GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — Charles Veley hopped on his bike early last month in Toledo, Ohio, and has since pedaled about 100 miles each day on a winding path that will lead him to New Orleans. On Monday (July 29), that path led him to Gadsden, where he was planning to meet up with someone who had offered to give him a night's rest after they began following his journey on social media.
Veley's journey is followed by people from all over the country, as he has made bike trips each year since 2014. Along the way, he speaks with whoever he meets about the importance of loving one another and the issues surrounding gun violence.
In fact, Veley spoke on that message with The Gadsden Times in 2015, when he passed through the area on his way to Key West, Florida, on a similar mission.
This time, however, Veley's story has changed. When he passed through in 2015, his relationship with gun violence included two personal connections — his son, who was in prison for murder, and his nephew, a murder victim. Veley also had served seven and a half years in prison for robbery and aggravated assault.
"It was a true rehabilitation to me and it really opened my eyes to bigger and better things in this world," Veley said.
This year, though, his journey has been more emotional. Last year, he had a son and a niece killed by gun violence within the span of about a week.
"Gun violence affected me twice in one month. I almost gave up trying to love and inspire people, but a lot of people told me that you just can't give up on people," Veley said.
He said he spends a lot of time alone on the road, thinking about his son, but that only inspires him more to speak out against gun violence.
Whether he is meeting up with people who have discovered him online, talking with hotel and restaurant staff along the way, giving speeches to church groups or just striking up a conversation with someone he passes on the street, Veley offers to share his story in the hope that people will be reminded that they are more alike than they are different, and that violence isn't needed.
"In the end, there's nothing more rewarding than trying to inspire people to love each other," he said.
Veley had arrived in Gadsden after leaving Nashville at about 3 a.m. in an attempt to get ahead of the heat he has been riding through. After resting up there, he planned to continue on, working his way toward New Orleans before going east through Florida and up the East Coast, then returning home to Toledo.
The weather has been a challenge thus far, as he has ridden through rain, heat waves, and wind storms. In Chicago, he was hit by a car but managed to escape without injury.
In previous journeys, he encountered wild animals, including a mountain lion that came to his campsite one night. That led him to stop carrying food.
On his bike, he carries a small tent, water, some phones and chargers, a rolled-up banner he has had people sign along his way and a tazer — just in case he does encounter more animals. Most importantly, though, he carries a hope to remind people that America is "one big city," and that everyone should simply love one another.
"It's been an amazing journey, the people you meet on the way are great," he said, adding, "I don't want to feel like I'm living a life where I'm not pushing forward something positive that people need."
Veley will continue pushing that message — and pushing his bike pedals — as he continues heading south.