Eurasia: Leaving America

This is the first installment of a story chronicling my travels in 1994 as a college student. The six-month journey took me to 20 countries in Europe and Asia.

Those who travel overseas know how challenging it can be. Not only do you have to do a gazillion things to get ready for your trip, but you also have to prepare yourself psychologically for the paradigm shift that happens whenever you immerse yourself in a new and different culture. It can be emotionally draining to move overseas and be away from home. This is particularly true when you travel abroad for the first time. Sometimes it’s downright frightening to leave behind familiar surroundings, family, and friends for a strange new place where you know hardly anyone.

I faced these challenges and more when I moved overseas for the first time in 1994. I lived in Graz, Austria as an exchange student from February to June; toured Western Europe in March and April; and visited Eastern Europe, the Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China in July and August. An International Studies (IS) major, I enjoyed traveling and learning about foreign cultures, although my international experience outside the United States at that time was limited to brief trips to Canada and Mexico. I assumed that as a fourth-year IS student I was prepared to live abroad; however, I soon realized that academic exercises were no substitute for firsthand experience.

My journey from the United States to Graz was filled with fun, excitement, pain, and frustration. As a proverbially starving college student, I decided that the most economical way to get to Austria’s second largest city was to fly to Frankfurt, Germany, and then take the train to Graz. A rail pass cost at that time cost much less than paying for a connecting flight to Graz, so it seemed logical in theory. In reality, it would have been much less of a headache to fly.

I kicked off my trip from my then-home in Idaho. Driving home from college in February 1994, I stashed most of my belongings at my parents’ house and stuffed the rest of my life into one suitcase and two large duffle bags. These were my constant and burdensome companions all the way to Graz.

My parents drove me to the airport early on a Sunday morning. After a fond farewell and a cheerful reminder that I would finish school when I returned home, I hugged them goodbye and boarded a small puddle-jumper-of-a-plane bound for Seattle. I waited four long hours in Sea-Tac International Airport for my connecting flight. In the days before electronic gadgets like media players and ultra-portable laptops, I had few options to entertain myself and spent the first of many monotonous hours sitting idle in transit.

The flight from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. was on an even smaller commuter jet. I chanted prayers for a safe journey. The propeller-driven plane had only three seats per aisle, but the 45-minute flight was so short that I did not have time to fear for my life. It’s still the smallest aircraft I have ever flown overseas, even though I’ve logged hundreds of thousands of miles since then. There’s a small comfort in flying in a large commercial airplane, in spite of the fact that large planes can crash as fatally as small ones. Perhaps it’s the added turbulence you feel when you’re flying in a prop plane.

The Road to Wisdom (part two)

The cold seeped into my bones. The heat my body generated while I rode kept me warm; that is, until I reached a straightaway and was hit with a crisp headwind that left me shivering. My derrière was about the only part of my body still dry, and it ached from saddle sores. I could hardly peddle and labored mightily to continue. The road ahead disappeared into a wall of mist. I was numb but kept pedaling, driven by the urge to find Wisdom. I pedaled and pedaled. My eyes wandered to the river meandering next to the highway, one of the few points of interest not shrouded in fog that offered an escape from my predicament.


I rode on alone. Not a single car drove by. Only the sound of the babbling river and rain pelting on my saturated windbreaker filled my ears. The rain never stopped, at times pouring down on me in sheets before dissipating into a lighter downpour, then growing heavy again. Water filled my glasses, and I had to clear them with my finger like a makeshift windshield wiper in order to see the road. Water filled my ears, and my finger doubled as a swab.

After a couple more hours, I could no longer ignore fatigue. I chided myself for getting separated from my group. Perseverance, or perhaps stubbornness, had brought me to this point, stranded in the middle of nowhere. My mind resolved to continue even after my body begged to stop. Wisdom couldn’t be that far, I reasoned. I am almost there. The town had to be after the next few bends; surely I would be there soon. My body rebelled, but my mind won the argument.

I spotted a green highway mileage sign with neon white letters in the distance. I pushed myself as fast as I could go, sprinting to the sign. If it proved me right, I could ride the last few miles to town and then wait for the others to arrive.

