A STORY WORTHY…. Justin Lott // bike touring AROUND America
When I first met Justin, it was outside a Woods Café in Bellingham, WA on a rainy June 18th. I was with a Foodie Meetup group doing a food tour of Bellingham and Chuckanut. I saw him through the window on his laptop posting something on Warmshowers. There was an impressive bicycle outside the coffee shop, I could only assume was his, loaded for what looked like a very long bike tour. I had heard of Warm Showers and bike touring on a podcast that has been quite influential on my travel journey. So, when I met him outside the coffee shop getting ready to go I just had to introduce myself and get to know him.
“Hi! Are you bike touring?!”, I attempted.
“Yes, I am! Are you a biker?”, he continued.
*chuckle* “No, I’m not….yet…..” I started to tell him about Brian D’Apice, the biker I heard about on that podcast who biked around America for a cause. I asked him where he’s headed and where he came from. We chatted for a bit more as I spotted my Meetup group walking away.
Quickly, I mentioned that I was starting a blog that would feature the incredible stories of the people I meet on my travels, starting with the amazing souls here in the Pacific Northwest. Turns out that he, too, had a blog he uses to document his biking journey. We exchanged blog links, added each other on Facebook and I sent him on his way, promising to keep in touch. I really wanted to stay and ask him more about his adventure, but I had to go and he probably had to get on his way.
We kept in touch since then and recently, I finally made the choice to write a blog about him. It’s a bit difficult to schedule a Skype call as he is on the road with an unpredictable schedule, so I had sent him a series of questions via email to find out more about him and his extraordinary story. The following is the raw, mind-expanding transcription of our email exchange (slightly edited for flow ).
MissTris: Hi, Justin! Thank you for letting me post your story.
Justin: Thanks for your interest in my story.
MT: Great. Well, this is what I know of you so far: You’re from Texas. You sold most of your possessions in order to have the experience of a life time. You have a SWEET cowboy hat. Your photography is inspiring. And you’re willing to share your inspiring story with everyone. Now, let’s dive in…..
Downsizing and becoming a minimalist
Making the choice to go out there on your own and go out on this journey, just you and your bike, must have been such a life changer for you. Let’s start where you began. What was your life like before you set off on this incredible journey?
JL: In a lot of ways my new life began about three years ago when I moved from Michigan to Austin, TX. I downsized from a gigantic house where I was doing crazy things like building an airplane in my garage. I had too much space, too many things, and I was living in a location that had horrible weather. So, I sold a few things, put the rest in storage, moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Austin, and started asking myself a lot of tough questions. “Why exactly did I own all this stuff? What was I doing with the limited days of my life and what did I want my existence to look like five, ten, or twenty years from now? From where did I derive meaning and happiness? What parts of my life weren’t contributing to that today?
I eventually decided that TIME WAS THE MOST PRECIOUS RESOURCE in my life and I’d spent too much of it working for a standard of living that I didn’t really need. That happiness is found in letting go of everything, including yourself, and simply loving others unconditionally. The less things I owned, I discovered, the happier I was. So I started getting rid of even more possessions.
I’ve always loved cycling and had done some small supported tours in the past. Eventually, in 2013, I decided to ride the Adventure Cycling TransAmerica Trail. I spent about six months selling everything I could until I owned just one automobile and enough things to fill it. In retrospect, leaving for the TransAm was really a watershed moment in my life. I took a leave of absence from my job, canceled my apartment lease, and after bicycling about 4,000 miles on that tour, I returned to Texas as a different person. I worked again, for a [short] while, but I knew I couldn’t do it long term.
My good friend, David, has always wonted to ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Banff, AB to Antelope Wells, NM and that was all the excuse I needed. I decided to bicycle from Austin to Banff to meet him where we would bicycle back to Texas. I sold off the remainder of my possessions including the car, quit my job entirely and hit the road on my bicycle with a smile on my face.
MT: Time really IS the most precious resource! Now, how did you come to make this choice? Before beginning your journey, what did you hope to gain from this experience?
JL: Living on a bicycle is a nearly perfect way to travel. You move fast enough to get somewhere but slow enough to actually meet the people and experience the places you pass through. You are vastly more approachable on a bicycle so you meet people everywhere you go. It is also incredibly affordable. Bicycle touring just seems like a natural way for me to see the world. So, after having done the TransAm in 2013, I needed very little reason to join my friend David for another great adventure and this would be my biggest one yet.
I attempted to answer the question of why I’m doing this in my blog post “The House That Adventure Built“. In it, I said:
“Simply put, I’m looking for a home. In both the physical and existential sense. Home as a state of being as much as a place of existence. I also seek to know myself by stripping away all that is extraneous and examining what is left. After many thousands of miles on the road, I feel like I’m beginning to find these things…but only their outlines. I have the vague sketch that precedes the real painting and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it looks nothing like what I expected.
