For Ben Sollee, the call of the open road had dulled to a whisper.
As a hardscrabble musician, the Kentucky native sprinted from town to town, taking advantage of every opportunity to play his cello and showcase his songwriting talent for audiences across the nation. But traveling at faster-than-human pace left Sollee disoriented. Instead of savoring the artist ‘s lifestyle, he could barely remember the communities he visited, let alone the people he met.
It was time for a change.
Instead of focusing on the destinations, Sollee decided to reclaim the journey.
“So, in early 2009, when I saw a commercial for an Xtracycle cargo bike, my mind spun into fantasy: the road, a bike, my cello and music to play,” Sollee wrote in American Bicyclist magazine this summer. “At that moment I saw the bike as an offering of limitations, a tool to re-humanize the pace of touring. And, with my 60 pounds of gear loaded onto a 40-pound bike, there were plenty of limitations.”
Not the least of which was the fact that Sollee was a bike rider, but not a serious cyclist. During the first leg of his initial two-wheeling tour — a 350-mile jaunt to the Bonnaroo Music Festival — pedaling 50 miles a day was taxing. But cruising on backcountry roads, a cool breeze blowing away his touring stress, Sollee got hooked. A few months later, in December, he planned a more ambitious bike tour from North Carolina down through Florida.
That’s when he shifted from a curious artist dabbling in a traveling experiment to a full-blown bicycle evangelist, promoting not only his music but also local bike-ped organizations.
“We found what would become our model event in Savannah, Georgia,” Sollee wrote in the article. “We teamed up with the Savannah Bicycle Campaign to host an open-door fundraiser and show at a local bicycle hotspot, kicking the event off with an amazing night ride through the historic streets. We were able to become a vehicle for the bike group’s message, helping drive membership and getting great coverage in the Savannah Morning News. This event bridged what seemed like a magical mix of advocacy, community engagement and shared arts."
This summer — bike tour number three — is more than a regional tour. It’s a 21-date, transcontinental itinerary. As Sollee pedals from California to North Carolina, he’s not just promoting the benefits of bicycling by partnering with local advocates; he’s also highlighting a national initiative. Last week, as he started his Ditch the Van tour in earnest, he put out a challenge.
“The weather has been terrific and the people are inspiring,” Sollee wrote on the blog. “But we’ve only just begun. And we’ve decided to put all these miles to good use as part of CLIF Bar’s 2 Mile Challenge. The 2 Mile Challenge is a response to a staggering statistic that 40 percent of trips in the U.S. are within two miles of peoples house and 90 percent of those trips utilize a car. We hope that this bike tour and riding for the challenge will inspire other folks to take up the charge. We’ve signed up to ride for the Gold Team, which will benefit the Alliance for Biking & Walking. Go team!”
Care to join me, Sollee and hundreds of others pedaling for the Gold Team?
It only takes a few minutes to sign up for the 2 Mile Challenge. It only takes a few seconds to log all your bike trips online each day. And who knows? While you’re fighting climate change, you might have a Ben Sollee moment. A breeze in your face, fresh air filling your lungs, your heart pounding with excitement rather than road-rage frustration, you could, like Sollee, rediscover the joy of the journey, rather than simply rushing to your destination. Even pedaling a mile to grocery store, you’ll start to hear that call of the open road.
As you’re logging your miles, don’t forget to check out Sollee’s Ditch the Van tour. I’ve got his September 25th date in DC circled on my calendar. And, honestly, I’m not sure what I’m more excited to hear — his incredible musical talent or his tales from the road.
Photo: Musician Ben Sollee transports his cello from town to town on the side of his bicycle. Courtesy of Ben Sollee.