Can a long bike tour change you, and what kind of bike tourist are you?

An image from “Hot Dog Diary” by Nathan Tolzmann

Sometime a year or so ago I came across the website of Nathan Tolzmann. Since 2018, he’s been documenting a cross-country (San Francisco-Portland-Chicago) bicycle tour that he and his friend Matt Bergstrom took twenty years earlier. It’s a great narrative comic, documenting every day of their 1998 trip. As someone who has done a big tour, travelogues like this fascinate me, so I have been following his blog, seeing the story unfold. After three years, Nathan has finally wrapped up the comic, with the hope that it’ll be printed in book form at some point.

It’s a great read (block away a couple hours if you want to dive in) and it’s obvious that Nathan and Matt journaled the trip. I’m a bit jealous, as creating a big graphic-novel length comic of a bike tour is a cool idea. But I highly doubt that I’ll be taking that approach with The Big Tour of 2011, even with the initial talk of “creating a book or something”. And the book angle was to be about “observing bike culture” in the cities I passed through, which were pretty few and far between on that tour. At least I managed to create a pretty good record via blogging about it and taking photos.

Twenty-three years ago wasn’t that long ago, but it definitely was a different era. We were in the early days of the internet. Using the “information superhighway” was a lot different sans smartphones, staying connected meant finding a library every couple days and hoping you got an email (via yahoo, of course) from your second cousin in Minot confirming your stay when you passed through. Blogging wasn’t much of a concept in 1998 but Matt attempted to “update his geocities” website when he could. The most practical way to record your trip was with a journal, a sketchbook, and maybe a film camera. No instant sharing of anything.* Not only that, but “googling” anything and everything wasn’t a thing then. If Nathan planned the same tour today and asked questions about his route on an online forum, in less than a second someone would be sure to point out that he was “going the wrong way” by biking north from San Francisco along the Pacific Coast. (Yeah, there was “a book”, but only if you knew about it.) It was a simpler time then. We didn’t have all those instantly accessible resources then, but then again we weren’t hindered by them.

US 12 east of Dayton, Washington. Taken on my Portland-Gorge-Spokane Tour in May of 2013.

It’s been a great read, especially since I’ve biked toured in many of the same spots that Nathan and Matt did. Seeing this scene of them cruising down US 12 east of Dayton, Washington brought back memories when I hit up the same spot fifteen years later in 2013. It’s also fun (in a retrospective sense) to see other tourist’s encounters with weird cyclists and know you aren’t alone.

One thing that I’m always interested in reading about is the reflections after the tour is done. Did a big tour (and I define a big one of about a couple months or longer) change them in a perceptible way? One of the motivations for Nathan and Matt to embark on this adventure was the fact that they were approaching 30 and felt like they needed to do “something grand, something epic”. This seems to be a big factor for a tour like this, and there’s the expectation that you’ll be “changed” by it. My motivation for the Big Tour in 2011 were a bit similar, though I had been touring for six years already. (Nathan had not bike toured before his big tour.) For me, heading across a continent felt like the next logical step of what I was doing. But I also hoped that by the time I was done, the New Improved Shawn would break out of the Old Shawn cocoon. That didn’t happen, the changes were more subtle, appreciated over a longer course of time. It was still gratifying to know that I could pull off something like this, even if I had “failed” in the attempt to make it to the Atlantic.

The other thing that interests me is trying to determine what category of “bike tourer” the person writing/drawing the remembrance falls into. It’s by no means scientific, but I broadly divide it into three categories:

