July 16, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Their collegiate athletic careers were history by last November, but Zach Hunter and Lauren Rone found a way to keep competing in recent months.
They discovered much, much more, too.
Hunter finished his Marshall men's soccer career as a midfielder last fall and graduated in December, and will start his next academic voyage in a couple of weeks in the Marshall School of Medicine. His girlfriend, Rone, completed her Herd diving career in 2012-13 and graduated with a degree in management and economics in May 2013.
"I had a semester off before medical school, and I just wanted to do something," Hunter said earlier this week. "A lot of people go to Europe, or go do this, do that, and I'd never been west of the Mississippi River.
"I thought, `I don't even know what my own country is about,' and I was on the internet and found this and I told myself, `I'm going to do that.'"
It was the TransAmerica Trail, a bike route that crosses the nation from Yorktown, Va., to the Oregon coast. Hunter had gotten into cycling in the last year, but hadn't done any touring cycling. His longest ride had bene about 40 miles.
But he asked Rone about heading to Berea, Ky. - the TransAmerica's nearest "base" to Huntington - and heading west.
"It was my idea," said Hunter, of Marietta, Ga. "Lauren had the unfortunate task of agreeing to do it with me. She said she would, said OK, and so we did it."
Rone, a case manager for Brookshire Barrett & Associates, a forensic economics firm in South Charleston, also is studying for her master's degree in administration at Marshall. She said she missed the competition of athletics and decided to purchase a bike and ride for fitness sake.
As for the TransAmerica venture, "I kind of looked at it as something to do for the summer," said Rone, originally from Aurora, Colo. "Then it was `Oh, my gosh, biking across the country?' Zach just seemed so adventurous. It's hard not to jump into it because when he wants to do something, it's very contagious."
They planned an itinerary through the Adventure Cycling Association, and Hunter and Rone left Berea on April 27, and a trip of about 3,500 miles took eight weeks and one day, reaching the Pacific Ocean at Florence, Ore. They traveled through nine states - Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon.
They even did what's usually a bicycle no-no -- rode on an interstate highway (I-80) for about 15 miles in central Wyoming "because there's no other way to get there, no other roads there," Hunter said.
They were admitted neophytes at this, something they quickly learned the first overnight stop. Hunter said they'd "planned to stop and eat three times a day" along the route, but when they got to their first stop, it was too late to find anything open.
Their first-night dinner was Skittles and cashews.
"That was one big mistake, not carrying food," Rone said.
The second day, still in Kentucky, it was cold with torrents of rain. Their 25-mile day was the shortest distance the couple traveled on any day.
"That first day we went about 75 miles," Rone said. "My feet were blistering, and you get sunburned, and we hadn't planned for food. It's one of those things where the only way to learn it is just do it ... It was a rough start. It got much, much better after that."
Hunter was a Conference USA All-Academic pick in men's soccer in multiple years and winner of the league's $4,000 postgraduate scholarship. His undergraduate degree was in chemistry and applied math, and he also won a $4,000 NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium Research Fellowship. He worked with Dr. Scott Day, MU chemistry assistant professor, on nanochemistry and analytical chemistry as his project, and has written his capstone.
So, after that, this cycling adventure was a vacation.
"Well, it wasn't a glamorous vacation," he said.
Rone grew up in the Denver area, so she knew the Rocky Mountains. But neither her nor Hunter was prepared for the majesty they viewed at some spots along the way.
"I just wanted to see the country, and I did," Hunter said. "That area of Yellowstone Park, the Grand Tetons, where Jackson, Wyo., is, that whole are is just breathtaking, just incredible. I'd flown to Denver before, but I'd never driven anywhere west of Tennessee, so I didn't know what to expect and seeing it all for the first time was amazing.
"Disappointingly, we didn't even see one bear, not even in the distance. I saw a couple of bald eagles. We went through the Moose Capital of the United States - Walden, Colo., and didn't even see a moose."
Rone's mountain-surrounded youth didn't even prepare her for what the former Herd athletes viewed.
"I grew up in Colorado, and it's so beautiful," she said. "But the Teton wilderness, that part of Wyoming, we went through Togwotee Pass, about a 30 mile climb, and you come out around the corner and it's just breathtaking, the mountains. Those are the most beautiful mountains I've ever seen. They seemed so large.
"And what strikes you is there are not a lot of people, just the wilderness. Just to truly experience something like that is amazing."
For Hunter and Rone - they chronicled their trip very well in a blog at laurenzachbikeusa.wordpress.com - it was about more than super scenery, however.
"What we experienced restores your faith in humanity a little bit," Hunter said. "It was interesting to see how many people were willing to help us out, and it was nice to just experience that. Sometimes we didn't even get to the town we wanted because it would get dark, and we'd knock on someone's door and ask if we could camp in their yard. You'd get some `No's' but most people would let you.
