By Kyle Emmel
I have around thirty minutes until sunset and no idea where I’m going to crash for the night. After a few more miles of climbing, it’s dark and cold. I turned left onto a very lonely highway towards Grand Forks, North Dakota. It has been a long day and as I approach 150 miles of riding, my legs remind me it’s long past quitting time. I finally come upon a freshly cut hay field, full of round bales. After a short argument between my head and my legs, I decide to call it a night. I curl up in my sleeping bag and lay against the warm hay. Looking up I can see the stars and the Milky Way very clearly. The last time I saw them this clearly was in Afghanistan.
After Afghanistan I struggled to reconnect with the world I left behind. I didn’t feel like something was broken, just different. My inability to understand what that “thing” was led to frustration with myself. It took two years of self-destruction until an amazing mentor, a veteran himself, gave me a new term to guide my transformation: restless heart.
He explained that when soldiers returning from the Great War wandered aimlessly, many referred to it as Restless Heart or Soldier’s Heart. This image, of a Restless Heart searching for adventure, stuck with me. Not long after this revelation, I made my first trip to the mountains. One week of hiking and camping fulfilled something inside and answered two years worth of questions. Over the next three years, I poured myself into studies and made some giant improvements. I had plans, goals and great career opportunities in front of me. Then, with the world at my fingertips, the post-Afghanistan feelings crept back up.
At first, I chalked it up to the changing seasons, then the life changes taking place, then to the distance of deployments. I ran out of simple things to blame it on. Because I couldn’t simply take off for the mountains again, I started riding a bike. The more uncomfortable the distance was, the better I felt inside. I had a sense of accomplishment that I had not felt since experiences like ruck marching at basic training. I was coming back.
It has taken years to understand myself and learn to take care of myself properly. Luckily I found cycling, and it brings my restless heart to ease. It provides the adventure, risk and health that I need to function properly. It continues to help me break my own internal barriers and grow. Cycling has in many ways saved my life.
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