One wheel, one cause… one heck of a long way

Sandpoint man returns from unicycling across the state of Washington to raise money for a local elementary school

By Justin Henney
Reader Contributor

I recently returned from a unicycle trip. On the outside, the trip was about raising money for Washington Elementary because I work there and am able to see the huge amount of energy and effort that teachers give, not to mention the personal money so many spend on their students. My interior motivation was about losing some of my complacency in life and regaining a sense of gratitude.  

During my five-day journey I traveled through the Coleville Indian Reservation. My first day into the reservation I learned that there was a 4,000-foot-plus elevation climb from about 1,000 on the Columbia River. My map did not show this climb — or the summit, for that matter. But I kept telling myself this is kind of what I was looking for; challenging problems that later would leave me feeling really grateful for my life when the trip was over.  

Eight hours later, during this same day, I came to the second climb, which was on my map and expected. It was only about a 1,500 foot elevation gain, but I was exhausted by the sun, the 35 miles I had traveled and the first 3000-foot climb. Halfway up this second climb I stopped to administer some salve to self-inflicted unicycle seat wounds. At this point on this day I was basically in pain with each revolution of my wheel and setting my stop watch for 10 minute segments so I could get off again and feel relief and administer more salve. I don’t think I will ever forget the intense and somewhat irrational reaction I had at this point in the ride. I was looking through the pocket in my backpack for my tube of relief when I immediately noticed the zipper had been left open from the last time I stopped. It was the most important pocket I had at this time in my life, even more important than the one containing my wallet. It was the designated pocket where I kept “the paste,” and it was gone. 

I felt a flood of emotion surging in me and was about to burst into tears. This little tube of relief was all that I was looking forward to in my little world right now, all that I felt positive about. I was barely able to check this torrent of emotion with the rational part of my brain, telling me to check other pockets in my backpack. It was there, in another pocket and I was ecstatic and laughing instead of crying. I sat down in the dirt in the shade with the yellow jackets and thought of Wilson, the volley ball in the movie “Castaway.” Apparently I had developed a co-dependency on my little tube of salve and was thinking I could not be happy without it.

Problem solving is a great distraction from pain when solo on a road for hours each day. I needed to do something different with my backpack. I needed a smaller pack that would not create a sail effect when trucks and RVs passed me. My parents rose to the occasion as they have done my entire life when I have asked for help, which is not something I do well. They met me in Chewelah and brought a small pack. I gave them my tent, extra clothes and other things that were not essential and created weight. They also took me out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant that was air conditioned and served the world’s best lemonade. This was after I had barely ridden into town in the heat the day before and had the best two chocolate milkshakes I had ever had. Deprivation, or going without, creates gratitude for what you cannot have. This was a big part of my internal motivation for the ride.  

I spoke with one of my best lifelong friends who knew what I was doing and thought it was a bit sick, but right up my alley and not surprising. He is one of my biggest cheerleaders and always has sage advice for me. I told him of the intense pain in my quads and in my right knee cap. He asked me what kind of pedals I was using and I admitted I was on flat pedals and not clipped in. 

This was the first time I had not been clipped in in 24 years. I chose not to clip in due to the height I was riding at (about 1.5 – 2 feet above normal unicycle height) on this 36-inch wheel. I thought a crash while still clipped in at this height, traveling 9 or 10 mph with a 35 pound pack, could be a ride ender.

However, Paul told me my lack of pull from the hamstrings was creating an overabundance of push from my quads. He trains athletes for a living and really knows his stuff. It was clear I needed to get clipped in. My parents brought the clip ins that my wife packed for me the next day when I saw them. Problem solved and legs started to slowly recover as I continued my ride.  

Another experiment to solve a problem happened on a descent coming from Usk to Chewelah. This is the first major descent and learning lesson for me about riding a huge wheel downhill. The lesson is that constant braking is bad for muscles and patella tendons. I don’t understand the physics of it, but a smaller wheel is easier to control and puts less stress with each revolution while descending. My idea to problem solve this problem was to get off my cycle, grab a large dead tree branch or small tree on the side of the road and ride backward down the mountain with one end on my shoulder and the other end dragging on the roadway. I was surprised to find this really did take the pain away and I didn’t even need to see where I was going due to the white line beneath me. This was a great distraction from the seat pain and I did it for only a couple hundred yards due to how distracted it made motorists coming down the mountain when they saw me. I did not want to cause an accident and I was already a distraction.  

Twenty miles into my last day, the terrain was no longer mountainous with shade from trees. I was growing more pessimistic about what I was doing due to the intense heat on this black road above the Columbia River. How did it get so hot? Didn’t the forecast say high 80s? Why didn’t I make a bigger effort to charge my phone? Well, I guess it does not really matter that my phone battery is very low because there is no phone service out there anyway! I had not seen a house for 20 miles (four hours) and the last car passed me 15 minutes ago. I had about half a bottle of water left and there were no streams. I figured I should have filled up from Columbia River when I was closer to it two hours ago. I usually like the challenges presented with problems, but these problems, albeit self-inflicted, were big, serious, possibly life-threatening problems, especially in light of my long history of not asking others for help.  

