DULUTH — Eric Norland’s bike has seen better days.
The Schwinn Voyageur, which Norland named Friend, has a flat front tire. Its rearview mirror is attached with duct tape. A shredded red fabric holds the pump to the frame. The handlebars are covered in a graying Ace bandage.
Appropriate wear and tear for a trip around the world.
From 1983-86, Norland rode his bike across 55,000 miles and 33 countries, and he recently released “The Wheels of Friend,” a three-volume book about their adventures.
The achievement was 40 years in the making.
In a 1987 Duluth News Tribune article, Norland said of his travels: "I started off as a real Duluthian, and I sort of went through these transitions. Now I'm more a citizen of the world.”
Since that article, Norland married and he raised children. There was a back surgery and a house fire.
But on a recent Thursday near Brighton Beach, “The Wheels of Friend” sat in his car, as Norland ran his fingers across his old tattered and yellowed helmet. Rows of black tick marks were drawn on, denoting the miles he traveled.
“You can see everything is just shot,” he said, holding the handlebars. “I can take the whole frame and bend it.”
* * *
Norland’s travels started with a knack for seeking the unknown.
He grew up in Lester Park, with the woods in his backyard and many places to explore. He used to watch the ocean ships pass through Canal Park, and he was curious about where they’d been. He studied art at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he was introduced to astronomy, and looking through a telescope for the first time opened his eyes.
When the economy slumped in Duluth in 1981, he drove to California. He settled in Santa Barbara, and he slept in his car and saved money. There, he bought his Schwinn bike for $600.
His first adventure was riding Friend nearly 100 miles a day from California to Duluth to attend his high school reunion.
On the first few days, he was on the verge of quitting. “I had to struggle to get up San Marcos Pass in Santa Barbara. I was screaming to God, ‘Why me, why do I have to try this?’” he recalled.
Referring to the day he had seven flat tires, “I kind of made it on a wing and a prayer,” he said in a 1983 News Tribune article.
After arriving in Duluth, Norland was further inspired when he met up with high school classmate Jolane Belcastro Sundstrom, who shared her experience in the Himalayas, Pakistan, Turkey and more.
“I saw the lights go on in his eyes, and he’s got the bug,” Sundstrom recalled.
She relayed her experience and advice, and offered reassurance.
As a lone traveler, he would be seen as an anomaly, she said.
Sundstrom called “The Wheels of Friend” a memoir that offers special meaning for Norland’s family: “His children will be able to experience his travels in a different way.”
* * *
Norland left New Jersey at the start of his trip July 1, 1983.
Friend carried about 70 pounds of gear. Norland packed one tent, a sleeping bag, a cook stove, one aluminum frying pan, a plate, cup, spoon, fork and knife, a rain poncho and one change of clothes.
Flat tires were constant, and he wore out 42 total. The tent zipper went bad, cycling panniers wore out.
When he was cold, Norland wore Army fatigues that could get wet and still keep him warm, and a good windbreaker. He found a wool sweater stuck in the mud in northern England. It turned out to be the best find.
He couldn’t carry a lot of food, but he’d travel with dried noodles, and he’d try to acquire fresh meat, an onion and a potato.
It’s cheap to eat in China, the Philippines and Indonesia. Places like Japan and Australia, you have to cook, which wasn’t an issue because Norland can eat the same foods every day for weeks, he said.
His body was an engine, and he could eat incredible amounts. “I would have a hamburger and potatoes and onion, bread and then some pie, go to bed and wake up hungry,” he recalled.
He’d find places to bathe, a cheap hotel in Greece, a river in Italy. He doesn’t remember taking a bath in Paris; it wasn’t always convenient.
He hiked mountains in New Zealand and Japan, on top of Mount Fuji.
He was arrested in China for riding through a restricted area.
He got the flu before boarding a ship to Holland, food poisoning in Egypt. He eventually realized that an itchy palm was his cue to take medicine to stave off dysentery.
And as for safety:
“I had so many evenings when people stumbled over me or came up to me with guns. I tried my best to be a straightforward, honest person, generally. It always worked out,” Norland said.
The internal shifts were as memorable as the travels.
Norland stayed with a geologist in Perth, Australia, who challenged his ideas about religion and the universe. He stayed with a member of the Peace Corps in Nepal, who demonstrated how to respond with courtesy in overwhelming situations.
His $3,000 in traveler's checks lasted 11 months, and he needed to earn money.
A friend in Greece gave him a guitar, which he used to panhandle, imitating Bob Dylan songs. He admittedly is not a musician or a singer, but playing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” won him free passage into Egypt.
Once in a while you meet the rotten egg, Norland said, but overwhelmingly, he spoke of the kindness he experienced even when communication was lacking.
In “The Wheels of Friend,” Norland describes a stop in the Philippines:
“I got up around 7 a.m. and was invited to breakfast of eggs, rice and bread. I drank lots of coffee and ate these pancakes made from rice. … Soon a crowd of a good size gathered around me. I got this feeling that I was really a celebrity here. They wanted something from me but I didn’t know what. I got this feeling they didn’t understand me or what I was doing here.
“We stepped aside, on this sunny morning, in the courtyard, under magnificent trees, we shook hands and parted ways and I saluted them as I left. I pedaled down toward Marawi and the big lake was as fine blue with green trees surrounding it.”
* * *
When he returned to Duluth in 1986, it took some time to acclimate. He had spent the previous months in Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.
“Back to America, people are big and they’re tall and their speaking is so bold. I really was shocked, and I had to cocoon, fall into myself,” he recalled.
Norland presented on his travels in schools, churches and libraries.
He now lives north of Duluth in the woods, and has since traveled back to the Philippines, London and Paris; and he has many friends in different countries.
While he traveled around the world, the longest journey may have been taking his “scribbles” and transposing them onto his computer. “The Wheels of Friend” is basically his edited journals, of which there are 13, he said.
Norland wanted readers to get the full idea of the sometimes-dreariness, the excitement and the magic of traveling and meeting people along the way.
For folks interested in venturing out (when it’s safe), you have to have some kind of street sense. If traveling by bike, you need to have the right equipment. And, you have to be flexible and tolerant.
“We are all from the same place; we are all citizens of the world," Norland said. "Nobody comes from anywhere else. It’s a great experience to find that out.”
Other books by Eric Norland:
“Bicycle Around the World with Friend”
“From Four Royal Persian Stars to Jesus and the Sun”