“Wisdom – 14 Miles,” the sign taunted me. It crushed my spirit. The distance was almost five times farther than I thought! I gave up and stopped then and there, refusing to go on. I would wait in the rain for someone to find me. I prayed someone would rescue me soon. Heavy rain continued.

At that moment I heard the sound of a car horn. It was the sag wagon! The blue Ford van pulling a large trailer stopped on the shoulder next to me. The driver rolled down his window and yelled to me through the rain, “Hey, why don’t you load up your bike? We’ll take you to Wisdom.”

I couldn’t believe it! I was saved. The driver loaded up my bicycle, and I hopped into the warm cab, relieved that my ordeal had come to an end. We drove to town and spent the night. The next day, the rain let up, and we spent two more sunny days finishing the ride to Missoula.

Wisdom (3)

The experience taught me a valuable lesson. I realized that when you find yourself in a difficult situation, and you’re ready to give up, draw strength from God. He often saves you from yourself. The road to Wisdom is best taken if you don’t try to do it on your own.

Wisdom (5)

The Road to Wisdom (Part One)

During the summer of 1986, I set out with a group of cyclists on a 250-mile tour of the Montana countryside. Youth for Christ organized the five day, round-trip tour starting and ending in the city of Missoula. The circuitous route took us through some of Big Sky Country’s finest scenery. We followed the Interstate for about 50 miles before turning south on Highway 1 heading to the town of Anaconda. Each day we rode about 50 miles, far enough for us to enjoy the tour without wearing ourselves out. Two sag (supply) wagons followed us, hauling luggage, supplies, first-aid kits, tools and accessories, and spare bicycles. The sun beat down on us the first two days of the trip, and the sag wagons relieved us from the high heat with shade, water, and snacks.

Wisdom (4)

A mix of riders and bicycles joined the tour. Sexagenarians rode with teenagers. Racing bikes peddled side by side with mountain bikes and rickshaw bicycles with bulbous tires that looked as if they were featured in a vintage 1950s film. I rode a Schwinn Traveler touring cycle that I had bought for this kind of tour.

We rode in groups of five to six about ten minutes apart. Traveling in small groups helped us get acquainted and support each other if needed.

The leisurely ride to Anaconda and relaxation we enjoyed there on the second day lulled us into a false sense of confidence that the rest of the tour would be easy. More than a third of the journey lay behind us, and we were well-rested and ready, we thought at the time, to tackle whatever lie ahead. Nature has a way of humbling even the most confident. We woke on day three to heavy clouds so laden with moisture that they dragged on the ground and covered the highway in mist, an early indication that the day was going to be harder than the last two. Our guides warned us to expect difficult riding conditions. We left Anaconda dry and were accosted by a downpour half an hour after departure.

Wisdom (2)

I refused to let the rain get the best of me. I climbed hill after hill, pedaling as fast as I could to the top, coasting down the other side, and then catching my breath for the next challenge. The drizzling rain cooled me down. If I could beat the rain, I told myself, I was not going to let the terrain hold me back. So intent was I in conquering these obstacles that I misplaced my group and found myself riding alone on a lonely stretch of highway.

Another cluster of cyclists rode far ahead of me, and I sped up to catch them, but I never caught up. I continued my roller coast ride over hill after hill. Each time I reached the top, I surveyed the landscape for signs of life. The group ahead was nowhere in sight. Fog made visibility more difficult. Except for small patches of grassland and forest, fog banks covered the mountains and valleys in sheets of gray.


The other group was somewhere ahead, so I picked up the pace and rode on for a couple hours until I reached the end of the road. Highway 274 ended at the junction of Highway 43, and I had to turn left or right to reach our next destination at Wisdom, a small town about 50 miles south of Anaconda. The junction did not have any road signs to indicate direction or distance, and I did not have a map. I was not sure which direction to turn. If I made the wrong decision, I could end up lost and separated. I thought about stopping at the junction and waiting for someone to pass by, but I decided to press on because I was cold, wet, tired, and hungry. Rain fell in sheets, soaking my windbreaker and biking shorts. My shoes felt like concrete. I decided to turn right and ride west. Our route, after all, took us west all the way to the Idaho border. I prayed that I had made the right choice and kept going.