When Carolyn and Santi Ocariz clicked into their rollerskis slightly more than two months ago, neither really knew what they were in for.
The Wisconsin couple heard plenty of stories about the places they’d travel through. They took to heart the warnings about crazy drivers, snakes and treacherous temperatures while crossing America’s heartland. It might not be hot when they left, but it could get brutal, and the elements could change 180 degrees by the time they reached Utah.
Carolyn, 23, and Santi, 25, prepared as best they could. As they ticked off the states and thousands of miles, the two couldn’t have been more surprised.
Drivers frequently slowed down beside them and asked what they were doing. Rather than threaten to run them off the road, they were genuinely interested.
“It was unbelievable,” Santi said on the phone from San Francisco, where they finished their journey last Friday. “I think we were better accepted on the roads in the south than we were back in Wisconsin.”
The hospitality they encountered throughout their trip, Ski Across America, had been overwhelming, he said. Once people heard they were rollerskiing more than 3,000 miles across the U.S. to raise money for a charity called Food for the Poor, many strangers opened their homes to them.
In all, the Ocarizes raised an estimated $17,000 to $18,000 dollars to help feed children in impoverished nations. They visited at least 400 churches along the way to deliver packets with their message, which they asked pastors to read to their congregation for donations. With their trip’s website still up and running, Santi hoped more money would continue to roll in.
The newlyweds from the Midwest had come a long way since early March when they first started their journey at the Atlantic coast in Charleston, S.C. In two months and five days, they raised some $12,000, crossed more than a dozen states and visited friends and relatives along the way.
Spending about seven hours a day on the road – sometimes longer – the two often chewed off more than a 100 miles at a time. While traveling through Yosemite National Park on the last leg of their trip, a park ranger informed them 10 miles in that they couldn’t rollerski through it.
They popped out of their rollerskis and ran. After logging a total of six hours on foot, most of which was downhill and would have been much more pleasant on wheels, the Ocarizes arrived on the other side of the park the next day.
“The legs took a beating,” Santi said. “When we’re in shape for running, it wouldn’t be any big deal, but when you’ve been rollerskiing for the past two months, not really running, it was kind of a shock to the system.”
He said they were lucky to have even been able to use the road; it opened the day before. Avoiding the 750,000-acre park altogether would have added an estimated three days of rollerskiing.
They camped overnight in Yosemite and woke up the next morning to find chocolate missing out of Santi’s backpack along with his cellphone. Apparently, a raccoon dug both out and dragged the latter to an obscure place at the campsite. Someone later found his phone and planned to mail it to him.
“It actually ran off with my phone,” Santi said with a laugh. “It couldn’t have been anything else.”
Before Yosemite, the Ocarizes encountered a similar “blessing” at Lake Powell in southern Utah. When they arrived at the second largest manmade reservoir in the U.S. nearly 200 miles long, they learned the ferry across opened for the season that day.
“Otherwise we would have had to go who knows how far around,” Santi said.
They would always remember the good fortune they encountered on routes like those, he said. At the same time, they’d probably never forget when they skied more than 30 miles out of the way to the top of a closed mountain pass.
To get to southern Utah’s Cedar City, Carolyn and Santi picked a road that looked pretty doable: 60-65 miles of not-so-tough terrain. On the way, they realized they misinterpreted the map.
“It turned into like a ten-hour skiing day,” Santi said. “The whole afternoon we were climbing, and as we climbed, it got colder and rain turned to sleet and snow and the wind was blowing in our face.”
Alternating between rollerskiing and driving their Subaru, the two arrived at the top of the pass nearly 10,500 feet above sea level. There, they saw a gate across the road indicating the pass was closed.
“That was a demoralizing moment,” Santi said, jovially.
It was already getting dark and they had to backtrack to the next town. There, a landslide had closed an alternate route. They called it a night and drove farther back to an open road the next day.
Looking back, Santi recalled some of the most beautiful places they rolled through: Yosemite, Taos in New Mexico, the redwood trees and mountains near the California coast, and even the south despite its 88-degree days with 90 percent humidity.
“Sometimes the outlook of the south is, oh, it’s dangerous and weird people, but it was completely the opposite,” he said. “You won’t find any nicer places or communities, I don’t think, than down there.”
He and Carolyn bathed in mountain streams, at truck stops and campgrounds, but at the end of their trip — about 3,500 miles total — they soaked up the Pacific. With Santi’s cousin Alec biking alongside them for the last 30 miles while their friend Judy Krueger drove the car, Santi and Carolyn arrived at the West Coast and rollerskied right into the ocean.
“It was pretty awesome,” Santi said. “We had both been looking forward to completing the trip but at the same time it was like, what now? The last two months had been just all rollerskiing and suddenly it came to an end.”
They had memories to hold onto, friends like Rebecca Dussault and her husband Sharbel to thank for joining them for a day and a night.
They met a man running across the country for the American Heart Association (willpoweredrun.org) and even watched Tad Elliott mountain bike race. The spoke at churches on weekends and had plenty of people to inform that they finished.
Finishing up some computer stuff at his relative’s home in San Francisco, Santi said they were preparing for the next step. A member of the Central Cross Country (CXC) Elite Team for the last two years, he decided months ago to join XC Oregon in Bend.
Also a former CXC member, Carolyn would move there to train with the team as well. She was flying home to Wisconsin on Wednesday to spend time with family and gather their belongings before driving west once more. In June, the two will celebrate their one year anniversary.
Santi said Bend was a destination that had been on their minds for years. He spent several summers training there while in college at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Both born in the Midwest, he and Carolyn viewed their cross-country trip as the best way to get there.
“Bend is amazing. It’s a training mecca,” Santi said. “I think they still have ten feet of base snow so they’re gonna have snow until who knows when in July. So we’re going to be ditching our rollerskis and getting back on snow for a while.”
More appealing was the amount of people they could train with, which included elite runners as well as skiers.
“There’s just a very good crowd of fit and enthusiastic people,” Santi said. “Even though the team is smaller we have many more people to train with than Hayward.”
Part of the reason they finished their anticipated three-month trip earlier than expected was so that Santi could get to Bend sooner and Carolyn could spend more time at home. She would be meet him in Bend in a few weeks, he said.
On Saturday, Santi planned on racing the Pole Pedal Paddle in Bend with his brother Javier. After that, he’ll jump into training with old friends at the U.S./Canadian ski team camp there.
“I feel great, honestly; I have a ton of energy,” he said. “The body adapts. It gets stronger and I definitely feel very strong right now.”
For some, two months of nonstop rollerskiing might be draining. In his case, so many easy-distance days in a row gave him the rest he needed.
“In a way this trip was training, but I guess we didn’t consider it training,” Santi said. “We were just kind of doing it for the fundraising aspect of it.”