This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.
Late on a Thursday night at National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, DC, the fourth floor was dark but for a few dimly lit desks. There a handful of employees in the publication’s editorial division hunched in their chairs, eyes fixed on computer screens, flipping through a seemingly endless catalog of images. These were my fellow photo editors, and the scene was one I had become all too familiar with during my three-year stint as a photography producer for the organization. As National Geographic’s photographers returned from the field after days, weeks, or months of shooting, they would bring back anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 images. But as anyone who has picked up a copy of National Geographic magazine or visited its website will notice, only a handful of these images make their way into a published story. How do 100,000 images become only five, or two, or just one? This selection process is an important aspect of storytelling, and the role of National Geographic’s photo editors requires the daily viewing and vetting of thousands of images. This translates into a job that requires not only a good eye but a massive amount of time.
Herein lies the great irony of the life of a photo editor for National Geographic. Although an editor might spend most of her week with her eyes fixed on images from the most remote and visually stunning places on earth, she is locked to a desk in the heart of DC’s concrete jungle, far removed from the world’s wide-open spaces. For most editors, the opportunity to work with some of the greatest photographers in the world largely overshadows any gripe they might have with living in DC. As an outdoor enthusiast, however, I found that my role at the organization presented a deep conflict.
Though I relished the chance to work at National Geographic and recognized my rare and valuable opportunity, I had to admit that the position left me without an extremely valued aspect of life: regular access to outdoor adventure.
I developed a relentless itch to embark on a new adventure. I wanted to create a story of my own — one that would take me far away from the concrete walls and city grid of our nation’s capital to a place where I could bask in the freedom of the mountains.
I weighed my options and decided that a cross-country bike tour would be the perfect segue back into a life in the West. A bit of research led me to Adventure Cycling’s TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, which seemed ideal for a number of reasons, including the fact that its starting point was close to DC and that it would drop me off in the Pacific Northwest (where I had lived for a few years) once I had completed the ride. The route also happened to be celebrating its 40th anniversary, which could help me pitch my journey as a story proposal for National Geographic’s website. But I had one remaining problem before fully committing to the trip: I still didn’t feel good about the prospect of leaving National Geographic.
I approached my bosses and delivered the news: I would be leaving DC in order to ride across the country, and I wanted to photograph the journey for them. They were as excited about the idea as I was, and we agreed to create a web series following my bike tour. It seemed that everything was falling into place, and I departed DC on April 23, propelled by restless legs and a desire to prove myself as a photographer and writer. No longer would I be living vicariously through photographers: I would be living the story.
Prior to my cross-country ride, I had been on a handful of short, overnight bike trips that taught me the basics of bike travel, but I knew that a cross-country undertaking would be an entirely different experience. This trip would be my first foray into proper bike touring, and I was excited about the numerous unknown possibilities and the freedom that came with them. Because I would be documenting the trip, I wanted to leave plenty of room for chatting with locals, climbing mountains, and getting caught up in random diversions. I began my trip slowly, traveling anywhere between 35 and 50 miles per day. The first day took me through the bustle of downtown DC and into the rolling countryside of rural Virginia. Already it seemed that people were living at a much slower pace. I took every opportunity to get off my bike to talk with the locals and photograph their lives. “You’re going where?” they asked in surprise after finding out that I was planning to travel all the way across the country. “That’s crazy!” they said. One Kentucky man claimed to have moved only as far as across the street his entire life, a perspective that served as a stark contrast with my own journey.
For the first week of my ride, I woke up every morning in shock that I was indeed traveling all the way across America and was not simply lost in a daydream while sitting at my desk between meetings. By the time I rode into the Appalachian Mountains, I had become less surprised by this fact, and I eventually fell into the rhythm that comes with any routine. This routine, though, presented constantly changing elements on a minute-by-minute basis.
At one point, I found myself at an intersection with the Appalachian Trail. Here I happened upon the Four Pines Hostel and spent the evening with a large group of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers — a surprising and welcome encounter after having spent most of the journey so far traveling solo. We shared meals, card games, and laughs, and we bonded over our constant, insatiable desire for food (which happened to be a uniting factor for all fellow travelers I met along the TransAmerica Trail). That night, I slept in the hostel’s barn amid clucking chickens.
After a few weeks on the road, I took my first rest day and spent time writing and editing photographs due for submission to my editors back in Washington. I had, at this point, documented my trip through hundreds of images, the most recent of which captured the forested, hilly landscapes of eastern Kentucky where I often found myself tearing down hills and yelling with excitement. I recounted these moments in my first written draft for National Geographic. I had already gathered a number of compelling stories and was excited to present them to the world.
The thing about stories is that they often don’t move in the direction you might anticipate.
Having passed through my fourth state on the TransAm Trail, I crossed the Missouri border into Kansas, heading for the small town of Pittsburg. As I made my way through town, less than a mile from my stopping point for the day, I was struck from behind by a speeding SUV. I flew off my bike and landed in the road, bashing my head on the ground and badly injuring my back and leg. Though I was wearing a helmet at the time, my skull had suffered an intense impact and I showed immediate signs of severe brain swelling. Emergency responders arrived at the scene and rushed me to the hospital. (The driver, who stayed at the scene after the wreck, was not charged or cited.)
The crash was so intense that it wiped my memory from the day, and even now my only memory of the episode begins after I woke up in the hospital. As I began to regain awareness, my doctors filled me in on what had happened. “You’re on a bike tour across the country,” they said. “That sounds like something I would do,” I responded. “You have two fractures in your lower spine,” they continued, “six staples in the back of your head, a tear in your appendix, a torn calf muscle, and road rash on your back.”
