Have Bikes, Will Travel

By Sandor Slomovits

At one point or another, many of us who bicycle casually — whether to work, to shop, to exercise, or simply to go for an occasional leisurely ride along Huron River Drive — have probably daydreamed of a longer trip; perhaps across the state, or even across the country. Last summer, Karin Roszell and Adam Kern, a couple of young Ann Arborites, both recent U-M graduates, turned daydreams like those into reality. Roszell and Kern, riding a pair of cyclocross bikes, bicycled from San Francisco to Ann Arbor, pedaling approximately 3,500 miles in nine weeks, occasionally biking over a hundred miles in one day.

With bulging panniers on either side of their rear tires stuffed with camping gear, clothes, food, and water, the pair were mostly self-contained, self-sufficient travelers. They camped about a third of the trip, stayed in motels for another third, and the rest of the time they overnighted in peoples’ homes. To find people who would host them, they relied on two apps on their phones, Couchsurfing.com and Warmshowers.org. Warmshowers in particular is designed solely for bicyclists like them who are touring across the country. Using the apps they found people in the towns on their route. Roszell explained:

We’d text them and say, ‘Can we stay with you?’ Usually they’d respond pretty quickly, and usually with, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ On the day of! It was such a mind-boggling thing. I never expected people to be so open, so last minute, but they really were. Many of the people who host other bikers have done a trip like this themselves, so they understand what it feels like to have someone give you a place to stay. Their generosity and trusting were almost uniform.

Kern added, “Sometimes people would respond with, ‘You know, I’m not even home right now, but if you arrive, the key is under the mat, you can make yourselves at home.’”

They tried to stay on small roads, avoiding interstates whenever possible, and managed to ride mostly on minor highways and service roads that turned out to be not busy at all. “Biking was such a good way to take in the country,” said Kern. “Slowly see what’s around you, take in what’s going on around you.” At the same time, while one of their goals in planning the trip had been to have a real change of pace from their structured school and work life in Ann Arbor, they discovered that the road imposed its own structure. “In a sense they were very free, kind of plan-your-own days,” said Kern. “There were no constraints except we had to get from point A to point B. But, even though it was kind of an escape, it also became a 9 to 5 kind of job.”

Roszell, who handled many of the day-to-day logistics throughout their trip, added,

I was surprised by how much time we had to spend doing three things: finding a place to stay at night, biking eight to ten hours, and making sure we had enough food. I’ve never spent so much time in my life just trying to cover those basics. That was our day; there was actually little time outside of that. We were exhausted and we wanted to rest and sleep. The last tiny portion of the day was exploring. But we did a lot of exploring on our bikes each day. In eight hours of biking you see a lot.

We met a lot of people along the way who were also bike touring. We weren’t the only ones by any means. Especially on the western side of the country we would see other bikers with their panniers loaded up, almost every day. Sometimes we met people in the loneliest places; we would become friends and bike together for a bit. We met three men in the middle of nowhere in Nevada who we biked with across the state. They were in their seventies and retired and still biking. You see all different ages, all different kinds of people. We met other groups, a lot younger, some in college, some just graduated, one from Australia. You just meet everyone.

“We met a Frenchman who was on his third straight year touring,” said Kern. “He has been on his bike for three years! Amazing the people you meet, just by happenstance.” And of course everywhere they went they found that people were excited by their venture. “When we’d stop at gas stations we’d always get people asking us, ‘Where are you going, what are you doing, where can I follow you on social media, what’s your website?’”

In planning the trip, Roszell and Kern were not only seeking an adventure. They were also hoping to raise funds to help support two organizations close to their hearts. Roszell had been volunteering at the Joy Southfield Community Development Corporation for the past three years and wanted to give “a big goodbye gift to the clinic.” Kern traveled to Kenya in 2012 and worked at an orphanage called the Grace of God Children Center. He wanted to donate to the Harambee Foundation, which helps Kenyan orphans go to school. Their goal prior to leaving had been to raise $10,000 through donations, and they met that goal almost exactly. Seventy percent of those funds Roszell and Kern have given to those two organizations, and the rest went to defray their trip expenses.

