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What I Learned from Carrying Everything I Owned on a Bicycle

I still remember laying it all out on the living room floor the night before our trip, lining the items in rows like we were playing a game of memory.

Toothbrush, camp stove, cycling shorts, book of poetry.

How would we know for sure what we would need to live for three months on a bicycle?

Who knows what we would encounter, how many flat tires we’d get or how long we’d go before hitting the next grocery store?

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In the summer of 2009, my partner Henry and I traveled 1,500 miles on a tandem bicycle, with just one Burley trailer carrying all our most-needed possessions. We didn’t know it at the time, but this trip would be a precursor to our next adventure- building a whole house on a trailer, (though not a trailer that could be pulled by bike!).

The trip taught us about living with less. It clarified what material goods we actually appreciated after a long day of biking. Some things were worth pulling over mountains and through the head-winds of North Dakota. What we didn’t need actively weighed us down. We ritually re-accessed the contents of our bags in the mundane process of unpacking everything each night and packing it all up each morning. We were glad we brought that emergency blanket we used for cold, rainy nights in our tent. But whose idea was it to bring a 5-pound bag of unshelled peanuts we were always too tired to deal with? Or that “camping-sized” cast iron pan?

We had to be prepared, but we also had to give up a certain amount of control over the situation. There was no way to pack everything that we might need or want, so we had to confront the possibility that we might get a little cold sometimes or bored or sore.

But, there is a new sense of freedom once you are willing to let go. There is something to be said for not always being prepared. When you don’t have what is perfectly prescribed, you are opening yourself to a more creative, spontaneous and sometimes silly existence. For us, this meant we had to unabashedly stroll into a bike shop in Fargo with a few broken spokes tied in place with scrap wire. It meant we had to have gas station dinners of tortilla chips, salsa and energy bars at times. It meant we had to laugh at ourselves for wearing bike shorts around town when our other clothes were dirty.

This was just a short trip, but it was one that made a huge impact and gave us a taste of what living with less can be like. If you can imagine, this is how some people live for years.

Living in the tiny house (which we are planning to build in the Spring) will be a different experience, with more of the comforts of home and trappings of convenience; but I am hoping that by downsizing and reassessing the things we’ve collected over the years since the trip, we will find that sense of freedom again that comes with letting go.

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Cori is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. She is planning on simplifying her life and building a tiny house this Spring. Follow her journey at TheTinyDream.com!
{ 14 comments… add one }
  • LaMar Alexander LaMar February 2, 2013, 9:55 am

    Thoreau wrote that if an emergency struck, a man should be able to leave his home with nothing more than the clothing on his back and feel like he left nothing behind.

    I had nothing but an old pickup and camper and a small piece of rough homestead land when I started my journey to simplicity.

    I still own much less than most people and if needed I could walk away and start over again with few regets at what was lost.

    My only important assest are my skills, ability to work hard, and courage to not be a slave to any master including my own posessions.

    LaMar

  • Robert Furlow February 2, 2013, 10:07 am

    I applaud your journey. As you might guess many have been down similar roads. Imagine trekking the CA coastal highway (The Bicentennial Trail I believe they called it back then) on a steel frame 10 speed. Indeed: no constant companionship, only one small backpack, old boy scout cooking gear(no fuel) and a light weight tent with a blanket. I found I lived mostly upon the graces of land owners and fellow travelers. I was indeed an introspective time.

    • Cori February 6, 2013, 11:11 am

      Yes, it was so interesting meeting others who were doing similar treks along the way. There is a certain materialism around cross-country cycling now–most had really fancy gear, while we only had a bike we bought for $100 off of craigslist and camping supplies we had gathered over the years. I love hearing other people cycling stories! That sounds like a beautiful trip.

  • Jim Sadler February 2, 2013, 10:25 am

    Living with a minimum of possessions was a major part of a religious life for centuries. These days things usually are not like that. For example if you live in a tiny home where would you keep the tools you need to build more tiny homes? The freedom to be self employed has a value as well. Calculating minimum space requirements should not exclude the space required to make a living. This is why the idea of having tiny modules that stand alone is appealing to me. A work module could be inexpensive and preclude the need to travel about going back and fourth to a job.

    • Simon Long January 23, 2017, 5:47 pm

      It’s an indulgent way of religious life. If you have nothing, you can’t help others with food or shelter etc.

  • ImReady February 2, 2013, 12:06 pm

    Jim Sadler, that is exactly my idea too! I have almost everything I need to build a tiny house trailer, and I fully intend to include many of my tools. How could I work anywhere without the tools of my trade. Of course, the more tools I can carry, the more work I can do, so, I have to draw the line somewhere. I think I would like to be able to build another trailer house, in a different place in the country, if someone likes mine enough to want to own one. Should be able to survive indefinitely with this method. Of course, not limiting myself to just building more tiny houses. I do all kinds of construction work, and might even work for another contractor during my travels. Just a dream, but, who knows????

  • Jerry February 2, 2013, 11:40 pm

    Jim & ImReady: Don’t you already carry your tools in your truck? You’ll need your truck to pull your tiny house on a trailer, and your tools will be with you every step of the way. A hard shell truck bed cover can protect everything from both the elements and theft. Remember, excuses for why you can’t do something are just that, excuses, and they hold you back simply out of fear.

  • Jan Kenney February 3, 2013, 8:33 am

    Brings back memories of the Bikecentennial Trans-America Trail….1979. All that was needed: Gitane mixte frame 10-speed, 30 lbs. of stuff, tee stirts & running shorts (no fancy trick bike clothes for women back then), and lots of John Denver songs in my head to pass the 4500 miles. Senses of both adventure & humor came in handy, too. Over 30+ years I gained & shed thousands of possessions, several houses, & 2 husbands…and, somehow, found my way “home”. I am writing this on a snowy morning in the cozy loft of my tiny (140 sq. ft.) Tumbleweed…in the the same North Face Cat’s Meow sleeping bag that I bought for that trip. I’m present to the freedom & joy that I felt that summer.
    Thanks, Cori & all those who commented.

    • Cori February 6, 2013, 11:23 am

      Wow. 4500 miles is quite the trip. Thanks for sharing! I love hearing about the memories this brings back for you. You are right–humor is one of the most important things you need for trips like this. More handy than any gear you can bring.

  • Carolyn B February 3, 2013, 11:22 am

    Cori, great article. I’ll have to look @ The Tiny Dream.com to check you out more. Going from a bike and camping to a tiny home sure would seem a step up, I think. Heat, a kitchen, a roof over your head — now that’s my kind of roughing it. I’m looking forward to your next article.

  • Kat February 4, 2013, 12:54 pm

    Where it says “re-accessing” at the end, it should actually be “reassessing”.

  • D Stickney March 7, 2013, 10:31 am

    Great story. I can relate to the process of downsizing to the bare bones. When I moved to France I reduced my possessions down from a full apartment to 3 boxes (18in cubed) and my backpack. I enjoy not being owned by my stuff, so I still avoid buying too much. I also appreciate how you mentioned that not having every thing for every situation in life forces creative solutions and spontaneity, which is so true, and often enjoyable.

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