Why Cycle Solo? - Emily Loberg
Riding your bicycle alone for thousands of miles isn’t for everyone… and literally anyone can tell you that. But in this interview, Emily Loberg offers a few compelling reasons why she’s glad she pedaled solo across the United States in 2016. “It was a journey of self-discovery, of getting to know and befriend myself,” writes Emily. “That process just doesn’t happen to the same degree when traveling with others.”
“Loneliness was one of my biggest challenges, though ultimately I was glad I’d chosen to go alone.”
Emily, how did you fall in love with bicycle travel?
I grew up on a dead-end street and loved playing make-believe, so when I learned how to ride a bike as a child, I would ride in circles around the street and imagine each circle took me farther away to distant lands. As a young stubborn environmentalist, I vowed that I would bike everywhere and never learn to drive. I really fell in love with the thrilling freedom of soaring along the streets on my own two wheels. In high school I realized that being on a bicycle was the one place where I never felt lonely, and I relished the independence I felt from traveling under my own power.
What inspired you to try bike touring?
I’ve always felt a deep sense of wanderlust, an urge to get out into the world and escape. As a child I used to wander to the end of the block and pretend I was running away to Fairy Land. My family also traveled frequently—when I was ten we spent three weeks in Guatemala going to language school, and when I was sixteen I lived with a family in El Salvador for three months.
“I grew up on a dead-end street and loved playing make-believe… I would ride in circles around the street and imagine each circle took me farther away to distant lands.”
I started dreaming of bicycling across the country in high school. I wanted to travel, to go on adventures and explore, and bicycling seemed like the best way to do it. During my first year of college, I joined a spring-break trip with the Outing Club to do a week-long bicycle tour in Kentucky. We followed a state highway map, ate lunch by the side of the road, and camped outside churches. I felt like I was living my dream life and was not ready to return to school when the week was over. After graduating college, I worked for a few years and saved money for my cross-country tour.
Tell us about your cross-country bicycle tour in 2016. What route did you follow, who did you go with, etc?
I left Salem on June 2nd, 2016 en route to Bar Harbor, Maine to visit my younger brother, who was working there at a cancer research lab. I patched together a zig-zagging route full of detours and backtracking to accommodate all the friends and relatives I wanted to visit along the way. My purpose was not really to get across the country or to go coast to coast; it was to live on a bicycle, to travel by my own power, to see what the world had to offer. My route included sections from four different Adventure Cycling routes: the Northern Tier, Lewis and Clark, North Lakes, and Lake Erie Connector. I filled in the gaps with Google Maps bicycle routes, which I printed at public libraries, and freebie state highway maps that I picked up from gas stations and rest stops.
I went alone, though I met several other cyclists on the way and spent some time riding and camping with others. Since I was traveling without a GPS (I still had a flip phone at that time), there were a few times I got lost and had to call a friend from home to help me find my way.
“I patched together a zig-zagging route full of detours and backtracking to accommodate all the friends and relatives I wanted to visit along the way.”
Was this your first solo bike tour?
I’d done a few tours before, but nothing longer than a couple weeks, and I had never biked alone for more than a day. Other than the Kentucky tour in college, I’d done a two-week tour on the Oregon coast with a friend and a few bike overnights to Portland and Silver Creek Falls.
Was it hard to travel alone?
Loneliness was one of my biggest challenges, though ultimately I was glad I’d chosen to go alone. My tour felt like a personal pilgrimage: it was really important to me to be able to create my own route and go to my own places. I’d love to try long-distance touring with a companion or a group of friends in the future, but this challenge felt like something I needed to face on my own.
“My tour felt like a personal pilgrimage: it was really important to me to be able to create my own route and go to my own places.”
I did enjoy riding alone as well. I loved singing while I rode, and felt a general sense of impressed wonder at what I was doing all alone. That pride in my accomplishments stays with me today. I loved diving into lakes and rivers and stopping for milkshakes.
Though I liked being able to make my own decisions, and having only myself to disappoint if I made a poor decision, I also experienced more self-doubt when I was alone. Was I choosing the “right” place to camp? To eat? Was I going the “right” number of miles each day? Should I stop and swim, or keep going? Stop for the night, or continue?
What was it like when you crossed paths with other cyclists?
The presence of people had a huge impact on me. Upon meeting and joining other cyclists, I felt a sense of ease, connection, and companionship. The journey turned into a shared adventure, and it was much easier to trust that I would be okay, would find somewhere safe to stay the night. I could laugh and tell stories. Sometimes being with others even gave me more energy and motivation to ride. I enjoyed camping much more when I had cycling friends to share the experience with.
“Upon meeting and joining other cyclists, I felt a sense of ease, connection, and companionship. The journey turned into a shared adventure.”
However, I also sometimes felt stifled or stuck after joining others on the road. My choices weren’t just mine anymore, and I felt pressure to stick to their routes, riding speeds, mileages, and overnight locations. Also, it was easy to fall into the trap of comparing myself to others and lamenting that I was too slow or carrying too much stuff or getting up too late. I’ve seen and heard stories of groups falling apart or arguing over differences in touring styles.
Was it difficult to say goodbye to new friends?
Since I often left the designated ACA routes to visit friends and family, I always ended up parting ways with the friends I met. These moments were some of the hardest of the tour, and on a couple occasions I cried after saying goodbye to delightful riding companions.
One thing I’ve learned from touring is that there is no right or wrong way to tour, just what works for each person. Furthermore, all those miles alone were a journey of self-discovery, of getting to know and befriending myself. That process just doesn’t happen to the same degree when traveling with others.
Emily Loberg now lives in Salem, Oregon, where bicycling is her primary transportation. She’s a bike mechanic at The Northwest Hub, a tour leader for the Adventure Cycling Association, and organizes an annual event called Open Streets Salem where local residents can walk, run, ride, or rollerblade on streets free of traffic. To learn more about Emily Loberg and her awesome projects, visit her ACA tour leader profile.