When I graduated from university, I knew I wanted to travel. I wanted to go far and wide, to explore every inch of the world, and I wanted the freedom to do it at my own speed and in my own way (such are the unashamed and brash desires of youth.) I had cruised through the first 21 years of life – doing what needed done to get by and no more. I had all the privileges and guilt of a happy Western upbringing, and I was desperate for a challenge – something that might bring me to my knees, then build me back up again anew. I even hoped for a little fun, too. Tour groups, organized gap years, buses, trains – all I ruled out immediately for their inflexibility and perceived ease. I couldn’t ride a motorbike (and my mum wouldn’t have let me anyway) so by default I chose the poor man’s equivalent as my vehicle– the humble bicycle.
I sold everything I had, bought a sturdy set of wheels and set off from New York City, striking out into the heart of the continent. I choose America because it seemed as good a place as any to test oneself in tandem with exploration. The concept of heading west in search of adventure and enlightenment was a well-worn one- pioneers like Lewis and Clark; roadtrippers like Kerouac and Steinbeck; countless other travellers and dreamers since; and now me and my few belongings would be the latest incarnation drawn into the American Dream.
The first weeks on the road were hard – even more so than I predicted. I’d previously chosen a life that existed in safety and comfort, and even when things were tough I had a roof over my head, a well-stocked fridge and endless daytime TV to numb me. On a bicycle, I discovered, these constructs of stability crumble quickly, and solace and survival must be sought elsewhere. I sweated up hills – unfit and with a too-heavy bike – and shivered through rainstorms – underequipped and far from battle-hardened. It seemed for a while like perhaps adventures were things other people had – better, braver people than I.
Time and a refusal to give in were all that were needed to transition. I’m eternally glad I didn’t cut and run before then. Gradually I became naturalized to, and dare I say skilled at, some aspects of my new chosen lifestyle. As days and miles and landscapes passed, I forgot about the life that went before – the house and fridge and telly – and instead home became my bike and bags and the road – the reliable constants around which everything else changed.
I rode from the rugged coast on the east, through rolling green hills past the Great Lakes and into the mind-numbing dullness of the mid-west. There is some variation to be found among hundreds of miles of corn and beans, of course, but it’s still about as exciting as a nosebleed. The crumpled landscape of South Dakota was welcome respite, and I crossed the lunar-like Badlands on route to the supervolcanic bubbling, boiling mudpools and geysers of Yellowstone National Park. I crested peaks that stabbed the clouds in the Big Horns and the Rockies, and finally by way of the Cascades I hit the dry deserts of the Wild West. Rocky outcrops and gnarled faces hewn into sandstone were my only company, through to the cathedral-like forests of Redwood trees and finally, the reward to top them all, the great blue of the Pacific Ocean stretching out into the space beyond the horizon.
In among these places I met people that I’ll remember forever. A journey in the USA is unavoidably social, and without the interactions and conversations and random acts of kindness, I would never have made it. Yet that’s just part of the story. The landscapes, too, only tell a fraction. It’s clear to me now that the man who pedalled into San Diego after 6000 miles was no longer the boy that had struggled to get over the Brooklyn Bridge 6 months previously. Cycling is an unavoidably transformative way to travel – many people who go on long bike trips find their lives changed irrevocably afterwards. I am proud now to be one of those people.
Perhaps it’s not for just anyone, this cycling thing, though I would argue there are aspects of the lifestyle that can benefit everyone. If I were to distil down what I learned from those days on the highways and byways of the USA it would be something like this – embrace adventure, embrace change. Accept fear, ignore fear. Commit, go…and don’t stop. Adventure is everywhere, and one of the best ways I know to find it is by stepping out your front door and pedalling away, heading always a little further beyond the limits of your known world.