Bored by his tedious job in New York, Jeffrey Tannenhaus, 35, removed a bicycle from the citys bike sharing scheme and headed for California. Here is his story
Every morning, 35-year-old Jeffrey Tannenhaus would walk into his windowless office, sit down next to a fake bougainvillea, turn on his computer, and perform mind-numbing task after mind-numbing task until, eight hours later, it was time to leave. The next day he would do it all over again.
The French have an expression for this: métro, boulot, dodo. Commute, work, sleep. Nothing in English really captures the relentless rhythm of the rat race so well; the closest we get, perhaps, is the metaphor of modern life as a treadmill. Most of us know what its like to be on one, and most of us have had the urge to jump off. But it gets harder to do it as you get older: while theres a certain amount of leeway to reinvent yourself in your 20s, by the time youre in your 30s, youre supposed to have it figured out.
But Jeffrey hadnt; the only thing he had figured out was that if he wanted to do something different, hed have to, well, do something different.
So one afternoon, Jeffrey walked out of his windowless office, terminated his lease in Brooklyn and became a sort of middle-class vagabond. Instead of paying rent, hed dog-sit or cat-sit or apartment-sit. When there was nowhere to sit, he would use Airbnb. To make money he freelanced as a transport escort; a fancy name for the people who hold up signs at the airport and then take you to a minivan.
While he was doing all this he was coming up with a plan. It was a vague, borderline illegal, and fairly pointless plan. But it was a plan.
In August 2015, Jeffrey took a Citibike out from a docking station in lower Manhattan to ride it across America, all the way to California.
Citibike, for those who arent familiar with it, is New York Citys bike share program. The bikes are designed for short trips, not for jaunts across the country.
Quite apart from the fact that its against the rules, taking a Citibike across America is not ideal for a number of reasons.
First, if you dont return the bike after 24 hours you get charged the maximum overage fee, which is $1,200.
Second, Citibikes weigh 45 pounds and riding them is like pedaling a tank.
Third, if something major goes wrong with your Citibike, pretty much only Citibike can fix it.
So why didnt the guy just spend $1,200 on a decent bike and take it across America? Well, because Citibike is Jeffreys passion. He likes Citibike a lot. Like, a bit too much maybe. His Citibike commute to work, he says, used to be the best part of his day. It was the only thing that got him through the tedium of a job he hated.
And then, of course, theres the fact that some guy riding a normal bike across America is not exactly a story. A man riding across the country on a Citibike, though, is kooky enough to be number 8 on New York Magazines reasons to love New York.
How cognizant was Jeffrey of the press-friendly, quirk-factor of taking a Citibike where no Citibike had ever been? I ask him. Was this passion project really just a canny grab for attention? Jeffrey assures me otherwise. Its not a publicity stunt. There are far easier ways to get publicity that dont involve five months on a giant blue bike.
Jeffrey was speaking to me on the phone from Redlands, California. He had, indeed, spent five months on a giant blue bike now, and was planning to finish up his trip on 23 January.
When he set off he had no idea how far hed get, he says. So the only people he really told about the project were his parents. They were supportive, but also a little anxious. Jeffrey has cycled solo down the Death Highway in Bolivia and been to places like Colombia and Myanmar without his parents worrying. But this is America were talking about. Middle America.
When he said he was going solo across the States, I was concerned, said Edward Tannenhaus, Jeffreys dad. What popped into my mind immediately was Breaking Bad. The evil underbelly of America in the south-west.
To get to the evil underbelly of America from New York, you have to go through New Jersey. So Jeffrey pedaled through New Jersey then he pedaled and pedaled and pedaled until he reached the Chesapeake Bridge in Maryland. The Chesapeake Bridge has been described as one of the scariest bridges in the world. There are special drive over services that will drive you in your car. Rumour has it that some people ask to be put in the trunk during the drive over, because its that scary. Jeffrey did not want to cycle over this bridge on his bike, and took a taxi instead.
I mention this because, if you want to get technical about it, Jeffrey hasnt made the trip across America entirely on Citibike. At certain points hes had to hitch a short ride. But hes still done 2,930.1 miles to date on the bike, which isnt too shabby, particularly when you factor in that Jeffreys preparation for the trip was minimal.
Hed done zero training and hadnt bought any special equipment. Hed just set off in his gym clothes and sneakers with a sleeping bag and a one-man tent hed bought from Amazon. This became a little problematic when, in Arizona, it started to snow.
Jeffrey didnt have any winter gear, so he used three pairs of socks as gloves and listened to some German pop music to take his mind off the cold.
