By: Pablo Toledo
Scott Stoll on riding a bike around the world, writing about it and getting kids to illustrate it
What do you do when everything around you seems to crumble? Break down and cry? Roll downhill? Soldier on? Scott Stoll found an alternative: get on your bike and fall uphill.
Between Christmas and New Year, Scott was faced with a triple-whammy: he lost his job in an advertising agency, his girlfriend dumped him and his best friend eloped, leaving him without the little moral support he had left and half the rent for his apartment. But he seized the moment and took it as an opportunity to ask himself, for real, a question that we often fantasize about: if nothing was holding me back or tying me down, what would I do with my life? And the answer just flashed into his mind: I would ride a bicycle around the world.
A year later, in 1997, he rode his bike across the US to get trained. Four years (and a bad bike crash and serious knee surgery) after that, and only five days before two planes crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York, he and a friend were off on a journey that would take him four years to complete, across 41,444 kilometres (roughly the equivalent of the Earth’s circumference), 50 countries including Argentina and 6 continents. His bike took some serious pounding: 6 broken spokes, 9 welds, 2 snapped chains, 1 mangled derailleur, 2 broken seats, 1 snapped rear cog set, two broken racks and countless flats, some of which he fixed by just plugging the tyre full of mud and leaves. Needless to say, his body took an even bigger beating: he suffered from Facet syndrome (irritation of the joints), a dislocated wrist, a bruised tailbone, sprained knees, heat exhaustion, sunburn, hyper-extended elbows, saddle sores, nappy rash and many other ailments, including a broken heart somewhere in New Zealand.
Halfway down the journey his friend realized that going back home and “settling down” would be a greater adventure for him than completing the ride, but Scott made it to his endpoint in Cape Town and then back to San Francisco to write Falling Uphill, a book about his experience. Then he adapted the book for young adults and children, and got kids from the Poplar Creek Elementary School to do the illustrations. And now the US Embassy brought him back to Argentina (by plane, this time) to meet kids from primary schools across the country so they can talk to him and write the illustrations for the Spanish version of his memoir, due out in December.
The Herald caught up with Scott on a bike ride (where else?) organized by City Hall, which gives this scribe bragging rights for having ridden alongside the guy who rode around the world (I rode 30km on that day, somewhat short of Stoll’s achievement, but who’s counting?).
In the flesh, Stoll is one of the friendliest, most laid-back persons you can meet, like some close relative of Uncle Andy from Weeds. Two seconds into the conversation you realize that he could tell you all about the hardest climb and the longest ride and how to pedal your way through the Andes, up the Himalayas and across the Australian Outback, but that all those things are the bells and whistles of a journey across cultures and into the self that changed him forever.
“I was looking for something, some secret meaning, and I knew it had to be out there somewhere,” he says. He will return to this: “I realized that thing I was looking for, I had carried it with me all the way around the world,” and will talk about the multicultural awareness he earned along the way, about his new perspectives. And you can see that this is no bumper-sticker. If anything, it is a return to those lines by T.S. Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” It makes you wonder if the great Thomas Stearns ever rode a bike...
What was it like to ride out just as the Twin Towers were falling?
I only found out about 9/11 when I called my Mom and she was desperate. When I went to Mexico, all the US citizens were going home, so the Mexicans were very happy to see me, very sympathetic, and they were hurting because all the tourism was gone. I was the only person from the US biking around the world at the time. I know another English man who was doing it at the same time, and he told me he figured out that more people climbed Everest than do what we did.
What was the longest stretch between seeing someone and seeing someone again?
Not too long, because you’re on the road and you see people all the time. I would go months without speaking English – I’d like to think I learnt quite a bit of Spanish, but my problem was the different accents. Sometimes they weren’t even speaking Spanish: they were speaking Quechua and I was thinking ‘my Spanish is horrible’! Australia was very long days, a two-day ride between roadhouses (which is just a gas station and a restaurant). We rode through the atomic bomb testing range, I have a picture in the adult book of the graffitti with three-headed kangaroos.
Do people welcome you more when you are on a bike?
My friend and I always said that a bike is like an invitation, a ticket. US people don’t always get the warmest welcome, but because I was on a bike and I was doing it the hard way I was like a worker, a labourer, one of the people, and everyone really respected that. I was living like they were, sleeping in their places, eating their food, trying to talk their language, occasionally cutting down sugar canes or helping a guy fix a car at the side of the road. It was good, too, because nobody could steal my stuff, everyone knew me and they couldn’t ride my bicycle anyway! I got mugged once, but I didn’t have my bike then. I was in Guatemala. The police said it was ‘the popular thing to do’– I ran from the muggers and they said ‘you’re very lucky, it’s very popular to kill the person they’re robbing if they try to run away’.
What was the landing like when you came back?
