When Jerry Holl retired in 2012, he was 57 years old, and he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next. But he was sure what he wanted to be next.
“I wanted to be fully alive,” Holl says. “I had a good life, a wonderful family, and had had a successful career, but I felt like I was going through the motions.”
What he needed was a big adventure—what he calls a big stretch. So he decided to ride his bike from Alaska to Mexico. He was in good general physical condition but he’d never ridden anything close to the kind of daily distances it would take to cover 3,634 miles in 51 days. The usual advice would be for someone planning that kind of trip to begin taking progressively longer rides to build up to distance-biking shape. Holl chose a different way: He just flew to Alaska and started riding.
“Thirty days after I retired, I was pedaling out of Anchorage,” he says. “I thought I’d get into biking shape in the middle of the trip.”
The Tonka Bay resident chronicles his adventure in his book Downhills Don’t Come Free, a Book Excellence Award finalist. He says it is the story of “one man, one bike, one tent and one hell of an adventure.” He begins the book by telling the story of his encounter with a mama grizzly bear and her two cubs—which happened seven days into his journey. There was still more adventure to come.
There was the day when he ran out of water, and then broke the pump in the water filter he’d brought along as a backup. He was at least 75 miles from the nearest water, so he just kept going—155 miles that day. “It’s how you deal with failure and adversity that makes it interesting,” he says. “You’ve got so much more strength than you think. Regardless of what you think you are capable of, you can do more.”
His daughter Julia encouraged him to keep a daily blog. It wasn’t long before he collected a pretty impressive following. The blog had 14,000 views by the end of 2012. With the blog to work from and the feeling that he had a good story to tell, he decided to write a book about the trip. Just like the ride itself, the book was about figuring out how to do it as he went along. He self-published it this June.
“It really took writing the book to process the trip,” Holl says. “I didn’t think of myself as a writer, but I knew it was an incredible adventure story, and I knew that people would be interested in reading about it, if I could get it put together.”
One of the things Holl says really became clear as he was writing the book was how many people helped him along the way. When you’re relying on your wits and your stamina to survive, even small favors can have a big impact. And realizing that people are generally willing to help is something that stayed with him. “One of the ways to be truly happy,” he says, “is to find the best in other people.”
Holl completed his journey in less time than he thought it would take him. He says he started out just hoping to find some good stories to tell over beers with his buddies, but he came back with a different way of looking at himself and others. “I knew it was going to change me,” he says. “I just didn’t know in what ways.”
Downhills Don’t Come Free is available locally at Excelsior Bay Books and at Gear West Ski & Run. You can also find it online at the website here.