David Gustafson: Seeing America from the seat of a bicycle
Trinity CommunicationsAugust 22, 2018
By Mark Kahler
As spring graduation at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School concluded May 11, associate professor of Evangelism and Missional Ministry David Gustafson had urgent plans for that weekend — and the next two months.
“I had that goal of just seeing America,” Gustafson says, “and doing it from the seat of a bicycle.”
He transported his bicycle and some camping equipment from a Metra train to Chicago’s Union Station, where he boarded an overnight Amtrak train bound for Penn Station in New York. There, a conductor pointed him to an elevator and an exit.
“I took a selfie, put my shoes on and I started riding.”
Thus began a 3,901-mile cycling journey east-to-west across the United States.
“This has been on my bucket list for a long time,” says Gustafson. “I bought a bike in 2010 for this purpose. I was going to do it in 2012 but that was the same summer I moved here to take a position at TEDS.”
Last year, Gustafson spent many of his summer hours in front of his computer keyboard putting the final touches on his new evangelism textbook.
“I got to the end of the summer and I said, ‘I’ve been sitting in front of this all summer’ and it just felt like I hadn’t done much outdoors,” Gustafson recalls. “So I said ‘next summer, I’m going to do this.’”
Gustafson proceeded north out of Manhattan, pedaling along the Hudson River until reaching the Erie Canal, which he followed westward across New York to Niagara Falls. His journey then took him along Lake Erie in Ohio, across Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Colorado.
In Boulder, Colorado, he met with family and began moving between several national parks, including Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier. His final leg paralleled the Canadian border until he reached the Pacific coast at Anacortes, Washington.
He says an average day was 70-75 miles, but there were days when thunderstorms blocked his route and limited the mileage he could cover. He spent the nights in campgrounds, the homes of relatives and friends, cycling hostels or what cyclists call “stealth camping,” which involves quietly setting up a tent out of public view and leaving no trace of evidence that a campsite existed.
“I had a tent, I had a sleeping bag, and I had a Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad,” says Gustafson. “I had two changes of bicycle clothes, one pair of street clothes, some slacks and a shirt.” Laundry day came about every five days, usually at a campground laundromat.
His wife Sharon, who joined him along the route in Niagara Falls for a few days, and downloaded a smartphone app that indicated David’s current location.
“Being able to track his progress and location via an app was very helpful,” Sharon says, adding the system had its faults.
“When he was out of cell service, mainly in the west, was it hard not being able to communicate or know his whereabouts.”
Once out of New York City, Gustafson largely avoided congested urban areas and sought out rural highways. But he often found company on those remote routes from other cyclists, some of whom were making similar cross-country trips. Gustafson says about 30 fellow cyclists crossed his path during the two months and two days of his adventure.
“I’m in bike hostels with people who are staying overnight, where I’m having spiritual conversations with them,” Gustafson says. “Going out for dinner with cyclists. All kinds of things.”
The book project that kept him indoors the previous summer actually became quite real out on the road.
“It’s called Gospel Witness: Evangelism in Word and Deed and it’s coming out this year,” Gustafson says of the book. “I just knew that a trip like this would give me all kinds of opportunities to engage with people far from God, and practice what I preach.
“A bike ride like this opens all kinds of doors with people immediately.”
“Probably the most significant conversation I had was with a guy named Jonah,” Gustafson recalls. “He’s a Jewish guy, probably about 26 years old.” They met at a hostel in Monroeville, Indiana.
“That was very significant being able to just share with him in terms of my faith journey and kind of explore his.”
He recalls another meaningful conversation with someone named Curtis in Kettle Falls, Washington. All of the spiritual discussions were relatively brief and started quickly – out of necessity.
“I mean, it’s not like you have a lot of time to build a rapport and that sort of thing,” observes Gustafson.
He found a small church in Dubois, Wyoming that opens its doors to shelter cross-country cyclists, seeing it as a ministry. Even outside the cycling community, Gustafson made many new friends.
