Back in July, Josh Caffrey wrote an initial article about Erick Cedeño’s (aka Bicycle Nomad) journey from Missoula, MT to St. Louis, MO. That article covered Josh’s time with Erick in Montana, at just the beginning of his epic 1,900-mile bicycle expedition, a project where Erick had set out to retrace the historic route the 25th Infantry Buffalo Soldiers took in 1897. The continuation of that story is below and picks up in Missouri about a month after Josh leaves Erick in Montana…
It’s been 32 days since I last saw Erick Cedeño.
On June 19th, we said our goodbyes in a small, empty cafe in Bozeman, Montana. Knowing that I had a 20+ hour drive back to Los Angeles, we’d decided to get up early and have some breakfast together. It was a Sunday and Father’s Day as well as Juneteenth, so Erick made it his first official rest day on his 41-day bicycle expedition.
Since we said our goodbyes that morning, he’s ridden southeast through Montana and Wyoming and spent a day crossing the southwestern tip of South Dakota. He’s also seen plenty of Nebraska by now, and most of northwestern Missouri. Even though we’ve spoken on the phone almost daily—either while he was riding or in the evening, after he set up camp or checked into a motel—there’s been a huge gap in our shared experience. I went home after spending the first week of his trip with him, and he stayed on the road, alone. I went back to the familiar and he stayed in the unknown.
From our conversations, I know he’s been busy mastering the GoPro cameras that NatGeo sent him in Missoula. He’s also been getting more comfortable with not only talking to but stopping to film interactions with people he meets along the way. Knowing when to interrupt an interesting conversation for a split second to asking the other person for permission to film has become almost second nature to him by now. The requirements for “content” from multiple sponsors frequently puts him in the role of talent, amateur filmmaker, make-shift DP, and soundman all at once.
His Instagram posts during this trip have all been historically focused around what the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps went through on the same day and the same route 125 years earlier. He’s made it a point to try to retrace the route exactly, staying in the same locations they visited, even if it adds more miles or more complications to the journey. And for the critics: yes, of course the roads he’s riding on are better 125 years later. Yes, bike technology has also advanced by light years, but at the end of the day, turning over the pedals is still a physical feat for anyone after 1,900 miles on mixed surfaces, especially when done mostly solo.
Sometimes Erick will mention the point of no return on his rides. The way I understand it, it’s the moment when you realize you’re “out there” and if you forge ahead, you’re committing to the entire route, with no way to know what’s going to happen next. Personally, I’ve struggled with this idea, on rides of various lengths, especially if you know something grueling is looming ahead.
Luckily, I’m just flying into St. Louis. Erick has four days of riding left and I plan to follow him and photograph the final days of his journey. Our mutual friend, Jocquese Blackwell will also fly in, from Arizona, to complete our small rag-tag crew. Joc will do most of the driving in Missouri while I take photographs.
It’s 6am and we both slept four, or so, hours collectively. We slowly get up, pack our stuff and head 100 miles northwest in the rental car. A couple hours later, we arrive in the small town of Louisiana, MO and find Erick sitting on the ground outside of a Walgreens. Midmorning—easily 95 degrees already—and he’s chugging water. I can tell by his physical appearance that the last 32 days have changed him. He’s noticeably thinner and his bike setup has evolved and become more streamlined. It bears repeating: the heat is stupid. As the day goes on, we can feel the temperature climb to over 100 degrees and the humidity ticks into the upper 90th percentile.
Exercise, such as going for a bike ride, in this weather is not a good idea, but Erick doesn’t have a choice and he’s not complaining. Actually, he’s never complained about any part of the ride. Not the cold, not the heat, nor the lack of food options or water refill points along the way, and definitely not the mileage required to finish this trip. He just keeps it moving; sometimes we chant it back and forth to each other. Keeping the momentum, keeping the energy up, staying positive. I know he wants to leave it all out there on the road and come home at the end with absolutely no regrets. I know how badly he wants to serve the men that came before him and serve their story to the best of his ability.
In L.A., Erick might turn a few heads every now and then. Out in the Midwest, it’s a completely different story. People see him pedaling down the road, and actually stop what they’re doing and just stare. From Montana to rural Missouri, I’ve seen it happen. At one gas station where we’re all stopped a few people ask me if I’m with “him” and what we’re doing out here. Some people are just curious and kind, and while others remain content in their confusion. Some want to push the questions a bit further. As we’re leaving this store, an older white guy gets in Erick’s face and asks, “every time I see people traveling by bicycle, I wonder, there has to be one of two reasons. You either have nothing to do, or you’re super rich. Which one are you?” Erick jokingly but firmly responds, “both.” The guy looks completely shocked by the answer and wanders away.
