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Student Biked Through the Americas

By Jiao Wang

A lone 21-year old crawls out of his tent at 4:30 in the morning and starts to pack his belongings: tent, sleeping bag, spare bike parts, stove, food, water, coffee. He loads his 100 pounds of gear onto a bicycle and rides non-stop for two days, starting in Bolivia at 5 a.m. and ending the following day at 11 p.m. just north of Santiago, Chile. It is the last stretch of his journey to catch up with his girlfriend and friends; he has been averaging 150 miles per day for the past five days.

Move over, Lance Armstrong. That week alone, Orian Z. Welling ’08 completed more than a fifteenth of his 15,000 mile bike trip — 1 bike, 2 frames, 4 cassettes, 5 chains, 7 tires, 12 currencies, 15 countries, 355 days of adventure.

Welling left his hometown in Stevens Point, Wisconsin on May 16, 2004 and traveled to the starting point of his journey, Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, where he had already mailed his seventy pounds of gear, including his bike, tent, and spare parts. The bike route he eventually took from the oil wells in Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia, Argentina is the longest longitudinal route of the world. Commenting on its popularity, Welling said approximately twenty cyclists and one hundred motorists of various ages travel the entire route every year.

A transfer student from University of Wisconsin in Stevens Point, he applied to MIT in late January 2005 from Ecuador. “The night I got into MIT, I celebrated with my friends with a two dollar bottle of Argentinean Malbec in a drainage culvert underneath a road in Patagonia,” he said.

Biker subsists on the minimum

Welling said he tried to spend an average of $5 a day for food, using his own pots and pans to cook rice, pasta, potatoes, onions, and split pea soap. He bought whatever was cheap, and drank mostly tap water. Clothes were hand-washed in rivers, and air-dried as he rode his bike.

He spent a total of $3,000–$4,000 on his year-long trip, some of it on boat rides from La Paz on the Baja Peninsula to Mazatlan to Mexico and from Colon, Panama to La Isla Fuerte, Columbia, and on a plane ride back from Ecuador to Chicago at the end of his journey.

Welling, who took two years of Spanish in high school, initially resorted to using hand motions to communicate with locals, who helped him by providing clothes and sometimes housing. In populated towns, the natives’ curiosities about the guy on the bike often paved the way for overnight stays at local homes.

“People could see I was living on my bike. I wasn’t just going home for the day,” said Welling. However, for the most part, he camped alone in his tent, slept on hammocks, and hid from the rain in abandoned houses, drainages, ditches, and baseball dugouts.

He used hotels very infrequently, once on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, twice in Columbia because of the civil war, and a few times in southern Argentina due to the cold, he said.

Depending on road conditions, Welling usually rode six and a half to seven hours per day, covering an average of 75 miles.

So how did someone who planned to go to MIT live without a computer or cell phone?

“As soon as you get out of the United States, every town has an internet cafe,” said Welling. He said it was easier to find an internet cafe in South America than a Starbucks in Seattle. There was a public phone and internet source every five blocks, he said. He carried very little cash with him as his U.S. debit card allowed him to withdraw local currency from almost any ATM in Latin America.

During the summer in 2002, Welling biked from Oregon south to California, west across the United States to New Jersey and finally back to Wisconsin, a total of 6,000 miles, in 3 months. The following summer, he biked 2,000 miles from Stevens Point, Wisconsin to Seattle, Washington in two weeks. For a long time, Welling said, he thought about biking from Alaska to Patagonia. He decided six months before he started to carry the idea through.