A mechanical engineering undergrad reflects on his cross-country bicycle trip

Author: William Meiners
Tom Hornyak spent his 21st birthday in a very atypical way for a college student. On January 23, 2008, the then junior in mechanical engineering left his parents' home in Naples, Florida, to begin a 3,700-mile bicycle ride to San Francisco.

Tom HornyakInspired by the Dierks Bentley song “Free and Easy I Go Down the Road,” Hornyak strapped some 200 pounds of gear (a second-hand tent, sleeping bag, some clothes, and light tools) to a borrowed bicycle and headed west.

Feeling a “little stressed and depressed” from the challenges of a difficult major, Hornyak had taken a break from school after the fall semester. “I worked at UPS, a bicycle store, and even did a little hair modeling,” he says. “But I really wanted to get out and explore.”

With admittedly zero experience for such a biking adventure, Hornyak pedaled north through Florida, turned left at the panhandle, and then cruised coasts through Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. He then made his way—“averaging about 60 to 70 miles a day”—through U.S. highways in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California on a three-month tour of America. “I did a few century rides,” he says, but was mostly committed to traveling on Bentley’s “free and easy” advice.

Tom on tourThe owner of Big Mama’s Bicycle Shop (where he worked) had insisted that Hornyak borrow a good bike—a Surely Long Haul Trucker Bike. He stopped by visitor centers along the way for free maps. When he came across other colleges, he got a guest account and updated his blog, where he detailed the trip. He made friends of many strangers along the way, and spent an occasional night not under the stars by finding a free couch through a site called couchsurfing.com. And the whole trip cost him only $700.

Much depends on the wind, weather, and rain when you’re spending three months on a bike, Hornyak says. “There were a couple of stretches where people lent me rides,” he says, including a drive through the Mojave Desert, which would have taken him 14 days on two wheels.

For Hornyak, the best part of the adventure came with the people he met along the way. He met folks from all types of cultures, including Cajun and Native American. He says he tried to keep “himself presentable” most of the time, and felt like people were generally helpful and interested in what he was doing.

He arrived in northern California, the last of eight states, in April, having survived a few wipeouts, about a dozen flat tires, many off-the-road camping experiences, and the aforementioned trials of wind and rain. After exploring San Francisco (mostly by foot), Hornyak bought a plane ticket back to Purdue. His battery recharged, he signed up for summer classes and is now happily back on his scholastic course with a lot of stories to tell.

To read more about Tom Hornyak’s trip visit: crazyguyonabike.com/doc/tomontour