Thirty days into his cross-country bicycle journey, not long before his lunch stop on July 17, Gray Rushin passed the 3,000-mile mark on his quest.
If he maintained this pace—100 miles a day—he’d easily make it to Maine by the end of July, with time to spare before the start of a new school year.
Rushin, 54, a high school chemistry teacher and outdoor enthusiast from Raleigh, North Carolina, embarked on this coast-to-coast adventure when school let out in June. After flying to Seattle, he made his way to the coast, dipping his tires in the waters of the Pacific.
Then Rushin, an offbeat adventurer known to his friends and fellow travelers as the “happy hermit,” began pedaling.
He cycled solo through the Cascades and the Rockies, across the Great Plains and over the Mississippi River, riding eight to 10 hours a day. All across Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, he paused to take photographs, documenting his journey on Instagram for the hundreds of students, alumni and friends drawn to his epic adventures.
This was to be Rushin’s third consecutive summer completing a border-to-border hiking or biking trip. Previous quests saw him hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada and cycling cross-country on a southerly route.
“I train year round … because I want to do ambitious stuff,” he said. “I like that feeling—that whatever I set my mind to, I can do it.”
As the leader of a school-sponsored outdoors club, he challenges his students in the same way, leading hiking trips as far afield as Patagonia.
‘The rhythm was gone’
On July 12, Rushin crossed from Wisconsin into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Three days later, he biked across the Mackinac Bridge and began hugging the coast of Lake Michigan on his way downstate.
At Ludington, his route would turn east toward Niagara Falls and the Atlantic.
Ludington was the goal on that 3,000-mile milestone day. He even had a hotel reservation—a treat after days of camping out.
But after lunch, somewhere between Manistee and Ludington, Rushin lost his flow.
“I just didn’t feel like I had great push,” he said. “My pedaling didn’t feel balanced, like the rhythm was gone.”
He climbed off his black Vivente, checked the chain, drank some water and resumed his ride. He was right on track: 10 miles to go.
In an instant, everything changed.
On a southbound country road, surrounded by field and forest, Rushin’s bike unexpectedly veered to the right. He crashed to the dirt at the roadside.
“What happened is my whole right side failed, but I didn’t know it in the moment,” he said.
Lying with his right leg trapped under the bike, Rushin struggled to free himself.
“I tried to turn my body and I was like, ‘Whoa, I can’t even move this leg. It’s like a big, giant anchor.’ I tried to get up—I couldn’t get up. And then my arm didn’t even feel like it was part of me,” he said. “It was the strangest sensation of my life.”
Making it to a seated position, he rested beside the road and hoped the feeling would pass. He wondered at his predicament: Is this heat stroke? Dehydration?
Cars blew by. Then a state trooper pulled over. It wasn’t that anything looked amiss, the officer said later. He just had an intuition—a feeling that something was off.
The trooper asked how he was doing.
“That’s when it all hit. I couldn’t speak,” Rushin said. “So I had no working leg, no working arm and I couldn’t speak. And then I knew it was bad.”
From there, events unfolded quickly: The trooper called EMS and an ambulance took Rushin to Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital, where the emergency department team stood ready.
Rushin suffered from a stroke—this was clear “from the moment he came in,” said Jennifer Strahan, NP, his lead provider.
“He kept raising his right arm with his left hand and just dropping it to the bed and pointing because it wasn’t moving,” she said. “He knew something was wrong, but he couldn’t get those words out.”
Knowing Rushin needed advanced care, Strahan called to alert the comprehensive stroke center at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital—the largest stroke center in the state—and requested an Aero Med team transport him there.
One question remained for the Ludington Hospital team: When was his “last known well” time? If they could determine when the stroke had hit, they would know whether it fell within the prescribed window for administering intravenous clot-busting medication, the standard of care.
Rushin certainly couldn’t tell them. But he had the presence of mind to reach for his iPhone, unlock it and help a medical technician access his GPS tracking app.
“You could see right on the app when he was pedaling and then when he went down,” Strahan said.
According to the app’s data, his cycling stopped abruptly at 4:49 p.m.—only an hour and a half earlier and well within the recommended window for tPA, the clot-busting drug.
Armed with this information, the team hooked Rushin up to an IV and waited for the helicopter.
Thrombectomy and stent
Upon arrival at Butterworth Hospital, the team whisked Rushin to the interventional radiology suite for a CT angiogram. This enhanced X-ray pinpointed the location of the blockage—his left internal carotid artery, just below the start of his skull.
A second test, a CT perfusion scan, revealed a large at-risk area—“a major portion of the left half of his brain,” according to Nadeem Khan, MD, the vascular neurologist at the helm of the stroke center that day.
If the team couldn’t restore blood flow to that area, Rushin would remain unable to speak and would be “paralyzed on the entire right side of his body,” said Justin Singer, MD, the neurosurgeon who treated him.
Dr. Singer used catheter technology to reverse the stroke. After inserting a catheter into a vessel in Rushin’s groin, he threaded it up to the affected artery and used an aspiration tool to suck up the blood clot and restore blood flow—a procedure called a thrombectomy.
Since images taken right after the clot removal showed the artery had a dissection, an injury with the potential to form new clots, Dr. Singer performed a second intervention, inserting a stent in the carotid artery to hold it open.
Immediately, Rushin showed signs of improvement.
When his doctors visited the next day, he had full command of his voice and full recall of his story.
“It just blew my mind. I’m like, ‘So you’re telling me you rode your bike from Seattle to Ludington?’” Dr. Singer said.
“He just seems like a really remarkable guy.”
By the third day, Rushin, who is right handed, could see his greatest challenge would be rehabilitating his right arm and hand—particularly his ability to grasp and grip. The fingers didn’t want to open and close on their own.
That reality was hard to come to terms with at first.
“It’s just pretty amazing that one little malfunction in one little part of my body could change all of that,” he said. “I wish I could pedal out of here.”
Ten days post-stroke—after a few days in the hospital and a week of intense rehab at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital—he flew home to Raleigh on his own.
‘Make it memorable’
Rushin planned to continue his rehabilitation therapy back home. But even before his first outpatient appointment, he put himself to work, designing his own version of aquatic therapy in a local lake.
“I don’t have the styrofoam dumbbells from the hospital pool,” he wrote on his Instagram page, “but I have driftwood in various lengths, diameters (and) densities. I don’t have clear water, but the murky water forces me to focus on the sensation of touch.”
Alongside photos of his bearded face and shimmering water, his narrative continued: “The outdoors is therapeutic in itself after my extended time in hospitals. The wilderness has always been a healing place for me.”
Rushin has every intention of resuming life as usual, pushing his students to excel and driving himself to pursue more “crazy adventures.” Though he couldn’t yet write with his right hand, he returned to the classroom in August without missing a beat.
And he has no doubt about his plans for next summer: to finish the ride he had to abandon this year.
“I definitely want to start with a picture at my stroke spot,” he said. “I can go to my GPS app and (get) the coordinates. I’m going to put my bike right there.”
By all indications, he’s got what it takes to get back on the road: athleticism, time to rebuild, a loving family, a supportive community and a boatload of willpower.
And his bike? That’s at home in his garage. The Michigan state trooper who stopped to check on him stored his gear and helped get it shipped back to North Carolina.
Looking back on the summer’s dramatic detour, Rushin called to mind a simple motto he holds onto throughout life’s journeys: Make it memorable.
His sojourn in Michigan was nothing if not that.