By Marty Farmer
Nate Prescott, Mark Jirik and Abby Prescott are in most ways your typical mid-20s young adults. The Oak Park natives, who all graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School and Big Ten universities, have already briefly dipped their toes into the work force. Some responsibility-laden combination of marriage and mortgage, children and career, likely awaits them on their respective journeys into full-fledged adulthood.
In the short-term, however, the three adventurers have made a decision to go decidedly off grid for a while. In late July, Nate Prescott and Mark Jirik will embark on a remarkable 18,000-mile bike trip, beginning in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska (above the Arctic Circle). Approximately 15 months later, the best buddies hope to conclude their Pan-American run in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost town in the world.
Abby Prescott, meanwhile, the younger sister of Nate, kicked off her bicycle tour across North America this week to raise funds for Bike and Build (bikeandbuild.org), an organization that raises awareness of affordable housing efforts. Abby's sojourn with Bike and Build will take her by bike from Portland, Maine to Santa Barbara, Calif., over the next two and a half months.
What all three have in common is pursuing dreams, living life with a sense of adventure, and learning about themselves via exposure to a considerably broader spectrum of countries, cultures and people.
Jirik cites one of his favorite authors Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, "Not until we are lost, do we begin to understand ourselves," as a slogan of sorts for their ambitious venture.
"I've dreamed about an adventure like this bike trip since I was little kid," he said.
Nate Prescott, who has known Jirik since they were freshmen at OPRF in 2001, echoes his friend's sentiments.
"I came across the blogs of some people who had done the Pan-American ride from Alaska to Argentina," he said. "I thought, 'Wow, this looks awesome.' It's really one of the holy grails of bike touring. The trip includes everything I want to do — riding my bike and exploring the world.
"Mark and I talked about it at length, and we felt if we're going to take on an adventure like this, now is the perfect time."
While exploring the unknown is a major draw, Prescott and Jirik have put in extensive planning time, ranging from the economic feasibility of the trip (estimated cost is $15,000 each) to the daily logistics of having sufficient food, clothing and communication.
All their supplies will be stowed away on their Surly Long Haul Trucker bikes, which were custom built by Curt Warner at BikeFix, a shop in Oak Park. The bikes are built to handle all manner of road conditions and support plenty of gear.
Securing sturdy transportation is a must, considering the breadth of their chosen course. They will bike through the United States, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
"I'm really excited for the entire trip, especially Alaska," Nate Prescott said. "The first 8-10 days, we will be riding our bikes above the Arctic Circle so it will be just 24 hours of sunlight each day."
With the exception of taking a ferry or plane to travel from Panama to Colombia (due to dense jungle), every mile of the lengthy excursion will be covered by pedaling.
"I tell my friends just to make them jealous that our typical day will involve sleeping in, riding for a little bit, taking a nap in the sun, riding some more and then falling asleep by campfire," Prescott said with a laugh. "That's not really true. The trip will be fun but strenuous. Mark and I will start riding our bikes fairly early each morning to get in some mileage before the sun gets too hot. We've also prepared as best we can in terms of clothing, food, money and communication while we're on the road."
The traveling companions will pack a lot of high-calorie, low-weight foods like oatmeal, beef jerky, rice and beans, plus plenty of water. The use of a hand-operated water pump filter will be used as needed.
They will wear clothes that can be layered up or down according to the climate, including merino wool which tends to stay cool and relatively stench-free.
They have also had several immunization shots to ensure protection as they move from country to country.
Stops along the route at homes of friends as well as "couchsurfing," a hospitality exchange service, allowing travelers to stay as a guest at host homes around the world, will provide invaluable opportunities to rest and shower.
Prescott and Jirik will also bring laptops to chronicle their adventure via their website, biketoread.org. Through their website, they hope to generate financial assistance to Erie Neighborhood House, a Chicago institution that provides resources and advocacy for primarily low-income Latino families in the West Town neighborhood of Chicago. Prescott has been tutoring children there for the past three years.
"It's just sort of light fundraising for Erie House," he said. "We just decided to take this dream trip, and if we can help raise a little awareness and money for Erie House, that's cool."
Influenced by her brother's previous cross-country bike trip with Illini 4000 to raise cancer awareness, Abby Prescott wanted a similar experience. Also motivated by her work as a site captain with West Suburban PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter), she felt the Bike to Build trip offered the perfect mix of taking on a new adventure while also raising funds and awareness for a good cause — affordable housing. She has raised over $5,000 for the trip.
"I can't think of better way to spend my summer than on my bike," she said. "Pedaling on my bike for a cause I have always believed in is awesome. I'm also eager to see how my body will respond to the challenge of riding cross-country."
While the Prescott and Jirik families are understandably concerned for the safety of their three explorers, they are also incredibly proud of Nate, Mark and Abby.
"It's going to be a little nerve-racking but also terribly exciting for all of us," Jirik said. "Our trips are really about living your dreams and taking on life with a spirit of adventure."