BY JEN KENT
|Megan Wycklendt’s bicycle was stolen in Bellingham, Wash.,
shortly after the trip began, so she spent a few weeks working with townspeople there to build a new bike out of spare parts, some of which are shown here. / Photo by David Szymanski
All travel photos courtesy of Megan Wycklendt and Gordon Dunlop
Just over two years ago, Megan Wycklendt found herself face-to-face with a grizzly bear in northwest Canada. “It decided to cross a small stretch of road in front of me, about 30 meters or so, while I was biking,” remembers the 28-year-old Menomonee Falls native.
“I stopped my bike, began to slowly walk backward, and watched as he stood up to show how massive he was. He looked at me, and then continued across me into the ditch.
“I literally thought I was going die,” she adds, but with a certain sense of ease likened to Wycklendt’s go-with-the-flow personality. The story is just one of dozens she can readily recall from her biggest adventure to date, in which she and a friend, Gordon Dunlop of Scotland, biked from Alaska to the tip
Dubbed Bike Living the Americas, their tour kicked off in August of 2015 and commenced on March 31 of this year. The idea, says Wycklendt, came together naturally. “It started when I was 18,” she says. “I injured my back in gymnastics, (and) I was in a lot of pain physically. I wasn’t able to use my legs fully, and I was on painkillers.
“The doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to do any strenuous activity again,” she continues. “I had this idea that I needed to have a goal — some kind of goal to keep me motivated. I didn’t really know what it was yet, but I knew it was going to be something physical.”
The following year, and as an undergraduate student at UW-Madison, Wycklendt studied abroad in Denmark. “In Denmark, they use bikes for everything,” she explains. “I had a bike to take around the city and to classes, and I fell in love with the idea of using bicycling as a mode of transportation. … I was still having troubles with my body and my legs, but biking wasn’t hurting them more, so I was still able to be active.”
She began hearing about people who had biked across the U.S., and the thought of completing a similar — yet different — coastal challenge blossomed soon thereafter. “When I was 9, I moved to Mexico for four years with my family for my dad’s job, and I fell in love with the Latino culture,” Wycklendt says. “So instead of going east-west, I wondered, ‘What if I could go north-south and get that difference in cultures?’ I did some research, found one person who did it, read her whole blog, and then (the idea) just stuck.”
Wycklendt says she kept the idea to herself until she was 21, when she told only her best friend. “I went off painkillers at 22, started healing, (and) got into yoga and meditation. My back eventually healed,” she recalls. “Once I didn’t have any pain anymore and I could use my legs, I thought, ‘There’s no excuse anymore.’ I made a date — for after I graduated from graduate school. I said, ‘In 2015, I’m leaving.’”
She spent the years prior to her departure volunteering in Peru with Operation Groundswell, a grassroots organization that partners with local charities and community leaders to promote ethical travel, and it was during that time that she met Dunlop, her tour partner.
“After I graduated from undergraduate school in 2011, I traveled around South America, and in Peru, I volunteered with the earthquake disaster relief. I was around a fire one day after work, and somebody was talking to me about these two girls who had just come through the organization and had been biking all of South America,” Wycklendt remembers.
“I was so excited (to hear about it) because that was my dream. And these females were doing it, and that made me feel like it was possible for a girl to do this,” she adds. “I was so thrilled, so I turned to the person next to me to tell them about it, and (the person) happened to be Gordon. He looked at me like, ‘I could see myself doing that some day.’”
Wycklendt says she and Dunlop spent the next four days volunteering together, exchanged contact information, and then reconnected when she was interning in Germany years later. “I stopped by Scotland, and I said to him, ‘I’m going to leave in 2015. Are you in?’” she says with a laugh. “He said he needed to think about it. About six months or a year later, he told me that he got a job in Australia, and that the timing — of two years away — works out for him because he didn’t want to stay in Australia long term. He said, ‘I’m in.’ He essentially committed to two years with a stranger.”
When May of 2015 arrived, Wycklendt graduated with her master’s degree in counseling from UW-Whitewater, and she and Dunlop flew to Peru to volunteer with Operation Groundswell for the summer before departing on their two-year bike tour. “We both went to Peru, which was good because we worked together for a few months and got to know our styles of travel and leadership,” Wycklendt says. “Right from Peru, we flew up to Alaska, so we started (the tour) in August. The next two years we spent together.”
