Jim Pyatt steers his road bike away from civilization toward long, desolate country roads between Modesto and Sonora.
"I'm lucky if I see one or two cars out there," he says of a training route northeast of Oakdale, along Sonora Road.
The solitariness, the endless hours with nothing more than music in his ear and wind in his face allow for two things Pyatt loves most a little R&R.
As in, revelations and revolutions.
The 55-year-old has needed each in abundance to reach this point in his cycling career. On Saturday, Pyatt will race in the Furnace Creek 508, ultracycling's premier event.
Select riders will start the 508-mile race near Magic Mountain in Valencia, cross through the Mojave Desert and Death Valley before finishing at the entrance of Joshua Tree National Park in Twentynine Palms.
Along the way, riders will jockey for position, battle wind and heat, endure about 35,000 feet of climbs, and push on without sleep and full meals.
"It's known as the toughest 48 hours in sports," said promoter Chris Kostman.
Charities are customary at events such as this, and Pyatt rides with conviction and purpose. He is a staff member at Calvary Temple and chose Without Permission, a Modesto nonprofit whose mission is to stop human trafficking by providing education and rehabilitation.
His goal is to raise $100,000 to assist in the maintenance of a shelter for those rescued in and around Stanislaus County.
"We currently have eight survivors that we're working with," said Sheri Matteucci, finance and event director at Without Permission. "We're hoping to provide local shelters. It takes a lot of funding. He's going to ride on our behalf, and it's awesome."
That he's riding at all, Pyatt says, is a minor miracle.
Revelation No. 1:
Lord's got my back
In 1999, Pyatt was zipping along Highway 1 near Santa Cruz at about 25 mph when everything suddenly stopped.
His bike on the bumper of a car. His face on the windshield. His body, tossed and torn, atop the rough asphalt.
Pyatt was a victim of cycling's worst-case scenario: a bike versus car head-on collision.
"I hit the windshield and saw the whites of her eyes," Pyatt said of the unsuspecting driver. "That's the last thing I remember, and then I woke up in the ambulance."
His body was broken: fractured skull, broken back, lacerations on his face, and road rash over most of his body.
His cycling career, once promising and well-decorated, was over. Or so doctors kept telling him. Two years of rehabilitation only underscored their prognosis. Pyatt suffered from regular numbness on his right side, from his back to his foot.
Then, one day, 10 years after his accident, Pyatt casually propped his feet on his desk at work. After a few moments, it dawned on him: "My foot's not numb," he said to himself.
"I felt in my spirit that I was OK," Pyatt said, "so I told my wife I think the Lord has healed my back."
That wasn't all he told Karen Pyatt, who'd prove to be very understanding of his passion and goals.
"And I want to buy this bike. I think I can ride again."
This bike was a $7,000 purchase, and although the price tag gave her pause, Karen caved to her husband's wants. After all, she married a cyclist.
"He has such great faith. He believes that when the Lord tells him something, that's it," Karen said. "That's taken us a long way. Three years later, we see the awesome work riding his bike has allowed him to do for these organizations. We have no doubt this was not of our own doing."
Immediately, Pyatt fell back into old training patterns and dusted off old memories. A two-time Furnace Creek 508 finisher before his accident, Pyatt wanted another spin.
So he sent Kostman an e-mail ahead of last year's 508.
Pyatt wanted in.
Kostman told him to hit the brakes.
"Prove it," the endurance athlete wrote back, challenging one of 508's veteran riders.
So in August 2011, Pyatt assembled a crew and set out on a 24-hour ride, heading north to Auburn, back through Oakdale and finishing at Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose. In all, Pyatt covered 320 miles.
Two months later, he completed the Furnace Creek 508, finishing second-to-last.
But he finished.
"If a guy his age can race his bicycle 508 miles through the desert, then just about anybody can use a bicycle to ride to the store or even go for a 50-mile ride," Kostman said. "The message here is that nothing happens unless you make it happen in life, and you have to believe in yourself and just get out there and chase your dreams."
Revelation No. 2:
Riding for a good cause
Pyatt couldn't believe his eyes. From an undisclosed location, in the company of FBI and other law enforcement officials, he watched as facial recognition technology scanned a sea of faces.
They were looking for missing girls, now pawns in a human trafficking ring.
Pyatt was invited to Indianapolis in February by Free International, which had partnered with Without Permission. This was no vacation, though.
Pyatt joined law enforcement officials at the No. 1 event for human trafficking the Super Bowl.
"They wanted me to see what human trafficking was in a real sense," he said.
The task force rescued 14 girls, Pyatt said, and arrested more than 100 pimps during an operation that canvassed hotels, massage parlors, dance clubs and bars.
"I walked away from last year's Super Bowl
I still get choked up," Pyatt said. "I had no idea anything like that could go on in this country. I had no idea. So this year, I said, 'OK, I want to do this race again.'
"I want people to know this happens in America. It's happening right here. My training for the last six months, I've been riding 35 to 40 hours a week; 500 to 600 miles a week.
"This has been my full-time job, training for this race. It's not all about me. It's about them."
Pyatt returned home with a new sense of purpose. He made Without Permission his charity and met with its executive director and founder Debbie Johnson to discuss what was needed.
Without Permission's next step was to create a shelter, Johnson told him, a safe house for survivors.
"Having them in a place that is safe, receiving all of their needs simultaneously, helps law enforcement," Johnson said. "Knowing their victim is safe, they can pursue the traffickers.
"We're here to serve law enforcement and help survivors. The shelter meets these two critical needs to getting rid of trafficking; getting Modesto and Stanislaus County off the circuit."
Good news: Last week, Johnson received the keys to a home Just His House that will provide shelter and rehabilitation for as many as six girls. Johnson hopes to open the doors Jan. 1, and Pyatt will be a central figure in the organization's ability to hit that target date.
The money he has pledged has been earmarked for Just His House, Johnson said. Pyatt has secured $8,000 in sponsorships and will continue to raise funds after the event has passed.
"This $100,000 will help us get the doors open," said Johnson, noting that Just His House's startup budget will be $325,000. "It will be the first in Stanislaus County."
Without Permission's torch bearer is one of a kind, too.
While he's proud of the path he's traveled, personally and professionally, he tackles the back roads of Stanislaus County with a singular focus: finishing the Furnace Creek 508, a grueling desert ride that has broken the bodies and spirits of so many, and fulfilling a promise he made to himself and Without Permission.
"It's telling yourself you can't stop. How do you do that? You just convince yourself," he said. "It's this mental thing. If your mind can tell your body you can do it, you can do it.
It's all in the mind."
Yet another revelation to go along with all those revolutions.
James Burns is regional sports content editor of The Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star. He can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2324.
THE FURNACE CREEK 508
WHAT: A 508-mile race considered ultracycling's premier event. The course has a total elevation gain of more than 35,000 feet, crosses 10 mountain passes, and stretches from Santa Clarita (north of Los Angeles), across the Mojave Desert, through Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve, to the finish line at the gateway to Joshua Tree National Park in Twentynine Palms.
WHO: Jim Pyatt, a staff member at Calvary Temple, will compete in The 508 for the fourth time. He'll ride for Without Permission, a local nonprofit that aims to stop human trafficking and rehabilitate survivors. Pyatt had pledged $100,000. To learn more about Without Permission, go to www.withoutpermission.org.
FOLLOW: For a live stream of the event and updates, visit www.the508.com.