In February 2008, Tyler Kellen, an independent software developer along with his partner, Tara, a passionate photographer and writer, began an epic journey on bicycles that spanned 25 countries, from Scotland to Southeast Asia, and changed the trajectory of their lives forever. Emaho spoke to Tyler on his extraordinary adventure and how he experienced the world differently when going slowly.
Two years and 25 countries! How would you summarize the journey in one line?
The hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, it was a life altering experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.
Tyler getting an adrenalin rush at dizzying heights.
One fine day in 2007, you decided to bicycle around the world. What tipped you over?
I was watching Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s motorcycle documentary ‘Long Way Down’ wishing I was on an adventure myself. I’d done several long-distance motorcycle tours of my own, but always in North America. At the time, I was dreaming of something bigger. During one of the episodes, there was a brief clip with Jason Lewis, a participant in a challenge to circumnavigate the earth using only human power, dubbed Expedition 360. Watching it, something inside me clicked. The on-screen encounter became the jumping-off point for what would become a singular obsession to sell everything I own and cycle around the world with my partner Tara.
Tara cooks at the camp set up along the train track in Macedonia.
And how did you convince Tara? She did not even know how to cycle!
Part of it was me being persuasive and patient, but most of it was Tara being awesome and willing to take a leap of faith into the unknown. When I suggested cycling across Africa, she balked. I responded by saying, “I don’t care if we go to Africa, I just want to go. Pick any country and we’ll plan a bicycle tour there.” Tara, who speaks fluent French, naturally picked France. As she started to research the idea, she found accounts of couples in their 50s and 60s touring there. This turned out to be a crucial moment. Suddenly, bicycle touring felt like a thing we could do, even though neither of us had ever done it. After that, the scope of the trip slowly got larger and larger. If we’re near France, we should go to Italy… if we’re near Italy; we should go to Greece… and so on.
The shiny happy kids in Lao egg Tara on.
How did you prepare – physically, mentally and financially – for the adventure?
Honestly, we didn’t really prepare physically. We’d never actually ridden our bicycles fully loaded until we teetered out of the airport inScotland. This might sound crazy, but in retrospect, I still think it was a great idea. Back then, I might not have gone if he had known how hard it was going to be! Also, there is a saying in the bicycle touring community: if you don’t train for a tour, the tour will train you. It most certainly will. As for preparing mentally, I’m not sure that we knew how – the idea was so far beyond the realm of either of our experiences. We just told everyone we knew that we were going to cycle across Europe andAsia. Eventually, we started to believe it ourselves!
Tara right in the middle of some serious traffic.
On the financial front, we sold basically everything we owned, lived on Ramen, and saved like crazy for a year and half. My mother was kind enough to put us up during the last six months of saving. Without her help we would have had to save for another year. If I wasn’t a self-employed software developer (I worked remotely while we travelled), it would have taken at least another year on top of that.
Tara and Tyler’s bikes leaning against the wall of an abandoned farmhouse.
One more detail on the finances: we’re often asked how much a trip like ours would cost – something we worried about quite a bit during our own travel preparations. Frustrated with a lack of information on the Internet, I used my software to track every cent we spent, and published it online. You can see it all, right down to the last cup of coffee, painstakingly tracked here.
Its been a hard day’s night – Tyler relaxing in a hammock.
You have covered Europe, North America, Asia, which continent is coming up next?
We have distant plans to tour from Alaska to the southern tip of South America. For the moment, we’re focusing on building our homestead in Vermont. We’d like to have a place of our own to return to before we go on another big expedition.
Tara with Safar, a kind Siberian man of Kazakh origin, who hosted Tyler and Tara at his farm.
Tell us something about the craziest people you came across.
Hands down, this prize goes to Evgeniy a crass, 20-something Russian we stayed with in Moscow. He was comically offensive, and he earnestly tried to push our buttons, cramming as many racist and sexist statements as he could into every conversation. The experience was equal parts amusing and uncomfortable.
Love across two continents – Tyler and Tara share a moment across Asia and Europe.
As a traveller, how does ‘going slowly’ make a difference to the way you experience a place and its culture?
In our experience, the most memorable travel encounters require an open-ended plan or no plan at all. If you’re always keeping to an itinerary, rushing to the next city, tourist attraction, or bus ride, you’ll never have a chance to do things like accept invitations for tea, get lost in a big city on purpose or make plans to have breakfast with a local. Serendipity surrounds us, but we have to be willing to slow down enough to see it.
Windmills of my mind.
In between all these adventures, you programmed day in and day out to pay off your land and Tara wrote a 300 page cookbook! How did you find the time?
I am very much a goal-oriented person, and I think it’s fair to say that moderation is not my strong suit! A few months after our bicycle tour, Tara and I were on to the next adventure: hunting for land to start a homestead. I went from spending two years living out my wildest travel dreams, working eight hours a week, to programming 10-12 hour days, seven days a week.
Tyler shares a light moment with a local.
While all of this was going on, Tara was teaching herself how to use Adobe In Design, filling her days with recipe writing and testing, taking photos, and laying out her first book. The final product: ‘Bike. Camp. Cook.’ is slated to be published this spring!
Headstand happiness during yoga hour.
To be frank, working as much as I do now sucks, but being in debt would suck more. Last October, we paid off our land. At the moment, going slowly isn’t really in the cards from a work perspective, but knowing what we’re working towards – a homestead that costs less than $5,000 a year to live on –makes the continuing effort worthwhile.
Tyler gets Thai children as a captive audience while he disassembles his bicycle..
Anything special about the cycles you use?
In my opinion, a good touring bicycle should be as simple as possible. We both ride the venerable Surly Long Haul Trucker frame, a mainstay in the mid-range touring bicycle world. I’ve outfitted them with classic down-tube shifters, and middle-of-the-road Shimano mountain biking components for ease of replacement anywhere in the world. The most notable piece of kit on our bikes is probably the rear wheels: we run hand-built Velocity Psychos, a ridiculously beefy downhill racing rim. We travel heavy (130lbs+ per bicycle full loaded) and these are the only ones we’ve found that can handle it.
A coppersmith in Romania with all his pots and pans .
How is 2013 shaping up? What’s keeping you excited?
As I write this, I’m sitting in our tiny generator-powered camper, nestled in the Green Mountains of Vermont on our land. Tara and I are working on turning our 10 acre maple stand into a self-sustaining wind and solar powered homestead. The project will have us busy for at least the next three years (if not the rest of our lives). This season will have us cutting in a road, starting a massive wood pile, building a composting system, installing a hand pump in our well, collecting reeds for our thatched roof and possibly raising the timber-frame we cut ourselves at North House Folk School,Minnesota.
Tyler in the midst of cave hunting in Romania.
Interviewed By Gitika Saksena