By Rubin E. Grant
With their lives moving in divergent directions, five childhood friends from Homewood decided they wanted to do something together in case they couldn’t for a while.
So, on July 12, Adam Westfall, Ian Ross, Thomas Gordon, Willis Wood and Reed Whetstone embarked on an arduous bike ride from the Canadian border below Calgary to the border of Mexico, taking an unimaginably rugged trail.
Wood, a back-country skier who lives in Durango, Colorado, and is described by his friends as a crazy adventurer, came up with the idea. Whetstone mapped out the route, which covered 2,700 miles with a total of 175,000 feet elevation gain.
“The five of us have been friends since elementary school at Edgewood,” Whetstone said. “We wanted to keep up with each other because we seemed to be moving away from each other since college and it was getting harder to do things together.”
The friends are all in their mid-20s and graduated from Homewood High School in 2014. Gordon graduated from Auburn; Ross graduated from Alabama; Wood and Westfall graduated from Appalachian State, as did Whetstone, who went to Auburn for two years before transferring.
When Wood suggested the bike trip, his friends were all in, taking several months to plan the adventure.
“This was an opportunity for us to do something together,” Whetstone said. “We started in Eureka, Montana, near the Canadian border. We went down from the border through Montana, Idaho, Utah and through Arizona, ending up in Sierra Vista near the border of Mexico.”
Just before the journey, the friends decided to turn the adventure into a fundraiser for the Crisis Center in Birmingham. They asked people to donate 1 to 10 cents per mile of the trip or to add a custom amount, setting a goal of $10,000. The Crisis Center offers crisis intervention and prevention, sexual assault services and mental health services.
“We are supremely fortunate for the privilege to undergo such a trip during these trying times and we wanted to give back,” the friends said in a statement on their GoFundMe page for the trip.
When they finished, they had raised nearly $7,800. Donations can still be made by going to gofundme.com and searching for Wild West Route for the Crisis Center.
The trail they took normally takes 40 to 65 days to complete, but they did it in 34 days. Well, at least three of them anyway – Whetstone, Gordon and Wood.
Westfall, a world-class downhill skateboard racer who competed in the 2019 World Roller Games in Barcelona, Spain, had to cut out halfway through the trip because he received a job opportunity as a biomedical designer for 3D Systems Corp. in Littleton, Colorado.
Ross, an environmental law student at the University of Alabama, dislocated his elbow and had to be evacuated.
“We were moving around 600 miles when Ian turned a corner, fell and dislocated his elbow,” Whetstone said. “It was so dislocated we thought he had broken his arm in half.
“We were in the middle of nowhere. We were in the Bitterroot National Forest, one of the most remote areas in the U.S. We had to call in a helicopter and even the helicopter took time to get to where we were.”
Ross is on the way to a full recovery.
Westfall’s departure and Ross’ injury weren’t the only unexpected incidents along the journey.
“At the start we had a lot of bike maintenance and we had to repair our own bikes because the nearest bike shop was 850 miles away,” Whetstone said. “We had to do some jerry-rigging things. The climbs were incredible and we went over mountains. But we had trained, so it was definitely do-able.”
All of their training didn’t prepare them for what they experienced after reaching the Grand Canyon.
“One of the most brutal parts of the trip was going through the Grand Canyon,” Whetstone said. “We were supposed to go through Navajo lands, but they were all closed because of COVID-19. So we had to find another way around.
“If we had taken the highway route, it would have been another 300 miles to get around it. So we hiked from the North rim to the South rim of the Grand Canyon with our bikes strapped to our backs. None of us had any hiking shoes, so I spent part of the hike in my sandals and part of it in my bike shoes. My calves were completely shot.”
The hike took 26 hours in miserable conditions.
“It was so hot hiking through the canyon,” Whetstone said. “Because of the heat, we hiked from 10 to 12 at night until noon to get past the heat. That was probably the hardest part of the trip.
“It was a slow recovery before we could get to cover the last 700 miles to the Mexican border,” he said. “We were able to recover, but it took a week and a half. I had blisters on my feet.”
Gordon skipped the hike through the Grand Canyon.
“I didn’t think it was good for me to hike 26 hours through the night,” he said. “I took a shuttle around.”
Whetstone felt he was up to the challenge, even if he didn’t have the proper hiking gear.
“Honestly, I’m surprised how well prepared I was,” he said. “I was able to train in North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which has a lot of hills. You wear down slowly over time, but it wasn’t in an explosive way.”
A Worthy Journey
Reflecting on the trip after returning to Birmingham, Gordon and Whetstone were more than satisfied they had done it.
“It was really rewarding to see a part of the world I’d never seen with all the smells, sights and sounds I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise,” said Gordon, who’s the associate director of youth ministries at All Saints Episcopal in Homewood. “And I got to spend time with four of my best friends.”
Whetstone described the journey as amazing and challenging.
“There was a lot of elevation and it was remote,” he said. “We didn’t see many towns. But being outside in the wilderness and getting away from everything and all the turmoil in the country was great. On the trip, all we had to focus on was biking, eating and sleeping, the basic necessities to get through the day. There’s something fundamentally clean about that.
“The last 150 miles we made a final push. I felt some numbness in my hands and have some calluses, but I feel great. Since I’ve gotten home and gotten some sleep, I’m feeling pretty good.”
Raising money for the Crisis Center was a bonus.
“When I talk about this years from now and tell my children about the trip, I’ll focus on the money we raised,” Whetstone said. “It was an amazing opportunity to get together with my friends and to raise money for the Crisis Center was a great cause. The center’s calls have doubled because of all the mental health issues related to COVID-19.”
Whetstone will be moving to Salt Lake City next month, seeking employment.
“I’m applying for a lot of design jobs,” he said. “My degree is in commercial photography, but I’ve got a lot of background in design and marketing.”
He didn’t categorize the bike trip as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“We hear that a lot,” Whetstone said. “You could think of it that way, but I think of it as more of an adventure. You have a lot of dreams and desires that go by the wayside, but if you make it a priority, you can make it happen and do it for sure. I just hope there are more trips to come.”
Gordon is up for that.
“I hope this isn’t our last adventure together,” Gordon said. “I don’t think we’ll ever do that route again, but we might take a skiing trip. Getting together at the lake isn’t a bad idea either, but I’m sure someone will find something extreme for us to do.”