LONG LAKE - When Julie Klein and husband Mike ran into a cyclist on a heavily rutted road near Grand Marais, she was intrigued. When she ran into the same man again near Cheboygan, she knew she had to hear more of his story.
So she and her husband invited Balthazar Becker to take a quick side trip on his cross-continent journey by bike to talk about his experience at their cottage on Long Lake.
"I wouldn't have invited him if I had just met him in Grand Marais, but when I saw him in Cheboygan, I thought, 'OK, he's a legit person; he's riding his bike,'" she said.
Becker's been riding a second-hand mountain bike for 42 days since he bought it in Seattle, he said. He flew there from his home in Brooklyn, where he teaches English at Brooklyn College. Having grown up between Austria, Germany and Switzerland, and spending time various parts of the globe, he's used to getting around. But for all he's seen, he's never explored the northern half of the country between the coasts.
The 3,600 miles Becker's traveled so far has taken him across 10 states as he heads to his ultimate destination: Bar Harbor, Maine, where he will meet his girlfriend, Salimah Hankins, he said. He's learned a lot about the country, and even more about himself and how he relates to it.
"I wanted to figure out what is my relation to this country as, sort of, a foreigner," he said. "In New York, it's sort of an exception. You can be there and feel at home, but you never feel like what it's like to be in America. Also, I feel the rest of the country has sort of a complicated relationship to New York."
What's impressed Becker the most on his journey is the huge contrasts he's finding, both in the country's landscapes and its people, he said. After starting near Tacoma, Wash., he jogged down to Crater Lake near Klamath Falls, Ore. He was inspired to visit the destination after finding photos of the place among his late uncle's possessions.
"It's a very spiritual place," he said. "It's so calm, and the surface of the water is very smooth."
It's a quick transition from the lake in the mountains to desert, he said. From there, he's crossed prairie, more desert, more mountains and various other terrain, including the shoreline of two Great Lakes.
"I'm impressed by how many national parks, state forests and state parks there are," he said. "There were a lot of people who wanted to preserve these lands."
At the same time, Becker saw many examples of waste of resources, he said.
While Becker has received warm welcome in some places, including the Kleins, he's encountered others who were less than friendly.
"A lot of people have surprised me because they take in foreigners," he said. "You'll find xenophiles and xenophobes, sometimes in the same place."
It's the generous ones that Booker finds "mind-blowing," he said. All throughout his journey, he's met new people every day. Many have given him something, often intangibles like directions or other help. Others have gone a little farther, like driving along to make sure he finds his way. He's received food ranging from bottles of water to full meals, and others have let him spend the night in their house.
The Kleins are among the generous ones: they're letting Becker spend the night in their camper, he said.
Becker's had to carry his gear with him from the start, he said, and he's travelling lighter and lighter as the journey progresses.
"In the beginning it was just me and way too many things," he said. As he used items up or sent them home, he's down to carrying enough food for the day, his toothbrush, a few changes of clothes, a tent and a sleeping bag.
Biking alone has also allowed him to shed emotional baggage, Becker said. One day when he was pedaling against a particularly obnoxious headwind in Wyoming, he realized it wasn't the wind he was angry at. He decided that many people have anger inside of them.
"It's old anger you carry with you, and at that moment it just blossoms," he said. "You notice you have to let go of that."
This kind of self-discovery and others like it have given Becker some clarity, he said.
"I have a more clear picture of what this country is and who the people are, who I am and how I fit in and don't."
For her part, Klein's glad to be a part of Becker's journey and hear more of his story, she said.
Jordan Travis can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 358-5688.