One man, one journey, one wheel: How Jon Barclay has ridden back from the brink on his beloved unicycle

Jon Barclay on a visit to his favorite riding destination, West Cliff Drive.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

THE HERE & NOW: Santa Cruz’s Jon Barclay is planning on circumnavigating the globe via unicycle. Returning to the roots of what he loves has helped him battle anxiety and depression.

One day, in early May 2020, Jon Barclay found himself on a bluff overlooking the ocean near Davenport with one thought in mind, to dive headfirst into oblivion.

For years, he had lived with a kind of low-grade hum of emotional distress, a punishing inner voice he had taken to referring to as “Brutus,” as if it were an invisible conjoined twin.

But in the six months leading up to that day in Davenport — a period that included the sudden onset of a crippling worldwide pandemic — Brutus had come roaring into full malevolence and Barclay felt he had lost control of his life. Swept up in an unrelenting anguish, he broke into a run toward the cliff’s edge.

If you need help...

EDITOR’S NOTE: According to a recent article in The New York Times, “a 2015 study found almost 10 million American adults had seriously considered suicide during the previous year and a 2019 survey found that almost one in five high school students had such thoughts.” But fewer than half of people experiencing them tell a friend or family member, and among those who died by suicide between 2000 and 2017, only about one in three had seen a therapist or psychiatrist in the past year.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

Earlier that day, his mother, perhaps sensing that her son’s mental state was more volatile than usual, made him promise not to hurt himself. As he ran preparing to leap, he was shocked to see her now, suspended in the sky over the Pacific, screaming in outrage, “You promised!”

Less than a year later, at 32, the Santa Cruz native has — at least partially and he hopes permanently — slipped from the clutches of Brutus. These days, he’s buoyed by clarity and brimming with purpose. And the instrument of his deliverance from darkness is an unusual conveyance that, for somewhat mysterious reasons, many people find slightly ridiculous.

Jon Barclay was saved by a unicycle.

Sure, that sounds hyperbolic. But consider that a year ago, here was a man ready to end his life, and now, he’s not only back to a kind of steady state of emotional equilibrium, he’s making big plans, epic plans, adventure-of-a-lifetime plans.

Anthony Quiroz tests out the new pump track's aerial capabilities on Tuesday
Anthony Quiroz tests out the new pump track’s aerial capabilities on Tuesday.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

As things stand today, Barclay plans to fly to New Zealand in September where he will begin what he’s calling the Cycle of Growth, a road tour around the world, through 19 countries, logging somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 miles, to make a documentary about the whole experience.

On that same unicycle.

Unlike its two-wheeled cousin, the unicycle has always suffered from an image problem. Why are two wheels considered athletic and sexy, while one wheel is considered cheesy and goofy?

As Santa Cruz County inches out of the pandemic, Lookout is chronicling the changes in our lives and the accomplishments of everyday people. “People in the Pandemic” is one of eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of life amid COVID. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, and sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here.

There’s probably a lot of complicated cultural calculus involved, but for whatever reason, the unicycle has been designated the ultimate accessory for the kind of people who wear rainbow suspenders and carry live iguanas on their shoulders in public.

Barclay is as familiar with the stigma against unicycles as anyone. Even today, when he takes his daily ride on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, “dancing” to music only he can hear, “the expressions I get from other people range from complete joy, to some people who look offended.”

Twenty years ago, as a pre-teen boy, young Jon was sent to what might rank as the most quintessentially California thing imaginable: a circus camp in rural Mendocino County run by the famously iconic hippie peace clown named Wavy Gravy.

One of the skills that kids at Camp Winnarainbow have been taught for more than 40 years is riding a unicycle. Some kids never get the hang of it. Some figure it out, but never climb on a unicycle again once back in the multi-wheeled world. And few, including Barclay, take unicycling to heart and make it part of their lives.

Presented by UC Santa Cruz

In recognition of UC Santa Cruz’s 2021 commencement, we present a few of our amazing grads. These scholars represent the...

As a young man, however, Barclay put his unicycle away. “Someone threw a beer can at me and yelled, ‘freak!,’” he said. “I took it personally and stopped riding for a long time.”

Struggling with mental-health issues and seeing therapists for years, Barclay was eventually diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and clinical depression. And his struggles reached a turning point in late 2019, several months before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What followed, he said, was a mental breakdown, the suicidal thoughts in Davenport, and a period of hospitalization. The pandemic shutdown was not, he said, a root cause of his breakdown, but a major exacerbating factor.

Jon Barclay at Lighthouse Field.
John Barclay at Lighthouse Field.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“The isolation just created this storm of suicidal ideation for months,” he said. “I just didn’t necessarily feel that I was as worthy as other people to live this life.”

A few weeks after the Davenport incident, desperately looking for a thread to pull himself into equilibrium, Barclay returned to first principles: Was there something that he could turn to as a catalyst for recovery? What brought him joy? It was then he flashed back to his unicycle.

“I thought, ‘Riding my unicycle is what really makes me feel alive and I’m going to put more of my focus and energy into that,’” he recalled. “It was a combination of an a-ha moment and something building subconsciously inside of me that I hadn’t really identified with until that moment.”

Big plans are afoot for Jon Barclay.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

It was a classic example of tapping into a “flow” state, a mental space where he could concentrate on what he was experiencing in the moment, riding his uni and listening to music. It turned out to be an effective way to outrun the anxieties of that punishing inner voice. Brutus, as it turned out, had no clue how to ride a unicycle.

Today Barclay, who works locally as a caretaker for an adult with developmental disabilities, feels he’s one of the lucky ones. “I had to go to that deepest darkest pain to be able to break me, and only then to have this realization, oh my goodness, life is full of possibilities and worth living. And then, I had to go to prove it to myself.”

In the last year, he’s developed a relationship with the Santa Cruz chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) as a volunteer and a participant in its peer-to-peer support groups.

As he began a training regimen on his 36-inch unicycle, he started a YouTube channel called “Cycle of Growth” that documented among other things, training rides such as from Santa Cruz to San Juan Bautista, 40 miles away.

His ambitions are dizzying. He wants to set the world record for distance unicycling, following in the footsteps of a British unicyclist named Ed Pratt who completed a similar world tour in 2018. There’s also the story of Canadian “Wobbling Wally” Watts who cruised the world on a uni back in the 1970s.

Looking for his pot of gold.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It’s not just the training regimen,” said Barclay of his new adventure. “I’m learning all of these different skills from the ground up, camping, cooking in the wild. I’m trying to learn all this stuff. I’ve also suffered from social anxiety and I feel that this is a great way for me to put myself out there in the world, to talk to people, to ask for help, when I need it.”

In the meantime, he’s putting a lot of mileage on his unicycle with regular rides on West Cliff Drive and long-distance all-day rides, and putting up with the occasional funny look. “It’s just something that grows authentically out of me. In the end, I have to follow that and learn not to let reactions of other people dictate how I feel or behave.”