I was devastated. Only one month before the wreck, I had departed the nation’s capital on an adventure filled with opportunity and the chance to prove myself as a journalist for National Geographic. Now it had all been taken away from me. My parents, who lived only a two-hour drive away from the location of my wreck, rushed to the hospital and drove me back to their home the following day. I then began a frustratingly long recovery. From the beginning, I wanted nothing other than to get back on the bike and continue my tour. For the time being, however, I would have to heal.
The wreck had torn my leg so badly that I was unable to fully extend it. For three weeks, I hobbled around my parents’ house, waking each morning with a shocking pain that never seemed to subside. After weeks of no visible change in my leg, I began to feel hopeless. It was unclear how long the healing process would take. I worried that by the time I was well enough to continue the trek, it might be autumn, potentially rendering many of the mountainous sections along the western route impassible as the weather got colder. I was getting nervous.
But a few weeks passed, and through regular physical therapy I began to make quick progress in both my physical condition and in my morale. Suddenly my leg began to regain its strength, and soon I was well enough to begin riding on a stationary bike at the local gym. Fifty-one days after my accident, I had recovered enough to continue my journey. On July 10, I departed Oklahoma for Colorado Springs where I would meet my good friend Adam Pawlikiewicz to continue the ride west.
On my first day back on the road, Adam and I rode nearly 3,000 feet of elevation, and I was confronted with the fact that I would need to take things slowly. We were now in the high altitudes of the Rocky Mountains, and 50 days of little activity had left my body fatigued. We traveled slowly and took the opportunity to spend time hiking up 14,000-foot mountains, exploring small ski towns, and documenting the lives of the residents.
With places like Grand Teton National Park beckoning immediately after my wreck, the decision to continue riding was easy. But when I found myself back in the saddle, I felt like a frightened animal. Putting myself back in traffic left me extremely tense, and I took great precautions to avoid all cars moving in my direction, often bailing off the road at the very sound of an approaching vehicle. This made for slow travel, but playing it safe was worth it, and by the time we passed through Colorado, my fears had begun to ebb.
We made our way down into Wyoming’s flat, rolling plains and north into some of the nation’s majestic landscapes: Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. This would be my first time exploring Grand Teton, and I was excited to do it by bike. We spent five days riding around the base of the Grand Teton, and I took advantage of the chance to chat with mountaineers and go on sunrise hikes each morning. With the memory of my crash still fresh, I soaked up these experiences and relished the fact that I was able to walk freely through such scenic landscapes.
Though my fear of cars had subsided by the time we rolled out of Yellowstone, I found that in general I had become a much more cautious person. At times, I found myself much less eager to take even small risks, and I worried that this type of hesitancy would affect my ability to re-embrace the sort of lifestyle that always comes with great adventures.
A state of caution overcame me in the middle of Idaho’s dense wilderness where for a full day Adam and I had been riding along the Lochsa River. Resupply stops were few and far between, and we found ourselves fully enveloped in solitude. That evening, we spotted a pristine camping spot on the opposite side of the river. It was a white sandy beach flanked by two giant Douglas fir trees, and from a distance it looked like the most scenic camping location we had seen thus far (which we found ourselves claiming for nearly every campsite we stayed at the farther west we traveled).
The only problem? We would have to cross the river to get there, and at its deepest point, the waters dropped more than 10 feet. Adam was excited about the idea of finding a way across and spent the next few minutes formulating a plan, but I was entirely skeptical. “We can build a raft out of our sleeping pads and float our supplies across!” he said. The idea seemed unnecessarily risky, and I found myself feeling timid. The thing about Adam, as any of our friends will tell you, is that he has a way of encouraging people with his ever-optimistic approach to life.
Ten minutes of strategic coaxing was enough to convince me that we should go forward with his plan, and two hours later we sat around a campfire on the beach, warming our bodies and filling our bellies, having successfully transported ourselves and our gear across the river on our proudly constructed makeshift raft. As it turned out, a few Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads, a bit of nylon rope, and two long pieces of driftwood make great raft-construction materials. I fell asleep that night happy to have conquered yet another small obstacle and, as a result, found unexpected adventure.
We made our way out of Idaho’s wilderness and into the diverse landscape of Oregon, passing first through desert, then over mountain passes, and then down into the lush forests west of the Cascade Mountains. We followed the Columbia River Gorge into Portland, and a week later, I finally reached the Pacific Ocean on the northwestern edge of Washington’s Olympic National Park. On the final day of my journey, I stood on Shi Shi Beach watching the sun set behind the park’s iconic rock columns scattered along the coast. The rocks towered over me. The ocean was visible for miles, and I took in the fact that I had just traveled from the East Coast to the opposite side of the country. I felt humbled.
Two weeks after completing my journey, I sat in a coffee shop in Seattle finishing my final web article for National Geographic. I had ridden 4,290 miles across 10 states and met countless people from varying walks of life. Before departing for my journey, some of those people would have called me crazy for quitting a job at one of the world’s most widely recognized publications. Others may have called me crazy for choosing to spend months on the road, riding to the West Coast, and even more people likely thought me insane after choosing to get back on the bike following a close encounter with death.
But each of my decisions along the way was based on the same principle: I wanted to live a life full of exploration, capture new perspectives from people in all corners of the country, and push the boundaries of my personal comfort. Luck for me, I made it to the other side, and I relish the chance to tell the story.