This interview is part of a series in which we interview people featured on the database of long distance cycle journeys (LDCJ), which records individual bicycle trips over 10,000km in length. For more details, click here.
This may be the most inspiring story you’ll ever read. Christi Bruchok and Tauru Chaw are both registered as legally blind, yet cycled the length of the Americas from 2009-2011.
You read that right – legally blind, but managed to cycle over 26,000km, raising awareness about the abilities of the visually impaired in the process.
Their trip, Two Blind To Ride, is a fascinating story and the website is worth a look, particularly as it has a couple of graphics showing what each of them can see. It is an awe-inspiring story indeed and we are delighted to introduce their story in this first of the LDCJ series.
1) What gave you the idea for the trip?
While we were hiking in northern India in 2008, we met a Scottish guy whose dream was to ride his bike on the “trail” across the US. A trail across the US? We had to learn more! After finding out that the trail is merely a network of roads, we’d already become hooked to the idea. Christi had never ridden her own bike, really, so we decided on a tandem. We didn’t want to invest too much, in case we didn’t like it in the end. We bought a used tandem on eBay for under $1000, thinking, if this doesn’t work out, we will sell this thing on eBay for $1000!
We took the beast for a few spins and had a friend drive us out to California’s coast. We said goodbye and started pedaling east. We live in Arizona. If the road didn’t treat us well, we’d be home in a week or two, sell the bike and pretend this whole thing never happened.
We passed Arizona. We crossed the Rocky Mountains. When we got to the Atlantic Coast, we realized that we could really do this. And if we were going to do this, we should take the opportunity to raise awareness about the abilities of people with visual impairments. It’s not every day, after all, that two legally blind people ride a bicycle across two continents.
2) Best thing that happened?
The best thing? Now there is an impossible question to answer – it really depends on which day, which country, which realm we are discussing.
The people we met along the way and the impact they had on us and we had on them is rings loud and clear as an overall “best.” People would see our long, loaded-down bike and ask us questions. When they learned that not only were we riding such a long way, but that neither of us could see much, they were blown away. Many people called us crazy. Some people feared for our safety. Most people were seriously impressed. But I am willing to bet that all of the people we talked to remember us, and that is important. If two blind people can bike across the world without assistance from a sighted guide, what other things are totally possible?
We visited schools and organisations for the blind and visually impaired. It was important to us to convey to the people we met that we are them. We are the same. They, too, could do this – or if not a bike, something else. Do not let the world set limits on you, we’d tell them. Push yourself, discover yourself and question the so-called “obvious.” There were a few people along the way who lit up at this idea. Knowing that they might discover something new they didn’t think they could do has to be listed as a “best.” But, so does knowing that, when we spoke at public schools, there were kids in the audience for whom we were the first people with disabilities they’d ever met. First impressions are strong. Thinking that they might go through life with the impression that disabled people do amazing things, as opposed to the idea that disabled people are weak and contribute little, is absolutely a best.
On a personal level, Christi learned how to ride a bike and now uses her own single bike as a main form of transportation. This would not have happened had we not embarked on this adventure, and her life (she’s never been able to drive a car) is massively improved as a result. Another best.
3) Worst thing that happened?
The worst part of any adventure is the part when it has to end. If we had unlimited funds, we’d be off in Asia on our own bikes, sharing our message and visiting schools.
4) Favourite country and why?
From a cyclists’ perspective, Nicaragua would have to top the list. The reasons are both tangible and indescribable. From a practical point of view, there are bus stands along the (beautifully paved, brand new) road about every ten kilometers. At the bus stands, one can find delicious, home-made, ice-cold drinks for 25c. Someone is often selling nacatamales there, too. What more could you want?
But it’s what cannot be put into words that makes it even more of an amazing place. There are some places you go where you just feel good and you don’t know why. It feels like everyone around you is smiling and happy and their joy is a contagious disease that makes your life better. The people we met were so kind, helpful and inviting. But then, we found that people in most countries were kind, helpful and inviting. Colombia is another country that makes it high on the love-list – they also have delicious fruit drinks and people will actually walk you to a place when you ask for directions.
Of course, when I think on it, I have countless stories of incredible people from Argentina and Chile as well. And Bolivia is just so different and interesting that it can’t be left off the list. In the end, the best country to be in is whatever country we are in when someone asks. And it’s generally true.
5) What do you wish you’d known before you started?
Some of the best adventures come because we didn’t know before we started, but with the benefit of hindsight, I’d say a few things.
First and foremost, I (Christi) wish I’d known I could ride my own bike. The tandem was great and a real ice-breaker, but it was hard. It was a beast. It was way to heavy to push up hills and way to fast to coast down hills. It was hard to replace parts. Mostly, it was hard to get it to our starting point! (Major saga with airlines and customs that set us back by more than a month.) I dream about what the whole trip would have been like if I had been on my own bike – but then, it’s only because of this trip that I can now even ride my own bike!
From a practical point of view, I also wish we had replaced some of our gear before starting. We’d done a considerable amount of adventuring before this trip and figured things like our old stove, our old tent, our old chain rings and the like would be good enough. They weren’t. But the grievances we had then make for great stories now!
6) Anywhere you’d still like to go?
There is everywhere I’d still like to go! Tauru’s vision isn’t likely to be good enough for most cycle-touring anymore – at least, not in the same way we’d done it before. But with unlimited funds and some new methods, we’d both love to keep on going. We’ve already spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia, not on bikes – and we’d love to experience those countries from two wheels. We’ve heard great things about cycling in Europe, too, though high prices and narrow roads have kept us away. Australia and New Zealand might be neat as well. But then, there are other adventures we’d like to try out, as well. We’d both love to learn to ski. Tauru has long had dreams about ski-traversing Greenland and Antarctica. We shall see.
