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BICYCLIST BAGS BURGER BUSINESS AND HITS THE ROAD

A red mountain bike laden with red packs and a red-faced rider in red sunglasses wound its way through the red-rock country of southern Utah last week on the seventh day of a man's reckoning with himself.

The man was Johnny "Bronco" Barnes, a veteran distance bicyclist and restaurateur who bagged his burger business in California the first of May, anchored his feet on the pedals of his bike, "Big Red," and began an eastward trek into his past in search of clues to his future.Nicknamed "Johnny Bronco" for a chain of burger restaurants his family owns in Nebraska, the 40-year-old Plains native was en route from his San Diego home to Omaha in a symbolic journey through midlife crisis when he stopped in Moab for repairs and respite.

The route through Moab, to catch the scenic river road U-128 to Grand Junction, Colo., was highly recommended by a fellow Barnes had met in Baja.

"He said if I ever took a tour cross country to come this way, and I'm glad I did. I'm just amazed," Barnes said. "I love it. It's beautiful. It's gorgeous. This is the place to be."

While in Utah, Barnes mailed a bunch of postcards to friends, telling them slickrock country is the mountain-biking mecca of the world.

Moab became a candidate for Barnes' future enterprise, "Johnny Bronco's Burger & Fish Corral."

But first, he had a few hundred miles to travel, people to meet, family to embrace.

"I'm into more looking (than exploring), then coming back, because I really don't have time right now," he said.

Barnes had entered Utah over the Arizona border at Kayenta the day before he showed up in Moab. A 10-speed bicyclist for 15 years, he travels at a good pace and generally covers about 100 miles a day if alone.

From the start, Barnes kept a log on events, places and people encountered, as a future source of inspiration for poetry. He said the first week of his travels was rather "ho-hum," lacking mishaps or misadventures. But it was sprinkled with special people.

Barnes said he found himself in awe of the Earth's grandeur as he made his way for the first time to the Grand Canyon, there joining two other bicyclists also traveling cross-country. One of them, a guitar-carrying songwriter named Joe McGown, wrote a ballad titled "Bungie Cord Barnes" in tribute to Barnes's resourcefulness on the road and his talent with the elasticized cords used to secure items on his bike.

Verse four touches on the remarkable array of traveling gear Barnes is carrying: "Now Johnny's got a hammock/He's got a coffee pot too/A solar powered stereo/So he can crank out the tunes.

"He's got a lot of gizmos/And they all do the trick/But he's still searchin' hard/For his bungie-cord chick!"

Barnes said about the only things he didn't bring on the trip were a TV set, kitchen sink and female companion.

"I've got my jukebox, I've got my stove and a lantern. I like to cook, so I have lots of utensils. I have a sun-shower (I leave it in the sun and it heats water). The one thing I left at home was my collapsible bucket, so I wash my clothes in the cooler in back."

The weight of the load is anybody's guess. "All I know is, I get on it, pedal, and it goes," Barnes said.

He set out rather blindly with no particular route in mind, checking with local people along the way.

Barnes said everyone he has met has treated him well and offered absolutely great advice on where to go and what to see.

"I told my mother everyone takes care of somebody on a bicycle."

His only words of caution to others contemplating cross-country touring are to avoid riding at night because of drunken drivers, stay in campgrounds because there is safety in numbers and carry lots of water on desert stretches.

Also, watch weather patterns.

Barnes was forced by fierce winds to hole up for a night in a motel in Bluff - the first room he'd rented since embarking May 2.