You can buy anything in this world but time. Breast milk by mail, real estate on the moon, government, a goddamn Learjet or tiger penis soup. But time cannot be packaged and sold; only used. Life is time, and time is life—a constant, swirling exchange where we’re only given a finite share.
Craig Bierly put in his time. He gave 26 years to the aerospace industry and more to his family’s foundry, college, school and all the other life crap before that. When he retired he could of just relaxed, moved to Florida. Instead, when hit the ripe age of 60 he dis-solved it all into what could fit inside his van and set in motion a life on the road, one in sole pursuit of mountain biking his way through the States. It’s been over five years since he put ‘er in drive, thousands of miles of trail have passed under his bike tires and many thousands more under his mobile home.
<!– image one – smiling Craig –>
The back of the green midsize Sprinter, plastered in a poster wall fashion of stickers, and sticks out of the parking lot [a diamond plated Jobox dan-gling off]. The word “Jingoism” is painted on the back and a Turner Burner is strapped on top. Craig greets me in the parking lot of the Rocket Bakery in Spokane sporting a sunhat, Oakley blade shades and a big dusty-white Santa Claus beard with the hair to match. The mountain bike ritual of pre-ride coffee and fuel proceeds as Craig begins his tale. “It was ‘What am I going to do?’” He starts, “I was working and I was earning an income—it wasn’t a career, and it gave me freedom. I chose to not accept responsibility other than just be a worker. I didn’t swallow the management hook and didn’t build a career and do that. I kept free-dom, I would work 40 hours a week and just go. I’ve had an active life; it was backcountry skiing, and then when mountain biking came on I got into mountain biking. I’ve had three shoulder sur-geries and a knee surgery from those life choices before I even left on this odyssey.”
Craig was unfortunately back in Spokane assessing shoulder surgery number four with his doctor, and looking for a place to rent and rest post operation. “The fact is, the body wears and all I was doing was wearing my body out after work and on weekends, but not being able to go see these other places. You know, what was the point? To retire? My house was almost paid for; I enjoyed the money because, you know what money does to you—you accumulate stuff—but I wanted to go ride these rides that I had been reading about.” Bierly worked as an aerospace production planning manufac-turing engineer for 26 years, 20 of those years for Boeing, and 12 of them in Spokane. After 9/11, the ownership of the Spo-kane plant was transferred and Craig did a little soul seeking. “They brought us across and I worked another four years, and during that time I was laid off in violation of our negotiated la-bor contract.” He explains. “I spent 14 months laid off learning the lesson that having my time and little money was better than having money and less of ‘me’ time. Business picked up and I was re-hired per contract. But the company had crushed my heart, I returned and just marked time and saved money for a departure under my terms.”
He’d had a VW Westy and that got him into the first thing: being able to take road trips. “I had done tent camping before and I was a back-packer, but you know, you gotta drag all that stuff out.” He breaks down. “All of a sudden, with a camp-er all I needed was a level place to camp, regardless of the rocks, and I could just go. I could drop a hat, put food in it and go. It became really easy. So I was doing weekend trips, week trips, two-week trips, three-week trips—that sort of thing. I was learning what it was to live on the road in a van. Because I was going to do this trip, I needed to find something that was bigger than that. I went through looking at different things. I was looking at a pickup truck with a pop-up camper, but the camper was too small so that didn’t go. Then I looked at the mid-length Sprinter and I measured the inside of that van and then laid those measurements out in a room in my house, and I did the human engineering in that thing to find out ‘What can I have? What can this be?’”
Craig was single, with no kids, just a cat and a dog. With work nearing an end, Craig’s plan sped up. Through arbitration of the labor contract, he was able to write a check for the price of a new Dodge Sprinter. He had a propane conversion for the stove, fridge and heater put in, along with custom cabinets and bed. He retired and sold his house in 2008, then hit the road on July 18. With gas tanks, food and maintenance covered by a small pen-sion from Boeing, Social Security, interest from the sale of his house, and some savings, the roaming began. “I deemed Crested Butte too far to go.” Bierly admits. “But when I retired, I did a few rides in Montana and whatnot and I worked my way up. All of a sudden I was in Crested Butte and I broke through the barrier that I invoked. It was like, ‘red rover, red rov-er, come over’. Like wow, America, and I just went.” Craig’s radii of travel grew, following the seasons and tacky trail, and he established a network of hubs all over the coun-try, from Sedona to Sun Valley, Hailey, Bentonville, Brevard, Bend and Oakridge.
<!–this section needs to be bolded–> Boom, they’re gone cause they’re going home. You know the thing about living on the road is you don’t have to go anywhere. Wait a minute, tomorrow’s just another day of my vacation.
Maybe it’s old nomadic roots, but the promise of escape, travel, greener grass or simply a different daily experience always begs. “Well, the joy is when you do this, you don’t have to go home” Craig adds. “Last week I was in Yellowstone with a group of Spokane friends, and they’re all on vacation so they did a ride on Saturday; Sunday morning they were fuckin’ gone at like 9 o’clock in the morning. Boom, they’re gone cause they’re going home. You know the thing about living on the road is you don’t have to go anywhere. Wait a minute: tomorrow’s just another day of my vacation, you know?” The actual logistics of living out of human proportioned sardine can with wheels and no bathroom or shower access can be frightening for some. A rudimentary home on the roam demands a different tact of human routine. Simple conveniences like bathrooms and showers now become part of the adventure. Craig’s average day goes something like this: find a place to ride, find a shower, find food or groceries, then find a place to sleep. “I don’t always get a shower after every ride.” Craig admits. “My health insurance has a silver sneaker program that gains me access to participating gyms around the country. It costs $27 a year and some months it pays for itself. Private campgrounds, or state campgrounds have heated showers. Sometimes I use a ride-host’s shower. During hot temps I use a solar shower and keep my shorts on for what I call a parking-lot shower. I am comfortable be-ing private in a public place. Shitting can be a shovel and the woods. There are always fast-food restaurants. I like build-ing-supply chains like Lowes, as there are beaucoup stalls.”
