YEEHAW!!! My ROADSCHOOLING book is available!!! #familytravel

It’s done!!! Roadschooling: The Ultimate Guide to Education Through Travel is only available in paper version at this point – John will get the kindle version done as soon as he finishes rebuilding the bathroom roof. But it’s ready!

I’ve been hearing great reviews from people so far, which is exciting. Please pass this on to anybody and everybody who is considering heading out traveling with their children.

CLICK HERE TO ORDER!!

Most parents contemplating the idea of full-time travel with their children are overwhelmed with questions about all facets of life. Perhaps the greatest worry is about their children’s education.

* Will my kids learn everything they need to know?

* Will I be able to keep up with my children’s education on the road?

* Will I harm my children so they’ll never be able to live a normal life?

This book is designed to answer those questions and put your mind at ease. In these pages, you’ll find background theory about what is happening inside kids’ heads when they learn, as well as concrete guidance about how to take advantage of your travels as the basis for your “curriculum.”

Head out confidently into the world, knowing that you’ll give your children a life-changing experience that they’ll carry with them their whole lives.

roadschooling: the ultimate guide to education through travel

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Taking a gamble: Terror in Pakistan

It was 1990 when I took perhaps the biggest gamble of my life.

NancyThat year I arrived into Islamabad, Pakistan with little more than a bicycle, a dream, and a man I didn’t know.

I had met John through a magazine and spent a grand total of one hour chatting over a Coke at Dairy Queen before committing myself to riding a bicycle around Asia – through some of the toughest bicycling conditions known to mankind – with this man that I didn’t even know.

We had spent six weeks cycling around Pakistan so far, and had had many adventures. We had met some wonderful people – people who invited us in for a hot meal, great conversation and, perhaps, a safe place to sleep.

plowing fields with oxen

But we had also met some people who… I hesitate to say they weren’t wonderful… misguided is maybe a better word. Very little of American culture was exported to Pakistan in those days; the only thing that was was American TV. And so it should come as no surprise that many Pakistani men had the erroneous idea that American women were only too happy to jump in bed with any ol’ man they met.

I had dealt with quite a few groping gremlins during those six weeks. One man had actually followed us for a week. Over a 13,000-foot pass. And then he… I don’t want to use the word assault because I know that he didn’t see it that way… But he assaulted me right in our hotel room. With John only 20 feet from my side. Fortunately, John backed me up when I threw the man out of our room, but I shudder to think what might have happened if I had been alone.

And so it was that John and I embarked on a 300-mile journey from Chitral to Gilgit. On a dirt road. Through the Himalayas. Over a 14,000-foot pass.  Picture Pakistan as a big, long, skinny rectangle if you will, sandwiched between Afghanistan to the west, China to the north, and India to the east. We were way up in the northwest corner, and needed to get way over to the other corner.

bike touring pakistan dirt road

We jostled and jiggled over the road, some days spending ten painful hours manhandling our bikes over boulders the size of basketballs, avoiding gullies so deep they would eat a bike wheel lickety split. It was beautiful, there’s no question about that – with snow-capped peaks surrounding us and crystal clear rivers rushing through the valleys.

But it was hard. We slowly inched our way up to the top of Shandur Pass, then plunged down the other side on a road that very few of us would even call a road. Day after day after day we pounded the pedals along the road through a massive valley. Sometimes we cycled right next to the roaring, crashing river; other times we followed a precarious path carved into the mountainside thousands of feet above the water.

switchbacks

Day after day, I pushed my body to the max, becoming more tired each day. The road, the poor food, the rotten sleeping conditions all worked together to wear me down until the day I could go no longer.

I hurt. Every bone in my body hurt. My hands hurt from gripping my handlebars. My tush hurt from the abuse my saddle gave it. My legs were like jello. My neck, shoulders, feet, and elbows had taken more of a beating than they could stand. They cried out with each boulder I bounced over. “We’re done!” they shouted. I had no choice but to listen.

mountain road in Pakistan

“I’m done,” I told John when I caught up to him on the road. “I can’t go on. I’m going to hitch a ride into town.”

“Be reasonable, Nancy,” he countered. “You’ve seen there’s no way for you to hitch a ride. Maybe three cars a day pass by us – and they’re packed. How do you expect to get yourself and your bike into one?”

I had no answer, but knew I had no choice. John pedaled away without me, and I was left to my own devices to get myself into town.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t long before a tractor approached. A tractor pulling – get this – an EMPTY trailer. I flagged them down and, in my nearly-non-existent Erdu explained that I needed a ride to Gilgit. They, in their completely non-existent English – explained they would take me. I happily loaded my bike into the trailer, and headed off to Gilgit just as pleased as punch.

Soon, we passed John and I grinned as I waved to him. A while later, we stopped for tea, and John passed us. An hour later, we passed him on the road again. All day, we played leapfrog – we passed John, then stopped for lunch or tea and John passed us. We passed him… he passed us…

wading across river

Late in the afternoon when the sky was ablaze with magnificent color and the sun was making its final approach to the horizon, my chauffeurs stopped by a river, grabbed some shovels, and began scooping sand into the trailer. I watched, horrified, as they filled the trailer.

Their idea was to simply put my bike on top of the sand and take me to Gilgit. I knew, unfortunately, that if I put my bike on that sand, the tiny grains would get impossibly embedded in my derailleurs and freewheel. My bike would be little more than an expensive piece of trash if that happened.

Reluctantly, I grabbed my bike and headed for the road. I wasn’t sure how much farther I had to go, but I knew I would have to get there under my own power. I jumped on my pedals and pumped furiously, knowing time was not on my side.

Sure enough, the sun set all too soon and the road was plunged into darkness. After I came crashing to the ground three times after crashing into invisible boulders, I accepted that I could no longer ride and got off to push my bike along the road.

The road, by this point, was only a faint ribbon of gray, flanked on both sides by pitch black forest. With each step I took, I reached out tentatively with my foot, trying to figure out if I was still on the road, or if I had veered off into the forest.

Panic began to gnaw at my heart. I had no idea how far away Gilgit was. John was ahead of me. I was alone on a remote Pakistani road. In the dark. With no way to get help.

I began pleading for John to stop. “Please!” I begged as though somehow the gods would communicate my message. “Please stop and wait for me!”

And yet I knew he wouldn’t get my message. I knew he wouldn’t stop. I was behind him and, for all he knew, I was still with the tractor drivers. He would continue on to town.

With tears streaming down my face, I stumbled on in the night. “Please stop!” I shouted into the blackness. “Please! Somebody help me!” I was desperate. I knew I needed help. Confusion reigned unchecked in my mind. I needed a knight in shining armor to come around a corner and rescue me from my distress.

But where, exactly, does one find a knight when you’re in the middle of absolutely nowhere in Pakistan?

And then… I saw the light. The single headlight of a tractor way off in the distance behind me. A tractor. Salvation.

Or was it?

I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I had ever needed help, now was the time. I had never needed help so badly in my entire life.

But could I safely ask for it? Could I safely fling myself upon the man driving that tractor? What would happen if I did? Was I setting myself up for rape? Or worse?

In the pitch black darkness I stood there on the side of the road watching that tractor draw closer. Do I flag him down and hope for the best? Or do I simply continue walking along the side of the road, figuring the driver would think I was just some silly foreign man out there on that remote road?

It was a gamble, but where was the safe route? Wasn’t there supposed to be a way to play it safe in a gamble? Here I was damned if I do, and damned if I don’t.

I had seconds to make my decision, and still I waffled. Do I fling myself on that hapless man? Or continue walking? What to do? What to do?

In the end, just as the tractor passed by, I raised my arms and waved furiously. “Please help me!” I called out through my tears. “I need help!”

The tractor stopped, and an elderly gentleman with a bright orange beard climbed off. He gently took my bike and lifted it into his trailer and nestled it down on top of bags of potatoes, next to a few goats. I climbed in the back and situated myself in the middle of the dozen men crowded in there.

And the groping started. First one man put his arm around my shoulders. Then another reached out and fondled my breast. Tears continued their flood from my eyes.

It didn’t take long before the tractor once again ground to a halt. The old man climbed down and walked back to the trailer, motioning to me to get out. He helped me into the seat next to him, then guarded me as we made our way into town and pulled up in front of the hotel where I had agreed to meet John.

Ignoring all cultural traditions dictating that men and women don’t touch in public, I threw myself on John and clung to him as though my life depended on it. I had made it to Gilgit. I had made it to safety.

And, I realized, I had made it back to the man I had grown to love.

John and I have now been married for 23 years and we’ve continued to travel. We’ve lived and traveled in dozens of countries. We’ve biked many thousands of miles through something like 35 countries, 15 of them with our twin boys.

I took a gamble with a man I didn’t know. Not once, but twice. And it paid off both times.

Khunjerab pass

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

My doh moment: Taking the long way home

It was one of those moments. One of those doh moments. One of those times when you smack yourself upside the head and say, “I can’t believe I did that.” But that comes later in this story…

The year was 2006. We had cycled two months before I got word that my mother was unwell and I had to go back to Boise. John and the boys continued along the Pacific coast without me on their bicycle built for three.

triple bike

A month later, Mom was stabilized and I made plans to rejoin my boys. It would be a long couple of days, but with luck, I would soon be with my family in Big Sur on the California coast.

This story begins on a Friday morning when I rented a car, threw my bike in it, kissed Mom goodbye and headed south to find adventure. Fast forward 17 hours and I arrived into Monterey and knocked on a friend-of-a-friend’s door. He willing (begrudgingly?) opened his door to a weary traveler and I collapsed onto his couch.

Eight o’clock rolled around all too soon and I dragged my lazy bones off the couch, returned the rental car and hopped into the friend-of-a-friend’s car to drive the thirty miles down to Big Sur.

It was wonderful to pop my head into the tent and I shed a few tears amidst all the hugs and kisses. (This is where you are supposed to say, “Ahh… ain’t that sweet!!”) Our joyful reunion was all too short as I still had much to do and many miles to go before the sun set.

After leaving my panniers with the boys and grabbing their dirty clothes in exchange, I returned to Monterey, returned the car, jumped on my trusty steed, and headed to the laundromat. Somewhere along the way I managed to get a flat tire, so I headed down (and I do mean down) to a bike store, then climbed all the way back up.

It wasn’t long before I was cycling the beautiful California coast. Turquoise waters… stunning cliffs… and a strong tailwind. What more could I ask for? I didn’t take any breaks at all because a) I was giddy with excitement about getting back to my boys and b) I needed to make sure I was at the campground by dark.

california coast

Now one would think I would have learned a thing or two from all my travels. Like not to claim victory until victory is won… or not to count my chickens before they hatch. I obviously hadn’t learned that lesson yet.

I pulled into the town of Big Sur about an hour before dark and patted myself on my back in congratulations. I smugly called Mom and announced that I had done it! I had pulled it off! Yes! (Insert image of me pumping my fist in victory at this point…) I had driven from Boise to Monterey, then cycled to where my boys were – almost.

I figured I only had three miles left (John later told me I only had 1.5 miles left), and I still had an hour or so of daylight. Yes, I had made it! I had pulled it off!

I climbed back on my bike and started pedaling through the forest toward the campground. I kept pedaling and pedaling and I was sure that the campground was just around the next corner… maybe the next…

And then suddenly I broke out of the valley and saw a lake on my left. A big lake. And I thought, “Hmmm… I don’t remember a lake there…”

And then I noticed that the sun was setting over that lake.

And then it dawned on me that there was no lake over on my left. That was a pond. THE pond. The Pacific pond.

Now I had learned a thing or two in my 46 years on this planet and one of them was that if you are pedaling south along the California coast, the ocean will be on right. But this ocean was very definitely on my left.

As I saw it, there were only two possible explanations. Either

  • I had been magically transported to the east coast of the USA and this ocean was not the Pacific at all, but the Atlantic or

  • I was headed north.

That’s when my hand came up and smacked myself upside the head and I realized that I had done something really stupid. Yep – that moment when I got turned around at the store was most definitely one of those moments of absolute, complete, total, unutterable dumbness.

I turned around and pedaled for all I was worth back toward the valley and the forest. At that point I did not have only three miles to go and an hour of daylight. Now I had 5 1/2 miles to go, and the sun was setting over the ocean.

