Olivia Carpenter turned 15 on Friday, and to celebrate she happily got off the tandem bike that she rode across the country this summer, from Seattle to Boston, with her father John Carpenter, the longtime IT manager at Madrona Venture Group.
The two left Seattle’s Golden Garden Gardens Park after dipping their rear wheel in Puget Sound on June 24. After 63 days and 3,523 miles, the ride ended in Marshfield, Mass, 30 miles south of Boston, where Olivia’s grandparents own a cottage. After a police and fire escort, they dipped their front wheel at Green Harbor Beach surrounded by about 60 cheering family members and friends.
Along the way, their “Ride for the Orcas” raised about $12,000 to benefit Orca Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about Pacific Northwest orca whales, which Olivia grew fond of as a little girl visiting the San Juan Islands.
The two saw beautiful scenery across the top of the country, met kind and interesting people along the way and challenged themselves daily. And the end couldn’t come soon enough.
“I am ready for this trip to be over,” Olivia sighed during a phone call with GeekWire. “It’s been really exhausting and it’s taken up my whole summer. There’s this saying, ‘It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.’ Over this trip we’ve kind of felt like it’s about the destination and not the journey.”
A blog and social postings along the way kept friends, family and followers up to date on how things were going. In our conversation, Carpenter and his daughter and his wife, Emily — who drove a support RV — shared some of the highs and lows.
“It was a great experience,” said Carpenter, an avid cyclist who turned 52 about two weeks into the trip. “It’s just been really mentally exhausting. It’s hard to believe that the summer’s gone by.”
A ‘rite of passage’
With fatigue in their voices, Carpenter and his daughter playfully jabbed at one another over what they’d experienced, riding together for several hours a day. Olivia said the two traded off on telling each other that they couldn’t quit and had to keep going.
“I asked Olivia a couple times if we gave her an out if she would take it,” Emily Carpenter said. “And she always said no.”
That meant weathering what they agreed was the biggest challenge of the trip — hot and windy conditions just three states into the ride.
“In Montana and North Dakota it was really difficult because it was scorching hot,” Olivia said. “It was unbelievably hot and that was when we were supposed to do our big mile days. So we ended up having to get up really early in the morning to try to beat the heat.”
We did it! Long slog but cool shade for the 4 hour ascent. On to the plains of western Montana now. pic.twitter.com/aiX9cgq5zh
— RideForTheOrcas (@RideForTheOrcas) July 8, 2017
“We had headwinds,” Carpenter said. “The headwinds are really demoralizing when we’re riding along and we can’t, no matter what we do, seem to go more than 8 mph because the wind is blowing at us 20 mph.”
Carpenter said those days, when they were hot and tired, led to some heated words. And Emily Carpenter said the experience has been a “rite of passage” for her daughter, and that vocabulary that’s not “fit for print” had been allowed at times over the summer.
“Usually I would make sure to have a snack ready to go and some cold Gatorade, and just let them eat and have some quiet time and not ask them any questions because they were just too tired to engage,” Emily Carpenter said. “Then they would take showers and get some food and rehydrate and they would be more pleasant to be around.”
Tech on wheels
Carpenter’s tech know-how, after 17 years at Madrona, was put to good use on the trip, as the bike was outfitted with various communication devices and charging gadgets.
“It really did hold up well,” he said. “I thought about that many times, about how convenient it was to have an iPhone that was not only mapping for me but allowing me to spontaneously find a restaurant on Google Maps or see where Emily is on Find My Friends, reply to texts and Twitter and things like that. We generally had a good signal the whole time.”
Good Morning Cut Bank. Time to hit the road with the wind at our back! pic.twitter.com/IVTjo2D7pn
— RideForTheOrcas (@RideForTheOrcas) July 10, 2017
Gotta love a strong tailwind! Shelby now for breakfast. pic.twitter.com/57CDDwX6ds
— RideForTheOrcas (@RideForTheOrcas) July 10, 2017
Both riders followed the route via their handlebar-mounted smartphones on Ride With GPS. Sometime after leaving Seattle they added a solar panel to the top of the rear rack and it kept Olivia’s iPhone charged as well as a blinking rear light.
Carpenter originally said he was not on sabbatical from work and planned to get online in the evenings along the way. That plan … evolved.
