The road trip(s) of a lifetime

Every year, as the final days of another college basketball season would wind to a finish, people would ask The Question. Every year, Ryan Clark would hedge.

It was easier in the beginning. He was still at the University of Texas when it started, a 22-year-old senior, and he could always find friends and randoms willing to trade gas money for an adventure.

He was obsessed with college basketball, intoxicated by the crowds and fascinated by the possibilities of a year on the road with his favorite basketball team. He had a car. He had energy drinks. He was, as all 22-year-olds are, immortal. What could possibly go wrong?

But it got harder. The 15-hour drives began as romantic runs across the great American countryside. Then they became slogs. The hours became unfathomable. Caffeine only went so far.

His friends, no longer carefree college seniors, began to fall away; they'd left Austin or gotten married or simply weren't up to drive to Ames, Iowa, anymore, certainly not on a weeknight. Plus, Clark had his full-time job to think about -- his hours were flexible, his bosses understanding, but he couldn't keep this up forever.

March was always the hardest. When one particularly promising Longhorns group combusted in the first round of the NCAA tournament, The Question -- the "damned, incessant question," as Clark once called it -- rang louder than ever. His friends and family wanted to know if this was finally the year he would stop spending his youth, and his money, chasing Texas basketball from coast to coast.

He couldn't help but ask himself.

"The truth of the matter is that I'm getting older, the bank account is getting smaller, and it gets a little harder each time I see a random Wednesday trip to the middle of a cornfield in Iowa or Nebraska," Clark wrote then. "So, go ahead. Ask me that question one more time. We both know that my heart will always belong in the gym. We'll just have to see how much longer I travel down this burnt-orange road."

Clark wrote that paragraph in 2010. Three years later, Texas would play Baylor at the Frank Erwin Center in early March, and Ryan Clark would attend his 250th consecutive Longhorns game. He's been to all of them, every game, road and away, for seven straight years.

In all, starting with the 2006 Big 12 tournament, Clark has traveled 156,397 total miles -- 92,193 by car, 64,204 by plane. He's seen Texas play in 28 states, from New York to Hawaii, Washington to Wisconsin, North Carolina to Arizona. He met his fiancee at an NCAA tournament game; he proposed to her at the Maui Invitational. He saw every collegiate minute Kevin Durant ever played. On his graduation day, his party was a three-hour sprint to Houston to watch Texas at Rice.

Most impressive? Clark documented it all at his Longhorn Road Trip blog, which he has now dutifully maintained -- with funny, incisive, intelligent basketball commentary -- for the better of part of a decade.

He would always hedge, always contemplate the end. Then Clark's eyes would wander to next season's schedule. Before he knew it, he was back in the middle of the cornfield, buzzing on taurine and Big 12 basketball, thinking about what he was going to write next.

"After a while, it just becomes a part of your life," Clark said.

He always went back on the road, always answered The Question with a "yes." Until now.

On March 20, when Texas lost to Houston in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational, the seven-year, 150,000-mile Longhorn Road Trip officially came to an end.

Clark was in Atlanta when the idea first hit.

Mere minutes after the Longhorns' disappointing Elite Eight loss to LSU in 2006, it started to form in his head. Clark would track what looked like a stacked Texas squad in their pursuit of a redemptive trip to the Final Four at each and every home and road game.

Then LaMarcus Aldridge, P.J. Tucker and Daniel Gibson left for the NBA, while Mike Williams transferred, leaving coach Rick Barnes with a radically different team. That was OK: When seven freshmen signed on -- including a gangly but highly touted kid named Kevin Durant from the D.C. area -- a new story emerged.

"Initially it looked like there were going to be the pieces where this was going to be a really fun team to follow for an entire season, sort of a 'year in the life' idea," Clark said. "But then it was a new storyline about the growth of a young team."

Clark always wanted to tell stories. When he was in second grade in Round Rock, Texas, he tried to write a Matt Christopher-style children's sports book "about a group of kids starting their own Pop Warner football league," he said. In fourth grade, he wrote sports columns for a small paper in New Braunfels, Texas. In high school, he became fascinated with cinema, which prompted him to major in film studies when he enrolled at UT in 2002.

Struck by his idea and emboldened by a sudden wave of successful independent sports blogs, Clark soon registered LonghornRoadTrip.com. His first dispatch was posted on Oct. 25, 2006, complete with a succinct mission statement: I started this blog to document my attempt to attend every single University of Texas men's basketball game in the 2006-07 season. I've traveled often in the past to watch the basketball team, but this season I'm taking it to another level.

