Dylan Drake calls me from the city. Today, her husband biked – she’s not exactly sure of the route – but through Westchester, over the George Washington Bridge, and into Brooklyn, while Drake drove the van and the couple’s two young kids down 95. The three met up with Tomas Cortijo, also known as Papa, for lunch in a park in Byram. They had planned to bike through Chester, but as happens on a 6,000 mile journey, plans change.
A small voice asking for its mama punctuates the interview. The family is hoofing it around the city, doing the tourist thing. The voice would like to be carried. It’s been a long day, although no longer than most for Coco Cortigo, age 3.
Indeed, this is the kind of day that Coco has always known. Shortly after his birth, the family drove from Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Cortijo is from, to Missoula, Montana in a Ford Ranger, pulling a 75-foot camper trailer, taking a year to do it.
After that, the self-described Camper Clan couldn’t find it in themselves to resume the rat race (Drake is a graphic designer and Cortijo is between sales gigs), so they hit the road again. Their current mission – financed by Kickstarter – is to break the Guinness world record for longest trek by electric bike.
To do that, Cortijo definitely has to pedal more than 4,200 miles to beat the 2010 record held by a Canadian who biked across Canada, and although it was still unconfirmed when we spoke, it sounded like the stakes had just gone up: “Somebody just went from San Diego to New York, I think they did around 5,000 miles,” said Drake. “We’d like to get to at least 6,000 miles. If we can make it to Florida, we should be good.” They started in August in Missoula, Montana, headed west to Maine, and were en route south to Florida when we spoke. Cortijo, who bikes 70 to 80 miles a day, will have crossed 23 states by the end of the six-month journey. Sometimes Cortijo carries one of the kids in a child seat on the back of his bike, and Drake drives the support van, joining Cortijo on her own electric bike when they can recruit a friend to drive the van. She’s documenting the journey, when she can find the time, at camperclan.com.
You’d be forgiven for asking: Why?
The family’s mission, other than keeping the adventure going, is to spread the word about this unsung form of alternative transportation. A bicultural couple, Drake and Cortijo are ideal ambassadors of the electric bike. They have lived in Argentina, where they commuted by electric bike; the motor gives an extra boost to your pedaling and keeps you from arriving to work drenched in sweat. They have also lived in the U.S., “where you have all these beautiful sidewalks and no one’s on them.” They can see American culture both with an insider’s familiarity and with the fresh eyes of a foreigner, and they communicate about their quest in two languages.
Electric bikes could cut our car trips in half, and our waistlines by a good bit too, said Drake. They’re already huge in China, Europe and Brazil. Cortijo built his bike out of a regular Diamondback, bought used, and a motor bought from a Chinese factory through Alibaba for $400 plus a $350 battery. “You don’t really have to have any special knowledge,” Drake insisted. “You can just follow the directions and put it together.”
But not everyone’s sold. “We have such a car-based culture here, it’s just so easy to drive in a car,” said Drake. “In Europe, gas is more expensive. It’s harder to park. It’s more of a pain.”
On the other side of the objecters spectrum are the purists who scoff at the idea of a motor. “We run into these hard-core cyclists that think that electric bikes are cheating or something,” said Drake, laughingly.
In addition to acquainting us with the electric bike, the Camper Clan wants to inspire people to step outside their comfort zone, including, and perhaps especially, parents of little kids in diapers. “People like to travel,” said Drake. “They think they have a family and they can’t.”
Sure, it can be hard to make your home on the road with a three and a four year old. “We try to camp as much as possible,” said Drake, but “this time of year a lot of campgrounds are closed. We’ve been doing a lot of hotels which we don’t prefer” since it kills the $15,090 budget raised through Kickstarter. But the upsides outweigh the down by about 6,000 miles.
In the past, Cortijo had a corporate job and traveled a lot, and would see his kids for an hour at night. Now the family is together, and they’re getting to travel and connect with far-flung comrades. In Brooklyn and Philadelphia, they were crashing with friends.
Adventure is not only entertaining, it’s also turned out to be liberating. “We carry everything we need with us,” said Drake. “What we’ve learned over a year and a half, there isn’t really that much that we need. With kids, sometimes people have a lot of things. We have sippy cups, we have a hot plate to warm up their milk. We try to cook wherever we are. We end up doing a lot of one-pot meals.
“We go to playgrounds a lot, we just try to be outdoors as much as possible. Our van is our home base. The kids’ living room is really nature.”