On Writing & Riding: gypsy by trade

Your bicycle can take you to faraway places, if you let it. It can take you out of the familiar city into terrain you’ve only heard about and maybe only previously considered in an abstract way on some map you saw once

That’s what I think about when I read Nicholas’s writing about his and Lael’s travels on gypsy by trade. Don’t weigh yourself down with anything extra. Get on your bike. Be resourceful. Explore. Better yet, do it all with your partner. 

gypsy by trade Nicholas Lael

1. What is a phrase or sentence that summarizes your blog?

“Riding bikes to get places.”  That’s the whole story.

2. When I first met you totally by chance during your solo tour of the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Towpath, riding was an integral part of you but you were not blogging about it. What prompted you to start your blog?

Oh yeah, when we met, I was riding a borrowed early-90’s Diamondback Outlook with some goofy parts. The bike was borrowed from my friend Chris, and the mix of parts is kind of a joke, except that it is supremely comfortable and capable.

Editor’s note: Yes, I have a photo of it below. All other images in this post are Nicholas’s.

The Diamondback and the Carradice Camper on the C&O

I rode the first half of the GAP/C&O with a few friends from Philly, then rolled to D.C. by myself. I ran into you near one of the locks about 10-15 miles out of town. I think we had mutual Carradice envy, or something like that.

At the time, I was only reading a couple of blogs, irregularly, although I was heavily interested in bikes and was learning at a rapid pace.

In the past years, I had spent a lot of time digging through Sheldon Brown‘s webpages and learning through my own mistakes and experiences. I was also reading Dave Moulton’s blog regularly, and enjoyed discovering some of Jacquie Phelan’s old articles from 80’s MTB magazines. I loved the concept of a literate mountain biker. I was keeping up with news from Velo Orange and Rivendell, both of which postured themselves in a unique position against the mainstream market.

By the time Lael and I went on our first bike trip in 2008, I still hadn’t explored the blogosphere deeply. However, I remember such things were more sparse back then. There are more blogs now than ever, which is a good thing.

I started the blog after leaving my job at Velo Orange in Maryland, on my way out to Banff, Alberta, to the start of the Divide. I felt young and energetic, with a whole summer of riding ahead of me.

I had been touring for over two years already, and felt like I had something to share that could be valuable to others. I also felt like I had something to say for my own benefit, as a personal outlet. That summer, and for the next year, I managed the blog entirely from an iPod Touch.

3. How did you come up with your blog’s name, gypsy by trade?

The name “gypsy by trade” is a quotation from a J.J. Cale song called “Homeless.” I never thought much of the song– a selection from one of his more contemporary albums– although the idea always resonated with me.

At the time, I was beginning to realize that my passion for travel would continue indefinitely, and it defined my character more than anything else. For example, I’d rather apply for jobs with my touring resume than with my employment and education history.

4. What aspects of riding do you most want to capture through gypsy by trade?

In as many ways as possible, I want to make bicycles accessible for others. I also want to inspire others to ride. If I can help to do both of these things– to break down barriers and to motivate– more people will find their way to riding on a daily basis.

I try to focus on the positive aspects of riding. I’ve learned through the blog that it makes me happier to celebrate the good things in my life. Our travels are best summarized as being really pleasant, which is unexciting, but true.

I try not to use the blog to complain about things, although I’ve done it before. Choosing to live life on a bike is rewarding, but there are inherent challenges. I’d be happy to have a real conversation about the challenges, but I’d rather not dwell on negativity. Negativity isn’t good for anybody, but it can be quite popular, as it is in the media.

Necessarily, I avoid horror stories about challenging experiences on the road. Through critical decision making, we mostly avoid the kinds of situations that make great stories around the dinner table, like four day hike-a-bikes through mud, or “bearings exploding from the freewheel” (see Barb Savage’s book “Miles From Nowhere” for exploding freewheels).

A long-term sustainable approach to touring serves us best; as a result, we don’t run out of food, we don’t bonk, we sleep in late, our routes and schedules are flexible, and we don’t ride big days all the time.

