First question: Why?
Why does a 68-year-old man decide to punish his body in such a way?
“It’s just something that I’ve really wanted to do,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill and his wife, Jenny Lucier, always have been adventurous spirits. They were married at the end of a six-month, 2,500-mile bicycle trip around Europe. O’Neill got his pilot’s license in his early 40s and learned how to do aerobatics, the practice of flying maneuvers not used in conventional passenger-carrying flights.
He and Jenny have bicycled through Scandinavia, Germany and Croatia, and already are contemplating a trip through the Far East. They completed, in their words, a “simple” tandem cross-country bike trip from Santa Monica, California, to Chicago, and then from Chicago to Bar Harbor, Maine.
“If we’re not on our bicycles, we are hiking or paddling or doing a mixture of those kinds of things,” O’Neill said.
The perimeter trip around the U.S. has been something O’Neill has wanted to do for years. He decided this was the year, in part because it’s also the 50th high school reunion of his 1973 Tempe High graduating class.
Second question: How does one go about planning a seven-month, 13,000-mile bike trip?
“Well, we don’t plan much,” O’Neill said. “The planning for us is choosing a basic route.”
For that, they used detailed maps from the Adventure Cycling Association, which has mapped out more than 52,000 miles of bike routes throughout the United States. The maps provide precise directions, emergency numbers, campsites, grocery stores and more.
O’Neill’s route would take him from Tempe to San Diego, and then San Diego south and east to Key West, Florida, up the coast to Fort Kent, Maine — which is situated on the border with New Brunswick, Canada — west to Point Roberts, Washington, and then down the coast to Imperial Beach, California, and finally back home to Tempe.
O’Neill began his journey on March 29. Because he had no support van riding alongside or following him, he packed what he not-so-kiddingly described as “a house, with a bedroom and a kitchen.”
In two packing cubes, he had a tent, a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, a small stove, a bowl, a knife, a cutting board, tools to repair flats or tighten bolts, Tenacious Tape — “if you rip a hole in your tent, you have to repair it so mosquitos don’t fly in” — a down jacket, one set of riding clothes and merino wool clothing, which O’Neill described as a miracle material that can be worn for several days straight without becoming real “gooey.”
Video of A 13,000-mile bike ride: Arizona State University (ASU)
Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News
Each night, O’Neill, who averaged about 70 miles per day, would plan the next day’s route. He built in rest days and weather delays — like the driving rain and 20 to 25 mph winds that kept him in Cut Bank, Montana, for two days.
Some things O’Neill could control — like washing the dust and grime off his body. He used an app called Warm Showers, a national network of cycling enthusiasts who offer accommodations such as a warm bed, a shower and a hot meal. O’Neill said he stayed with about 30 Warm Showers hosts; other nights, he slept in a campground or found a local motel.
Some things he couldn’t control — like the snapping turtle he encountered in the middle of the road in Florida. He and Jenny — who joined her husband at different points of the route — came around the bend and saw the turtle, who was directly in the line of oncoming traffic.
“I wanted to move it off the road, to some kind of safety,” O’Neill said. “But this thing was big. And snapping turtles will take your hand off. They are vicious animals. I was able to grab it somehow and run over to the side of the road. And then we just had this staring contest. It was a very primal thing, staring in its eyes and having it stare back at me, ready to kill me.”
Jenny thought the turtle needed to be further removed from the road. But as she went over to lift the animal, she decided, “He’s good.”
Sadly, O’Neill said he could identify different parts of the country by the roadkill he saw. Armadillos in Texas, for example. Or songbirds in North Dakota.
“That’s the one thing you see all across the nation,” O’Neill said. “This massive amount of roadkill.”
O’Neill didn’t have any dangerous encounters with bears, although he saw two on his ride. But he did have to deal with farm dogs outside Austin, Texas.
“I had 20 dog encounters in the span of about an hour,” he said. “It was just one of those places where people let their dogs run free. Interestingly, the way to deal with a farm dog is to get off your bike. They chase you because of their prey instinct. As soon as you stop, they’re like, ‘OK.’”
For food, if Warm Showers hosts were not available, O’Neill would stop at local diners or restaurants. He also became a big fan of convenience stores.
“In a lot of rural America, the convenience store with a gas station has evolved to be the social center,” said O’Neill, who lost 20 pounds on the trip. “And they’ve upped their game in terms of food availability. I mean, you still get a lot of crap, but they always have donuts, egg sandwiches and hot coffee in the morning. And a lot of them have partnered with chains like Subway, so you can get a sandwich, too.”
Everywhere he went, O’Neill was struck by two things.
First, the beauty of the United States.
“It’s nonstop,” he said. “I tell everybody who will listen that there’s beauty everywhere, every moment of the day. All you have to do is open your eyes.”
Second, the hospitality of strangers.
“I would say the theme of this trip was human kindness,” O’Neill said. “Anything from the Warm Showers network to interactions on the street or at the convenience store. People couldn’t have been nicer.”
That kindness included unscheduled trips to bike mechanics. O’Neill went through three sets of tires, broke a wheel and had his rear brake bust, and each time, a local mechanic would make sure, even if that meant keeping the store open late, that his bike was ready to roll the next day.
“One of the ethics in the biking community is that bike shops and bike mechanics will drop what they’re doing to assist you if you’re on a distance tour,” O’Neill said.
The day after his trip ended, O’Neill sat in his dining room and thought about the journey just completed and the wonders — both human and otherwise — he received along the way.
“I don’t know how exactly in context to say this, but I feel like I’ve been in an altered state for seven months,” he said. “Just flowing from one moment to the next, one day to the next. And I consistently got everything I needed. I woke up some mornings not knowing where I was going to stay, and then I ended up staying in some spectacular situation, either with a Warm Showers host or in some beautiful campground.
“There were so many favorite moments, like you roll into someplace and ‘Oh my God, there’s the White House,’ or we’re in New Hampshire, come around a bend and pop out on the coast and it’s so beautiful.
“But in the end, the most important part of it was the human interaction and the kindness. I’ll never forget that.”
Top photo: Former ASU staffer and alum Dan O’Neill, 68, relishes his welcome-home celebration on Tuesday, Oct. 24, at his Tempe home. He just completed a 13,000-mile bicycle trip around the perimeter of the United States. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News