I pedaled as hard as I could along the twisty, winding road through the forest and I realized that I had absolutely no lights on my bike whatsoever. No way to alert oncoming drivers that I was there. Those visions of a grand reunion that I had been having all day turned into something not quite so grand… Something involving images of my beloved kids scraping my guts off the highway.

I am happy to report that I arrived to the campground without incident. John had dinner cooked and ready to serve. And we all lived happily ever after.

This story and more are told in my book, Twenty Miles per Cookie: 9000 Miles of Kid-Powered Adventures. Pick up your copy today!

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Announcing our giveaway winners!

Changing Gears giveawayHOORAY!! We’ve got some winners!

We had over 4000 entries into our giveaway celebrating the release of Changing Gears – absolutely phenomenal response! Here are the winners:

Desiree Reilly – you won all of this!

  1. Women’s Adventure subscription
  2. The Man Who Cycled the Americas by Mark Beaumont
  3. Changing Gears by Nancy Sathre-Vogel
  4. t-shirt from Be Kind to Cyclists
  5. Kryptonite bike lock from Kryptonitelock.com
  6. Shopping pannier from North St. Bags

 

Mikki Cross – here’s your score!

  1. Sihpromatum by Savannah Grace
  2. Men’s & women’s merino wool jerseys from Ibex
  3. Changing Gears by Nancy Sathre-Vogel
  4. Women’s Adventure subscription
  5. Car rental £250 from Carrentals.co.uk

http://www.carrentals.co.uk/

 

Shelly Bradbury Swoveland – Have fun with this:

  1. Bottles to Backpacks: The Gypsy Mama’s Guide to REAL Travel With Kids by Kerri Wellman and Jennifer Miller
  2. Changing Gears by Nancy Sathre-Vogel
  3. Women’s Adventure subscription
  4. Bike light from Light & Motion
  5. Novica $100 gift certificate

 To all of our winners – you should have an email in your inbox. Go check! Congratulations – and enjoy!

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Changing Gears is finally released! Order your copy today!

YAY!! It’s time!

CHANGING GEARS: A FAMILY ODYSSEY TO THE END OF THE WORLD is ready to go!

Click here to order a copy!!

In conjunction with the release of the book, we’re running a giveaway with lots of awesome prizes! To enter, just fill out the form at the bottom of this page.

 

GearsButton
What would you do if you were not afraid?

Changing Gears is the true story of one woman asking herself that very question. What followed was a family journey of epic proportions – a journey of physical challenge, emotional endurance, teamwork, perseverance, and tremendous learning opportunities. It was a discovery of self, of priorities, of accepting hardships, of appreciating blessings, and of contrasting a comfortable past life with the extreme hardship and poverty of those they met.

Would the journey be a dream come true – or a mother’s worst nightmare? Find out in my newest book, Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of he World available now!

Release Week Celebration!

In celebration of the release of Changing Gears, Family on Bikes, with the help of a few of our favorite sponsors, are holding a giveaway of the following prizes:
CarHire
This giveaway is open to U.S. Residents and will end at 11:59 pm on March 27th.

Three winners will be chosen.  Each winner will receive  a subscription to Women’s Adventure Magazine and their own copy of Changing  Gears.  Remaining prizes will be divided among the finalist.

This event was organized by Victoria at Drive Me Crazy Family Adventure on behalf of the author, Nancy Sathre-Vogel.

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Recollections of India

Many of my readers already know this, but for those who don’t – my husband and I met and fell in love while cycling in Pakistan and India some 23 years ago. It was a bizarre set of circumstances that brought us together, and we’ve lived many adventures since those days.

I regularly get letters from people asking me what they should plan on doing when in India, and it’s hard for me to say, seeing as how I haven’t been there for many years.

That said, I do have fond memories of my time in India, and certain experiences there remain a highlight of my life even after all these years. These are the things I would rate VERY high on a “must-do” list for traveling India.

 

See the Taj Mahal

taj mahal

I know, I know… the Taj Mahal is on every single list of things to do in India that was ever written.  There is very good reason for that. It’s very, very cool. Now, granted, when we visited, the country was in the middle of massive rioting and the government had imposed curfews in major cities – including Agra. Amazingly, foreigners were allowed to go anywhere they wanted.
Which means, of course, that we had the Taj all to ourselves. There was only a tiny handful of foreign tourists milling around the day we visited, but generally the crowds are outrageous – or so I’ve been told.

Would the Taj be as magical with massive hordes of tourists filling every nook and cranny? Yes, I think it would. It’s definitely worth a visit.

 

Visit the Deshnoke Rat Temple

Wikipedia has this to say of the Rat Temple:

A female Hindu sage lived an ascetic life and was widely revered during her own lifetime. At the request of the Maharaja of Bikaner, she laid the foundation stone two important forts in the region. The most famous of her temples is the temple of Deshnoke, which was created following her mysterious disappearance from her home. The temple is famous for its rats, which are treated as sacred and given protection in the temple.

This is what I wrote in my book What Were We Thinking?:
India_Rat_temple

It gave me the creeps to enter the temple, barefooted, and have rats scurry over my toes. Hundreds, thousands of rats infested the temple! Lining the hallways were sleeping rats, rats were scurrying here and there, and “holy” rat shit covered the floors.
Hindu worshippers from miles around came to worship here. Sweets were purchased at a stall outside and presented to the rats at their very own miniature altar. Upon completion of their rituals at the altar, each worshipper drank a handful of water from the rats’ water dish.

John and I were not only appalled at the sight but also dismayed.  We had seen many people treated worse than they treated these rats.  How could these people put their hope and trust in this, while they turned their backs on their fellow human beings?

Now, 23 years later, I still remember that feeling. I remember the rats scurrying over my feet and my complete bafflement at the idea that people revered the rats. I’ve come a long way in my understanding of humanity, however, and would love to go back to the temple and spend some time talking with the worshippers. I am sure they have wonderful tales to tell.

 

Explore Ranakpur, the most spectacular Jain temple in the world

Here’s what I wrote about Ranakpur in my book:

India_Ranakpur-temple: Image courtesy of WikipediaPart of the joy of traveling by bicycle was discovering the unexpected. Shortly after starting to pedal one day, we happened upon an old Jain temple set back in the woods away from all civilization. There was nothing for miles around except a hotel and small tea stall. The sign boasted that the Ranakpur temple was the largest Jain temple in the world.

Excited by our unexpected discovery, we decided to stay the night there and take time to really explore the marvelous structure. By now we knew that Jain temples were always exquisitely decorated with carved stone and this one proved to be no exception. Lining the walls were hundreds of idols, all nestled back in neatly carved niches. A groundskeeper took us below the temple to show us the labyrinth of small passageways and hidden rooms where the idols had once been kept to protect them from marauding invaders.

I still have fond memories of that day. The temple was enormous and so incredibly intricately carved. John and I were the only tourists around, and the groundskeeper was thrilled to take us down into the small tunnels beneath the floor. That’s one of the best parts of traveling on bike – we get to see places when no other tourists are around.

 

Stay in a fort in Jaiselmer

I have to say I’m still enthralled with the idea of staying in a real live, working fort, but this time I want to do it when I am well and can appreciate it. Back then, well… I was sick when we stayed in the Deepak Hotel, tucked deep within the fort.

India jaiselmer fortThe fort, which had been home to us for ten long days, rose mystically out of the desert. It had an aura of mysticism about it as if it held many secrets. If only the walls could talk, I would have loved to listen to stories about its lifetime, about the many invading armies it had seen, and about princes, kings and travelers of a time long since past.

John had been fascinated by the fort, leaving me frequently to go out and explore its hidden corners. The high stone walls towering three stories above the narrow, twisting pathways amazed him. The fact that people lived now much the same way they did hundreds of years ago astounded him. Open sewers lined both sides of the paths, garbage was dumped out windows. Holy cows meandered about serving as garbage collectors. I had been too sick to care.

If you don’t want to stay at the Deepak, you can most likely find some nice hotels or homestays here: IndiaListed.com

 

Float the Ganges

We’ve all heard of the mystical Ganges River. The sights and smells and sounds. Mystics, gurus, swamis and saints bathing in the holy waters. The spiritual aura surrounding it all. It’s all that and more.

We had some… ((erm)) rather interesting experiences on the banks of the Ganges, including nearly being hauled off to the police station. We also had the opportunity to visit a house for the dying, overlooking the burning ghat. Here’s an excerpt from my book:

“You see that building over there?” our makeshift tour guide asked. “The big, gray one with four stories? It is there to house people who have come to die. The old people come here before they die because it is cheaper to transport a living person than a dead one. They sleep there in that building until they die. Any Hindu who dies here will reach moksha. This is what all Hindus want more than anything in this life. That is why so many people come here to live out their final days.”

We had learned about moksha previously through books we had read. It is a liberation, or an end to the cycle of reincarnation through unity with the eternal. It was the most profound objective in a devout Hindu’s life.

“Come!  We will go to that building to see the old people waiting to die,” he continued with his sing-song Indian accent.“These are poor people that our organization helps. Come! We go.”

India bathing GangesDue to our insatiable curiosity, we went over to see what the house was like and walked behind the two men toward the gray building. A few minutes later we entered into the smoke-filled, hazy room, reminding us of a terrifying house of horror.

Skinny shells of human beings lay moaning, groaning and gasping, just barely holding on for dear life. They were obviously in great pain, suffering like I had never seen anyone suffer before. Unfortunately, drugs for relieving their pain were as unattainable as Tom & Jerry’s ice cream in the city of Varanasi. To add to their misery, the rooms were overcrowded, drab, concrete cells void of furniture except for a few old chairs and some straw mats. Smoke from the funeral pyres below poured through the uncovered windows, making for hot, sweaty, and smelly accommodations. ‘Certainly not your everyday Ronald McDonald house,’ I thought as I looked around. These people were also forced to watch the continuous funerals as the only view they had was that of the burning ghat.

Visiting the home for the dying was a powerful experience, but it paled in comparison to our time spent on the Ganges itself. We rented a rowboat and spent hours plying the waters, watching all the everyday life activities happening there.

From one end of Varanasi to the other, the riverbank was bustling with activity. Most people came to the river for bathing purposes – both to become spiritually clean and to become hygienically clean.  The religious bathers went through a ritual bath and devotion, then gave offerings to Mother Ganges. Prayers were said by folding their hands together while humming and chanting. When hundreds of people were doing this, the chorus produced a soft and very soothing sound

Another interesting river activity was the laundering.  Most people, it seemed, washed their clothes in the river. After soaking their clothes in the river they would either put them on the concrete and unmercifully pound them with a bamboo stick or just pound the concrete with the clothes.  The result of washing clothes in the Holy Ganges can only be holey clothes.

The funerals were by far the most interesting thing to watch.  We were able to sit in our boat and watch several of the amazing productions. The Hindus believed that by burning a body the spirit would go directly to heaven. Apparently the smoke goes up and somehow carries the spirit to heaven. So many people were cremated there that they had at least five funerals going 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

India Nancy GangesAll the funerals took place in one small area called the burning ghat. The funeral, which lasted about an hour, started when a group of mourners marched into the ghat carrying the body on a bamboo stretcher. The body was covered with colorful clothes and necklaces. In contrast to the drab, depressing ghats, those necklaces stood out like a brightly lit Christmas tree in a New York Sewer. They were made of brightly colored marigolds and lotus flowers, and their aroma was in stark contrast to all the burning flesh. After the body was dunked several times in the Ganges for a final washing away of sins, it was placed on the funeral pyre.

The mourners attending the funeral, led by the head priest, put fragrant oil, ornaments, and more flowers atop the body. Occasionally personal possessions, such as the deceased’s cane, were also placed in the position of honor. A routine of walking several times around the body while in prayer followed, as they continued to throw things atop the pyre. On the last few times around, the youngest son anointed the body with clarified butter and lit the pyre on fire.

At this time attendants from a low caste took over. It was their job to tend to the fire and make sure it burned to completion. We sat there and watched with amazement as these attendants pushed burning legs, arms, and heads back into the flames. When the burning was complete, the eldest son came back to collect a sample of the ashes and split the skull to release the spirit.