For the most part, Jeffreys dad was wrong. The evil underbelly of America is more of a soft, sweet underbelly. People were very nice to him. Except for the would-be axe murderer, that is, whose name is Franklin.
Jeffrey met Franklin on an old part of Route 66, just outside Tulsa, Oklahoma. Jeffrey was resting by the side of the road and Franklin was driving past in his pickup truck. On seeing Jeffrey, and his bike, Franklin stopped, got out of his truck, and started a diatribe about how much he hated cyclists. Just in case Jeffrey wasnt getting the message about how much he hated cyclists, Franklin punched Jeffrey in the face, leaving him needing stitches.
As it turns out, this was a pretty lucky escape. Later that evening Franklin went on a murderous rampage; breaking a baseball bat on a friends head and trying to kill his neighbor with a double-sided axe. He was later cornered by the police and turned himself in.
As well as angry men with axes, Jeffrey came across a few violent racists. In El Dorado, Texas, the owner of a local carwash told Jeffrey that there used to be an Indian mini mart owner down the street, but he got run out of town. Then, in western Missouri, Jeffrey found himself in KKK country. He got himself out as fast as he could.
But, yes, apart from the violent racists and axemurderers, most of the people Jeffrey met were kind and accommodating, especially to a white guy.
When Jeffrey got a flat tire, a guy who worked at a health-food cafe helped him out and insisted he came along to the cafe to drink protein shakes. Everyone at the cafe wanted to talk to Jeffrey about his trip and also, weirdly, measure his body fat. (He has 9% body fat and his metabolic age is 12.) Herbalife can truly change your life if you will just let it, one customer whispered to him.
Speaking of which, I asked Jeffrey how much this trip had changed him physically. Had he gotten buff? Jeffrey told me that, while he feels healthier mentally, he has not become ripped with a six-pack. Largely this is because he is drinking a lot of chocolate milkshakes and eating a lot of Skittles while on the road. But thats OK, he said: Becoming an Adonis wasnt on my agenda.
This brought me to my next important question. Had there been any romance on the road? No, no significant romantic relationships have been established, he said. What about insignificant ones? Had he been Tindering his way through the midwestern US? No, no I havent used Tinder, says Jeffrey. Because, you know, I was only somewhere for one day normally, and then I moved on to the next place. I explained to Jeffrey that this is precisely what Tinder is designed for, but he didnt seem interested (eventually he told me he had been texting with a girl in Tulsa he quite likes).
What place will he remember not so fondly? Santa Claus, Indiana, is one of the more depressing stops, he said. This shouldnt really be the case because in Santa Claus, it is always Christmas and festive music is always playing: it is Americas Christmas Hometown. Among the towns many Santa-themed attraction are a Santas Candy Castle and a 40-ton, 22-foot concrete Santa Claus statue. There is a shopping center called Kringle place, owned by HO HO HOldings.
Real people actually live in this place; most of them in a gated community called Christmas Lake Village, which was developed by billionaire Bill Koch. This is somewhat ironic, as Koch has poured money into fighting attempts to combat climate change. When the North Pole melts and the real Santa Claus drowns, Bill Koch may have had a very small part in killing Christmas.
Mind you, Christmas was already pretty much dead when Jeffrey got to Santa Claus. Everything was shut and there was nowhere to stay. He slept behind a church in his sleeping bag.
Now that Jeffrey is at the end of his journey, I asked him what hes going to do next. The first thing hes going to do, said Jeffrey, is find a way to get the CitiBike back to New York and dock it. He is, I think, a little bit sensitive about some blog articles and comments that have basically called him a CitiBike-stealing douchenozzle.
The New York blog Brokelyn, for example, wrote that Jeffrey: should have been met at the California border by the NYPD Its a bike share system, not a bike return it after youve gone on a cross-country journey while trying to find yourself system.
This is a little unfair. Jeffrey has, after all, paid $1,200 for the CitiBike, which must be a lot more than it costs to replace a CitiBike.
I contacted CitiBike to verify this but they didnt want to talk about anything connected with Jeffrey. They are not entirely happy about his actions. This is slightly short-sighted considering, as Jeffrey pointed out, that hes given the bike-share program a lot of free publicity. His story, he hopes, will inspire more people to take up bike-sharing and, perhaps, also prompt others to take a risk and follow their dream.
After all, offices everywhere are filled with people doing mind-numbing tasks and daydreaming about something else. Flawed as the cult of follow your passion is, theres a lot to be said for being brave and cycling off into the sunset. Although, Im sure CitiBike would like me to ask you to, please, do it on your own bike.