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Living Out Travel Dreams with the Family in Tow

Nancy Sathre-Vogel

Whether you long to spend two weeks in Tahiti or a summer on the Appalachian Trail, all of us have travel dreams. Most of us try to cram them all in before we have kids. Others—a select few, really—opt to bring the kids along for the ride.

Take John and Nancy Sathre-Vogel. Back in 2006, John quit his day job (as a teacher) and came up with the idea of rounding up their twin boys (who were 8 at the time; they are now 14) and hitting the road on bikes. The family has been on the road almost continuously ever since. I recently caught up with Nancy to learn more about the adventure, and discuss the notion of realizing travel dreams as a family.

Q: Give me a sense of where you’ve been.
A: We spent one year cycling around the U.S. and Mexico in 2006/07, then three years cycling 17,300 miles from Alaska to Argentina.

Q: Describe an average week of that Alaska-to-Argentina trip.
A: One of the things we gave up very early on was the idea of an average anything. There was no such thing as an “average distance” because it varied tremendously due to hills, winds, road condition, our physical condition, distance to facilities, etc. If I were to describe a “typical week” when we were traveling regularly (we took a LOT of time off) it would be that we cycled 30 – 50 miles per day. If we were up north or down south, we camped out; in the tropics we cycled until we reached the next hotel. In winter, we waited until it warmed up to get on the road; in summer we tried to be on the road at first light to take advantage of the morning cool. For the most part we camped out through North America and again starting in southern Peru. Through the tropics there were cheap hotels we could reach nearly every day and we quickly discovered that sleeping in our tent was nothing more than a big sweat-fest

Q: What were the highs and lows of the experience?
A: The highest high was probably reaching the end of the Dalton Highway in Alaska. When we first set off, we headed out from Prudhoe Bay on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. It was 500 miles to Fairbanks where we would see our first grocery store, 414 miles of that was on the Dalton. The Dalton is little more than a dirt track cut through the Alaskan wilderness to serve the pipeline and would be a major challenge for us to complete. Honestly, I gave us a 50/50 chance of making it. I’ll never forget bouncing down that final hill of the Dalton and seeing the ribbon of pavement that would take us to Fairbanks. We had done it! The Dalton had defeated many cyclists before us, but our little ragtag team of cyclists had conquered it! It had taken us fourteen days, but we made it. The lowest low was undoubtedly in northern Peru, the only time on our journey when I seriously considered giving up. It had been a hard couple of weeks battling headwinds through the desolate desert and I knew we faced another thousand or two miles of the same.

Q: How can a parent know his or her children can handle this lifestyle?
A: I don’t think you can know for sure. When we first set off our greatest fear was that our sons wouldn’t enjoy it. We had quit our jobs and bought an outrageously expensive triple bike; if the boys didn’t enjoy the lifestyle it would be very hard for us. Fortunately, they loved it. I think, in general, if your child enjoys being in the outdoors and camping and such, chances are good that she’ll enjoy bike touring. Also, younger kids are more receptive to the idea than older kids, so get kids out while they’re young so they grow up with the idea

Q: Where are you off to next?
A: We are not mobile right now; in fact, we just celebrated our one-year anniversary of arriving back in Idaho last week. We are hoping to hike the Colorado Trail this summer (500 miles from Denver to Durango) but aren’t sure that’s going to happen as I’ve developed plantar fasciitis in my foot which makes walking painful. We also have to wait until enough snow melts to allow us over the passes. We think it will take about eight weeks.

To learn more about the Vogel family and their travels, visit their website or follow them on Twitter. You also can read one of Nancy’s essays about family travel here, and buy her books here. My personal favorite: “Bicycle Touring with Children.” Check it out.