When we first watched these funerals we were appalled by the custom and uneasy about sitting there watching them. The preconceived notions we brought over with us dictated that a funeral was a sad, solemn, and private event. To the Indian this was certainly not so. The bereaved family was not necessarily grieved. For many, it was actually a joyous occasion as they looked upon it as a celebration of the soul’s union with the eternal.

Watching these funerals forced us to go through what I called a “cultural adjustment”. We Americans are raised in a euro-centric Western culture and learn the “proper” way of doing things, how to act, and how to respond to certain situations. It is easy to get into the biased mode of criticizing another culture based on our own cultural experience and arrive in a country with preconceived notions of how things ‘should’ be. This makes it difficult to accept and appreciate their culture.

india boat funeralDue to the high cost of a funeral, most people couldn’t afford one. The next best thing to being cremated on the Ganges was simply being tossed into it. We had heard they did that downriver from Varanasi so that the bodies wouldn’t float through the bathing ghats. According to others, this type of funeral was so common that it supported the nutritional needs of a large shark population at the mouth of the Ganges where it emptied into the Bay of Bengal.

Desiring to observe this type of funeral, we headed down the river in search of one. Sure enough, a mile or so down river we came across a boat being rowed out to the middle of the river. It was carrying a body fully decorated in the usual way with bunches of colorful flowers. There wasn’t much of a ceremony; the body was just slid into the water.

A short time later, we started gagging on the smell of rotting flesh. The source was a very bloated decomposing body floating peacefully toward the sea.

I’ve traveled in many countries and India is amongst the most incredible. The culture is so very different, yet wonderful in its own way. Go and enjoy, learn and be pushed out of your comfort zone. You will come back home a changed person.

*************

Here are a few stories I’ve written about our experiences cycling in that part of the world:

Not a Rose: Coming of Age in India

Jaiselmer’s special something

Never hitch a ride in a tractor

 

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Changing Gears 52-hour blowout presale!!

I’m sorry – this sale is now finished. Please sign up for my newsletter for news and information about when and where you can buy our book and DVD.

Changing Gears

Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World, in both book and DVD format, is nearly ready! We plan to have them ready to distribute by March 21. If we manage to get our hands on them earlier, we will send them out.

Now, for the very first time, they are offered for presale – at a whopping 35% discount! They will never be offered this cheaply again, so snatch them up now!

Here are some excerpts from the book:

Being our own example

2000 miles in: Arriving at the end of the Alaska Highway

Learning Spanish the TAMALE way

Experiencing a Honduran chicken bus

A 400-mile detour in Bolivia – on bikes

Highs and lows in Costa Rica

 

EBOOK

$10 ($15 value)

  • Digital copy of Changing Gears
  • Ebook with additional photos from our journey

 

DVD

$10 ($15 value)

  • DVD documentary
  • Ebook with additional photos from our journey
  • Bookmark

 

PAPER PLEASE

$15 ($23 value)

  • Signed paper copy of Changing Gears
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books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Changing Gears: A Preview

Changing Gears

A Family Odyssey to the End of the World

by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

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 Prologue

When Bears Don’t Read the Guide Books

Changing Gears“Go, Davy, go!” I screamed in terror.  “He’s chasing you!  Pedal fast!”

Only moments ago, the 400 pound black bear had been standing a mere four feet from my side. Now I stood, rooted in place, and watched it chase my ten-year-old son down the road.

“Go, baby!” I shouted.  “Pedal!”

Davy pumped with all he had, knowing full well his very life depended on it.

It had been a long day on the road in northern British Columbia. After cycling sixty miles, we were tired and looking for a suitable spot for our tent. My husband and other son, on a tandem bike, were a mile or two ahead of Davy and me as we pedaled wearily on our heavily-laden bikes.

“Look!” I cried. “A bear! Up ahead! See him grazing in the ditch?”

“Wow!” Davy murmured in wonder. “He’s huge.”

Bears, in general, are afraid of humans and do their best to stay away. As we traveled through the Yukon and British Columbia we had grown accustomed to seeing bears grazing quietly in the ditch on the side of the road.

Motorists frequently left the safety of their vehicles to get better photos of the bears. I often marveled at how close people got to the animals, and yet the bears seemed uninterested in them. Motorists, however, had the safety of their vehicles to retreat to. As bicyclists, we had no cover at all. I vowed to stay well away from any wild animal I encountered.

Davy and I pulled to the opposite side of the road and stopped a respectable distance away – I had a good telephoto lens and had no need to get close. I had just pulled the camera out of my handlebar bag when the bear came up to the road and lumbered toward us. We froze.

“Holy Mother of God!” I exclaimed quietly. “He’s coming this way. Bears aren’t supposed to come toward people.”  Davy and I stood quietly, not quite sure what our reaction should be to the fact that a massive bear was drawing near.

A few minutes later, the bear turned and headed back down into the ditch thirty feet away, apparently unconcerned with our presence. Our hearts resumed beating and we began breathing once again. I stashed my camera and we readied ourselves to take off.

Suddenly, out of the blue, the bear leapt onto the road right beside us. My heart skipped a beat or two as I struggled to maintain my composure.

“It’s okay, Mr. Bear,” I said calmly and quietly as the massive beast plodded to within four feet of my side. “We’re just leaving. It’s okay.”

I gazed into his cold, black, glassy eyes. Blades of grass stuck out on either side of his grizzled face. I panicked as my mind replayed all I had read. “Stay calm and talk quietly to the bear as you slowly back away,” the books had said. The problem was that I was straddled on my bike and couldn’t back away.

The bear ambled toward the trailer I hauled behind my bicycle, where I carried all our food, and sniffed. I had no way of knowing how hungry he might be. He came back to stand by my side.

bearMr. Bear and I stood staring at each other for nearly a full minute while my mind played through every book and pamphlet I had ever read about what to do in a close encounter with a bear.

The first thing they all mentioned was to remain calm, which was much easier said than done.

The second recommendation was to talk to the bear. That I could do. “It’s okay, Mr. Bear,” I said. “We’re just leaving. We mean you no harm – no harm at all. We’re just passing through and are more than happy to give your territory back….”

Thirdly, they said to back away slowly. Never run as that would provoke a chase; never turn your back as that will provoke an attack. The trouble was that I couldn’t back away. If I backed up, I would jackknife my trailer. If I moved forward, I would put my back to the bear. I couldn’t go sideways because… well, bikes don’t go sideways.

I was stuck. With each passing second, I became more and more certain I would soon meet my maker. It wouldn’t be long before the bits of grass hanging from the bear’s mouth would be replaced with bits of Nancy.

I was doomed, but Davy was far enough away to have a chance. He stood, twenty feet away, straddling his bike and looking back at me.

“Davy,” I said quietly. “Ride away slowly, honey. Just start pedaling very slowly and ride away. Please, sweetie.”

Davy stood his ground, unwilling to leave me.

“Honey, go!” I pleaded. “Please!” It was bad enough that he was about to lose his mother. He didn’t need to watch me being mauled as well.

My son hesitantly turned around, put his feet on his pedals, and began pedaling slowly. The bear followed.

“Go, Davy, go!” I shouted. “Fast!”

Davy quickly gained speed as he pedaled furiously.

For a split second, I pondered my options. On the one hand, I was relieved; I no longer had a bear standing by my side. On the other hand, that very same bear was now chasing my ten-year-old son down the road.

With every motherly instinct within me, I jumped onto my pedals and shifted into my highest gear and my adrenaline-fueled legs quickly brought my bike up to heretofore unknown speeds. I blasted past the bear and caught up to Davy.

“Keep going!” I urged as the bear chased us. “Pedal, sweetie! Keep going!”

I can’t say how fast we traveled, but I do know that bears can run up to thirty-five miles per hour. Our legs pumped, our hearts pounded, and our breath came in raw, jagged gasps. We watched in our rear-view mirrors as the bear fell farther and farther behind.

“Mom, I think we’re safe now,” Davy said when it had become obvious the bear would not be able to catch us.

“Not yet, sweetie,” I panted. “Not yet. Keep going.”

The bear was a tiny black speck in the distance before I could bring myself to hit my brakes. Davy and I ground to a stop in the middle of the Alaska Highway and reached out to cling to one another.

As we trembled and shook, and our heart rates slowly returned to normal, the only thing I could think of to say was, “We did it, baby. We did it.”

 

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Chapter 1

Crazy is Not Necessarily a Bad Thing

 

“You’re crazy,” one of my high school students told me one day shortly before we set off. “I call you my crazy teacher.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because nobody actually does what you’re doing!” she replied. “I mean – people talk about riding a bike around the world, but nobody actually does it!”

I supposed she was right – we weren’t exactly choosing a well-worn path through life. Most people chose to live in a house with a yard and a bunch of cars in the driveway, but we decided to go our own way. We sold or stored nearly every physical possession we owned and reduced our belongings down to what would fit on three bicycles. Three bicycles’ worth of stuff for the next three years. I wondered if maybe we were crazy after all.

But as I stood there on the shores of the Arctic Ocean and looked ahead at the road that would take us southward, I couldn’t help but feel they were the crazy ones. The journey ahead could only be magical – how could it not be when the four of us were together exploring our planet? Yes, we would struggle over passes and collapse into bed at the end of many long days on the road, but we would be living. Truly living. Was that really crazy?

Yet I still had to consider the fact that my husband, John, and I were about to attempt a feat that had never been done – bike the Alaskan Dalton Highway with ten-year-old twins. Originally built in the 1970s as a supply road for the oil fields on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, the Dalton Highway had long been known as one of the most challenging bicycle routes in the nation due to its rough conditions and sheer remoteness. It would be many miles of nothing more than dirt track meandering through pristine Alaskan territory. Maybe there was a reason it had never been tackled with kids. Maybe we should get back on the plane and leave it that way.

My mind went back to that look in my sons’ faces – that look of sheer determination and excitement when they talked about the journey. They were determined – resolute in their desire to cycle from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina. I owed it to them to at least allow them to try. If we failed, we would fail trying.

My mind wandered to the day our journey began two years earlier.  That beautiful spring day, John slumped into our house after a particularly rough day in the classroom and collapsed into his favorite chair by the window.

“Nancy,” he said, “I don’t want this anymore. I can’t do it. I need to get away. Let’s quit our jobs and take off on bikes.”

My response was your stereotypical mom response. “Are you crazy? Have you lost your bloody mind? We are parents, dear husband! We have children! Parents – with children – don’t just quit their jobs and take off on bikes.”

We were living the American Dream. We had a big house in the suburbs and two cars in the driveway. We had stable teaching jobs and paychecks coming in every month. And he wanted to throw it all away for bicycles?

As time marched on, John kept talking about that dream of his and I realized I needed to take him seriously. An amazing thing happened: I started to think that maybe, just maybe, I was the crazy one, not John.

I woke up early and dropped the kids off at before-school daycare before spending all day with other people’s kids. After school I picked up my sons, fixed a quick dinner, took them to soccer practice, washed the dishes, threw the clothes in the washing machine, and collapsed into bed exhausted. I never questioned that because… well, I was a parent, and that was what parents did. And I thought he was the crazy one?

Two months later, once school was out for the year, we hit the road. John and the boys rode a bicycle-built-for-three; I was on a single bike. Everything we needed – tent, sleeping bags, stove and cooking pot, clothes, and homeschooling supplies were lashed, strapped, or buckled to the bikes. We spent the next twelve months cycling around the USA and Mexico, and our sons spent their third grade year in the school of life.

family cyclingWhile cycling the Pacific Coast, we had met other cyclists on their way to Argentina. “Let’s go, Nancy!” John begged. “Let’s just keep pedaling south!”

As tempting as it was at the time, we simply weren’t prepared for a journey of that magnitude. We had abandoned our house – we could do that for a year but not for three. We hadn’t organized our finances. And our triple bike was an awesome machine for North America, but it wasn’t the bike for the Andes. We continued on with our North American tour and set our sights on the Pan American Highway in the future.

Now we were there.

 *****

Our year on the road was twelve months of magic. All four of us learned more than we previously thought humanly possible. By the time we headed back home we had pedaled 9300 miles and knew we wanted more. Much more.

