Biking in the buff through Nevada on Highway 50. Drinking only from leaky fire hydrants in Brooklyn. Eating only organic, locally grown food off a farm, milk from the udder of a cow, and occasionally dumpster diving for perfectly good food in the trashcans of better grocery stores. These are just a few of the tactics 26-year-old adventurer Rob Greenfield has used to raise awareness for the planet on his latest cross-country bike expedition.
Called "Off the Grid Across America," the trek will include over 4,500 miles of biking by August 1, the tentative end-date, and it’s part of Greenfield’s personal quest to demonstrate that it is possible to live more sustainably and inspire others to decrease their impact on the environment. The biking part is easy. The living with only alternative energy devices, creating nearly zero trash, using water only from natural sources (or water that's going to waste), and eating only locally produced organic and unpackaged foods (or food that is going to the dump), has been the harder, yet more rewarding, part of the journey.
I spoke with Rob, who left San Francisco on his journey April 20, about his experience so far and what he's learned along the way. At the time (about a week ago), Rob was in Brooklyn talking while he biked, and had just arrived on Long Island.
When did you catch the adventure bug, and why did you decide to do this trip?
I am originally from Wisconsin and grew up in a town with only 8,000 people. When I was 16, I took a 48-hour Greyhound ride to Florida, and that was my first adventure and gave me my first taste for being outside of my comfort zone. Since then, I have traveled to six continents. After college, I started doing trips with more of an environmental theme to have more of an impact. A year ago I flew to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, with nothing but a cell phone, my passport, and the clothes on my back and had to find my way home across 1,050 miles of desert. It started as doing something for fun, but it has also entertained and inspired and provided a way for me to give back at the same time.
When I started this expedition, I wanted to come up with something that was entertaining (because that's the only way people will pay attention), and at the same time, whether they realized it or not, teach or inspire others to do something. This trip has never been about the bike. My bike has just been a tool to get other people drawn to the journey of living a more conscious and healthy lifestyle.
That word "conscious" gets thrown around a lot. What does it mean to you?
For me, being conscious means paying attention to things around us, and asking where things come from and how they are made. For example, the Colorado River is running dry because of the demand for water hundreds of miles away from the source. Reading the sticker on an apple and realizing it was flown in from New Zealand 10,000 miles away. Realizing that electricity is made from fossil fuels, meaning that when you turn on a light switch it's ultimately like burning gas. Once I became more conscious, I decided I wanted to go one step further and actually act on this knowledge. I've taken simple steps to live a more earth-friendly life, such as using less water and electricity and buying local food. On this trip, I am doing more extreme things like drinking only from natural sources or using water that would otherwise go to waste. I just drank from a fire hydrant in Brooklyn. I got some crazy looks, but people said they were inspired by seeing me do that. The bottom line, for me, is I have learned that I am happier and healthier by reducing my consumption and using only what I need. I have noticed others are too.
What are some of the challenges and benefits with living and going on an adventure with less?
It was hard at first, but it's made my life so much happier. When you have less choices, you have more time to live, so it’s made my life so much simpler and so much fuller. I now eat when I find food, and it comes my way. I have a few outfits of clothes so I don’t have to worry about what I am going to wear. I have also learned to appreciate everything that comes my way, even a drop of water, because I realize how precious it is. It's hard to make me not happy because I appreciate everything. I also don't look at things by monetary value, meaning I don't value something more because it costs more. Even though a bottle of water costs only one dollar, that bottle would mean a lot to me, so it's changed the way I value everything.
How has the trip been going so far?
At first it wasn’t fun. I was so busy for the first half, and I wasn't used to all the mileage. I was also taking myself a little too seriously. I was unprepared for the weather to start. Crossing the Sierras was supposed to be really hard, but I got through that part. All you have to do is keep pedaling to pass through a mountain and I could do that part. Once I got over the Rocky Mountains into the flat plains, though, the 30 mph winds picked up, and it was beating me backwards for five days straight. That part was tough. That, and that at the beginning of the trip it was only 18 degrees at night and I only brought a 40-degree sleeping bag made for a slightly disheartening start. I thought my photographer (who is from Florida and not used to the cold) was going to freeze to death one night.
