The first time I met Matt – an emigre of Brunswick, Maine – took place in a cabin just below the summit of Mount Pierce. We were younger at the time and spent the afternoon chattering about the different music festivals we’d been to. Five years later, the two of us went out for beers in Boston and somewhere close to the second round, Matt dropped a bombshell that shook the meager foundations I’d built since college. He and a couple of friends were pooling their money together for an epic, transcontinental bike journey that would take them from the Maine coast to San Francisco. In many ways, Matt’s trip is emblematic of the common Millennial experience. Not only was the expedition a feat of hard work and enduring passion, it also lead Matt to his current home of Missoula, Montana; where he now works as a documentary film festival intern, a cafe server, and a weekly writing mentor for young students.
This is Matt’s story.
How does a Mainer come to find himself stationed in Missoula?
Back in October of 2012, I moved out here. I’d passed through Missoula on the bike trip, towards the end of August. And I just got this great gut feeling about the place when I was here. By the end of the trip, I was looking for a new place to live, so…
Did you line up a job before packing your bags or did you just wing it?
Actually, I found a job while I was still on the trip – as an English tutor for middle school and high school students. I’d been wanting to work with kids more in an educational field, so this was really convenient. However, due to circumstances beyond my control, the job fell through upon my returning here.
Shit. How did you support yourself?
Luckily, I was able to line up a few part-time jobs that I can live on! Right now, I’m interning at the International Wildlife Film Festival. It’s been great preparing the fest, which is in April: facilitating conversations about the films between volunteer judging panels. We’ve had about 200 entries, so this is how we narrow down the final bill to about 70. Then I’m working about 30 hours per week at a local café. I’ve worked in restaurants before and my coworkers are fun to be around. And finally, I’m also volunteering for this after school program called Flagship. Every Thursday, I show wildlife documentaries to middle school kids.
So you were able to follow your educational instincts after all.
It’s been interesting. Initially, I was interested in working with students at a high school level: initiating conversations about the films’ narration, cinematography, etc. It’s not as easy to get that dialogue going with sixth or seventh graders, but then, the other day I was thinking, “Where would these kids be if they weren’t here?” Probably checking Facebook or playing video games. So in that regard, being part of their curriculum is very gratifying.
Let’s jump back to your own education. You studied at St. Lawrence University. As an underclassman, what did you want to do after college?
After graduating, I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I think that’s probably because I went to a very small liberal arts college that was in the middle of nowhere: it’s a small bubble and didn’t encourage risk-taking. And that’s one thing I’ve been trying to do since college – living a transient lifestyle and trying to narrow my future goals. The bike trip came from this impetus to venture into the wider world with a curious mind. And over the course of this trip, I was able to sharpen my outlook on the future and really think about what I wanted to do after we hung up our helmets. In my case, I discovered my interest in working with kids and leading bike trips in some context, further down the road.
So the trip distilled your goal focus? How so?
Well, even though there were three of us traveling, you get a lot of head space on a cross-country bike trip. There’d be extended periods of me pedaling on my own, since we each agreed to bike at our own respective paces.
Tell me about the route.
After a lot of debate and time estimations, we decided that we’d start in Maine, go through New York into Ontario, and then up through Michigan. From there, we’d bike across the northern states in the US – Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and then Washington. We’d bike around the islands near Puget Sound for a bit, and from there, finish up the whole trip by going down the Pacific Coast to San Francisco. It was about 5,000 miles total. As far as daily mileage, we didn’t really plan too far in advance. We tried to alternate between easy and arduous days as we traveled.
What were the logistics of funding this trip?
I was able to save up most of the money I needed for the trip by working in a network of guest lodges in Maine, during the winter of 2012. The cost per person was about $1500, and that’s for three and a half months on the road. It didn’t include gear, but it was still midrange for a trip like this. The months beforehand, we spent studying and shopping for bike equipment religiously.
How did people you know respond when you announced that you’d be traveling from coast to coast on a bike?
Most people were really wowed by the idea. They’d sometimes say, “That’s something that I’ve always wanted to do.” Sometimes, they almost seemed jealous; like they hadn’t been able to quite get a similar plan together
First of all, having three people was a huge stress reliever. We had a great support system for each other, and it made tasks like finding public places where we could camp much easier. But another thing I noticed was that traveling with a bike seems to be like a passport for the traveler. People see your bike, they immediately recognize that you’re traveling, and usually, they respect that kind of a lifestyle. We’d often get approached by people who had seen our bikes and were eager to talk about where we’d been and what lay ahead.