As a family we made the decision to cycle from Alaska to Argentina during the boys’ fifth, sixth, and seventh grade years, and set about preparing for a much longer tour than any of us had ever attempted. It would be more than twice as long as the thirteen months John and I spent cycling in Asia before we were married. We knew it would be three years through extreme conditions, but the background preparation threatened to overtake us and derail the project before we even got on the road.

John and I became single-mindedly focused on making the Pan American journey happen, and spent every day working out tiny details. Our to-do list grew longer by the day – could we pull this off in a year? Remodel the house for renters, dismantle the boys’ treehouse, create a website and look for sponsors, and research how to manage and access our money from remote corners of the world. Figure out how to ship the bikes and gear to the northern end of the world. Get everything we owned sorted into three piles – “sell,” “store,” or “take with.”

It was a whirlwind of activity, but each piece of the puzzle was critical. We couldn’t – simply couldn’t – take our boys up to Alaska and not be prepared. No detail was too small; nothing could be overlooked. Every piece of gear we would carry was essential.

One evening we took a break. All four of us sat in the living room just to be together. The chaos of the preceding months had taken a toll on us all and we needed to stop – even if only for a few hours. “You guys will probably be the youngest people ever to cycle all the way from Alaska to Argentina,” I mentioned. “You’re pretty special!”

“Maybe we’ll get in the Guinness Book of World Records!” Daryl said hopefully as he held up the record book he had been reading.

“I’m sure you could,” John confirmed.

“What do you think?” I asked. “Do you want me to contact Guinness and see what would need to be done?”

Grins broke out simultaneously on both boys’ faces. “Yeah!” they cried.

A few weeks later we had our answer:  the record started in Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean rather than Fairbanks, where we had intended to begin our journey. If our sons wanted to break the record, they would have to cycle the Dalton Highway. Davy and Daryl would be the first children to attempt it – if they did. I wasn’t convinced it was worth it. We held another family meeting.

“Here’s the deal, guys,” I explained. “The record starts way up north in Prudhoe Bay. We’re planning to start in Fairbanks five hundred miles south of there. If you really, really want to go for the record, we’ll go to Prudhoe Bay, but you need to understand how hard it is.”

“Five hundred miles? We can do that, Mom,” Davy interrupted.

“You need to know that it’s 350 miles of dirt road, and when it rains the road turns to soup. It’ll be much, much tougher than anything else you’ve ever done. And you need to know we most likely won’t make it through – lots of cyclists way stronger than us have been beaten by the Dalton.”

“Let’s do it!” they both agreed. “We can make it!”

That night as I lay in bed trying to sleep, my mind went wild. All along I had figured the trip wouldn’t be all that arduous – we could simply hitch through the difficult parts. But now, if the boys were to make a serious attempt at the world record, that would not be an option. No matter how hard, no matter what kind of obstacles lay in our way, we would be committed to pedal over them.

I wasn’t worried about John – he was as strong as a bear. I didn’t worry about the kids – they had an unending supply of energy and could do whatever they put their minds to.

But me? I didn’t trust my own abilities. Could I really cycle all the way from the Arctic Ocean to Tierra del Fuego? Did I want to? I had always been the weak link in our family. I was the one who tended to give up when things got tough. Rather than having legs of rock-solid muscle like John and the boys, my legs resembled jelly. The extra forty pounds I was carrying around wouldn’t help matters either.

I played back our conversation of earlier that day in my mind. I saw the fierce determination in my sons’ faces; I heard the excitement in their voices. How could I take that dream away from them? I was Mom – I was supposed to be the one who encouraged and supported her children as they reached for their dreams. And here I was considering taking the dream away before it even started. Could I do that to them?

“What would you do if you were not afraid?” I asked myself as I lay in bed that night. “If you weren’t afraid of what people would say about you, or of the unknown, or of failure, what would you do?”

If I answered myself honestly, I had to say I would ride my bike from Alaska to Argentina.

The trouble was that I was afraid. Very afraid. Terrified, in fact. I was terrified of the 15,000-foot passes. I was afraid of battling headwinds for thousands of miles along the Peruvian coast. I was afraid the cold would be too cold and the hot would be too hot.

In short, I was afraid of failure. I didn’t want to face the agony of defeat or the humiliation of having to say I had failed in what I set out to accomplish.

It was about four in the morning when that EUREKA moment happened. At that moment I realized that we had a 50/50 chance of failure. The way I figured it, a 50% chance of failure also meant a 50% chance of success.

If we never set out in the first place, we were looking at a 100% chance of failing.

By morning I had made my decision – I would do it. The four of us would pedal every mile between Prudhoe Bay and Ushuaia together. I had no idea if it was physically possible for me, but I was determined I would give it everything I had. If we failed, we would fail trying.

*****

luggageA few months later our lives had been reduced to eight boxes consisting of three bikes, two trailers, and three bins filled with everything we would need for the next three years. We were excited. We were determined. We were unstoppable – until we got to the airport.

“You want to take all this with you?” the agent said as her eyes widened in surprise. “All of it?”

“Yep,” John replied. “We do.”

“We’re going to break the world record,” Davy explained. “All this stuff is everything we’ll need to ride our bikes from Alaska to Argentina.”

The ticket agent began to calculate the excess baggage charges.

“I’m sorry,” she said a few minutes later. “You will be flying three different airlines, so I have to charge you for each of them. The total comes to $1800.”

Eighteen hundred dollars?

“We can’t do it, Nancy,” John said. “There’s no way. We can’t afford $1800. Let’s just start from here. Let’s throw away the plane tickets and ride south from Boise.”

“Please,” Daryl pleaded. “Please Daddy, let’s go to Alaska.” Tears slowly rolled down his cheeks.

“I want to go to Alaska,” Davy added. “Can’t we? Please? Our goal is to ride from Alaska to Argentina – not Boise to Argentina.”

John and I looked at each other and knew we couldn’t kill their dreams before we even started. I pulled out the credit card.

We were on our way – on our way to the adventure of a lifetime.

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Chapter Two

A Little Bike Ride Down the Dalton

Dalton Highway, Alaska

One year nearly to the day after our journey around the US and Mexico finished, I surveyed the enormous pile of gear strewn about our feet in the warehouse of the Arctic Caribou Inn in Prudhoe Bay. I wondered, once again, if we had planned well enough. Adequate rain gear? Check. Appropriate warm clothing? Check. Tent, sleeping bags, and stove? Check, check, check. Sufficient food? Maybe check. We had planned the best we could. Now, only time would tell if we had done it well enough.

“For the record,” an oil worker said as he picked his way through our piles, “I drive this road on a regular basis, and I think you’re nuts.”

“I think you may be right,” I retorted as I glanced out the window at the road we were about to tackle.

John and I, along with our sons Davy and Daryl, had arrived in Prudhoe Bay the day before. Now, the boys were out throwing rocks at icebergs floating in the nearby lake while John and I attempted to sort our massive piles of gear.

In the next few hours we piled our gear and more than fifty pounds of food on our bikes. We were about to pedal from the northernmost terminus of the Pan-American Highway on the shores of the Arctic Ocean to Fairbanks, five hundred miles away. And beyond that? We would keep our bike tires pointed south until we could go no farther at the southern tip of South America. At least that was the plan.

Even after so many months of planning, preparing, stewing, fretting, and organizing, I wondered if we would actually make it. Could we actually make it? The odds were against us. How many ten-year-old kids had ever cycled the Dalton? None. The Alaska Highway? None. The Pan American? None. We were drawing blanks as far as examples to lean on. We would have to be our own example.

prudhoe bayAt long last, all three bikes were put together, racks and panniers (saddle bags for a bicycle) mounted, trailers attached, and gear stashed. John and Daryl had the tent, sleeping bags, and tools packed on their bicycle built for two. Davy had pillows and sleeping mats on his tiny single bike. I carried food for the four of us on mine. The time had come.

“You’d better take off now,” the manager of the Arctic Caribou Inn urged. “Take advantage of this weather; there’s no way it’ll hold up here.”

“You ready, kids? Ready to start riding the longest road in the world?”

“You bet!” Davy exclaimed.

“Sure!” Daryl added. “Let’s go!”

The sun shone brightly and a clear blue sky stretched forever. Temps hovered around the 60’s. In short, it was perfect; we couldn’t ask for better. John and Daryl hopped aboard their tandem bike, Davy and I straddled our singles, and we were off – off to the other end of the world!

Spirits were high as we pulled out of the parking lot and headed toward the Dalton Highway. We were doing it! Finally! Daryl was thrilled to be on the bike with Daddy. Davy was filled with pride at being entrusted with his own bike, but that all came crashing down the moment he hit the gravel. Davy’s bike, unwieldy and unfamiliar with panniers and dry bags lashed on, had slipped out from under him the minute he hit the loose gravel of the Dalton. I jumped off my bike and scurried over to help him.

“It just… just… went!” Davy exclaimed on the verge of tears. “It’s like it’s not even my bike. It just feels too weird and I can’t control it.”

And we still had 17,000 miles to go.

In time, Davy got used to the feel of his loaded bike, and we continued cautiously on our way. We reached the gate to the oil fields – as far north as we were allowed to go. We snapped a photo to document the moment for Guinness World Records and asked the guard to sign our witness book before pushing on.

family cycling the Dalton HighwayA mile later we passed a road sign informing us we had 240 miles to go before we would reach Coldfoot, which was nothing more than a gas station and restaurant on the side of the road, and 494 miles to Fairbanks. Many miles of nothing. No grocery store. No convenience store. No houses. Just mile after mile of caribou, musk ox, bears, and moose. Mile after mile of rough arctic grasses swaying in the wind.

In the land of the midnight sun, we pedaled until we tired. The sun was still high in the sky when we pitched our tent on the side of the road – the sun wouldn’t set for another month or so. We were well north of the Arctic Circle, that imaginary line around the globe marking the place where the sun would at least dip beneath the horizon every single day of the year. Here, three hundred miles north of that line, there was no difference between 2:00 in the afternoon and 2:00 in the morning.

Using water from a nearby stream, we cooked pasta over our tiny camp stove, and then filtered water to fill our bottles. We were totally self-sufficient out there. We had to be self-sufficient. There was absolutely no one to rely on but ourselves.

Our sons pulled out their tiny stash of toys – a handful of plastic Star War figures – from Davy’s handlebar bag, and sat next to the stream playing. Those few toys were their only connection to the life we had just abandoned.

As I lay in the tent that was just barely big enough for the four of us, snuggled into my sleeping bag under the bright light of the sun, I thought about our journey. Daryl rolled over and slung his arm over my chest and I gazed into his sleeping face. My baby – but he wasn’t much of a baby anymore. Were we really doing the best thing for the boys? Would they be better off in a classroom in their local school? Was a journey to the ends of the earth a better education? Yes, this life was different from the life of their peers, but was it better? Worse?

camping on the Dalton HighwayOver the next two years, those doubts plagued me repeatedly as we slowly made our way southward. In time I came to the conclusion that our sons’ lives were different from the norm – not better or worse. But at the time, so new to the road and in one of the most remote areas on our planet, I wasn’t quite there yet. I spent the night wondering what might happen. All the good, and all the bad. So much could happen, but all unknown.

We allowed our own natural body rhythms to wake us in the morning. With twenty-four hours of daylight, we could ride when we wanted and sleep when we wanted. John and I arose early and set upon cooking a big pot of porridge for breakfast, then dragged the kids out of the tent. We stuffed sleeping bags into stuff sacks, rolled up the tent, cleaned and packed the stove, washed the dishes, and headed out once again.

It was another bright, glorious day, and we needed to take advantage of the good weather. We had been warned time and time again that weather in the arctic was unpredictable and nasty. We weren’t looking forward to rain and headwinds, but for now we flew along the flat tundra with a strong wind pushing us forward. Davy was in his element, thrilled with the independence his own bike afforded. We rode side by side along the rough gravel road chatting about the caribou grazing beside us or the lack of trees in the tundra or the tiny wildflowers dotting the ground. I could hear Daryl and John chatting up ahead.

“Davy, look!” I shouted as I pointed ahead of us. “One of Santa’s reindeer!”

caribouJust ahead a caribou leapt nimbly onto the road and stopped to stare at us. His enormous antlers jutted out on either side of his face like branches on a tree. A few seconds later, he was off, loping through the marshy swamplands the tundra had become in the quick spring thaw.

