Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | February 23, 2016

Why would you do THAT?


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In my last post, I laid out the threads of a plan to bike across the U.S. this summer. That’s still happening. But before I plow ahead with planning, training and gear updates, I wanted to carve out a little space to talk about the WHY behind this new mid-life project.

In the beginning …

No, no. I’m not going to do that to you, but I have to at least set a baseline for why I’m compelled – at 55 years old – to ride a bike from coast to coast. I know I’m FAR from the first to do it, and while I don’t want to go in the way-back machine, where I’ve been certainly informs where I’m going.

I lived a pretty ordinary life for 50 years. I grew up in a loving, stable family in Milwaukee. I went to college. I got a job – many jobs, actually. I worked. I married a beautiful woman, had a great daughter, bought a house, paid my bills, saved for retirement … blah, blah, blah.

About five years ago, my satisfaction with this work-a-day life waned. It’s not that I don’t like work. I’m definitely wired for it. And I loved my job in the sports department at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. But I started to feel a pull to do something more, something different. Luckily, I’m married to a super talented and “up-for-anything” documentary filmmaker, so off we went to Eastern Europe in 2011.

Our four years as professors at the American University in Bulgaria were some of the best years of our lives. That experience proved to me the value of making big life changes. The rewards are profound. We met great people. Explored parts of the world that were unknown to us. I learned how to teach – something that scared the crap out of me at the start. Melody and I shared it all, work, travel, the ex-pat life, the joys of teaching.

And then there was the biking. I loved biking back in the U.S., commuting to work, a couple of RAGBRAI‘s. When I got to Bulgaria, I experienced mountain biking for the first time. Thrilling, frightening, wild dogs, shepherds, border guards. It had it all.

So when we returned to the U.S. in May 2015, we couldn’t just fall back into the familiar life we led over 20 years in Minnesota. That’s in part why we moved to Chicago. Yeah, it’s a great city but it has NOT been easy.

Being back is wonderful (craft beers, diners, bottomless cups of coffee) and we love where we live (with our never-ending view of Lake Michigan and 2,000 miles of biking in Summer 2015). On the other hand, we haven’t found our footing financially or socially. Work comes in fits and starts. I’m trying to carve out a life as a freelance writer/editor, with mixed success (common, I know, for those of you who have gone this route). I’ve done a ton of networking, but there is always more to do. I’m hoping a few of the many meetings I’ve had will lead to opportunity.

On the lifestyle front, let’s just say that living in a new city when you’re 50-somethings is challenging. Melody and I are sociable. We’ve met a ton of people. But breaking into the social networks of others is a challenge. We’ll get there but it’ll take a little time. After 20 years of deep and meaningful and rich friendships in Minnesota, that’s an adjustment, too.

So what does all that have to do with the bike ride? For me, it all comes down to one thing: FEELING ALIVE. I like work, but it doesn’t make my heart soar.

I know what it feels like to work, but I have no idea what my body, my mind, my heart will say when I dip my rear tire into the Pacific Ocean and begin this journey in June. I know what it feels like to go to the grocery store and make a nice dinner. But I don’t know what it feels like to bike 3,500 miles (or so) over 10-11 weeks. I know what it feels like to share the love of family and friends. But Melody and I hunger to meet new people in new places. We want to hear new stories and make a few of our own. That’s what “living” means to me right now.

We’ll make this trek together. Right now, the plan is for Melody to drive an RV (rental?) – our dream? or this? – as my support vehicle. Along the way, we’ll document what “being alive” means to us. I’ll bike. Melody will bring a video camera and together we’ll meet people and learn about what “feeling alive” means to them. We’ll stop anywhere and talk to anyone. Throughout this journey, we’ll share those stories on the web and through social media so that you can meet the people whose stories are so rarely told.

And then we’ll keep moving along. Living! And when it’s all over, we’ll have a few more bills to pay and a lot more stories to share.

And then I’ll need to find a job.

487854_10151433677236747_1770403055_n post ragbrai

After the 2012 RAGBRAI.




  1. Can’t wait to see the finished product. Life is good!

  2. Methinks this is going to be THE best adventure yet! I am looking forward to the words along the way and finished Tune film! Carpe that freaking day, Mark!

  3. 3,500 miles ÷ 11 weeks = 318 miles per week ÷ 7 days = 45-ish miles per day. For a frequent, trained bike rider, that’s easily doable. Some days it will be a breeze (45 miles in 3 hours). Others — mountains, heat, alternate optional activities — it might be a monumental challenge. … I hope you plan for many “off” days, to connect to the stories and experiences you find. But one “off” day a week adds almost 2 weeks to the trip. … The planning and logistics might be harder than the pedaling.

    • Yes, on the math. … It’ll probably be closer to 4000, though, and more like 10 weeks of six-day weeks. So then it bumps up to almost 70 per day, which is more or less the plan. … Part of the trip is hitting Iowa for the RAGBRAI at the right time. And once done with that, I’ll probably put pedal to metal and go. … But since it’s my first go-round — and because it’s got this film component added to it — I’m leaving a little flex time to account for “moments.”

  4. Awesome Mark. What an inspiring endeavor. Godspeed…

  5. Very Cool Mark, should be one hell of an experience! Kinda like Forest Gump but on a bike! 🙂

  6. Awesome plan, Mark! Looking forward to tagging along via story — and finding out, well, what makes other people feel alive.

  7. Your curiosity in seeking new adventures — and your guts in actually going through with them — certainly make *me* feel more alive. Can’t wait to follow along, Mark.

  8. Boy, the “freelance off and on” really resonated with me. It’s tough and I’m doing everything I can to get out of a mortgage and find fulltime work. But I wish Melody would do a doc on age discrimination, because that’s what I’m finding in all the outsourcing of human resources and choices employers make with potential employees—if he’s over 45, pass him/her over. It’s true! And it’s only getting worse. 😦

    • Sorry, missed this comment earlier. I feel for you — and me. I’ve made choices, and I knew what the potential consequences might be. I’ve had some luck with work, but this freelance life is a tough one, for sure. Hang in there!

  9. Great to see you and Melody this evening at the film. What a film. Good job, you two, living life!! Keep it up.

    • Thanks, Don! It was great to see you and Meg tonight. Sorry we didn’t have more time to chat.

  10. […] months ago, when I last wrote (I know, shame on me!), I explored the “why” of this trip. The hunger to test myself […]

  11. […] the kind of headline you’d expect to read after the first week or so of this cross-country ride. But it works for the prelude, too. (By the way, we’ve built a website to document the ride. […]

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