One Wheel, Two Continents, a few broken ribs
Published: March 20, 2013
Not much shocks a Baltimorean, but the other day at the dog park, Cary Gray shocked me. Looking across Stony Run from Wyman Park’s dog-infested lower field, I saw Gray tear down a narrow, tree-studded trail, his dirty-blond dreadlocks trailing like the medieval banner of a glam-metal gladiator. His silver-striped spandex legs pumped his odd metal steed full tilt down a treacherous, near-vertical incline. He bounded over stumps and bounced down 3-foot drops before his wheel caught firm on a rock and sent him pinwheeling on its hub 170 degrees around its axis, from straight-up to face-first into a waiting rock slab. It was easily the most gnarly mountain-unicycle wreck I’d ever seen and I’ve seen dozens of unicycle wipeouts, though, to be honest, they were all Cary Gray, and took place on that same 20-meter stretch of park over the span of about 15 minutes. But even to a crash connoisseur like Gray, that one was special.
“My head went straight into the ground and the brim of my helmet saved me just barely,” he later told me as he paused to think back to that moment when his guts twisted along with his single knobby wheel, taking his vision from blue sky to boulder in a noggin-shattering instant, and added, “It was funny.”
I say this with not a shred of evidence and yet complete confidence: Cary Gray is the single greatest mountain unicyclist in Baltimore. Granted, the mountain unicycle has about as much legitimate transportation cred as the downhill pogo stick or the jet-assisted roller skate, but seeing him ripping off cliffs on a single 29-inch mountain bike wheel, it is near impossible not to stand flummoxed at the intersection of the human will and the absolutely absurd. It’s like seeing the juice train that rolls through Baltimore twice a week carrying 20-plus boxcars of nothing but orange juice. That much orange juice is humbling. It puts you in your little place, or more accurately, puts the world in its much bigger one. Then, after a lot of meditation and some serious time with a professional counselor, you come to accept it. Then you realize that they ship orange juice in its concentrated form.
When I met Gray to talk about his odd addiction, he arrived with the mountain unicycle slung over his back. He’d ridden halfway across Baltimore that way, on his big uni, his touring unicycle. Yes. Touring unicycle. I cannot think of a more shocking pair of words. As I stared at the inconceivable beast, with its massive 36-inch wheel and tire worn from massive travel, Gray said, “The second week of May I’m doing a little 500 mile jaunt up to Boston,” and my mind warped the same way it did when I realized those 20 boxcars of OJ were really good for a hundred.
Just thinking about that trip confounds me. Going TO Boston? It’s inconceivable. Oh, and then there’s the unicycle thing. Unlike a bike, a unicycle doesn’t have gears or a chain; your feet push the cranks and the cranks are directly attached to the wheel. When you go down a hill on a unicycle, you can’t relax; unicycles don’t coast, you can never stop pedaling. Your legs are always doing two things: They’re driving you forward, but they’ve also got to keep you up. Going downhill is harder, but Gray maxes out at over 24 mph on the flats. It’s a shocking speed—nearly as fast as Usain Bolt on full afterburner. Gray has even gotten a ticket on his uni. “$140,” he said incredulously, “I’m sure that’s happened less than 10 times in the history of the Earth.”
In December, the 24-year-old MICA graduate went home to visit his family in St. Louis. It was a 1,080-mile trip and he did it on the uni. With 60 pounds of gear carried in the panniers he made himself (shockingly, there is not a lot of cross-country unicycle gear out there), he made the trip in 11 days of riding, the last three of which he covered 124, 117, and 116 miles. Gray is not normal.
Recently he decided he wanted to improve his Spanish. I would have bought Rosetta Stone; Cary Gray decided to go to South America, and since “it’s kind of stupid to fly places,” he’s riding. On July 1, Gray will mount his uni and leave Baltimore. According to the route marked out on his website, caryoutthere.com, he’ll head to Toronto; from there, he’ll turn south to Texas, make a brief detour north to the Grand Canyon, head down and trace the west coast of Mexico, crisscross Central America, push all the way to Tierra Del Fuego, the southern tip of the hemisphere, then head up to Venezuela. It’s a journey that will take him through every country in North and South America, 23 in all. The Guinness record for the longest unicycle trip in history stands at 9,126 miles. Gray will cover over 22,000.
In the unicycling world, Gray is becoming a big deal. His trip has earned him the 2013 Kris Holm Evolution of Balance Award, the Fulbright of the single-wheeled set, and if he makes it, his dreadlocked head will join the Mount Rushmore of one-wheelers. I have little doubt he’ll succeed. It’s hard to quantify this man’s confidence, it’s the surety of an athlete at the top of his game, and it builds believers. To know Gray, to talk to him, is to no longer wonder why he rides on one wheel. It is to wonder how he could possibly do anything else. “I dabble in Buddhism,” Gray says. “On a unicycle, you’re connected to the wheel 100 percent of the time; you’ve got to be completely and totally aware.” Laughing, he adds, “And I like being the unicycle guy.”
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