“Wow!” Davy murmured in awe. “Did you see that Mom? Did you see how he just stood there watching us? He was beautiful.”

“This is where Santa keeps his reindeer when they’re not pulling his sleigh,” I told him. “Santa himself lives farther south – down in North Pole.”

“Aw, Mom! These aren’t reindeer – they’re caribou!”

It took a bit of convincing for him to believe they were both.

A while later we reached a pull-off and climbed off our bikes for a break. As the entire area was a swampy mess, finding solid ground other than the road was a challenge. In the winter months, the tundra was frozen solid, but now, in the spring thaw, the top layer had melted and grasses were growing rapidly in the mud due to the extended daylight hours.

I pulled out a baggie full of snacks – granola bars, trail mix, gummies, dried fruit, and other assorted goodies. Four hands vied for space inside the bag as each of us searched for our favorite, and then we sat back and munched. A few seconds later, another hand was in the bag. Then another. And another.

“Did you know those chunks of grass out in the swamp are called tussocks?” I asked as we munched on our snacks. “They start out with one little grass seed taking hold and sprouting in the swampy water. The next spring, the old blades of grass die and new ones grow – but the old blades don’t decompose like they normally would. Any idea why?”

“It’s too cold?” Daryl mumbled as he chewed gummies.

“Kinda. In the winter, it’s too cold for the organisms that would normally eat the leaves and break them down. And in the summer, there just isn’t enough time for them to do it. So the old leaves never decay and new leaves grow every summer. In time, they build up into these tussocks you see.”

“They’re hard to walk on,” Davy told me. “When we were playing tag, they kept wobbling around and I almost fell off.”

When I finally dragged myself off the ground and went to stash the remaining snacks in my pannier, I panicked. The baggie was nearly empty. A few granola bars lay in the bottom of the bag, but that was it. I had diligently packed one baggie per day for the fifteen days I figured it would take us to reach Fairbanks. One baggie with what I thought at the time was plenty of snacks to get us through the day. And now, today’s baggie was nearly empty and we had only barely begun.

I started to think about the food I had packed. More than fifty pounds of food was stashed in my trailer, but I knew now that it wouldn’t be enough. I had carefully planned snacks and meals for four hungry cyclists for fifteen days but, if the boys continued as they were eating now, it wouldn’t be anywhere near sufficient. All four of us, unaccustomed to the demands of the bike, were eating way more than I had budgeted. Davy, a growing boy powering his own bike, had so far eaten nearly three times as much as I had calculated. If this pace kept up, we would run out of food with many miles still to go. And there was no way to resupply.

As I pedaled, I considered our food. We had been fortunate to run into a couple of motorcyclists in Prudhoe Bay. “We packed a whole bunch of freeze dried meals before we left home,” they said, “but we haven’t used hardly any of it. Can we leave it in Coldfoot for you?” At the time, I didn’t think we would need it, but I told them we would appreciate their help. Now, I hoped they really had left it – it was apparent that what I had packed was nowhere near sufficient.

caribouTwice that day we stopped at a stream to filter water and cook. Pasta and porridge filled us up for a few hours before we dove into our rapidly dwindling supply of snacks. How much food can four people eat? I started contemplating how I could stretch our food supply to make it last.

*****

Davy thrilled at the independence of his own bike and quickly outpaced John and me. He raced ahead, then sat patiently for us to catch up. “This is great!” he told us as we took a break at the top of a hill. “I love having my own bike!”

“It’s better on the tandem,” Daryl challenged. “I get to talk with Daddy all the time!”

“Maybe we should load Davy down?” John mumbled as he lay exhausted on the ground. “That would slow him down.”

John and I had made the decision to put Davy on a nearly empty bike. He had four panniers and a big waterproof dry bag lashed on his rear rack, but there was very little weight in those bags. He carried our light, bulky pillows and sleeping mats. We would load him down later, but for now he had a free ride.

When we got tired and were ready to call it a day, we found a dry spot for our tent and got organized for the night. The sun was shining brightly and warmed the tent while the four of us played cards and wrote in our journals inside.

As much as Daryl claimed to hate riding Davy’s bike, he secretly enjoyed it – a bit anyway.

“Tomorrow I’m going to ride Davy’s bike for one hour,” Daryl wrote. “I know I said I hated it but it’s actually pretty easy to ride that thing once you get used to it. All you have to carry is three mats and some clothes.

“It’s not without disadvantages though – I have to be much more wary.  Now all I’m wary of is the Alaskan pipeline, caribou, and that river we might have lunch at.  I’ll have to be wary of cars and deep gravel.  I hope I don’t fall down.”

“Let me guess,” we heard a voice from outside. “The homeschooling family on their way to South America, right?”

John and I scrambled out of the tent. We were in the middle of absolutely nowhere but, with no trees to hide our tent, we were very visible from the road. Even so, we knew nobody on the north slope – or so we thought.

“Hi! I’m Tom,” the man said as he extended his hand. “We exchanged emails a couple months ago.”

One of the many things we had had to do to prepare for our journey was figure out how to transport three bikes, two trailers, and a massive amount of gear up to the Arctic Ocean. Leaving our hometown of Boise, most planes were small commuter planes with no space for all our gear, let alone a tandem bike. In the end, we had flown south to Phoenix before turning north in order to be on large planes that could handle all our gear.

But before we decided to fly, I had researched every option I could think of. We toyed with strapping the bikes on top of our van and driving to Prudhoe Bay. A friend would drive the van back to Fairbanks and sell it. That option was problematic in that it wasted a full week, and we were pushing our narrow window of opportunity to get south by winter as it was.

Another option was to somehow ship the bikes and gear up to Prudhoe Bay, then we could fly empty-handed. But where to ship them? I contacted all the geocachers who had planted caches on the north slope to ask for help. Tom was one of them. “I work in Prudhoe Bay,” he had told me. “I’ll ask around.” In the end, that option didn’t pan out, but we planned to meet Tom when we arrived in Fairbanks.

And now – here he was, standing before us in blue jeans and green polo shirt with a massive smile gracing his face. “I saw those bikes and the tent and figured it couldn’t be anybody else. We see a fair number of cyclists up here, but not with a tandem and a bunch of trailers. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Since you asked,” John said, “we’ve realized we don’t have nearly as many snacks as we’re going to need. You don’t happen to have any granola bars or anything, do you?”

“No, I don’t have anything with me,” Tom replied. Our hearts fell as we heard those words. “But I tell you what – I’ll leave you a bag of food at the gate to the pipeline pump station tomorrow morning. I have a meeting in the morning, so I won’t be able to meet you there, but look behind the gate and I’ll leave some goodies.”

 *****

We awoke to clear blue skies again – unheard-of in the tundra, or so we had been told. I thanked my lucky stars as I packed my bike – good weather three days in a row, and a bag of goodies awaiting us twelve miles away. We climbed aboard and set off down the rough dirt road.

“Jackpot!” Daryl exclaimed as his eyes widened to the size of the boulders we had just been bouncing over. He gazed upon the booty in wonder. “Wow!” The four of us pawed through the massive bag of snacks Tom had left us.

“I want Oreos!”

“Gimme trail mix!”

“I want the gummies!”

It was massive. Absolutely enormous. More snacks than I ever could have dreamed of. Tom had loaded us up with every kind of snack known to mankind. We ate three each, then I stashed the rest in my trailer. I knew we still had a long way to go.

Dalton Highway Brooks RangeUp ahead I could see the mountains looming before us. The Brooks Range was our first major obstacle, and one I feared more than ever. Weather in the far north is a major concern, and I had read more stories than I cared to recall about bad weather on the pass crossing the continental divide. Other cyclists had reported rain or hail or a full-on blizzard as they crossed at this time of year. We had packed the boys’ winter jackets just in case, and were prepared with full rain gear. But still – if bad weather hit up there, we were in trouble.

Mile by mile, we drew closer to the mountains. The tundra was abuzz with activity in the short summer season. There was a very narrow window of time for plants and animals in the tundra to proliferate, and bees were busy pollinating the flowers that had sprung up in the tundra. Herds of caribou and musk ox grazed on grasses that had just transformed the tundra from a vast ice field to a giant lush green carpet. Many species of fish could be seen through the clear waters of the rivers and ponds we passed.

The boys were thrilled to be on the road. They were in their element, outside where they belonged. They loved playing with sticks and stones, running through fields covered with wild flowers, and jumping from boulder to boulder. Even though our lives were anything but easy, the boys were thriving on the challenges and loving being in Mother Nature’s handiwork.

Day five dawned with sunny skies and tailwinds – unheard-of luck. We thanked the man upstairs for holding off bad weather and headed into the narrow valley winding up to the pass. The road climbed gradually and we bounced over the rough rocky surface. Going was slow, but we managed to keep moving. The wind shifted into a headwind and we slowed even more. But still – it wasn’t rain, so all was well. We would choose a headwind over cold rain any day.

We were nine miles from the top when we noticed dark clouds amassing over the mountains. Patches of sunshine broke through here and there, and we hoped it wouldn’t be too bad on top. We would know soon enough.

Six miles later all hell broke loose. Rain poured from the skies and wind drove hail into our faces like BBs. We scrambled to cram all our gear into plastic bags and get our raingear on. It was a mad frantic dash as the heavens unleashed their fury.

The fury was short-lived, however, and by the time we got ourselves and our gear protected, the rain had passed. We continued up. John, a much stronger cyclist than I, managed to pedal up the pass. Davy and I didn’t. We pushed our heavy bikes up the climb, leaning into the handlebars in order to use our whole body to push. Step by painful step we crept up the mountainside past massive piles of snow left over from winter.

Minutes passed, then hours, and still we pushed. The top remained somewhere up there, unseen beyond the next switchback. Or the one after that. “Keep it up, Davy,” I tried to encourage him. “You’re doing great.” He smiled back at me and kept plodding up the mountain.

“This is it!” John shouted down to us. “We’re at the top!” Up ahead I could see John and Daryl silhouetted against a massive wall of snow.

Dalton Highway Brooks Range“We made it, Mommy!” Daryl called. “We did it!”

The top! We had made it up our first pass! We were standing 4643 feet higher than where we started at the Arctic Ocean! We thanked the weather gods for holding off on the rain, even though it was cloudy and dreary, and headed down.

We awoke the following morning to the pitter-patter of rain on the tent. Steady drizzle. Black skies. Mucky roads. Yuck. Stay? Or go? We had learned on our previous bike tour that we hated riding in the rain. A warm rain was tolerable, but a cold rain was downright miserable. Although we had rain gear, riding in rain was still awful. We could keep our legs and torso dry, but there is no good way to keep feet and hands dry and warm while cycling. And the mud – rain would turn the road into a deep, mucky mess that swallowed bike tires and refused to let them spin.

As much as we hated the idea of riding in the rain, we hated the idea of no food even more. We only had a certain amount of food and no way of getting more. If we hung out in the tent for the day – and ate food – there would be even less to get us to Fairbanks. And besides, what if it was raining really hard tomorrow? At least now it was just a drizzle. My boys stood before me like baby birds as I shoveled a few spoonfuls of peanut butter into their mouths. Then we packed up our bikes, and took off.

 *****

Water dripped off my helmet onto my nose as I pedaled through the quickly worsening mess in the road. Rain had fallen steadily all day, and all four of us were tired and cranky. Bickering between us had risen to astronomical proportions as we fought hunger and cold. Our stove got wet and wouldn’t light. Attempts to sit by a stream to pump water were futile in the mud and we ended up having to haul up pot after pot of water so John could filter on the side of the road. We were miserable.

Finally we called it a day. Slipping and sliding in the muck, we set up our tent on a grassy patch and quickly threw sleeping bags and pads inside. I managed to get the stove dried out and John held a tarp over me and the stove as I cooked Rice-a-Roni. Rather than sitting in the mud, we stood in a huddle holding our steaming bowls of rice. We were wet and cold and muddy and hungry. Maybe, just maybe, the Dalton Highway would win the battle after all.

 *****

By the time we woke up the next morning, we had an entirely different problem. We lay in our tent snuggled up in our sleeping bags and stared at the mesh screen above us, listening to the ferocious buzzing surrounding the tent. Overnight, the mosquitoes had hatched and were desperate for food. We were prime sources.