This, I think, is the real reason that we do this. To be sure, adventure in its own right is a glorious thing. new experiences and being outside our comfortable norms invigorates the soul and reminds us what it means to be alive. More than anything though, I think we seek a truer version of ourselves and a fuller understanding of our place in the world.
In some way, I think, we are all simply looking for home.”
Photography on wheels
MT: I read that post. I resonated with it in that it made me look deeper into myself and ask myself the same questions. To understand my place in the world. So, traveling at that speed, not too fast + not too slow, you get more inspiration for your photography. You have quite the collection in your Flickr and Instagram accounts. All of which the photos on this post came from. Where does the inspiration for your photography come from and how do you bring out the stories for each one to relate to your journey?
JL: Originally, as with so many other adventurers, I simply wanted to document my journeys. In a pretty short period of time, though, it became clear that photography meant a great deal more to me than that. In another life I was a fine arts artist (lead and colored pencil, primarily). I found real joy in producing beautiful and compelling images during my travels. Fast forward to today and, while I am still trying to capture the adventuring experience, I am not trying to tell the story in any particular way with images. I am simply interested in producing visuals that evoke strong emotions and showcase the beauty of the world we live in. For me, photography has really taken on a life of its own that is quite separate from the adventuring itself.
MT: Love it. I feel the same about my photography. 🙂
Are there any fun, cool, interesting, maybe unmentionable but memorable people/sights/food you’d like to share about?
JL: Where to begin?! Once I stayed with a 56-year-old circus performer who throws girls around on a trapeze for fun. He just got back from a 7-month bicycle tour of New Zealand, Australia and Fiji. Another time I stayed with a couple that just got back from living in Europe (with two children!) for 10 months. They had been everywhere over there and had endless stories. I also stayed with a guy who lives in a wood-heated yurt in the mountains with his cats. I had lunch with a man who had bicycle toured 24 countries for 5 years and then paddled a canoe down the entire Missouri river BY HIMSELF! I met another guy, quite randomly, who had finished a 3 1/2-year round-the-world bicycle tour and invited me to bicycle in Quito, Ecuador with him this winter.
Strangely enough, the most memorable meal I’ve had was two pounds of cherry cheese danish and a 22 oz chocolate porter, quite late at night, in my tent somewhere in California. Despite eating like this I have still lost significant weight on this tour.
Beautiful sights are endless. From the shivering leaves of an aspen above my tent at sunrise, to storm clouds over the biggest mountains, to being camped alone, not having seen another human for days, in the alpine forest in utter silence with nothing but the call of the Great Horned Owl to break the stillness. The ENTIRE world is an incredibly beautiful place for those willing to open their hearts and eyes.
MT: How fun! So many characters, so many places! It looks like you have made some life long friends along your journey and lots of incredible stories to recant. I love it! 🙂
On the road again
Now, going back to your adventure…Let’s go back to the first day of your tour. What were your thoughts as you took that first pedal stride away from what was your home? What day was it?
JL: I left Austin on March 1, 2016. I remember very clearly having the feeling of being home again and that I’d been gone far too long. I was very happy to be living on the bicycle again. … Overjoyed, really.
MT: That’s so great, Justin! That’s such a great feeling to have! So, from there, what was your planned route and how long did you plan on staying out on the road? How did you decide what you were gonna bring with you and how did you prepare for your long journey?
JL: I planned to pedal out of Austin, TX, go west almost all the way to San Diego, then turn north and pedal up the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges to Vancouver, BC. At that point I would go east to Banff, AB where I would meet my friend, David. We would head south down the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Mexican border and then east back to Texas.
I didn’t train much as I commuted by bicycle. I’m a firm believe that you can “train” during the first two weeks of the tour. People are generally much more capable of this than they think. It’s not really that hard.
I carry a minimum of equipment to live outdoors, anything you would take on a month-long backpacking trip: tent, sleeping bag, cook stove and pot, clothing, etc. There really aren’t any surprises here, Anyone who has gone camping for more than a week could probably put together an adequate list of gear.
I chose to ride my Surly Ogre for this trip specifically because I knew that the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is the longest ALL-DIRT mountain bike route in the world. It is 2,700 miles of gravel roads and two-track. I wanted a bicycle with big, knobby tiers to handle that kind of riding. On the way up to Banff, I could simply put road slicks on it and it would serve me well enough to get there.
Having already done a long tour two years ago, and many other smaller tours since the, I didn’t really need to learn anything. Or, from another perspective, we are always learning … but I’ve already learned most of the big lessons. I felt prepared to take on the challenge.
MT: How are you able to find lodging and food while you’re out there on the road? What’s your budgeting strategy?
