University Alum Goes the Distance

On most bucket lists, there are the usual ‘go sky diving’ or ‘travel the world’ descriptions, but University alum Paul Mandala’s bucket list consisted of a 10,000 mile bike ride from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Panama City, Panama.

“My initial motivation started years ago in 2007 when I was asked by my best friend Luke to join him on a cross country charity bike ride working with a non-profit organization,” Mandala recalled. He explained that the organization groups together 18-25 year olds and sends them on a touring bicycle ride where they stop along the way to help build houses.

“One of the heads of the program came out to ride a few days with each of the groups and when he stayed with us one night at dinner someone asked him what his other dreams were. His response was ‘the Pan American Highway,’” Mandala said. “As what usually happens in life, I got busy with life and the idea stayed deep in the back of my mind as a dream.”

Mandala graduated from the University in 2011 with a degree in marine biology. While enrolled as a full time student, he consistently cast aside material elements as he preferred the natural environment and traveling.

“First I went to the Bahamas for a two week research class. I fell in love with travel instantly because in those two weeks I was able to explore what was in my text books, to see, feel and hear what I had learned about but also so much more in that there were new environments as well as people and culture,” Mandala continued. “My love for travel and education would only be furthered a few years later when I studied abroad in Australia, and was lucky enough to snag a humpback whale research position, take biology classes, and still have time to explore all over the different landscapes of eastern and central Australia and Fiji.”

Mandala also helped further the University’s connection to the outdoors when he became the founder of the University’s Outdoors Club which is still active today.

With a love for travel, Mandala set out to challenge himself and felt the Pan-American Highway bike ride was the perfect fit.

“Endless hills and mountains, wildlife, weather, loneliness, and differing environments, you are constantly challenged both physically and mentally,” Mandala said as he explained the obstacles on his ride. “However, the most difficult thing to overcome is by far mental fatigue, in particular the part that comes from a solo adventure. It’s a lonely road when pedaled alone, especially when you’re pedaling seven plus hours a day.”

Although he biked the majority of the ride alone, Mandala did have some company on certain legs of the journey.

“I was lucky that a few good friends came out of their way to be a part of my adventure. We looked like a pretty make-shift group of riders; Rebekah had borrowed her mother’s bicycle that was too large for her and only had a basket and rear rack, Sam borrowed my old road bicycle which had nothing gear wise for touring, and Luke was riding his old road bike with a rear rack and brand new panniers. While I was riding my touring bicycle adorned with two front panniers, two rear panniers, a handle bar bag and even had a waterproof bag strapped on top of my rear rack. Although we couldn’t carry much gear we made it work,” he said.

Mandala also made note that it was not so much the companion of friends that made the ride complete, but primarily having someone to share the beauty of the scenery with.

“The west coast was gorgeous starting with the rain forests of Washington State, the beautiful and magical rocky shores of Oregon’s misty shores, and the mountainous coast of California with the redwood forests, windy roads, and secret surf spots,” Mandala said of his American leg. “The Baha Desert was amazingly beautiful but hot and lonely. I will never forget camping out amongst the giant cactus under the stars at night and struggling through the mid-day sun, low on water feeling like I was in the middle of nowhere. Of course I cannot leave out the Costa Rican rain forests as this on its own was a dream come true!”

Although he saw many breathtaking sites, not all of the sites were breathtaking in a positive way.

“In my classes, I heard words like deforestation, overfishing, global warming, urban sprawl, suburbs, cultural integrity, and sustainability. I learned the dark truth behind these. When I landed in upper Alaska above the Arctic Circle, it was almost 90 degrees outside. It was an unprecedented heat wave for the area.”

Mandala noted that this was not the worst of what he saw. Throughout the bicycle tour, he witnessed an absurd amount of deforestation.

“In fact, even in the toughest to reach, most dangerous jungles, filled with guerrillas and drug traffic, the real threat is actually the lumber companies.”

This trip not only furthered Mandala’s aspirations to better the environment, but it also enlightened him to better himself.

“If I were to redo my trip again, the two main things I would change would be my pace and that I would ride with a partner. I would go slower, ride less, stop more, talk to more people, take more pictures and live every second of the trip to its fullest, and more if it were possible. While I loved my experience, riding alone has made me grow in ways I never thought possible and gave me plenty of time to think. I stand firmly on my belief that humans are not solitary animals.”

Now that he has finished another item on his bucket list, he has proven to himself that with the proper mind set, much can be accomplished.

At 25 years old, this remarkable man challenged himself and succeeded in completing his 10,000 mile bike trip. Along the way he was able “to learn about the world first hand, experience all the changes of environment, meet people, learn a new language, and dive into new cultures.”

In reflecting on this experience, he said, “It’s been an amazing experience so far. I don’t know where the world will take me after this but at least I know I choose my path and that I will open the doors to my future.”

PHOTO COURTESY of Paul Mandala