7) What were you doing before your trip? And now?
We met at work. At that time, Tauru had recently learned that he is losing his vision to a degenerative genetic disease and might one day be totally blind. Because of that, he’d been saving his money to “see” the world while he still could. Since 2005, he’s been traveling, climbing, sailing, cycling and experiencing life. Christi joined him in these adventures in 2007, save one year while teaching English in Asia and doing some solo backpacking. We had been accumulating all sorts of experiences that really culminated with the big bike trip. Now, we are trying to figure out how to settle back into “normal” life. While we are looking for work, we are each working on separate writing projects.
8) You both have fairly severe sight problems (I understand you are both registered as legally blind). How did this affect your experience of the journey?
Because we were raising awareness and speaking at schools specifically about blindness, this became a focus for our entire journey. Some advice for anyone riding for a cause, be sure to pick a cause about which you are really passionate. Every day, every person you meet, you will tell the same stories, hear stories about that cause, interview for that cause, champion for that cause – you will live and breath that cause for the duration of the trip. It’s great, but it can be intense.
There were a lot of things that became available to us because of our blindness. First, this trip wouldn’t have even taken place without it – in many ways, Tauru’s timeline for seeing has really been an impetus for getting out there and just doing it, as opposed to saying, “someday.” Also, we got to meet all of the wonderful students, faculty, organizers and members of all the various schools and organizations we visited. Those include many of our fondest memories. We got to tour a vineyard, ride with sled dogs, pedal in a parade and present at a state fair all because our connections with blindness. We were on national news imparting the message of, “Si, se puede,” in Chile. We visited with faculty at a university in Argentina to prove that if they take the time to accommodate disabled students, their efforts will pay off. The stories go on and on.
9) Your website has some fascinating information about what you can each see. How did it work on the bike, especially on busy roads and in towns?
Our vision is completely different from one another. “Legally blind,” can mean a whole lot of things. For Tauru, he has less than ten degrees field of view. He kept his focus on the road ahead and guided the bike in a straight line. He could not even use a rear-view mirror since, lacking any peripheral vision, he’d had to take his eyes entirely off the road, find the mirror, discern what’s in the mirror and then find where the road is again. Too much time elapses in the course of that process! Instead, Christi would look over her left shoulder and announce any important information to the degree which she could see it.
Christi is entirely blind in her right eye and has an acuity of about 20/200 in her left eye. That is to say, her distance vision is about one-tenth of normal, but that is the simple answer. She would announce the color of the traffic lights, if there was an approaching vehicle while crossing on- and off-ramps, and if there is the occasional dog, or bear, crossing the road in front of the bike.
Our vision impacted just about everything about the way we had to ride. For one thing, we could not go fast. This was in part because our bike weighed close to 500lbs with two riders, all of our gear, food and water. But even if we had a racing bike, we’d have had to pedal slowly. Tauru created the “big picture” in front of him by constantly scanning, taking in the world piece by piece. The faster he goes, the more changes as he scans and he could no longer piece together the big picture. Also, it takes much, much longer for his eyes to adjust between light and dark. On two occasions, we came crashing down because there was something on the shoulder of the road hiding beneath a tree’s dark shadow that he didn’t see. On grey days where there are no shadows, we are both deprived of depth perception, and he is also robbed of color differentiation. That means he’d not be able to tell where the road’s edge is or where there might be potholes.
Also, due to his night blindness, we always had to ensure that we had a safe place to stay for the night before the sun set. Sometimes this made for very short riding days. Sometimes this meant riding through the heat of the day in the summer desert heat. (We’ve ridden through the Mojave when a person told us his car’s thermometer clocked 127 degrees!)
When we arrived in busy cities, we got off the bike and walked. Combined with all of the steep inclines that our heavy bike couldn’t muster, we just may have walked halfway to Alaska! And in places we deemed just too dangerous, such as Lima and Mexico City, we through the bike onto a bus and jumped to the other side of town. We sometimes talking about “perceived” limits and “real” limits. It’s important to challenge and push those perceived limits, but it’s equally important to recognize where real limits lie. Real limits include those wherein personal well-being has a high probability of being compromised.
10) What advice would you give other visually impaired people who want to do a cycle trip?
I would offer the same advice to visually impaired people who was to do a cycle trip as I would offer totally sighted people who want to do a cycle trip: Do it. Everyone has an obstacle, a challenge, something holding them back. It’s usually fear. Fear knows no boundaries, so it’s up to us to conquer it. If you want something badly enough, you will find a way to make it happen. That way may not be the most obvious or the way that everyone else would do it. It’d be your own way. You own system. Challenge yourself – you might be able to do all kinds of things that you truly believed your whole life that you could not do. But also keep safety in mind. No one is a hero for reaching the top of a mountain; they only become heroes when they return home to tell about the top of the mountain. That said, no one is ever teleported to the tops of mountains either. It starts with a dream, and it’s followed by hard work, plans, strategies, hard days, fun times, tears, pain, joy and everything else in between.
It’s great to dream. It’s better to achieve. Any dream can be achieved. The question is not “if” you can do it. The question is, “how” will you do it?
To see Christi and Tauru’s entry on the database of long distance cycling journeys, along with the other 152 cyclists (and counting) on there, take a look at http://thenextchallenge.org/ldcj/