Bicycle journey took her 20,000 miles

March 31, 1991|By Susan Slusser | Susan Slusser,McClatchy News Service

After 19 months and 20,000 miles, Sally Vantress began to feel rather close to her bicycle.

"I'd talk to my bike all the time," said Vantress, who traveled around the world on her 18-speed Univega in 1988 and 1989. "I'd reprimand it, I'd slug it.

"But I had such a feeling for my bike, such love for it. I'd bring it into my tent at night. It was like a companion. When it was raining, I felt so guilty about riding it."

Vantress, who chronicles her trip in the recently released "Seeing Myself Seeing the World," insists her book is not really about cycling. For Vantress, her beloved mountain bike was just a means to make a journey that was primarily spiritual.

A successful businesswoman who was a vice president of Crocker Bank in Sacramento for five years and also president of the Sacramento Valley Marketing Association, Vantress became disenchanted with the workaday world in 1987. After going on a short bike trek through Washington state's San Juan Islands, she sold everything she owned house, airplane, car, clothes -- to finance her trip.

"For four years, it had been brewing," said Vantress, 33. "For the first time, I was working for money instead of following my heart. I had so many possessions, they ruled me.

"I've learned since that what you dream can become your reality. That was the stop of my old life and the start of my new one."

Vantress started in New Zealand in January 1988, riding with a friend she had met in the San Juan Islands. But the rest of the journey -- Hong Kong, China, Russia, Europe and the U.S. -- she did solo, riding 60 to 80 miles a day on a bicycle loaded with up to 100 pounds of gear.

Sometimes Vantress slept in hostels, sometimes in the homes of people she met along the way, but usually she set up her tent in the bushes alongside the road.

"The trip was about daily survival," Vantress said. "Getting to my destination each day, finding food and water and a place to sleep, getting over mountain paths, hiding in bushes, always looking over my shoulder."

Vantress was warned repeatedly during her travels about the dangers of a single woman traveling alone. But she feels she actually got more help as a result -- "I was a magnet attracting good people to me" -- and met many kind and interesting people in every country she visited, despite the language barrier.

She encountered problems, however. While on her bike, she had things thrown at her by motorists and once was even shot at. It rained 75 percent of the time. She worried about rodents, insects, and a large snake that ate her host's rooster in Australia. She went through 12 tires, a chain, a derailleur, a freewheel and a rear rim, plus she split her rear axle.

The most serious incident occurred upon her return to the United States. In Georgia, the state in which Vantress was born, she was held prisoner by a former convict and was assaulted. She unflinchingly recounts her ordeal in the book, and has since discussed it during a presentation to sex offenders at the California Men's Colony, San Luis Obispo.

"That was really very much of a healing thing," Vantress said. "The response was 'You, of all people, to come in here and show no fear of us -- you should hate us, but you come here to share this with is.' If I can help one person . . .

"It's also a tremendous message for women. I've had calls from women who were raped and molested, scarred for life. A woman told me I'd saved her life; she'd been holding it inside for so long and was finally going to get help. This shows that there might be a different road to take."

Ironically, Vantress faced her roughest road after her return home to the Santa Cruz area in August 1989. At first, she had low self-esteem, she said, in large part because her friends and family couldn't relate to her experiences. In addition, Vantress had no house or job and suddenly had to worry about paying bills again.

Though she was repeatedly encouraged to write a book about her journey, Vantress was reluctant. Then she met Martin Kreig of Cycle America, a non-profit organization in Capitola dedicated to getting more people on bikes. Vantress sold advertising for various bicycle resource directories and also worked on her book, which was published by Cycle America at the end of 1990.

"If I knew how much pain I'd have to go through writing that book, I'm not sure if I would have done it," Vantress said. "Writing that book was harder than taking the trip.

"But I learned a lot about love and trust in people; the answers I'd been looking for on the trip actually came in writing the book."

The response to Vantress' effort has been rewarding, she said.

"People have to pick their jaws up off the ground," she said. "It helps people look into their own lives; they can relate to it. I'm not like an Olympic athlete up on a pedestal.

"I don't ever tell people they need to sell everything and travel around the world on a bike. That's just what I needed to do. It's different for everyone. The main thing is that there are no limitations to what you can do in life."

Vantress hasn't decided what her next step will be. She's considered cycling from Alaska to South America, and she's also tempted to return to her other love, flying. In the meantime, she is speaking to groups about her book and giving presentations about her experiences.

"Seeing Myself Seeing the World; A Woman's Journey Around the World on a Bicycle," (paperbound, 262 pages, $11.95) is available at bookstores or by writing Cycle America, P.O. Box 543, Capitola, Calif. 95010.

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