Clark's early posts were occasionally profane and politically incorrect, but they quickly established his sense of humor, hoops IQ and, most of all, enthusiasm for the task ahead. After some exhibition wins and two guarantee victories -- including an Alcorn State game (in which Durant first showcased just how great he was going to be) -- Clark set out for New York City and the 2K Sports Classic. Longhorn Road Trip was born.

Grant Austin, Clark's friend and most frequent road trip copilot, had his Lloyd Christmas moment in rural Utah.

It was the middle of the night, Austin's turn in the six-hour driving shift regimen, and other than staying awake, the only thing the copilot had to navigate was an interchange. If he exited where he was supposed to, the way Clark mapped out, they'd hit a shortcut and avoid precious hours lost to a long stretch of highway that winds around one of the state's pristine national parks.

Austin missed the exit. By the time Clark woke up, it was morning -- too late to do anything but find a place to stop for gas and snacks.

"We went in to get food, and when we came back out a man was standing there asking if this was our car," said Austin, who now teaches English at a languages academy in Sardinia, Italy. "When we said yes, he said, 'Your tire is about to bust.'

"He showed us the tire, and the treads were completely worn away. The inside of the tire was basically exposed. Fortunately, our gas station in the middle of nowhere happened to have an auto shop and a service station. It actually ended up being fortunate that I missed the interchange."

That was one of the more harrowing moments from what is without question the most insane journey of Clark's streak -- when he, Austin and a random dormmate drove from Austin to Spokane, Wash., for Texas' first two games of the NCAA tournament -- without stopping at a hotel. On the way there, including a stop in Boise, Idaho, to check out the Broncos' blue turf, the trio rolled 2,393 miles. Without the missed interchange, Clark said, the trip should have taken about 40 hours. On the less circuitous return, they clocked in just under 2,000 miles.

"I'd never taken a road trip like that before," Austin said. "And I never would again."

The Spokane trip is among Clark's fondest memories from the past seven years, as is another game from that first season. On Jan. 16, 2007, Clark and Co. drove much of the 453 miles between Austin and Stillwater, Okla., through a massive ice storm. It was worth it, an instant classic. Durant posted 37 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks … and was somehow outdone by Mario Boggan, who scored 37 points, grabbed 20 rebounds and hit the game-winning 3 that gave OSU a joyful 105-103 win.

Clark was in Gallagher-Iba for the entire thing, seated in the first row behind the Texas bench. At its spring postseason banquet, Texas basketball presented Clark with the Slater Martin Award, "presented to a person in recognition of outstanding effort in support of the basketball program."

He was hooked. Almost as soon as the season finished, he wrote about his temptation to extend his streak for another season. He pointed out games he knew he would get to, streak or no, and he mused about the next documentary-style narrative around which he would structure a season's worth of posts.

That would become a theme: Each year, Clark would find a new, seemingly minor reason to keep going. In 2008, when the Big 12 schedule was still unbalanced, he wanted to see Hilton Coliseum, Mizzou Arena and Bramlage Coliseum. In 2009, the Maui Invitational and the 100-game barrier were too much to resist. In 2010, he said, he wanted to finish the season able to say he had seen every minute of every game seniors Damion James, Dexter Pittman and Justin Mason ever played. (Which he did.) The fifth year had more attractive nonconference road dates, and year six meant 200 games. There was always a new reason.

In the meantime, Clark continued to hone his writing style, and his site began to amass a following among the nichiest of major conference niche audiences: Texas basketball fans.

Peter Bean, an Austin attorney and the editor of the popular Texas online community Burnt Orange Nation, took notice, as did Cody Cheek, a fellow attorney and die-hard UT hoops fan. Bean (who described himself as one of the "seven basketball fans in Texas") found a kindred spirit in Clark -- a fellow UT alum who didn't treat basketball like the ugly stepchild.

"We're hardcore hoops junkies, and so we're often writing to nobody," Bean said. "Half of the comments we get on basketball posts are like, 'Talk about football.'"

"When Myck Kabongo was suspended, it was just cataclysmic news," Cheek said. "I remember talking to someone about it, and them basically just saying, 'Yeah, that's terrible. So how are we going to stop Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl? How are our linebackers going to be able to contain Storm Woods?' That was literally the extent of the discussion of the biggest news that happened to the basketball team this season."

It's no secret football defines the culture of the Lone Star State. From the youth level up, even as Texas produces a solid spate of basketball prospects every year, the sport itself remains a distant second -- and probably third -- in the minds of fans. Football is everything. Basketball is a pleasant distraction. The Longhorns are no different.

Bean took in last season's Maui Invitational with Clark; Cheek has come along for a handful of road trips. Both were openly awestruck at the streak, particularly in the context of the Texas fan base, where the basketball die-hard is more likely to be regarded as the other.