Roszell and Kern had been together for a year when they began planning their trip, and embarked on their jaunt six months later. The two-month-long journey also transformed and strengthened the young couple’s relationship. Kern said:

It’s been a really key experience in getting to know each other. This kind of trip, where you’re together all the time and you’re using each other to accomplish what’s in front of you every day, we kind of expected that there would be some conflict every now and then, and we’d just have to communicate and get over it. And there were times when we’d have small arguments, but I think all in all, in the end, we’re much stronger and able to communicate much better. We learned a lot about each other, and about ourselves.

Roszell continued:

I had crazy worries before we left and one of them was, ‘What if we just argue every day and what if we’re sick of being around each other? What if that happens? That would be horrible.’ But surprisingly, because we were such a team — we were really all we had — we were each other’s greatest asset to make it, like getting up a mountain, or finding food, or a place to stay, that at the end of the day we felt so accomplished that no matter what little petty arguments we’d had, they didn’t matter.

Kern added, “Most of the time, when we’d get on edge, was toward the last two hours of a ten-hour ride, when we were hungry, thirsty, and just ready to be off the saddle. Anger didn’t come from anywhere other than hunger.” Roszell picks up the thread, laughing. “I’d say, ‘Adam, just eat this granola bar and things will be better.’ And twenty minutes later he’d be smiling again.”

Since returning, Roszell and Kern have resumed their pre-trip work and school lives, and, perhaps surprisingly, have even been bicycling. “We took off a week and then have been back up in the saddle,” said Kern. “We have done some nice rides, and we’re preparing for some triathlons.” He’s back at work at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research as a research study coordinator studying mental health at universities across the nation. He plans to be there for a year and then will attend grad school. Roszell, who just graduated this past spring, said, “I thought I wasn’t going to miss school at all, but, surprisingly enough, I already miss it, so I’ve been studying a bit, refreshing myself on the science material that will be on the MCAT.” She also will renew her E.M.T. license, and is looking for work, either in a hospital E.R. or in a clinic, and plans to go to medical school. Someday they’d like to ride from Ann Arbor to the East Coast to finish their cross-country trip, but “the hardest thing will be to find time, now that we’re in the full swing of things, taking the next steps of our lives,” said Kern.

“One of the big life lessons we learned,” Roszell said, “is something that I realized is two sided — almost in conflict with each other.” Adding:

Before this trip I was really nervous. I didn’t feel prepared, I didn’t think I’d biked enough, trained enough. ‘What if I just don’t make it up the mountains?’ So I was amazed in the beginning that it was way easier than I thought it would be. So I have a new confidence in my abilities. At the same time there were days that were really long, really tiring, really hot, where I was like, ‘Oh man, twenty more miles, I don’t know if I can do it.’ On those days I had to dig really deep. You do that in school too, buckle down for a test; but it’s different in other ways, when it’s a physical limit you haven’t pushed through before.

“It really was a life changing experience,” said Kern.

We found out we were more fit than we thought, so there was never a time that we were ever thinking of quitting, but there definitely were challenging times. And one of the things that got us through those challenging times was the willpower we had, and reflecting on the willpower that people in the charities that we were supporting have. The Kenyan orphans that I’m supporting and the Detroit citizens that Karin’s supporting, it was easy for us to reflect on the struggles that they are going through. Not to compare our struggles to theirs, but that came into our minds a number of times and really helped us push through our daily tasks, having that purpose. This whole trip would not have been possible without all the people and organizations — our parents, sponsors, donors, the U-M’s optiMize, who helped us along the way.

Roszell added, “The biggest thing I take away from this trip, [is recognizing] the immense amounts of kindness, from people we didn’t even know.”

To learn more about Karin Roszell and Adam Kern’s trip and for information on how you can contribute to their causes, please visit www.pedalingforprogress.wix.com/2015.

Posted on December 31, 2015 .