These Two Friends Left The NYC Finance Rat Race To Bike 1900 Miles Down The Pacific Coast From Vancouver To Mexico
Two years ago, Matt and Mitch were trudging away in an exhausting career grind. Friends since middle school, they both graduated from college and moved to New York a few years earlier, separately landing lucrative-yet-grueling jobs in the finance industry. After a couple of years of work hard, play harder post-grad life in NYC, neither saw their 9-to-5 careers in the finance industry as a life sentence. So when the opportunity for a big adventure presented itself during separate life transitions, both jumped on bicycles and, with a little bit of planning, started the ride of their lives down the Pacific Coast.
This past winter, Matt and Mitch logged around 1900 miles on their Craigslist-bought bicycles, lugging around 55-pounds of gear while pedaling the breathtakingly-beautiful coastal route from Vancouver to Tijuana, Mexico. All things considered, the trek down the West Coast took 48 days. A solid 30 of days were spent on the bike, with the other 18 dedicated to reconnecting with old friends, sightseeing, and generally having as much fun as possible.
Full disclosure: Matt’s a buddy, albeit a buddy I haven’t seen in a while. Back when he lived in New York, we’d frequently hang over delicious Lagunitas at the bar under his apartment in the East Village. After following his trip closely on Facebook this past winter, I knew he’d be a prime candidate for our “Living The Dream” series about Bros who embark on life-changing journeys.
In their own words, here’s how Matt and Mitch made it happen…
How did you guys dream this trip up? Can you explain what set everything in motion?
Matt: This is something I’ve always had in the back of my mind since one of my best childhood friends biked from Oregon to Virginia in 2011 with two of his college buddies. The way he described the trip, it sounded like an amazing combination of therapy, exercise, humbling encounters and challenges, and just an amazing way to experience the country.
I had recently withdrawn from my engineering graduate program because it wasn’t a good fit, and was trying to figure out my next step. I was living in Virginia and was doing a combination of hanging out, job searching and interviewing, soul-searching, traveling, and working odd jobs while I figured shit out. Mitch, my cycling companion, reached out to me in December and proposed the trip, knowing that I was in this transitional period, and I immediately jumped at the chance as I was pretty much waiting for someone to do something like this with me.
Mitch: Yeah, I have always had an undefined urge to go on some sort of adventure like this. When I was in college, I remember reading about this guy that spent six months hiking from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It planted a seed in my head about doing something similar, but nothing came of it at the time. I was also in something of a transitional period; I had been living in New York for a couple years and had recently moved back home to Baltimore and was in the process of putting together law school applications for the following fall. I had sent in all my apps and was looking at a period of about six months where I’d be waiting to hear back from schools and working at a family business while waiting for the next phase of my life to begin. I realized that if I ever wanted to do anything like this, I might not get another chance. So knowing Matt had some free time and is the most receptive person I know to crazy ideas and proposals, I gave him a call and asked him to join me.
Can you elaborate on your friendship?
Matt: The trip was me and my buddy Mitchell. Mitch and I knew each other through middle school and high school and we both ended up living in New York City after graduation working in finance. Each of us had a large contingent of college friends in the city, but we were each other’s only high school connection. We are both fairly big foodies, beer, and movie buffs, and clearly New York had plenty of all of those, so we spent a good amount of time hanging out during our time there. Mitch left his job and moved back to Baltimore to apply to law school and work in his family’s business and I left a few months later to attend graduate school in DC.
Were you even into long-distance biking before plotting this?
Matt: Short answer, no. I had done a decent amount of spinning classes in New York and I like to think I was one of the biggest users and proponents of the CitiBike when it was instituted in New York, so I was no stranger to cycling, but I probably had never covered more than 15 miles on the road in one sitting and that was years ago.
Why did you decide to do the Pacific? What made you want to do Vancouver to Tijuana as a long-distance bike trek vs. other routes?
Mitch: When I first called up Matt in December, I had asked him about doing a coast-to-coast trip. Once we started sussing out the details though, it got a little complicated. Matt had to be back in Baltimore by May 1st, so we couldn’t leave too late. And the winter weather kept us from leaving too early. Our understanding was a cross-country trip required about three months. I was also considering going to Coachella in Southern California in late April and wanted to plan to leave that open as a possibility. So given time and weather constraints, we realized that coast to coast wouldn’t fit. Neither of us have seen much of the West Coast and heard it’s a beautiful ride, so after a lot of back and forth, we settled on the Pacific Coast route. The weather in early March in the Pacific Northwest isn’t nice, but it’s at least above freezing, so it was doable.
What did you do to prepare?
Matt: I first had a long series of conversations with my friend John about his experience across the country to wrap my head around what to expect. I then did extensive research online about equipment, gear and packing, and things kind of evolved from there. The crucial step of course was finding a bike.
