Ohio University junior Michael Mayberry took a semester off of school to travel more than 10 thousand miles over the course of six months. Throughout his travels, his focus was exploring the diversity among the American people. Averaging 55 miles per day, Mayberry conquered his expedition in a nontraditional manner — he covered the entire distance on his Surly Long Haul Trucker bicycle.
As a student in the Honors Tutorial College, Mayberry is required to write a 125-page thesis by the time he graduates in May 2017. He heard about the Provost Undergraduate Research Fund, which provides funding for students’ research or creative activities, and formulated the idea to use the grant money to fund a bike tour as the topic of his thesis. Initially, he aimed to make the trip a summer commitment, traveling from Maine to Washington, but he chose to extend it into fall once his proposal was accepted.
“I wanted to see all of these different geographic regions of the United States because they are so vastly different: geographically, demographically, economically, socially,” Mayberry says. “I definitely see the trip as an opportunity to develop some original writing based on my experiences traveling around.”
Eric LeMay, assistant professor of English and Mayberry’s faculty mentor for his thesis, raves about the topic and its distinctive quality.
“I initially thought Michael had hit an exciting idea: bike across the country and show his readers America from behind the basket on the handlebars of his bicycle. … I know he’ll end up creating something surprising and rich,” LeMay says.
Mayberry started his cross-country journey on May 24 when his father drove him from Columbus, Ohio, to the coast of Maine. From there, Mayberry biked across the northern states to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. He then wound down the Pacific Coast to Marrow Bay in California, just north of San Luis Obispo and roughly two-thirds of the way between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Finally, he wrapped around the southwestern states, covering a great deal of Texas, hugging the gulf coast and finishing in Florida, where he ended at his aunt, uncle and grandmother’s home.
Although the trip gave Mayberry the opportunity to view breathtaking landscapes up close, the English major set forth on his travels for a different reason.
“I think the main reason why I wanted to do the bike tour is because I wanted to meet people that I would not have met if I stayed in school,” Mayberry says.
During his travels, Mayberry made connections with countless people of all different socio-economic statuses, dialects, challenges and lifestyles. Day one of his trip marked the inception of a long list of people that he would become acquainted with and each person had a story to share.
As his first day on the trip came to a close, he referred to the Adventure Cycling Maps, which are specifically designed for cross-country touring. The maps provided the number of a couple named Alex and Diane in Belfast, Maine, who would permit him to camp outside in their yard for the evening. He called, and, after an awkward conversation, Mayberry found out that Diane had left Alex about a week and half prior.
“I think he was pretty eager for someone to talk to in general,” Mayberry says with a chuckle.
Mayberry traveled to Alex’s house, and two hours and a bottle of wine later, he had immersed himself into Alex’s past. He learned that Alex worked as a social worker on a native reservation in Idaho before being drafted into the Vietnam War. At that time, he and the tribal counsel were incredibly frustrated with the way the government interacted with the reservation. As an act of rebellion, he and one of the tribal leaders loaded a biplane with horse manure and dumped it on the specified federal buildings. Two weeks later, he received his draft notice.
Alex humored Mayberry with more of his outrageous endeavors. As a medic during the war, his expertise prevailed when a king cobra mercilessly bit his arm during an ambush by the Viet Cong. After he drank anti-venom — which he conveniently had on his person — and the gunshots dissipated, Alex returned to the foxhole that the cobra had plunged from and found the snake dead.
“He performed an autopsy on the snake to determine why the snake died. It turns out the snake had died from anaphylactic shock, which would mean an allergy to Alex’s skin, so he basically killed the snake. … He had all sorts of stories,” Mayberry explains.
It’s people such as Alex that made the trip interesting for Mayberry.
“I saw a lot of the country and heard a lot of stories that I want to share with people, because I want other people to be able to meet the people that I met,” he says.
Towering at about 6 feet 2 inches tall with a thick, muscular build and a mane of blonde hair, Mayberry definitely did not go unnoticed on the roads, especially when riding a jet-black bicycle with bright orange bags strapped to the racks of the frame. Through New England and the Midwest, he rode along small country roads and back roads. In the Southwest and the northern states, though, his paths of travel were limited, and he had to cycle alongside highways and interstates.
In North Dakota and Montana, he rode on the Hi-Line, also known as U.S. Highway 2, which has only two lanes and a speed limit of 70 mph. There were times when drivers tried to run him off of the road, honking as they whizzed closely past. That kind of behavior contributed to his biggest fear while on the trip: getting hit by a car.
As he progressed through each county and state, he became more attentive to how peoples’ cultures influenced the way they perceived him. Cycling every day with no guarantee of finding an official campsite made Mayberry’s showers infrequent; therefore, his cleanliness was not always top-notch.
At times, he realized his appearance and smell inhibited his interactions with people, which made it inconvenient to take breaks inside facilities. He recalls stopping into a Wal-Mart where one of the workers stopped by him and said, “Wow! Something reeks!” But that’s the price Mayberry paid for cycling day in and day out. It eventually became a monotonous routine for him.
