The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 13, 2010

Mankatoans bicycle journey comes full circle

Nelsons return home, reflect on people met, places seen

By Tanner Kent
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Eric and Christie Nelson’s 14-month, 14,000-mile tandem bicycle odyssey through the lights of Las Vegas, the sprawling traffic of Guadalajara, the ruins of Machu Picchu and, very nearly, the southernmost tip of the Western Hemisphere ended the way it began on Wednesday:

With a leisurely ride through Mankato.

“It was a lot of remembering,” Eric said of their return, still dressed in his cycling shirt and shoes after making their first stop in town at his mother’s fifth-grade class at Hoover Elementary. “Along the ride, we talked a lot about all the places that reminded us of home.”

But for most of their ride, which began in August 2009 on a tandem bicycle affectionately named JoJo (short for “Joy of the Journey”), Eric and Christie were nowhere near home.

And for the pair of married adventurers, that was the purpose.

Two years before their journey began, Eric was a metallurgical engineer at Dotson Company; Christie worked as a nurse. After both served in the Peace Corps, a friend from that organization told them about his own bicycling journey around the world.

He was smitten by the idea. She, by her own admission, needed a few years of convincing.

Eventually he won her over and soon the couple sold their house, quit their jobs and coordinated a massive garage sale to rid themselves of unneeded possessions.

They began heading south more than a year ago with no real road map and no real plan for where they’d stay or how they’d eat. They had only four outfits each (two for cycling and two for camping) and a minimal amount of camping and biking gear.

“For us, this wasn’t about checking off this place or that place,” Christie said. “It was about biking through the day and seeing what would happen.”

In Mexico, they toppled their bike on a sandy road, and they hit a car in Mazatlan. Weaving among eight lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic on the sprawling highways of Guadalajara, Christie remembered breaking down in tears from fright.

They saw monkeys while riding the Pan-American Highway in Costa Rica and met Eric’s parents during Christmas for a resupply of spare parts in Nicaragua.

In the Andes, they burnt through their lowest two gears from pushing up the mountains. In Ecuador, they found a breathtaking view of a sun-drenched valley from a perch above the clouds. And in Uruguay, they watched the sun set from the Rio de la Plata.

“Basically, anywhere there was a road — big or small — we took it,” Eric said.

But what ultimately happened on their journey wasn’t about sights or spectacle, but about the people along the way.

The people who offered them fruit while riding through their villages. The former police officer who gave them a hot meal and a spot on the couch for that night’s football game. The woman in Ecuador who drove her car alongside their bicycle until Eric and Christie found the village they were looking for. The hotel owner in Colombia who gave them a free night’s lodging.

Through an international cycling community called Warm Showers that has host families offer lodging for touring cyclists, Eric and Christie met more than a dozen hosts along the way. Countless others, they said, offered whatever comfort they could spare.

It was that connection with people, Eric and Christie said, that provided the fuel for their journey.

“There are lots and lots of good people in this world,” Eric said.

Christie added: “The most fun we had was making fun with all these strangers.”

Now that they’ve returned, Eric said he will resume his work at Dotson and Christie is hoping to return to nursing. They will begin searching for a house and, at least for the time being, hold off on another adventure.

“We have some big decisions ahead,” Christie said.