A 3,900 Mile Trek for Travis


The familiar sound of the alarm woke him from a heavy sleep, exhausted from the many miles traveled yesterday. Though his joints were a bit stiff and it was only 5:30 am, he needed to get moving. Quickly, Nolan Carpenter and twenty nine other guys he now considers brothers settled into the morning routine they’d established for the last eight or so weeks: rolling up sleeping pads and packing bags, throwing on uniforms and grabbing a quick breakfast before circling up to discuss the day’s ride. Today’s trip was fairly average in distance (75 miles) with solid road conditions and good weather. Soon enough, the biking once again began. 


I met Nolan in the fall of this year, when a required course for our respective majors brought us to the same classroom. During the obligatory first-day introductions, I was stunned when he rather nonchalantly said, “a fun fact about me is that I biked across the country this summer.”


Across the country? I sat there in utter disbelief for the next hour, before racing to catch him after class. In our thirty second conversation I learned that prior to starting his nine week ride in June of 2023, Nolan hadn’t really done much biking at all. Astounded, I set up a time to grab coffee and ask more; I wanted to hear everything.

Hank Tilson

When we met at Sugarhouse Coffee on a warm Sunday morning a few days later, I found out that in addition to studying German and marketing, Nolan is a former collegiate hockey player and the current president of the University of Utah’s chapter of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. He’s a high-achieving, intelligent, and overall competent person, certainly the type that doesn’t back down from a challenge.


After he shared a little about himself, I finally asked Nolan the question I’d been itching to ask all week: “If you hadn’t really biked much before this summer, what made you decide to go on this trip? Why did you do it?”


“That’s kind of a loaded question,” Nolan told me.


As it turns out, he biked as part of an organization called The Ability Experience, a nationwide philanthropy effort specific to his fraternity. Each summer, The Ability Experience holds a charity bike ride across the country called “Journey of Hope” in an effort to raise money and awareness for people with disabilities. While Pi Kapps from across the U.S. typically hear about this bike trip during their collegiate years, Nolan actually grew up hearing about it from his dad, who is also a Pi Kapp. Though his father has never done the ride himself, he has put in effort many summers to support the young members of his fraternity during their trip. He and his wife have selflessly arranged accommodations and meals for the bikers over the years, typically hosting them in a community church in Holladay and putting on a taco bar for them to enjoy when they pass through Utah. Through his parents’ involvement, Nolan grew up meeting riders and hearing about their experience pedaling across the country.


Nolan and Travis (Kelly Carpenter)

In addition to his tie to “Journey of Hope” through Pi Kappa Phi and his parents, Nolan has a deeply personal connection to the organization’s mission. His younger brother Travis, now 16, was born with a condition called neurofibromatosis, which involves the development of tumors throughout the body. After developing a tumor in his left leg years ago and suffering from a broken femur several times, Travis eventually had his left leg amputated in 2021. 


“One of the big reasons I wanted to do this trip was seeing all the struggles Travis has been through growing up: his diagnosis and all the surgeries he’s had,” shared Nolan. “I’ve seen the highs and the lows, and I’ve thought about what he would give to be in the shoes of any of us: to have two functioning legs and be able to play sports with other able-bodied people.”


After deciding he would complete the ride for Travis and for others like him, Nolan had to begin preparing. The trip would begin on June 11, and the requirement for training was a big ask: 1,000 miles logged on Strava before arriving in San Jose for camp. 


Though athletic by nature, Nolan had never done anything remotely similar in scope or scale to biking across the country for nine weeks. Participating in a cardio-based endurance sport was totally new for him, and he knew he’d need to put in serious work to prepare. 


Due to the unusually snowy weather this spring, Nolan didn’t start getting many miles in until the end of April and into May. He did 150 miles indoors (which he hated), and 850 outside in order to get in shape.


Some weeks in training he hit 100 or 250 total miles, which was pretty remarkable for him, considering just a couple months earlier he had never clipped into a bike. His longest ride was from Salt Lake City to Ogden and then back: 93 miles in total. While proud of having completed such a big ride, he remained daunted at the thought of what lay ahead. He knew that when he and the other Pi Kapps biked through Nevada, they wouldn’t just have one day with 100 miles, but would consecutively have to bike 100, 80, 90, 100, 80, and 70 miles each day in the same week, before ending with a brutal 131 to Salt Lake. During the last part of training he remembered thinking, “I’m gonna have to do all of that in two weeks. How the hell am I going to figure this out?”


Despite the nerves, Nolan completed his 1,000 miles and flew out to San Francisco to begin his transcontinental ride starting on June 11th.


Hank Tilson

Each day as they pedaled their way across the country, Nolan and his Pi Kapp brothers spent hours meeting members of communities who have physical and intellectual disabilities. While the “Journey of Hope” ride raises money and awareness for people with disabilities, it also works to help them feel loved and included by setting up what are called “friendship visits.” 


In these visits, riders typically play games and dance with people with disabilities in order to help them feel supported and understood. Nolan remembered these visits fondly, recalling how it felt to stop at various places and see people’s genuine grins after spending time together. “Sometimes,” he shared, “you’d just spent 100 miles riding a bike for 7-8 hours and then you’d come in and have a friendship visit. Energy was low when you got there, but as soon as people started walking in, it just picked right back up.” 


