Leah Gernetzke
Joe Fors discovers the nation’s back roads on a bike

Published in The Lakeland Times

When the gloomy days of a depressed economy left millions wondering where to go, Joe Fors pedaled off to explore the back roads of the nation on his trusty stead, a 17-year-old Trek 6500 mountain bike.

“I was recently unemployed in the bar/restaurant business,” the Lombard, Ill., native said. “I looked around for a job but it was pretty scarce. People asked me what I was going to do. My roommate came home the same week and told me he was moving in with his girlfriend. I couldn’t afford the place by myself. So I came up with the idea – Maybe I’ll ride my bike across the country.”

Those close to Fors said they’re not surprised he followed through on the ambitious, slightly quirky endeavor.

“He’s always been a free spirit, and a little bit off the wall,” Fors’ longtime friend Scott Mickle laughed. “He doesn’t ever really conform.”

That spirit of non-conformity has pushed Fors 4,564 miles, or an average of 80-100 miles per day, since his departure Feb. 21 from Wheaton, Ill. It’s also allowed him to live off of approximately $25 a day, caused him to shed 40 pounds, and revealed the nation’s story through the faces he’s met along the way in bike shops, diners, bars, and truck stops.

“I haven’t met anyone who’s even indifferent to what I’m doing, everyone has been very, very supportive, and helpful and interested,” Fors said. “You watch the news and it’s always bad … Doom and gloom. Riding around the country and seeing the good in people has been an awesome experience.”

While the goodwill of strangers has buoyed his spirits, his friends opened up a Paypal account to help buoy his dwindling budget. Fors said his email list has also grown to more than 2,000 contacts, and his Facebook page, which a friend created to help chronicle and share his travels, now has nearly 400 fans.

“A lot of them are people I’ve just met along the way,” he said.

However, the police along route nine, which runs parallel to the Mexican border, were less than enthusiastic about his sleeping arrangements at one point.

“I was riding into the evening and just thought I’d find a place to camp on the side of the road,” Fors recalled. “Seeing all the border control, I thought I’d stay as far off the road to stay out of their way, but that’s exactly what they’re looking for. So with heat-seeking, night vision goggles, they had taken tactical maneuvers and surrounded me. All of a sudden they came out of the bushes at me, yelling at me in Spanish.”

“They asked me, ‘what are you doing?’ and I was like, ‘riding my bike across the country.’”

Though they let Fors continue on his way, it was slightly earlier than he would have liked.

“They made me ride the 40 miles to the next town in the dark,” he said.

Other challenges, especially mechanical issues with his bike, have created some bumps in the road – but nothing that’s seriously hindered his cross-country adventures.

Fors has taken some of his lessons on the road and applied them to the wider context of life as well.

“My advice to people is to get on the bike and just do it. I was always waiting for the perfect environment to just do it,” he said. “If I would have waited for things to be right to just do this, I would have never done it. I don’t have the right bike, I don’t have the right equipment and I wasn’t in shape.”

Fors is currently completing the final stint of his trip, from L.A. to Chicago. Beyond completing this route, he said he doesn’t have any concrete plans yet.

“I may start riding for causes, like for breast cancer,” he said. “I also want to try to write something from this. I’ve taken a page of notes per day.”

On the whole, Fors said he’s experienced “zero bad,” and doesn’t regret a day of his colorful sojourn across America.

“We live in a beautiful country. We spend too much time getting to where we’re going instead of enjoying the trip,” he wrote in a letter to his friends and family while in Northern Alabama. “We take interstates, we fly, we focus on the destinations. Someday we all need to take the back roads somewhere.”