It’s no easy feat cycling more than 3,700 miles coast to coast through mountains, prairies, endless horizons of cornfields, over streams and rivers, and against the winds of the great plains.
But neither is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan — and Richard Rivadeneira has now done all of it.
Originally from Simi Valley, Rivadeneira has called Santa Clarita home for 20 years. Rivadeneira also spent 20 years in the United States Marine Corps, where his service included a tour in Fallujah, Iraq, one in Marjah, Afghanistan, and one in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
“I think as a veteran, you really see what you’re fighting for and it makes it all worth it,” said Rivadeneira. “All the sacrifice that each of the veterans give, I encourage them all to be able to do something like this.”
Being a long-distance runner, Rivadeneira was used to long-form exercise challenges, but was relatively new to cycling when he decided to join Warrior Expedition — a nonprofit organization that organizes exercise challenges for veterans across the U.S., including hiking the Appalachians and canoeing the Mississippi River.
But this challenge would be the most ambitious of his yet, an American Odyssey starting in the nation’s capital and going along a project known as The Great American Rail Trail — a half-completed path that goes from Washington, D.C., through Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and finally to Washington state, where the trail ends at La Push.
However, the monumental task cannot be looked at in totality, Rivadeneira said, a running theme that would last the entire journey.
“I think there is a degree of hesitancy when you look at the totality of the distance, but you can’t look at it like that. You have to break it up into tangible increments,” said Rivadeneira. “You know, you just take it a day at a time.”
In theory these increments would be around 65 miles of riding, but things don’t always go as planned.
“There are a lot of variables that play a part in that,” said Rivadeneira. “The elevation, the weather, the terrain. Everything really has a vote — your body, the condition of the bike.”
One might think the most challenging aspect of an expedition such as this would be the physical one, but Rivadeneira said time and mind are the biggest obstacles.
“Physically, it’s not that difficult to be honest with you. You have to put in the time on the saddle, and that just comes with hours and hours of being on the bike. I would say the first couple of weeks were the hardest, but as you continued on the journey, you would get conditioned, your body would get stronger,” said Rivadeneira. “I would say the biggest challenges for most people would be the time. It’s extremely difficult to carve out two-plus months out of your life and put that on pause and do something like this.”
Rivadeneira had the time and the physical ability to accomplish the mission, but he said the mental one was much more difficult. He described much of the journey as a blur, not being able to distinguish, at least from memory, what was day five or day 45.
There was a mental grind of getting up every day, facing the elements, sometimes at 10 mph or less, and sometimes inching out over 100 miles a day. At the end of each day, he’d be exhausted and crash — sometimes at a bed and breakfast, sometimes in a hotel, sometimes camping in a tent — only to get up the next morning and start the whole process over again.
“And then there’s where that mental fatigue sets in,” said Rivadeneira.
The ability to take things one day at a time, one mile at a time, one push of the pedal at a time becomes more than a trait on a trip like this — it becomes a necessity. But if there’s any reprieve from an arduous journey such as this, America has some saving graces to offer.
The land and its people
“I chose a cycling expedition, because I have a passion for cycling and I like to push myself mentally and physically,” said Rivadeneira. “I thought it would be an extraordinary opportunity to see the country from coast to coast, going 10 miles an hour, visiting small-town America, and I would have to say my biggest takeaway was the people across the country, the kindness, the hospitality, the genuine kindness and care that I came across… was overwhelming.”
The land in which the contiguous U.S. spans is over 3 million square miles and incorporates some of the most diverse biomes and geographical features in the world. Most who travel through it may see them as they fly over or drive through. Rivadeneira saw them the way many early American settlers had during its westward expansion.
“Without a doubt it was like being in a Bob Ross painting,” said Rivadeneira. “The landscape and the beauty of the states were absolutely breathtaking. And again, imagine seeing it at 10 miles an hour. It was amazing. It was incredible to be immersed in the rolling hills and the prairie lands in the cornfields and the forest. It was just absolutely breathtaking. This country is absolutely gorgeous.”
The cornfields in particular were something that Rivadeneira said will still stick with him, as they stretched beyond the horizon and seemed endless. He joked that when he closes his eyes he still sees fields of corn.
