Bridges embarks on 10,000-mile trip

Posted May 08, 2009, at 10:10 p.m.

Editor’s note: Blue Hill native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Starting today, Bridges will be filing weekly updates of his trip for the Bangor Daily News.

On April 15th, my friend Ellery Althaus and I dipped the rear tires of our bicycles into the Sea of Japan in Vladivostok, Russia, and began riding toward Portugal.

For years, this moment had existed strictly within my imagination. Indulging the fantasy, I envisioned a long beach of gray pebbles, cool air filling my lungs, and the Pacific lapping against my bike’s rear tire. But when this moment finally confronted me, reality rudely pushed the fantasy aside.

Each time people ask me why I decided to ride a bicycle across Asia and Europe, I confess that my friend Ellery Althaus initially planted the idea in my head.

I first met Ellery during our freshman year of college at Alfred University in New York. We had each taken a year off between high school and college; Ellery had gone on a bicycle trip in the Rocky Mountains while I had bummed around California and Mexico. We felt restless transitioning to university life, our love of travel making us fast friends.

Ellery was hungry to do another longer bike trip, and I immediately expressed interest in signing on. Beneath the fluorescent lights within our college dorm room, we spent countless hours studying maps of exotic locales planning probable routes. Russia, the world’s largest country, and, therefore, one of the biggest challenges, captured our attention. We decided one of the most lengthy and interesting trips would be embarking from the Sea of Japan, and cycling coast to coast across Russia and Europe all the way to Portugal.

The idea stuck. Traveling so far on a bicycle seemed impossible. Yet for us, cycling across Eurasia encapsulated the ultimate challenge, and it quickly became our favorite topic of travel conversation.

As freshman year ended, we parted ways. Ellery transferred schools, later completing a history degree and spending semesters abroad in Italy and St. Petersburg, Russia, while I remained at Alfred during which I studied in Spain and Mexico City.

After college, we at last reunited to walk the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile hiking trail, once a famous pilgrimage route in the Middle Ages, which leads from southern France to the Atlantic coast of Spain.

A feasible 10,000 miles

After covering more than 500 miles across Europe on foot in a little more than a month, cycling 10,000 miles across Eurasia looked far more feasible than ever, and we again discussed one day embarking upon this incredible journey.

A year later, after working a stint on a cargo ship in the Gulf of Mexico to earn money for traveling, I called Ellery on the phone from New Orleans.

“Get the maps out,” I said, “I’m ready. I think I can save enough money to do this a year and half from now.”

There were many reasons why I decided to cycle across Eurasia. attempting to do something few people had done and witnessing first hand how different people around the world live were among them.

But more than anything, it was about fulfilling the impulse we feel as children to explore and believe in the mysteriousness of the world around us. When childhood games played with siblings under the backdrop of the Maine woods were dictated only by our boundless imaginations. And the borders of our parents’ backyards were not borders at all, but gateways leading to limitless foreign expanses, beyond which lay deserts, jungle, salt seas and steppe.

When a machine as slow and simple as a bicycle could take you not just down the road or along a country lane, but ever deeper into the limitless wilds.

Since college, I’d dreamt of little besides pushing a bicycle off from the shores of Asia and riding to Portugal. The vision was a brave attempt at fulfilling the exploratory yearnings of the little boy still inside me whose childhood romps too often ended with the setting sun or a mother’s cry of, “Kids, time for dinner!”

A month before we departed for Russia, I left Maine and moved in with Ellery’s family on Cape Cod. We worked constantly: fundraising, assembling our gear, and training outside when possible.

Hitting the books in Vladivostok

In March, Ellery and I arrived in Vladivostok, Russia, on the Pacific coast where we studied Russian for two months at the Far Eastern National University.

Two weeks before our departure, deep within the brick walls and tight security of the American Consulate in Vladivostok, we were having tea with Tom Armbruster, the Consul General.

“I would love to ride my bicycle the first 30K with you out of the city,” he offered. “But I won’t dip the tires in the ocean, the water here is so polluted I’m afraid it might destroy the rubber,” he said jokingly.

Tom’s sentiments were not unique; years of unregulated dumping of factory waste and sewage into Vladivostok’s bay prompts the city’s residents to caution foreigners about even getting close to the water.

During our final days in Vladivostok, my cell phone rang incessantly with calls from newspapers and magazines asking for interviews about our trip.

“I want to make a good story,” barked the producer of a Russian television station over the phone on my last day in the city. “I need shots of you on the bikes, in the Russian language classes you have been taking at the university here — everything!”

“You’re too late,” I said that afternoon as the camera crew barged into the Russian dormitory where we had lived during the past five weeks, “our teachers have left for the day.”

“We need this story,” the producer interjected, “just find me somebody!”

Enjoying the absurdity of the moment, we scrounged up a Russian language professor we had never met before. With grand acting skill, we proceeded to stage a news segment where the mock professor pretended to teach us the Russian nouns necessary to describe the most rudimentary bicycle mechanics.

“Tormoza, Speetsy, Pedaly,” or, “Brakes, Spokes, Pedals,” I said smiling for the camera.

No turning back now

After weeks of the sunny T-shirt weather which marks the onset of spring, I awoke the following morning to find the temperature near freezing and gale-force winds whipping white caps across the sea.

There was no turning back now. Ellery and I shivered wheeling our bikes out of the dormitory and began pedaling toward the beach in the center of town. Running late, I had neglected to securely close the rubber pouch of water within my Camelback backpack. Maneuvering through traffic, I cursed as water suddenly leaked throughout the backpack soaking my lower body.

I arrived at the beach cold, cross, and wanting to change, but a barrage of cameramen from local and national Russian television stations encircled us like predatory cats upon arrival.

“How long will your journey last?” “Why did you choose to travel in Russia?” “What is the purpose of your trip?” They yelled pushing microphones in our faces as we mustered replies with chattering teeth.

Through the milieu, we eased our bikes to the sea’s edge. The wind whipped against my frozen body. The media snapped photos. Ellery and I looked each other daringly in the eye, then raised our fists into the air and screamed as we dipped our rear tires into the Pacific.

As we left, I looked back at the sea momentarily. Despite the intrusion, I thought, this significant moment in my life was still mine to enjoy.

Almost.

“Can you put that tire in the water one more time?” a photographer yelled choking the symbolism from the event, “I want another shot.”

Then suddenly, like all future events we anticipate greatly, it floated to a rest forever in the past. We hopped on our bikes and rode with the Consul General out of Vladivostok behind a small motorcade. The experience was surreal. A journey I had only imagined for so long was now wildly merging with reality before my eyes.

The motorcade turned around at the city limits. We were alone. In front of us lay a journey of roughly 10,000 miles, across 11 time zones, and two continents. At the end, we would plunge our front tires into the Atlantic.

We started riding.

Next week: An Easter celebration in the village of Lyaleechy.

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