In the summer of 2005, writer and gonzo cyclist Joe Kurmaskie rode his bike across the United States with his two young sons in tow. Kurmaskie was motivated by the desire to have a bona fide adventure with his kids, as well as by a hefty contract to write about it for a national magazine.
Kurmaskie survived the trip, wrote the article, and turned it into a full-length book, Momentum is Your Friend. He also began collecting other people’s stories of adventure travel, which will be included in his next book, Adventure Dad, due out this year.
What is family adventure travel, anyway? Kurmaskie, who lives in Portland, Oregon, defines it as “a way to combat the Xbox carpal tunnel syndrome kids get from spending too much time in front of computers and the television. It’s a way to keep kids from becoming observers of their own childhood, providing opportunities for them to have real adventures rather than virtual adventures.”
Kurmaskie didn’t actually set out to take his kids on a cross-country bicycle trip. He signed the contract with Men’s Journal to do the trip by himself and write about it, then found out that his wife, who was studying to become a teacher, had to be in school for most of the summer. She told Kurmaskie he’d have to take the boys with him … the Metal Cowboy and his Pint-sized Posse.
“At that point, I had to figure out how to make it work,” he says. “How could I break it gently to Men’s Journal and still keep the assignment?” In the end the editors were sympathetic. They knew that if anyone could pull off such a stunt, Kurmaskie could. The 41-year-old had ridden across the United States six times previously, and had already toughened up his sons by taking them on long hikes in the Columbia Gorge for other magazine assignments.
On July 1, 2005 Kurmaskie rigged up 5-year-old Enzo’s bike trailer to 7-year-old Quinn’s tagalong, then connected that to his own custom-built, 27-speed bike and began their 4,000-mile, 65-day journey from Portland to Washington, D.C., with Star Wars light sabers for off-bicycle entertainment, and educational goals such as photographing the animal scat and campground signs they encountered along the way,.
Kurmaskie was able to give his kids the Huck Finn summer he had dreamed of. Most days, they had no time clock and no schedule.“We had the luxury of just stopping and eating barbecue, fishing by the side of the Missouri and talking about Lewis and Clark,” says Kurmaskie. “They learned the topography and history of our country, made friends, and learned how to make their own fun.
Along with introducing Enzo and Quinn to some of the natural treasures of our country and teaching them about the rigors of long-distance biking, Kurmaskie says the best thing about their adventure was the time spent together. In his book he writes, “We share a secret, the three of us; one permanent summer in our hearts now, where we’re never apart.”
In the summer of 2009, Kurmaskie, with his three sons and his can-do wife, Beth, took on another cross country trip; this time they went the length of Canada. Here’s an excerpt from his best-selling book about the adventure … Mud, Sweat and Gears:
We’re three, maybe four hard-boiled eggs and a few liters of chocolate milk away from Obed Summit, the highest point along Canada’s Yellowhead Highway.
While I labor our massive bike train – 18 feet of tandem, trail-a-bike and trailer packed with 450 pounds of gear and three lively sons – my nine-year-old stoker, Quinn, shells another egg by repeatedly smacking it against his bike helmet, it’s an artistic combination of force and finesse. His younger brother, Enzo, salts it while perched on the trail-a-bike before the portable protein makes its way back to the front of the vessel sometimes whole, more often with tolls bitten from it. The boys are downing eggs at half my pace, but making up the difference in chocolate milk.
Usually we’re on and off the rig a dozen times before noon – sword fights, swimming holes and moose sightings. Not today. Since sunrise, we haven’t broken our cadence once. It helps that one-year-old Matteo’s buried himself in the caboose, sleeping off a full night of, well, sleeping … call it the privileges of infancy.
The ramshackle carnival of conversations we’ve been enjoying across Canada drops off to a word or two – necessary commands only, sometimes a grunt of encouragement. When Enzo points out a hawk standing on a fence post or a circling eagle, heads turn in unison for an appreciative look, we force out a few “ahs,” then go back to work.
By perfecting this symphony of egg, milk and muscle, we’ve managed to best some substantial climbs. While I’m proud as hell of my pint-sized stokers, I see these bumps in the landscape as brutal preliminary heats, testing and toughening us up for a run at the prize, Obed Summit.
