THE FREEDOM RIDERS
Not all journeys begin with a single step. Some start with the spin of a wheel. The yearlong, 10,000-mile mission of Seth McBride and Kelly Schwan is more than a handcycle/bicycle ride from Portland, Oregon, to Patagonia. It’s a chance to prove that travel can be a transformative experience for everyone, regardless of physical ability.
“Most of the world isn’t set up for people who use wheelchairs,” says 30-year-old McBride, a quadriplegic since 2001. “But I’ve found there are ways around—or over—just about every obstacle.”
When the Long Road South ends in September 2014, McBride plans to be the first person with quadriplegia to complete a Pan-American cycle tour. But the merits of the journey extend beyond the scorecard. “I don’t think it’s possible to do a long bike tour without having a traveler’s mind-set,” says McBride. “It was the love of travel more than a desire to do something epic that inspired us.”
The pair met in Beijing, where Schwan, an occupational therapist, volunteered for Team U.S.A. during the 2008 Paralympic Games. McBride’s wheelchair rugby team brought home gold, and Schwan found her ideal travel companion. They’ve since explored New Zealand, Italy, Vietnam, and Thailand and spent a month biking around Ireland—places not known for accessibility. Schwan carries McBride piggyback up narrow staircases and wherever else his wheelchair won’t go.
Averaging 35 miles a day, the bikers meet with disability rights organizations while blogging their way south. In a surprise move before departing, McBride proposed to Schwan. They’ll tie the knot when they return to Portland.
—By George W. Stone
National Geographic Traveler: Tell me about your backgrounds.
Seth McBride: I grew up in Juneau, Alaska, hiking, skiing, and mountain biking. In June 2001, I overrotated a backflip while skiing in British Columbia, injuring my spinal cord. I've now lived with quadriplegia for 12 years. In that time, I’ve traveled to 16 countries on four continents, including four months of living and teaching English in El Salvador, and a two-month backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. For the last seven years I’ve played wheelchair rugby for Team USA; we won gold in Beijing 2008 and bronze in London 2012.
Kelly Schwan: I’m an occupational therapist and spinal cord injury specialist at a trauma hospital in Portland. And I’m a huge disability rights advocate. I met Seth when I served on the staff for the Team USA wheelchair rugby team in the Beijing Paralympics. I’ve played sports since I was young, but after I tore my ACL, I got into cycling. I love cycle touring because it forces you to slow down and take in the scenery.
NGT: What’s your goal with the Long Road South?
KS and SM: Our main goal is to raise awareness for the importance of movement and physical activity, regardless of situation or ability. What better way to give an example of our message than by being physical via transcontinental travel? We all have things that could stop us from traveling or being active. Hopefully our trip can help show ways around any of those challenges.
NGT: How did you gather the courage to plan this trip?
KS and SM: We think that pursuing a big travel dream is less about courage and more about commitment. Yes, it may take a certain amount of courage—or restlessness—to leave the comforts of routine home life for the uncertainties of the road, but that courage won't get you far without the commitment to put forth the effort necessary to make a long expedition successful.
NGT: Can readers support your journey?
KS: Yes, and we’d like to give a huge thanks to everyone who's donated so far. Anyone who wants to help us get a little closer to Patagonia can donate directly to the Long Road South via Paypal. A little goes a long way, a lot goes even farther!
NGT: What are the advantages of bike travel?
SM: A bicycle (and a handcycle even more so) forces you to slow down, to stop in places you might not if you were traveling by auto, train, or plane. You meet people you would never meet if you weren't traveling at 12 mph. Traveling on a bicycle and a handcycle, towing a trailer and a wheelchair, is such a curious way to travel that it often breaks down barriers, making it much easier to communicate with people outside of the typical tourist/local binary. That's also a big reason why we're so excited to meet with adaptive sports and disability rights organizations as we go. Apart from the grander mission of promoting disability awareness and the importance of physical activity, it's a great way to make personal connections and learn how people with disabilities get by on a day to day basis in the places we're traveling through.
NGT: What are some of your biggest challenges?
SM: For me, the biggest challenge will be dealing with the heat and humidity of the tropics. I don’t sweat because of my injury, which means that I’ll have to be very careful with hydration by drinking lots of water, misting myself, and keeping wet towels on my neck. Since arm muscles aren’t as strong as leg muscles, I’ll really need to use my cardiovascular system to its full potential. And you don’t get the same perspective and view from a recumbent bike, so it forces you to slow down even more. On the other hand, I’m actually more aerodynamic in the wind.
NGT: How do your roles differ on this journey?
KS: We’re experiencing the ride from a different perspective, not only physically but (for me) as a female. Seth is in a chair, which creates vulnerability. I’m female, which creates perceived vulnerability. And we’re traveling through countries that have a bad reputation for gender equality. So I’m excited to experience the two environments of geography and culture. I’m excited to see how locals receive and react to us. Our presence creates a lot of fun body language conversations.
NGT: What are your thoughts about each other?
SM: For one thing, Kelly carries a lot more gear weight than I do! We've been lucky enough to travel all over the world together, and we definitely think of ourselves as travelers together. It was our monthlong cycling tour of Ireland in 2009 that showed us that we have a great working partnership outside of our personal relationship. Kelly is passionate about the importance of movement and physicality to living a full life—and she brings that passion to travel.
KS: I may be the pack mule and partner, but as an occupational therapist and disability activist I can’t help but admire Seth’s strength, flexibility, and independence. He lets nothing slow him down. I wouldn’t know how to do this any other way if I weren’t traveling with him. He’s my calming factor and, having been together so long, I see the world from his perspective.
NGT: What message will you carry?
SM: I'd hope that our journey can help illustrate that the world is as accessible as you want to make it. Travel, by it's very nature, pushes you out of your comfort zone, even more so when you use a wheelchair. I think our journey is proof of the power of travel to unseat assumptions and challenge perspectives.
NGT: What’s your best travel advice?
KS and SM: Don't be afraid to change your plans. Travel is about seeing where the world takes you, not deciding what to see and where to go before you've even left home.
NGT: Where are you headed next?
KS and SM: South! Hopefully riding into Patagonia this coming September. We'll be focused on that for the remainder of this trip, but I'm sure before we're finished we'll start planning our next adventure.