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6:26 AM Thu, Dec. 13th

Matthew Baggarly suffered a massive heart attack – then he went on a cross-country bicycle ride

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LAKE HAVASU CITY – A Florida man has traveled America’s highways and byways, always accompanied by the whir of tires on asphalt, the wind against his face, and the road that stretched onward into the horizon before him.

Those roads brought Matthew Baggarly to Lake Havasu City on Friday for an overnight stay.

Baggarly knows today that he’ll reach the end of his journey eventually, but the end once seemed much closer.

When the Jacksonville resident was 42 years old, he was subjected to one of the most traumatic procedures in modern medicine. At 340 pounds, Baggarly suffered a massive heart attack, and required a quadruple-bypass heart surgery to survive…but given the choice between living and dying, Baggarly’s body didn’t make it easy. Baggarly suffered a stroke on the operating room table.

Doctors saved his life, and according to Baggarly, he was determined to live. More than two years after the surgery, he competed in his first triathlon, and joined the Ironheart Foundation, an organization that promotes athletics and motion to strengthen victims of heart disease. It was then that Baggarly decided to do something that seemed unthinkable: To become the first heart attack survivor – and stroke survivor – to ever complete a bicycle ride across the U.S.

“I got hit by an 18-wheeler,” Baggarly said of the experience.

On Baggarly’s first attempt, almost four years ago, he was hit by a freight truck outside of Dallas. Baggarly spent the next several months afterward in recovery, during which time he began to blog about his experiences, and he began to write what he describes as his first novel. According to Baggarly, he was neither broken nor beaten by the experience, and he intended to show other survivors that they weren’t broken or beaten either.

Last year, Baggarly decided to try again. “I started in Jacksonville on Oct. 6,” Baggarly said. “I ended up spending a month-and-a-half in Texas…the weather got bad. There were ten-degree nights and 30-degree days…I had to change course, and traveled 1,700 miles through Texas, alone.”

In Arizona, the weather has been more accommodating, but the region’s higher temperatures could become a challenge in themselves, Baggarly said. “I have about 500 miles left,” Baggarly said. “Doctors are worried about me losing muscle mass…if my weight drops below 185 pounds, the doctors want to call it quits. I still have a weakened heart.”

In a sense, it was Baggarly’s heart that brought him to Lake Havasu City on Thursday. To get to San Diego, Baggarly would have traveled on his bicycle from Phoenix to Quartzsite, and then south to Yuma, but he didn’t want to leave Arizona without first seeing the London Bridge.

The road from Quartzsite stretches through a seemingly endless desert landscape. As Baggarly neared the city of Parker, the desert gave way to sloping hills shadowed by towering mountain peaks. For almost 40 miles, Baggarly rode the rise and fall of each hill until he reached the final crest…and found the glimmer and span of Lake Havasu City stretched before him.

“It was an oasis in the middle of the desert,” Baggarly said. “It was absolutely stunning – it was not something I expected to see in the desert. Just about everywhere I looked, it was breathtaking.”

Baggarly has fallen in love with Havasu, he said. “I’ve always wanted to come and see the London Bridge,” he said. ”But the people here have been amazing. The city is gorgeous. It’s not about how many breaths you take, but how many moments take your breath away…coming into Havasu was one of those moments.”

He stayed at Crazy Horse Campgrounds when he arrived Thursday, and on Friday was invited to stay with two Lake Havasu City residents, Shannon and Chris Lay. According to Baggarly, he spent his time in Havasu celebrating the release of his novel, “Carly & Otis Show the World.”

Baggarly will ride south this weekend to Parker, where he has been invited to stop and rest at the Buckskin Fire Department before continuing to San Diego. When he gets there, Baggarly said, he intends to board a waiting sailboat and travel through the Panama Canal on a return voyage to Florida.