“Everyone said it becomes sort of a mental challenge more than a physical challenge and I would say that’s definitely true,” Carpenter said of his lack of energy to focus on work after riding all day. “The physical part … we could get on the bike and ride, but it was really mentally exhausting, probably more so for me because I had to steer and avoid obstacles — and at the end of the day I was just beat.”
He responded to a few emails here and there but for the most part his connection to the IT administrator at the office back in Seattle was done through phone calls or even FaceTime while he was riding. He said he ended up using his Apple AirPods almost exclusively because of the noise-cancelling microphone, and hour-long calls were a good way to pass the time.
‘Questioning the math’
The duo left with a plan to average about 63 miles per day in order to make it to the East Coast by Aug. 25. But after a lot of miles and wind and sunshine and soreness and a couple detours, Olivia was convinced that they somehow averaged many more daily miles.
“Olivia is questioning the reality of math and facts at this point even though I had this all on a spreadsheet,” Carpenter said. “There’s some debate about this, but it’s all there for the record on Ride with GPS.”
Wisconsin! Almost to our lake place for a 4 day rest!!! pic.twitter.com/wu7w8Hof1o
— RideForTheOrcas (@RideForTheOrcas) July 28, 2017
It is interesting to scroll through that site and look back on the maps and data chronicling the journey. Some key measurements include:
- Longest distance in one day: Day 18, July 11, in central Montana, they traveled 107.5 miles from Hingham to Dodson. It took 6 hours and 13 minutes.
- Longest time on the bike in one day: Day 19, July 12, still in Montana, it took 7 hours and 53 minutes to travel from 89.5 miles from Dodson to Glasgow.
- Biggest elevation gain in one day: A 55.1 mile ride on July 8 in Montana’s Glacier National Park took them up 4,446 feet on the scenic Going to the Sun Road.
- Fastest recorded speed: After coming out of Glacier, during a 76.6-mile ride from St. Mary, Mont., to Cut Bank, the team hit 44.4 mph at one point.
For all the pain of Montana, the state’s landscape did leave an impression on both riders. Glacier National Park was one of Olivia’s favorite sites of the entire trip, along with Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, and Niagara Falls.
“I really liked the wide open expanses of Eastern Montana and North Dakota, even though that’s where we had the headwinds and it wasn’t flat,” Carpenter said. “It was just really pretty to have that vast openness, that kind of feeling of the Wild West and the history of that.”
Ready to come home
The two managed to avoid any falls or injuries along the way. Aside from sore butts, Carpenter said he had sore knees for a couple days, which he took care of with some ibuprofen. Sounding stuffy-headed over the phone, he said a huge allergy to ragweed in the Eastern states had been his biggest discomfort and “not a lot of fun.”
Emily Carpenter said her husband has lost weight — she’s not sure how much, but has noticed that his physique is different. And Olivia said, “I think our legs are stronger.”
Making progress! Welcome back to USA! pic.twitter.com/DjBpRgsMRr
— RideForTheOrcas (@RideForTheOrcas) August 16, 2017
Getting underway on the LAST day, to Boston!!!! pic.twitter.com/sYrCXu22PE
— RideForTheOrcas (@RideForTheOrcas) August 25, 2017
They’ll be coming back to Seattle in a little more comfortable fashion, as Delta Airlines, a sponsor of the ride, is flying the family first class. The RV is for sale, and they leave Boston on Aug. 30. Olivia starts 10th grade at Roosevelt High School a week later.
“We’re flying home. And looking down at every place that we covered,” Carpenter said.
Donations for the orca cause continue to come in after word was spread by messaging printed on the RV as well as cards and brochures that Carpenter and his daughter handed out. They received lots of encouragement from strangers and Olivia is more committed to the species than ever.
And Carpenter is excited about continuing to do long rides, with plans to tour parts of Michigan, Canada and someday Europe with his wife.
Despite her enthusiasm about how the trip has raised money for the whales she cares about and her continued plans to become a marine biologist, Olivia is blunt in answering whether she’ll be hopping on a bike for another long ride anytime soon.
But didn’t she form an everlasting bond with her father over those many long miles?
“We’re gonna take a break. He’s kind of annoying me,” Olivia said, drawing laughter from her parents. “Actually no. Not kind of. He’s annoying me a lot.”
“I think she’s out of good humor,” Carpenter said with a laugh.