What I’ve Learned Cycle Touring 7,000 Miles on a Vegan Diet

Pedaling up Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park cycle touring

This post first appeared here on Mind Body Green.

Over the past two summers, Chelsea and I have cycled 7,000 miles through 14 countries. No sag wagon, no designated route—just leg power, our bikes, gear, and desire for adventure.

During our travels, we accept local advice and hospitality, wake up open to each day’s surprises, and wing it whenever possible. But one thing we are always adamantly consistent about is our food. For ethical, health, and environmental reasons, we choose not to eat any animal products.

The bike tours were challenging, eye-opening, fantastic—a full range of emotions every day. From headwinds to breathtaking views to searing heat to idyllic European villages to crumbling rural towns, we pedaled through it all. Navigating cobblestone cycle paths in France was a pain; finding great vegan food while burning 5,000 calories per day proved to be a simple aspect of the trip.

Here’s what thousands of miles and a couple million pedal strokes of cycle touring on a vegan diet has taught me:

Few people are surprised about your food choices

Special diets are everywhere now, and most people know someone on one. “Oh, my cousin is gluten-free” or “my brother eats Paleo” was a common refrain. Tiny cafés in Nebraska (not exactly a vegan stronghold) easily accommodated our needs by piling vegetables on hash browns.

Getting enough protein is not an issue

Even biking 50 to 80 miles per day, my body repaired itself and built muscle. I trimmed fat, but my leg muscles grew. I even added muscle to my upper body by doing daily upper-body workouts. When people ask me where I get my protein, I can honestly say that I simply eat lots of plants. No powders, no supplements—just real food. I’m more concerned about fiber—only 3 percent of people eat enough each day, versus 97 percent of people who get enough protein.

Just over the pass in Glacier National Park.

My energy levels were firing

Unlike the days when I’d eat a giant sandwich with cheese and meat and sink into an afternoon stupor, plants don’t bog down my body. A veggie burrito or big salad crafted from ingredients in any grocery store keeps my system cranking. I was biking eight hours a day and still had energy to do push-ups each night.

Recovery was super fast

I rebounded and recovered quickly from physical efforts that would have previously sidelined me for a couple of days. Since a plant-based diet leads to lower inflammation, faster recovery from athletic events or workouts is an added bonus.

Many top athletes are vegan

I was attracted to a vegan lifestyle by the potential health benefits. Badass vegan athletes like UFC fighter Mac Danzig, ultra-marathoners like Scott Jurek, and triathletes like Rich Roll inspired me to give it a shot. While I wasn’t cranking out record-smashing 100-mile runs or choke-holds, I noticed an increase in performance.

Seeing and smelling animal feedlots opened my eyes to the plight of animals

Biking past stinking feedlots in the rolling hills of Iowa and Austria was gnarly. Getting buzzed by animal transport trucks on their way to slaughterhouses reinforced my desire to completely opt out of animal agriculture.

The excellent bike paths of Slovenia with the Julian Alps in the background.

Western Europe is a plant eater’s paradise

Countries like Belgium, Spain, and Germany are years ahead of the U.S. in terms of vegan awareness and availability of plant-based alternatives. Grocery stores stock inexpensive organic produce, and almost every restaurant server knew the word vegan, even in rural villages. Big cities are a plant-eater’s promised land—Prague has 26 vegetarian restaurants!

We didn’t have to worry about refrigerating food

This is a small thing only a cycle tourist will appreciate. When we were pedaling through the middle of nowhere for days at a time, unspoiled food was a big deal.

Both Europe and the United States grow amazing amounts of corn and soy

I knew the Midwest U.S. was a breadbasket. It was a surprise to discover the same in Europe, where much of the countryside is used for crop production. Between the two, we spent literally two months cycling past fields of corn and soy—90 percent of it aimed for animal consumption.

Traveling made us vegan ambassadors

In some areas, we were the first vegans anyone had met. “Wait, no cheese on your pizza?” People were incredibly nice and also intrigued by our food choices. Many asked questions. Our goal was to be knowledgeable and speak from a place of conviction (animal rights) or data (health and environmental facts). The biggest thing? To be genuinely friendly and meet people at their comfort level.

Touring through the Adirondack Mountains of New York on a perfect fall day.

After thousands of miles of cycle touring, our belief in a vegan lifestyle has never been stronger. Few choices affect personal health, the environment, and animal welfare as much as opting out of animal agriculture does. Meat and dairy consumption is declining, restaurants are increasingly catering to vegans, and vegan alternatives like Beyond Meat are flourishing. Traveling as a vegetarian or vegan will only get easier.

As Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary says, “This lifestyle is not about deprivation; it’s about living inspired.” I encourage people to check out movements like Meatless Mondays or the 30-Day Vegan Challenge. See how your body feels and adopt what works for you. Then get out there on your bike and start training for your next (or first) bike tour.

I plan on pedaling thousands more miles as a vegan, so maybe I’ll see you out there!

What I Wish Everyone Knew About Factory Farming

Sunrise at Farm Sanctuary.

Sunrise at Farm Sanctuary.

For the past few weeks, Chelsea and I have been surrounded by green hills and hundreds of cute, fuzzy animals. Crowing roosters kick-start each day of our picture-perfect pastoral scene here at Farm Sanctuary.

I am volunteering here all of February to tell the stories of the sanctuary’s animals. The tales often begin at unseen factory farms, where 99 percent of animals in the U.S. are raised.

After first reading about factory farms in Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book, Fast Food Nation, I stopped eating fast food. After a few more years consuming online research, documentaries like Cowspiracy, and books about the environmental impact of traditional animal agriculture, I decided to opt out of the destructive system and stopped eating factory-farmed meat, dairy, and eggs served in restaurants or sold in grocery stores. The ultra-triathlete Rich Roll ultimately inspired me to shift to an entirely vegan lifestyle three years ago, and I haven’t looked back since.

Farm Sanctuary’s friendly rescue animals have served as reminders that I made the right choice in adopting a plant-based diet. Here are five things I wish everyone knew about the factory farms where most meat is raised…

Read the full article at Mind Body Green.

Inquisitive Lola pig bids you farewell! (Photo credit Chelsea.)

Inquisitive Lola pig bids you farewell! (Photo credit Chelsea.)

300 Animals, 1 Month and a Farm Sanctuary Internship

Farm Sanctuary Orland Phoenix Cow sunset

Rosy sunrises and chiming roosters have peeled my eyelids open every day this month. Northern California hills undulate into the distance out my window and the nearest town is over 10 miles away. We’re sharing our housing with three other people, and after ten years of only living with Chelsea, I’d almost forgotten the conversation starter, “hey, whose dirty dishes are these?”

Other than working on kitchen diplomacy and farmer tans, we are volunteering full-time as interns for Farm Sanctuary, a farm animal rescue and advocacy organization. While Chelsea helps the sanctuary with animal care, I’ve dedicated this month to creating videos and photographs of the animals for Farm Sanctuary to share.

Hanging with Maurice.

Me hanging out with Maurice. (Read his story here.) 

Scribbles the friendly goat!

Scribbles the friendly goat. (Read his rescue story.)

The catalyst fueling the engine of this life chapter is a desire to be of service. Since fall 2013, we’ve explored the world by bicycle and van as nomads. This month’s pause is an entirely different adventure.

Volunteering full-time is a tremendous experience I’d recommend to anyone. Our focus is helping Farm Sanctuary and a cause we believe in; taking hundreds of photos and dialing in my Lightroom editing skills is merely a bonus.

Whittaker hangs out with his buddies.

Whitaker hangs out with his buddies.

After dabbling with short stints of volunteering, we are experimenting with weaving longer-term volunteering into our travels. This is tough because many organizations require a 1-6 month commitment, not to mention there is often an application and interview process like the one Farm Sanctuary requires.

Choosing to volunteer here was easy: A visit to their New York location during our 2014 U.S. cycle tour further reinforced that a vegan lifestyle was the right path for me. Chelsea has wanted to contribute her energy to Farm Sanctuary, and I understand why when she bottle feeds a lamb and grins happily away.

Chelsea catches a moment with Marcia.

Chelsea catches a moment with Marcia, who is blind. (Read her rescue story.)

My generation, Pro Suburb Haters, is polarized – we seem pulled either to the bright lights of the revamped inner-city cores or the starry night skies of the country. Community gardens flourish, DIY is hot again, and people increasingly question the food system. It may seem very Portlandia, but knowing where our food comes from is important. Few can dispute that we’re disconnected from its source.

I ignored the contradictions surrounding diet and living a “green, sustainable life” for over a decade as an adult. Riding my bike to work granted me moral license to continue old patterns. I gave myself leeway, when the reality is that 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions were caused by animal agriculture versus just 14% for transportation (all the planes, trains and cars in the world!). It took years for this to register.

Phoenix cow gives Kat driving instructions.

Peanut gives Kat driving instructions.

The health aspect also didn’t penetrate my skull. Even while exercising daily through my 20s, my cholesterol was borderline-high. Only adopting a plant-based diet improved this and other biological markers, and I’ve never been healthier or more physically fit.