However admirable the physical and mental challenges of their adventure may be, Bike Living the Americas also served a much greater purpose: The pair raised more than $6,000 for two global charities, Mary’s Meals and Global Giving. “Gordon and I wanted there to be some sort of bigger purpose about our trip — something to raise awareness for. … We both really care about education, and we really have a soft spot for people who are in the cycle of poverty,” Wycklendt says. “… Mary’s Meals provides free lunches in schools in some of the most impoverished places. A lot of times, what happens for kids is that they don’t come to school because they are forced to work or stay home to be able to provide for basic needs of the family, which is understandable. … So by providing food inside the school, at least that’s an incentive to send those kids to school.”
She says supporting sustainable organizations was imperative, and that Global Giving, a nonprofit and global crowd-funding platform for grassroots projects, also provides educational resources to communities and children in need.
Regarding funding for the tour itself, Wycklendt says she and Dunlop applied for and received numerous grants, but ultimately lived simply and worked remotely or as needed to make ends meet. “We worked as we went,” she says. “I stopped for two weeks and worked fast food — 100 hours in 10 days. We made it work, which I really appreciated. It was more like a lifestyle — bike living. You work as you go.”
Bike Living the Americas:
» Megan Wycklendt and Gordon Dunlop biked an average of 60 miles per day when active. They clocked a total of roughly 16,000 miles, starting in Anchorage, Alaska, and ending in Ushuaia, Argentina.
» Bicycle Doctor Nordic Ski Shop in Dousman sponsored the duo,
» Wycklendt and Dunlop each
For lodging, they free-camped or secured accommodations through websites like Couchsurfing and Warmshowers. “Warmshowers is specifically for bicycle tourists. (The hosts) really know what you’d be looking for,” explains Wycklendt. “There’s an expectation that you’ll share company with each other and share stories. A lot of times they’ve done tours themselves, and it’s a great way to keep inside the touring community.”
The people they met along the way, she notes, were undoubtedly the highlight of the trip. “One time, in Mexico, we were quite remote in a small village, and I had a flat tire so I just wheeled it into the community. We were asking people if there was a place to camp for the night, and this man comes up to us and goes, ‘You should stay in my house with my family. We have tons of food, and I have tons of family over. I’d love to have more,’” Wycklendt remembers. “We walked in, and it ended up being his mother’s funeral. We were immediately like, ‘We don’t want to impose on this!’ And he said, ‘No, this is a celebration. I want you to hear about her, and there’s plenty of food.’ So we stayed.
“I just felt like a part of (the family),” she continues. “Everyone who we met was so kind and welcoming, but in Latin America, it just seems like part of that culture. To take care of each other and focus on family, and when you’re vulnerable or alone, they just kind of take you under their wing.”
And in today’s tumultuous world, perhaps the most important takeaway Wycklendt gleaned from the tour is that people are indeed inherently good. “(The trip) was almost an experiment, to be honest. I had this hypothesis from my other travels that people are good,” she explains. “With a trip like this, a lot of people were very scared for me. … A lot of times, we just get these single stories about groups of people, and I just wanted to honestly share stories about good people so they were balancing out those other stories.
“Everyone is really trying to live their life,” she adds. “Not to be blind to what’s happening in a lot of places in the world, but in all of those situations, there are really good, local people who are standing up against those things as well. Especially in places in Colombia and Mexico that have this reputation, (the locals) were the nicest, because they want to show visitors that what’s out there about them isn’t necessarily true. Being able to share those stories is definitely a privilege, and a goal we wanted to accomplish.”
After arriving back in the U.S. last March, Wycklendt spent four days in Milwaukee visiting friends and family members before flying to India to volunteer with Operation Groundswell for the summer. Her current adventure, which officially kicked off in mid-August, is that of a school counselor at Acosta Middle School on Milwaukee’s south side.
“I’m a dreamer, (and) one of my huge dreams was to be a school counselor. I really believe in the profession and in mental health,” she says when asked if another multi-year tour is in her near future. “I want to really commit to (this job). I don’t want to just be there for a little bit and then leave. I wanted to be really sure when I accepted this job that I’m ready for it, and that I’m ready to really commit to the staff and families and the students. I don’t really see an end in sight for this.” The perk of having a long summer vacation is not lost on her, though, and she says shorter trips are a definite possibility.
Wycklendt is also writing a book about Bike Living the Americas, which she hopes to self-publish next year, and is looking forward to establishing roots in Milwaukee. “I learned a lot about myself (and) about people in general, cross culturally,” she says of the adventure. “I definitely learned to go with the flow more — that things will happen, and by complaining or resisting, it is only going to make it worse. I think that helps a lot with my new job. There are surprises every day, and it’s always a new adventure.”