Short Hills Mall.

We're still having fun, but times are getting rough. Suit $1.

We're still having fun, but times are getting rough. Suit $1.

Hollywood–Los Angeles

July 27, 2009

Empowered by our journey we took to the city on our bikes and hit the sights.

From the pier on Santa Monica Blvd. All the beautiful people.

From the pier on Santa Monica Blvd. All the beautiful people.

The pier.

The pier.

The world-famous "muscle beach" at Venice Beach.

The world-famous "muscle beach" at Venice Beach.

Grafitti art is a culture celebrated in L.A. This has a permit to start a new mural on Venice Beach.

Graffiti art is a culture celebrated in L.A. This has a permit to start a new mural on Venice Beach.

This man is putting the finishing touches on his mural.

This man is putting the finishing touches on his mural.

Waves crashing againts the shore.

Waves crashing along the shore.

Surfing on Huntington Beach. Gnarly!

Surfing on Huntington Beach. Gnarly!

A shadow in the sand

A shadow in the sand.

Jaraun visits L.A. Ink in Hollywood.

Jaraun visits L.A. Ink in Hollywood.

Gary at, parkinson's spokesperson, Michael J. Fox's star.

Gary at, parkinson's spokesperson, Michael J. Fox's star.

Diego visits Michael Jackson's star memorial.

Diego visits Michael Jackson's star memorial.

We did it! Thank YOU!

July 27, 2009

Our goal for this summer was to ride our bicycles from ocean to ocean. Today we realized this goal. We could not have done so without the help of hundreds of people both at home and on the road.It was with your help that we peacefully and safely greeted the Pacific Ocean. I am sure that many are wondering, how did they do the last leg of the trip so fast? Well, the way we finished the last leg is similar to how we’ve  done the entire journey: through the blessings we’ve received thanks to your prayers and well-wishes.

This time however, the positivity manifested itself in the form of a generous truck driver named Sam Schoneberger. Earlier we wrote that it would be unwise to cross the desert without proper equipment and preparation. This forced us to search for alternate transportation across the desert. We met Sam in Grand Junction where he stopped for the night on route to Salt lake City. Sam agreed to take us to Reno, Nevada after making deliveries in SLC and Boise, Idaho. From there he planned a route down to Reno before he would head for L.A. to spend a couple of days with his college-age son who lives in L.A. In Boise we were interviewed by FOX 12 Idaho while Sam picked up his last load. Sam returned with bad news. He could not stop in Reno because to do so one must take a route which runs through Oregon, and he would need a special permit to enter that state– an expensive permit that Sam’s boss did not want to pay for. Sam, being the great guy that he is, offered to take us all the way to Los Angeles.

The four of us took time to carefully consider Sam’s offer. We wrestled with our consciences until finally we made the decision to stick with Sam. If this trip has taught us anything, its that everything happens for a reason, and also how it is important to act when opportunities present themselves. We loaded our bikes into Sam’s truck and said goodbye to Boise. We believe we did the right thing, as long as we make the most of our time in California.

The inside of 503, Sam's Peterbilt.

The inside of 503, Sam's Peterbilt.

Sam the man

Sam the man.

Human cargo.

Human cargo.

We stopped in Las Vegas just long enough to take this picture.

We stopped in Las Vegas just long enough to take this picture.

The five of us when we first arrived in California.

The five of us when we first arrived in California.

We have lived the dream of experiencing this continent sans bicycle, and ours is an intimate relationship.

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