Couple finds kindness key in cross-country bike ride

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
Brian Mitchell, 37, packs his trailer with food and other items as Katarina Auer, 22, looks on in Eastpointe.

Everyone else they've met doing anything similar has a van for support, or at least a credit card. Katarina Auer and Brian Mitchell have each other.

So far — on rejected bicycles, they've traveled across 2,700 miles, from Arizona to Atlanta to Detroit — that's been enough.

Mitchell, 37, grew up here: Osborn High and Macomb Community College. Their first stop inside the city limits when they rolled into town in early June was a close friend's house near Eight Mile and Meyers.

"I don't believe you," the friend kept saying. "You took an Uber here."

Nope. No Uber. Just faith, hope, charity, and a lot of cans of cold Chef Boyardee ravioli.

Auer and Mitchell set out in desert heat Aug. 8 with the sketchiest of plans and sunniest of outlooks. They would pedal 70 or so miles every day — something she had never even attempted — and they would survive on the kindness of strangers brought on by kindnesses of their own.

Wheel to wheel, they have weathered a sandstorm in Arizona and 60-mph wind gusts in Oklahoma. Hand in hand, they have dealt with too many flat tires, too few showers and a potential deal-breaker: flatulence in a small tent.

She stopped shaving her legs, he stopped shaving his head, and they kept pedaling. He actually gained weight on a 5-foot-11 frame, up 20 pounds of muscle to 175, and her body reshaped into something formidable.

They arrived in Atlanta on Dec. 1, hunkered down with his cousin for the winter, and relaunched in April. It was suburban Atlanta, actually, and they are staying for the next week or so with his sister in suburban Detroit: East Point to Eastpointe.

They'll tell you there has been a symmetry to all of it.

Back home in Lake Havasu City, they operate an art and design business called Lavender Llama. In Holbrook, Arizona, they struck up a conversation with a bicyclist and bought his lunch at Taco Bell.

They never learned his full name, but he invited them to stay at his house when they passed through Albuquerque. In his backyard: five llamas.

"Social media makes it seem like people are so negative," says Auer, who's a few odometer clicks shy of age 23. "We wanted to show that the American people are so dang kind."

Almost without exception, that's what they've found — but that's down the road. Step one was connecting in the first place, in a state that's not on their route.

Mitchell had moved to Las Vegas in 2007. Auer, born in Chicago to Slovakian immigrants and raised in Arizona, moved there sometime later with her mother.

"I was doing the wrong things," he says, and she was with the wrong people. Then four years ago, someone he knew brought her to a minor gathering at a park.

They are both attuned to small experiences — the smell of junipers, the inexplicable bed-like softness of Michigan lawns — yet eager to ask big questions.

They connected first as friends, so age didn't matter, and neither of them asked. By the time it came up, they were a couple, and they didn't care.

He'd been waiting tables and she was working in a call center, and they didn't see a future in either, so they moved south. One day he said, "We should ride across the country."

He'd belonged to a bicycling club in Nevada, and he brought it up again a month or two later. "OK," she said.

"Really?" he said.

Really. It was a shot at adventure and a chance to prove her hypothesis that the world is much nicer than it seems. So they found discarded bikes in what a shop owner called "the graveyard" behind his store, and Mitchell spruced them up: a 12-speed 1984 Nishiki for her, an 18-speed 2005 Litespeed for him.

They scraped together $250, loaded a bicycle trailer with 100 pounds of tent, tires and other travel necessities, attached it to the Litespeed, aimed their skinny tires out of town and rode away.

They're relating all of this on the porch of his sister's house. When a letter carrier walks up, aiming to be unobtrusive, Auer stops in mid-sentence for a greeting: "Hope you have a good day!"

That's her, Mitchell says. As a city kid, wary by nature and experience, it wasn't always him.

He has come to believe, though, that "if you get people alone, depending on their own thought processes, they want to do good things."

You start out simplifying someone else's life — painting a sign, babysitting, teaching a few kids to draw — and then the someone else asks you if you're hungry or if you'd like to come inside and get clean.