5. Who are you writing for? Do you have a particular audience in mind?

I used to write for myself, and for a few others, including you and Alec and my friend Chris in Philly. Somehow, a lot more people started reading, so I write for them too. The focus slowly changes.

I try to remind myself that not everybody is experienced in (or interested in) the minutiae of wheel sizes or steering geometry, for instance. Thus, I try to keep these discussions more broad to be inclusive. However, I try not to be influenced too greatly by the imagined audience. As I change, so will the audience. I still write a lot about wheel sizes and tires, it seems.

Recently, I’ve gotten really comfortable with the idea of carbon fiber, aluminum, tubeless tires, suspension, and generally, a lot of other things that I was intentionally ignoring before. I got tired of lugged steel bikes with baskets and shiny things. Nice bikes, but these are far from the best bikes for many applications.

More importantly, I got tired of the classic friction wool lugged steel lobby, even though I have chosen to use a lot of this equipment. The idea is to make my own decisions, and to share them with others.

I write somewhere on the blog: “I am perpetually infatuated with bikes; old bikes, new technology that makes life better, and cheap creative solutions to problems. I love bikes, but they aren’t sacred. Make your bike better for you. Make it yours.”

I’d like to write more personally in the future on the blog. I am also finding more ways to write for magazines and other web-based publications. The blog is a unique outlet for me, and a unique resource for others.

6. Given that you are bike touring for such long periods of time, you are often blogging your journeys as they’re happening. How do you balance blogging amid life on the road?

I usually take half a day once or twice a week to write, usually when an internet connection is available. I upload and edit a ton of photos, and try to capture the feeling of being on the road before it fades into the eventual revised, cataloged edition that lasts in memory. The blog allows the opportunity to write my own history. Mostly, the process of writing about what we do is a catapult for positivity in our lives, and for future adventures.

The blog takes a lot of time and effort, often too much time, considering I don’t make any money from it. In fact, by the time I buy a coffee or beer so that I can sit somewhere for half a day with an internet connection, I’m losing money and I might rather be outside.

The actual gains are not immediate, nor are they monetary– they come later, when someone contacts me to say they are planning a bike trip for the first time, of that they want to send a personalized, handwritten postcard to me somewhere (Thanks Shawn!).

Back when I blogged on the iPod, I was carrying much less equipment, and spent much less time on the blog. The way I have chosen to do it now, I carry a MacBook Air, a camera and a few lenses, along with a bundle of chargers, external hard drives, etc. All of these things go up and over every mountain while on tour, and account for about as much weight as the rest of my basic camping equipment.

gypsy by trade Lael 2

7. You and Lael (who also maintains a blog, Lael’s Globe of Adventure) do most of your bike traveling together, which is awesome. How does riding with a partner influence your writing and riding experiences?

Lael is always smiling, so that sets the mood most of the time. But, spending 24 hours of every day with someone for months and months can be challenging. Sometimes, sharing an experience with another person validates the emotion felt.  We can look at each other and say, “wow, that is really hard/beautiful/cold/amazing.”

8. I really enjoy your writing style as well as the photos you include in your posts. What role does photography play in your cycling and blogging?

Pictures play a growing role. It began as a simple tool to convey places, things, people. I first bought a camera after a particularly memorable ride out to the Knik Glacier in the spring of 2012, in which we rode in, on, and through giant iceforms.

iPod/iPhone photos are a wonderful tool– the Polaroids of our time– but I wanted to do more, so I bought a camera. By now, I’ve started to delve into the world of photography, where I read about new cameras and such. It reminds me of the days in which I stayed up late dismantling bicycles with Sheldon Brown as a resource. I carry the camera with me most of the time, on and off the bike.

9. Are there any particular writers who have influenced your own writing?

I can’t really say for sure that there are any outstanding influences on my writing.  I could list my favorite novelists (Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck) and my favorite cycling blog authors (Joe Cruz, Cass Gilbert), but I do a lot more writing than serious reading these days.

Most of what I read is short format internet-based accounts, such as blogs, ride reports, and reviews. In contrast to being influenced by great authors, I think I am learning through the writing mistakes of others, as I am reading so much self-published content. As I’ve published over 400 posts, many that have taken hours and days to compose, the blog day has improved my writing more than anything.

