An Interview with an Ultralight, Minimalist, Cross-Country Bikepacker

Today, I am extra excited to present to you my first interview with a real-life Active Minimalist, Sarah. Not long after she obtained her PhD, she packed her bags, put what few possessions she had into storage, and biked solo(!) for three-thousand miles from California to Florida.

Let that sink in for a minute.

The magnitude of her 55-day journey and inspiring stories touched me so deeply I just couldn’t resist asking her if she’d allow me to feature her story on this blog. I felt like a million bucks when she accepted!

A few weeks ago on a lovely Friday afternoon, I was doing as most office bees do – happily wrapping up work for the week, excitedly anticipating the sunny spring weekend in which I – in true minimalist fashion – planned absolutely nothing, which happens so rarely that I cannot remember the last time I didn’t have an obligation of some sort. In between emails and reports and phone calls, I fantasized about the books I would read, the food I would cook, the friends I would catch up with, and so on. Then, in the early afternoon shortly after lunch, a message popped up on my phone. She mentioned that she was in town and asked if I was interested in playing board games.

I hadn’t seen Sarah at all since she graduated and gleefully whisked her tiny self off to California, so I was super psyched that she was going to be in town during the one weekend I was available to host her. Back when she was still in the area, we often got together with friends to play board games and hang out. After a few back-and-forth texts, I found out that she was arriving the next day and would only be around for the weekend and didn’t yet have a place to stay, so I offered her my couch and an extra blanket. She spent the days catching up with other friends in the area, and I was lucky enough to hear about her most memorable moments and thoughts about her remarkable journey. As it turned out, she was on her way back to California and staggering Amtrak train trips. She burst through the front door with a glowing smile and I had never seen her happier. At that moment, I didn’t even know that she had been on the road for so long.

Credit goes to MMM for the interview format.

Trip Overview

Me: Thank you so much for letting me interview you! I am so lucky to have such cool people in my life. So, how did you decide that you wanted to take this journey?

Sarah: It was just a fun thing I wanted to do.

Me (aside): Ahh, spontaneity – one of the joys of a minimalist lifestyle. The freedom to pack your bags and journey wherever your heart desires – that is bliss.

Me: And that is the only reason you need! How did you decide the route? How many miles did you bike and how long did it take?

Sarah: I started in San Diego near UCSD, biked to the coast, and then mostly followed the Southern Tier route which ends in St. Augustine. It was about 3000 miles and took about 55 days. I started on March 1st and got to Jacksonville on April 26th.

If you’re ever interested in bike touring, I can recommend two websites – the Adventure Cycling Association which has lots of route maps and indicates where all the rest stops, campsites, grocery stores, bike shops, motels, convenience stores – and Warmshowers, the biker hosting website which also has an app.

There are also lots of bike touring blogs out there.

Me: About how many miles did you bike each day? Did you ever stop or did you bike straight from start to finish?

Sarah: I didn’t train for this, so it was difficult at first.  The first day, I only went 15 miles – it was all uphill and into a headwind. But I did get faster – about 2/3 through, there was one hill I went on, when I crested the hill, that I felt the weightless feeling.

I averaged about 50 miles a day – more miles in flat states and fewer in the mountainy ones. The most I biked in one day was 104 miles. I had forgotten my Kindle at the last place I slept.

And I got faster – the second day, I only went 15 miles! It was all uphill and into a headwind. I remember one moment when I was going up a large hill, and when I crested the hill, I got that weightless feeling – the kind you get when you’re on a roller coaster – and that’s how I knew I had gotten faster.

I did take breaks – I also took a couple days off.

Me (aside)The awesomeness of discovering how your body just adapts to the demands you place on it is a superb confidence booster. We talk about working out as though it was some annoying thing we have to do – but really, it’s just a celebration of the body’s miraculous capability of doing amazing things.