In North Little Rock, Arkansas, they spent a day working with a bike donation program and were unexpectedly rewarded with a supply of tires and inner tubes. On a Navajo reservation in Arizona, new friends gave them fry bread and then fetish animals in a leather pouch: mountain lion for him, rabbit for her.

Waylaid by storms in Gallup, New Mexico, they stopped by a motel and asked what they might do to help. She wound up painting rooms. He installed sliding glass doors and replaced two floors of halogen light fixtures with LEDs.

"Free energy," she calls it. The trade-off was five nights' lodging and hugs from the staff.

Sometimes, she'll call an independent hotel or restaurant down the road, offering a kind Google review for a bed or a meal — a wise maneuver, if not a ringing endorsement for online ratings. He says her batting average is around .700.

When she struck out in Carlisle, Arkansas, population 2,200, the police let them pitch their tent on a grassy plot across from the station. Mayor Ray Glover popped by to say hello, and his cousin, Bobby, brought over enough food to fill people burning as many as 5,000 calories a day.

State Sen. Bobby Glover, formerly the mayor, is the third-generation owner of a nursing home in town. "We always have extra food," he explains from his office there, "and you could tell they were first-class people, the type of people we wouldn't mind having as a citizen."

They were friendly, he says. Gracious. Grateful. They washed their dishes as best they could, and left them in a bag. He's glad to hear they're doing well.

"You worry about people like that, about their safety," Glover says. "I remember telling them to be careful."

Auer and Mitchell respect lightning and ride at night only when it's unavoidable. They carry elastic pull-up pollution masks, ideal for smoggy days or what seemed like hours getting out of range of a noxious slaughterhouse in Texas.

They have found that long-haulers are both courteous behind the wheel and generous at truck stops, sponsoring showers or buying coffee for the weary. RV drivers, amateurs encased in 20,000 pounds of menace, are a constant caution.

They agree that the trip has been basically trouble-free, but then Mitchell remembers that time outside Gallup where his front tire slid into a sewage grate on a 35-mph downhill and then a car bumped him with its side-view mirror and he went over a curb and had to ride 65 miles with a bent rim.

Oh, and in Amarillo, Texas, a car pulled out in front of him and he jammed on the brakes and somersaulted over the handlebars. And she fell crossing railroad tracks — was that Kentucky, or Ohio? — and dumped her bike on I-40 in New Mexico, trying to squeeze between two traffic cones set up for no good reason on the shoulder.

Otherwise, though, it's been a breeze, with only an occasional squall. They monitor the weather closely and have learned to monitor moods as well.

"If he's down, I have to pick him up," she says, and vice versa, because "if one of us is down, we might as well pitch the tent."

He has become more patient, understanding that there are some tasks she's simply unfamiliar with. She has become more capable. They have both become more attuned to the life of a traveler.

Dollar General has more than 16,500 stores, she notes, often in the small towns you visit in the many states where you're prohibited from using freeways. Some of the stores have plugs outside, perfect for charging phones, "and they always have water fountains, bathrooms and cheap canned food."

No Subway restaurant has refused their request for water. Walmarts and truck plazas are good for recharging electronics. Google Maps has a bicycle option, and its feature that tells you where you'll find hills is accurate about three-quarters of the time.

"Make a daily plan," Auer says. That's a useful tip. Then be prepared because "90 percent of the time, it blows up."

On average, they clip along at 8 to 15 mph, with 70 miles a day a good target and 100 doable but painful. Had they driven straight from Lake Havasu City to Eastpointe, it would have taken 30 hours instead of 10 months, but that's not the point of the exercise.

"I used to ask her, 'Why do you give someone bus fare when we're broke?'" Mitchell says.

Now he knows.

Their route when they leave Michigan will be west to visit her family in Des Moines, Iowa, then up and over to see friends in Vancouver, Washington, then down the coast to the High Desert of California, then home.

They hope to finish by New Year's Day. They hope to make a series of gentle impacts on their own small-scale like they did in Mulberry, Arkansas, where farmers grow edamame and they have promised to come back and paint an edamame mural.

They hope, with their muscular legs and wide smiles and narrow tires, to leave a trail.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn