In 1980, a radio announcer, an engineer, and a food distributor left Jackson, Wyo., in a quest to see the globe from the saddles of their customized 15-speed bicycles. From Tijuana to Khartoum to Sydney, they encountered war, wildlife, and warm hospitality. Now in the homestretch of the journey, they're bringing back saddlebags full of memories. In the days leading up to Oct. 25, 1980, Steve Williams, Peter Wuerslin, and Tim Young sold their cars and their stereos. They held a yard sale to get rid of dress pants, shoes, hats, and ties. They painstakingly reduced the total of their worldly goods to 100 pounds each and stuffed them into four small pouches.
``There's no use holding onto a closetful of stuff when you don't know if you'll ever be back,'' Mr. Williams recalls.
They waved goodbye to family and friends in Jackson, Wyo., looked over their shoulders for traffic - and began pedaling.
Six-and-a-half years and 45,000 miles later, they've circumnavigated the globe and are back in the States on the last leg of their journey.
In the meantime, they have seen the world. ``In my wildest of wild dreams, of all the things I could ever imagine doing in all that time, nothing could come close to what we actually did,'' says Williams. Twenty-eight-year-old lovers of skiing, biking, and the outdoors when they left, the three men, now about 34, are lovers of language, culture, people, politics, religion, history, and geography.
``There is no institute on the planet that could match the variety of curriculum that has educated us over these six years,'' Mr. Wuerslin adds.
That education came in 45 countries and six continents. Circumnavigating the globe from west to east, they traversed the continents of South America and Africa from north to south. They also pedaled across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Far East before taking on Australia.
``We could've chosen a simpler route if all we wanted to do was get around the world,'' Williams says. ``But we wanted to experience the montage of planet Earth - an overview of every major religion, culture, language, and geography.'' They took it slow - averaging 100 kilometers (62 miles) each day they rode. Carrying tents and sleeping bags, they slept next to the road for 2,000 nights ``on the sun's time and nature's terms,'' says Mr. Young.
Stakeouts ranged from desert to mountaintop, beach to forest. They included a tin can dump in Baja, Calif., a bullfighting arena in Granada, Spain, steep canyons in Tibet, and the pristine Alps with a view fit for ``The Sound of Music.''
They were awakened by bathing hippos along the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe and woke up with elephant tracks all over their camp - ``though we hadn't heard anything the night before,'' Wuerslin says. In major cities they sought out youth hostels and inexpensive hotels, often carrying bikes and supplies up many flights of stairs. Everywhere they went, they bought food from local markets and prepared it on their own stoves. Memorable local cuisine was yak butter and barley-floured tsampa in Tibet, ocra-and-dry-leaf om regaga in northern Sudan, and lemon-grass and chili-pepper soups in Thailand.
A radio announcer from Indianapolis (Williams), an engineer from Skaneateles, N.Y. (Wuerslin), and a food distributor from Syracuse, N.Y. (Young), the three men, all college educated, met through their common interest in bicycling. From their adopted home in Jackson, Wyo., they planned their mutual dream of world travel, which coalesced around equal parts of solid commitment. ``We were committed to whatever was out there and whatever it took,'' says Wuerslin.
They designed and built their own 15-speed bikes for ``maximum bio-mechanical efficiency,'' which meant different-size handlebars and frames to match the musculature of each individual. And they packed a cornucopia of tools to improvise makeshift parts once they left the United States. Then they were off.
``We left town with about $2,000 each in our pockets, and we knew that wasn't anywhere near what we needed to get around the world,'' recalls Young. ``But we knew if we were ever in the position to have that much money, we would at the same time have too many commitments to ever leave.'' Intending to meet people and do odd jobs whenever they ran out of supplies, they rode through Utah, Nevada, and California before making the first transcultural leap.
``The next thing we knew, we were lost in Tijuana, Mexico, realizing how dismal our Spanish was,'' says Wuerslin. A year later, in Buenos Aires, the trio realized they could carry on extensive conversations in Spanish.
By that time, a daily itinerary was set: Rising before sunup, coffee and 30-minute logistics planning, judging how far between next available supplies and which way to go. Next - two hours riding, half-hour break, two hours riding, then search for camp. Large cities provided stopovers for up to a month, when they rebuilt their bicycles and earned money. Average combined cost of the trip: $300 a month.
The three toughest areas to traverse were on three separate continents. Between Panama and Colombia they encountered the roadless ``Darien Gap,'' an area of dense jungle they covered with the aid of machetes while carrying their bikes for 31 days. Local Indian tribes, the Choco and the Kuna, directed them.
In the Sudan, an area north of Khartoum has no roads, either. After dragging their bikes in ankle-deep sand for four days, the men built devices that enabled them to pedal 700 kilometers (435 miles) on the 1-inch steel rails of an old British railroad track. And in China during winter - they biked it then because it was the only time they could get a visa - they narrowly avoided rock slides with boulders the size of Volkswagens.
They also encountered war: in El Salvador, where bombings were frequent at nearby towns and where young military agents stopped them regularly, asking, ``What is your mission?''; at the border of Mozambique, where military agents surrounded their camp with guns, in search of rebels in the civil war there; and on the borders of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, where they had to detour from intended routes by thousands of miles to avoid skirmishes.
``When things were magnificent, they surpassed the imagination,'' Wuerslin says. ``And when things were bad, they were really the pits,'' he adds. But looking back, all agree that 99 percent of the trip was fabulous, and the negative aspects have begun to fade in memory. Overall, they are optimistic about the ability of individuals to overcome the world's problems.
``This trip was a testimony to how willing the common man is to help his neighbor,'' Wuerslin says, citing countries such as Uganda and Turkey, which have a reputation for being unfriendly but where local hospitality was unsurpassed.
``We found that being on bicycles opened doors in every country, from rich to poor,'' says Wuerslin. ``That could mean a high-powered ambassador's residence one night and a grass hut the next - on equal terms with both hosts.'' Their hosts in the rubber plantations of Thailand failed to warn them about voracious ants that ate up through the bottom of their tents five nights running.
The trip was stalled for one full year in Geneva, while the travelers staged bicycle clinics, washed windows, and worked in sporting goods stores to raise money.
``We were spiritually exhausted,'' says Young. The year off from riding gave them a time for mental and physical renewal.
While in Geneva, they enlisted the sponsorship of the DuPont Company, which funded the second half of their journey at about $300 a month. In exchange, the riders represented a product they had already chosen from the beginning for its light weight and durability - a fiber called Cordura, which they used in making panniers, the bicycle storage sacks.
Other organizations helped along the way. American Youth Hostels and the League of American Wheelmen wrote to organizations in Saudi Arabia and China to smooth the way for visas. And while in Africa, they met up with people from the United States Information Service and later represented the service as American sportsmen in cultural exchange programs, giving bicycle clinics.
Williams, Wuerslin, and Young attribute the success of the trip to their steady, regulated pace, which kept them from riding farther than they needed each day to prove a point.
Not that they needed to prove something. Williams had played semiprofessional baseball and hockey; Wuerslin was a national champion ski racer in college; and Young was a physical-fitness and skiing instructor.
Their advice for other aspiring long-distance bikers?
``Have lots of patience,'' says Wuerslin. ``And realize this is not a trip for everybody. Many can relate to the thrill of experience. Few are willing to endure the rigors.''