“This experience of riding the bike everyday seems like a novelty, but when you are actually in it, it is your everyday,” Mayberry says. “There is a lot of boredom. There was one thing I had to do, [and that] was to keep moving, basically.”
He emphasizes that although the trip itself sounds riveting, not every day included breathtaking views. He reflects on the images he saw through a realistic lens.
“There’s this romanticization about what it’s like to be traveling free and exploring the vast countryside,” Mayberry says. “It’s not like a pretty picture at all because let’s be honest, if you are looking at like a beautiful sunset on Lake Erie, you are going to be just as concerned or conscious of the flies and the mosquitoes buzzing on your skin.”
The environments Mayberry passed through varied between aesthetically appealing and impoverished. In North Dakota, though, he witnessed something alarming.
“That was one of the things that was really kind of weird about the trip: biking through fracking country in North Dakota. … The [oil] wells look so peaceful and benign, just bobbing gently,” Mayberry says. “But you can smell gas, really noxious fumes, coming out from the wells.”
Toward the end of his trip, Mayberry completely ran out of money. Rather than panic and call his parents for immediate assistance, he chose to embrace the setback and see how long he could go without having his own stash.
He ran out of cash just east of Austin, Texas, when he tried to pay for two sausage McMuffins and a coffee at McDonald’s and his card got denied. He quickly checked his bank statement from his phone and found he had nothing in his account. For the next week and a half, he did not refill it so he could experience what so many Americans across the country endure on a daily basis.
“I was basically just like dumpster diving and trying to find free meals at churches,” Mayberry says. “Over the course of the trip I was meeting a lot of vagrants: people on the streets that had way less than I did.”
People helped him out on random occasions, mostly because they were impressed by what he was accomplishing on the tour. Mayberry recalls one encounter that struck him as funny. He stopped briefly at a gas station in Texas to refill his water supply when two people standing outside in medieval Renaissance attire approached him.
“I think they were just kind of drunk and in a good mood, and they gave me $40, but they did not know at that point that I was out of money. They were just kind of excited about my trip and wanted to help me out,” Mayberry says.
He made it from 70 miles east of Austin to New Orleans with an empty bank account. Because of his sparse and inconsistent food intake, he had to hitchhike, or hitch-bike as he calls it, for half of a day because he could not consume enough calories to sustain the mileage.
Despite all of the people Mayberry connected with on his trip, he admits that he walked into each conversation knowing that he was probably never going to see that person again. Yet he did not let that hinder the strength of the relationships he established while cruising across the country and plans on staying in touch with many of the people he met.
“Every time I met a person I knew that they would be out of my life pretty soon,” Mayberry says. “And that’s not to say that it, like, cheapens or makes our interaction less authentic or anything, but having that foreknowledge going into an interaction. … It’s sad to always leave these people.”
He says that he did not begin to feel lonely until three or four months into the trip, and until that point he had convinced himself that the human interaction he was having on a daily basis was sufficient. But those meaningful interactions were short-lived.
“There were no days where I thought I could not do it or I felt like quitting because I was just trying to focus more day-to-day,” Mayberry says. “[But] humans are designed to engage with the same people and deepen their relationships over time, and when you don’t have that, it is not exactly adequate social connection.”
Mayberry kept his mind occupied by listening to a collection of podcasts and literature during his trip. His favorites include “This American Life,” which is a popular journalism-based podcast, and “Brothers Karamazov,” which is a lengthy Russian novel. Mayberry speaks Russian fluently, as his mother is from Russia, and he says the trip enabled him to become more in tune with his Russian heritage and identity.
“I think [it was] the fact that I was always a cultural outsider. I was always coming into these communities with somewhat of an outsider’s perspective, so it made me really think about my own identity and what it is I call myself,” Mayberry says.
His mother, Anastasia Mayberry, was pleasantly surprised to hear that while on his journey he developed more pride for his Russian background.
“He was always trying to reject his Russian half, trying to blend in when he was growing up,” she says.
When he returned home, friends and family members asked if he felt like the trip changed him. He believes his father provided the best response, which Mayberry recalls him saying, “He doesn’t really seem different. He just seems more so.”
“Which I think is pretty accurate,” Mayberry says. “I don’t feel like a different person at all. I just feel more like myself.”
While his mother was initially fearful of him going on the bike tour, she was ultimately supportive of his ambition to ride cross-country. Both of Mayberry’s parents saw this trip as an opportunity for him to become more independent and to chase after his dreams, literally.
“We were just always proud of him and it [the trip] was a way for him to fulfill his dreams,” she says.
Although not everything he saw was painted in a way a picture may glorify, he gained a greater reward from the trip. He got to connect with a diverse group of people and become more in touch with himself.
“There’s truth to this; you are going to meet all these cool people and see this awesome landscape and feel a connection to the earth that you wouldn’t otherwise,” Mayberry says. “There is truth to all that.”