Why did you bike naked through Nevada? I saw that on your blog.
There wasn't a specific reason, but I know when I am on a bike I am happy. Getting on my bike creates a sense of freedom that’s always lifted up my spirits no matter what mood I am in, and I thought the only thing more freeing than riding a bike, is riding naked. It’s just you and the bike and the open road.
Did you get any looks?
I think about 30 cars passed me over seven miles, and I think most people didn’t even notice.
Where have you stayed along the way?
At first, I pedaled until it was an hour before dark then just pulled over and slept wherever I could pitch a tent. I did that until Denver. Since then, I have stayed with friends or used social media to spread the word, and people have been taking me in. I haven't paid for a place to stay the entire trip.
What about food? How do you eat?
My whole idea was to eat locally grown, organic, unpackaged food wherever possible. I buy food direct from farms, at farmers markets, and off people who have gardens. I have had milk straight from an udder and veggies straight from the ground. I have eaten some venison, and local fish from a creek.
When I can't buy local and organic, I eat food that would go to waste. It's really easy to thrive in this country solely by living on food people are throwing away. If I walk out of my house in San Diego with no money, I could eat healthier than the average American by finding food in dumpsters. I never did it before, but that’s what I did on this trip when I couldn’t get food from a farm.
Food from the trashcan? That sounds a little sketchy?
It's not (he laughs). There might be 60 loaves of bread in a dumpster and it's usually stuff not even expired. So I go to grocery store dumpsters. It’s a little crazy and some people don’t understand, but it’s amazing to see how much good quality food goes to waste every day. I just heard about a documentary called "Dive" that shows a few guys who eat from dumpsters behind [the grocery store] Trader Joe’s. It's the same stuff you'd buy inside, and it's been outside for just a few hours, and they make gourmet meals out of it—for free.
What else has been hard?
I did 675 miles barefoot from Denver to Omaha. That was for a campaign called “Barefoot for Sustainability.” People pledged a certain amount for every mile I did barefoot. I rode barefoot for ten days.
In Iowa I did another campaign called “Stand Up for Sustainability” and took my bike seat off for all of Iowa.
How much have you raised?
I have only raised $2,000 for 1% for the Planet (an alliance of businesses that donate 1 percent of sales to environmental groups) recipients. It's not a ton of money, but I know these nonprofits will make a lot happen with it. My goal is to raise $10,000 by the end of the trip.
What have been the biggest highlights?
I have learned that good creates more good. If you are doing good things for other people, they want to do good for you as well, and happiness creates more happiness.
I've had so much help on this trip. One time I was in Nebraska and the most redneck scary-looking Nebraska man came up in his beater truck and started talking to me. He ended up taking me in and putting me up in his house for the night. He was one of the most warmhearted guys I've met on this ride and was only interested in what this weird guy on a bike was doing passing by.
In the last 86 days across the entire country, everyone has been so supportive. We are very lucky to live in the country that we do. I just find when you are doing good things, good things happen around you.
What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned so far?
No matter what you are going through, if you just take one more pedal over and over, you will get where you are going. Sometimes I would stop and my cameraman would keep going, and he'd be so far away in one minute; that’s when I realized how every single pedal just gets you a step farther.
I have also realized the power of an individual. A lot of people don’t think what they do counts. But thousands of people have been inspired by the little things I am doing. When I was in Brooklyn, I lived off dripping water from a fire hydrant, and a lot of people came up to me and told me how they planned to reduce their own consumption and water waste.
I am just one individual and I am no more special than anyone else, but I can see it's making an impact, which is proof that everything anyone does makes a difference. Doing good creates more good, and inspires other people to do good things as well.
Also, if you live simply, you will live free.