Riding back to reality
Juvenile detention student completes 2,400-mile bicycle journey

Mike Thompson, 18, stands outside the DeNier Youth Center earlier this week. On Sept. 1, Thompson, who has been in the center since March, embarked on a 2,400-miles bike tour of the Western United States that took him from Canada to Mexico. Thompson was one of only eight students out of 20 who rode every mile of the trek./Photo by Todd Newcomer

Mike Thompson is a young man with a mission. Challenging mind, body and spirit, he has decided to steer his life – pardon the metaphor – in a new direction. Mike returned on Oct. 15 from what must surely have been the most exhilarating experience of his life: setting out with 17 other young men to bike more than 2,400 miles in 43 days from the Canadian border through Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and Arizona, finally reaching Mexico. More intriguing still is the fact that a mere eight months ago, few would have expected this of him, because Mike was headed in a very different direction.

From the age of 12, the Durango native recalls making “some negative decisions” and hanging out with “negative peer groups.”
“I was not really looking forward to life and school, and I didn’t really think I’d become anything,” he says.

After running away from home several times and being arrested and detained numerous times on drug and alcohol charges, Mike, now 18, was committed to the DeNier Center for Youth Services on March 3 of this year. The DeNier Center is run by a rehabilitation program called Rite of Passage, which works with youth offenders throughout the western United States. At this point, Mike decided to give the program a shot.

“It’s here to help me, not to hurt,” he concedes. “I’m a good person, I don’t feel I deserve to be locked up or anything, but I’ve made bad choices, and I realize that I need to pay for them.”

Since he’s been at DeNier, Mike said he has been committed to giving 100 percent each day. “I’m in here for a reason,” he says. “If I don’t turn my head around, I’m 18 right now, the next step is probably the penitentiary, and I don’t need to go to the pen.”
Since his induction into the program, Mike has been focused on improving mind and body – as well as showing the demonstrated change of behavior that Rite of Passage terms RAMS: Respect, Attitude, Motivation and Spirit.

A few months into his stay at DeNier, Mike and a friend started up a mountain biking group. New to the sport, he took part in a few races locally, including the 12-mile Burrito Bash in Bayfield, in which he took first place for the beginner group. His growing interest in biking, together with his excellent RAMS status performance in the program, brought him to the attention of the Rite of Passage coordinators. In commemoration of Rite of Passage’s 20th anniversary, a bike trip was organized to sponsor several students from centers across the western states. When Troy Erickson, the Youth Services Director at DeNier, first offered Mike the opportunity to bike from Canada to Mexico, he was hesitant. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to see my mom, or make phone calls very often, or write mail very much,” he says. Ultimately, however, he decided this was an opportunity he could not pass up, and he agreed to the trip.

Following an intensive week of road bike training at the Ridgeview Academy in Denver, 18 students began the trip in Blaine, Wash., on Sept. 1, accompanied by vans holding gear, clothing and food. “Up in Washington and Oregon it rains a lot,” Mike recalls. “We were riding in the rain, sleeping in the rain. We’d go to bed and our pillows and tents would still be wet from the night before.”

Following Highway 101 down the Oregon coast, they crossed the Sierra Nevada range, totaling 8,000 feet of climbing. “At that point you have a really close relationship with God,” Mike says. “You think, ‘Do I want to quit? Do I want to get in the van and give up on myself, or do I just push until I fall off the bike?’”

As it turns out, Mike never did fall off the bike. The group rode into Nevada and then back into California, visiting Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, as well as California’s Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States at 14,494 feet. They completed the 14-mile hike to Mount Whitney’s peak in a single day, and for Mike, it was one of the high points of the journey. Continuing the trek into Arizona, the group made a stop at the Grand Canyon. The trip coordinators led the students – eyes closed – to the edge of the canyon and “we opened our eyes and it was like – dang, that’s a big hole in the ground!” A big hole that the students proceeded to climb down and back up in the same day. Throughout the trip, Mike shot six rolls of film, and when asked about its most striking part, he responds, “Every day was something different. Whether it was a sunset or a sunrise, I was just happy to be awake. I only wish the camera were bigger!”

The cyclists finally reached their destination,4 Nogales, Ariz., and crossed briefly into Mexico, completing an estimated 2,484 miles after 43 days in the saddle. Mike’s perseverance certainly paid off in the end. Of the original 18 students, 13 completed the trip, and only eight traveled every single mile on their bicycles rather than in the supply vans. Of the eight, Mike was one of two students rewarded for spirit and attitude throughout the expedition, and for this, he received his own road bike and cycling gear. In an endeavor of extraordinary physical, mental and emotional difficulty, Mike exceeded all expectations. Asked what part of his body became strongest from the trip, he replied, “my spirit.”

If Mike was already a role model for his younger peers at the DeNier center before the trip, his success has certainly opened their eyes to what they might accomplish themselves. In terms of his attitude and behavior, DeNier Director Erickson calls Mike, “the epitome of what a RAMS means.”

The coordinators are also glad to have him back. “The whole (RAMS-status) culture picked up as soon as he got back,” says DeNier Shift Supervisor Audie Morris.
Seeing Mike go from where he was in March to what he has accomplished today has inspired other DeNier students, says Erickson, and for them, Mike’s example is “a true indication of what a youth can do.” Rite of Passage’s philosophy is not to try to change students but allow them to change themselves, and Mike is working proof of the program’s success, Erickson says.

Mike is expected to be eligible for parole in December and hopes to move back home and get a job. His accomplishment is the culmination of a long-term effort on his part. He says he considers himself to be a much stronger person, both physically and mentally, after the trip. He set himself an enormous goal and achieved it, and now he seems ready for anything, asking simply, “What’s next?”







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