They had set out 457 days ago to discover a country they felt they hardly knew.

Stephen Barton, fresh from speaking at his Syracuse University graduation, was preparing to teach English in Russia on a Fulbright grant. Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent was heading into his senior year at Yale University, majoring in East Asian studies.

But before they got on with their well-planned futures, the two high school friends decided to bike 4,000 miles together across America, from Virginia Beach to San Francisco, to understand what this land was all about.

Along the way, they discovered beauty — the Chesapeake Bay, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the rolling hills of Kentucky, summer fireworks over the Texas prairies. They discovered unexpected kindness in the strangers who offered warm showers and hot chocolate, who gave them a place to sleep or slipped $20 in their pockets and wished them luck.

Then, on a Thursday afternoon in July 2012, they pedaled into Aurora, Colo. They met up with a friend, hung out at a Starbucks and bought tickets to the 12:05 a.m. showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” at the Century Aurora 16 multiplex.

Stephen Barton speaks to On Background’s Nia-Malika Henderson about deciding to finish his trip after the Aurora theater shooting. (The Washington Post)

When the gunman began shooting that night inside Theater 9, they discovered an entirely different side of America.

The journey Barton and Rodriguez-
Torrent had set out on weeks earlier had come to an abrupt and horrifying end. But another had begun, one that would alter both their lives, profoundly and permanently.

Changing course

That night in Theater 9, 24-year-old James Holmes unleashed a hail of bullets into the unsuspecting crowd, killing a dozen people and injuring scores more.

Barton got hit in the face and neck with pellets from a shotgun blast and underwent emergency surgery to remove them and make sure they had missed his esophagus, trachea and arteries.

Rodriguez-Torrent escaped largely unscathed. The friend who had gone to the movie with them, Petra Anderson, also underwent emergency surgery. Doctors discovered that a shotgun pellet had lodged in her brain but, amazingly, had not inflicted serious damage. She is now married and living in Maryland.

Hours after leaving the hospital, Barton sat in a room inside a DoubleTree Hotel with a view of the Rocky Mountains. He told a Washington Post reporter that he and Rodriguez-Torrent would finish their cross-country ride. Maybe they’d return to the theater the following year, he said, and ride west, raising money for victims of the shooting.

Neither man had any idea what the future held. But the coming months made this much clear: The experience would shape not only their present but also their future.

Barton put Russia and his Fulbright on hold. In September, he took a full-time job as an outreach and policy associate for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a nationwide coalition that pushes for stricter gun controls.

‘‘I was expecting to be freezing in Siberia right now, drinking vodka,’’ he joked not long after taking the job.

Instead, he found himself featured in television ads during the 2012 campaign calling on President Obama and Mitt Romney to detail their plans to stop gun violence. He introduced Vice President Biden at a speech on gun violence at the White House. He spoke at rallies in Colorado, Connecticut, New York, Tennessee and Nevada.

“It was a very different year than what I was expecting,” Barton said.

Rodriguez-Torrent became involved in Connecticut Against Gun Violence, even winding up onstage with Obama during a speech in Hartford pushing for tougher gun laws.

He graduated in May with his degree in East Asian studies, but by then he had decided to forgo the corporate-America jobs that once had seemed appealing.

“It made me start thinking about what might be a fulfilling career. I pretty much decided I wanted a career in public service,” he said. “The shooting opened my eyes to some of the problems America faces that I didn’t really realize before.”

Earlier this year, while working on a thesis comparing the levels of public trust in police in China and in the United States, he applied to become a police officer in New Haven, Conn. He has already passed written and physical tests, along with an oral interview, and hopes to continue the hiring process this fall.

“A big part of what got me thinking about it in the first place was the emergency response in Aurora,” he said. “I’d never actually thought about it before last year.”

Even as they settled into their new, unexpected lives, the pair knew that the first anniversary of the Aurora shooting was fast approaching. Should they put life on hold again to finish the trip? Was it practical? Was it safe? Did it even matter anymore?

They decided it did.

“I remember lying in that hospital bed thinking, ‘We’re going to get back on our bikes. We’re going to finish this,’ ” Barton recalled. “It was really important to both of us.”

Continuing kindness

They flew to Denver in the middle of August. They spent a couple of days preparing for the final 1,400 miles of the journey. They ate dinner with a nurse who had watched over Barton in the hospital.

On Aug. 17, they walked into the Century Aurora multiplex, which had reopened six months after the massacre. The theaters, which once had been numbered, now had letters. Theater 9 had become Theater I.

“It was a little eerie to see it in the light of day,” Barton said.

Several local reporters, including a couple of TV crews, showed up to interview them. Barton and Rodriguez-Torrent explained that the purpose of their trip, which they dubbed the “Ride for Aurora,” was to raise money to help the handful of Aurora shooting victims who had suffered serious, permanent injuries. The Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance will distribute any money they’ve raised.

“It’s not lost on either of us that we could just as easily be those people, or the people who died,” Barton said.

In the past few weeks, they have encountered the same serendipity and the same outpouring of kindness from strangers west of the Rockies that had defined their trip east of them. “Different people but the same generosity,” Barton said.

They glimpsed the beauty of Berthoud Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass in the Rockies. They climbed the Sierra Nevadas. They ambled along “The Loneliest Road in America,” U.S. Route 50.

But rarely did they feel alone. A family who snapped their picture along the roadside put them up one night in Steamboat Springs, Colo. A man they met in a cafe offered them dinner and a place to stay for the night with his family in Carson City, Nev. Another man delivered a pepperoni pizza to their campsite.

Different people. Same generosity.

The end of a journey

Just before 5 p.m. local time on Friday, Barton and Rodriguez-Torrent pedaled their bikes across the Golden Gate Bridge, steered to nearby Ocean Beach and dipped their front wheels into the Pacific Ocean.

The 23-year-olds standing on the San Francisco shoreline were different men than the 22-year-olds who had begun in Virginia Beach last year. They had set out 457 days earlier, all adrenaline and idealism, to discover America. And they found it — in all its beauty, all its kindness, all its savagery, all its uncertainty.

They arrived on the West Coast with different careers and aspirations, different worries and priorities than those they had when they began. They arrived more grateful for the everyday, and more aware that the everyday is never guaranteed.

“It’s an indescribable feeling. Relief that we finally made it. And accomplishment. It’s been a long time coming, longer than we expected,” Barton said as he stood with his feet in the Pacific surf. “The shooting made me more appreciative of a moment like this. You never know what could happen tomorrow.”