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Taking a free ride
Man abandons cubicle for cross-country bike trek

Imagine trekking 4,000 miles, first across the South and then north into Canada, on just a bicycle. That is exactly what 26-year-old Conyers native Ryan Harwell has accomplished since the spring.

Driven by a lack of confidence in the economy, an office job where he worked in a cubicle, and a desire to "live in the present," Harwell, who graduated from Heritage High School in 2001 and the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2006, decided to leave his lucrative position at Cartoon Network to journey across the country.

Harwell said a quote from Mark Twain - "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do" - served as inspiration for his trip.

"People at work told me to work for your retirement, perhaps even retire early. You'll be able to move to Florida, play golf and relax until you die," Harwell said. "After the economic fallout, I quit believing this silly dream. I decided to put my money where my mouth was. I invested in myself, in the present. I bought a bike, camping equipment and pedaled west."

In March, Harwell equipped his touring bicycle with travel bags that held 100 pounds of supplies and gear, including a tent, sleeping bag, clothing, water and food, for the first part of his journey. He set out with his Atlanta friend Eoin Grosch on March 17 from Centennial Park in downtown Atlanta and headed west, with a destination of Mexico. The two traveled together on back roads, using Google, GPS and cycling maps to guide them.

The pair's travel plans became thwarted in Texas by the swine flu outbreak and violence at the Mexican-U.S. border. The two friends parted in Houston about a month after their start in Atlanta. Harwell chose to bike along the national park route into Canada; Grosch hitched a ride to Central America.

Harwell is presently in British Columbia, and in the three months since leaving Texas, he has traveled between 60 and 120 miles daily. He experienced the muddy dirt roads and back country of the South and the 12,000-foot peaks of Colorado. He traveled through Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, Teton and Glacier national parks in the U.S., and Kootenay, Banff and Jasper national parks in Canada.

The biker also dealt with every imaginable bike malfunction, blinding rain, wind, heat stroke, pit bulls, rottweilers and, most recently, grizzly bears in Canada.

Although the ride has had its challenges, Harwell said that the joy of meeting people along the way far outweighs any tribulations he has faced.

"I try not to focus on the down sides to bike touring. I've learned that if you focus on the negative energy, it will tend to cloud everything else, shutting out all of the positives that come your way," he said. "Cycling alone ended up being a whole different ballgame. You take ownership for everything that goes wrong and everything that goes right."

Harwell has depended on people throughout the trip for shelter and company on the sometimes lonely road. He used a Web site - www.couchsurfing.org - to procure places to stay along the way. The site provides a network of people, many of them cyclists themselves, willing to provide assistance to travelers. These contacts often fed Harwell dinner, provided him a place to sleep and took him to bike shops to buy parts.

Harwell has adhered to a tight budget for his trip, so to save a little money, he learned to "Dumpster dive," courtesy of a couch surfing host in Colorado. When desperate for food or supplies, Harwell occasionally rummages through the neighborhood Dumpsters looking for items such as baked goods that are thrown out daily.

Harwell plans to return to the Atlanta area in September, after he tours south through Seattle and into San Francisco, making his journey 5,000 miles. As for his plans after his trip is ended, Harwell remains undecided about what's next.

"I don't think I can go back to a lifestyle that makes me want to vegetate on weekends," said Harwell. "I'm not really sure what I want to do when I get back, but I think that's OK. Right now, I'm just living in the present."

To learn more about Harwell's journey, visit his blog at http://badicalindustries.wordpress.com/author/ryanharwell/.

Julie Kimble is a Heritage High School English teacher. If you have a story idea, contact the features editor at karen.rohr@rockdalecitizen.com.