Tom, Sawyer Floating South by Cycle
Mid-April, and Seattle weather settles into its chilly, rainy spring mode. What better time to take off on your bike to, say, Mexico? That’s the plan of Tom and Alex, two friends who just quit their jobs and are heading south.
After skirting the south edge of Puget Sound, they’re heading for the coast, and will ride the rolling capes and bays through Oregon and California. It’s a trip I’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t made it farther than the California border yet.
On the eve of their departure, I asked them how, why and what they expect.
BPS: What’s your basic plan for doing the ride, and how long do you think it will take?
Alex: Right now, the plan is to ride the length of the Pacific Coast between Seattle and La Paz, Mexico. We think that we’ll get down to La Paz in early July. We have an apartment rented for the month of July to allow us to take our bearings, do some diving, and brush up on our Spanish. Then, as long as we’re still enthusiastic about bike travel, we plan to keep going south for as long as we’re having fun and the travel fund lasts.
Tom: The whole idea of it is to get out of the routine of the 9-to-5 grind and see a whole different part of the world in a way that is completely unique.
It is easy to hop on a plane, fly to some exotic country for a week, hang around the hotel pool and go on guided tours, but is that really the way travelling should be experienced? I personally don’t think so.
On a bike you can decide every day where you want to go and what you want to see at your own pace, it simply gives you a great degree of freedom.
The length of the ride is undefined, I think as long as we enjoy it and can sustain ourselves we will continue onwards.
BPS: Why have you two decided to do this big ride at this time?
Alex: In short, restlessness and curiosity. Maybe that’s wanderlust? Through the years, I have jumped at many opportunities for travel, but it has always been time-constrained due to school or work obligations. Long-term travel has always been on the horizon for me.
Tom and I have spent a significant amount of time over the past couple years talking about how to travel in a way that we’re both excited about. Biking gives us an activity, a challenge, a goal, and the flexibility we need to travel at a slower, more deliberate pace.
Tom: Truth be told, if not now, when would we ever do it? There’s never going to be a perfect time for it. Problems and conflicts will arise no matter when you want to attempt a trip like this. For example, if you’re younger you might not have the financial means, and if you’re older you might have more responsibility in terms of family or career. We decided now is the time to do it.
Alex: The biking idea itself was a roundabout one. Thinking back, it was probably sparked by an interaction with a fellow backpacker on a Honduran bus in 2012 (though I didn’t know it at the time). We sat next to each other and had 4 hours to kill, which we spent talking about past travel experiences. He told me about a bike trip he had completed a few years before, which took him from Vancouver BC to the Panama Canal.
I had never really thought about bike travel before, and honestly my initial impression was a combination of “that’s awesome” and “that’s insane.”
But a particular piece of his story stood out to me: wherever he went, the locals warned him about the danger of the next country to the south. This started in Canada (“watch out for those Americans, they all carry guns”), and predictably was mirrored in Americans’ feelings about Mexicans, Mexicans’ feelings about Guatemalans, and right on down to Panama. But the man I met on that Honduran bus could only speak of the overwhelming kindness he experienced along his adventure.
BPS: What’s your background with bicycling?
Alex: It was not so long ago that I basically refused to ride a bike unless I was barefoot and on a beach cruiser. I had no interest in going far, and certainly not in going fast. In 2011, I began to tire of my bus commute and decided to try biking to work. Once I’d cleared the initial phobias — namely traffic and arriving to work disgustingly sweaty — I was hooked. I much prefer a bike to a bus, so I try to use two wheels for as many in-city trips as possible. I’ve gained an interest in going farther, but I still don’t particularly care about going fast.
Tom: I’m no cycling expert, that’s for sure. I’ve been riding all my life, mostly as a commuter but I’ve had my small share of longer bike excursions.
BPS: What’s been your longest ride to date?
Alex: My family lives on Bainbridge Island, and accordingly my longest ride has been the annual Chilly Hilly (33 miles), which never seems to get any easier. I’ve also done a few multi-day bike camping trips around the San Juan Islands. Our first day of this adventure is going to be about 55 miles. I’m pretty confident that I can do it, but I may end up sleeping in a ditch on the side of the road at mile 34. Stay tuned!
Tom: In terms of days the longest continuous tour I’ve done fully packed with gear was a 5 day trip in southern Sweden back in the summer of 2010. However, when I was still living in Germany and spending most of my time rowing I also went to a training camp on the Spanish island of Mallorca where we biked about 1,100 km within a week, with the longest day trip totalling 210 km.
BPS: What are you most dreading about the trip?
Alex: Tom and I are pretty mismatched in terms of athletic ability. Tom is a giant (6’6″) who spent much of the last 10 years as a competitive rower. Comparatively, I aspire to average height (almost 5’4″!) and, while active, have never pushed my body to the degree that this adventure will likely require. On top of that, I’m really, really competitive. All of this can cause us a bit of strife in athletically challenging situations, where I desperately want to “win” but am at a pretty severe genetic/athletic disadvantage.
But this is all a mental game, and we’ve done enough biking together to develop a few coping strategies. It’s a work in progress. For now, I take solace in the fact that I will get stronger every day, and that Tom is carrying 20 pounds more than I am!
Tom: For me that would probably be the weather and especially the heat when we get down to southern California and continue into Mexico. Ensuring that we always carry enough drinking water with us is a must.
Alex: I think that fear keeps a lot of people from traveling. Fear of the unknown, fear of the “other,” and fear stemming from the violence that dominates the news cycle. The number of people who have implored us to carry a gun in our handlebar bag has frankly been shocking (we’re not, by the way). I hope that our adventure does a little bit to help dispel some of that fear and show that most people, regardless of where they live, are kind and well-intentioned.
BPS: What are you most anticipating on the journey?
Alex: I’m most looking forward to the slow pace of travel. I’ve done a fair bit of travel in Central America, both as a backpacker and on exchange programs that included home stays and longer periods in small rural towns. As a backpacker, it is surprisingly difficult to get off of the “tourist track,” and so easy to end up on a bus with 20 other tourists headed to the same attraction. Rather than traveling to tick items off the list, I have always had the most memorable and meaningful experiences when I have the opportunity to stop, talk to people, and stay awhile. We hope that bikes will give us that freedom.
Also, I’ve been prone to car/bus/boat sickness since I was about 2. And if you’ve ever been in the back of a chicken bus in Guatemala, you know that the combination of overcrowding, bumpy roads, diesel fumes, and crazy drivers can make for an unsettling (if invigorating) experience. Traveling by bike = saving a lot of money on Dramamine.
Tom: I’m looking forward to the unknown of it all. Sure, we will have our daily routes planned out, but there will be so many things to see, so many experiences to be had that we simply won’t know about beforehand. The notion of adventures might seem antiquated in our days of all-knowing smartphones, but that’s how I see our trip, it will be extraordinary and, most certainly, fun.
Want to follow their adventure? I hope to check in on them and provide periodic updates here, but they have a blog too, southbycycle.com, with the clever tagline “The Adventures of Tom and Sawyer” (that’s Alex’s last name). I hope your trip will be every bit as fun and carefree as the adventure taken by two Mark Twain characters rafting down a big river. Bon voyage guys!