The Bicycle Diaries: My 21,000-Mile Ride for the Climate
David's book tells the adventure of a young climate expert as he cycles from his front door to the far end of the world, crossing 16 countries and pedaling 21,000 miles. Read the book's prologue below.
The book will be available in mid-March, but you can order an early copy with the links below. Note that the book will be shipped in mid-March.
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Advance Praise for David Kroodsma and The Bicycle Diaries:
"This is the kind of adventure we need more of--someone actually taking what they know and carrying it out to the people who need to hear it. Pedaling a bike, and peddling the truth about the most important issue of our time." Bill McKibben, author, The End of Nature
"When scientist David Kroodsma talks about global warming, people listen--because he's on a bike." Bicycling Magazine
"[David Kroodsma] conducted countless interviews, grappled with stunning poverty, sped past cars in congested Caracas and slept in fire stations and strangers' homes." San Jose Mercury News
I stopped pedaling and looked anxiously at the frontier. In front of me, the California-Mexico border was marked by a white tollbooth-like structure and a large sign that read "Mexico" and displayed the country's coat of arms: a large eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its talons. It was an hour after sunrise on a Sunday in early December, and the light angled through the cool desert air, illuminating the quiet, dusty town of Tecate just beyond the tollbooth.
If I was trying to be inconspicuous, I was failing. Clad in arm and leg warmers, I effectively wore full-body spandex, and beneath me was a black touring bike with four red panniers. I stood over six feet tall and my bike helmet had a large brim on the front and a cloth attached to its rear in a futile attempt to guard my pale skin from the sun. I wasn't going to blend in south of the border.
I had camped the night before five miles north, hidden with my bicycle just a hundred yards off the road. Although I was conspicuous on the road, once I left it I was invisible. Unlike car travel, with a bike you can disappear off the highway at any point and set up camp without a soul knowing where you've gone. Thieves can't rob you if they don't know you are there. It's the greatest sense of freedom; the world was my campground, my living room, my highway. I easily found a place to sleep that night, as numerous foot trails led away from the highway, and a patch of desert ground had already been cleared—likely by people also wishing to keep hidden. I wondered how many illegal immigrants, how many of the people I saw working in California during my eight years in the state, had slept on similar patches of ground, staring at the stars.
At 26 years old, I was on the adventure I had dreamed of ever since I learned bike touring was possible: I was going to ride south, from my home in California, and keep biking until I reached the southern tip of South America. I know this sounds a bit crazy. What sane person would camp along the Mexican border—the site of countless crimes and murders—let alone plan to ride alone across all of Latin America? Numerous countries are besieged by the residual violence from recent civil wars, and Colombia endures an ongoing civil conflict where rebels still control nearly a third of the nation. Moreover, except for Chile, where I had studied for three months during college, I had no friends and almost no contacts south of the border. My Spanish was poor, and I had never traveled internationally by bike. Yet somehow I chose to ignore all of these facts. I eagerly planned to ride solo across Central America, the Amazon, the Andes, and the wastelands of Patagonia, and reach the earth's end in just under a year and a half. And not only did I want to bike this distance alone, but I wanted to raise awareness of climate change in the process—a topic I had spent the past four years studying. You might call me naive. You might be right.
I had discovered bike touring six years earlier, between my sophomore and junior year of college. After spending the summer in the biketopia of Portland, Oregon, a college friend suggested we "bike to school," which would require riding 900 miles in under two weeks. I agreed, and, pedaling a1980s racing bike I had purchased that summer for $125, and carrying only a sleeping bag, tarp, and change of clothes, biked south along the rocky Oregon and California coastline, enjoying tailwinds every day. After just a few days of cycling, I was hooked.
While biking, no windshield protects the rider from the rain, heat, or wind, and there's no wall between you and the people along the road. In a car the scenery appears as if on television, framed by the windows. On a bike, you can touch everything you see. The world is right there, in 3D. You travel slowly enough that the person at the corner store can make eye contact and say something, and the bike becomes a prop for conversation, an excuse to talk. People lower their defenses and open their doors.
When we arrived at the palm tree-lined boulevards of Palo Alto, I wanted to just keep riding south. I later read online about other people who had undertaken the journey to Argentina, and almost all said it was the best thing they had done in their entire life. Such an adventure seemed like the greatest way to see the world, the most invigorating and intimate way to experience a large swath of the planet. The trip would also be relatively cheap—the main costs would be bike gear, food, and a return flight home. I would be able to save the needed cash in just two years of employment. I guarded my earnings, planned, and dreamed.
I wanted more, though, than just an adventure. Young and idealistic, I wanted to make a difference—somehow. I also wanted to continue my studies. I had spent my entire life up to this point in school or research labs, eventually finding my way to climate science.
It was a major leap from the classroom to the open road, and in retrospect, I realize my education was more theory than practice. In college, I studied physics because I enjoyed it, not because I thought it would make me employable or improve the world. For my master's degree, I pursued interdisciplinary environmental science, choosing the most abstract of global problems—climate change—for the same reasons. I found it fascinating how carbon dioxide cycled through the earth's biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, and oceans, and how this odorless, invisible gas could alter the world's climate.
I was researching this issue in the years before An Inconvenient Truth, before climate change emerged as a part of the national discussion. Through reading scientific papers and attending lab group meetings, I became convinced that climate change poses a real and significant threat to our civilization, and that few people understood the magnitude of the challenge. I also realized that my dream ride offered me an opportunity: I could get attention. So I decided to "ride to raise awareness of climate change." I purchased the domain rideforclimate.com, where I would blog about how global warming was affecting the places I biked through. I devised an ad-hoc strategy to go to the media and visit schools as I traveled, speaking to journalists and students about climate change.
In my head, it was a great idea. In practice, I had no idea how I would enact this plan in Latin America. I didn't even know how to say "carbon dioxide" in Spanish when I started. And I cared more about raising awareness in the U.S. than in distant lands, given that the U.S. pollutes far more than South and Central America. And never mind that the original goal of my journey was adventure and not activism, or that we aren't going to solve climate change through multi-year bicycle vacations. I was just as ignorant about my activist goals as I was about how I would travel in Latin America.
In retrospect, my goal of raising awareness was obviously backwards: I learned far more than I taught. I saw that climate change is just one of many challenges facing humanity. In many ways, it's less urgent than ongoing conflicts or the daily poverty experienced by people across the globe. And it isn't something that we should solve by restricting development. Most people in the world rightfully want more, not less. Climate change, though, is real, and my trip gave me a visceral sense of what is at risk—unique ecosystems, coastline settlements, and the livelihoods of countless people. And while humanity will probably survive its consequences, we will regret not taking action.
At the border with Mexico, though, just a month into my ride, none of these thoughts were on my mind. I didn't know what lay ahead or how it would affect me. I was just excited that the adventure was here, and that I was about to cross into Latin America. I didn't know my exact route, or who I would meet, or how I'd raise awareness; I only knew that I'd ride south for months on end, until I ran out of road. I took a deep breath, inhaling the crisp December desert air, and pedaled toward the frontier.