JL: With lodging, my resources include friends, family, kind strangers, camp grounds, “wild” camping in the bush wherever I can find a spot, and the wonderful hospitality web site warmshowers.org – it’s like couchsurfing.org but strictly for touring bicyclists.
I have always been pretty mindful of my spending and saving habits so I’m able to live off my savings [partially from the monies I got from selling my possessions] for now. When money runs out, I supposed I’ll have to get a job, ey? 🙂
Lessons learned from the road
The truly wonderful days are only meaningful when you have bad days to compare them to.
MT: Good for you! I could learn a thing or two from you. Ha!
So, so far has the trip been what you expected? What have you learned about being on the road? What have you learned about yourself? About people?
JL: I gave up having expectations a long time ago, I think. I only know that journeys like this will be unpredictable. They truly teach you to live in the moment and not worry too much about the future. I simply take each day as it comes and don’t try to control a future which is uncontrollable BY IT’S VERY NATURE anyway. No matter how bad a particular day might be. the sun will rise again tomorrow. The truly wonderful days are only meaningful when you have bad days to compare them to.
More than anything, I’ve learned that people everywhere are basically good. The ‘news’ is inherently ‘bad news’ and it doesn’t represent reality. The first possession I sold was my TV. Turn off the news, stop reading the paper and get out there into the world to experience it for yourself. Every single person I meet in every town and village I pass through is kind, generous and not so different from you and me. The world is not falling apart, despite what CNN might lead you to believe.
MT: Wow. That is some great insight! Glad you are able to learn those lessons. 🙂 So, now what can you teach people about doing something like this? What are your biggest tips for people who are wanting to take on such an adventure like yours? What would you tell those what are “on the fence” or are not sure or afraid to?
JL: Stop trying to be “ready” to do it. You will never be fully ready. If you keep waiting until you are, you’ll be waiting the rest of your life. Just form a basic plan and go for it.
If I were to talk to someone who was on the fence or afraid to commit, I’d start by asking them what was stopping them. Usually it is FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN. I’ve found a great approach to this kind of thinking: flip it on its head and instead ask “Why shouldn’t I do this?” and “What is the worst thing that could happen?”. Generally, you find that you don’t have very good reasons NOT to do it and the worst that will happen is that you will pack it in and go back home sooner than you’d originally planned. Doesn’t seem that bad now, huh?
Just over the horizon
MT: Ha! Great advice! Sometimes we just get into our own heads. We need to learn to trust ourselves and take the chance. You have only one life. Why not live it the way you want to, right? 🙂
So, Justin, where are you now and what’s the rest of this tour look like for you?
JL: I am presently in Revelstoke, BC, Canada. As I’ve said, I was planning to bicycle to Banff to meet my friend but just two days before we were to meet, he had to back out last minute due to some health problems. So, I guess you get the scoop on the news that I am now planning to completely circumnavigate the United States by continuing to Maine, then down the coast to Florida, then back to Texas.
This will add about 3 months and 5,000 miles or so to my trip. I’m now looking at being on the road for a total of 9 or 10 months and 10,000 or 11,000 miles. I guess I’ll head to Calgary next, then drop down into the States and cross the Great Plains to New England.
MT: That’s A LOT of miles! Kudos to you. I know you normally fly by the seat of your …. bike. Ha! But, after this tour is over, where are you off to next? Are you going to bike with that guy in Ecuador?
JL: I often tell my friends that I’ve stopped trying to plan more than a day or two into the future. No matter how much you might try to do that, it seems that plans just change anyway. Right now, I’m planning to fly to Chennai, India to buy some motorcycles and bike around the Bay of Bengal to Singapore. I will perhaps use that as a jumping off point for a bicycle tour from Singapore to London. But, honestly, who knows how things will actually pan out. That’s part of the fun!
MT: Oh, I’m so excited for you to do that! I hope you DO travel there. It will be such an amazing adventure!
I’m so amazed and honored to have met you and gotten to know you. I’m blessed to have found a friend in you. You are really an awesome person and you’re making some strides (no pun intended) towards that other road that will lead you down an amazing, unpredictable, full-of-adventure journey thru life. Thank you for sharing your story with the world.
If there is anyone who would like to get in touch with you, how would one go about doing that?
JL: Thanks again for your interest in my story. 🙂
I can always be reached using the form in my blog. They can also sign up to get an email whenever I make a new post, which is about once or twice a month: http://justinlott.com
I hope I answered your questions with enough detail and humanity. I love your attitude and your motivation. If you ever want to join the ranks of the crazy people and ride your bicycle across a state or two, let me know. You’re always welcome to join. 🙂
THANK YOU, Justin, for letting me share your story. I’m excited to see where the road takes you and I will be following your incredible journey! You are an inspiration. I will definitely see about taking you up on that offer. I will have to buy a bike first! Ha!