Living at Farm Sanctuary for a month makes it easy to keep my eyes open, and I’m amazed by the compassion and love the staff here show the animals. “Someone, Not Something,” is the motto around here, and all of the 300 animals have names and their own very distinct personalities and preferences.

Lola enjoys a sunset dinner after a storm.

Lola enjoys a sunset dinner after a storm.

There’s Marcia, a sweet, blind goat who likes to nuzzle (and occasionally head butt). Phoenix cow is bigger than a Buick yet congenial as a doting grandfather, and Lola pig seeks belly rubs the same way black Labs do. Most love attention, even after suffering mightily at the hands of humans prior to arriving at the sanctuary. This is a place of healing for everyone here, animals and humans alike.

Lola shows her cheery grin.

Lola shows her cheery grin. (Read her rescue story.)

In over two weeks on the sanctuary, I’ve only visited town twice (grocery runs), yet am happily at home at this sanctuary paradise. (Daily runs and mountain bike rides around Black Butte Lake’s stellar trail system across the road certainly help.) It’s mid-February, but today was as summery as an ice cream truck’s song.

Sunset Black Butte Lake

Miles of empty singletrack. After two years of drought, California is finally green!

This month-long experience is ripping by and will soon be over. We’ll continue to travel, seek adventures via van or bicycle touring, and explore the world. I’m also confident that volunteering to help causes we care about will be calculated into our life’s future trajectory.

But now, I’m going back inside. I’ve gotta do my dinner dishes before I’m that roommate.

Here’s more information about internships at Farm Sanctuary.

Hanging with Chelsea and our roommates. Notice the coordinated Volunteer-shirt outfits...

Hanging with Chelsea and our awesome fellow interns Emily, Tabea and Kameke.

Calm after a storm on the sanctuary.

Waking Up at Farm Sanctuary

Farm Sanctuary vista

I found it impossible to avoid thinking about the source of our food while pedaling through a town in Iowa carpeted with downy feathers. The 20,000 turkeys a day killed there provide 80% of the turkey for Subway’s sandwich artists to slap into lunches. There is also no way to turn a blind eye when giant trucks packed with terrified cows buzz by on Nebraska highways, pulling into slaughterhouses while refrigerated trucks packed with meat disembark from the other side.

I’d never seen our food system up close and personal until we bicycled 4,000 miles across the U.S. last year. Not that I should be surprised: we live in a world where we are disconnected from our food and where the impact of our choices about what we eat is hidden. Starting in Montana and extending all the way to New York, a million pedal strokes took me past corn, soy and hay fields, most destined for animals in the feedlots we passed.

Two juvenile turkeys survey the scene.

As part of our tour, we cranked out a 200 mile detour through the gorgeous Finger Lakes region of New York. The crystal lakes, carved by fitness-loving glaciers, feature terrain steeper than the price of a martini in Manhattan, and I worried my tongue would snag in my spokes while I panted uphill. It was all worth it. For three days, we rested in Farm Sanctuary’s picturesque red cabins and explored the property, hanging out with rescued farm animals. I didn’t write about it then, but found inspiration after watching a recent The Daily Show interview with the sanctuary’s founder, Gene Baur, about his new book, Living the Farm Sanctuary Life.

Farm Sanctuary’s goal is to “protect farm animals from cruelty, inspire change in the way society views and treats farm animals, and promote compassionate vegan living.” With supporters like Ellen DeGeneres, Alicia Silverstone, and Biz Stone (co-founder of Twitter), the farm operates three different sanctuaries (one in NY, two in CA) and is the largest refuge for farm animals in the U.S. During our visit, we stayed on site, toured the farm, heard stories about the animals and their journey there, and watched happy, bouncy creatures enjoy the peaceful atmosphere, so different from their former lives.

A happy pig in a field. This scene reminded me of something from Charlotte's Web.

As Jon Stewart quipped in the interview, “It’s harder to eat meat when you know the animal’s name.” Farm Sanctuary matters because they put a face and a name to one of the billions of animals that are killed for food each year in this country. The goal is not to rescue each and every farm animal in the country. In the same way journalists focus on personal stories that are easier to connect to than overwhelming statistics (“12,000 people died today when a bomb exploded”), the farm showcases individual animals and their touching or heartbreaking stories.

For years, I found it easier to bury my head in the muck of animal feedlots rather than learn about the genesis of my food. The $4 Wendy’s lunch was my go-to in high school: two cheeseburgers, a large Frosty, and fries. Reading the books Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma in college pulled back the curtain on that ugly scene and killed my cravings for fast food … but I still ate meat. I came to veganism years later through badass athletes who were crushing barriers not in spite of being vegan, but because of it. Fierce UFC fighters like Mac Danzig, ultra-marathoners like Scott Jurek, and triathletes like Rich Roll, who did incredible feats like Epic 5 (five Ironman races – 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run) in a week. Just typing that last sentence makes me tired. I figured that if they could push the limits of physicality, I could at least turn off cat videos on YouTube and learn more about being vegan.

