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A Round-The-World Bike Trip Cut Short Shows How COVID-19 Is Dashing Bucket-List Adventures

Photo courtesy of Marica van der Meer via Facebook
Dutch cyclist Marica van der Meer has spent the past 15 months cycling around the world. She ended her trip early in Los Angeles after the pandemic prompted Japan to close its borders to nonessential travel from the United States.

This story is powered by America Amplified, a public radio initiative.

On a recent rainy day in Rockville, Utah, cars roared down the highway as Dutch cyclists Marica van der Meer and Bas Baan huddled together underneath the awning of a post office, trying to fix a flat tire.

"They'll send me new tires when I reach Las Vegas," van der Meer said.

The tire was nearly bare and her sturdy green bike was packed with orange bags and plastic soda bottles filled with water. Van der Meer was riding around the world – a journey that began more than a year ago in the Netherlands.

She'd travelled via cargo ship across the Atlantic Ocean, rode the entire length of South America, hitchhiked from island to island in the Caribbean with American sailors, and then joined Baan to ride from Miami to Los Angeles. It was partway through this cross-country journey that they both first heard about COVID-19.

"We thought, 'Ah, it's some kind of disease over there in China,' you know?" she said.

Flash forward several weeks and most of the world is on lockdown. Hotels and restaurants are closed. Van der Meer was facing a tough decision – end her journey around the world early and fly home to the Netherlands or continue to Japan.

"I've already invested more than a year into this trip," she said. "It's also a part of my living because I write books, I do presentations in theaters and everything afterwards when I come home. If I cannot finish my trip I don’t know what will happen to my income."

Financial factors aside, it's a decision many of us are facing these days. We're nixing spring vacations, soccer tournaments and long-planned bicycling and backpacking trips. These getaways and adventures that keep us motivated through the winter doldrums are slipping away as the new normal of #stayathome stretches into the spring and summer.

"There's an element to all this that's really processed like grief," says Alex Strickland, editor-in-chief of the nonprofit bike touring magazine Adventure Cyclist. 

He says ending a bicycle tour is an especially big deal for travellers because it's a journey akin to through-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

"This is the culmination of years-long dreams, savings, banking time off and putting aside money," he says. "I think it’s a dream deferred."

But it's also the safe and responsible thing to do right now. Many state and local governments are urging visitors, including bicycle tourists, to stay away from rural towns right now because of the potential strain on already-limited resources and hospitals.

There's also an added health risk for cyclists. Here in the Mountain West, they often ride through dry, sparse country on quiet highways and rely on convenience stores for essential items like food and water. 

"Convenience stores are closed. Restrooms are closed. You talk about the range of a touring cyclist and this becomes even more difficult," Strickland says. 

It's a reality that eventually caught up with van der Meer. A couple of weeks after she was fixing a flat tire in the rain near that post office in Utah, she's back home in the Netherlands under quarantine.

Credit Photo courtesy of Marica van der Meer via Facebook
Marica van der Meer and Bas Baan fly home to the Netherlands after van der Meer ended her attempt to cycle around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It was a very strange feeling to have to end the trip," she says.

Van der Meer made it as far as Los Angeles. She was a couple of days from flying to Japan but then that country closed its doors to any travellers coming from the United States. She couldn't stay here any longer because her tourist visa was about to run out. She describes the moment as an emotional roller coaster. 

"I'm not the kind of person who gives up," she says. "If I start something, I want to finish it."

But COVID-19 had other plans. Still, van der Meer says she doesn't feel grief over the journey's end. 

"I see it more as, 'I have another opportunity to do this again,'" she says. "So I will just chill for a couple of years and then I will do another attempt to go around the world by bicycle. I will still do it."

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Bas Baan's last name.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.

Nate Hegyi is a roving regional reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at Nevada Public Radio. You can reach him at natehegyi@protonmail.com.