I came across a culvert going under the road and climbed down the bank, through the barbed wire, looking for rattlesnakes, then entering the culvert under a large yellow jacket nest. I sat there in my negativity and made a plan to get in shade within an hour and wait for my wife and daughters who should be traveling on this road to “save” me from my poor planning. An hour later I did make it to a huge boulder on the side of the road, ran out of water, and waited in the shade from the boulder. I had not seen a house for five hours, or about 25 miles. I could see another 10 miles down the road into sage-filled desert, and there were no houses. I finally accepted I would ask for help, but there was no one to ask. I decided if Angela and the girls did not come I would have to hitchhike. I would wait for three hours. 

During my wait my mind went to dark places it almost never has gone to. I got two cell phone bars and called Angela. It went to voicemail immediately. My rational mind had left me again. She had most certainly crashed on one of the many ess-curved turns during various descents en route to rescue me. Rescue. It had turned into a rescue mission. I was now an irresponsible victim who had drawn his family into his dysfunction and likely caused them great harm — or worse, a car crash. I don’t know if it was the heat or exertion or both but I have hardly ever had such dark and troubling thoughts. And I had no control. 

It was at this point that two dogs came running from across the road, full of life, wags and seeming to laugh at me and my pathetic state. Their enthusiasm caught me off guard and scared me at first. I had not seen a person or dog in so long that for a second I wondered if they were going to attack me. They seemed to know me or that I needed them and both tried to get on my lap at the same time. It was amazing. I will never know if dogs feel love, but they definitely know happy, and happy is what I needed. My rational brain was back, and I noticed they were not panting out here and looked to be well fed and taken care of. I wondered if they had been dropped off. A half hour of petting later, I explored the other side of the road, behind the embankment from which they came. I discovered a chicken coop-looking structure, wrecked travel trailer full of feral cats, cat and dog food and finally a tiny room dug into the side of the hill with an air conditioner on. This is why no one responded to my yells for help. I banged on the door and a woman came out wearing a night gown, missing teeth, with beer in hand and a big smile on her face. I told her my story, she gave me three bottles of water (the best I’ve ever had) and I gave her $10. I was on my way down the road, and my seat pain was getting compartmentalized somehow. Turns out both maps my wife and I had did not show the road I was on, and she was on the other side of Omak Lake (10 miles north of me) and never would be coming to “rescue” me. I arrive in Omak, at sunset, charged my phone enough to call Angela and she and the girls were there! Even my teenager, Adeline, was happy to see me, and boy, was I happy to see them.  

There were two other tribal women who went out of their way to help me. They live in Nespelem, Wash., on the reservation. One gave me a large bottle of Gatorade (possibly the best one I ever had) as I descended into the valley preceding Nespelem, and the other lady was just getting home from work when I stopped on the road in front of her home, pet her dogs, told her my story and also told her how much I wished I had a bicycle at this point. She picked up on my hint, offered me a ride in her truck, which was like a state-of-the-art spaceship to me at this point, and super comfy on the derriere. She then drove me the last six miles to Nespelem, to the tribal police to get permission to camp on their tribal campground, to the one general store for food, then to the campground. She was amazing. I met with both of these women the next morning for breakfast at their tribal headquarters and promised to stay in touch.  

This effort has raised over $2,000 for Washington Elementary.  Thank you to all who have supported the school financially. Thank you PTA, parents and kids who came out to send me off on Aug. 13. You kept me going when times got rough. Although I stopped 40 miles shy of my destination of Winthrop due to smoke and other issues, I feel good about the effort, mainly because of all the supportive comments from friends, family, and good people on the PTA website. I really could not have gone as far without your encouragement. Thank you. 

If you are reading this for the first time and would like to make a donation, please go to site under the heading “Unicycling for Washington School.”   


While we have you ...

... if you appreciate that access to the news, opinion, humor, entertainment and cultural reporting in the Sandpoint Reader is freely available in our print newspaper as well as here on our website, we have a favor to ask. The Reader is locally owned and free of the large corporate, big-money influence that affects so much of the media today. We're supported entirely by our valued advertisers and readers. We're committed to continued free access to our paper and our website here with NO PAYWALL - period. But of course, it does cost money to produce the Reader. If you're a reader who appreciates the value of an independent, local news source, we hope you'll consider a voluntary contribution. You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.

You can contribute at either Paypal or Patreon.

Contribute at Patreon Contribute at Paypal

You may also like...

Close [x]

Want to support independent local journalism?

The Sandpoint Reader is our town's local, independent weekly newspaper. "Independent" means that the Reader is locally owned, in a partnership between Publisher Ben Olson and Keokee Co. Publishing, the media company owned by Chris Bessler that also publishes Sandpoint Magazine and Sandpoint Online. Sandpoint Reader LLC is a completely independent business unit; no big newspaper group or corporate conglomerate or billionaire owner dictates our editorial policy. And we want the news, opinion and lifestyle stories we report to be freely available to all interested readers - so unlike many other newspapers and media websites, we have NO PAYWALL on our website. The Reader relies wholly on the support of our valued advertisers, as well as readers who voluntarily contribute. Want to ensure that local, independent journalism survives in our town? You can help support the Reader for as little as $1.