For most people, biking around the island on any given day can be challenging enough. But for Paula Holmes-Eber and Lorenz Eber that ride’s a piece of cake. Try biking around the world!
The Bainbridge couple, along with their then two pre-teen daughters, pedaled the globe back in 2003 on two tandem bikes that included six panniers stuffed with all their worldly possessions, and survived to tell about their adventure in a just released book titled, “Breathtaking – How One Family Cycled Around the World for Clean Air and Asthma.”
During their epic journey, before the days of Google Maps and reliable WiFi, the Eber’s visited 24 countries and logged nearly 15,000 kilometers, while raising $65,000 for World Bike for Breath, the non-profit they established to support asthma education and research. They claim to be the only family on record to complete a full circumnavigation of the world by bicycle.
So how did Paula, an anthropologist, University of Washington professor, and the author of six academic books, and Lorenz, an aeronautical and civil engineer, end up pumping their way across Asia, Australia, Europe and North America?
The story began when Paula was diagnosed with asthma as a two year old. She’s been fighting the condition ever since. “No one ever raises money for asthma,” she says. “I think it’s because you don’t really look sick, and then suddenly you’re wheezing on folks, and (maybe) falling over dead.” Paula says some 400,000 people a year die of asthma, but the disease is not as top of mind with the public as, say, Alzheimer’s, or any number of forms of cancer.
“The book’s about my struggle with it (asthma), and, of course, our trip,” she says. The new tome is also a reflection of the couple’s push for a carbon-free, environmentally friendly way to travel.
The Eber’s biking experiences go back to their honeymoon when they circumnavigated Lake Michigan. They later rode from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo in California, and when their kids were old enough they ventured out on several other bike trips. Their most memorable one was a 600-mile jaunt from Fairbanks, Alaska to the Arctic Circle.
“I said, ‘if we can do Alaska, why not do it around the world?’” Paula recalls, as Lorenz, who helped engineer the island’s first roundabout on High School Road and Madison Avenue, chortled with the memory, adding a humorous eye roll to emphasize his amazement. “Are you kidding me?” he remembers saying at the time.
No, she wasn’t kidding. The couple quickly realized if they were serious about their globetrotting ambition, they would need to raise funds and garner support. Not long after, they set up World Bike for Breath, and attracted a number of business owners and influential people to their board of directors.
“It became clear that we needed to own the project,” Paula says, reflecting back some 20 or so years. “We knew people, they were friends, they thought it was a great idea. … A lot of (businesses) downtown got excited. It became a group project.”
Local businesses such Dana’s Showhouse and The Traveler (now defunct), among many others, sponsored the ride by agreeing to pay the Eber’s a certain fee per mile logged. They later garnered sponsorships from the likes of REI and other larger players.
Their 16-month odyssey, interestingly enough, started on May 7, 2003 – World Asthma Day – in of all places, Greece. “The prevailing winds are from West to East across the globe,” Lorenz says. “We wanted to stay out of winter” climates. They pedaled through a snow storm near the Great Wall of China and experienced freezing temperatures in Japan.
When they made it to Russia – where they were accosted by smugglers – they could only ride so far, as there are no roads past Novosibirsk, the largest city and capital of Siberia. They had to take a train the rest of the way. The book is filled with first-hand accounts of the trip, excepts from emails and letters they received from people they met on the road, challenges the family had with language barriers and foreign culture, and even a cute interview the girls – Yvonne and Anya – did with Radio Disney.
Lorenz had to modify the bikes and their equipment as they pedaled along, and without modern navigational technology in hand to guide them – they only had a Blackberry and a flip phone – the family sometimes had to innovate to find food and lodging.
“We did a lot of wild camping in farmers’ fields or kids’ playgrounds,” he says with a laugh. “It was a great way to meet people, and the people were so nice. People would pull up (beside them on the road) in trucks and stop and take pictures. They’d touch the girls’ hair. Some of them had never seen white people or blond hair before.”
Not every story made it into the book, and a few stand out. The family was in Okinawa, Japan over Thanksgiving. Paula had heard that American citizens could eat at military bases on holidays. She made an appointment at a base and the family rode eight miles to the gate.
“We were hungry,” Lorenz remembers. “We were dreaming of turkey and apple pie.” When they arrived at the base, however, they were told that the troops at already eaten. “’But I called ahead,’” says Paula, now laughing at the memory, “’and they said to come at this time.’”
“What base did you call?” the attendant asked her. “’How many are there?’” she responded. “Eight.” The Eber’s eventually found an Australian steak house and noshed on Salisbury Steak instead of turkey.
Lorenz, who had a habit of picking up and disposing of garbage along the way, spotted a plastic bag in the middle of a road while they were still in Okinawa. His wife and daughter insisted he ignore it, but he hopped off the bike and grabbed it. When he opened it up, he discovered some 60 packages of ramen noodles that the family ate for several weeks on end. “We were starving in Japan,” he recalls. “It was so expensive there… (but now) I can’t think of eating those noodles anymore.”
When the Eber’s returned to the island, they quickly immersed themselves in their jobs and renewed a normal home-life. A few years later – in 2006 – they moved to the Virginia, Washington D.C. area, where they both had “crazy jobs with no time” to pursue their dream of writing a book about their global trek, remembers Paula. Finally, when they returned to Bainbridge in 2015, they began writing the book in earnest, and completed it earlier this year with help and input from a wide variety of people – including “readers” from the OfficeXpats’ writing group of which Paula is along-standing member.
After negotiating with a number of publishers, the Eber’s worked out a deal last year with Falcon Publishing, which produces a wide assortment of guide books in the travel industry. Prior to making their presentation at Eagle Harbor Books this coming Thursday, they will speak briefly at an After Hours event at OfficeXpats (the co-working spot located in The Pavilion) on that same day.
On July 3, the couple will launch a West Coast book tour – by bike, of course – from Seattle to San Diego, making presentations at REI and Patagonia outlets along the way. Besides promoting their book, the Eber’s will discuss climate change and the effects human behavior is having on clean air, and what our carbon footprint is doing in terms of drought, fire, food shortages and so on.
“It’s part of the reason we’re traveling and we’re biking down the coast,” says Paula. “It’s about sustainable transportation… We want to show that it’s possible to get around without a car.”
For more information on the Eber’s and their travels, visit: https://bike4breath.com/
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