Continuing Education 2012 - Glenn Charles

Today, we conclude our series of posts looking back at the lessons we've learned on the bike in 2012. -Kid

It is good to look back, to remember those amazing moments, the ones that reinforce who we are and why we do what we do. I am extremely lucky to have traveled to some remarkable places this year, met incredible people, grown as a human being, and learned much about my abilities and myself - all as a result of my travels by bike.

My year started off in Europe, bikepacking on a Salsa Fargo through the English countryside.  My goal had been to make it from London to Scotland with my normal ultralight kit, which for shelter only included my tarp/bivy setup. As many know, the English winters can be a bit dreary and bit damp, and this winter was no exception. Within days my meager rain gear was soaked, and my spirits dampened. A night attempting to camp in the Fends, an extremely low-lying area, with only a tarp during a wind/rainstorm had almost broken me. Without a doubt I believe that night was one of my most difficult camping experiences ever. As with all things in my life, things turned around quickly.

The next day I was getting off my bike to get groceries in a small town when a kindly man cycled up to me, smiled, and asked if I was the American cycling around England. It turns out he had been in another store that I had previously visited where he learned about my exploits and quickly set off in search of me. He offered to watch my bike while I shopped and then proceeded to insist that he buy me a ‘proper meal’ and chat about all-things bike. It was an uplifting moment for me; one that reinforced why traveling by bike can be such a universal connector between people of all walks of life.

A month later, I found myself cycling through Morocco, where the only languages spoken are French and Arabic, neither of which I speak nor understand. I was traveling with a friend who spoke broken French, and a friend of his, who spoke Arabic. As a group, this meant we had a way to communicate; the bad news (for me) was I never had a clue what was being said!

We flew into Marrakech with the goal of cycling a big seven to ten day loop, out through the countryside to the Atlantic Ocean and then working our way back to the city. We had our bikes rigged for camping so after a quick stop at the grocery, we were off. Winter in Morocco is just spectacular. Bright sunny days in the 60’s with evenings in the low 40’s, absolutely perfect weather for cycling. 

Due to some logistics issues, we got a late start the first day, found ourselves a bit turned around getting out of the city and once on the highway out of town, realized that we would not be doing any big miles that day. The task of finding a suitable place to camp was at hand. Yet again, the power of a bike to connect came into play, making it so that we never camped for our entire trip. Each day we met the most humble Moroccan’s - from mechanics to goat farmers to school tenders - and each day the same thing would occur. Each and every one of these people opened their homes to us, clay structures with dirt floors and tapestry rugs for doors. They welcomed us in, served us warm sweet tea, and shared their evening meals. Meals that were warm and hearty, eaten sitting on pillows around square tables, served out of a tagine with fresh homemade bread and locally grown olives. The bread and olives were to become a staple at all meals, and something that to this day I miss. The nights were spent sleeping in these rooms on small couches and warm wool blankets. 

The highlight of these experiences was with a goat farmer that brought us in one night. It was late in the day before we found this person and after some discussion, the nightly ritual began anew. It started the same, an offer to come in out of the evening chill, a warm meal and a comfortable place to sleep. During the conversation, one that repeatedly saw me simply watching gestures and tones, attempting to grasp in some meaningful way what was being said, the farmer got up and disappeared for a few moments. When he came back, laptop in hand, I had no idea what was happening. Well it turns out that with his cell phone he was able to connect to the Internet where he promptly logged in to Facebook and asked to ‘Friend' us.

It was a powerful reminder to me of just how connected we all are and what a difference Facebook has made to people all over the world. I took a picture of this man, hunched over the computer, in the dark and in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, ‘friending’ each of us on Facebook. In the end, it was the power of bikes that served to bridge the gap, to make the connection, between people from incredibly different walks of life. 

I was now in SW Ireland, bikepacking the countryside, when I felt the presence of another behind me. Turning around, a lovely gentleman was working hard to catch up. He had seen us the day before, and seeing how we were traveling down and around the peninsula, he was confident that he could find us the next day. I was traveling with a friend who had flown over to Ireland with her bike. I had come across from Wales on the ferry, ridden through the streets of Dublin, and hopped a train across the countryside to meet up for a week of bikepacking the SW peninsulas. 

The trip to date had been fantastic with the typical Irish scenery, something that in my mind is best viewed by bike. Like most of Europe, the roads are small, and being in a car offers very limited opportunities for stopping at will. While we had seen some amazing things, the time of year had meant that there just were not many other people out and about. Our new friend, upon hearing our story, offered to serve as tour guide for the afternoon. He assured us that there were some incredible sites to see, and that if we did not know of them ahead of time, surely they would be missed.

We agreed to the escort, and off we went. First up was a trip to a Buddhist retreat high atop the cliffs of the Irish Sea. A spectacular set of buildings, replete with prayer flags blowing in the wind and stunning views of the sea offered up a powerful place to connect with mother earth. He took us on a brief tour, including the prayer room, where it was impossible to not feel the energy and the presence of all those that had passed before us. 

Next up, the complete opposite of the peace and serenity of the retreat. Our impromptu guide led us down dirt roads and broken trails to the remains of an ancient castle. The castle had been set on the water, in a protected cove, in what could only be described as an idyllic location. It was not hard to imagine what this must have looked like in all its glory and grandeur. 

