On August 20, with low tide lapping his toes, Scott Edwards stood on an Oregon beach and hoisted his bike overhead in triumph. The 57-year-old Harvard professor and curator of ornithology had just finished a solo, cross-country bike ride spanning 76 days, 15 states, 3,800 miles—and just three flat tires.
As an evolutionary biologist, Edwards usually spends summers conducting fieldwork in places like Australia and Nova Scotia, Canada. This year COVID-19 paused his research, so Edwards decided to attempt a lifelong dream of cycling from Atlantic to Pacific.
Two weeks before the trip, people began nationwide protests against systemic racism and police violence, sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police officers on May 25. The next week a group of Black birders and naturalists launched Black Birders Week, a social media campaign that connected and elevated Black voices in birding and science. Edwards, who is Black, opened a Twitter account to participate.
On June 6, Edwards started pedaling from Newburyport, Massachusetts. Inspired by Black Birders Week and the racial justice protests, he soon added Black Lives Matter signs to his bike and began documenting his ride on Twitter. Over the 3-month trip, he amassed more than 11,000 Twitter followers and established a GoFundMe, which raised nearly $60,000 to support diversity initiatives in evolutionary biology.
While live-streaming his final leg on Twitter, Edwards finally reached the Pacific at northern Oregon’s Sunset Beach. As he carried his bike to the water’s edge, he reflected: “I’ve learned a lot about this country . . . One great thing about cycling is it allows you to go slowly enough that you can intersect with people and talk to them and learn about them. Learn what motivates them.” He thanked family, colleagues, and strangers who helped along the way. “Amazing acts of kindness from lots of people gave me a lot of hope for the country,” he added.
Audubon magazine first chatted with Edwards 10 days into his journey, near Lake Erie in upstate New York. We talked to him again, two days after the trip’s end, as he rested in a seaside hotel before flying back east. The following interview is edited for length and clarity.
Audubon: How did you feel during the final stretch?
Scott Edwards: On Highway 101, that ride wasn't that pleasant. There were areas with zero shoulder and big trucks whizzing by. There was this bridge I had to cross with only like nine miles left. I saw a guy fixing a flat tire. He had his inner tube out and was looking all forlorn. There was all kinds of glass and junk on the bridge. Cars all over the place.
About 12:30 I crested a little hill on Sunset Beach Lane and there was the Pacific Ocean. Probably because I was doing this live Twitter thing, I didn't have the emotional breakdown that I thought I might have—crying and tears and all that stuff. But it was exciting.
When I was just starting out, I quipped on Twitter, “Saw Lake Erie and it was so big. Is this the Pacific already?” Now I can truly say it's the Pacific.
A: When during the trip did you start to believe you’d make it?
SE: There was never a point when I said I've nailed this except perhaps when I crested that final hill.
When I was in Wyoming and eastern Montana, I'd made some progress, but I still had a long way to go. You’re sort of dragging by yourself and nothing overt is going wrong. It's just the rhythm of the trip and that was a low point.
Once I hit Missoula, someone told me it might take about two weeks to get to the coast. Then I was like, ‘Okay, this is within the realm of possibility.’ I started to feel a bit more upbeat. I still had some of my hardest cycling days actually in that two weeks, but it was just the knowledge that I'm getting close.
There's a pass outside Missoula called Lolo Pass, which is about 5,200 feet. Boy, the vegetation and birds really went up a notch after LoLo Pass. Cycling west downslope through the Lochsa River in Idaho I heard Winter Wrens. There was this beautiful fern understory that reminded me of Seattle and amazing western red cedar groves. I felt like I was entering this habitat closer to the finish line.
It's fascinating what makes species ranges appear and disappear. As you're moving west in the forest, things like nuthatches and Brown Creepers come around. Then you know, wow, you’re in really wet forests. These are not rare species, but for me they were indicators of the progress with my trip and habitats I really enjoy. After all that heat to be in these magnificent coniferous forests and cool temperatures, that's just priceless.
A: What other landscapes impressed you?
SE: One of the most interesting states was South Dakota. I detected more liberal leanings in South Dakota than I expected, but also just the landscapes. I cycled through the Black Hills, which was punishing in terms of the elevation and the inclines, but very beautiful. Biologically it's very interesting, being the sort of eastern outpost the Rockies.
