Laura Crawford and Russ Roca: Touring America On The Path Less Pedaled

Laura and Russ. Photo by Russ Roca.

Over the past two years Laura Crawford and Russ Roca have ridden thousands of miles around America, exploring its nooks and crannies, meeting its people, and documenting their adventures on their website, The Path Less Pedaled. Though a multi-year bike tour already sets them apart from the average tourist, Laura and Russ’ trip is that much more unique because it is open ended. Before taking their first pedal strokes away from their California home in 2009, they sold or gave away everything that wasn’t coming with them on the bikes. I caught up with them in Portland, OR where they’ve settled in for the winter to talk about their journey, feeling disconnected, and their practical advice for touring wannabes.

What inspired you to sell everything you owned and adopt a nomadic lifestyle? Was it difficult or frightening to commit to something so far afield from the average American experience?

We have each always had a deep desire to travel around the world and experience what was ‘out there.’ When we discovered bike touring, the ‘how’ started to come together. Traveling on a bike makes you feel so alive and aware and connected with the places you discover. 

Before we left everything behind to head out on an open-ended journey, we had gone on several much shorter trips. More and more, we would have an incredible experience, and then go home and wonder why we didn’t just keep going. As soon as we started thinking about hitting the road for good, it became impossible to think of anything else. So, when the opportunity presented itself to just go, we leapt. 

Of course it was difficult to give everything up and head out. We left behind a community of friends and causes we cared about, and we had to be our own cheerleaders (since a lot of people were scared for us or sad for us to leave). But we knew that it was something we really wanted to do and we had to at least try it.

Since you’ve essentially always been on the move since starting your tour, has it left you feeling unrooted or unconnected to a community? Have you found any way to ease that feeling?

Yes. Since we’ve been constantly traveling the thing we miss most is our friends and family. In comparison, getting rid of all our stuff was nothing. This is one of the aspects of long-term travel that isn’t often spoken about. Yes there are great peaks of sublime happiness, but there are also periods of loneliness and thinking of “home.” Home isn’t a place though, we’ve discovered, it is a feeling you get when you are surrounded by warm human company.

We’ve tried to mitigate the sense of loneliness and uprootedness while traveling, by actively meeting with readers and Facebook followers. In this way, we’ve created a sort of virtual community that we can interact with while on the road. During our stay in Portland, we’ve had dinner and drinks with readers and have jumped into the bike community. This replaces a little of what we’ve really given up. It’s not things, but the wonderful people that come in and out of your life.

Loaded up on the road. Photo by Russ Roca.

How are you supporting yourselves financially on this trip? How long can that last?

This is a great question, and we sometimes ask ourselves the same thing.  From the beginning, we wanted to find a way for this journey to be self-supporting, so that we could continue to travel as long as we wanted. We are fortunate that we are both self-employed and are able to carry our respective professions with us. Russ shoots amazing photographs along the way, both family portraits and product photography. Laura makes custom bicycle headbadges (in metal) and jewelry. In addition, we wrote a gear guide that looks at everything we have tested and what we recommend for bike touring. We have no idea how long it can last, but we’ve successfully financed our non-status-quo lifestyle for the past year and a half, without having to pick up a temp job.

Did you have any specific goals for the trip when you set out? Have those goals evolved at all over the course of your almost two years on the road?

Our only goal was to travel as long as it was fun, and to be as open to spontaneity as possible. We didn’t want to lock ourselves into any sort of superficial goal (time or distance, for example), instead we wanted to have an incredible life adventure and give ourselves as much space as we needed to achieve it. Those goals remain, and we’re starting to think about all of the many other places we want to travel to in the near future.  

It’s clear from your website and especially your book that you two are interested in helping others become tourists with gear reviews, how-tos, and tips and tricks about many aspects of touring. Can you share a few essential tips for wanna-be tourists?

The biggest tip we could share is that you don’t need “perfect” gear. Sometimes, it’s more important to just go, with whatever you have and however you need to do it, and then refine the details later. We found that going on short trips was a great way to test out gear and our touring style and figure out what we prefer. Whatever gear you do head out on the road with, we highly recommend testing it out first.
A few other practical tips: A rear-view mirror (preferably one that attaches to your helmet or glasses) is a great tool, because it allows you to know who’s coming up behind you and keeps you from getting spooked on the road. If you need to brush up on camping and survival skills, check out YouTube, which is full of great instructional videos about chopping wood and starting fires and tying knots.

One of Laura’s famous mustache headtube badges.

Like all forms of cycling, touring has its fair-share of people that will insist from here to the grave that you NEED x,y, and z in order to be a proper tourist. Are there any pieces of conventional touring wisdom, about gear or otherwise, that you’ve found to be untrue?

What we’ve found is that you don’t necessarily NEED clipless pedals or fancy shoes or drop bars or any super-lightweight gear. There’s nothing wrong with using any of that gear, but there’s also no point in letting a lack of “perfect” gear keep you from touring. Remember that people have crossed the US in all sorts of ways–unicycle, high-wheeler, on foot–so, sometimes, the biggest limiting factor is actually your head and not your gear. 

Now that you’ve seen a whole lot of America, have you thought about resettling somewhere, or is the tour going to keep on rolling?

We laugh about how our trip has been a tour of possible places to live at some point. We definitely have a few cities on that list, as a result of our trip. But neither of us is ready to settle into a more stationary lifestyle yet, so we’re planning our next trip instead. This spring, you’ll find us back out on the road.

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