Katelynn Bell and Brad Cameron, both 17, sat on their bicycles at Tybee Island, Ga., on June 23 to start a bike ride that ended in Los Angeles. At Tybee Island, the Augusta Preparatory School seniors joined 10 other cyclists ages 16 to 18 and two adult leaders.
All were taking part in the American Challenge, an Overland Adventures six-week trip that took participants nearly 3,100 miles by pedal from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, but also the most rewarding," Brad said. "I'm so glad I did it now, but I'm also glad it's over."
Brad and Katelynn conceded they'd never played sports nor were adventurous. In fact, the best friends purchased and began riding bikes early last year. They didn't consider the trip until Brad received a brochure in the mail.
Overland Adventures, a Massachusetts-based adventure company, has several trips ranked 1-10, with 10 being the hardest. The American Challenge is a 10.
"Most people work their way up to 10, so people couldn't believe this was our first one," Brad said. "The hardest part was convincing our parents." Their parents wanted the teens to try an easier trip this summer and save the cross-country ride until next year.
"But I didn't want to spend the summer after my senior year bike riding," Katelynn said.
"So it was all or nothing," Brad said.
To train, Brad and Katelynn went from riding 10 to 65 miles a day.
"We couldn't believe we were doing it," Katelynn said. "We were nervous because we had no idea how trained the other people would be."
The bikers began the summer adventure by dipping their rear tire in the Atlantic Ocean. Riders carried everything they needed - water, a sleeping bag, food, clothes, toiletries and spare bike parts.
The group averaged about 85 miles per day.
"Marking off the map at night was also hard the first week because after riding all day, you mark off this little distance and still have this far to go," Katelynn said with outstretched arms.
The bikers slept at churches, community centers and, occasionally, at campsites. Sometimes, Katelynn said, they met people fascinated by what they were doing who let them stay at their houses.
"(That) was really weird, but fun," Brad said.
With no cell phones or weather radios, they used the clouds to predict the weather, Brad said, which was usually good except when they rode through four hours of hail in Mississippi.
Food and lodging were the easiest parts, Brad said, as the company allowed for an "enormous food budget." They shopped daily and ate pasta, sandwiches, chicken fajitas, stir-fry, fast food and sometimes they would eat in a restaurant.
"We'd clear a Pizza Hut lunch buffet," Brad said. "We would each eat almost a dozen donuts for breakfast. You could eat anything and not gain a pound."
Dehydration, they said, was the biggest problem, which landed Katelynn - accompanied by a leader - in the hospital for IVs for a day while the group rode on.
"We hitchhiked with a Navajo Indian couple in their pickup truck," Katelynn said. "They told us they were medicine men on their reservation, and a lot of interesting things."
The group had four days off along the way for taking care of laundry, phoning home and receiving mail.
The teens said there were times when they were chased by dogs, and one time by a bunch of chickens. And there were the times when they would rent a movie, returning it at 5 a.m.
To help with their salt intake before crossing the Mojave Desert, they drank shots of soy sauce - the only time the riders had a support car follow with extra water.
Starting at 1 a.m. to beat the heat, the 116-mile desert ride was the most memorable and the only night ride - filled with ghost stories, Brad said.
"The day before the big desert ride it was 120 degrees," Katelynn said. "I put my hand on the road and some asphalt peeled off on (it)."
After the desert ride, the group stayed in a hotel.
"It was truly incredible - the first time we'd slept in a bed in over a month, quite a treat," Brad said.
On the last day as they pedaled down from the mountains and Los Angeles came into view - things became surreal, Katelynn said.
"We flew. We went almost 50 mph downhill and you looked to your right and could see the Hollywood sign," Brad said. Turning onto Santa Monica Boulevard, Katelynn said they could finally see the Pacific Ocean.
"It felt like a year-long goal," she said.
The group rode onto the Boardwalk, past parents waiting with a banner, stopped, snatched off their front tire and sprinted to the ocean.
"I ran as hard as I could, but everything was moving in slow motion. Running and hitting that water - there are no words to describe what that felt like; it was like something from a movie, just incredible," Brad said. "Everyone was crying. We all huddled together, hugged and jumped up and down screaming for a few minutes."
Katelynn said people on the Boardwalk were staring at them.
"Random people on the beach, who we just ran through, came up asking us questions, then they got excited for us," Katelynn said.
DeeDee Bell, Katelynn's mom, was among the parents waiting.
"For the whole six weeks I was a bit anxious because bicycle riding is a lot of fun, but it's not without its risks," Mrs. Bell said. "I was proud of her because it's not just a physical but a mental challenge."
Since flying back home, neither teen has ridden, but both say they will continue riding.
"It's kind of hard to get back on; riding in Augusta is not the same," Katelynn said.
"It's hard mentally because my last image with the bike is running into the ocean," he said.