“Here it comes, boys.” I’m working the gears like a concert pianist discovering Rachmaninoff, trying to find a ratio that rings true to my legs before we run out of momentum off the backside of the last hill. Either I dial in the sweet spot while tearing across what’s left of the flats, or gravity bears down before I’m ready to climb, breaking my spirit and making everyone onboard pay.
“Tighten up, kids. All the Jack Johnson songs in the world won’t save us now!”
The boys haven’t a clue what I’m going on about, only that I need them as I’ve never needed them before. I want them radio silent and pedaling like the wind. To believe without hesitation in their youth, in the supple young hearts crashing around in their chests and fueling their lean legs.
We gear down and sit in for the assault on this jagged bit of the Canadian Rockies. There’s an instant when I actually start to come out of the saddle. My second-rate racer’s body forgets that it’s at the head of a mule train hauling half of America behind it. It forgets that I’m not on a lighter-than-air, blessed-by-the-pope, high-performance bike that will leap into action the moment I stand up and hammer it hard enough.
I tell myself to sit down and do the time. Work with the equipment, not against it.
Obed features no switchbacks, just a long straight climb, a false summit and enough plateau to consider one’s cursed existence. Then the real work begins.
Beth, who we kicked off the family train and onto her own touring bike back on day two, catches us while I’m busy marrying the pain and focusing on a spot two feet off my front wheel.
My wife drops in behind the trailer and, like a seasoned coxswain would for rowers on a faltering crew, times her commands to our pace. I’ve handicapped my lady with four expedition panniers loaded to capacity. The additional weight I added last night after she drifted off to sleep was, I confess now, in expectation of today’s climb … because I can only do so much, because I’m a shameful little man who in my secret heart always wants to top the summit first. Which makes what I’m seeing, something out of our favorite movie, The Princess Bride, inconceivable! She has no business sitting in on our tail, drafting the chariot trailer, let alone carrying enough energy to pedal solid AND urge us on with the athletic equivalent of catcalls.
Slowly but steadily, thanks to her, we find a rhythm that keeps us upright and rolling.
“Mush!” she barks.
“Mellow!” the boys come back with. Which makes no grammatical sense, but I’m beyond caring. All that matters is our forward progress. Beth’s cheerleading finds its way to my legs.
“Mush!” “Mellow!” “Mush!” The boys switch over to “Room!” We ride that trippy mantra for a while, and, as improbable as it seems, our pace improves.
Then it happens. Rare in life, and even more elusive in the saddle, it’s the moment when a group, be it paceline, peloton, breakaway or family bike tour, morphs from teamwork into a single entity for a few golden miles. We all feel it, a chord connecting us so tightly it could be made of steel; I howl, Quinn whoops, Enzo rings his bell and Beth laughs loose and unbridled between commands. Even Matteo is awake now; five-part harmony.
When the summit road sign comes into view I spit in the face of years of structural engineering, stand straight up and attempt to hammer everything, everything that matters to me, all my imagined burdens and actual blessings, up and over Obed Pass.
It’s irresponsible, even derelict behavior that could snap the chain, if not the frame. Later, Beth will say that when Quinn and Enzo stood up and hammered behind me, she’d never felt so proud.
On top at last, we produce no American flag, peace cranes or those colorful Tibetan cloth squares. Instead, Beth checks the boys for hydration and hypothermia while in their father’s care, and nurses the baby, all while passing out plastic lightsabers and power bars with her free hand. Like dandelions, my toe-headed sons spill across a high altitude field in Alberta, Canada. I watch them run as I suck air, doubled over my handlebars.
Through my exhaustion I can see Beth, helmet coming off now, in slow motion, long hair spilling over her shoulders. She resembles an Amazonian, Xena Warrior Cyclist.
“This the worst Canada can throw at us?” she asks. We both know the answer, but laugh it off anyway. We can do this because Beth’s an entirely new creature from the one who weaved and wobbled out of America a month earlier. That person concerned herself with whether lycra was a conspiracy specifically against women, or did it make everyone look bad? The individual who wanted to know if she could just leave it in one gear and call it good. The rookie cyclist who wondered if she could make it at all.
Now look at her.
After a summer on and off our bikes, each wrapped in the embrace of our lively family in motion, we’ve come to realize that you can accomplish some great things, as long as you take it one pedal stroke at a time.
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