Cyclist With a Cause and Montauk Roots Spans U.S.

A 4,000-plus-mile cycling trek across the United States
Jensen Butler pedaled the final 20 miles from Amagansett to the Montauk Lighthouse on July 18. Jack Graves

Jensen Butler, a recent graduate of Florida State University, where he made the varsity football squad as a walk-on, pedaled into town this past week, on the last leg of a 4,000-plus-mile cycling trek across the United States.

When this writer asked during a conversation at The Star on July 18 if the width of the country weren’t more like 3,000 miles, Jensen, a 6-foot-2-inch, 190-pounder who turned 22 midway through the trip, which was to raise money for research into rare types of cancer, smiled and said he’d gone 1,000 miles out of his way, through Arizona, New Mexico, and a lot of Texas, to see his girlfriend, who lives in Austin.

A three-sport athlete at Governor Livingston High School in Berkeley Heights, N.J., near his hometown of Westfield, Jensen (whose father, Nat, is an East Hampton High School graduate who grew up in Montauk) never played football, he said, until his senior year. 

“I loved it . . . the camaraderie, the experience. . . . I’m always up for new challenges.”

His decision to ride across the country for a worthy cause was an example. “Cycling was entirely new to me. I didn’t train; I didn’t know how to change a flat tire. I got a Fuji touring bike, a hybrid, which is meant for long-haul trips. I’d wanted to do a cross-country cycling trip for a long time, since I was a kid. My dad had said he’d wanted to do one and regretted that he hadn’t. So, I did it for both of us. I didn’t want to look back some day and say I wish I’d done that.”

But he added that he didn’t want to do it without some purpose, “something that would help motivate me. I chose to raise money on the way for Cycle for Survival, which is affiliated with Memorial Sloan-Kettering and has raised more than $180 million for cancer research over the past decade. . . . My goal was to raise $10,000. As of this morning, $13,300 has been raised, and I expect that more will come in when I reach Montauk Point later today.”

Jensen said in answer to a question that he had stayed off the main highways, by and large, and that people had been friendly, especially so when he told them of his aim to raise money for cancer research. Just about everyone, he said, had been touched in some way by the disease.

“I remember one fellow in particular, in Safford, Ariz. He opened up his door to me and invited me to his church. I sat in the back as he spoke and introduced me to the congregation. Then he called me to come up front, where he presented me with what was in the collection plates. It was very humbling. A ton of people have been either directly or indirectly touched by cancer. When they told me my trip was inspiring, it was incredibly humbling. . . . My journey pales in comparison to the battles that other people have faced or are facing. Their battles are so much harder.”

Having set forth from the pier in Santa Monica, Calif., on May 14, it took him two months to reach the lighthouse here, averaging about 80 miles per day along off-highway routes he’d laid out using Adventure Cycling Association maps. 

On Long Island, after pedaling through New York City bookended by the George Washington and Williamsburg Bridges, he headed east on roads that paralleled the L.I.E. “I have Google Maps,” he said, “to thank for that.”

He had cycled with a taillight that was always visible, and with a mirror on his helmet. He’d gotten friendly honks and not-so-friendly honks, Jensen said, though he’d never been genuinely worried for himself. 

The weather? “Hot, in general. The hottest part was riding through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. . . . It’s very peaceful when you’re out there, though you do sometimes wish you had some human interaction.” 

“You really do come to appreciate the outdoors on such a trip,” Jensen said. “We live in a very big and beautiful country, whose climate, terrain, and culture vary tremendously. The connections I made with strangers, some of whom were cancer survivors, some of whom had lost a relative to the disease, were very motivating.”

Jensen’s uncle, Olman Sanabria, had died of cancer at a young age, this writer recalled. 

“I would like to add,” Jensen said, “that this was not by any means a one-man show. There were a ton of people who have contributed . . . the donors, people who have spread the word, people who have contributed in any way they can, my friends and family. . . . It was a total team effort.”

Jensen’s father, finding himself with some free time after having photographed the National Basketball Association playoffs, joined his son in Austin. “It was really important for both of us for him to be part of the trip. He’s been driving ahead of or behind me since. He’s given me moral support. He brought a bike in the car and we rode a few miles together. . . .”

Finishing in Montauk had particular meaning for him, Jensen said. In doing so he was paying tribute to his grandfather Capt. William Butler, a former East Hampton High School teacher and Montauk party boat captain who had died this past October — “I wanted to dedicate my journey to him” — and to his father as well.

As his son set out for Montauk from Amagansett that afternoon, Nat Butler confessed that given the teeming traffic out here he couldn’t wait for his son’s journey to end — at the lighthouse, where he was to cap the 4,150-mile journey by jumping into the water.

As for what would be next adventure-wise, Jensen said, “I’m gonna sleep a little bit. . . . I’m going to work this summer with a currency-trading firm in New Jersey. My life will be changing, but it’s exciting to know that I had this window of opportunity. I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. People would see my Cycle for Survival shirt in Mississippi and ask where I was coming from. When I’d say California, they’d say, ‘What do you mean?’ And that’s how a conversation would start.”