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Pedaling the Semper Fi spirit from Canada to Mexico

Dean Zenoni and his wife, Lorri, pedaled their mountain bikes From the Canada border to the Mexico border, raising funds for vets with every pedal

Lorri, left and Dean Zenoni pose for a photo on a street near their home in Sandy, Utah.
Lorri, left and Dean Zenoni pose for a photo on a street near their home in Sandy on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021, while discussing their recent bicycle trip from the Canadian border to the Mexican border to raise money for veterans.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A little over a month ago, Dean Zenoni and his wife, Lorri, found themselves in the mother of all thunderstorms at 11,500 feet in the Colorado Rockies. Huddled in their little camp tent, the thunder sounded like Thor’s hammer and the lightning lit the mountains up like the Las Vegas Strip.

Dean turned to Lorri. “This is awesome!” he shouted.

It will help to know that Dean is a retired U.S. Marine. His worldview isn’t what you’d call conventional. He’s seen things. Been places. Like four deployments to Iraq, others to Somalia, Cuba, Liberia and Haiti. As a master sergeant, he was operations chief for the infantry and taught mountain warfare.

“Well, no one’s shooting at me so it’s a good day,” is one of his mantras. Another one: “If it ain’t rainin’ we ain’t trainin’.”

A midnight thunderstorm on the knife edge of the Continental Divide? Hah! A small price to pay for a summerlong Canada-to-Mexico trip through the Rockies that not only let Dean and Lorri ride their mountain bikes amid some of God’s most beautiful creations, but also raise $50,000 for their favorite military-aid charity.

* * *

The idea for such an ambitious bike ride was hatched in Dean’s mind during the period of confinement known as COVID-19, but the real roots stretch back to 2009 when his Marine career was derailed by a bombed-out crater in Iraq.

Dean had survived the first Gulf War in 1990 and the second invasion of Iraq in 2002, but while helping keep the peace in Fallujah seven years later the vehicle he was riding in slammed into a hole created by an earlier explosion. Zenoni was thrown so hard in the crash he suffered a traumatic brain injury that returned him stateside to San Diego.

Besides the TBI he also had post traumatic stress disorder. It was enough to muster him out of the Marine Corps after 24 years — six short of the 30 he was aiming for.

As he stepped onto the long slow road to recovery he was introduced to the Semper Fi & America’s Fund, a charitable organization started by wives of Marines in Oceanside, California, to care for the wounded coming home from Iraq.

Through financial and therapeutic support, the fund helped steer Dean to a lifestyle compatible with his injuries. For Dean, always an athlete, movement was critical to moving on. He discovered that one of the best ways to keep moving was riding a bike.

The year 2009 was pivotal in another significant regard. While recuperating on a ski day at Snow Valley resort in California, Dean met Lorri when they rode the same lift. They’ve been together ever since.

The couple moved to Utah after Dean retired from the military in 2011. Dean had been introduced to the Salt Lake Valley when stationed at Camp Williams in an earlier assignment. The mountains and outdoor lifestyle beckoned him back.

The pandemic, of course, didn’t spare the Zenonis any more than the rest of us. After about six months of lockdown in 2020, Dean heard about the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route — a trail on mostly Forest Service and Jeep roads that starts in Canada and ends some 2,500 miles later in Mexico.

He had a brainstorm: He and Lorri would not only ride the course, they would use it to help raise money for the Semper Fi & America’s Fund — all while taking social distancing to the extreme.

“I see people all the time raising money with 5K and 10K runs,” says Dean, “I thought, ‘There’s a lot of K’s between Canada and Mexico.’”

Lorri remembers Dean coming home one day in the fall of 2020 and introducing his grand plan with this news: “I ordered bikes.”

“When he brings something like that up, it means he’s been thinking about it for a while,” says Lorri.

Anyway, she said OK.

“She always agrees when I want to do crazy stuff. She’s just as crazy as me, I guess,” says Dean.

Turned out it was the opposite of crazy. It drove them sane. From June 11 to Aug. 8, the Zenonis had a summer adventure they’ll never forget. They packed their new Trek bicycles with 70 pounds of gear, each, got a friend to deliver them to the Canada-Montana border, got up every morning at 4:30, were on the trail by 6, averaged 45 miles a day, and finished by 1 or 2 in the afternoon to avoid rain and lightning.

Well, most of the time.

The day the storm caught them unawares at 11,500 feet and had them scrambling to put up their tent was a little reminder that nature is still in charge.

Their trip was planned — and this should come as no surprise — “to military precision,” Lorri points out. Dean reconnoitered the route via Google Earth, mapped out where they would camp each night and the seven post offices along the route where they would send food supplies ahead of time. They stuck to their plan except for the day the lightning hit and another day when a rendezvous for supplies disappeared. That ended up being a 122-mile day. They won’t forget that one either.

They packed bells, whistles and bear spray in case they ran into a grizzly. Also, a 10 mm bear gun. Dean is a Marine, remember.

Favorite parts? “All the beer and ice cream you could eat,” says Dean without having to think about it. And he still lost 22 pounds. Lori lost 10 pounds. Neither one was overweight to begin with.

After biking through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, the pair skidded to a stop at the U.S.-Mexico border in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. They’d ridden 2,624 miles in 59 days, climbed 165,304 feet in elevation, averaged 7.5 mph, and, not incidentally, raised over $50,000 for Semper Fi & America’s Fund. The donations ranged from online contributions (Lorri posted a log throughout their trip) to “strangers who gave us the last $5 out of their pocket” at stops along the route. (Contributions can still be sent to: give.thefund.org/teamzenoniGDMBR.)

Back home in Sandy, Dean and Lorri are wistful that their summer adventure is in the rearview mirror. Lorri is writing a book on their experience. Dean? He’s thinking about what’s next. “I think we’ll take up pickleball,” he says. “Maybe train and enter the Senior Games.” No, he is not kidding.