"Everyone was just so nice. People would stop on the road and offer us water and see if we needed anything. Some people who lived there had no idea (they were on the bike route). It was like, `Hey, what are you guys doing?' `Going west is what we're doing.' It was kind of strange, because a couple thousand people from all over the world do this every year."
They met cyclists from Belgium and Australia. One night they stopped in Kansas and asked to camp in a farmer's yard. The man said OK, but then when one of those fierce storms in the Plains was blowing up, the man came outdoors and told the riders to move into his barn for the night.
Via a cycling website - warmshowers.org - Hunter and Rone could arrange a couple of days in advance where to camp for the night. One of those overnight stays brought what Hunter talked about when asked for a "most interesting" time.
"We were in Montana, and a family we had been staying with said they were going backpacking," the former Herd midfielder said. "So, they took us along. It was two days off, in the mountains. The guy had been in the Army and he'd hunted a lot.
"He brought a rifle and we shot some squirrels and ate them for breakfast. I saw it alive and like eight minutes later, I was eating it for breakfast (as did Rone). I tried my hand at (the rifle), but I couldn't get one. They were too fast, so quick, and in the high grass, you'd lose them."
The longest the couple trekked in one day was 105 miles. And on May 13, they rode 40 miles from El Dorado to Newton, Kan. ... on Hunter's 23rd birthday.
The next day, they stopped for the night in Hudson, Kan. In the blog, he wrote:
"While we're sitting there, I pull out some bourbon that Lauren had gotten me for my birthday and start sipping on it, and Jacob (fellow cyclist the couple met on the trip) pulls out a pipe, and suddenly, I realize this is the most American thing I've ever done ... I'm riding my bike across the country, camping in a barn in Kansas, sitting on a tractor, drinking bourbon and smoking a pipe..."
Hunter's beard grew along the miles, too, as he and Rone spent eight weeks majoring in geography.
"Some of the states I didn't know what to expect, like Oregon for example," Hunter said. "You think of the lush green you see in pictures ... So, I see the state welcome sign and expect to see this lush green forest and we were in the desert for two days in eastern Oregon. It's just dry and arid out there.
"The toughest part wasn't over the Rockies. You'd think so, but ironically, it was not. Going through the Ozarks in Missouri was awful.
"The Rockies, yeah, you climbed for probably all day, but it wasn't very steep, the grades weren't very steep. In the Ozarks, you were climbing 15 percent grades. They weren't very long, but you'd have to do it 20 times a day. The roads were pretty difficult in the Ozarks."
And even on a cross-country bike trip, some things are important to a soccer player ... like the World Cup.
"We tried to wake up early and book it to the next town in time to see the games," Hunter said. "Luckily, I made all of the USA games at least."
Once they reached Oregon, Hunter's older brother, Corey, met them in Eugene. Corey Hunter, who works for NIKE, had flown from his home in Boston to do some work at NIKE headquarters. He took the 25- to 30-pound bags that Hunter and Rone traveled with their gear, and the two rode the last 80 miles from Eugene to Florence, Ore., with no weight.
"That was wonderful," Rone said. "You're going so fast, and you're so close to finishing, but the coast of Oregon isn't like a lot of other coastlines. There are these huge sand dunes, and if you're going to get to the ocean, you've got to get over those dunes.
"We took the bikes up those hills and you can finally see the water and you're so close, and you're trekking up that last hill and then all you see is ocean, as far as you can see both ways. We took our bikes into the ocean and then we camped that night on the beach.
"Getting there, those were really some surreal moments."
Hunter and Rone met back with Hunter's brother, and the two former Herd student-athletes stayed in Portland, Ore., for six days. Hunter flew to Atlanta to visit with his family after the trip, and Rone went to Denver before flying to Atlanta to meet Hunter for a drive back to Huntington.
Rone said she was grateful to her bosses for allowing her to have an extended time away for the trip. Hunter said the long ride was a last venture before four years of medical schools that starts in early August.
"I would say it just comes down to being determined to do it," Hunter said, when asked if having been a college athlete brings a different mindset to the kind of trip he and Rone completed. "Actually doing it day-to-day, people would say, `Oh, are your legs sore?'
"It was my butt that was sore sometimes, but your legs don't get sore because you've got all day to do it. Eighty miles in one day seems like a lot, but you've got nothing else to do that day but ride a bike.
"Then, some days you'd be in like a 30 mile-per-hour headwind, and you'd be in the desert, and you'd think, `Why am I out there?' It was a determination to get something done ... the will to do 100 percent.
"That carries you along, I think."