From what I saw, you aren’t going to find a proper new touring bike from the store for less than a grand, so I resorted to combing Craigslist in the TriState area to find good deals on bikes. This meant understanding enough about what I was looking for and what value bikes had, which was a ton of research in itself. I was looking for was 24 gears of more, steel frame, attachment holes (..or eyelets) for mounting racks to the front and back of the bike, and drop-bar handlebars… I ended up snagging a good value road bike, not a touring bike, which caused some problems, but it ultimately got the job done. I also read a number of blogs about bicycle touring, reviewed a lot of published gear checklists for long distance tours, and made an excessive number of trips to the local REI.
Mitch: I took a bike maintenance course for free at REI, and watched a shit-ton of Youtube videos about fixing flats, fixing broken chains, oiling and cleaning chains, and replacing brakes and shifter cable. In parallel I did the repairs and fixes on my bike to solidify the knowledge.
How did you train?
Matt: The months leading up to the trip were January and February for us, so that made extensive training outside difficult. We occasionally did spin classes at the gym in the month leading up and did the occasional 5-10 mile trek outside my house just to get comfortable on my bike. I also had an old bike trainer from my friend that allowed me to mount my bike inside so I could further get used to the shifting and especially the feel of the seat. But, ultimately, we did little to no long distance training that would mimic our days on the trip.
What was your diet like during the trip? How many calories were you housing a day?
Matt: Power bars, PB&J, beer, and snickers bars…. The occasional bags of Goldfish. I can’t say but I can’t imagine we were more than 3,000 a day. Probably less.
Mitch: We didn’t enter the trip with a strong plan in regard to our diets. We had expected to go a long way eating Power Bars, but we quickly found that they weren’t very satisfying and we got sick of the quickly. Before the trip, I bought a bunch of dry grains and oats and seeds and other things for us to cook on our little camping stove. But we never really touched them and I threw most of them out halfway through the trip as a space saver. Like Matt said, PB&Js as well as fresh fruit were a big staple of our diet. We also stopped at restaurants and fast food spots to fill some of our hot food cravings.
Any idea how much weight you lost along the way?
Matt: I’d say at my peak I was down 10 lbs. But while we were dropping weight we were gaining considerable leg muscle. More importantly, though we were exercising all day, we were also indulging in local fair and beers almost daily, so that inevitably canceled out some progress.
Mitch: I was only a little surprised to step on the scale after getting home and find that I was less than 5 pounds lighter than when I started. I could definitely tell though that my body had changed. Like Matt said, I think I can attribute that to gaining muscle. I didn’t experience this huge transformation like I had pictured in my head before the trip, but I was happy with the change.
Where did you stay along the way?
Matt: Really, where didn’t we stay? Campgrounds, RV Parks, at one point we stayed in a church, a firehouse, a few motels, particularly up in the north on the particularly cold and rainy days. We stayed with friends, used Couchsurger and WarmShowers.org, which is the cyclist-specific version of Couchsurfer. It was really a matter of where we thought we’d end on a given day and what the options were in that vicinity.
How many miles did you average a day? How would you guys plot how far you wanted to go in a day vs. the places you wanted to stop and spend time?
Matt: When we started up north in the rain and cold, it was around the mid 50s. Later on, as it got warmer, we were pushing into the 70s. We topped off at 103 going into L.A.
As far as plotting our days, it was a multi-variable decision. All along the way we had places we wanted to see, whether it was a landmark, a brewery, or a city. So in planning the days it was really a matter of how many miles to the next destination and then based on our ability, pacing, and overall how we were feeling, how many days we wanted to chunk that distance into. Say Lagunitas brewery was 210 miles away, it was a discussion of saying- we can average 105 for 2 days, 70 for 3 days, or 52.5 for 4 day. Then we’d look at map to see where can we stay along the way — is there anything along the way we’d like to spend time at or see? If it was a Wednesday morning, we may want to get in Friday or Saturday because it would be a livelier scene than a Thursday.
Mitch: We would have these conversation the night before and morning of and generally we were able to come to a good agreement on the right course of action.
What was the most grueling day of the ride?
Matt: I can’t remember where we were but there was one particular day where everything was working against us. We were at the top of this mountain where it had been raining all day so we were drenched through, and it was particularly cold up there. Mitch had a gash in his tire that kept blowing out his tubes no matter how we tried to fix it. I think he got six flats in an hour or two and during that time we probably only covered half a mile. At that point, sheer frustration kicked in. We both want to push forward and the equipment isn’t holding up so we were both pretty livid. There was a point that it dawned on us if we couldn’t get the tire going we would be stuck up there as night approached and would be pretty screwed. It was approaching an hour or so before sunset and the temperature was dropping, but we luckily got a makeshift patch going that would hold. The patch got us down the mountain to our campsite and the 20 or 30 miles the next day to a bike shop.
