Local Man Rides Bike Across North America

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
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Robert Tolar of North Adams is setting off on a yearlong cycling tour of North America, inspired by his late mother, Betty Jo Antonio, left.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A North Adams man will pedal across the continent and follow a route determined by his late mother.

Touring cyclist Robert Tolar does not have a natural habitat. He has a tendency to keep moving to the next town, city, state, country, or continent. Something has always been pushing at his back and giving his bike a little more momentum.

Asked on the spot, Tolar can rattle off a quick retrospect of his tours that include Canada, Spain, France, Andorra, Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Italy, Austria, Malaysia, Belgium and, most recently, Ukraine. However, for past year, Tolar has been planning one of his most ambitious treks ever: a yearlong trip across North America.

"It's about time I have seen my own country because I have spent enough time in other people's countries," Tolar said. "I enjoy that a lot, but it is about time for me to see more of my own country, at least more of my own continent."

Tolar's newest journey comes from a deeper calling that goes beyond his typical need to "get out of here." Tolar is riding to get to know his mother better.

Tolar's mother Betty Jo Antonio died last summer after a lengthy battle with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. A full-blooded Navajo, Antonio was born in Phoenix, Ariz., in 1941 and spent most of her childhood on a reservation. A gifted painter, Antonio had an international career as an artist and teacher for over 50 years. Eventually moving to North Adams, Antonio taught painting at the Spitzer Center and privately from her home. She often said, "If you can sign your own name, I can teach you to paint."

Tolar said his mother, as a teacher, touched many lives and fashioned a vast network of friends and students throughout the country. These people will determine Tolar's route.

"What I really wanted to do was ride around the country and spend a night or two with her friends and just share stories about my mom," Tolar said. "I just wanted to have one trip that was built around people that loved and cared about her."

For the past 15 years, Tolar has stayed "home." Although he still went on long journeys through Europe, Asia, and Canada over the past decade, he has always returned to North Adams to help care for his mother.

"She was the really the primary reason why I was actually living here in North Adams, or it might be better to say she was the primary reason I was living in one location at all," he said. "I got an extra 10 to 15 years to spend with her ... now that she is not here in body form, there isn't really a whole lot keeping me pinned down to a particular location."

The journey is simple. Those interested in hosting Tolar can contact him through his website if they can provide a shower, a couch, a bed, a meal, or a yard to camp in. Pins have been gathering on his map marking family, friends, and some of his mother's students.

Along with following a path determined by his mother, Tolar has a long list of friends spread throughout America that will also fill out his trip. He said these are people he met on his previous expeditions or old school friends from an international school in Malaysia where he grew up.

Tolar said his love for traveling started in Malaysia, where international travel was really a normal occurrence. He said in America, when schools compete with each other they mostly move from city to city, in Malaysia you traveled from country to country.

As for cycling, Tolar said the bike has been his main form of transportation since he was 12. He has a deep respect for the simple machine that has provided him with all the freedom he ever needed. His bike, named "Tanya Long Haul Trucker," has facilitated many voyages, literally and metaphorically, only driven by chain, manpower, and downward momentum.

Tolar said he started supported rides through Europe in his 20s; these treks are predetermined and campsites and food are supplied. He said it wasn't until his mid-30s when his bike turned into the means of a much more transformative and rigorous medium; fully supported rides.

"I got sick of being part of any one else's agenda, and I didn't want to be on anyone else's schedule so I just decided to pack everything up on the bike I would need and roll out," Tolar said.

This freedom allowed Tolar to visit wherever he wanted whenever he wanted, which is something his mother instilled in him at a young age. He said she encouraged him to see everything he possibly could and travel whenever possible, which was also one of her favorite things to do. He said she did this until the very end.

"She left this world very much the way she had wished, suddenly and while doing the things she loved most: traveling, painting, and visiting her friends and loved ones on the road," Tolar said.

Tolar said he is thankful for this lifestyle she passed on to him and that in many ways, this journey is completely allegorical of her life.

Tolar said he will make his "graceful exit" toward the end of May "at the top" in Caribou, Maine. From there, he plans to weave through Quebec for a few days moving toward the Charlevoix region, where cheeses are made that can almost compete with French cheeses, which he said "is kind of a big deal."

Once hitting Calgary, Tolar said he will head into Montana and follow the east side of the Rocky Mountains into Oregon, then through California, where he plans to enter Mexico.

Tolar then has to squeeze in stops in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Alabama, and wherever else someone decides to host him.

