ITHACA, N.Y. — The toughest moment came on just the second day, near Rochester, when Eric Sinton got three flat tires within a few hours. And then it started to rain.
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“I was stuck in the rain with a flat tire and I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to reach my host for the night,” he said.
He knocked on a few doors and asked people if he could pitch his tent in their yards. They all turned him away. In the downpour, with no options left, Sinton walked his bike and gear more than five miles into Spencerport and went to the local fire department, but no one was there.
“At that point, I was ready to give up,” said Sinton, who acknowledged that he seriously considered ending the trip right then. Just then, a man walked by with his dog, saw how miserable the wet biker looked, and offered him his living room floor for the night.
“That was the moment where I decided I wouldn’t quit at all, and that’s when I started trusting the generosity of people,” said Sinton.
An 18-year-old who graduated from Ithaca High School in the spring, Sinton has deferred his college acceptance, turned down a scholarship, and is now spending part of his gap year biking across the country.
He began the 3,000-mile adventure on Aug. 3 in Ithaca, and expects to arrive in Santa Monica, Calif., in late September. He is averaging 60 miles on the bike each day, and sometimes logs up to 90 miles in 10 hours.
On Thursday, Sinton took his first day off, in St. Louis — one third of the way to his final destination — and spoke to a reporter over the phone.
“It’s different than going on a long ride and coming back home and being able to shower and eat a lot,” said Sinton. “Doing the ride with a large pack and having to find somewhere to sleep is more demanding on the body and mind.”
After graduating from IHS in the spring, Sinton was accepted by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. He received a scholarship through the Reserve Officers Training Corps, but would have had to commit to eight years of training, so he turned the scholarship down and deferred his acceptance until the fall of 2016.
Sinton said that he and his family had many discussions about how to spend the gap year, and a new plan arose every week. “All these ideas were pinballing around, and then I got the idea for a bike ride and it stuck,” he said.
He planned a route that takes him through Buffalo, Cleveland, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Santa Fe, Flagstaff, and Los Angeles.
Eric’s sister, Julia Sinton, who will be a senior at IHS this fall, was surprised when she realized her brother was determined to turn his idea into a detailed plan. “It happened really fast,” Julia said. “All of a sudden, all this equipment started showing up at the door that he had ordered.”
Now, Julia misses him more than she expected to, and said her family gets worried about his safety and health. Julia said she often gets texts from her grandmother that say, “What did Eric eat today?”
Sinton said he is finding safe shelter through websites like Warm Showers, which is designed specifically for cyclists looking for a place to sleep while on the road. But he can’t always secure a place to stay.
“There have been times where I’ve had to ‘stealth camp,’” said Sinton, describing occasions when he had no other option but to covertly pitch a tent in places where camping is illegal. “It’s exhilarating but also stressful, especially for a solo trip like this,” he said, before adding that he had read of other cyclists camping in graveyards, which he hopes he won’t have to do.
While he has gotten used to the physical burden of the trip, Sinton said that recently, his biggest struggle is feeling lonely, especially in big cities where he knows no one.
As he gets farther away from home, he said, “I’m experiencing what I call the ‘zooming out effect.’ The first couple of days, I was thinking in terms of Ithaca to Geneva to Brockport. Now, I’m looking from Ohio to Indiana.”
The big picture is exciting, but also contributes to loneliness and stress. “It’s better to be biking on a country road alone than to be alone in a big town like Buffalo,” said Sinton. “If I’m biking through the country, I have Guy Raz from TED Radio on my shoulder.”
The audiobooks and podcasts help him drown out the isolation and fear, and he noted that he listened to the entire Serial podcast in two days.
Sinton has also started introducing himself to random people around him. “I meet farmers, truck drivers, teachers, everyone under the sun,” he said.
On Wednesday night, Sinton went to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game and approached a nearby group of fans. The group was intrigued when he told them his story, and he ended up cheering on the home team with them.
Sinton said he has become much more confident as the trip progresses. “I can’t be bashful or sit around and mope. Well, sometimes it will work if you mope,” Sinton said laughing, “but if I need something, I really have to ask.”
He noted multiple times that he has been surprised by the hospitality of others. Though he budgeted $1000 for the trip, he has only spent $200 after traveling a third of the way, largely because the people he stays with keep giving him free meals.
As for what Sinton plans to do after arriving in California, he said, “What I could do is box up the bike and take the next train from Los Angeles to New York,” but, he said he may also stay in California for a couple of months: “I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.”
You can follow Eric Sinton’s trip on his blog at www.EricBikes.com.
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