Jay Waters’ thirst for adventure brought him to Norfolk this week.
In late May, the U.S. Army veteran from Alexandria, Virginia — who retired in 2017 after 30 years of service — embarked on Warrior Expeditions Great American Rail Trail ride, a more than 3,700-mile bicycle trek from Washington, D.C., to Washington state.
With a little more than half of the journey complete, Waters is relishing the ride as an opportunity to learn more about the people and places in the country he has served.
“There’s lots of cool stuff,” Waters said. “Nebraska specifically has been really cool.”
Waters, who grew up in New Jersey before making his home in Virginia, said he had never been to the Cornhusker State prior to his recent crossing of the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge into Omaha. Over the past several days, he has spent time with and spoken to several of the state’s residents in his effort to get to know more about its history and culture.
On Tuesday, he toured the Norfolk Nucor facility. The invitation to do so came about after someone from the corporation ran across a photo he took of one of the Nucor facilities in Illinois he had posted to his social media account.
“I was in Illinois. ... I saw a Nucor plant, and it had a big flag and the corporate motto. It said something about thanking veterans. I took a picture. It had the Nucor logo on it. I posted it on my social media,” he said.
Waters said a representative from Nucor reached out to ask if he would be anywhere near Norfolk during his journey.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going right through there and thinking about taking a day off,’ ” he said.
Waters said he enjoyed the tour: “It’s just fascinating, from the process and production, to see all of the stuff going on.”
On Tuesday afternoon, he took a guided tour of the Norfolk community and planned to get on his way again Wednesday, heading west toward O’Neill.
The Great American Rail Trail ride follows old rail and canal systems across the country. Much of Waters’ trip across the state will follow the Cowboy Trail, although soggy conditions and the current presence of goat’s head burrs might force him to use nearby roads.
On his bike, he carries with him a full tent in which he can sleep. He also has spent nights in hotels, homes and on the floor of the American Legion in Brainard, Nebraska, with his sleeping bag.
“What I’m personally trying to do is stop at as many American Legion and VFW posts — or just memorials, for lack of a better term — as I can,” he said about his entire cross-country trek.
As a veteran, Waters has seen a lot of the world. He was in Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa, but Water said he’s riding the Great American Rail Trail, in part, to honor the combat veterans who served before him.
He has had the opportunity to visit with Gold Star families, which are the immediate relatives of a fallen service member who died while serving in a time of conflict. He also has had the opportunity to visit with combat veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars.
“Everybody likes and thanks a soldier, and I love that, but I always feel bad because some — especially the Vietnam guys — they got the opposite. In some cases, they got treated really poorly on an individual level,” he said. “I thank them for what they had to go through, which has made it so much better for people like me. I think going forward our military veterans will always have a special place in Americans’ hearts.”
The Great American Rail Trail is the second journey Waters has taken with Warrior Expeditions, a nonprofit outdoor therapy program that helps veterans transition from their wartime experiences through long-distance outdoor expeditions. His first outing was a hike from the Mexican border to the Utah border through the state of Arizona.
“When I initially retired, I wanted to have one more big adventure, which sounds counterintuitive. After all the time in the Army, you wouldn’t want to be out in the woods or anything like that,” he said.
Now, Waters said he hopes to wrap up his current cross-country journey by Labor Day or shortly thereafter. After that, he’s uncertain about whether he will have any interest in going on anymore long-distance trail rides.
“I’m not really a big, experienced bicycle rider,” he said. “It’s just persistence and determination that I’ve made it this far.”