In another life (from 2005 to 2008), David Goodrich was the director of the UN Global Climate Observing System in Geneva. Now his days are spent entirely on a bike. The retiree is cycling across America, hoping to further the national conversation about climate change by interviewing people he meets along the way and giving presentations to students about the consequences of global warming.
With a 36-year career as a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under his belt, there’s probably no one more qualified to embark on such an ambitious project in the service of environment and education.
Soon after retiring, Goodrich left his home in Rockville, Maryland in May 2011. Seventy-five days and 4,208 miles later, he reached the coast of Oregon with meticulous documentation of his encounters, observations, and experiences on the road. He met farmers in Tribune, Kansas, despairing over droughts and diminished profits. He saw forests in Cameron Pass, Colorado, decimated by mountain pine beetles, whose numbers have exploded because of recent warm winters. These impressions of a changing America became A Hole in the Wind, out from Pegasus Books next year.
A Hole in the Wind is full of layman-terms climate information, rollicking cross-country adventures, and deep introspection as the 53-year-old Goodrich pushes his physical limits to see our changing world in real life.
On June 27, Goodrich set off on the final leg of the trip, which will be the book’s conclusion. He’ll cycle from Moscow, Idaho, to Chinook, Montana, spending two days on the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. The park has become a symbol of climate change owing to its rapidly disappearing namesake glaciers.
Outside spoke to Goodrich about his final trip and the nitty-gritty of writing a book while on the road.
OUTSIDE: How did you go about planning for a trip like this?
GOODRICH: In terms of my route, I’ve got a spreadsheet of where I expect to be each day. I use the site Ride with GPS, which is good on route planning.
You don’t want to discover at 3 p.m. that you have a 1,500-foot climb before the end of the day. So my planning sheets are very detailed—they include the number of miles I’ll cycle each day, how much elevation I’ll be facing, that sort of thing. I usually try to end each day in a town that has some kind of accommodation. And I use adventure cycling maps a lot.
What kind of gear do you bring?
Part of what I pack depends on whether or not I’ll be camping, and whether or not I’m self-contained. For the cross-country ride, I had four bags, a tent lashed onto my bike, and a handlebar bag. It all weighed between 40 and 50 pounds, depending on how much water I carried.
If I’ve got motels each night, then I’ll bring two bags of clothes, a competent tool kit—you want to be able to fix a spoke by the side of the road—and a first aid kit.
For conducting the interviews, I’ve got a laptop, a smartphone that has enough storage space for interview recordings, and a camera. Each night, I write a journal entry about the day’s events.
Lastly, I always bring pepper spray for dogs. I had a dog encounter in Missouri, and I had to rely solely on adrenaline to get me out of it. Never again!
My bike is an old clunky steel frame, because if you’re in central Wyoming or Nepal, and the frame breaks, you can always find someone who can work on steel.
The day before I leave, I just lay everything out on the floor. It’s like my personal Everest Base Camp.
What are you hoping to accomplish from this final trip to Glacier National Park?
There are two parts to this trip. I want to see if I can still manage [to cycle long distances], and I want to investigate what climate change has brought to the northern Rockies and down into the plains. I’m also interested in how global warming has affected the wildlife.
I’ll be exploring these questions through my own observations and from my interviews with people on the ground. It’s as much about the people I meet along the way as the climate questions.
No matter how prepared you are, there’s always going to be something unexpected that the road throws at you. And I look forward to that. That’s the fun part.
Which books have helped inspire this journey for you?
Here are a few:
Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum (1899): An aging sea captain, awash in debts and legal problems, laid the keel for the Spray, "a private ark, designed to float free of the irksome land." He set sail from Fairhaven, Massachusetts and returned three years later. Eleven years after the voyage, Slocum took the now-decrepit Spray out of Vineyard Haven into a November gale, bound for the Bahamas. He was never seen again.
Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck (1963): He was my age at the start (58) and roughly followed the route of my bike trip across the country. He implied that you could smell the salt air of the Pacific from the Cascade passes. His humor was dry: "I had conveniently forgotten how incredibly huge America is;" After a flat tire: "We would have no recourse but to burst into tears and wait for death."
Annapurna by Maurice Herzog (1952): French guides from the Chamonix Valley (which was a frequent sojourn from our days living in Geneva) take on one of the highest mountains in the world, well before oxygen tanks. Annapurna is now recognized as a deathtrap. Herzog and his companion Lachenal reach the summit; they had no business surviving. Herzog loses most of his fingers and toes and dictates the book during his year of plastic surgery. He has "the assurance and serenity of a man who has fulfilled himself."
What is your writing process like?
When I'm on the road, I'll post each night on the magnificent crazyguyonabike.com, a journaling site for touring cyclists. It’s important when I sit down to write seriously that I can bring myself back to that pass, that river, that roadhouse. Sometimes the best stuff comes when I can still feel the blood pulsing in my legs in the evening. And I can still remember the bad jokes I thought up during the day's ride, which may not be an upside.
When it comes to the serious writing, I've learned a lot from my daughter, who's a professor and very disciplined. She sits down at 7:30, spends a half-hour on email, then shuts down Facebook, texts, the phone, and all of those other distractions. She flips on Toggl, a little time-tracking app, and punches the stopwatch when she starts actual writing and stops it when she's not. That's what I try to do also.
Lastly, for me cellulose is important stuff. I can only sketch out a piece on a legal pad first, in unintelligible code. Then after research and chewing and reworking on-screen comes that magical moment when the printer lights up by my feet and honest-to-goodness paper and pages start coming out. It isn't real until then.
Any last words?
As a scientist, I observed networks for climate change in the ocean, the atmosphere, and the land surface. So climate change was a very clear thing for me. Right now we need to be aware that there’s a little bit of human-caused climate change in all of our long-term weather patterns. We are living in a different world.