Are You Nuts!?
A brief memoir about an inspiring bike journey that helped push me to the edge.
Most of us in the good ole US of A were raised under something of a work hard, play later dogma. Do your homework before you watch TV; get above average grades and receive an allowance; attend a good university and you’ll land a good job; work 50 hours a week for 40+ years and then you can reap the benefits. It all seems to funnel to an ultimate goal: work hard now, then live out a perfect golden twilight marinating somewhere in a temperate climate, if you are lucky. For some, that formula is not an option. For others, a midlife kick in the ass derails it. For Craig Bierly, the cards were slightly different, but timed just right.
For as long as I can remember, I had a big ‘freakout’ in the hopper. I wanted to do it while I was still relatively young, because you just never know. I’d ditch the 9-5, live off bean sandwiches, see the world, do what I want, and make the most of my time. A stint of post-college international travel helped light the flame, and it was stoked by the knowledge that my grandfather dropped dead at 40 from a bad pumper. Then there are always those blood-and-thunder fears that ferment in the mind’s crannies, worries that I may miss my chance due to some tragic cosmic dice roll… an 18-wheeler on I-40, a rogue comet, ebola, the apocalypse, or some other cloaked menace crouching on the roadside. I didn’t want to be that unlucky sap who chokes to death on his last bite of a mediocre entree just before the cheesecake is served. I often get asked, “How did you get the nerve to just quit your job and take off?”. If I gave the long answer, it would take the format of an Academy Awards speech; there would be a lot of people to thank and the music would fade in well before I finished. I’ve been plagued by dirtbag wanderlust since my 20s, but I owe the over-the-cliff push to inspiration from authors, songwriters, and a few peers who took the plunge before me. I met one such gentleman the other day.
After rubbing the sleep out of my eyes on a spit of national forest land outside of Sedona, the go-to local spot where van dwellers and dirty mountain biking freeloaders can camp without a fee, I squinted across the morning desert to see his bumper-sticker blanketed Sprinter parked about 200 yards away. It’s well-decorated with assorted bike shop stickers, photos, a painted sign with the word ‘Jingoism’, and all kinds of mountain bike brand logos, but Craig Bierly doesn’t have any official sponsors. He isn’t employed, albeit he has a business card with a tagline, ‘Doing what I want since 2008.’ That’s the year Craig first set out in his van with the intention of mountain biking in each of the lower 48 states over the course of a year. It took him 11 months to complete that goal, and, since then, that single year has turned into seven. He’s still going strong. I initially read about Craig’s adventure in an 2009 issue of Bike Mag. Since then I’ve caught a glimpse of his van parked at The Hub in Pisgah, NC, one of his favorite haunts, and one of mine. On that occasion, we didn’t meet. He must have been on the trails.
Later that day in Sedona, I had the pleasure of meeting Craig outside the Bike ’n Bean, the area’s favorite bike shop. This brief introduction, which included a little Sprinter show-and-tell, led to several nights of existing as temporary neighbors in the Coconino National Forest. Craig’s not shy to tell stories, or pry them out of you. A few nips of his prized Tennessee moonshine wrung out conversations about hero trails across the US, our common acquaintances in Pisgah, crusty mobile living tricks, and how we each discovered life on the road.
In 1978 Craig had his first freakout. He sold his house, stubbed out a career in a non-ferrous foundry, and drove west to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. He recalls folks questioning, “Are you nuts?” That became his mantra. In the early 80s he returned to a somewhat regular life in Spokane, squeezed out 22 years of work for the Boeing corporation, and rode out two layoffs. All the while he was backpacking, skiing, mountain biking, and clipping articles of where he wanted to ride one day when he had more time. The second layoff led to 14 months of unemployment which stoked a forgotten truth… that time was much more valuable than money. He was like a rocket waiting for someone to push the red button.
In 2006 Craig received a lump sum from a union contract violation settlement and paid cash for a new Dodge Sprinter. That was the finger on the button. Inspired by memories of his father’s sailboat, Craig took a human engineering approach to designing his escape vehicle, likening the design to the vessel that had carried his family of six on multi week seafaring trips during his childhood. “To date I haven’t cleaned a bathroom or mowed a yard,” he mentioned as he showed me his eclectic collection of skulls and talismans that adorn the dashboard. Somewhere amidst sharing travel stories he told me that his adventure wasn’t as ballsy as living on a bike, but it’s comfortable. It works for him. The van has allowed him to camp in fantastic places, such as the Daisy BB gun factory in Bentonville, AR, a front-row spot in the shadow of Mt. Hood, a clearing in the forest where he once awakened to the sound of propane jets inflating hot air balloons, and the woods near Downieville where a bobcat pounced on his roof.
Sedona is somewhat of a home base to Craig. On the wall next to a ratty couch in the Bike ’n Bean there’s a map with pins identifying all the places where Craig has ridden. Craig is 65 years old now, and he’s had several shoulder surgeries and a knee nip. When asked how long he’ll keep going, he answered:
“As long as my body lets me. At that point, I will have beaten it beyond repair, then I’ll find a piece of land, perhaps on the dry side of the Oregon Cascades, and design and build a small house… get a dog and a cat and grow a square foot garden. That’s my dream.”
My bet is that wherever he ends up, it will be in the right place at the right time.
P.S. Thanks go out to Virginia, Craig Beirly, Alan Watts, Alastair Humphries, Cass Gilbert, Joe Cruz, Nicholas and Lael, The Pikes, The Dirtbag Diaries, Chris McCandless, Isaac Brock, Merriwether Lewis, Willie Weir, Ryszard Kapuslcinlki, Aldo Landwehr, Jim Toab, Chris Watts ………… etc, etc, etc.