Gear

Me: (eyeing her bike – there was a rack in the back with 2 panniers…and that was about it): Is that really all you brought?!

Sarah: Yep (proudly pointing at her things) – that’s my entire life! I saw a lot of other bikers on the same route and I always had the least amount of stuff. Usually people had bags in the front of their bikes and along the frame. People like to pack a lot of stuff.

Me: Haha yes – people like to be prepared, and no one wants to be stranded in the middle of rural America. What clothing did you bring?

Sarah: 2 pairs of bike shorts, 1 pair of bike pants, 2 pairs of normal shorts, 1 pair of jeans, though I would have brought something else because jeans are heavy and not very comfortable to sleep in. A few shirts…1 biking jersey, but mostly t-shirts. A few tank tops. I didn’t bring gloves…that surprised people. A hat.

Me: What about sunglasses?

Sarah: I had safety glasses.

Me (aside): Sarah didn’t wear biking shoes – made sense – she then only needed one pair of shoes. She was also riding a normal commuter bike. Almost everyone else had clippy shoes. Also, if I were to do a trip like this, I would most certainly bring sunglasses to avoid damaging my eyes!

Me: Is your phone the only thing you brought? Did you also bring a backpack? How did you pack your things?

Sarah: Yes. I did also have my backpack. I had my phone and toilet paper in here.

Usually, I’d strap my sleeping bag to the top. When it rained, I wrapped it with a black garbage bag.

(pointing at the right pannier) In here, I had clothes and supplies.

(pointing at the left pannier): Food went in here.

Me (aside): She brought so little stuff that there was really no need to balance the weight.

Me: How and where did you sleep? Did you usually get up early?

Sarah: I mostly camped in my 20 degree sleeping bag and single-person tent (North Face Stormbreak tent). I didn’t bring all the guylines and stakes so the tent was only about 3 pounds. I usually woke up before sunrise, ate breakfast in my tent, went to the bathroom, and then got on the road. I often liked to get on the road before the sun rose so I could finish biking before the hottest part of the day.

Me: Did you bring any bike supplies?

Sarah: A pump, one extra tube (if I got a flat I would buy one at the next town), tire levers, a patch kit, a multitool, chain lube, and extra screws for my rack. It’s a good thing I had those screws because one screw did fall out.

Me: Did you get any flats?

Sarah: Yes – 2 flats – both in Texas. There were a lot of thorns – goathead thorns – and random debris like tire bits. It was like going through a minefield. Texas is very wide so it ends up being a third of the trip, so it’s not surprising.

Me (aside): I’d categorize Sarah’s setup unquestionably in the ultralight category. Ultralight is often thrown around as a marketing term in the outdoor gear industry and there aren’t any well defined “weight limits” for lightweight vs ultralight. But looking at her gear, I consider Sarah’s setup to be ultralight-minimalist. She didn’t splurge on anything very expensive and only brought what she really needed. She didn’t even bring a sleeping pad! She told me her puffy jacket was enough and that she didn’t feel the rocks underneath. I’m sure being young helped too.

Me: Let’s talk about food. Did you bring a stove? What did you eat?

Sarah: I ate normal food – vegetables, fruit. I mostly ate food that didn’t need cooking – trail mix, peanut butter, protein bars, avocado, cheese/salami/tortilla to go with the tortilla. I stopped at grocery stores a lot and also fast food places and restaurants. I averaged about 2 tacos a day. Sometimes 14, sometimes 0, but averaged 2.

Food tastes better when you’re biking, somehow! There was one day when I ate a liter and a half of ice cream. It was hard at first for my body to get used to, because – no exaggeration – I needed three times the amount of food I normally ate, which is only 1000-some calories. I was burning about 3000 calories a day.

That reminds me – there was one time when I saw these berries on the side of the road, so at the next convenience store I asked what type of berries they were. And they were blackberries! So the next time I saw them, I spent like 2 hours picking them. It was like winning the lottery.