I have to imagine there were some unforgettable experiences where you stopped. Can you give a little run down of what you were doing off the road?
Matt: I’d have to say that the most unforgettable times were the great weather days on the bikes along the Oregon and California coast and then the really shitty days and nights where it was raining and sleeting and we were miserable to a comical level and were just constantly questioning why we chose this time of year to do the trip.
But off the bike, we had good times indulging in local billboard must-sees and did a decent amount of brewery hopping. We had one day where we hit four breweries across 40 or so miles, which I wouldn’t recommend doing on a hot day. We had a day where we did 32 miles in the morning, spent about four hours at Lagunitas Brewery, and then had another 17 miles or so to Sonoma Valley where we spent two good days seeing the area and visiting vineyards. We ended up posting up in Big Sur for a few days which was pretty amazing. We were camped in a hiker/biker site filled with other cycle tourers and we did some hikes and short rides during the day and then would stay up late at night drinking and sharing stories around the bonfire with the other campers.
Beyond those, we had some great experiences staying with friends for a few days in Seattle, San Francisco, and L.A., and great times in hostels/motels in Astoria, Santa Barbara, Hermosa Beach, and San Diego. We also were on a continuous mission once in Southern California to find the best tacos. I don’t think we ever came to a conclusion, but we had a lot of fun trying everything from highly rated places to sketchy roadside vendors.
Any weird characters in particular?
Matt: We met a lot of interesting people in a lot of interesting living situations and backgrounds. Given that the bulk of the people we encountered, took us into their home and fed us, I can’t speak ill of them because at the end of the day, everyone was kind and generous.
Mitch: The majority of the people that we stayed with through WarmShowers.org and Couchsurfing fell into two categories: (1) Cyclists and travelers that had used the websites in their travels in the past, had great experiences, and wanted to pay it forward, and (2) people that were lonely and liked having the company. Some of the people that were in category two were a bit socially awkward and a bit out there, but when it came down to it, everybody we met was incredibly generous and well intentioned and hospitable. We may have been involved in some pretty strange conversations, but we never felt uncomfortable or uneasy.
We spent 2 days camping in Big Sur and met a bunch of strange and interesting people in the hiker/biker campsite in Pfeiffer State Park. There was one guy who lost his wife, got cancer, contemplated suicide, then one day started biking around the country in an effort to find meaning in his life. We met him 4 ½ years into his travels. There was another guy who told us that his deceased friend’s spirit sent him on a journey to Peru (…neither of them had ever been to Peru before and they had never talked about Peru with each other).
When it came down to it though, the people we met along the way were what made the trip as memorable and unique as it was, so I’m really grateful to all of them.
Any particular times when things got scary?
Matt: Again the day where Mitch had those flats, there were concerns between us that we would be stuck up on the mountain soaked with lowering temperatures, but like I said, everything ended up working out.
We had a spots where the route was not ideal for biking and basically crossing large bridges and along large highways with little to no shoulder, and at times less than sympathetic drivers.
Mitch: We bought a set of biking maps to use for route guidance throughout the trip. The maps gave us the best, safest, and most scenic roads to take down the coast, but every now and then we deviated from biking maps, usually to cut distance and save time, and that inevitably put us on more dangerous roads and highways.
Matt: In Westport, California we had another rainy night where we were camping at a site on the coast and the wind was so bad that night that even with the stakes in, the tent was still blowing away. In the end the only thing that kept the tent from blowing away was our body weight and even still, it tried hard to fly off. Additionally, the wind pushed the bulk off the rain at the walls of the tent, which led to us being soaked throughout the night. Looking back that was one of the worst nights/days of the trip. I don’t think either of us actually slept that night basically bided our time shivering until light came so we could bike to the next location.
How did you celebrate when you got to Mexico?
Matt: Basically did a very stereotypical celebration. We found a restaurant that looked appealing, grabbed some big plates of local specialties, ordered some margaritas, coronas, and a shots of tequila to celebrate. I also found a liquor store and grabbed a celebratory bottle of tequila to hold onto as a keepsake.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking about a big adventure like your ride when they’re in-between big life moments?
Matt: I would say if you have time, take advantage of it and have an adventure. I’m not saying you need to take 50 days and bike the longitude of the country, but just do something outside of your comfort zone that helps you better understand yourself in the larger world.
One of my favorite movie lines is actually from American Beauty. The line is “It’s a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself.” Was I a biker? No. Was I a big camper? No. Was I comfortable staying in strangers homes? No. Did I like spending 10 hours a day exercising? Definitely no. But we did it all and it will without a doubt be one of the more profound memories of my life because it was something so spectacularly out of the norm of my life.
So, long story short, life is real short, and the time you have to be truly adventurous is even shorter, so get going.