As we follow Erick through town I start to notice flags on porches. Flags are potent pieces of national iconography. They are a visual language that requires no translation. Americans can say a lot with a flag. As we roll through the neighborhood streets, I see the default red, white and blue American flags, and some new hybrids. Seeing a Confederate flag mixed with the Blue Lives Matter flag puts me back on alert. We’re not in Los Angeles and Erick has dealt with this the entire ride. As we are leaving Louisiana, MO., I see a bright Pride flag blowing in the wind on the outskirts of town and feel a sense of relief wash over me. Suddenly the close-mindedness I felt earlier opens up again.
Later that afternoon Erick sets up camp outside of Clarskville. He’ll spend his second to last night along the banks of the Mississippi. It’s sunset now and the water is calm save for a few barges moving slowly up and down the river. The mosquitos are quickly feasting on us as we try to wrap up some final photos so he can get some rest before riding into St. Louis the next day.
As I’m starting to pack up my camera gear a young, maybe 10-year-old, kid (sleeveless flannel shirt, reddish hair with the beginnings of a proper mullet) approaches Erick on the bank of the river. Erick is busy setting up camp for the night and barely has enough time to turn around before the kid starts to curiously pepper him with questions. Erick leaves a tent pole on the ground and turns to the young boy and begins to unwind the who, what, when, where, and why of his journey. This kid is not easily impressed by the almost 1,900 miles Erick has pedaled so far, but is far more curious about the weather he’s encountered and if it ever rained on him. We get an innocent laugh from the rain question. Most adults never ask Erick about the weather. We throw a few quick questions back his way and find out he’s a local to Clarksville. I notice his parents on the boat launch about 30 yards away and they don’t seem the bit concerned about their child talking to three adult strangers. We learn that he’s not in school at the moment. His small school shut down during Covid. As far as I know he’s never left this part of Missouri. I don’t know if he’s ever seen anyone like Erick, let alone interacted with him.
125 years ago, when the original twenty Iron Riders came across this location, they faced discrimination in a state that had only abolished slavery 32 years earlier. They were often turned away from camping on certain farms and encountered blatant racism head-on the further south they rode. They might have interacted with members of this boy’s family 125 years ago.
Maybe someday down the road, this boy will find his way back to school or off his dad’s boat, far from the eroded river banks of the Mississippi, and cross paths with someone who reminds him of that guy on the bike. Then maybe he’ll remember how nice it was to meet someone so different than he was and the pure enjoyment of that past encounter will compel him to introduce himself and extend a friendly handshake.
It’s the morning of July 24th and Erick is getting prepped for his last day on the bike. He’s doing about 40 miles today which is well-deserved after pushing hard for the last 40 days. I see the look on his face as he rides away and I know how happy he is to complete this journey and see his family later, but I can also see how he can’t believe this is all coming to an end. He’s so road worn by now, so used to his rhythm of truck stops and liquor stores to refuel, sleeping in the odd motel or the remote campground. We follow him closely for photos and videos as he rides from St. Peters, MO into St. Louis. He takes the most direct route that the Buffalo Soldiers took, even though most folks might avoid the route he’s chosen. We’re in East St. Louis where one out of every two people lives in a state of poverty. The roads are in rough shape, and I see multiple cars running lights.
The mercury has ticked over 100 degrees again and the humidity is high. Erick stops at a gas station for water and we all decide to get out to grab more drinks and a snack. As soon as we enter, I see a guy with a semi-automatic weapon draped over his tank top. I do a double-take and see if Erick notices. We exchange a glance but notice the clerk is calm. When we tell a few people about this later in the day, they chalk it up to private neighborhood security. Open-carry is real in Missouri.
Erick is back on the bike and onto the home stretch. He makes a quick stop at the Arch before he enters Forest Park. The park is almost 1,400 acres and hosted the Summer Olympics in 1904. The 25th Infantry finished their original ride here 125 years earlier. I go ahead so I can photograph Erick coming in. About 150 people are waiting for him, including his wife and young son, relatives of the original Buffalo Soldiers, and a full Army brass band. As Erick turns the final corner the band starts playing the Rocky theme song. Erick gets off his bike and is first greeted and embraced by members of the Buffalo Soldier community. I can’t even try to describe the emotions he’s feeling, but I can see the tears rolling down his cheeks and I see him scanning the crowd for his family. He spots them and makes his way over and hugs them for what seems like an hour. Now everyone else, including myself, is crying. What a journey, and what a way to honor these men and what they accomplished 125 years ago.
Well done my friend, you are a true inspiration to us all.
One of Erik’s sponsors, Hammerhead, also documented his journey and shared it in this short film, which was directed by Will Truettner and Nick Nelson and recently featured in the Bicycle Film Festival.