Twenty-five years ago, rock bottom was at a brothel-drug house in Kent.
A woman there had fronted Steve Rhoades a large package of cocaine to sell at bars up and down Seattle’s Pacific Highway, and in a few days, he and some friends had blown through it themselves, leaving him no money to pay to an angry supplier. He expected the barrel of a gun to be pointed his way soon.
After he drank himself out of the military in the 1970s, he’d been homeless and bouncing around the country from place to place for years, working here, dealing drugs there, sticking out his thumb on highways, blowing with the wind to wherever the next party presented itself, he says.
After the Marines, it was back home to Indiana, then following hopes of becoming a stuntman in Hollywood, then to New Orleans to see Mardi Gras, then working on oil rigs and living his days off drunk in the French Quarter. In San Francisco, he’d sleep in dumpsters, ever fearful of being killed overnight. Eventually, it was off to Seattle with his brother, hoping to sign on to a commercial fishing vessel headed to Alaska.
His addictions, the drugs, the alcohol, they were a boot heel stepping on the little green sprouts of any productive notions in his life. Rhodes reached his nadir at that house in Kent.
“I’d burnt every bridge, every bridge,” he says, now 64. “That was my bottom.”
In a bathroom in that house, he sank to his knees and sent a prayer heavenward, looking for help, a chance, something, and for the first time in his life, he says, he really meant it. It was the beginning of his life’s winding redemption arc.
“I knew at that point, I knew I didn’t have anywhere else,” he says. “I didn’t want to go back downtown to live on the streets again. I was tired. I was fed up. I wanted something different.”
But that was the only place that would have him, in his mind, so he walked outside, crossed the street and boarded a bus to head downtown without even the money to cover his fare once he got there.
Now boarding: Steve
It’s a chilly January morning, and Puget Sound is rolling up and down the shoreline at Fay Bainbridge Park. It’s a good day to pull up a blanket, to stay indoors, to sit by a fire. For Steve Rhoades, it’s a good day to train for the trip of a lifetime.
Rhoades hauls his long paddleboard down to the churning water, pulls his wetsuit up over his head and tucks his hair back under the hood, sealing himself up from the cold. He grabs his board and shoves out into the surf.
He pops up onto the board and begins to propel himself, not with a paddle, but with his own two gloved hands, while lying on his belly. Winds gust around him but he bobs up and down in the water, riding crest to trough with all the anxiety found in a Sunday afternoon nap.
The waves are a good challenge as he prepares for a paddling journey hundreds of miles long this summer. At this same park in June, he’ll shove off, his board packed full of supplies, and begin the slow, churning paddle from Bainbridge to Port Townsend.
There, he’ll rest briefly before launching again, bound for Ketchikan, Alaska, as part of Race to Alaska, a challenging contest that sends a handful of entrants each year 750 miles up along the coast of British Columbia to the small city on the Alaskan Panhandle, all without a motor or any support.
In the race, sailboats, kayaks or rowboats are common. Since Race to Alaska was founded in 2015, three entrants have attempted the journey on a stand-up paddleboard and just one has completed it, on his second try. Rhoades would be the first to finish the race while paddling prone.
From Port Townsend, Rhoades will paddle across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and make his way north. He expects it’ll take him roughly two months. There will be no support RV for him to sleep in at night, no chase vehicle toting his supplies. He’ll carry limited necessities with him, sleep in a hammock on the shoreline at night and pop into a series of towns and communities he’s planned out when his food runs low.
Steve Rhoades’ support team will consist of one person: Steve Rhoades.
The winner of Race to Alaska gets a cool $10,000 payout, and second place claims a pretty good set of steak knives. But for Rhoades, the journey is a springboard for spreading his message, one he’ll tell to anyone who asks while he does regular ministry walks in downtown Seattle: I got off the street, you can, too.
“There’s so much help out there for these guys, but you’ve got to want it,” he says. “You’ve got to change your whole life.”
Rhoades has set a goal of raising $15,000 for the trip and for the types of causes that helped him years ago. He expects this race will be one of the biggest things he’s taken on in his life, second only to sobering up.
The time is about 9 a.m. and Nyer Urness is riding a bus from the airport back to his home on Bainbridge. Urness, a Lutheran minister, wears a clerical collar, which attracts the attention of a man who has boarded at a stop in Kent.
