In the darkness of Theater 9, smoke began to rise. Stephen Barton saw flashes and heard loud pops coming from near a front exit.
Fireworks, he thought at first. Kids playing a prank.
But then he felt the molten buckshot of a shotgun blast pierce his neck and face. His left arm went limp. He collapsed onto the floor in front of his seat as chaos unfolded around him.
As he lay bleeding, Barton heard the sounds of the movie yield to more primal sounds of terror. The screams of the wounded and dying. The desperate pleas of people calling 911. The rattle of gunfire — rhythmic, methodical, endless.
“This might be the end. I might die here,” thought the 22-year-old, who had arrived in Aurora for the first time that afternoon. He decided that he would not die in this place on this night.
“There’s no way it’s going to end here,” Barton kept telling himself. “There’s no way I biked 3,000 miles to come to this theater and get killed in it.”
Forty-four days earlier, on a sun-soaked afternoon in Virginia Beach, Barton and a friend, Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent, had dipped the back wheels of their bicycles into the Atlantic Ocean, posed with a trio of girls in bikinis and started west on a 4,500-mile voyage, bound for San Francisco.
The two had been close since their days at Pomperaug High School in Connecticut. Barton had graduated days earlier from Syracuse University, where he gave the student commencement speech, imploring fellow graduates to “fill your lives with memories as genuine and joyful as those that will be made today.” In the fall, he would head to Russia to teach English on a Fulbright grant.
Rodriguez-Torrent, now between his junior and senior years at Yale University, had first proposed the ride two years earlier. Both men had studied abroad during college — Barton in Spain, Rodriguez-Torrent in Taiwan — and each had found himself stumped by curious foreigners inquiring about the United States.
“They wanted to know how Americans live, what we eat, what we earn, how we celebrate. I discovered pretty quickly I didn’t have very many answers for them,” Rodriguez-Torrent, 22, explained on his blog. “I could speak for my family, or at times on behalf of suburban Connecticut, but rarely did I feel confident talking about anywhere else in America, let alone the country in its entirety. When I got back to the U.S., I started wondering why I had never really thought of exploring America.”
And so they set out to discover the country by pedaling from coast to coast.
They crashed on couches and camped beneath the summer stars. They ate their weight in peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, brownie-flavored Clif bars and turkey-bacon-avocado subs at Subway. They changed countless flat tires, fought off rashes and soreness and mosquitoes. They outran foreboding thunderstorms. They visited old friends.
They biked the misty turns of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, stopped for roadside barbecue and an antique car show in Kentucky, and caught some live music in Nashville. They dodged logging trucks in Louisiana. They saw Fourth of July fireworks over Longview, Tex., befriended workers at a small-town Chinese buffet and wished a girl named Larkin good luck in the Miss Baca County Princess Pageant.
Barton snapped pictures of the people they met along the way, old and young, boisterous and easy-going. He also posted photo after photo on his Twitter feed of sights they encountered — the sparkling Chesapeake Bay, a golden sunset over the Natchez Trace Parkway in Tennessee, William Faulkner’s home in Mississippi, the endless prairies of Texas, the distant peaks of the Colorado Rockies.
Mile after mile, they saw the best of America. They reveled in its diversity. They welcomed the serendipity of the road. Most of all, they marveled at the generosity that seemed to follow them wherever they went: The man in Daleville, Va., who offered a warm shower and the shelter of his back porch. The woman in Glasgow, Ky., who brought them hot chocolate at a campground. The old rancher near Tupelo, Miss., who shook their hands and slipped them $20. The middle-aged diner in Denton, Tex., who spontaneously paid for their dinner at Rooster’s Roadhouse. The man they met at a rural gas station who offered to throw a salsa party in their honor when they made it to Denver.
Before the trip, family members and friends had warned them to keep up their guard, to watch for thieves and madmen, to not rely too wholeheartedly on the benevolence of strangers. “People said to be careful,” Barton recalled. “ ‘The world is a crazy place. There are a lot of crazy people out there.’ ”
Out on the road, in the America they were beginning to know better, crazy seemed far outweighed by kindness. Goodness trumped evil.
* * *
The pair pulled into Aurora on the afternoon of Thursday, July 19, after an 80-mile ride.