“They want to talk,” Gustafson says. “People buy me breakfast. They just want to sit down and hear my story. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Who are you?’ It goes from that to eventually spiritual conversations.”
Some of those opportunities were the subject of prayers back home. Sharon made that a part of the initial conversation about her husband’s cycling plan.
“We discussed (the trip) and I expressed that I would be praying for daily opportunities for him to have gospel conversations with those he met along the way,” Sharon says. “I’m so proud of David that he went after his goal, was able to accomplish it, and many gospel conversations took place along the 3901.9 mile adventure.”
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Reaction to the trip from colleagues has been positive and packed with questions. In fact, Gustafson might need a list of “frequently asked questions” display for his office to sit alongside a poster his daughter made, composed of selfies at each state border along the route.
How did you entertain yourself for all of those hours?
Gustafson’s iPod Shuffle was loaded with a playlist that included Fernando Ortega, Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin. He also enjoyed spotting a variety of wildlife, including an antelope, a bull moose and several eagles.
He developed a sort of game with train engineers. Gustafson would continue waving to them in hopes of getting them to blow the horn.
How did you eat meals and take rest periods from the road?
Gustafson’s morning menu: “Three or four granola bars, just to start eating something right when I wake up, to get some calories,” he said “Then I’d get to a little town and a gas station that sells some rolls or breakfast sandwiches. I might buy one or two of those … then maybe at 10:30 or 11:00, I might actually see a little café that has a great big breakfast for $6.95 and have two eggs and bacon and maybe hash browns … you have to eat well, and hydration is important.”
Despite those big meals to load carbs and protein along the way, Gustafson says he lost 15 pounds during the trip.
The plan throughout the journey was to ride for six days and then take a rest day. Terrain and weather conditions sometimes dictated changes to the schedule.
What kind of bike did you ride?
The bike is a Surly Long Haul Trucker 26-inch 10-speed. Gustafson says it is built for cross-country rides rather than speed.
What kind of hospitality did you encounter?
Gustafson says he was continually impressed with the level of generous support he received in all sections of the country.
“If you’d ask people ‘where can I get water?’ they’d say ‘well, just come to my house, I live a block from here,’” Gustafson says. “It really kind of caused me to evaluate my own hospitality and generosity with a stranger.”
Did you ever doubt you would make it to the Pacific coast?
“You begin with the goal and you’re like, “well, we’ll see how far we get,’” Gustafson says. “At one point, I was saying, “I’m at least going to go to Boulder, Colorado and depending if I’m on time, then I’ll continue on to Anacortes (on the Pacific coast).”
Gustafson says he received daily encouragement from wife Sharon, who became his biggest cheerleader. “She was saying ‘you can do this’ when I wasn’t always so sure,” Gustafson says.
What was the biggest mileage day, and the highest elevation?
“I rode 102 miles one day. That was too much for my left quad. So it strained and I had that for about two or three weeks.”
The highest elevation, at 12,100 feet, was on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
What was the toughest day?
Gustafson says riding along the Wind River in west-central Wyoming. As the name implies, some strong wind currents in that area make cycling a challenge.
Are there plans for another trip?
Gustafson says he would enjoy riding in Alaska, where many serious distance cyclists begin trips measured in years rather than months.
“I met one guy from the Czech Republic who had just come down (from Alaska) into Montana on his way to Chile,” Gustafson says.
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People approach Gustafson for advice about taking such a trip, and he is providing encouragement to those who have cycling experience. But he’s also quick to say “I don’t think everybody should do it.”
Trinity International University colleague and assistant professor of music Charles King paid close attention to the journey.
“David’s ride was an inspiration!” King says. “I have dreamed of a cross-country ride since I was a teenager, and David’s experience has given me the courage to finally start planning it.”
Gustafson says finding courage on such a trip is a daily process. For him, each day began with a simple ritual.
“A secret to a cross-country trip like this is putting your cycling shorts on every morning. It’s just that, ‘OK, I’ve got to do this.’ Then come the shoes and soon you’re ready.”