Jeffrey Tanenhaus felt trapped at his job as a corporate event planner, and no longer wanted to live in his Brooklyn apartment, so decided to leave both behind and take a life-changing trip across the United States – which he will finish this Saturday in Santa Monica, California.
“I hated my job, but I loved my commute on the New York City shared bike system, called Citi Bike,” Tanenhaus, 35, tells PEOPLE. “I was curious to know what else was out there in America and how other people lived, so I combined my love of travel, writing and bike commuting into what seemed like an absurd idea of going across the country on a shared bike.”
Tanenhaus began his Countri Bike cross-country ride in early August, and has been traveling since then, with the exception of a two-week trip back to New York for Thanksgiving. He chose to use a shared bike rather than purchase his own because of the positive associations he had with Citi Bike.
“I had a very strong connection to my bike commuting experience,” he says. “It was almost therapy for me to use that bike because it was very sturdy and strong, and I just felt very free and happy when I was on it. That was really how I got everywhere in New York, and I wanted to see if I could scale up that experience by going as far as I could across the country, because I had nothing else to lose.”
Tanenhaus knew that this meant incurring a large penalty fee (Citi Bike charges members $1,200 for bikes that are not returned within 24 hours), but says he was willing to pay.
“I was charged the maximum overtime fee, but they never contacted me afterwards, so I just kept going,” he says. “I do plan to return the bike to New York at my own initiative and expense.”
Over the course of his months-long travel – which took him from New York all the way to California – Tanenhaus had to face several difficult stretches.
“The two biggest challenges were the wind, and riding through really desolate stretches in the Southwest – the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, Arizona and even eastern California – where there can be nothing for 40 to 60 miles,” he says. “If you’re on a bicycle, that can mean an entire day without seeing someplace to stay or eat.”
Tanenhaus traveled with some snacks, water, changes of clothing and lightweight camping gear, which he kept in a trailer attached to the bike. Because his goal was to really get to know the country, he stopped at cities along the way for up to seven days at a time, where he met with locals, as well as other shared bike and alternative transportation advocates.
“The most rewarding part has been meeting other people along the way, whether they are a waitress at a small town caf , or the hosts that I stayed with, some of whom are going to be friends for life,” he says.
He also loved being able to experience parts of America that someone traveling by car could have easily missed.
“I’m traveling so slowly, mile by mile, so I can stop in the small towns that the interstate has bypassed,” says Tanenhaus. “It’s been really rewarding to stop in places that I never even heard of before, and check out the local specialties, whether that’s a brewery or restaurant or quirky landmark.”
His favorite destination has been Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“I could see myself living there,” he says. “The people that I met were so friendly and were interested in what I was doing. There’s a lot of cool stuff that’s going on there, and a lot of development.”
After Tanenhaus completes his ride in Santa Monica, he will fly back to New York – though he may not stay there for very long.
“I don’t have any plans,” he says, “but the allure of Tulsa seems to be calling my name.”
Tanenhaus hopes his journey will encourage others to ride bikes as a way of getting around.
“I hope to inspire people to not use a car all the time and to try a bicycle,” he says. “If I can make it across the country, hopefully people will be inspired to pick up a bike and make it across town.”