Nine months ago, Robert Menegio sold coatings for glossy magazine paper upstate. This week, he biked into Coney Island from across the country, a new man.
Menegio, 48, dissatisfied with the rat race and American consumerism, quit his job, shedding all but the bare essentials to go on a 4,250-mile “bicycle vision quest” from Oregon’s Pacific coast to the Atlantic shores of Brooklyn.
The route he planned with his Adventure Cycling Association maps took him across the country roughly parallel to the Canadian border — through northern Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, through Michigan’s upper peninsula and around Lake Superior, through Ontario, Canada and back into New York via Niagara Falls.
It was a rustic quest to survive with as few possessions as possible, to see the country at just under 15 miles an hour.
“We’re brought up in America, we go to college, we get a job, we make money. We have all this stuff,” Menegio said in a recent phone interview. “But I didn’t have a sense of fulfillment with my life. I was not doing something I totally believed in or felt good about.”
Five feet-eleven, lanky and bearded, he’s a trained chemist who doesn’t look like your typical salesman; he didn’t feel like one, either. While the other reps in the Chatham, N.Y.-based firm would take clients out to fancy dinners, he’d take them kayaking, if he even bothered to entertain them at all.
“I was like the outcast guy, but my numbers were good, so they left me alone,” he said. His more-than-comfortable income felt more like a trap, and he began increasingly questioning what mattered in his life.
He developed the coast-to-coast ride as a way to simplify things. The company wouldn’t give him the time off, so he quit.
By that time he had moved with his wife Jill to Santa Fe, New Mexico. So Menegio strapped the bike to a rented car and drove up to Oregon, where he and a friend symbolically dipped his wheels in the Pacific Ocean just north of Florence.
Then he pedaled himself back to Eugene, a three-day trip that served as a practice run for the haul ahead. He kept an eye out for things he didn’t need.
That’s when Menegio boxed up his iPod and mailed it home. The music would just get in the way of taking in the world around him, he thought; besides, how do you charge an iPod on the road?
“I was just trying to simplify everything,” he said. “What do I really need to survive? Water … shelter … food. You’re not thinking about your iPod and your favorite song. The first thing you’re thinking about is, ‘How am I going to get out of the rain?’”
He took along a tent; tarp; sleeping bags; three sets of clothes (one for riding, one for sleeping, one for town); a rain suit that got uncomfortably sweaty and proved nearly useless; a water filter and aluminum water bottle (no Nalgene — the plastic releases chemicals); a spare tire, three tubes and a patch kit.
Fully loaded, Menegio’s 20-year-old Trek 790 with cutting-edge Kevlar tires weighed close to a hundred not-so-aerodynamic pounds. “It’s like riding a refrigerator box down the highway,” he said with a laugh.
He spent around $3,000 for the whole three-month excursion, most of it on food and lodging.
Menegio lost 20 pounds eating just enough to be nourished: oatmeal in the mornings, rice and canned salmon for dinner, and, if he was near a town, lunch out. Otherwise, his diet was dried fruits and nuts.
“Finding vegetables was tough — you can find fruit in gas stations, but you can’t find vegetables,” he said.
Menegio would stay in a hotel once a week; otherwise, he slept under the stars, or under the protective canopy of tent or tarp. Between towns, he’d spend hours doing nothing but think and pedal.
He recorded his thoughts in a journal, and every 700 miles or so sent out an e-mail to 75 friends, family and acquaintances. He used his voicemail to keep people up-to-date too: last Wednesday, the message was about the “bittersweet” end to his transcontinental journey, his Aug. 19 touchdown in Coney Island.
He was met by Jill’s family. To commemorate the achievement, there was a photo op, a Nathan’s hot dog and a ride on the cyclone.
Now Menegio is ready to begin a new life. He and Jill are selling their log home and the 20 acres it sits on; they’re looking for new places to call home for the winters. In October, he’ll start a job with the Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, N.Y. He’s going to man their stand at the Union Square Green Market Wednesdays and Sundays. And he’s also going to use his education and know-how to help the farm adopt biodiesel power.
He hopes his journey will be an inspiration to those who want to learn from him, but that wasn’t his goal.
“In the end, you can’t really worry about anyone else. Change yourself, and through example other people will catch on,” he said. “If one or two people read this and go home and say, ‘I’m gonna change one or two things,’ that’s fantastic.”