Why bicyclists in particular? Why wouldn’t a long-distance hiker get the same reception?
In essence, there’s really no difference, but for some reason, I think our culture looks at wayward travelers with backpacks in a negative light. It’s like the seer automatically assumes that if someone is walking around with their possessions in a backpack, that person must be a bum. It’s possible that having a bike with all this gear suggests a kind of affluence that puts strangers at ease more. They seem to think that you have a plan or itinerary with your travels. At least, that was my experience.
On average, how did your interactions with strangers play out on the course of this trip?
We met so many great people along the way, and a lot of them really went out of their way to help us out. In Ontario, not long after we made it through New York, we ran into the problem of running out of water. It was a Monday night and the towns on our route were pretty depressed economically. We needed to hydrate, and since most of the restaurants around us were closed, we found ourselves searching a public park for fountains. And this really cute older couple whose house sat right across from the park saw us with our bikes and invited us into their house. They gave us freshly baked cookies, some orange slices and lots of water, and asked us the obvious questions like where we came from and where we were going.
Wow, “Road Magic.”
I could tell they were empty-nesters, probably in their 60s, and we met a lot of people like that over the course of the trip: folks who didn’t have kids in the house anymore. In a way, it felt like we were acting as their surrogate sons, benefiting from their internal parental instincts. They were wonderful people and seemed genuinely glad to help us out.
On the occasions when you guys did find yourselves in dire straights, how comfortable did you feel approaching people you didn’t know and asking for help?
Our openness to asking people for help got a lot stronger over the course of the trip. That option became okay to us. Another time in Ontario, we were looking for a place to sleep in this small city called St. Thomas and started surveying a public common as it was getting dark. This was the kind of place we generally gravitated towards, but we didn’t get a good feeling from this park. It was a larger town, and having more people around was kind of an uncomfortable thought. We made a lot of decisions based on our gut feeling, and in retrospect, I think that was really important.
So where did you go once the park was deemed too sketchy?
After biking around town for hours, we found ourselves at a McDonalds around midnight. We’d gotten some ice cream earlier and found out from a few locals that the park was actually a popular hangout spot for heroin addicts! So we were relieved, but still in need of a place. And at the McDonalds, there was this woman and her daughter in a van outside, using the free wi-fi. We debated asking them if they knew of a place that would be good for camping. By this point, we’d found that if you asked people if they knew of “some place” where we could camp, they’d often invite us to pitch our tent in their backyard or someplace similar.
Did the trend hold in this scenario?
My friend Alex was the one who volunteered to ask the woman, and the two of them wound up chatting for almost an hour. Both of them were real talkers at heart, and the two opened up about their lives pretty extensively; even the lives of her seven kids! And by 1 AM – at which point I’ve practically fallen asleep on the sidewalk – she suggested that we camp in her yard. So we did. And the next morning, we hung around much longer than we normally would, chatting with her and learning about her family. There was this sense that the four of us were there for each other.
Was there ever a time when you met somebody whom you felt threatened or unnerved by? After all, fear of strangers is something that keeps a lot of people from traveling like you guys did.
There was this one really strange encounter that shook us up. It took place in the town of Bay City, Michigan. We’d used the website Warmshowers (the cyclist equivalent of Couchsurfing) once in awhile and had been trying to find sleeping arrangements for Bay City using the site. But the only person who responded to us was this guy who didn’t have any Warmshowers user feedback on his page – which we’d usually read to verify potential hosts. We were pretty desperate, since most of the public areas in town were too risky. So we called this guy. He sounded socially awkward over the phone, but he said we should come by and that we could camp in his yard.
I take it you accepted the invitation.
We did, but with caution. And as soon as we arrived at the address he gave us, we could tell something was off: mainly because the guy had no yard space whatsoever! There was just a 4×4 path of dirt next to his truck. So we already knew he’d lied to us. Like I said earlier, you have to rely on your gut feeling in situations like these. So we left immediately, without even knocking on the door.
Good thinking. Was that the end of it?
Well, it was getting pretty late at this point, and eventually we broke down and decided to pay $7 a person for a tent site in this big campground nearby; something we rarely did on our travel budget. We were lucky enough to nab the last site. There was this boating event going on, so all the other spots were packed with RVs and trucks. But we felt safe.
Somehow I have a feeling that didn’t last long.