I don’t even know where to start, it took me many years to get over from the culture shock. Basically, you could say there was nowhere left to run, you know? I came home and I could see myself like in a mirror, my own culture, and I could see how I was programmed by my culture to see the world a certain way. I realized that the world wasn’t the way your culture programmes it, but also me, my person, my values, my morals, who I thought I was, what I wanted to do... I realized I could be anybody I wanted to be finally, after all those years. It sank in when I went home that this was my life.
So that thing you were looking for when you started the journey, you found it...
Ironically, I found it only by coming home and realizing I had brought it with me all around the world and I wasn’t seeing it! There’s a difference between somebody telling you something and when you do it. I finally understand now that everyday life is your destination. The bicycle is the ultimate metaphor for life. Your dream is like a mountain, and to some people that mountain is so big it looks like a wall – you can’t see the top, you can’t see a way around it. Have faith: eventually, you will reach the top and you’ll have a view that you’ve never had before. And the good and the bad news is there’s another mountain on top of that one. There’s always something; you live one dream, you get another.
Did you write Falling Uphill right after you returned?
I wrote the majority of the book while I was travelling. When I came back I had some offers to publish it and I turned them down, and it wasn’t for another four years that I wrote the last two final chapters. It took me that long to feel comfortable, to put my truth into perspective. It was the difference between standing at the bottom of a hill and then standing at the top looking down and seeing your winding little path all the way to the top.
Would you do it again?
Probably not: I would be a little lonely, my knees would object... probably if I met a woman and she said ‘we have to do this’. If I did it again I would go slower: even riding a bicycle you can go pretty fast, and I think it could take you 8 to 12 years to see the world – probably your whole life! My adventure right now is working with the Embassy and Argentine schools making this book. To me that’s the best thing ever, to take what I learned and give all these people something I wish I’d had when I was a little kid. I didn’t have this understanding or this faith, I didn’t think I could do any of this. If I could just reach a few kids and leave them with this sense that they can do whatever they want to do, then my job is done.
When did you know you were actually going to finish?
Something happened in India, I can’t really say. I met a guru and talked to her and meditated. I was afraid she was gonna tell me ‘you’re gonna have to stay here and chant songs for the rest of your life’... but when I met her I told her what I was doing, about how to me life is about riding up a mountain: you ride to the top and all of a sudden you go ‘swoosh!’ and you relax and you can hear the birds sing, to me that’s what life is about. And she says ‘I couldn’t give you a better answer! Keep going!’ Somewhere around there I started to realize that maybe I hadn’t finished but I’d already arrived. I knew I could do it, and my only question was ‘Do I still want to?’ My friend Dennis started the ride with me and went home after 15 months, he said ‘It’s not worth it, I can have more of an adventure by going home.’ But you get half-way, you’ve gotta go the other half no matter what!
Is Dennis still a friend?
He’s still a friend, I told him I was coming to Argentina and his first question was if I was going to visit Ramiro, in the Chaco, the guy who rescued us from the mud. We were stuck in the mud, moving less than 5 kilometres in one day just pushing our bikes, and he showed up and put our bikes in his truck and then we spent another 12 hours pushing his car home. He said ‘You must think it’s easier to ride a bicycle than drive a truck!’ It was so muddy we had to get out every half an hour and shovel mud and push the truck and get back and slide off the road, we did that for at least 12 hours until we got to his house and he treated us to his son’s bed and all of this food. We met everyone in the community, we stayed for about 5 days until the roads dried and we could ride our bikes again, talked to the schools... it was one of my best moments. Up until that moment we had ridden our bicycles from the US down to Argentina and we would wake up every day and see how far we could get. We were literally struggling to survive, we didn’t know what we were gonna eat and where we were gonna sleep and we didn’t have enough water. But it wasn’t until things went so absolutely wrong that we couldn’t ride or even walk, that we were forced to stop and look around and live with the people and those people happened to be Argentines.
What is riding for six hours a day almost every day for 4 years like?
It boils your emotional baggage to the surface, your challenges in life. I had a lot of time to think and meditate. For me, my trip was not so much about the bicycle but more about how you ride the bike, how you manage life, what life is about – I would think all day about that. That was the good thing about going fast: I knew that if I went slow I would stop and meet somebody and never want to keep going, but I went fast and got my quick perspective of everything. I saw politics, culture, disease, poverty, starvation, the most beautiful and the ugliest and everything in between, and it really gave me my foundation for life and who I am. In the US we live too privileged a lifestyle sometimes, and I didn’t understand that. I saw people die, people who couldn’t afford to live and were still happy and that was a mystery to me, how could those people be so happy when in the US often people are just angry and upset? They need to spend a day when they have to find their own food and water and then they’ll sing a different song!
You can read more about Scott Stoll’s journey at www.theargonauts.com.
Publicada en el Buenos Aires Herald el 27 de septiembre de 2011