The magnificent allure of the American landscape does come with its challenges, however, and Rivadeneira’s mental fortitude would be tested, especially against the strong headwinds of Nebraska’s great plains.
“I had some tough times, especially crossing Nebraska. It’s a very long state. I was against the prevailing winds and it was tough,” said Rivadeneira. “But I tried to stay focused and for me this journey was not about finishing. Of course I was going to finish, but for me this was about personal growth.”
It was during these difficult stretches that Rivadeneira reminded himself of why he was doing this.
“I chose to cycle across the country with a Warrior Expedition because I wanted to break the stigma of PTSD and bring awareness to a different acronym, which is PTG, and that is Post Traumatic Growth,” said Rivadeneira. “Simply put: the concept behind Post Traumatic Growth is one of turning struggles into strength and essentially whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And my hope with this… is that I can spread the word with not just combat veterans with PTSD, but civilians — survivors of sexual assault or serious accidents, toxic unhealthy relationships, natural disasters. Know that treatment with outdoor therapy and being physically active can really work and lead to a better quality of life.”
Rivadeneira said some of his own traumatic experiences were reasons to set out on this exhibition as well.
“During the pandemic, and my relationship, fractured relationships,” said Rivadeneira. “And for me, it was wanting to take the time for myself to heal and to just become a better version of myself. And that’s what… that’s what crossing the country did for me. So it was incredibly impactful.”
Rivadeneira said one of the things that got him through these times were the people he met along the way. Americans are known abroad as being kind and hospitable to strangers. In fact, many visitors from Europe often comment on how odd it is that casual and friendly conversation is often done between people who have never met each other.
“You see it, like in movies, but it really does exist,” said Rivadeneira. “You know, they acknowledge you, they say, ‘Hello,’ they care about what you’re doing and they’re willing to lend a hand and help out if they can. So it was humbling to really come across kind-hearted people and it really restored my faith in humanity.”
Rivadeneira said the dichotomy of seeing humanity at its worst, during war, and seeing it at its best in the heartlands of America left a lasting impression and an appreciation of how Americans remember their veterans.
“The second takeaway that I got from this experience was, this country does a very good job of honoring its fallen in any given particular town you’d come across. If there was somebody from that town that had fallen, they would recognize and acknowledge that in some way,” said Rivadeneira. “So I came across a numerous amount of veterans’ memorials, whether it was just a plaque or a park named after a service member or some grand statue or wall, it was extremely humbling to see.”
Everything you ever wanted is on the other side of fear
Some of the hardest stretches of Rivadeneira’s journey were toward the last leg, surmounting the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades of Washington State. His mantra of taking things one day at a time that got him through every challenge up until this point was the one that carried him to the ocean.
“If you start looking at [the fact] that you’re going across 12 states. It’s just overwhelming. But if you just take it day by day and you live in the present… You’re not worried about Wyoming when you’re in Pennsylvania,” said Rivadeneira. “You just live in the present and focus on what you have that day and what you’re doing that day. You just chip away at it and I just chipped away.”
Rivadeneira said that once he was in Washington state, he could finally start to see the end becoming a reality, going from the excitement of smelling the salt in the air to finally seeing and touching the waves of the Pacific Ocean. He now had another moment to live in, which opened up the door to reflect later on. Like any Odyssey, this was more than the starting point or its destination, and perhaps even more than the journey itself, it was about the morals attained and the lessons learned, and Rivadeneira had a few.
“Without a doubt, I have a new lease on life and the amount of self-reflection and the solitude that I had… has been so beneficial. So am I a different individual than when I started? Without a doubt and that’s what personal growth is,” said Rivadeneira. “I truly believe that everything you ever wanted, is on the other side of fear. Because [this trip] takes a lot of courage and there’s a lot of fear that comes with it. But I had great community support crossing the country. I loved seeing small-town America, going through some beautiful, amazing landscape, where I literally felt like I was the only person around, there was nothing… It was extremely humbling and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I am forever grateful for being able to be a part of it and I know it’s going to be something I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.”