Although we had heard stories of the mosquitoes in Alaska, we had yet to see even one. But that morning, hordes of the critters slathered our tent like peanut butter on bread. Humming, buzzing, swarming our tent waiting for the moment we emerged.

Dalton Highway Brooks Range“Okay – here’s the plan,” John directed. “We’ll get everything packed up as much as we can before we open the tent. All sleeping bags stuffed, all pillows packed. Everything waiting right by the door. As soon as I open that door, the mosquitoes will swarm in, so we need to move fast.”

As mosquitoes feasted on every bit of exposed flesh, we dashed and scurried around the campsite packing up. John and the boys took down the tent while I prepared breakfast. We ate walking in circles to minimize the number of bites we ended up with. The good news was that it wasn’t raining.

We had crossed the tree line while battling rain the day before, and now the road was nothing more than a narrow ribbon etched through thick, dense forest. Trees rely on photosynthesis to create their food, and photosynthesis requires energy from the sun. With so few days of sunlight up north, trees simply couldn’t sustain themselves. Now, we had reached that magical line where there were enough days of sunlight for trees to grow.

The trees were small, but plentiful, and were more beautiful than I could have imagined after not having seen any for so many miles. If not for the mosquitoes, life would have been perfect. With chocolate, even more perfect.

“Hey guys! Want some Coke and chocolate?”

We looked up in surprise at the white van passing by, and at the smiling face hanging out of the driver’s door. “We’re on our way back into town tomorrow and have some extra food. You want it?” Who was this angel anyway?

We quickly made friends with Hugh, a tour guide in the area, and the people who were on his tour to the arctic tundra. They were all more than happy to part with a bit of their stash, and we were more than happy to take it. Hugh handed us a big bag of trail mix, a bunch of chocolate, and a package of peanut-butter-filled, chocolate-covered pretzels. Our eyes bugged out at the manna from heaven, and we thanked them all profusely. The four of us stood there on the side of the road with bags of chocolate and cans of Coke in our hands and thanked the gods for sending such a wonderful gift.

*****

The next day life got even better. We reached Coldfoot. We piled off our bikes and headed into the restaurant. Inside! In a building! A real live building made of wood and metal with glass windows! It had been eight days since we left the shelter and protection of the Arctic Caribou Inn. Eight days of life in the outdoors. We were ready to be pampered with tables and chairs and a real toilet – for a little while anyway. We ordered a few enormous breakfasts and ate until we couldn’t eat any more. I even convinced the cook to refill my empty peanut butter jar.

But even better than a meal at the restaurant was the enormous bag of freeze-dried meals the motorcyclists we had met in Prudhoe Bay had left for us. We pored over them, checking each one out. Macaroni and cheese… beef stroganoff… chicken fried rice… blueberry crumble… We were in heaven. We had food.

Our lives improved even more when we headed outside to pack away all the bags of freeze-dried food. Hugh and his tour group showed up again and handed over all their left-over food before they returned to Fairbanks; cheese and turkey and bread and tomatoes and potato chips and cookies. For John and me, he had beers; for the kids, Sprite and Coke. Food! Our chances of making it to Fairbanks just got a whole lot better.

 *****

Life became a perfectly choreographed dance as we learned to deal with the mosquitoes and rain. We figured out how to put up the tent and get organized in record time. Everyone had their job and executed it perfectly – our blood supply depended on it. All the while, mosquitoes ravaged any part of our bodies they could find exposed. The hordes saw us as an open all-you-can-eat buffet.

We had discovered the mosquitoes weren’t quite as bad in the middle of bridges, so we took full advantage of that fact. When it was time to cook, we waited until we crossed over a major river with a nice, long bridge. I grabbed the stove and headed out to the very middle of the bridge before setting up the stove. We ate pacing back and forth across the bridge. Fortunately, there wasn’t much traffic on the Dalton Highway.

But the worst part of the mosquitoes was what I dubbed Itchy Bum Syndrome or IBS. I discovered the mosquitoes couldn’t bite through my rain gear, so I wore that most of the time and put DEET on my hands and face. But when nature called and I had to drop my drawers, it was sheer torture. After each time I headed behind a tree to do my business, I returned to my bike scratching my bum like a monkey scratches his armpits.

 *****

As we continued southward, we left behind the relatively flat northern areas and entered into hills. Monstrous hills. Steep, 15% grade, knee-busting, bike-walking hills. As we slowly crawled up the hills, mosquitoes attacked. We slopped bug juice on top of sun screen and sweat. We were a mess.

One day we came across a large, crystal clear river and looked forward to a nice bath – until we felt the icy water. Daryl and I braved the nearly-freezing temps and plunged in. John and Davy splashed a bit of water on their faces and called it good.

Days blended together, becoming a blurred tapestry of hills, mosquitoes, heat, freezing water, and hunger. The longer we were on the road, the more the boys were eating. Even with our gifts of food, I feared we would not have enough to get us to Fairbanks. I carefully rationed our snacks and doled out spoonfuls of peanut butter to the boys to keep their caloric intake up. Even so, food was rarely far from our minds.

John and I cut back on our intake in order to save food for the boys. Rather than eating one whole bag of freeze-dried food each, we shared one. We gave our snacks to the kids. We were perpetually hungry, but figured we had enough body fat to get us through. The boys didn’t.

Dalton Highway Brooks RangeWe celebrated when we reached the Arctic Circle – now the sun would set at last! Even though the sun barely dipped below the horizon, it was a sign that life would eventually return to normal and we would sleep in darkness again. What we didn’t relish, however, were the hills the Arctic Circle brought.

For some reason, south of the Arctic Circle, the hills on the Dalton Highway become massive. Ozarks on steroids. Huge, steep climbs, followed by equally huge, steep descents. Up and down. Up and down. Many of the climbs we walked, pushing our heavy bikes. Others we ground up slowly, inch by painful inch. And all the while, mosquitoes swarmed around our heads.

And then came the flashing blue lights.

“May I see your ID please?” asked the security officer who had pulled up behind us. The blue lights pulsed ominously. “I hear you folks camped by the pipeline last night. Some workers called me this morning.”

“We did,” John responded. “It was a great spot – a bit buggy perhaps, but otherwise it was comfortable.”

“You are aware it’s illegal to camp in the pipeline corridor, aren’t you?”

Oops.

For days we had been camping next to the oil pipeline. With the dense vegetation south of the treeline, the only two places we could find a spot big enough to set the tent up were in the middle of the road or next to the pipeline. At each access point to the pipeline, there was a sign indicating that non-motorized vehicles were allowed. We figured that included us, as we couldn’t imagine they would consider Daryl’s motor-mouth a vehicle. We explained that to the security officer.

“You’ve been camping back in the right-of-way for a week? Next to the pipeline?” he asked. The look on his face was one of sheer disbelief.

“We’re not the only ones to camp by the pipeline,” I explained. “I’ve been reading loads of journals by other cyclists; each and every one talks about camping by the pipeline. It’s really the only place to put a tent around here.”

Dalton Highway Brooks Range“Well, I just want to let you know it’s illegal to camp there and you’ll probably get a citation if you do it again,” the officer responded. “Folks around here take pipeline security very seriously – you would have the state police up here and that blue and white helicopter you see flying around would land right next to you. You don’t want to go there.”

We shook our heads and continued on.

“What’s the big deal about the pipeline?” Daryl asked as we pedaled up the next hill.

“It’s really an amazing thing,” I responded, recognizing a teachable moment. “What do you know about the pipeline?”

“I know they built it to transport oil.”

“But why? Why don’t they just send the ships up to Prudhoe Bay to get the oil?”

“I dunno.”

“The oil is up on the north slope,” I explained. “But the ocean freezes up there in the winter, and ships have a really hard time floating on ice. That’s why they built this pipeline – 800 miles down to Valdez. The water never freezes in Valdez so the ships can get in all year long.”

“It’s 800 miles?” John asked. “Is it really that long?”

“That’s what I read before we left home. But they didn’t build it that long – when they built it, it was a lot shorter. Any idea why it’s longer now??

“They added more to the end?” Davy guessed

“Nope. The pipeline was cold when they built it, but oil is hot. What happens when something gets hot?”

“The molecules take up more space so it gets bigger!”

“Exactly. So when they built the pipeline, it was one length, but after they put the oil in it the pipeline expanded by four feet for each mile. Cool, eh? But the really amazing part is this – they built it with a bunch of corners so it could expand. Otherwise it would all get crammed together. Look – see there! It’s straight for a mile or so, then they built a zigzag into it so it could expand. Another reason it zigzags is so it can move with earthquakes. Is that cool or what?”

“Yeah, whatever. That’s really cool,” they said with ten-year-old sarcasm.

 *****

We passed a little stream with clear water and climbed off our bikes to filter. John pulled the filter out and I pulled the pot out. The boys scampered around gathering all the water bottles from the bikes. Taking everything we needed, the four of us picked our way over and around boulders and trees to reach the riverbank below us.

I filled the pot with water and set it carefully by John’s feet. He placed the intake tube of the filter in the pot and the outtake tube into a water bottle and pumped. He pumped. And pumped. But nothing happened. Nothing. No water went into the filter; no water came out. Nothing.

John took the filter apart to see what was happening. All looked well, but it didn’t work. The boys and I stood over him, worried. Our filter was critical. It was one of many absolutely essential items we could not live without.

What now? We were still days away from Fairbanks. Drink water straight from the streams? How sick would we get? Was the trip over? Hitch a ride and head down to Fairbanks?

Unsure what our next steps would be, we headed back up to the road with the busted water filter. Just then a motorcyclist pulled up.

“Gads!” he exclaimed when he saw the boys out in the middle of nowhere traveling on bikes. “This is quite the story. What’s up with you guys?”

“Our water filter just broke,” John told him. “We have no idea what we’re going to do.”

“I have a filter. I’ve carried it all the way from California and never needed it once. I’ll sell it to you if you want.”

We happily forked over the money, said goodbye, and headed back down to the stream with filter in hand. We were grateful for the universe intervening just when we needed it.

Thirty minutes later another motorcyclist pulled up from behind and handed us some money. “This is from Jim – the other motorcyclist you talked with,” he said. “He felt badly about charging you for the water filter and wanted to give this back to you.”

Wow! Those Road Angels were everywhere.

 *****

We rode hard in order to find hamburgers. One of the few restaurants on the Dalton was a burger joint and we were on a mission to get there. I could see the big juicy burgers in my mind’s eye. As I pedaled, I listened to the crackling sound of burgers cooking on the grill and smelled the hearty, meaty aroma….

Eleven days and 375 miles after we started our journey, our ragtag bunch of filthy cyclists poured into the hamburger joint and stuffed the best burgers in the world in our mouths, trying our darndest to overcome the caloric deficit we had endured for days. Wonderful, juicy burgers were just what we needed.

“This is even better than a visit to a candy shop!” John joked.

“Better than a candy shop with a lot of money!” Daryl added.

There were a lot of odd things about the Dalton, but one of them was that we traveled 240 miles to the first restaurant, another 135 to the second, and only four to the next. In order to take advantage of both restaurants, we ate dinner at the burger joint, then breakfast the following morning at the restaurant next to the Yukon River. For the first time in a week, we started the day with full and happy bellies.

We crossed the Yukon River and kept pedaling through the hills. From the top of one enormously overgrown hill we could see the entire gargantuan climb of the next. South of the Yukon, however, the hills were graded so we could ride rather than push our heavy bikes.

Dalton Highway Brooks RangeOn day fourteen, we awoke with only twenty-four miles of the Dalton Highway left to pedal. Twenty-four miles. We had pedaled 390 and were so close. Nothing could stop us now!

It was almost as though the Dalton saved the best for last, and we struggled mightily those last few miles. Hills that never ended… very rough road surface… heat, humidity, mosquitoes…. But finally we came around a corner and could see that ribbon of pavement up ahead. The Elliot Highway! We had done it! We had conquered the Dalton. My legs were fried. They had been reduced to a trembling mass of quivering flesh, but nothing could hold me back. We had made it.

We climbed off our bikes and leaned them against a guardrail along the Elliot Highway – a ninety-mile stretch of paved road that would take us to Fairbanks. My food bags were nearly empty, but now I knew – I knew we could do it. I broke out my last bag of freeze dried banana cream pie for our celebration party and the four of us sent up a good long shout.