Me: Did you drink anything besides water?

Sarah: I only drank water, but it was important, especially in the desert, to have enough water, so sometimes I strapped a gallon of water to my rack with a bungee cord.

Me (aside): She did make a full list of her things:

  • Shoes
  • 2 1-liter Nalgene bottles
  • 1 Camelbak bottle
  • Hat
  • Red and blue bags for clothes that double as pillows
  • Light jacket
  • Soft shell rain jacket (doubles as sleeping mat)
  • 20F sleeping bag
  • 1 person tent
  • Dish towel
  • Clothes (2 bike shorts and 1 bike pants, 2 normal shorts, 1 normal pants – jeans, ~6 tops, couple handfuls of socks/underwear)
  • Bag of food w/a few sandwich bags and a plastic spoon
  • Helmet with mirror
  • Safety glasses
  • Daypack
  • Kindle
  • Pen/paper
  • Wallet/extra cash
  • Smartphone/headphones
  • Extra batteries
  • Headlamp
  • Toiletries (toilet paper, pads, toothbrush/paste, deodorant, comb, shampoo/conditioner, soap, razor, tweezers, nail clippers, scissors, hair ties)
  • Bungee cords/panniers on back wheel rack
  • Bike tools (pump, tire levers, extra tube, patch kit, multitool, chain lube, zipties)
  • Trash bags
  • Reflectors
  • Sunscreen
  • Bike lock

Trip Details

Me: What kinds of people did you meet? Did you ever feel alone?

Sarah: Mostly retired people, and they were from all around the world. They usually tried to figure out what I’m doing. Everyone asked my age. Then they’d ask if I was alone. Then they’d ask if I was afraid of this, this, and this. They were always telling me what I needed to be scared of.

People are very, very nice. They offered to drive me to the next town, the next campsite, the grocery store. They would invite me to sit with them at their campsites and share stories by the campfire. There were a couple bikers that I met at the beginning of the trip, and then didn’t see them for about 1,000 miles, and then I saw them again.

It’s promising to see people in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, even a woman in her 90’s – still staying active and getting out there. I heard a lot about the legendary 90-year old biker. She would stop anywhere – even at the bottom of a big hill after losing all her momentum – and stop, just to take a photo. People would fondly tell stories about her, including one where they saw her bike lying on the side of the road, and, worrying that she was hurt, looked all around for her…and she had simply gone to lay down in a big field of flowers with a big smile on her face!

My goal is to be a cool old person.

I never really felt lonely. You meet a lot of people along the way – at rest stops, at campsites. I met new friends – people I would stay in touch with. Plus, I had my communication machine smartphone with me.

Me: Were there a lot of people doing the same route?

Sarah: Yes – a few hundred per year do this route.

Me: Were you ever scared?

Sarah: Not really. The people I encountered – when they caught onto what I was doing, they were like, “you’re alone? Aren’t you scared?” and proceeded to tell me all the things I should be scared of – the standard three.

I always felt safe at campsites.

There were a couple times when I was afraid that I was going to get run over…people not paying attention. The only time I was scared was when I got bitten by a dog. I got chased by dogs all the time but this one was waiting for me, and then as I passed, it ran up next to me and attacked.

There was one stretch near the sand dunes where there the road would go up and down, but you couldn’t see what was on the other side of the hill, and there was no shoulder. When I saw a car, I stopped and pulled over.

Me (aside): Fear is something that I struggle with more than I like to admit. We talk about biking being dangerous, and if you constantly put yourself in careless situations, it can be. Sarah assured me that people she met were very, very nice. I was tempted to do the finger wag of disapproval myself! Bad things can happen anywhere, wherever you are, even close to home, or even at home. All you can really be is as vigilant as you can and exercise good judgment. Bikepacking has its risks, as does careening down a highway at 70+ mph during rush hour.

Me: Did you have a favorite state?

