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Andrew's Own Independence Day
LA MESA -- In early June, just a day after finishing up his junior year at Helix High School, 16-year-old Andrew Johnson loaded his road bike, a tent and a few pieces of equipment into his mother's car and headed for Canada.
He had $150 in cash, a small limit debit card, a global positioning transmitter and as it turned out, a fair amount of chutzpah.
Wednesday June 5th was Andrew's own Independence Day.
His mom, Jennifer, dropped Andrew and his bike at the Canadian border, gave him a hug and south he went. She returned to her other three younger children in La Mesa.
For the next month, day by day, Andrew traveled alone, up and down the winding hills of the Pacific Coast, sleeping in camp grounds, finding food and making his own way.
"I thought about it once in a while,'' he said. "Here I was doing everything my mother always taught me not to do. I talked to strangers. I accepted food from strangers. When I didn't have a napkin, I used my sleeve!''
Andrew, a methodical sort of kid, had plotted this trip. He would move day by day between campgrounds along the route and find food where he could. He would call in at day's end and his parents could track his movements by the GPS device as he progressed.
Letting Andrew pursue this trip was a big decision for his parents, but he had always been a responsible young man and, well, there comes a time for kids to stand on their own. This was Andrew's time.
His father worried about his safety; his mom, a runner herself, worried about his caloric intake and hydration. "The way I saw it, he could be injured riding his bike to Helix on busy streets,'' Jennifer Johnson said.
Andrew's trip was a multi-media event with his father keeping up a detailed website to share his progress and videos of everything from tent set up routine to riding in the rain. Dad caught up with son in San Francisco and gave him a good night's sleep in a hotel bed.
The trip, itself, was more Spartan.
"I ate over 100 Pop Tarts while riding,'' Andrew explained. "Easy to eat, lots of calories.''
At night he had a small stove he could cook on, but occasionally accepted the kindness of strangers in the campground.
"One guy gave me a whole kebob,'' he remembered fondly. "Another game me a full bag of pasta.'' He also found canned chili and instant mash potatoes an easy night's meal on his own stove. He started the trip at 153 pounds and ended at virtually the same weight. "But with more muscle in my legs and less on my upper body,'' he reports.
What he wasn't fully prepared for was the endless monotony of riding alone. There were a couple times he thought about packing it in and calling home, but he resisted.
"I missed my friends,'' he said, "but that sort of motivated me to keep going. Get this done.''
He went about 80 miles each day. The longest day was 105 miles. He learned that the Pacific Coast is not as populated throughout as it is in Southern California.
"And I learned that the word 'scenic' means 'hilly,'" Andrew said, remembering the many big climbs he had to make on his way home to La Mesa. He carried a small music/speaker system on his handlebars and played the theme from 'Rocky' to psyche himself for the big climbs.
Less than a month after starting out, Andrew made his way through the urban challenges of Los Angeles, got past Camp Pendleton and eased his way down to the Mexican border, arriving last Friday with a sense of accomplishment and fatigue. He had taught himself to appreciate anew the luxuries of a home, a hot meal and the comfort of a bed.
And he learned something about himself: "You can have all the physical strength in the world, but without a strong mind, you can't utilize it.''
Andrew rested for a day or two and then started getting ready for his senior year at Helix. He turns 17 soon. First thing on his summer agenda: cross country practice.
His legs, no doubt, are already in shape.