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What I learned riding solo from Alaska to Mexico is that while I performed every pedal stroke, I didn't really do the journey alone.
Jerry Holl is a former sales executive who left corporate America to embark on a "two-wheeled odyssey." He biked 3,634 miles from Alaska to Mexico for fifty-one days, encountering 20 bears (4 grizzly, 16 black bears), 2 moose face-to-face, and one near miss with a cougar.
He chronicles every aspect of the story in a self-assured, self-deprecating, reflective, and humorous way.
This is not your typical travel book. It is full of unexpected adventures, which makes Holl's story interesting, inspirational and captivating. The author wasn't exactly prepared for the journey.
At the age of 57, and despite his friends' reservations, Holl embarks on a solo-tour. All he knew: He would start in Alaska in the hope to be alive at the Mexican border a few months later.
He had no cycling experience and no idea what to plan for. He went to a local bike shop, got himself a bike, a repair toolkit and panniers and off he went: "So with that my plan was, well, no plan."
Holl's biking tour from Alaska to Mexico
This book is refreshingly entertaining, inspirational, well-written and packed with countless interesting conversations with locals and travellers.
"This is an amazing story, full of (mostly) good experiences cycling along some of North America’s most beautiful scenery. Lots of interesting characters (including some wild ones), and a lifetime of stories."
Interview with the Author
We recently had the opportunity to ask Jerry Holl a few questions about his journey and future plans to explore the world. Click on a question to expand the text.
From a physical standpoint, despite having a (leaky) air mattress, the ground is harder and firmer. Your body is very resilient and adjusts to the conditions. After sleeping on the ground for weeks on end, soft beds actually felt strange and I couldn’t sleep. I had to adjust back. Plus outside, there’s also the fresh crisp air, the luffing of the tent in the wind, the whisper of a breeze in the high pines, and the soothing patter of rain on nylon, or in some cases the driving drumbeat of a hard downpour - yet you’re thankfully dry on the other side of the thin membrane.
You tuck deeper into your sleeping bag and let yourself drift away to the natural symphony. There’s something about the comforting safety of your tent in the wild that gives you a sense of well being - until you hear a twig snap at 2:30 AM. It’s you against the elements.
I live more alive in these moments than I do in the comfort and safety of home. When you’re in a hotel room, or at home, everything is so convenient - running water, a bathroom, a warm shower, and a warm bed. Fantastic for sure, but it’s just not the same experience as being in the elements. Being in the elements brings everything to the basics of what’s important. It gets the clutter of normal society out of your life. The simplicity of getting clean, getting fed, getting warm, and taking in the rawness of the elements - you just don’t get that in your home. But beyond that, it’s also the contrast of the rawness of the elements and surviving that also makes home feel so good. You so appreciate the good days when you’ve experienced the bad days.
EBL: What about having a sense of purpose after you successfully completed the expedition?
It’s always nice to get home. There’s something about coming home with all your family, friends, familiar surroundings, and normalcy. But beyond that, one needs to have purpose - something they are driving towards. When I was on the journey, each day I’d get up and have a drive to create distance.
I simplistically defined distance as value - If you’re not creating value - you won’t get anywhere. And of course it was all the observations and interactions that gave the journey its real value - and everyday I was searching for what stood out, why did it stand out, why would anybody else care, and how do I tell that story to make it come alive?
That in itself was ‘purpose.’ When I arrived home, that purpose was gone, or better yet, completed. “Where do I go from here?” Without purpose, the days began to drag. Even though I didn’t do this journey to write a book (or even a blog for that matter), and vowed numerous times that I wasn’t going to write a book.
EBL: So, you decided to write a book to fill the void?
After a few weeks home I began to think, ‘Geez, I have the stories, some are pretty funny - should they be more broadly told? I’ve never written a book, I don’t even know where to start, but what the hell - why not?’ There was a little problem though, I’d never written anything. But then again, I’d never ridden a loaded bike or pedaled any distance either. I realized I needed purpose - go for it! But, where to begin?
I thought of a story structure and the kind of book I’d want to read. And just began putting words on paper. When you just start, and then think about what you’re doing and why, foggy and fuzzy undertakings start to become clearer. That phenomena happened with the book. Pretty soon, you begin to see your way.
By just starting, and doing one pedal stroke at a time and as many strokes as the day would give me, and similarly, by just getting words on a page, it became clearer to me how to organize the story, and tell it.
Writing the book was tedious at times for sure, but so fun because it was a way to completely relive the journey and hopefully entertain others and bring them along for the ride. You have to trust that other people would want to read the same type of book I want to read - and then just go. Move and adjust, read and react, write and edit.
