On September 12, 2007, I stood next to the Chicago river with a skinny little guy who had gotten it into his head that he was going to ride his rickety bicycle from the 'burbs to Argentina for twenty months in order to raise money for low-income students to go to college.
He had a satchel containing a few rudimentary bike tools, some clothes, a few cans of food, a map, and a picture of his girlfriend, Danielle, which he'd taped to the frame of his bike for inspiration.
Then-25-year-old Isai Madriz, a resident of Montgomery, IL, a tiny 'burb outside Aurora, planned to rely on hard work and the proverbial kindness of strangers for his own sustenance as he pedaled 22,500 miles to Tierra del Fuego (''Land of Fire'') at the Southernmost tip of Argentina.
From there he was going to bike up to Caracas, Venezuela, all the while getting the word out to local media in order to raise money for the Jesus Guadalupe Foundation, which had helped him, back in 2004, when he needed a hand to graduate from California's Humboldt State University.
The commitment he made seemed crazy to others - but only those others who didn't know that the Guadalajara, Mexico native who'd arrived here when he was 16 had been so poor that he had been riding his bike everywhere. Even to college in California. This is a kid who literally would not take "no" for an answer.
"I started riding for myself because after I transferred to Humboldt State University in California, I needed a way to pay for my tuition and board. Then I did a second ride in 2004 to help pay for my student loans, but 500 miles into the trip a truck drove me off the road and I fell and fractured my hand," Isai told me the morning before he left. He said there was little he could do, but that this was the one statement he could make about the crushing problem of low college enrollment and graduation for Hispanic students.
"People tell you the door is closed before you even try to open it. Most [immigrant] students that are here don't have the means or the papers to go to college once they graduate from high school," he said. "Hispanics don't have really good jobs. Mostly families don't have papers to get good jobs then don't have the means to help their kids go to college. I know a lot of really intelligent students, really gifted people who graduated from high school then went to work because they have to help their families. Then they settle in, have their own kids, and never go back to college."
So whatever happened to the skinny guy with the rickety bike? He crossed into South America on August 11th, and he's in Colombia right now, moving slowly but making progress.
"Hi Esther! I'm in Popoyan, Colombia," one recent email chirped. I promised him I'd keep telling his story as long as he was on his quest, so he sends me email and we talk from time to time. Never once did I doubt he'd keep going, and I've been so happy to receive his pictures and letters telling of incredible adventures.
A short run-down: We first checked off all the states in this country Isai pedaled through. On October 11th, he crossed into Mexico after having been nearly run over by semis too many times to count, being chased by toothy Rottweilers and mauled by fire ants.
After tussling with cacti, breaking a toe, and catching a terrible flu, he made it to Guadalajara, where he lay sick in his uncle's home until recuperating enough to go to the state of Tabasco to aid flood victims. Yes, all on his bike--at a rate of about 50 miles a day.
From there he made his way south from Mexico biking through Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama City, and, finally, into Colombia.
The stories are, frankly, too horrifying to repeat here, but his emails are so ridiculously upbeat--accounts of nearly crashing into a truck after hurtling down a steep hill in a Colombian town called Ipiales because his brakes went out--and spiced with descriptions of "glorious skies," "beautiful people," and statements such as "after almost an hour of recuperating and thinking about this episode [by the side of the road] I went on my way."
Isai's fundraising efforts, to be honest, have not been spectacular. Aside from a few local donations--and the hospitality shown to him by the people he's touched on his quest--the fund for other low-income Hispanic students to get a helping hand through the new, bizarre, and breathtakingly expensive experience called college still needs help.
But that never enters into Isai's equation when he's on the hot road or under the stars in the mountains. "Education is like planting little seeds, and when those seeds grow everybody benefits."
As Isai continues on his way I'll share his stories with you in this space. If you'd like to help you can send donations - which will go to the education fund, not Isai's travel expenses - to: Jesus Guadalupe Foundation, 902 S. Randall Road, Suite C-322, St. Charles, IL 60174. Write "For Isai" on the check.