  • The bucket lister. This person takes on a big tour as a challenge. They may not have bike toured before this trip, but they get the idea, and set off on an epic and grand, hopefully life-changing adventure. These tend to fall into cross-country tours, as “coast to coast” has importance, even to those who don’t tour. Even if the trip was truly transformative and positive, they may never bike tour (or even bicycle) after completion, or if they do, it’ll be a decade or three later, and similarly grand and epic, say biking around Iceland or through Patagonia.
  • The life balancer. This person may have done an epic bike tour, or maybe they are planning one at some point. Maybe they don’t care about a big tour. What they try to do is incorporate bike touring in some form into their “regular” life. This can be regular bike camping overnights and smaller (several days into a couple weeks) tours during the summer. They may get into the rhythm of the road, but their “real life” is still back home, on a brief pause.
  • The lifer. This person’s “real life” is bike touring. They sold their house or gave up their apartment, put the remainder of their stuff in storage or at their parent’s house after purging unneeded things, and live off their bike. They may be out for years on a continuous tour, or perhaps tour nine months out of the year, returning home to take a break and restore the coffers. But even “home”, they are anxious, dreaming of the road.

It appears Nathan is a “bucket lister” as he hasn’t done a tour since. I obviously fall into the “life balancer” category, and that’s the type of approach I’m drawn to by other folks. I don’t get those who end up selling all their bike touring gear along with their bike after they get home from their tour. And while I used to be more interested in following blogs and Instagram accounts of the “round-the-world on a never-ending tour” types, nowadays I don’t seek them out as I can’t relate. (It doesn’t help when they can’t always tell a compelling story.) I like having a place I can come back to, and like having a community to be involved in other than a rarefied guild of fellow bike tourists. But mostly I’m grumbly when “big” tours become the only “legitimate” tours. I get that coast-to-coast has a certain cachet, but what about just getting out of town for a few days? Why does everything have to be a big deal to be taken seriously?

Putting too much emphasis on Big, Important Bike Tours has its drawbacks. It can lead to feeling like the act of traveling by your own power isn’t interesting and compelling enough in itself, then feeling we have to connect the tour with something important, like a charity or “awareness”. We don’t want to think we’re simply taking a holiday, do we? That would be too self-centered. If the adventure doesn’t go as planned, we feel dejected and embarrassed, then erase any account of their adventure from public view. And I’m not saying it’s bad to connect a tour to a greater purpose, but one shouldn’t feel like they have to.

Then the view that “the only real bike tour is a big one” filters down to the general public, who can’t fathom touring without the goal of crossing a continent in mind. Why would you just travel by bike? What’s the point? This can lead to incidents like when Stasia was denied the use of a “hiker-biker” campsite because she was “the wrong type of bike tourist”, meaning she wasn’t riding cross-country. If we elevated the simple bike overnight and small bike tour to a higher standing, this type of thinking could be curtailed.

That being said, I still appreciate the fact that anyone gets out there on the bike. And while my touring philosophy doesn’t necessarily align with Nathan’s,** that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading about what he’s done. I’m hoping that the book comes out soon, too. We need more bike touring graphic novels! And maybe I’ll make one of my tours at some point…

The View from Crown Point, looking east into the Columbia Gorge. 25 Aug 2020. Camera: Pentax IQZoom 170SL. Film: Kodak Ultramax 400.

*My ex-roommate Dan blogged his 2003 bike tour from Portland south via a primitive keyboard device that could maybe hold a short-length post in its memory. He “uploaded” it by plugging it to a payphone by a portable modem. Alas, that blog is long gone.

**Since Matt hasn’t shared an account, I don’t know what his bike touring philosophy is, though I have heard that he has done other bike tours since his 1998 adventure.

6 thoughts on “Can a long bike tour change you, and what kind of bike tourist are you?

Add yours

  1. I want to ride across Indiana on US 40, the highway that cuts right across the middle of Indiana east-west. It’s only 150 miles or so; I could do it in a couple of days. There’s a group that does it every July in a single day – that’s a little too gonzo for me. But I want to do this. It’s on my list.

  2. Wow, I’d totally forgotten I ever wrote that. Nice remembering! 🙂 I’m with you on the life balancing thing, although one person’s balance is another person’s epic bucket list, I think.

    Also, yes to a graphic novel of your bike adventures:) The “little” ones! I think the fact that they are more life balancey would be an excellent and very welcome counterpoint to all the stories of big! epic! never-yet-been-done! (insert your superlative here) travel out there.

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