My thirst for adventure has always driven me to see the world in unique ways. I grew up full-time traveling in an RV with my family and, as a child, spent countless hours biking, hiking, swimming, camping, kayaking and sleeping under the stars. As an adult, I’ve done my best to continue nourishing this traveling spirit. My life motto is from Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
Yet my career in environmental education and climate justice has taught me how massive an environmental footprint travel has. Flying and driving are two of the biggest sources of global greenhouse gas pollutants, with transportation amounting to nearly 30% of annual emissions in the United States alone. The burning of fossil fuels (and release of carbon into the atmosphere) is known to impact long-term climate variability.
This inspired me to embark on one of the biggest adventures of my life: a 1,100-mile bike journey from my home in Chicago to New York City in time for Climate Week NYC, an annual event that takes place in conjunction with the United Nations General Assembly. I wanted to raise awareness about climate issues impacting people across the country, and to do the whole thing with as little pollution as possible. I would be burning only the energy from pedaling my Schwinn!
This turned out to be the craziest—and best—thing I’ve ever done. The trip has been full of more surprises and graces than I’d ever have imagined when I left Chicago in late August. I’ve seen more of the country than I ever would have thought possible. I feel more confident than ever that biking should be a larger part of our culture, for a myriad of reasons. Below are just a few highlights from my journey.
- Waking up to the sunrise over the graceful curves of the Potomac River while camping near Paw Paw, West Virginia—together with the birds singing to the sun and the fog caressing the river in tendrils that lift effortlessly to the hills—was breathtaking. This area has a magic that you’d never experience via car. A fellow cross-country biker and I commented that if more people could wake up this way, we’d have far fewer social and environmental problems.
- You’ll notice the kindness of strangers that you don’t get when you drive everywhere, like that of a chiropractor offering me the use of the office shower in La Porte, Indiana, after a day of biking in blistering 106-degree heat.
- Pedaling by night along the Erie Lackawanna Trail and the Oak Savannah Trail leaving Chicago and into Indiana was very special. The converted rail-trails through much of Indiana were some of the best experiences of my route! Plus, I got to enjoy hearing cicadas, owls and even some wolves during the summer night.
- Taking the time to find the hidden gems in small-town America at the recommendation of locals, like stopping at a lakeside tavern for fish and chips or camping in a nearby state park, enhanced the experience.
While biking a long-distance route on trails might make your journey longer than using roads, the benefits of doing so far outweigh the extra miles pedaled. In planning my route, I found it exponentially better to avoid highways and state roads for trails or county roads every time. You get quieter biking, more scenery, less traffic, more shade, and more folks who are likely to stop, talk and help if you’re in need. Once during my journey, an entire Amish family walked with me for a while and shared ice cold water from their cooler!
In particular, I highly recommend taking the Great Allegheny Passage (gaptrail.org) southeast from Pittsburgh through the Eastern Continental Divide into Maryland, then northeast toward Philadelphia. You’ll get incredible sweeping vistas, countless river crossings and beautiful central Appalachian woods. Best of all, you’ll be in bike culture for days. Here, time slows as you pedal through towns oriented around your bike, not cars. You can swap stories over campfires, share camp coffee in the morning with other long-haul bikers and, most happily, other bikers and locals will listen to you with curiosity—not honk at you with impatience to get off the road!
Preparation is key, but flexibility even more so. Having your destination in mind each day is crucial. Of course, plan your route with helpful apps like TrailLink™, but also listen to advice from the locals. Inevitably your days will be longer than you think—or hotter or rainier—or you’ll take a tumble. These impromptu situations are when backup suggestions from locals come in handy, especially for things like finding the best detour route or the nearest bike shop for repairs.
Weather is increasingly unpredictable in this era of climate change. Blessedly, I had a few days of much cooler temperatures than the meteorologists forecasted. My advice? Take full advantage! If it’s drier or cooler than expected, go as far as you can. You’ll be grateful later when the foul weather kicks in or when your next mishap slows you down.
These, among countless other memories and lessons, highlight for me the importance of transitioning away from car culture toward a less wasteful, much more communal bike culture. Pedaling is not just a fantastic way to see your neighborhood or get fresh air; it’s a life-giving way to make a difference for the entire planet.