"The last leg of the route I think will come together more when I get into California. It's going to be quite a zigzag pattern," he said. "It looks like a circumnavigation of the United States with some dipping into Canada and Mexico."

Tolar said there are many touring cyclists throughout the world. He said there is even a website called warmshowers.org dedicated for supplying refuge for bikers. He said people that get into it tend to learn fast.

"It only takes a couple of months to make all the mistakes you need to make in order to get good at it. You will learn not to do stupid things like ride with a back pack," Tolar said. "It's the worst idea in the world. Back packs are for walking ... on a bike it messes up your center of gravity."

Tolar said some touring bikers are "credit card" riders, which means they do not plan to cook their own food and will sleep indoors. He said they usually pack a little heavier because when in public, people don't want to be graced with the smell of a biker who has been on the road for days on end.

That is not Tolar's style: He carries cooking and camping gear. He said this varies on the kind of trip he goes on. A multi-fuel burning stove can burn anything form isobutene to unleaded gasoline, however this stove is useless if there is no modern fuel to burn. He said this was an issue on his most recent visit to Ukraine, where he could only find one store that sold modern fuel. He said when in doubt, an old-fashioned wood burning stove does the trick.

Tolar touts himself as an "80 percent wool guy" because "anyone reliant on synthetic material or cotton is going to be to warm or too cold and will smell."

He usually travels with about 50 pounds of gear, not including water. He said some carry up to 80. Other essentials are a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and a tent.

Tolar said he tends to go a little heavy on the tool side.

"I meet people on the road who actually don't know how to fix a flat tire, but the universe seems to take care of them in some way," he said. "I have done things as complex as fixing a completely broken drivetrain on the road; this is the sort of thing you learn over the years, like what spare parts to carry."

Tolar said there are multiple ways to participate in his trip. He said anyone interested in joining him for a part of the trip can contact him on his website and join in on the route for as long as they want when he passes through their town or city.

Tolar does also accept donations for his trip on his website, however, he asks for specific inexpensive items because he is focused on surviving with as little as possible. He has created a wish list of gear he will need on the ride and gift cards for chain markets, cafes, and fast food restaurants that support his gluten-free diet just in case he runs into an emergency.

"It's basically for emergency food," he said. "If you see a trail of discarded hamburger buns you'll know I've been around."

The fourth level of participation is subscribing to Tolar's blog via email and receiving updates from the road.

"I won't have Internet access all of the time," he said. "I sleep mostly outside in the woods, but when I get into points of civilization I'll take a few hours, upload some photographs, and write a little note."

Tolar said it is often hard to explain to people why he enjoys these long rides, which even he admits are full of challenges and discomfort. He said the rides always give him something back.

"I haven't taken a bike trip yet where I haven't learned something about myself. I spend every day for months out there and all I hear is the sounds of birds and the wind blowing in my ears so it's a lot easier just to think about things," he said. "It is a time for introspection and it is a time for nothing at all."

He said people always tell him they would go insane out on the road for that long with no one to talk to. Tolar said that is part of the adventure, you have to surrender to it.

"You might actually not go crazy or maybe if you let yourself go crazy for a few days doing that you might just ease right it into it," he said.

Tolar said even though he lost his cherished mother, this trip does not feel like an escape but more or less a pilgrimage of kinds. Even with this kind of significance placed on such a massive trip, Tolar has no expectations.

"I am hoping that having zero expectations will enable me to actually be the recipient of something that is much greater than I could conceive in the first place," Tolar said.

Tolar said the last 15 years he got to spend with his mom have been the best years of his life, and although it would appear that Tolar no longer has a connection to North Adams, he said he plans to return.

"I have become attached to North Adams and the Berkshires, and it really kind of feels like my new home," he said. "That's why I do want to return and continue my life here."

Tolar said his mother shared this sentiment, too, and greatly enjoyed "the natural beauty of the Berkshires." She chose to be buried in Southview Cemetery.

He admits that this trip is logistically complicated and in many ways unknown. He said he plans for the route to develop as he goes along and immerses himself in his mother's life and legacy. He said the trip is very much "alive" and embodies his mother's spirit; a perfect way to honor her.

"My mother was my best friend. All the great things I have seen I owe to her and the curiosity she instilled in me," Tolar said. "I want to honor her spirit on this trip and continue my life in one of her favorite places. She made North Adams home for me."


Tags: bicycling,   trek,   

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