HUNTINGTON — The 3,700 miles from Washington, D.C., to the state of Washington is the journey West Virginia veteran Jared Thomas is pedaling this summer.
A Charleston native who studied at Marshall University and now lives in Huntington, Thomas called the bicycle trip more than just getting from destination to destination — it’s a spiritual pilgrimage.
“I’m exposed to nature, I’m outside the hustle and bustle of daily life, and I’m really able to tap into that universal balance,” Thomas said.
Thomas served in the U.S. Army Reserves before being deployed as an ammunition specialist for a year in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010. Thomas now teaches tai-chi at Studio 8 in Huntington.
Thomas is biking with organizations Warrior Expeditions and the Rails-to-Trails Conservatory. Warrior Expeditions is a nonprofit organization focusing on the therapeutic gains of long-distance outdoor expeditions to help veterans transition from active duty combat experiences. The organization currently has three different types of expeditions around hiking, biking and paddling.
Thomas picked up biking two years ago and is now on his way to Seattle, Washington, after leaving D.C. earlier this week after being sent off by a group of senators, including Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. He will travel halfway with a team of five others until he travels back home for two weeks to continue his business selling Fourth of July fireworks near the Huntington Mall. After that, he will be on his own.
Along the way, there will be supporters to offer a place to stay, food and showers to keep spirits high. Thomas said the stops are more frequent in the country’s eastern half, but the western side will be much more desolate and he will rely on tent camping. The journey will require careful planning and will see its fair share of unexpected challenges. Only eight miles in, Thomas already had gotten a flat tire.
“Out west is going to be a whole different ballpark,” Thomas said.
Thomas said he is looking forward to the portion of the trip alone and hopes that the time alone will allow him to get as much from the journey as possible.
The Warrior Expedition website says the journey allows veterans the opportunity to “decompress from military service and come to terms with their wartime experiences.” The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 29% of veterans returning from post-9/11 wars experience PTSD at some point in their life.
Thomas said he has struggled with PTSD and anxiety for years and struggles to cope despite exercising and practicing meditation. He said he hoped the cross-country experience might be what he needs to bring him peace of mind.
“I’m hoping to extract as much from this experience as possible,” Thomas said.