Editor’s note: Pete and I met Stephen Barton in the fall of 2011 at Syracuse University. He was a liberal arts senior and involved in everything from Habitat for Humanity to Jerk Magazine. He graciously agreed to star in one of my short films. He also seemed to know everyone on the gigantic campus, so it was no surprise when he was chosen to represent the 2012 undergraduate class.
Steve was one of the earliest supporters of Bly and planned to contribute to the blog during his cross-country bike trip this summer. He just happens to have a good eye for photos, so I was living vicariously through his Instagram feed while he was on the road.
I remember seeing his photo the day of “The Dark Knight Rises” premiere – thinking how fun it was that they found time for a midnight showing. As Pete and I settled into our own seats in a theater far from Steve that night, we had no idea what was happening in Aurora.
What follows is a stunning, honest account of Steve’s ongoing fight for his American dream in the midst of tragedy. It’s included in our Southbury package because that’s his hometown and where he spent his recovery time. We also visited him there (more on that tomorrow). – Leah
[We chose not to change his wording so please be aware that the following article contains strong language.]
By Stephen Barton
Nearly three years ago, I received an unexpected e-mail in my inbox. It was from my best friend, Ethan, who was in his second year at Yale after a summer abroad in Taiwan. I was staring at my laptop screen in an apartment in Madrid, still adjusting to the language barrier and the copious pitchers of sangria.
The original e-mail has since been lost to posterity, but the exchange went something like this:
Ethan: “Let’s go on a cross-country bicycle trip after graduation.”
This wasn’t the first time we had conspired to do something crazy. In high school, we gallivanted around the talent show stage in togas and sang an a cappella arrangement of “This Jesus Must Die.” Ethan started an independent newspaper, recruiting me as right-hand man and bodyguard during tense negotiations with the administration. Around Halloween of our senior year, we terrorized the hallways as a bearded, mace-wielding giant.
But the cross-country trip was far more serious than any of our other schemes. It was inspired partly by John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, in which the aging author drives from coast to coast with his French poodle “in search of America.”
Ethan and I had a similar urge, especially after having been confronted during our travels abroad by the discomfiting reality that we don’t really know our own country that well. We resolved to travel slowly and purposefully through middle America’s patchwork quilt of towns, farms, and villages.
We decided we would travel fully loaded, carrying all of our equipment on our bodies and bikes. Our route was a winding one, starting in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee before curving into the Deep South and Texas, followed by a trek across the Great Plains and Colorado to reach the West. We would trace the territorial growth of our country as settled by our pioneering ancestors so many years ago.
When I first began to tell friends and family about my plan to bicycle across the country, they warned me about reckless drivers, murderous thieves, and various other brigands and vagabonds that occupy the back roads of America. They said our lack of training could prove deadly in the heat of summer. Didn’t we know how tall the Rocky Mountains are? Why not take a car instead?
Ethan and I were, of course, undeterred. We dipped our rear wheels in the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach, Virginia on June 6, 2012.
Forty-three days and 2,750 miles later, we arrived in Aurora, Colorado on July 19, 2012, where we bought tickets to the midnight premiere of the summer blockbuster we had been talking about all trip long: The Dark Knight Rises.
Yes, that movie. On that night. In that Aurora. At that theater.
I was hit in the head and torso by a shotgun blast before I had even fully realized what was happening. I fell forward into the aisle and listened to the steady report of a semi-automatic rifle as warm blood rushed out of my neck and through my fingers. I heard Ethan, who was not wounded, yelling at a 911 dispatch through his cell phone. Our host for the night, who sat between us and whose ticket we bought out of gratitude for her hospitality, had been shot in the head.
A winding, unpredictable cross-country trip had led us to one of the worst mass shootings in America’s history, as if our lives had been leading up to it ever since Ethan’s e-mail arrived in my inbox in Spain.I thought I was going to die, but I didn’t feel ready at all. I was 22 years old. I had just graduated from Syracuse University with three degrees at the top of my class. I had a Fulbright grant to teach English in Russia. I had an offer to join the Teach For America corps.
If nothing else, I had a fucking cross-country trip to finish.
The gunman’s 100-round rifle magazine suddenly jammed, snapping me out of my fears and allowing me time to escape out the back emergency exit. I ran to the parking lot, where I found a police officer attending to someone who had been shot in the leg. As the officer drove us in the back of his police car to a triage area, the other shooting victim leaned over and asked me if I was religious. I told him I wasn’t, but he said he would pray for me anyway.
Maybe somebody heard those prayers, because I was in the operating room less than 30 minutes later. Ethan escaped without physical injury, and our host survived and has since made a miraculous recovery.
But I’m still trying to process what happened that night. I don’t know why Ethan, our host, and I lived while 12 others didn’t. I can’t comprehend what convinces someone to carefully plan and execute a mass shooting. I don’t understand why Ethan and I chose that theater.
It’s tempting to point to fate or God, but I think blaming senseless and indiscriminate killing on a higher power must necessarily debase it. Those 12 people weren’t any more ready to die that night than I was. They were supposed to wake up in bed the next morning, slightly groggy from a late night at a midnight premiere.
Most days, I try not to think about that by focusing instead on the people I met along the way to Aurora. The “brigands and vagabonds” I had been warned to avoid ended up defining the trip in an unforgettable way.
The toothless warden of a Virginian trailer park, the manager of a Chinese restaurant in eastern Kentucky, a little old lady in a Tennessee candy shop, some rednecks in central Mississippi, an older cyclist with deep pockets in eastern Texas, the family owners of a BBQ restaurant in rural Colorado, the doctors and nurses of the Medical Center of Aurora and countless others have completely changed my life for the better.
For one murderer, there were hundreds of friendly strangers. And every second since the shooting has felt like borrowed time in which to pay forward their kindness.
I’m still not ready to die, but I’m more ready than ever to live. I’m 22 years old. I still have my family and friends from college and home. I can still travel to Russia. I still might teach one day.
And I’m still going to finish that fucking cross-country trip.
You can find Steve on Twitter.