His name is Thunder. For good reason! A huge, friendly steer.

His name is Thunder. For good reason!

The engineer in me requires data before I make a lifestyle change; I can’t just accept claims made by others. To educate myself on a vegan lifestyle, I read reams of literature and watched videos of compiled and condensed research at NutritionFacts.org that challenged my deeply ingrained beliefs about food (two that surprised me: milk doesn’t always do the body good, and that we need more fiber, not protein). Transitioning my diet intimidated me until my friend Martin demonstrated that veganism is not about perfection. Instead, he showed me a middle path for adopting this change: rather than jumping in 100% overnight and disavowing all animal products, over the span of a year I cut out dairy milk, then pork and beef, and then all the rest of it in quick succession once I realized how healthy I felt. My persistently congested sinuses cleared, a lingering twinge in my knee finally went away, and I was pushing ever harder on the bike rides and trail runs I enjoy so much.

My path initially revolved around my personal health, not animal welfare. Once I cut out animal products, a strange thing happened – the walls I’d built to distance myself from the truth about using animals for food started to break down. I felt fit and strong, our friends were supporting our decisions without judgment, and restaurants provided amazing food catering to our requests. The final push to being an ethical as well as a dietary vegan was exposure to animal agriculture as we traversed the country on our bikes. The nose-curdling stench of feedlots, the glare of veal crates baking in the sun on dairy farms (I learned they take all the male calves away at birth), dropped a deep anchor of resolve within me to stick to a vegan lifestyle.

Cow snout

As Gene says, “this lifestyle is not about deprivation, it’s about living inspired.” Change is hard, and intentional inquest creates questions and doubt. However, unlike politics, where pivoting your stance on a topic ousts you from office as fast as sleeping with hookers, we regular folk can take in new information and update our beliefs without penalties, casting an important vote with our purchasing decisions. Why do you think there are so many plant-based alternatives out there these days? Consumer demand! You wouldn’t run the same operating system on your computer for 15 years (call me out, ye Luddites out there), and what’s wrong with opening yourself to new thought patterns to update your personal OS?

The process of diving into learning about animal agriculture and its impact on our health and the environment was eye-opening. When I questioned what a “sustainable,” “humane” or “free-range” beef or egg operation meant, I learned there are inconsistencies and varying definitions. Watching documentaries like Cowspiracy or Forks Over Knives taught me about the dire environmental impacts of eating meat and the stunning health benefits of stopping.

I also discovered that tracking the money flow is a good way to see who the vested interests are in animal exploitation. The dairy industry is clearly biased when defending its practices, whereas I found it fascinating that the health insurance giant Kaiser is now recommending a plant-based diet for maximal health (the data convinced them it reduces insurance claims!). I’ve gifted friends the 30-day vegan challenge and seen them thrive. You can approach this topic from many directions, and being vegan isn’t about being perfect. It’s a process where it’s okay to dip your toe in and see how it feels.

Now THAT is a happy pig.

Ducking the truth about our animal-based food system is no longer something I can do. Farm Sanctuary taught me that farm animals want (and deserve) to live just as much as our cuddly cat Oliver or your beloved Frisbee-catching dog. A pig and a Boston terrier both want to thrive and feel love, and turkeys are so friendly they’ll follow you around and sit in your lap like a first grader meeting Santa. Because we can weigh in with our cold, hard cash, we consumers don’t need the government to create this change. With so many companies thriving by selling delicious alternatives to animal products, tasty restaurants opening all the time, books like Gene’s, podcasts like vegan athlete Rich Roll’s, and websites dedicated to helping us make educated choices, it is easy to decrease our reliance on animals.

I’ve found living a vegan lifestyle to be empowering beyond anything I expected, and encourage you to take an honest look at the source of your food and make sure it aligns with your beliefs. Look behind the curtain and see what’s there and how it makes you feel. I’ve found my visit to Farm Sanctuary to be a launch pad for living a more compassionate, thoughtful life, both toward animals and humans. And that is a gift worth pedaling up all those lung-searing hills in New York.

Two piggies zonk out for a nap together.

A pig nestled into hay at Farm Sanctuary.

Meal time

A happy pig grazing at Farm Sanctuary.

Three inquisitive goats.

Scratch my back

Goats are just so dang fun.

Chelsea holds a friendly juvenile turkey.