by Tom Wilson, writer/editor-PCToday. Photos by Jared B. Houseknecht.
It probably didn't seem like it when rain clouded his view of the Grand Canyon, when his impromptu traveling companion had five flat tires in one day or when steady temperatures above 100 degrees caused delirium and drought.
But meditating on his 3,671-mile odyssey – a cross-country bicycle ride that lasted 53 days, straddled two national holidays, included baseball games in four National League stadiums, conjured the compassion of strangers and surpassed sea level by more than 11,000 feet – it's clear that the vast American landscape changed small-town Jared B. Houseknecht for the better.
"It was a great experience that extended my limits and defined me as a person," said the 27-year-old building science and sustainable design major at Pennsylvania College of Technology. "I could have driven a car or ridden a motorcycle, but I wanted to see it from a slower perspective. There's so much of this country that you don't see when you fly by it at 65 mph."
The expedition, a promise Houseknecht made to himself ("and I always do what I say I'm going to do"), was hastily planned around the end of the college's Spring 2012 semester and enabled by a job layoff. It was a life's dream, in one respect; in another, an early reward for Houseknecht's expected May graduation.
Facing a wide-open summer, its ending dictated only by a pending summons to jury duty and the fall start of his senior year, he pooled his finances, outfitted his Trek Madone bicycle, and filled a Topeak trailer with camping equipment and other essential gear. Saying goodbye to family and friends, absorbing the short-and-sweet parental advice of "Don't get killed; don't get arrested," Houseknecht left his Hughesville hometown on Memorial Day weekend.
Temporarily unfettered by convention and expectation, and tempted by the uncertain road ahead, Houseknecht said it "was the first time I've been able to be free." He scrapped many of the technological accessories that gird our wireless world, taking along only his smartphone for emergency communication, GPS assistance and occasional Facebook updates from the road.
"Whether you're on foot, on a skateboard or hopping a cargo ship, we were developed to move."
Doing full justice to his adventure could monopolize this magazine. Indeed, a two-and-a-half-hour conversation barely taxed his recollection, despite virtual re-enactments of every mile, every spectacular sunset, and every roadside acquaintance whose generosity nourished Houseknecht's body and soul.
For each person who asked, "Don't you know how crazy this is, doing what you're doing all by yourself?" there were far more who didn't wonder at all. The cycling enthusiasts he encountered in Ohio, for starters; the other kindred couples in Indiana, Missouri and Utah, all offering lodging, companionship, sustenance and helpful advice.
"Viewing this country as a whole, there are a lot of great people, regardless of background – from within the community of cyclists and across a lot of cultures," Houseknecht said. "I met people who were willing to do whatever: put me up in a hotel, feed me, provide a warm shower."
An attorney/cyclist/graphic designer crossed Houseknecht's path in both Kansas and Colorado, and a chance meeting with another biker elicited a heads-up about "goatheads, sand thorns" and other desert flora that can puncture the tires of the unprepared.
"It's amazing how you get to know people. We can be skeptical about society and think that people aren't as open, that they're closed off and don't want to meet anyone," he said. "I met kind and courteous people all along the road. It was America the way it should be."
Houseknecht saw the Gateway Arch among the attractions of St. Louis, sampling local cuisine and savoring marvels of architecture on what was his first real respite in 15 days of pedaling. His trek would also take him to Pikes Peak, Canyonlands and other national treasures, each more breathtaking than the last. He traversed the Navajo Nation, zigzagged the Rocky Mountain heights and outran a thunderstorm in the sandstone depths of Monument Valley – all while pulling a 50-pound trailer.
His ambitious itinerary ran from the Northeast to the West Coast, from postcard vistas to remote general stores, from sleeping in a Hyatt to unfurling his bedroll in the shadow of a Kmart. He battled dehydration and sun poisoning ("I stopped at every gas station in America to fill up my water bottles"), saw majestic elk in Utah, rode by Colorado's Waldo Canyon wildfire, and experienced topography that was alternately familiar – "Pennsylvania-ish," he described it – and strangely new.
In the iconic scenery of Arches National Park, for instance, he watched Fourth of July fireworks bathe his stony surroundings in red, a lone rider uniquely celebrating freedom amid Utah's natural splendor.
"It was like a Martian landscape," Houseknecht related. "And I remember thinking, 'I'm the only one in the world seeing this right now.'"
He was pelted by hail at one point, beset at another by the strongest crosswinds in decades. The climate could change in a seeming instant, from lip-cracking desert heat to frosty mountain crests, but Houseknecht said he had no lingeringly bad experiences.
He was joined on the last eight days by a fellow cyclist named Tyler, who had been traveling a somewhat parallel route when he intersected with Houseknecht at an Arizona trading post.
"I'd been alone most of the way, so it was nice to have someone along," he said. "We picked each other's brains, and shared the psychological pain of crossing the desert."
That final leg required more endurance than any that preceded it, serving up extremes in climate and terrain that tested their mettle and their water supply alike.
Finally, riding onto Mission Beach at San Diego after a 40-hour sprint to the finish, they dipped their tires in the ocean to symbolize the end of their voyage.
"We did a lot of reflecting that night, sad that the trip was over," Houseknecht said. "It was an amazing moment, a proud moment. I was really happy for him, because this was his ultimate objective. Me? I'm ready to tackle more things."
He still wants to see Sequoia National Park, topping a list of places he'd hoped to include. Ditto Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, the Mojave Desert and Yosemite National Park, all of which will have to wait – but only for now.
"My goal list is endless," he said, more matter-of-fact than boastful.
He might take another healthy bite of wanderlust, climbing Mount Everest, hiking the Appalachian Trail or biking from Alaska to Argentina. He could follow his degree with graduate school (he visited the University of Colorado during his travels) or with a job in his chosen field.
He took mental notes while riding, observing with his "ridiculously good memory" the way Americans relate to their land and resources.
"Everyone thinks you're just riding a bike, doing random things," he said. "I paid attention to ethnicity and culture, historical value and architectural relevance. I was struck by the lack of public access to recycling in some parts of the country, how we need to practice what we preach about sustainability.
"All of that's going to make me a better designer."
From the trail's terminus, Houseknecht shipped his bike and trailer home, flying back East to contemplate his next move. He went "underground" for several days, slowly acclimating people back into his life, letting his accomplishment wash over him, readjusting to a daily pace that didn't involve the torturous bliss of overexertion.
"I just wanted to be 'me' when I got home," he recalled. "Yes, it was an incredible accomplishment, but I'm not a rock star."
It was simply one more experience in a life that's far from fulfilled, a memory to be catalogued among other endeavors, past and future. Wherever those looming roads lead, Houseknecht challenges all of us to make the pilgrimage, too.
"I don't care where you're from or where you're going. Whether you're on foot, on a skateboard or hopping a cargo ship, we were developed to move," he said. "Whatever you want to do, if that's your goal, risk everything and sacrifice for it.
"If you want to do your dream, go do it."
View more photos from Houseknecht's cross-country venture
Building science and sustainable design student Jared B. Houseknecht ('06, computer aided drafting) is framed by the magnificence of the Grand Canyon.
The Rockies' Monarch Pass in southcentral Colorado.
Utah's rolling landscape.
A rugged outcrop in the Rocky Mountains.
The Colorado River winds through the landscape.
A landmark of Utah's Arches National Park.