Sarah: Arizona. I really like the rocky landscape – moreso than trees.

Me: What about least favorite?

Sarah: Louisiana…but not just because of the dog. The people, the love of guns. They had margarita drive-thru’s there! I once saw one that was attached to an ammunition store and a post office.

Me: What was your favorite day?

Sarah: It’s really hard to pick just one – there were so many good days! The prettiest day was when I visited the Tonto Forest in Arizona by the salt river. I also like the first day – the first day was nice because I got to see a couple friends in SD that I hadn’t seen in 5 years. I also took a short ferry on the day I made it to Florida and there were birds that followed the boat’s draft, occasionally diving into the water to catch fish.

Me: It was your birthday recently right? Happy belated! Did you do anything special on your birthday?

Sarah: Yes – I ate a lot of ice cream, went to a really cool aviation museum, and saw an air show. The planes flew super close!

Me: Did you take any days off?

Sarah: I took two days off – one after getting bitten by the dog, and once in Tallahassee. It was going to rain that day.

Me (aside): Pretty amazing – she had all the time in the world, yet she only felt compelled to take a couple days off. 

Me: Did you get a lot of sunburns?

Sarah: I got a light one and a few inches on my back because I missed a spot. Putting on sunscreen was part of my routine – I usually put it on in the morning. I became a connoisseur of sunscreen because I went through 4 bottles of sunscreen! I recommend Neutrogena’s SPF 70 sunscreen that comes in the yellow bottle which doesn’t smell as bad and isn’t as icky as other sunscreens.

I never had to reapply it throughout the day – they always tell you to reapply it on the back of the bottles, but not because the sunscreen degrades – sunscreen technology is advanced enough that that doesn’t really happen – it’s because people don’t apply enough and everywhere the first time. Also, some people sweat like crazy, but I do not.

Me (aside): I guess I get to stop stressing about reapplying sunscreen!

Me: What would you do differently next time?

Sarah: I would not bring jeans. They’re heavy and not comfortable to sleep in. I probably also wouldn’t bring my u-lock. Most people had cable locks.

Next time, I’d also like to bike tour with somebody. Being by yourself gives you freedom – but it’d be nice to be able to share gear and have someone to talk to.

Me: Are you looking forward to being back home? What do you miss?

Sarah: Yes. I miss my computer. I miss having a bathroom I can use at any time. I even miss cooking! I always thought of cooking as a chore, but I miss it!

Me (aside): Sarah has always been a minimalist in just about every way, but she didn’t realize there was a word for it. Back when she was still working on her PhD, she had explained to me why she liked Soylent, and her explanation told me right then and there that we were on the same wavelength, though I am not such a fan of Soylent. 

When she left, she left some bananas and a small bottle of Nutella on my counter with a note telling me that bananas and Nutella were an excellent alternative to energy gels. I told her that I would love to accompany her on her travels, but that 2 months was more vacation time than I had available to me at the current moment, and our trip would need to be shorter than that (unless I staggered it in December-January).

It’s easy to be swept up into the dreary monotony of routine and spend off-hours vegging on the couch or some picturesque beach. For many people, adventuring doesn’t really come to mind when we think about vacation and decompressing.

Sometimes, we look at people like Sarah and cast our net of judgment on them. She’s crazy! Who would ever do a thing like that? Think about what could have happened! How…cavalier! But the truth is, we need people like that. We need people to show us what we’re capable of. We need people to try crazy things. Otherwise, Everest would never have been climbed, planes would never have been invented, skydiving wouldn’t be a thing, and how on earth would we ever have gotten to the moon?

We need more people like Sarah to show us that there is more to our lives than routines, that we might as well be bold, explore the world, and show everyone else just how beautiful the world can be if we give it a chance.

The Lose-Lose Choice of Living in an American City or Suburb

Via Pixabay

Growing up, I considered myself a “city person.”