But through it all, trust yourself and don’t let anyone change your voice, your thoughts and more-so, your authenticity. If I did it again, I could probably have a couple more re-writes. But I accepted that it would never be perfect - at some point just go to print and move on. I’m ok with my flaws. Big deal.
EBL: What did you learn most from the journey?
Upon completion of the ride, people even began ascribing me as an expert cyclist. Pretty funny as I still don’t know how to fix a bike. And same with writing the book - many people have contacted me to pick my mind on how to write a book. “What? Hell if I know!” How funny is that. But, seriously, you do learn a few things and give them some value-add tips on what you discovered in writing and would like to have known earlier. But I don’t think one can truly grasp ‘knowing’ until they just attack it and do.
But it didn’t stop there, the journey continues to evolve. This crazy notion to undertake this insane journey is the gift to myself that keeps on giving. I just did it to see what I was made of, and if I could do it. I just thought it would give me some great beer drinking stories - it all turned into so much more. I didn’t expect that. Now I know that everyone who takes on their own stretch, a true stretch, will find the same.
EBL: You became a motivational speaker to share your experiences. How did that work out?
Organizations now want me to speak to their members and help inspire them to draw out their own very best. I’m the catalyst that figuratively allows ‘the chemical reaction to occur’ - to nudge someone over the top to take on something they were previously reluctant to do. If organizations can do that with each member - to dream bigger, think bigger, and act bigger - they’ll win in an overwhelmingly way - however they define winning. So I do this all by simply telling my story, but more-so, how it applies to them and the discoveries they’ll make by default.
For me, it created an new encore career, and a purpose that I never contemplated. And even though its work, it’s so much fun it doesn’t feel like work. It almost feels like a crime for taking money for something so fun. And beyond euphemisms, and cheesy yoga poster sloganeering - this journey led me to discovering a vocation that requires skill and work, but it doesn’t feel like work.
You feel to the core that this discovery is the key to success - and the elusive fountain of youth. And it all started with the first pedal stroke. Who would have known.
So coming full circle to your question of coming home to normalcy... the trick is continuing to find purpose that makes life continue to feel new and fresh, so that you don’t go stale in constant normalcy. I’m fortunate that I discovered this - partly by accident, but it’s also a natural outcome of taking ever bigger stretches, and letting them lead you where they will.
So this was a long winded way to describe that when I got home, I needed to find a new purpose - normalcy gets old. But it had to be an exciting purpose for me - not just the traditional drumbeat of going to work. The crazy stretch journey became the underlying catalyst of the new ‘what’s possible’?
First off, I love my Harley Davidson, not really for its material value, or precision design and engineering, its sound, its shine, its glitter, image and camaraderie - of which it has all. But, I mostly love it for where it brings me - geographically and emotionally. My bike is an escape - it’s a cabin on wheels. And it’s always the dirtiest bike in the bunch because basically I’m lazy on the maintenance front, and I’d rather ride my bike than pet it.
Which brings me to your question; I would totally tour on an ebike because they can get you on fabulous trails, backcountry, and to locations not available to motorcycles. Different than trekking or hiking, an ebike will get you much farther afield in a given timeframe - I love that notion.
They will get you to places, and better yet, to feelings that extend beyond most people’s current domain. And they’re just plain fun - I’ve ridden a few. Love them. And for the rider, one can get whatever exercise value they want - and still scoot home if they become exhausted. They get you outside.
I’ve discovered that I’m always happiest when I’ve had a bunch of daily ‘outside’ time. I think everyone would feel that. The ebike revolution is fantastic not just for the commuters and environmental cleanliness, but even more-so as a fun vehicle for one’s discovery and sense of well-being. I would hope yours is the dirtiest in the bunch - that means you’ve been places. It’s your ‘cabin on wheels’.
Yea, I’ll own one for sure.
It’s a great activity for camaraderie with groups of varying capabilities. And, if you’re worried about your fitness level, it’s the great leveler to keep up with the group. It’s more important that you’re out and doing, rather than how good you are.
Everybody’s ‘stretches’ will be at different levels. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best, what matters is that you’ll discover that you can stretch yourself beyond what you ever thought you had. And as you do that, your stretches will become ever bigger and bold and your personal growth will hit an inflection point and explode to the positive.
You never know when you’ll draw on those new experiences - but you will. Beyond that, you’ll be a more fun and happier person. Trust me on that. So don’t overthink whether you can do it or not - just start.
