On June 8, 2008 Nancy Vogel, her husband John (both school teachers) and their 10-year-old twin sons Daryl and Davy, left on a 2 1/2 year bicycle odyssey, traversing the Pan-American Highway from Alaska to Patagonia, Argentina.
This year Daryl and Davy turned 12, while still on their cycling trip. The Vogel family plan to reach their final destination, Tierra del Fuego, in March of 2011— at which time the boys will become the new Guinness world record holders as the youngest people to cycle the Pan-American Highway.
In April we talked with Nancy Vogel—now cycling through Peru with her family on the last leg of their epic journey—about the joys and challenges of living family life on the road and travelling by bicycle.
What motivated you to make this cycling trip from Alaska to the southern tip of South America with your family?
Nancy: I think it comes down to time. We wanted time together as a family without all the distractions of modern society. We wanted time with our children now, before they are grown and have flown the coop. We wanted to work together as a family toward a common goal—something that is nearly non-existent in today’s world. And we wanted to have adventures.
We could easily have cycled around Asia or Africa, but we chose the Americas for no particular reason other than I loved it when I lived there years ago and my husband had never been.
You have 1 tandem bike and 2 singles for the trip. Why did you include 2 single bikes rather than another tandem?
Nancy: We came up with this configuration based on the boys’ wishes.
When we broached the subject of another big ride (the boys rode 9,300 miles on the back of a triple bicycle in 2006/07) they were totally excited. John and I were leaning toward the idea of two tandems for this trip so each boy could be with a parent, but thought we would throw it out there—with the hope that the boys would want that too. Daryl immediately piped up, “Tandem!” while Davy shouted out, “Single!”
We were concerned about putting Davy on a single bike, but he was so excited about it that we decided to try. It ended up being a great choice!
Nancy: How much gear? Too much! We carry a lot, but each and every item is crucial.
We have to be prepared for all four seasons. As we passed through Wyoming, we got caught in serious winter weather and temperatures were way below freezing. In Central America it was hotter than blazes. That means we have to carry heavy winter jackets and sleeping bags.
We are also road-schooling the boys, so we need a certain amount of stuff for that—the math books are the biggest and heaviest. If we were on a short trip, we wouldn’t bother, but we can’t ignore their education for three years!
Strapped on our bikes are everything we need to be self-sufficient. We’ve got clothes and tents and sleeping bags. I carry a small stove and a pot for cooking. At times we need to carry food for several days. It really is amazing to think of the quantity of stuff we need!
The gear is spread out between the three bikes, but we don’t put a lot on Davy’s bike. Davy carries the light, bulky stuff (pillows and things like that). That means that John and my bikes are really loaded down.
Nancy: That has changed over time, and will change more as we continue south. In the USA and Canada, we camped almost exclusively—hotels were way too expensive for our meager budget. In Mexico, we started getting hotels in the cities, but continued to camp in between.
By the time we reached Guatemala, however, it was just too hot in the tent. After a tough day on the road, we climbed into the tent and lay there sweating. The entire night was nothing more than a horrid sweatfest, and we were exhausted the next day. It didn’t take long to discover that camping in Central America simply wasn’t going to work.
Fortunately, hotels were cheap enough by then that we could afford them. We typically pay $20-25 per night for a basic hotel for the four of us. We sleep a lot better and find the money very well spent. We still have our tent and use it in case we can’t make it to the next hotel for some reason.
When we get down to Argentina and Chile, it will get really expensive again so we’ll be camping much more.
What do you eat and how do you prepare meals while on the road?
Nancy: That has also changed through time. In the northern part of the world, we cooked all the time. We have a tiny camp stove and one pot, so we made a lot of pasta and rice. Sometimes we cooked in city parks or campgrounds, and other times next to a river or lake.
Now, we rarely pull out the stove. We can eat at a restaurant for very cheap, so it isn’t worth the hassle of pulling out the stove. We typically eat the standard meal of some type of meat (chicken, beef, etc…) rice, and veggies for about $1.50 per plate. In Colombia we only ordered three meals as they were so big we couldn’t eat four of them!
Who is the bike mechanic in the family?
Nancy: John. Although I know how to do most things, I hate it—I let him do the honors.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had on the trip?
Nancy: Getting through northern Peru, hands down! It seemed as though everybody and everything was conspiring against us. Every day was a battle in so many ways—the desert, the headwinds, the bad hotels and dreadful food, etc. It was tough to keep going, but the boys’ determination to reach the end of the world never waivered one iota.
What’s the best thing about doing a trip like this?
Nancy: The best part is working together as a family toward a common goal. That is something that simply doesn’t happen in our society. Generally, Mom and Dad both go off to their separate places of work, the kids head out to their respective schools. They all converge again in the evening once they are exhausted and still have to prepare for tomorrow’s hectic schedule.