So before going to bed, we decided it would be polite to call the guy from Couchsurfing and tell him that we’d decided not to stay that night. So I call him up and I make an excuse that we wanted to stay closer to a road that would take us out of town faster in the morning. And when I told him that, I could feel that he was really disappointed. He asked me where we chose to sleep, and I told him we found a campground. Then he asks, “What number is your campsite?”
Yeah, that was a major red flag. Of course, we didn’t tell him. I think my words were, “Nope, that’s okay.” And he kept on rambling about stuff we should in town before both of us hung up. We all went to bed, glad that we didn’t stay with the guy. The next day was supposed to be a rest day, so we planned to sleep in for the morning till around 8 AM. But instead, we get a call at 6 AM the next morning, and it’s the same guy. We let it ring. I was half asleep at this point, but as the phone went to voicemail mode, Alex turned over with wide eyes, jolted me awake, and whispered, “He’s here!”
As soon as he says the words, I’m 100% awake. And I can hear this guy leaving a message on the phone from about 20 feet away, outside the tent. We don’t know what to do; we’re completely frozen in our sleeping bags. This campsite was almost an hour from the guy’s house, which meant he must have left at 5 AM to start looking for us. Finally, after ten minutes, he leaves.
How did you escape with your life?
We talked to the campground rangers about the situation. The guy was circling the grounds looking for us – at one point the head ranger intercepted him and tried to throw him off our trail. What we wound up doing was biking out of the campground via a forest path that the rangers told us was far removed from the main roads. We didn’t look back! The last we saw of the guy, he was pacing around the ranger station while we slipped out the back door.
Wow. So after an experience like that, how do you resist the urge to throw in the towel and return to a safer existence?
I think it comes down to the mindset we had; being open to adventures. Even though that experience was a weird one, it didn’t rattle us irreversibly. We almost shrugged off the event, and just continued onward. There were very few points in the trip where I consciously felt, “I don’t want to be here.” Even after long days in the heat with no shade, or times when I hadn’t eaten for hours. Adventures are marked by adversity.
Do you think people in our age bracket are more drawn to lives of adventure or security?
I can only relate to the people I’ve met, but I think people our age want to branch out, try new things, and push beyond their comfort zones. Yet every day, I also meet plenty of people our age who seem resistant to that impulse. I don’t think it’s fully weighted in one direction yet, but we seem to be trending towards a more intrepid existence.
Are there any adventures you’d like to be embarking upon 5-10 years from now?
I’d like to go to grad school for either writing or film. There’s a place in Portland, Maine called the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies that’s pretty high on my list. Also, something I’ve been wanting to do for years…kind of a grand plan, that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently…for most of my life, I’ve stuttered. It’s affected my social life, and it’s not always apparent to other people. Sometimes they hear it without recognizing it. And it’s a part of me that I haven’t quite understood yet. What I’d love to is talk with others about the phenomenon and turn the interviews into a book or film. It’s still such a scientific mystery – a disconnect between hemispheres of the brain.
A lot has been said about our generation – The Millennials – and not all of it is good. How do you identify with the term?
I think of Millennial as a term describing young adults trying to navigate adulthood through times of uncertainty. I think we have a whole new set of challenges that previous generations haven’t had to deal with. Me, I’ve been fortunate enough to have my parents’ support as a lifeline and not be encumbered by some of the financial burdens that many Millennials are dealing with. I want to make that clear, that there are many people who’ve had it worse than I have. But in general, Millennials aren’t only dealing with uncertain circumstances, but uncertain ambitions. It’s tough to prioritize exactly what you want to go after in life, and we can only choose so many. Unfortunately, there are only so many jobs that offer financial security and meaningful work. So I think that’s our dilemma.
You can relate to this dilemma.
Definitely. After moving to Missoula, I realized there were so many unrealized goals within me, and I’ve finally started to pursue them. Working with kids, for instance. Now I’ve tried it, enjoyed it, and I’m working to improve my skills.
How do you feel about the prediction that you or I will experience a lower standard of living than our parents, due to the economy?
When I think of my parents as 20-somethings, I can imagine that they had a solid grasp of when they would likely own a house and have kids of their own. We don’t have that anymore. I think for a lot of us, we live our lives with the hope that somehow things will just “line up.” I don’t feel like I’m living on a timeline, if that makes sense. I don’t know when I’ll own property or have a job with benefits, but my take on the whole matter is, you can’t plan things looking forward. You can only reflect and trust your instincts for the future.