Steve Rhoades, having just asked God for help, approaches.
“I went up to him and asked him for help,” Rhoades recalls.
Urness offers him a bed at the Compass Center, a homeless shelter in Seattle where he serves as a pastor, on a condition: Rhoades had to be able to sign his name in a book each day committing that he was sober. Eight days later, Rhoades had a bed.
A few months later, Urness offered Rhoades his small cabin on Bainbridge as a place to stay. There was no electricity or running water, but it was clean and warm. Rhoades moved in on Thanksgiving Day in 1993 and has called the island home ever since, following that chance encounter with that Lutheran minister.
Rhoades attributes it to “the power of prayer,” he says. “I lived it, I know it.”
His journey since rock bottom hasn’t been without struggle. At one point while living on a sailboat in Bainbridge’s Eagle Harbor, his old demons struck and he returned to alcohol before he realized his need for a recovery program, he says.
He got involved and attends a 12-step program to this day. Now he’s 16 years sober and is giving back. Rhoades has taken to regularly making trips over to the downtown city streets where he used to sleep, where he used to ask for money, looking for opportunities to tell his story.
From a cart he walks behind, he hands out donated items and other supplies from a network of businesses and individuals where he gets donations. But what he really hopes to offer is a familiar face, one with a success story to tell. He’s looking for them to ask what he calls “the magic question.”
“I’m not trying to solve anything downtown,” he says. “I’m just trying to show them when they ask me, ‘How did you do it?’ I’m there. I show up.”
He tells them about turning to God, turning to something outside himself, turning away from his old life. These days, when he’s not paddling, his time is dedicated to giving back: He’s taken to driving to Bremerton to drop off donated supplies, working with the Kitsap Rescue Mission and contributing to a 12-step addiction program for veterans. When he returns from Alaska, he has hopes of launching a food truck that could travel around Kitsap and serve hot meals to those in need.
“He really is just trying to help people,” says Tim Hoppin, a Bainbridge friend of Rhoades who’s helping to organize the Alaska trip. “He has a vision and is doing everything he can to make it happen. That’s rare. He’s focusing his life on helping other people.”
Hoppin is convinced Rhoades’ life story will be turned into a movie one day.
“It wouldn’t be some ridiculous movie about how everything is perfect,” he says. “It’d be a little bit of a combination of ‘As Good As It Gets’ with ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ all rolled up into one.”
A new life
Having just spent six months laid up at the Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans while his shattered ankle healed after an incident on Bourbon Street, Rhoades is on the move again, hitchhiking along Interstate 10, bound for Florida. Hobbling along on his crutches – which he’d customized with beverage holders he’d duct-taped on, each holding a beer – Rhodes is picked up by a band.
He’d tour with them throughout southern states for the next year or so, doing a little bit of everything for them: sound, lights, dealing drugs.
Those were wild days, ones a long ways off now. Today he’s a new man dedicated to giving back. In that redemption arc, he’s been a cycling coach, done professional bike racing, raised money for causes he believes in, spoken to kids about his story and has spent time investing in others.
With his affable personality, easy smile and distinctive locks, he’s become a recognizable figure to many on the island.
“Steve taught me how to make connections in the most mundane things,” says John Purnell, another friend who’s helping to organize the Alaska trip. The two met through a 12-step group for veterans in Bremerton and have bonded since then over fitness and staying healthy, Purnell says.
“A smile can be contagious,” he says. “Steve has a warmth and a passion about carrying that warmth not only to the people he meets, but also to veterans and folks who are in recovery.”
Rhoades has trained each week for months to ready himself for this race, testing his gear, camping out, paddling by freighters and ferries, riding up and down their wakes on good days and bad. The ex-Marine is big on preparation: “The more you train in peacetime,” he’s fond of saying, “the less you bleed in war.”
In a few weeks, all that training will be put to the test. He’ll be mostly on his own after he launches, having to hunt down both places to sleep each night and streams for drinking water while dodging bad weather and curious bears on the Canadian coast.
The journey begins June 8.
“It’s going to be big,” Rhoades says. “Go big. Half measures get you nothing.”
Steve Rhoades will launch his paddleboard journey to Alaska at 12 p.m. June 8 at Fay Bainbridge Park. The public is invited to attend a blessing ceremony just before the launch. To donate to Rhoades' effort, visit race2alaska.com.