The digitization of all things helps one loosen ties as well. Direct deposits, email and other services help Craig lead an untethered life. “I use Earthclass mail [a forwarding service] as my mailing address,” he says. “Mail is received, they scan the envelop and send an email with the scan . Then I decide what to do, from trashing it to opening it and downloading it.” We’re blessed with a lot of roads and open space in the United States, but it comes with limitations, too. Where you can and can’t park, where you can piss and so on. “I like the western US as there is more public land for ‘le-gal’ camping,” Craig says. “In descending order, the most rule-free land managers are the BLM, US Forest Service for dispersed primitive camping, then the state forests and most require camping in established paid campgrounds. The most stringent are the National Parks. Apparently Forest Service supervisors have latitude in establishing length of stay. Sedona is 14 days out of 28; some are 14 days in one spot then, move five air-miles away; some per-mit only 28 days per year. I city camp as required. I pick absent landlords, like business parks’ vacant spots, which are especially good for Saturday nights. Hospital lots, some have security which makes for a sound sleep. Some-times I stay in a host’s driveway, but I stay in my van. Why stay in the city when I can be out in the woods?” So far Bierly has only been booted three times. “I am an opportunist counting on nobody getting up on their hind legs and kicking me out,” he says. “I dress respectably: collared shirts and no blue jeans and good teeth.”
Craig’s cross-country hunt for trails has uncovered some gems. He has a binder full of trail maps, logs and notes of nearly ride, a treasure chest of sorts. “Have you ridden Thunder Mountain outside of Zion Mountain in Utah?” he responds as I prod him for fa-vorites. “It looks like Bryce with the blonde hoodoos and whatnot. I’ve ridden it twice. The first time was in the fall and had just optimum conditions, just gorgeous. Then two years ago I rode it again, and there was snow and there was freeze-thaw mud, and it was just shit. But if I had only ever ridden that just that muddy time I’d have said, ‘What the fuck?’ But the fact that I had ridden it be-fore and saw how great it was…the mud was an aberra-tion and you can’t judge it based on that. The same thing happens with these other places that I’ve been. There are so many hidden riding gems out there. Years ago before I had a laptop, I would roll into a town, find a phone book and pick a bike shop from the yellow pages, then go to the shop and inquire about local trails. That’s how I discovered Helena, MT before they became an IMBA
ride center. There is a lot of good riding throughout the US….Cable, WI; Mohican in Ohio; Syllamo in Arkansas, Michaux State Forest in Pennsylvania. I’ll throw this out—do you know Switchgrass in Wilson, KS? The likelihood of you ever riding that one is awfully slim, so therefore you just have to take my word for it, but I stum-bled on this one. It was granted IMBA epic status last year. When I rode it the first two times it had 16 miles and 1,600 vertical, and it was all hand-built trail. The topography there is convoluted; it goes into a lake basin, but all these side drainages and the way the trail plays with the terrain is absolutely hysterical.” There’s no doubt that roaming from one trailhead to the next is a dream life for many in the mountain bike tribe, but life on the road is demanding socially, logistically and mentally. Craig admits difficulty in relating to old friends, but jumps at the opportunity to converse with strangers. “I enjoy picking people I want to be involved with,” he says. “I enjoy sitting at the bar and conversing and learning about things I have no idea about. We deny the op-portunity to let people into our lives, but on the road it’s a daily act of meeting people. Now the deal is, I hang with the mountain biking crowd, so what I expose my-self to is probably the socio-economic group that I’m comfortable with. I don’t go to the expensive places, so I don’t get into the business-owner sort of thing. You and I, who are workers, that’s much richer. When I first started this, I had envisioned two years to do the entire country. It took me 11 months and 3 weeks and I was done. I needed a new goal, so I came up with the idea of making it 1,000 days. 1,000 days came and went. A buddy misunderstood the 1,000 days, re-naming it 1,000 ‘rides’. Then this last spring I hit 1,000 rides. There’s no goal anymore.” As of press time, Craig has racked up some 130,000 miles behind the wheel and 1,670 miles (1,100 rides) behind the handlebars since his departure. The van has held up well, averaging about 25 miles per gallon.
“I think at first I needed something to pull and give focus to it, but now the river and the water are going in one direction,” he says. “I go where I want when I want determined by my own schedule. The motivation is internal. Since 2008 I have been doing what I want—my life is all about my freedom to make choices. You haven’t asked me, ‘Where is the end of this?’ I don’t have an end. My body’s going to tell me when I can’t do it anymore. I’ve had four shoulder surgeries, a knee surgery and an appendectomy. The body’s got these things that are in it and you never know when it’s going to manifest. People have a heart attack and die when they’re healthy. It’s a time bomb inside the body and if you just wait for that… I’d have been horribly disappointed—depressed really—if I’d had put this off and said, ‘You know, at this year I’m go-ing to go’, and then find out that my body crapped out and I gave my time to an employer. The employer got the better part of my life and I didn’t get any for myself. Go before it goes. You gotta do it while you have a chance to do it.”
Follow more of Craig Bierly’s journey at runutsadventures.com