In retrospect, I now realize that translated to “I don’t know what to do with myself when there aren’t people and businesses surrounding me.” Then, when I did go to the city, the first thing I did was find a major shopping street, and let my pop culture insecurity-induced consumerist desires come to life. Ok – that’s not quite the truth – in reality I have so little awareness of pop culture (I become pretty clueless when people start talking about famous actors and other celebrities) that its impact on me is pretty minimal. But the part about finding a major shopping street is true. As a kid who stayed at home 99% of the time, I racked up plenty of insecurities over time and never quite figured out how to deal with them, and buying my way out was a coping mechanism that I had to get rid of. The idea of minimalism and simple living in classic keeping up with the Jones’s environment was not a concept I was ever really exposed to until much later.

I admit, cities have perks I enjoy immensely. Infrastructure is wayfarer-friendly, which means stores and services can be easily accessed without a car. There are more festivities and public events. There are more career and networking opportunities. The social scene is more diverse. Simply put, the availability of human beings you can interact with is just greater. It is tiring, though, especially as an introvert, to be out and about all the time. Fortunately, introverts can experience not-being-entirely-a-hermit by mingling in the city, with the option of talking to others.

At the same time, city-living has its limitations. It’s expensive. Really, really expensive, for some cities. You’re paying a major premium for the privilege of being in the middle of the action, and for some, it all gets old as priorities change. Approaching 30, my city-dwelling friends are starting to reach typical home-buying and family-rearing age, and more and more of them are starting to leave the city in favor of buying a home with a lawn and hosting large parties and barbecues on a back door patio.

This is where it gets tricky.

I have mixed feelings about suburbia. Or at least, the suburbs I’ve been to.

First of all, its ludicrous that every single American family is expected to own their own huge private dwelling – do we really need to eat up that much land and resources to support our already rich lifestyles? America is a huge country, with not great rail infrastructure. Thus, it was built on the premise that the vast majority of its inhabitants owned cars. And so, chances are, you are driving your car everywhere. To the grocery store. To the daycare. To Target. To the gym. To the yoga studio (I guess to make up for the stress of driving there??). To your kids’ dance practice. To the theatre. To work. All that time spent driving is time not spent walking, or cycling, or doing something else remotely active. So of course, we start losing our health, unless we become gym rats or runners, which is pretty difficult if you’re tired and run-down all that driving (it’s not exactly an energizing activity). Exercise and moving around is just not built into suburb life. Sitting on the couch, driving everywhere, and sitting at restaurants/movies/offices is, well, fattening. At night, walk around any neighborhood in a middle-class suburb and you’ll probably be 1. The only person walking and 2. See lots of flickering TV screens in the windows.

Ideally, being active should be easily baked into the day. We buy all sorts of fancy equipment for our houses, hoping that dropping that money will motivate us to work out. But it doesn’t help that suburbs are ill-equipped to handle bicycles. All sorts of sidewalk-riding routes (too dangerous to ride on the road, so the next best choice is riding on the sidewalk) and disappearing sidewalks (sidewalks that just “end”) next to 45-mph speed limit roads and the absence of bike racks at strip malls are not conducive to bicycle riding. Everything being so spread out makes it so the grocery store and the school are too far apart to realistically walk to.

So when I ask myself the question of whether or not I am a city person, I have to be frank: it’s hard to say. Neither is great. As a minimalist, I think I have an overall dissatisfaction with both. I don’t want to be surrounded by advertisements and businesses wanting money, and I certainly don’t like high costs of living. At the same time, I don’t want to be too far from people in general – feeling connected to our communities is a basic human need. I feel like I have this dream of living in a city like Copenhagen, where bicycles rule the road, people value their health, and the community is in god spirits.

Fortunately, there is hope – millennials in Seattle have recently reversed the trend – car ownership is finally starting to decline, thanks to the uptick in people cycling, car-sharing, or public transportation. For our health and for our environment, I look forward to a future where we are not boxed into car ownership should we choose not to live in an expensive city.

