He tucks his 36-inch wheel into a corner at a tavern in Fells Point, where he has come to say farewell to some friends and co-workers.
Cary Gray, 25, arrives early for a goodbye party to wish him well as he prepares to begin a yearlong attempt at shattering the Guinness World Record of 9,126 miles for the longest unicycle trip ever.
He plans to cover 22,000-plus miles, from Baltimore through Central America to South America. The campaign he calls "One Wheel, Two Continents," which will begin Tuesday, will support charities and is sponsored in part by Dick's Last Resort, where he's worked the past three years as a waiter at the Inner Harbor location.
"I'm doing it just to kind of get my head on straight," he says before fidgeting to correct himself. "Not that it's not on straight."
He's been called crazy.
"Most of the time I pride myself on that," he says.
At the tavern, there's an elderly group congregating beside the bar. There's a guy working the pinball machine. There's Gray, wearing a clunky pair of Five Tens that are shredded at the soles, a black shirt that is unbuttoned over a tank top. The dreadlocks are reason for a double take; the brownish tendrils are bundled so that they flare in the back.
In between his goodbyes, Gray has spent his final week in Baltimore meeting a frenzy of media requests, and he's never felt too compelled to elaborate on the ways in which he lives.
As he puts it, he just is. He just does.
"You should always be who you are," he says, shrugging, "but I do that vigorously."
The dreadlocks? Those were done last year in Thailand, one of the five countries where he's been to rock climb and where he also went to party, where he also got tattoos done by a needle on a bamboo stick.
His next great adventure?
"No one was shocked when he said he was gonna do this," says Crystal Nowack, a manager for two years at Dick's Last Resort. "We all figured, ' ... that's Cary.'"
Two years ago, wanting to visit Argentina, Gray searched for flight prices.
"And then I thought, 'Well, that's kind of stupid,'" he says.
So he thought to bike. He went 650 miles from Baltimore to Rhode Island to New Hampshire on one in 2008. (He slept between two sheets of plastic.)
And then a new idea overcame him.
"I was like, 'Well, I can unicycle,'" he says. "Why don't I do it that way? Then it'd be real crazy."
'He paves his own road'
Growing up near St. Louis, he was given the name "Crazy Cary" in high school. Years before, he scavenged to be cool.
He thought he had to grease his hair back. He thought he had to throw a massive birthday party that seventh-grade year. He thought he had to invite everyone, all those he didn't know but who had achieved cool.
All the dancing resulted in broken drywall at his house.
"I've always been the black sheep," he says, "so I don't know why I tried so hard."
Secretly, he enjoyed writing the assigned papers his classmates groaned about. He developed interests in representational art and modernist literature, and his interests never seemed to align with others'.
"He went through, I'm definitely sure, periods of depression, of loneliness, because he was left out of the group activities," his mother, Louise Gray, says. "He was kind of a loner."
By his high school years, "Crazy Cary" took back up the contraption his father gave him when he was 10. On many mornings, he was seen churning away from home to class on the unicycle.
"He did not want to add pollution to the air," Louise Gray says. "He saw no point of driving a car."
He was a sophomore when he detached from his Catholic upbringing and swayed toward Buddhism after reading thoroughly about it. He became a vegetarian the same year.
"He dances to the tune of a different drummer," his mother says. "He paves his own road."
And so it didn't particularly stun her two years ago when her son told her of the adventure. By then, she knew her son's ambitions could not be tamed. She could not convince him otherwise, just as she was unable to stop him when he unicycled 1,080 miles over 17 days to be home this past Christmas.
"It was a warm winter," he says. It was only below-zero one night, he says.
Since graduating from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2011, Gray has reattached himself to his unicycle. In May, he rode it 420 miles to Boston.
He's ridden it 2 miles to work every day, to Dick's, where he says he has much of his fun, where he's paid to hassle customers as one of the restaurant's intentionally employed pranksters. He's been known to literally climb the walls.
"He's a great entertainer," Nowack says. "Cary is the most convincing server I have. I don't know what it is."
Atop his wheel, he appears more of an entertainer than a common commuter. He takes notice of those who point and call him "the unicycle guy."
"They like seeing me around," he says. "It's kind of like finally fitting in, I guess. I don't know if that's it. But feeling accepted, or at least liked."
Ready to roll
On Tuesday, he will leave it all behind. He lives with two others in a slim house down an alley in Mount Vernon. The wooden roof has a leak and he will step past the clutter, past the roaming fruit flies, past his books, and toward the door.
In his sweaty gloves, he will lift the unicycle, what he estimates to be 50 pounds with the gear in the strapped-on panniers. The bags display "CaryOutThere.com," the site he will blog from frequently.
Over the trip, he plans to write a book. The working title: "The Naked Unicyclist: Exposing My Wheel to the World."
There's a list of lessons he plans to touch on in the book. One major theme is vulnerability, he says.
"I thought it should come into contact with human struggles," he says.
He doesn't know where the book will take him, nor is he exactly sure where the trip will take him. His hopes, like his fears, regard the unknown.
"Like, I could die," he says, chuckling. "That sounds kind of funny. No, [but] I am afraid."
Back home, his brother will continue his job as a pharmacist. Should he indeed be away a full year, his sister will have completed her schooling to be a registered nurse.
"I think Cary is the kind of person that cannot just live a normal life and feel good about himself," his mother says. "There's a little void in Cary that I think has to be filled. He has to do something so outlandish and so outstanding, and then he'll be OK."
The bar is picking up its night crowd. His group will pour in soon for a going-away gathering featuring happy-hour prices.
"Being stationary is nice," he says. "But it makes me restless."
He's ready to get moving. He's ready to be sitting in the seat high above the crowds he hopes will emerge. He wants to look out at all the people watching him, to ride in the straight line that divides them.
Dick's Last Resort, Power Plant, Inner Harbor