Also, [in Montana] the source of the Missouri River, where the Jefferson, Gallatin and Madison rivers all come together: It doesn't announce itself with big brash mountains or anything like that. It was just such a peaceful and beautiful spot.
One of the most beautiful stretches of days I had was along the Yellowstone River, mostly in Montana. This time of year it's got a really mellow flow. It was just so scenic and wonderful to cycle along that river. You really felt like you got to know it.
A: You didn’t have time to properly birdwatch while cycling. Any places you’d like to revisit?
SE: There are definitely several areas I would like to visit again and birdwatch more rigorously. I think in the Bitterroot Mountains [of Montana and Idaho] there'd be some fascinating species. There's supposed to be Great Gray Owls.
I noticed the Brown Creepers in Oregon seemed a lot bigger than the ones back in Massachusetts. I don't know if that's actually true, but it's something I wouldn't mind verifying. Traveling like this always raises a lot of questions. Whether I'll actually follow up on any with research, I don't know, but certainly casual and birdwatching kinds of explorations.
A: How did this trip compare to the physical demands of fieldwork?
SE: On this trip, my usual protocol would be a day or two ahead—or sometimes just that morning—I'd go through all possible camping areas where I wanted to be. If those didn't materialize, or they were too far off the route, then I would look for motels. If those didn't materialize, then I would literally start calling up small stores or gas stations and ask if I could camp behind their stores. I did that probably three times. Some of these places just simply don't have motels or camping areas.
Access to showers makes a huge difference. Often during fieldwork you're not really taking a shower for a while. On this trip, I probably only missed 6 or 7 mornings without a shower. That's a real luxury.
In fieldwork, you're walking around a lot, looking for birds, but it can be fairly sedentary. This bike trip was moving all the time. Points where you can barely see because there's so much sweat pouring down.
So in terms of the daily comforts, it was easier than fieldwork, but in terms of physical output, it was probably more extreme.
A: Did you follow current events?
SE: With cell phones, you're never far away from news. Sometimes conversations would kind of send me to my phone looking for news.
I tried to keep up with things, especially the virus situation in the U.S. and the election. That said I wasn't a news junkie on this trip. I realized, let's just check out for a while, and enjoy where I am.
I remember once pulling into this campground near a little town called Pomeroy, Washington. It was a weird situation because I hadn't cycled that far that day, but there was literally no place to stay for the next like 60 miles. It was either stop here or do something crazy. There were all these Trump signs flying around, and I said "I don't know if I want to stay here."
I was sitting on this fairgrounds, on a bandstand in front of an empty field, where I guess they had events, maybe horse races, showing off livestock and stuff. I was sitting there by myself wondering what to do.
I pulled up Twitter and I saw Biden had just announced Kamala Harris was his running mate. It made me so happy. It was interesting to be there alone in this Trump-saturated country and have this quiet joy, knowing that Biden has this amazing running mate. It was a special moment for me.
A: Last time we talked your Black Lives Matter signs were receiving positive honks and waves. On June 26, you tweeted about your first racist comment of the trip. Shortly after, in Illinois, an otherwise empty Christian campsite turned you away because of the signs. Eventually you started taking them down in certain places. How did you make that decision?
SE: I took them down in Wyoming, eastern Montana, and also a little bit in Idaho and eastern Washington. It was a lot of soul searching. Do I want to preach to the converted? What’s the point of this venture? But it was safety first and politics second.
The geography of political leanings is very fine. You're in Portland, a hotbed of liberalism. Then the next two days I was basically in logging country, which might not be so liberal. But even in some of the unexpected places I'd get these folks who'd say, "Hey, I like your sign."
The signs definitely gave the trip a new dimension and allowed me to connect with folks in a way that I wouldn't have otherwise. Even just the shortest nod, knowing smile, or wave.
A: You’re a minor Twitter celebrity now. Will you continue posting?
SE: I don't know what the technical definition of a celebrity is, but I know lots of people with more followers than that. It's most compelling when you have a story to tell. Daily life is a story of sorts, but probably not as exciting as a bicycle trip. I don't know if I'll be tweeting much until my next adventure.