I was once again reminded of the power of a bike and of the spirit of traveling souls to connect human beings from different walks of life. This message has become ingrained in me; it guides my traveling soul.

My final big trip of the year was to be something completely new for me. The question I had put to myself was: Could I take a fatbike north to Canada and travel the roads and snowmobile trails of the Gaspe Peninsula and the Chic Choc mountains?  This was a trip that would likely present several challenges for me, some physical and some cultural. The Gaspe is a French speaking region of Canada and as I already pointed out, I don’t speak nor understand French. While I was confident that I could overcome the physical challenges associated with cold weather biking and camping, it was the language barrier that concerned me more than anything.

The winter of 2012 was a very warm winter and in this region of Canada, spring had come early. While the temperatures were still ranging from 0 at night to the 20’s during the day, the temperatures several weeks earlier had been in the 40’s and even 50’s, causing much of the snow to turn to mush. This change of luck would force me to ride more road and beach than trail, but still provided me with enough back-country opportunities to make it challenging and worthwhile.

So while the technical side of the trip was turning out easier than expected, the language barrier was still a challenge. The fact that I was on a bike in cold temps when all of the tourist destinations were closed made me a bit of a novelty, however it was the new ingredient in the mixture that was really helping to bridge the language divide. What I quickly discovered, and what has continually been reinforced to this day, is that yes, bikes open doors, but fatbikes knock them down.

I was greeted with smiles and broken English asking me about this bike and those wheels. A common theme became the French words for ‘Where is the engine?’ something that after asked, caused the questioner to break into laughter and big grins. I had young shopkeepers led out of their stores by older shopkeepers so that they could see this incredible machine. I had drivers honk and wave at me and old ladies stop to greet me, all with a smile on their face and spoken words that I did not understand, but words that I knew were of peace and of joy.

The void between French and English had become inconsequential, because I had discovered the language of fatbikes: a language that transcended everything else, a language that helped to connect peoples, a language that brought people back to their childhood days. I was greeted with amazement and awe at this beast of a bike. I have now ridden the bike throughout the US, and the result is the same everywhere I go. First smiles, then questions, followed by bits of laughter, wonderment, and awe.

The language of bikes is strong, but the language of fatbikes is like nothing I have ever seen before. This has been an amazing year for me, adventuring by bike. The Mukluk has brought me back to my childhood days, where it was not about how fast I could ride, but where I could ride. It was not about anything else other than the pure joy of knowing I could hop on my bike and go wherever I wanted to go. 

I turn 50 this year and I am in awe of what the bike can do, the places that it can take you, the barriers that it can break down. I head to Alaska next month, Mukluk in tow, but not to race, instead to experience. Two months of two-wheel travel with the goal of simply connecting: with nature, with people, with myself. 

Adventuring by bike gets in your bones and once it is in, it is really, really hard to get it out.


We highly recommend checking out Glenn's website: The Traveling Vagabond


And check out these previous entries in our Continuing Education 2012 series:

Tracey Petervary

Tim Ek

Danielle Musto

Kurt Refsnider

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Explore Fargo Fatbike Glenn Charles Mukluk Overnighter Snow Biking Sponsored Riders Touring Travel

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Glenn Charles

Glenn Charles

Glenn Charles spent his first 40 years living what he thought was the American Dream; he now says he’s living life. Traveling by bike and kayak, he finds new ways to explore the world, meet new people and grow as a person. As he travels 50,000+ miles by human power, he hopes to inspire others to reconnect with nature and lead simpler, happier lives.


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Tom | December 31st, 2012

I’ve really been enjoying the Continuing Education series and this is one of the best. Thanks Salsa (and Glenn) for the inspiration. Makes me want to load up the Fargo and head out right now!

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kurt | December 31st, 2012

Glenn, I really enjoyed reading this! What a great year of adventuring you have had!

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Phat Phil | January 1st, 2013

The simple joy of life the rider on a bike touring is an amazing translator. Thanks for the story. It’s appears that Fat Bikes make everyone smile world wide.

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Graham Foot | February 1st, 2013

Great article, I recently bought a Mukluk and have felt exactly the same with regard the Fatbike experience. Glenn’s words mirror mine completely!

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Impan | February 28th, 2013

Yes, the Grip Shift twist grip shifters are very poaulpr with the fat bikers since, as you say, heavily gloved or mittened hands find them easier to operate. They also function a bit better in cold temperatures, since some trigger shifters with grease inside get stiff in the cold. (Easily remedied, but still ) Also of note: Many fat bikers use thumbshifters for the same reasons, (easier operation), and also because they do not have housings which can crack and fail in extremely cold conditions like a grip shifter can. @yogi: The belt drive suffers poor belt line due to Gates insistence in machining the cogs with an offset to the inside of the bike, and more specifically, due to their width. Of course, an offset drive train/rear wheel might be made to work, but again- just to have a belt? No thanks. @adrian ward: Possibilities there with your idea are tantalizing. Getting someone to make a rigid fork shouldn’t be too hard to do.

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