Actually, my favorite adventure travel writer is Harvey Manning, and I haven’t even read the entire book that I admire so much, “Walking the Beach to Bellingham.” He describes local low-adventure walks along the shores of the Puget Sound, interpreting local history, interspersed with moments of reflection. It is brilliant writing. I bought the book for $2 while working at a boat show in Seattle.

10. What are your favorite parts of writing gypsy by trade?

Meeting people, either in in person or through internet-based conversations. I especially like the discussions that arise in the comments on the blog.

As a result of the blog, to borrow some words from Joe Cruz, I’ve got a lot of “internet boyfriends (and girlfriends).” These are people who I know only through the internet, although the rate at which I eventually meet these people in person is higher than one might expect.

I had known Joe for a few years before we first met in Alaska in the winter of 2012. We’ve since met another two times, in New Mexico and in Prague, Czech Republic.

Conversely, there are a few people whom I have met first in person. You and I met on the C&O in 2010. I met Cass in Alaska for the first time outside the bike co-op in Anchorage in 2009. We’re all still friends, which is great. The internet is amazing.

gypsy by trade Lael

11. Do you have any favorite posts or particular posts that you find yourself re-reading?

I rarely intend to revisit old posts, but when I do, I enjoy it greatly. A few of them would probably make be cringe, but most of them are fond memories, and nicely written and photographed.

One thing that surprises me is that the blog isn’t exactly linear, although the whole thing is heavily interconnected. As a result, the whole gets better with time. Readers occasionally tell me that they have been reading through the entire blog. Maybe I’ll sit down to do this as an old man.

A sampling of old posts that come to mind:

12. Was there anything about maintaining a blog that surprised you?

The biggest surprise is that people are hungry to read blogs. One of the greatest features of the internet, and the current convenience of the internet, is the growing resource of first-person accounts. There is a lot of room for other cycling blogs.

13. What did I forget to ask you that I should have?

“Where are we headed next?”  

I don’t know for sure, but the Black Sea region is taking a lot of our attention these days. Lael is reading Steinbeck’s “A Russian Journal,” about traveling in Ukraine, Russia, and Georgia in the post-WWII Soviet era.

Our European adventures this past summer ended in Ukraine, a place that has always been close to me as a result of my Ukrainian upbringing in upstate NY. I’d be happy to return, and to explore Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Georgia.

There are mountains on all sides of the Black Sea, and the area has been a crossroads betweens continents and cultures for millennia. I’d also like to spend a bulk of time in the Carpathian Mountain chain, which arc from the Polish/Czech border, through southern Poland, northern Slovakia, western Ukraine, and right through the middle of Romania, ending in Serbia.

13 responses to “On Writing & Riding: gypsy by trade

  1. This is fantastic, thanks Mary! I’m glad to finally see that photo of the Diamondback frame loaded with gear.

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  2. Thanks for sharing Nick’s story! Great questions and journalism.

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  3. Very good write up. I enjoy Nicks writing. His and Laels story is always amazing to read about. Especially for those of us slogging it out in the responsibility world of jobs and kids and tuition payments!

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  4. Agreed. Nick delivers. (And you are welcome!) And I was amused by your take on Retro-Grouchery, as I read it as “wool friction”. Yeah, I’d be irritated by wool friction, too! ;-)

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  5. Also, thanks for mentioning the “Walking the Beach to Bellingham” book. I picked it up from Multnomah County Library years ago, but for some reason never had the time to read it. Now I just put it on hold.

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  6. Pingback: In print, photograph, and film | gypsy by trade

  7. Mary I’m loving this series, Gypsy By Trade, among several others you’ve interviewed are on my daily reading list… getting this third person interview is wonderful and interesting insight!

    Nick and Lael’s adventure over the summer in Europe was an amazing read and I’m a big fan of his photographs too!

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  8. Loving this! Always will be grateful I had the opp to purchase his Ostrich bag from his Campeur. Hope you’re well Nick!

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  9. Pingback: On Writing & Riding: The Full List | chasing mailboxes d.c.

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