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7,500-mile ride for the love of animals

Mike Minnick has wanderlust. In a big way.

The 38-year-old Oklahoma native rode his cargo bike into Petaluma last week with his dog, Bixby, in a crate on the back. They were feted by the locals, as they have been in the dozens of towns they’ve visited during a cross-country bicycle trek that began more than a year and 7,500 miles ago.

While the shear breadth of the trip - which has taken them from the easternmost tip of Maine to Florida, across the south to Texas, north to Colorado and Montana and then to the Pacific Northwest and down to California - is remarkable, Minnick’s personal journey might be even more remarkable.

Before he got on his bike for a test ride - 600 miles from Galveston, Texas to a family reunion in Texarcana, Ark. - Minnick hadn’t ridden a bicycle since his childhood, was badly out of shape and had recently quit a 20-year chain-smoking habit by spending four days hiking through a remote section of Big Bend National Park.

Even so, Minnick says, it’s Bixby that’s been the star of the show. The rescued border collie mix was the reason he decided to pedal across the country.

Minnick got Bixby from a shelter and, like many pet owners who adopt, he’s discovered it wasn’t the dog who was rescued.

“I thought about making this trip for awhile, and all I knew was I didn’t want to do it without my dog,” says Minnick, who managed a bar and worked as a bartender in Austin, Texas before setting off to Burning Man in 2011 and then on his bike in May 2013. “We promote rescue wherever we go.”

Minnick’s lengthy journey has given him up-close views of the amazing nooks and crannies around the country, and introduced him to hundreds of people, many of them strangers who have offered food, shelter and even money along the way. He bicycled to the tip of Cape Cod, spent Christmas in Key West and, in what he says may be the highlight, rode across the Brooklyn Bridge at night, surrounded by the bright lights of the New York skyline. There have been thrills, chills, near-misses and even spills - in Colorado in September, an accident left him with injuries to his knee and shoulder that have forced him to cut down his daily miles. But, he says, Bixby didn’t even miss a beat.

“I was on the ground by the side of the road and she was standing there asking to play fetch like nothing had happened,” he said.

White with black spots and what seems like an inquisitive look on her face, Bixby clearly loves her perch on the back of the bike and, he says, his trip would probably be much less interesting if he hadn’t brought her along.

“People just gravitate to her,” he says. “If it was just me, some guy with a beard and a bike, I’m sure it would be different. But they see Bixby and respond to her. She’s my introduction everywhere we go. It’s been pretty amazing.”

Minnick’s stop in Petaluma was not by chance. He has made the entire ride on a cargo bike made by Yuba Bicycles, which is headquartered here. Owner Ben Sarrazin rolled out the red carpet for Minnick and Bixby, including a Saturday afternoon event in the company’s parking lot on Petaluma Boulevard that included food, bike rides and a demonstration of Bixby’s excellent abilities at playing fetch.

Minnick found Yuba online while looking for a bike that would allow him to carry Bixby, as opposed to having her on a trailer behind him. At the time he was living near Big Bend, where he wound up after quitting his job in Austin to do some traveling around the country. He, with Bixby along, had been using a pickup truck and advertising for ride sharing on Craigslist.

“My only condition was that the destination had to be somewhere I hadn’t been and they had to share the cost of gas,” he said. “It worked pretty well for awhile.”

But when his truck broke down, he found himself pretty much stranded in Terlingua, a ghost town near Big Bend. He got a job there and settled for more than a year. It was there he met two brothers who were traveling around the county by bike, filming a documentary. And the seeds for his own cycling trip were sown.

Minnick says he was restless, having spent seven years in Austin sitting still and living off memories of some epic trips taken in his youth, including a cross-country hitchhiking trek when he was in his 20s. He got as far north as Newfoundland and once got a ride from an ex-adult dancer who said she had become a private detective.

“That’s the kind of crazy and wonderful things that happen when you go on trips like that,” he says. “But I was at a point in my life where I was only hearing other people’s great stories.”

Minnick served drinks at a bar inside the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, where he would get an earful from travelers who would share tales of the road.

“I had grown so complacent,” he said. “I wanted a new adventure. It wasn’t a matter of if I was going to go, it was when.”

Minnick plans to keep going. He’s headed south through the Bay Area and then down to Southern California in hopes he will find some warmer, dryer weather - with no plans to end his trek anytime soon.

He’s been footing the cost of the ride mostly from the help of strangers, including donations he receives through his website wheresbixby.com. He wants to write a children’s book about his adventure and perhaps make a short documentary from all the video he’s shot along the way.

But aside from meeting new people and discovering new places, Minnick says the best reward is in making the trip with Bixby and making a difference for shelter animals like her. At Saturday’s Yuba-sponsored event, a dog was adopted from Petaluma Animal Services.

“It’s all about Bixby,” he says. “She’s my best friend. I’m just along for the ride.”

(Contact Elizabeth M. Cosin at elizabeth.cosin@arguscourier.com)

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