In addition to meeting members of various communities, “Journey of Hope” riders discussed a specific disability and dedicated the ride to someone in particular during the circle-up every morning. Nolan remembered that every time things felt especially tough during a ride, he’d usually think about Travis and the hard things their family has been through. He’d often ask himself, “if we didn’t quit then, why would I quit now?”


Despite the mental and physical difficulty of the trip, after 63 days and just over 3,900 miles, he arrived in Washington DC on August 12th, 2023.


Nolan hand picked a few of his closest biking companions (now his brothers) to cycle alongside for the last 12 miles. They decided to go off route to see the monuments and listen to anthems from the trip before finishing together. Friends and family greeted them on the lawn of the capitol with cheers and praise. “It was euphoric,” Nolan remembers.


In reflecting on his experience cycling across the country, Nolan said he hopes his trip motivates his brother to proactively get out and do things on his own. “I wanted to show him,” he said, “that if I can do something like biking across the country, he can bike around the block or get out and do stuff. I wanted to inspire him in that way. And I’ve seen the results of that. Just yesterday he actually rode ten miles on his hand cycle. I hope that momentum continues.”


As well as inspiring his brother, Nolan has inspired countless others, including those of us who long to venture more deeply into the world of outdoor adventure but often feel too inexperienced or intimidated to do so. Remember that prior to this year, Nolan had never clipped into a bike. Despite this relative lack of experience, he is now one of very few people who can say they’ve successfully cycled from one side of the country to the other. 

Hank Tilson

“Despite my previous fears, there was nothing on the trip that I didn’t think I could do once I was actually doing it. It sucked, but there was never a point where I thought, ‘I physically can’t bring my foot over for another pedal stroke,’” Nolan recalled.


Now that he’s back from his trip, he plans to invest in his own bike (likely the same Specialized Roubaix Elite he used for the trip) before tackling the next big thing on his list: biking five of the major canyons from City Creek to Little Cottonwood in one day. 


Nolan’s advice for anyone considering a bike trip is to, “just do it. Sign up!”


2023 Ability Experience Route
  • San Francisco, California: Members of the “Journey of Hope” North route pedaled away from San Francisco on June 11, 2023, starting their cross-country ride on the famous Golden Gate Bridge.

  • Kirkwood, California: Undoubtedly considered the toughest physical day on the trip, the infamous Kirkwood ride includes a grueling 90 miles and 11,000 feet of elevation gain. Riders start near Kirkwood Ski Resort at the base of the Sierra Nevadas, pushing completely uphill for the first 62 miles without a break, before eventually ending near South Lake Tahoe. To make matters worse, the ride happens on day four.

  • Salt Lake City, Utah: Nolan considers this his most meaningful day of the trip. After a brutal 131 miles from Delta, he made it to his hometown of Salt Lake City. Because of his previous experience helping to host and feed “Journey of Hope” riders with his family, Nolan really valued being on the other side of everything. In addition to returning to the familiar Jordan River Trail he rode during training, Nolan was happy to see his parents, his brothers Travis and Barrett, and his three-legged dog, Lady.

  • Craig, Colorado: The hot 120 mile ride from Vernal, Utah to Craig, Colorado was Nolan’s hardest day, but not for reasons you’d expect. The Pi Kapps biked through a series of rolling hills, climbing for a mile and then descending for a mile over and over again. After coming over the top of one particular hill, Nolan noticed that the road stretching up the next hill was completely red. “We got there,” he said, “and there was just a thick layer of cricket carcasses on top of the road that had been run over by cars and bikes (a consequence of the 2023 Mormon Cricket Invasion). It looked like hell. It smelled awful, and any time you ran over them, the live crickets popped and the guts would explode all over your legs, all over the bike. That was by far the worst day.”

  • McCook, Nebraska: The site of Nolan’s first and only crash. While riding on a big shoulder with a fellow Pi Kapp, he went off the road into a three inch gap between road and gravel. Despite managing to successfully hold on for a while, in trying to turn back onto the road, his tire bit the lip and he went over the handlebars. Though his bike suffered a flat front tire, Nolan himself was fine. “Just like in hockey,” he said, “when you get blown up and don’t have a concussion and nothing’s broken, it’s really not that bad. Looking back, when I realized I wasn’t hurt, it was kinda fun.”


  • Niles, Ohio: Nolan’s “Pi Alpha” moment, a term used to describe when riders realize for themselves that what they’re doing is really special, that it matters. Here, Nolan met a girl named Mindy during a dance party with members of the Fairhaven Foundation. As he watched Mindy enter the room in a wheelchair, he noticed she couldn’t move her muscles much or speak well. “On the surface,” he recalled, “you see her and the first thing you think is that
    Hank Tilson

    she’s probably not able to do a lot. But during the dance party, we started doing the hokey pokey and I noticed she knew exactly what was going on, barely moving her right arm and then her left, before trying to kick. She was obviously super aware of what was going on and is very smart. It surprised me to realize I had totally misjudged and misunderstood someone. I had thought I was pretty well informed from growing up with Travis, but even I learned quite a bit from the experience. Never judge a book by its cover.”

  • Washington DC: After enjoying a short 12 mile ride off-route through various national monuments, Nolan and his Pi Kapp brothers “staged up” (forming a 2 x 2 formation) to at long last ride to the capitol building in Washington DC. They were greeted enthusiastically on August 12, 2023 by friends, family, and many supporters.

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