We are together. All the time. Working together, playing together, living together. We have a common goal and a common focus and we all know that the four of us have to get through things together—if any one of us has to drop out for whatever reason, we all drop out. That keeps us united and looking out for one another.
What’s the most inspiring thing that’s happened while on the trip?
Nancy: For me, it’s been meeting people who are dealing with enormous challenges that I can’t even imagine, and forging ahead. In Ecuador I met a family that lived right at the base of a volcano—when there was a big eruption hot volcanic rocks showered down into their village. Eighteen months ago a football-sized rock crashed through their roof into their living room.
My first response was, “Why don’t you move?” After talking with them, I understood why they don’t move – they can’t. They are, quite literally, trapped by a volcano.
Another time we cycled into a small town in northern Peru shortly after riots had broken out in the market killing six people. I headed down to the market to wander around, and ended up having the most wild ride of my life! Within minutes of arriving, I was surrounded by vendors who were furious, heartbroken and confused—they couldn’t figure out how it had all happened.
I ended up talking with many people that day—including the father of a boy who had been injured in the riots and was in a coma in the hospital. The boy had been working in his shop when the police forces opened up fire. Blood was spattered all over the shop. It was a very intense time for me.
It’s through meeting people who face those kinds of struggles that makes me realize just how fortunate I am. Sometimes I forget—when I’m battling headwinds or my legs are stinging from the blowing sand—just how lucky I am to have this experience. People like this bring that back to me.
How do you finance a 2 1/2 year cycling trip for four?
Nancy: Families have financed it in so many different ways. Some save for years and years, knowing they wanted to take a big trip. Others take early retirement. There is no one set answer here.
For us, we simply decided time with our sons now was more important than a lot of money once we retire. We have rented out our home (we own it outright and are not making payments) so the rent income is now paying slightly more than half of our expenses. The rest we try to make with writing articles, our website, donations, etc. Whatever is not covered at the end of the month comes out of our retirement savings.
I imagine your sons are excited about becoming Guinness world record holders as the youngest people to cycle the Pan-American Highway. How much did that influence your decision to make this particular trip?
Nancy: At the beginning, it was an afterthought. We had decided to take the trip and were sitting around one night chatting. I mentioned that the boys would probably be the youngest people to ever cycle the Pan American Highway and Daryl happened to be reading the Guinness Book of World Records. Aha! We contacted Guinness and blah, blah, blah… we are now on an official world record quest!
But now that we are so close (5000 miles from our goal and that’s close?!?! Egads!), the record has become much more important. Now, the idea of quitting is simply unimaginable—the boys have come so far and have accomplished so much. To quit now would be tough. In the beginning, we just rode and figured if it happened, it happened. Now, we are making decisions based on the record.
When do you find the time to teach Davy and Daryl? What subjects are they studying?
Nancy: We have plenty of time! A typical riding day is only 4-6 hours on the bike, and we typically only ride about 12-15 days per month. In other words, time is not an issue.
We carry math books with us and the boys are working through those. They are both quite advanced, so we don’t have to worry about it—if they don’t get it done they will still be at least one year ahead of their peers. We also work on writing through journal entries and essays. They research the areas we pass through. We also have a copy of an earth science book that a friend scanned in so the boys study earth science when we have time.
On your website I read an article on Three Toed Sloths written by David. Can you tell us about the online education you are volunteering through Reach the World and how much, and in what ways your boys contribute to that?
Nancy: We decided that we wanted to use our skills and expertise as teachers to reach out to other kids on this journey, so hooked up with Reach the World. We try to post something each week—sometimes just a journal entry, other times a more in-depth report about something we’ve learned about. Sometimes I write it, sometimes the boys do. It really just depends on what is happening at the time.
I was very impressed reading about your approach to education. You said that your “goal is to encourage the boys to learn how to learn”. How do you do that?
Nancy: One of many things I learned through my 21 years in the classroom is that there is simply no way we can teach someone all there is to know. We can only teach them that they don’t know everything, and how to learn what they want to know.
A lot of that comes from modeling—from John and I being excited about learning and seeking out educational opportunities. We take the boys to historical sites and museums and we take the time to read the signs and talk with people. The boys see that learning is a lifelong thing.
We also work a lot on research skills. When we were getting close to the Panama Canal, the boys researched the canal—how they made it, the logistics involved in raising and lowering the boats. Then when we got there, the whole things meant a lot more to them.
Nancy: That is the 6 million dollar question! We have no idea—but figure we have ten months to think about it!
How challenging will it be for Davy and Daryl to adapt to being back in the classroom after this trip? Is this something you’ve discussed with them?
Nancy: We have no idea. We’ve talked about it and it remains an unknown. Right now, Daryl is saying he wants to continue to be homeschooled. Davy says he wants to go back to school for a few months to reconnect with friends and then continue traveling. We have no idea what we will end up doing.
For more information, photos and videos about the Vogel family’s cycling trip please visit their website: www.familyonbikes.org