Everyone told Marshall Wayne Lee that Texas would be flat. "It is NOT flat," he says.
Lee should know. He just rode his bicycle through there with a basset hound named Antigone strapped into a child's trailer. They left on Oct. 3 from Chicago. and they're heading to the West Coast.
Lee, a veteran who was deployed to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, sold all his belongings this year except for what could fit in a small storage shed. He jokingly refers to the small bike cart as "the U-Haul." He's looking for a job and a new home. They were supposed to be done with their ride by now—1,800 miles along Route 66. But he's taken many diversions to visit friends and family, and he's got quite a ways to go.
He felt trapped in Chicago, working a dead-end job as an assistant office manager at a medical supply company. The same day he was laid off, someone gave him the bike as a gift. Lee's not an avid cyclist, or rather, he wasn't before he began his long journey.
There were dark days in Chicago, when Lee was out of work and suicidal. He'd lost his job, and though he'd sent out 150 résumés, he didn't get a single call back over the course of 10 months. The depression set in, and it was hard to get out of bed, he says. He started to make a plan to end his life. But the nagging questions always went something like this: If I hang myself, how long will it be before someone finds Antigone? What will happen to her?
Without an answer, he says, he was eventually able to pull himself from the grip of depression. He worked on healing himself, and later participated in the Out of the Darkness Overnight, an 18-mile foot trek from dusk until dawn put together by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The walk helped his recovery. "It brought me back to the world."
The ride, too, is connecting him to life again, he says. "It feels great. I was starting to get sad that I wasn't going to be anywhere for Christmas, but then I compared it to life in Chicago," he says. The bills are still there, and he still doesn't have a job. But he's not sitting at home fruitlessly sending out five résumés per day. "When I'm out on the bike, my thoughts go all over. I think about my life and what I want it to be like. I think about my writing. And I look over my shoulder and Antigone's back there, hanging out."
It's triumphant, he says; the ride gives him the sense that he's really doing something and getting his life back together.
As they travel, the duo is bringing awareness to two causes. Basset hound rescue and foster care, is, of course, Antigone's message. She was adopted from the Guardian Angel Basset Rescue, which pulled her out of a puppy mill at about 2 or 3 years old. Her teeth are so messed up, Lee says, it's hard to discern her age. While in the state, she's pointing her spotlight at the Basset Hound Rescue of New Mexico, which is in need of foster families. (Antigone even has her own blog.)
Lee, meanwhile, is trying to bring awareness to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and, locally, the Agora Crisis Center.
Along the way, Lee's met a number of good people, friendly people, particularly in Oklahoma and West Texas. And he learned a thing or two about the meaning of "hill country." He tries to ride 50 miles a day, stopping in cities as he goes. He's gained 10 pounds, he says, but his pants don't fit any differently, so he's hoping it's muscle. "The effect on my emotional health is the most dramatic," he says.
There are a lot of people in America who are probably out of work and struggling with depression, Lee acknowledges. And though he's not a psychologist, he recommends simply getting out of bed as a way to combat it. "Do something every day," he says. "Clean the house. Take a shower. Volunteer somewhere." And be honest with yourself about what you're feeling.
He's got some stats to reel off: Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States. It's the third leading cause of death among teenagers, and the third for people aged 18-65. Lee fears we will see a rise in suicide rates during the economic decline, but says we won't know for a few years, because the statistics take time to compile.
In spite of the hills, the rain, the cold—the lack of Starbucks between Robert Lee, Texas, and Roswell, N.M.,—Lee says he knows he's accomplishing something. "I feel like a contributor, instead of just a taker."
If you are in crisis, call the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at 1-800-273-8255 or, locally, Agora at 277-3013