An ebike used within its prescribed specifications has the juice to get you home when you’re gassed. It makes for great stories with your friends and colleagues and builds more meaningful conversations and relationships that leads to more trust. And people want to be around or do business with who they trust. You’ll be saying “I can’t wait to get back on this beast tomorrow!” Get moving, there’s no better time than now.
I actually try to live my philosophy of seeking new experiences. Two summers ago, I trekked to Mt. Everest Base Camp at 64 (almost 65) years old.
You never know how your body will do at nearly 18,000 feet. How will you ever know how your body behaves unless you try? How will you ever reduce the long shadow to it’s true size if you never confront it head-on?
Culturally is was as educational and rewarding (and in some cases heartbreaking) as the trek itself. I would never truly appreciate any of it if I read it in a book or simply watched the movie. Turn off the digital and get into the real world. Don’t let journalists tell you what to see - go see for yourself.
You never know how you’ll react in a grueling trek near 18,000 feet, but you gain a new appreciation for mountain climbers and high altitude Sherpas and the backbreaking loads they carry.
If you don’t buy a Harley, or an ebike - you’ll miss out on a whole tremendous world ripe for the taking. It’s there for all and these great experiences are available to all - not just the chosen few. The ebike will open a new world(s) to people. I’ll buy one for sure.
EBL: Risk taking is part of the journey?
You don’t take risk for risk sake as a wildcatter - but for growth, you have to take mindful risks that will press you. I’ve learned that discomfort isn’t danger - many people confuse the two. I’ve been uncomfortable numerous times - but rarely have I been in real danger.
However, of the 11 people that started on the Everest Base Camp trek, 3 people had to be medivaced off the mountain for either pulmonary or cerebral edema. It could have been me, how will you ever know unless you try? One also had to manage the squalor of Kathmandu and the Nepalese villages and do everything in your power to manage your health in that pathogenic environment.
This fall, after now having 90,000+ miles all throughout both coasts and all points of the compassion in the USA and Canada, I hit a deer broadside at about 50 mph. I went right through the deer. Two deer jumped out, I hit one - not a moment to react. I didn’t go down and my Harley took a lickin’, I came away without a scratch - just tremendously lucky, not skillful in that instance.
I’d have NEVER hit a deer if I never bought a Harley - but I would also never have seen the utter magnificence of the US and Canada in living color and real life iMax all day long replete with real smells, sounds, temperatures, exhaustion, and moods you can’t get otherwise. I would have missed it all and wouldn’t trade any of that for the off-chance of an accident. Live life fully.
EBL: What is next on your bucket list?
When the international travel market fully re-opens, I’m going to Patagonia, and to Kilimanjaro. And from there, to many other countries.
Beyond travel and physical activities, I’m trying to learn the piano and platform tennis - but I suck. Who cares. And, I’m trying to further develop my market in public speaking. While most people find public speaking terrifying - I find telling authentic stories invigorating and a complete gas!
The amazing people I’ve met from all walks of life as result of this crazy journey and their own stories have astonished me. It’s been amazingly enriching. I’m an ordinary guy who undertook and extraordinary experience. It’s led me to people and places I’d never dreamed. And better yet, its available to all who dare to dream - and act on it.
About the Author
"Not too many folks have quit their corporate careers at age fifty-seven to embark on an epic adventure, especially when their most trusted companion is a bike they don’t know how to fix . . . Holl isn’t most people, so he did exactly that. In his inspiring true story of resilience, strength, and overcoming fear, Holl reveals how his journey forever altered his life and why he embarked on it in the first place."
Source: Press release
Jerry Holl is an independent business consultant and motivational speaker in Minnesota. He can be reached via his website.
Downhills Don’t Come Free: One Man’s Bike Ride from Alaska to Mexico is E-bike Lovers' book club selection for April 2021.
Get your copy of Downhills Don’t Come Free: One Man’s Bike Ride from Alaska to Mexico on Amazon.
Awards include the 2019 eLit Gold Award, 2018 IPPY Bronze Award, and the 2017 Book Excellence Award.
This book is an EPIC adventure tale that needs to be added to your collection.
Downhills Don't Come Free by Jerry Holl is an inspiring account of his trip from Alaska to Mexico by bike, and also shows why we all sometimes need a challenge.
So much more than just another cycling journey!
Janet is a senior lawyer who has represented the US Government in large cases. She enjoys a good book and traveling to lesser-known destinations while exploring new cultures and cuisines.
Favorite e-bike: Tern HSD S8i Class 1 with belt drive and Bosch motor.
SENIOR EDITOR, ADVISOR AND LEGAL COUNSEL E-BIKE LOVERS