“WE DID IT! WE CONQUERED THE DALTON!”

 

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If you are a blogger and would like to do a review of my book on your site, please contact me at familyonbikes at gmail dot com for a complementary copy.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World

I can’t tell you how excited I am! We are now into the formatting stage for my book about cycling the PanAm! We’re planning to release it March 21 – on the 2-year anniversary of the completion of our journey. The presale will start soon.

Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World

What would you do if you were not afraid?

Changing Gears is the true story of one woman asking herself that very question. What followed was a family journey of epic proportions – a journey of physical challenge, emotional endurance, teamwork, perseverance, and tremendous learning opportunities. It was a discovery of self, of priorities, of accepting hardships, of appreciating blessings, and of contrasting a comfortable past life with the extreme hardship and poverty of those they met.

Would the journey be a dream come true – or a mother’s worst nightmare?

Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Our Next Big Thing

If you know the Denning family, you’ll know they are always working on some big thing. As if driving a veggie-powered truck from Alaska to Argentina with five kids isn’t big enough, they’re working on all kinds of projects. Their latest project is a massive attempt to help others figure out how to fund their dream. It sounds very cool and I encourage you to read about it here.

Rachel’s post is part of a networking event among bloggers and writers, and she’s tagged me to go next. Here’s to our next big thing!

What is your ‘Next Big Thing’?

What happens when a couple decides to chuck it all, jump on bikes, and pedal from Alaska to Argentina … with their two kids?Our Next Big Thing is the release of my book about our Pan-American journey. It’s titled

One Family, One Dream, One Very Long Road
A Family Cycles from Alaska to Argentina

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your project?

What happens when a couple decides to chuck it all, jump on bikes, and pedal from Alaska to Argentina … with their two kids?

What else about your project might pique the reader’s interest?

This story is a mother’s perspective of a fantastical journey through the Americas; the story of a mother who overcame her fears to help her children reach for the stars.

When will your project be available?

It was March 21, 2011 when we arrived at the end of the world. My hope is that we will be able to release my book on the two-year anniversary of our arrival. We’re working like mad to have it edited and formatted by March 21, 2013!

What inspired you to write this book?

family in andesThroughout our entire three-year journey, people asked for a book recounting our adventures. As you can probably imagine, a family cycling over 17,000 miles through fifteen countries would have more than a few interesting experiences. I wanted to share those with the world – the highs and lows, the good times and bad. I hope that our adventures will inspire others to chase their dreams wherever they lead.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I started working on the book in earnest last October, which means it’s been about a year. Just yesterday I finished editing the manuscript and have now turned it over to others to read. From here on out, it’s mostly out of my hands.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Ummm… probably the human kind :)   Seeing as how I don’t watch either movies or TV, I have no clue who would play us in a movie. Please leave a comment with your suggestions and I’ll be sure to pass them on to the director ;)

 

Family on Bikes

Here are some excerpts from the book:

Learning Spanish the TAMALE way

Experiencing a Honduran chicken bus

A 400-mile detour in Bolivia – on bikes

Unexpectedly crashing the party

Highs and lows in Costa Rica

Being our own example

It is my pleasure to introduce you to a couple other bloggers who are working on big things!

Jennifer Chasalow VanBenschoten is a beader friend who is working on a series of paintings/bead embroideries she’d like to introduce. You can follow her blog at www.vanbeads.blogspot.com

Darryl Kotyk from Loving the Bike has recently moved to Grenada and is opening a bicycle cafe – that’s his Next Big Thing!

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Not a Rose: or Coming of Age in India

Everyone loves a good ‘coming-of-age’ story – those stories where boys or girls finally triumph over adversity. When they suddenly realize they are big enough, strong enough, tough enough to conquer the world on their own terms. Ah yes, we all like to think we could do the same. If we were faced with those circumstances we would rise above and triumph just like our heroes in those stories.

cycling in India

John and I spent a year cycling in Asia back in 1990-91. It was… (ahem)… an interesting experience.

I’m sorry to say this isn’t that kind of story. Sure, I would love to say I had faced my enemy like a man, that I had conquered my fears and forged new paths. But the truth of the matter is that I was reduced to a blithering idiot: overcome by fear…paralyzed by fright…and scared out of my britches. I wish I could report a different tale; a tale where I come out smelling like a rose, but instead I am forced to tell a tale where I come out smelling like a…well, you know…not a rose.

The story begins with me and John biking around India (I know, I know…someone who has ‘come-of-age’ would never attempt such a ridiculous thing – they would be far wiser. But I never claimed to have ‘come of age’ in the first place) and I got horribly sick with dengue fever. When I had sufficiently recovered to resume our journey, we faced this one, bitty problem: John’s bike was in Jaiselmer, mine was still back in Pokran. (The logical thing to do here would be for us both to return to Pokran. But did I mention anything about logic?)

John wanted to head south and then cut east over to Jodhpur. I had no choice but to go north to Pokran before I could head east to Jodhpur. And so we agreed to go our merry ways and meet again in a couple of days at kilometer marker #91, at which our trusty map showed an intersection.

Now one might think that all would be well with such a sensible plan. But India is known for its ability to screw things up. And then there was that other problem of the curfew. At that particular point in time, India had been thrust into an enormous uproar over a temple in Ayodya and the government finally ordered everyone into their homes. But brave, intrepid travelers we were, and we set off despite it all.

camel plowing field in Rajasthan IndiaI can happily report that all went exactly according to plan for a while. The bus came on time, I retrieved my trusty iron maiden, and headed out to conquer unknown lands. Every thing was going peachy keen until I came upon an intersection at kilometer marker #54. It was boldly marked as the road to the very towns John would be coming from. Hmmm…

We had been very clear from the start: we would meet at the intersection at kilometer #91. I waited a while to see if John would come, and finally decided to head on, knowing that if he should arrive the local kids would let John know I had already departed. I pedaled confidently, completely trusting that I would meet John soon – either the map was wrong and he would approach from behind, or we would meet at kilometer #91 as planned.

rajasthan ladyAnd then another intersection appeared. This one, too, was boldly marked as the pathway to the towns John would coming from. Now I must make it clear that our map showed one intersection, and only one intersection, joining John’s road and my road. Our map showed that intersection very clearly at kilometer #91. And I was now at marker #62. This was a bit problematic, but I could rise above it. Yes, I could deal with this minor confusion. I made sure that everyone in the village saw me and knew I had continued on. I set my sights on #91.

At marker #75 I found another intersection. And yet another at #87. Finally I approached kilometer #91. There was nothing. I mean NOTHING. A few shrubs perhaps. And maybe a tree or two. No houses… no people… no intersection… no John. Nothing. Now this, well, this was problematic. The sun would be setting soon and I was out in the middle of nowhere with a whole lotta nothing.

Remember back to earlier in this story when I mentioned the curfew? By dusk everyone had to be home, shut in behind closed doors. I had no home to go to nor door to shut. And the military patrolled the streets at night to make sure no troublemakers were out doing what they do best. And I had heard stories about the Indian military that I didn’t like.
veiled lady rajasthan india

To sum it all up: the last place on earth I wanted to be was on the side of a road as night was fast approaching with Indian military trucks lumbering past me. Nope – I didn’t wanna be there at all.

I am proud to say that I didn’t panic – not yet anyway. I remained calm (just like my momma taught me), looked around, and considered my options. As I saw it, my options consisted of:

  1. Turning around and going 15 kilometers back to the previous village.
  2. Continuing on in the hope there would be a village nearby.
  3. Stay where I was and wait for the Boogieman to get me.

I elected option 2, maintained my composure quite well, and started pedaling into the future. I did well for a while. Until it got darker. And more and more military trucks passed by. And no other cars passed at all. And I realized that those military people knew just as well as I did that I was stranded. I was up a creek without a paddle. No knight in shining armor was going to come and rescue me. It was just me and those military guys – the ones with big guns.

I wish I could say that I handled the situation like an adult; that I banished my fear and rose up triumphantly. But I didn’t. I panicked. I quickly metamorphosed into a blithering idiot pedaling along a deserted highway in the middle of India. I knew I would never make it home. My last breaths would be taken here on this god-forsaken stretch of desert road. I would be gang raped and beaten and tortured and die a miserable death.

And then I saw it… the machine. The torture machine. It was there… on the road… coming toward me. My mind conjured up images of the machine slowly grinding me up to make dogfood. The end was near. My demise was certain.

My eyes remained locked on that machine as it approached in the growing darkness. It seemed like there was something familiar about the shape – I had seen that silhouette before. A horror film perhaps?

And then it dawned on me – that shape, that silhouette – it wasn’t a torture machine at all, but simply a bicycle with panniers.

John, my knight in shining armor, had arrived to rescue me after all.

Indian fort with cow and market

This story is just one of the many adventures John and I had while cycling the Indian subcontinent in 1990-91. We’ve written about them all in our book What Were We Thinking? Bicycling the Back Roads of Asia

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

2000 miles in: Arriving at the end of the Alaska Highway

==This post is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World.==

vogel family bike touring

Arriving at the end of the Alaska Highway after cycling 2000 miles was a big deal!

We were nearly at the end of the Alaska Highway and John and I wondered how Davy would deal with traffic – until now we hadn’t encountered any significant traffic at all. Would he be able to do this? We knew, after 2000 miles, that he was physically capable of riding his bike to Argentina, but could he handle the mental stresses of dealing with traffic? We would find out soon enough.

Davy and Daryl were, in many respects, extraordinary. They set high goals and never wavered in their determination to achieve them. They understood the idea of breaking an enormous task into manageable chunks rather than being overwhelmed by the big picture. And yet, in other ways, they were very typical ten-year-old kids.

playing on the alaska highway

The boys found things to play with every time we climbed off our bikes

So far, Alaska and Canada had been nothing more than an enormous playground for the boys. Each time we climbed off our bikes they were off and running. They climbed trees and balanced on guardrails. They played soccer with discarded Coke bottles and baseball with pinecones. A slight variation from their homerunmonkey gear, but still fun for them. While John and I rested on the side of the road, Davy and Daryl ran and played just like children the world over.

Were we forcing them to grow up too soon by taking them on this journey? A handful of bloggers had accused us of taking them on a forced march; of taking away their childhood. Were we doing that? Or were we giving them a childhood dreams are made of?

Davy and Daryl were the happiest kids I’d known. They loved their lives on the road. They thrived on the challenges and glowed with delight at being outdoors. I couldn’t help but feel that Mother Nature was the best teacher around and that my sons would learn life lessons that would carry them through their lives.

But still those doubts plagued me. Were we doing the right thing? Was it fair to take our children out of school, soccer teams, and Boy Scouts? Was it a fair tradeoff?

“You see that over there?” the manager of the campground asked me as he pointed toward a jet black, roiling, seething mass of clouds. “You don’t want to be caught out here in that. It’ll be a bad one.”

“I saw it,” I replied as I tied our big blue tarp securely over our bikes. “I’m just battening down the hatches here and getting ready.”

“We use Room 21 as a supply room for the lodge,” he told me, “but there is some room on the floor for a couple of sleeping bags. You are welcome to take refuge there if you want. I know I wouldn’t want to be out here in that storm.”

I thanked him for his generosity, and assured him we could weather the storm in our tent. After all, we’d been through a storm or two in that thing. A few minutes later I had everything prepared – the bikes were covered, our gear was stashed, and the tent stakes firm. I crawled into the tent with John and the boys.

“I think two of us should head over to the room,” John said, as he looked at the sky through the window of our tent. “Nancy, why don’t you and Daryl sleep over there tonight?”

“We’ve always been OK in here before,” I replied.

“Yeah. But it’s never been this bad before. The way I see it, that storm is blowing in fast. If you’re going to go, you have to go now. Once it hits, there’s no way you’ll be able to get your sleeping bags over there without them getting drenched.”

Daryl and I clambered out of the tent with sleeping bags, pillows, and mats in hand and dashed to the supply room. A few minutes later we were sound asleep on the floor.

It seemed like five minutes later when John barged in.

“Nancy!” he called out. “What a storm! Did you see the lightning?”

“A storm?” I asked. “Did it hit?”

