76 days bike trip crossing the USA

- in Aktuell, Intervju

What would you do if all your scheduled work is cancelled in the summer? It might be a perfect time to put crazy ideas into practice, and what Professor Scott V. Edwards did was a 76-day bike trip covering 3800 miles in the US in the summer of 2020.

Scott V. Edwards, professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, is currently doing a sabbatical year at Gothenburg University. He visited Lund University to hold a lecture about his 76-day bike trip crossing the US. During a break in his busy schedule, Lundagård got a chance to speak to Scott Edwards about his journey, which was a long-cherished desire of him.

East to west, it is much of a historical story. In the eastern US, settlement is very dense, with lots of people. But as you go further west, it becomes less so

“I have thought for many years about how I should ride my bicycle across the country, but it never seemed like a good time”, Scott Edwards says, referring to his busy academic schedule. Then the pandemic hit the US, and all the conferences and meetings were suddenly cancelled. Positively thinking, this was a gift from the pandemic—everything slowed down and everyone could have a pause in their otherwise so fast-paced life. After around 6 weeks’ preparation, Scott Edwards got on his bike for a coast-to-coast birdwatching trip, starting from Plum Island, Massachusetts, heading to Sunset Beach, Oregon.

Private photo from Scott Edwards.

The trip was never boring with the company of all kinds of birds. Sometimes Scott Edwards would stop and watch them with his binoculars, but most of the time during the his bike-ride, he needed to be careful to keep a certain distance from the little creatures in order not to scare them. Besides, the changes of the landscape from east to west were impressive.

Compared to taking an efficient flight, cycling enabled him to be more engaged with the differences. “East to west, it is much of a historical story. In the eastern US, settlement is very dense, with lots of people. But as you go further west, it becomes less so”, Scott says. This transition reminded him of the European colonization of America, when settlers mostly explored the inland westwards.

What made the trip more valuable was that it gave him a chance to think and listen to himself. When there was nobody around, facing expansive agricultural land with the sound of wind in the background, his mind started to wander. He thought of the meaning of life, making sense of the world. “It’s not what’s out there. It’s what’s in here [in your mind]”, he says.

I couldn’t just sit back and watch

But the trip was not completely idyllic. When a part of the bike broke, when there was no restaurant after eating boring bread for days, when the road was too sandy… All of these obstacles were tough but surmountable. The greatest pity was that he could not go everywhere he wanted because he had to go back to feed the knowledge-hungry students when the autumn semester started again. It was often the case that there was a museum worth visiting 10 miles away, which seemed nothing for driving, but a lot for cycling. Visiting friends “nearby” was hard as well unless they lived exactly on his route.

Therefore, Scott Edwards generally followed his plan. However, something not part of the plan made the trip even more meaningful. Due to the murder of George Floyd, #Black Lives Matter became ubiquitous, both online and offline. Scott Edwards felt like he “couldn’t just sit back and watch”. He should do something. Therefore, he put a sign of Black Lives Matter at the front of his bike. It was interesting that some people thought he was raising money because of the sign. “Once I was just cycling and this man drove up. He said, ‘Oh, are you raising money for something?’ And I said, no.” Another person was more enthusiastic: “One guy just gave me like $5, just gave it to me. Like, ‘take it’. I said, ‘I’m not raising money’. ‘Take this’. ‘Okay’.” Coincidentally, just a few days later, his friend contacted him to raise money online to sponsor more students of color to study evolution. All these acts supporting BLM were not necessarily a sensation, but they mattered.

His BLM-related cycling posts on Twitter made him much more popular online than before, suddenly getting 1000 likes on a single tweet, which were just 200 to 300 before, and he gained a lot of social media pressure: “it was tiring, at night-time to write another tweet. But I felt a little bit like, are my fans expecting me to tweet? I think Twitter is designed to make you keep going.”

When asked if he would like to go on another adventure like this, Scott Edwards said “Maybe not so long, but I would like to. It would be fun to go with someone on a shorter trip”, which he claims could be easy to do in a country like Sweden.

Scott’s advice for a bike trip:

If you are going to pack up your stuff for a bike trip, here are some practical tips from Scott Edwards:

  • First and foremost, eat well, especially fruit and nuts. Although everything seems delicious after an exhausting cycling day, make sure you eat proper food when it is possible instead of taking junk food.
  • Second, camp as much as you can.
  • Third, do not rely solely on Google Maps, but combine it with other maps designed for cycling, otherwise, you will never know what kind of road Google Maps will bring into.
  • Last, stay in touch with your family even if sometimes they just send you silly jokes.