"The biggest thing to emphasize about the streak is, when you talk to people about it, they really treat it like he's just that guy who went to the games," Cheek said. "No. He's the guy who goes to the games and then takes the time out to write about them and do tempo-free analysis of them. And he's really good at it."

"He could have just put up a counter on his site and tallied the games up," Bean said. "But instead he wrote and wrote and wrote, and not for a very large audience, the whole way through."

The small audience did gnaw at Clark. His page views would spike during the late winter and early spring months, he said, but only if Texas was good, and even then he wasn't getting the traction he had hoped would attract the notice of a more national readership -- or a national publication. He had long since worked in trips to games in which Texas wasn't playing, both to experience new gyms in new places and as an attempt to expand his readership.

At least part of the reason Clark kept fighting sleep deprivation was his dream of running his site, or writing about college basketball generally, full time. When that opportunity failed to materialize, he began to contemplate whether it was time to move on -- particularly as Texas struggled through a difficult 2012-13 season.

"During the Texas-West Virginia game in Austin, Texas blew a 10-point lead down the stretch," Clark said. "I was firing texts at Cody during the game, and at one point I told him that if my flight to West Virginia hadn't already been booked, I wouldn't be going and I wouldn't be driving to Iowa State that weekend. Of course, five days later, I was driving to Iowa State.

"But he saw me at this really low point. I was letting the results from the team and the low readership this season get to me, and it was like, what I am writing this for? I'm writing a diary."

In 2008, the streak took a new and unexpected turn. At a round of 32 game in Little Rock, Ark., Clark found himself parched, and he asked a female member of the band to get him a cup of water from one of the NCAA-sanctioned jugs. The band member said no.

"About 10 minutes after that -- I'm the kind of person where if I don't get food I get really dizzy and cranky -- I realized this guy might be able to help me out," Alyssa Hudson said. "I gave him some of my per diem to go get me some food from the concessions in exchange for some water. For a while, I thought, 'Oh, great, this guy just walked off with my per diem.' But a few minutes later he came back with the nachos."

Clark ended up finding Hudson on Facebook a few days later. They started talking, and then dating, and before long, Hudson was joining her boyfriend for the famed road trips she'd been so fascinated by, and cheerfully calling herself a "basketball widow" when she couldn't go along for the ride. Last fall, she came along for UT's ugly run in the Maui Invitational, and Clark proposed.

They will be married next April — just a few weeks after the college basketball season ends.

Impending nuptials were a major factor in Clark's decision to end his streak at seven years, 254 games and 156,397 miles. He couldn't schedule a wedding in the fall, not in Texas, and he can't be on the road for four months while his fiancee plans the wedding.

Now 29, Clark has a managerial position as a bookkeeper at the grocery store he works at in Austin. He is thinking of buying a house, which is bound to leave less for gas, hotels and energy drinks during the winter months. Hudson is still eager to travel, albeit to less basketball-oriented destinations (Puerto Rico currently tops the list). The "real world," as Clark says, is stepping in.

Hudson is already preparing for a lengthy rehabilitation. Her idea: a party for the first Texas road game, some festivities to make the first televised UT game her fiance has seen in seven years a bit less strange. Clark insisted he would be watching that game alone.

He still plans to travel to a UT game every now and then; rest assured, dates have been circled. And he admits there is part of him that is morbidly curious about just how deep into his obsession he can burrow. But now, the brash 22-year-old kid who chugged caffeine is reflective, even philosophical. He hopes less travel will make him a better writer, with more time to focus and less time juggling a laptop and car keys. His priorities are different, but so is his understanding of what "priorities" even means.

"Outside of basketball and sports, I learned so much about priorities," Clark said. "I know that sounds silly, given what I made such a large priority in my life, but … we have so much junk in our lives and so many commitments we think we have to do because we don't want to tell people 'no.' If you can just find the things that make you happy, and you commit to just a couple of those, your life can be so much more fulfilling."

At some point -- maybe it was 2010, when The Question first began to nag, or maybe it was in the halcyon days -- Longhorn Road Trip surpassed our typical conception of even the best sports blogging. It's something different, something more -- a singular work borne of sincere devotion and mind-boggling logistics. With no built-in audience, no ad money, and all expenses out of pocket, Clark wrote about one thing, with no distractions, for seven years. In Internet time, he's practically Robert Caro.

Now that The Question has been answered, a new question arises: How long can Mr. Longhorn Road Trip stay off the road?

"Some people don't get this, but you know, whenever you're in a gym, when the home crowd is going -- that feeling isn't like anything else," Clark said. "This year a lot of people would ask why I was putting myself through this, when Texas was losing by 20 every game, when the individual results were so tough.

"But it stopped being about that a long time ago."