How Cycling Can Teach You Minimalism

via Pixabay

Cycling is generally seen as a weekend activity or a “nice” way to spend a day. For me, cycling is a quintessential part of a minimalist lifestyle.

A good friend of mine told me that if more people could experience how much easier a road bike is to ride compared to a typical Wal-Mart bike, more people would take the plunge into cycling. A new road bike runs a pretty penny if you’re used to the usual run-of-the-mill less than $200 range of bikes, so of course I hesitated for a while. I was very much sold on the car-lite idea, after reading posts like these. For a while, I got into the habit of biking everywhere less than 10 miles away with my cheap Wal-Mart bike. As the end of the cycling season drew near, I walked into one of my local bike shops last year, not knowing that I would walk out with my very first road bike with a 20% end of season discount. That was August 2015. I’m coming up on my one year anniversary with my bike and I’ve ridden over 2,200 miles on it.

dolce

My Specialized Dolce Sport!

Cycling is an activity associated with both rich white men who dominate the sport – the Tour de France is entirely male – and poor people who cannot afford a car.

via Pixabay

via Pixabay

This polarization concerns me, because cycling is an activity that can be enjoyed by anyone in reasonably healthy condition and intact limbs, but it has a mix of negative reputations, such as

  • Being unsafe. More on that below.
  • Full of fashion faux-pas….understandable. Like race cars, cycling kits are portable billboards for sponsors eager to plaster their logos and names onto jerseys and bibs. Spandex is not generally a fashion statement, nor was it meant to be. But it is going to help you go faster.
  • Being a “bro”-y activity. Except in Amsterdam where female cyclists outnumber male cyclists.
via Pixabay

If you want to know what a bike city looks like, go to Amsterdam.

How Minimalism and Cycling are Related

Cycling is about efficiency. And so is minimalism. Cars are laughably inefficient vehicles – so much bulk to transport a tiny human! When I walked into the shop to try my first road bike, I had no idea I needed to get sized for it. Different bikes have different geometries to fit people of different proportions, namely for height, leg length, and reach. If you fit your bike perfectly, the power you put into the bike to make it move is not wasted.

When I embark on a journey with my bicycle, I have to be more thoughtful about what I choose to bring with me. Whether or not you install panniers on your bike or carry a backpack, every ounce of additional weight will reduce your potential speed.  Part of the reason why people choose road bikes is how light they are, and while they can be incredibly light, the weight you bring on the bike can negate it. You quickly learn the advantages of being lightweight and are less inclined to bring too much stuff with you. You learn to optimize your load, especially on longer journeys.

via Pixabay

But What About Safety?

Let’s face it, hitting something on a bicycle is going to do way more damage to you than if you were in a car.

To make matters worse, many cyclists skirt the rules of the road, nonchalantly riding down streets the wrong way, running red lights, speeding through intersections without checking for drivers, wear headphones while cycling, among other heedless behaviors. With cyclists being so unpredictable, it is no wonder drivers get uneasy or even resentful of cyclists. Ticketing cyclists is rare, so the problem persists.

The problem is largely systematic. Cities do not always build the appropriate infrastructure to reduce the risk of accidents. If the bike lane is right next to a row of parked cars, then riding in the bike lane could potentially be more dangerous than riding with traffic due to the risk of being “door’ed.”  Some roads are simply too narrow. Add that to a crowd of impatient drivers and you have a perfect formula for accidents. Still, most accidents can be avoided. All I can say is, with the proper precautions and avoidance of high-risk routes, cycling can actually be safer than driving. Find a route free of cars and clutter, bring just the essentials, and enjoy the journey. There is something just so relaxing about the feeling the fresh breeze as you glide around town by bicycle.

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Perhaps you can start by taking your next trip to the grocery store by bicycle. I guarantee you’ll be more wary about how much you buy, and in a good way!