“Holy cow! Did it hit? I’ve never seen a storm like this! Lightning was flashing pretty much constantly for thirty minutes and rain was coming down in waves. It was almost like someone was standing there pouring bucket after bucket of water down on us. And the wind! Our tent poles were bending like willows in the wind. It was crazy! It let up a bit after thirty minutes or so, but it’s been raining steady all night.”

As it happened, our tent leaked and there was a big puddle of water right where my sleeping bag would have been. It’s a good thing Daryl and I took refuge in the supply room.

cycling in rainIt was a quick 25-mile hop in pouring rain from the lodge  to Fort St. John which, for all practical purposes, indicated the end of the Alaska Highway. The official end would come the following day after another short ride, but we had emerged from the wilderness into civilization. From here on out, we would be passing through at least one town each day.

I felt as Alexander the Great must have felt after he crossed the Sahara Desert and finally arrived in the oasis of Siwa, or how the gold miners felt when they staggered into Dawson City after trudging through the wilderness for weeks. Arriving into Fort Nelson felt like landing on a foreign planet.

John and I sandwiched Davy between us as we entered into town. John and Daryl, on the tandem, went first to give Davy an example to follow. I followed behind to holler should he do something dangerous. With one minor glitch, the kid did a marvelous job of dealing with traffic and we arrived into town, triumphant.

It was a whirlwind of activity. Davy and Daryl were the youngest people to cycle the entire Alaska Highway and the press was out in force. A luxury hotel agreed to host us and we felt horribly out of place traipsing into luxury as muddy water dripped off our bikes and gear.

being interviewed for TV

When we arrived at the end of the Alaska Highway, we were inundated with interviews

Before we even had a chance to shower away all the muck we were whisked away for TV and radio interviews, photo shoots, and meetings with local officials. It was pretty heady stuff for a family used to being part of the food chain out in Mother Nature’s world.

But we had made it! I had given us about a 50% chance of completing the Dalton Highway and then about 60% of making it to Dawson Creek at the end of the Alaska Highway. Now the long distances and remote areas were behind us. From here on out, our journey would be easier. The chances that we would reach Argentina someday were now a whole lot higher.

The best part of it all was that I had my answers. We WERE doing the right thing for our children. It WAS a fair tradeoff to take Davy and Daryl out of school, soccer teams, and Boy Scouts in order to give them the world. They were benefiting in ways I could only imagine, but ways that would benefit them their whole lives.

 

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Learning Spanish the TAMALE way

==This post is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World. While we are hiking the Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango this summer, I’ll post an excerpt every Monday.==

roadside restaurant mexico

We ate at small roadside restaurants like this throughout Mexico

“Mommy! Mommy!” Daryl shouted as we pulled into the parking lot. “They have tamales! They have tamales!”

I glanced over to the pickup truck parked in front of the hotel and noticed the big TAMALE sign, before refocusing my attention on the hotel. I climbed off my bike and headed off in search of the office to see about a room.  I was hot and sweaty, and wanted to find a place to stay for the night. Food could come later.

“Mommy! They’ve got tamales!” Daryl danced in excitement around me. “Can we get some? For dinner? Please?”

Daryl was in heaven – they had tamales, his favorite food in the whole wide world.  Davy had been good since we arrived in Mexico – his favorite food was tortillas and beans – but Daryl had been searching high and low for tamales since we crossed the border. He finally found them.

I handed him some money and told him to go buy some.

“Will you come with me? I don’t know how to buy them,” he begged.

Mexican restaurant

Daryl loved tamales and carne asada

“Nope,” I replied. “You can do it. Just go tell the man ‘Quiero tamales’ and you’ll be fine.”

“But what if he starts talking jibberish back to me? I won’t know what to say.”

“You’ll figure it out, or you won’t get tamales. There are only two possibilities here.”

He took the money and headed out. A few minutes later he returned triumphant with tamales in hand.

He was well on his way to fluency in a new language.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Experiencing a Honduran chicken bus

==This post is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World. While we are hiking the Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango this summer, I’ll post an excerpt every Monday.==

selling mangoes on Honduran chicken bus

Selling mangoes on a Honduran chicken bus

An old school bus that had long ago given up the ghost in the USA had been revived in Honduras was parked in a large gravel parking lot. Shortly after we claimed seats, a young boy about eight years old climbed up the steps carrying a plastic tub full of bottles.

Refresco! Refresco!” he shouted as he made his way to the back of the bus. “Sodas!  Sodas!”

A couple seconds later, a teenage boy came in. Plastic bags filled with various vegetables hung from his shoulders and arms. More bags were tied to his belt loops and dangled around his knees.

Chiles! Tomates! Cebolla!” he cried, competing with the soda vendor in volume. “Ten lempira per bag! Only ten lempira!”

Then came an older woman with an apron wrapped around her waist. “Mangos!” she called. “You want mango? With salt and chili?”

The vendors worked their way through the aisle of the old bus, selling their wares of whoever indicated the slightest bit of interest. Passengers squeezed past the throng of humanity crowded into the aisle to take their seats.

honduras chicken bus

Everything from sodas to nail clippers to hand cream is sold in Honduran chicken buses.

Our friends, who had been riding local chicken buses for quite a while, ignored the mayhem. Davy and Daryl, new to this novel method of transport, watched with wide-eyed amazement.

A man climbed aboard and stationed himself a short way from the doorway. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he announced in Spanish. “I’ve got here the most unique, the most effective, the best program for learning English you’ve ever seen. What makes it so unique, you ask? It is unique because this program not only gives you the English word for things, but also has those words written phonetically in Spanish….” All the people on the bus listened to the salesman with rapt attention.

Once the English language vendor had finished his spiel, he made his way through the bus and numerous people bought his program.

He pushed and shoved through the other vendors to get back to the front of the bus, carefully stashed his fabulous, unique English program in a bag and pulled out a small container of cream.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” he hollered. “I have here the most amazing, the most remarkable cream…”

By this time, we were in stitches at the mayhem, commotion, and sights and sounds around us. Even though we wanted to get back to Omoa, we couldn’t help but relax and enjoy everything going on.

The whole time the English/cream salesman was talking, another man was quietly waiting in the stairwell of the bus. In time, the cream spiel ended, he collected money throughout the bus and departed – and the other guy took his spot.

boys selling tomatoes Honduras“Brothers and sisters!” he announced as another soda kid squeezed past him. “I am here to tell you about the love of God.”  After preaching to the crowd for a few minutes, he pulled out a pile of nail clippers. “And to remind you that God loves you, I’ve got some nail clippers here for only twenty lempira each. Each nail clipper has a picture of the virgin Mary on it, so every time you clip your fingernails you will be reminded of God’s love.  And furthermore – these nail clippers come complete with a bottle opener so each and every time you open a beer bottle you will be reminded…”

Right about then, the bus left the parking lot. Two blocks later, the bus stopped.

The nail clipper preacher climbed down the steps to leave the bus, a soda vendor climbed on. “Sodas! Cold sodas!”

A vegetable vendor climbed on carrying plastic bags draped over his shoulders. “Tomatoes! Onions! Ten lempira per bag! You want tomatoes?”

It took well over an hour to ride the ten miles back to the small town we were staying in, but it was the most entertaining hour we’d had for a long time.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

A 400-mile detour in Bolivia – on bikes

==This post is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World. While we are hiking the Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango this summer, I’ll post an excerpt every Monday.==

cycling the Bolivian altiplano

The altiplano is a high flat plain the length of Bolivia between the two arms of the Andes

“This looks like home,” I thought as I pedaled through the altiplano. The desert of southern Idaho looked very similar with its wide open spaces lined with grasses gently swaying in the breeze. The only thing missing was sagebrush.

I found a beauty and tranquility in the desert; there was something about it that drew me in. I knew some felt it was ugly with the scrub brush being the tallest thing around, but I loved it. It was home.

“This reminds me of the tundra,” Davy interrupted my reveries. “Remember when we first started our trip and it was just flat tundra forever? This is almost the same, but we’re a lot higher now.”

approaching a village on the bolivian altiplano

We could see villages for miles before actually arriving in them.

I didn’t relish the idea of frigid temperatures, high altitudes, or unrelenting sun of the altiplano, but the wide open plateaus with sweeping vistas of the snow-capped Andes captivated me. Having the freedom to explore the land and discover hidden treasures that could only be found while riding a bicycle made it all worth it. Whether it was an alpaca herder who was honored that we spent a night with him or bright green cactus growing in intricately fine sand with 21,000-foot peaks in the background, each day brought new and unexpected adventures.

“Where are you headed from here?” asked Ami, the hotel receptionist in a small hotel in Oruro.

“Tomorrow morning we’ll head out for Potosi!” I told her. We were excited to be continuing south through the altiplano and couldn’t wait.

“You can’t go to Potosi,” she replied.

That made no sense to my American way of thinking. Potosi was the fourth largest city in Bolivia; of course we could go to Potosi.

house on bolivian altiplano

Life in the high Andes is difficult. It's windy, cold, and far from civilization

“Potosi is completely blocked off.  You can’t get in. There is a strike going on and the entire city has been sealed off – nobody in, nobody out,” she continued. “The big news around here is that a group of tourists finally managed to escape the city yesterday after being trapped for thirteen days.” Ami handed me a newspaper with the story on the front page. A group of 37 tourists had finally been allowed to leave after being held in the city for two weeks.

“That’s perfect,” John said when I told him the news. “They’ll block the road for cars, but we’ll get through on the bikes. The road block will mean no traffic so it’ll be perfect for us.”

The more we learned, however, the less we thought it was wise to continue on. We could most likely get through, but everything would be closed – all stores, all restaurants, all hotels. Once we got into the city three days away, then what?

We decided to hang out in Oruro until the strike was resolved.

“It’s getting worse,” Ami told me when I walked downstairs for breakfast. “The news says they’ve taken control of the hydroelectric plant and are threatening to shut off power to the city. That would also affect the water supply. The news reports are saying there are already serious food shortages in the city. It’s a good thing you didn’t go.”

It was Day 15 of the strike designed to pressure the president of the country into providing certain development projects in the city. Local officials had shut down the city and vowed they wouldn’t relent until they got the promises they wanted. We sat tight, watching the news and hoping they could resolve their differences.

“You guys need to leave,” Ami said as we descended into the lobby on Day 17 of the strike. “Word on the street is that they will close Oruro if the president doesn’t meet their demands.”

We scrambled into action getting the bikes out of the storeroom, packing everything, hauling it all downstairs, and loading the bikes. I ran over to the ATM to get more money out, just in case. Within two hours of hearing the rumor, we were off. Off for a scenic tour of Bolivia.

Our plan had been to stay on the altiplano between the two arms of the Andes, and we had planned our route impeccably. We knew where the water and food sources were and knew exactly what to expect. Now, that plan had come to a screeching halt and we had changed gears. The only other route we could take involved going up and over the eastern arm of the mountains, then dropping down into the Amazon basin before turning right and heading south to Argentina. It would be a 400-mile detour, but we had little choice.

We knew nothing about our new route. Our map showed a line on the map, but we had no idea where we might find anything. I was nervous as we pulled out of town, knowing we were sorely unprepared for what lay ahead.

roadside restaurant in Bolivia

Roadside restaurants like this provided both food and water for us.

Thirty miles later we pulled up to a small restaurant and started talking with a bunch of truck drivers. “Where are you going?” they asked.

“Cochabamba,” I replied. “How’s the road?”

“You’ll climb for another 45 miles,” came the reply. “The top is at around 5000 meters.”

5000 meters? That was 16,400 feet! We pedaled away hoping beyond hope they were wrong.

la cumbre bolivia

We were VERY relieved when we saw this sign telling us we had reached the top!

High-altitude climbing was hard. Climbing was tough enough at sea level, but at fourteen thousand feet, it was insanity. We gasped for air as we pounded the pedals and slowly made our way up.

Fortunately, the truckers were wrong and we topped out at 4496 meters (14,744 feet). Even so, that was higher than the highest peaks in Colorado.

It took us an extra three weeks of pedaling to reach Argentina, but in the big picture, what’s three weeks and an extra 400 miles?

Bolivian Andesbolivian kidcamping in bolivian altiplanocycling Boliviacycling Bolivian Andescycling Bolivian Andesingenous bolivian kids

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel