A year ago, I rode my bicycle from Banff to Jasper in the Canadian Rockies to prove that my lack of a car would not hold me back from pursuing my passion for landscape photography. This year, I took a gap semester and went and did it again, cycling 1,500 miles down the American West Coast, from Seattle to Los Angeles, to photograph the coastal landscapes.
This is the story of the greatest adventure of my life. So far.
The Initial Hurdle
The challenge remained the same as last time – at 18, I was still too young to rent a car, and of course, being a student, still unable to afford my own.
So I loaded up my bicycle once again and set off on March 21st, 2018.
For 40 days I lived off my bicycle. Everything was self-supported, meaning I had to carry all my supplies and equipment on my own. To say it was challenging is an understatement.
My assumption was that, compared to the Canadian Rockies, the West Coast would be a cakewalk. A few hills here and there, for sure, but overall easier and flatter than in the mountains, right?
I could not have been more wrong.
The coast was formidable. Beautiful, but unrelenting. It seemed that every few miles there would be yet another hill I had to tackle.
Lesson learned: don’t underestimate your opponents.
Location, Location, Location
There are countless maps available for the West Coast, but I decided to ignore them and plan my own bespoke adventure, one that would take me to all the amazing locations that I’ve always wanted to see and photograph.
My biggest photography challenge, however, was finding accommodation close to my landscape photography locations without being too expensive.
I think it’s easy to ignore how far a location is from one’s accommodation when one has a car. With a car, you are shielded from the elements and can ride around in relative comfort. Driving 20 miles between a photo spot and a campsite is nothing.
On a bicycle, you are traveling 3-4 times slower and exposed to everything. Safe to say, the closer my accommodation was to my photo spot, the better.
Time management was crucial. Doing this adventure in the Spring meant shorter daylight hours compared to Summer, and consequently, I couldn’t just take my time cycling and showing up to take photos still with hours left to spare before Golden Hour.
But I made it work. Waking up before sunrise used to be a chore for me; now, it’s like second-nature.
The photography gear I brought along remained the same as last year with the exception of a new addition – the DJI Mavic Pro! I’ve always been fascinated with the interesting perspectives one can achieve with a bird’s eye view, and so for this trip, I brought along my new drone. Unlike the Canadian Rockies, the West Coast had actual locations where flying is legal and permitted.
My Fujifilm X-T2 and XF 16-55mm f/2.8 is a combination that I now know I can trust for the long road ahead. They were true troopers throughout this adventure, putting up with the rain and cold and soldiering on.
I took some experience from last time and got a bike trailer instead. That way, my camera bag sat inside the trailer towed behind my bike, instead of being worn on my back. It made a tremendous improvement for my back comfort.
Traveling for Cheap
So how can an 18-year-old not be able to afford a car, but be able to afford to travel clear across the country?
Simple. Budget like crazy.
I largely prepared my own meals, eating out only rarely to try new food. I stayed away from expensive accommodation and opted to camp (cheap-ish) or Couchsurf (free!). And of course, without a car, there was no gas, maintenance, insurance or parking to pay for.
On average, my expenses totaled just $15 per day!
I had to give up many creature comforts to stick to my budget, but at the end of the day, I’m proud of what I was able to do.
I should mention that the people I met along the way were mostly awesome.
Aside from the complete strangers who were willing to let me stay in their homes in exchange for stories from my adventures (that’s what Couchsurfing is), I got to meet and talk to many interesting people, both photographers and non-photographers alike.
Sometimes they would part ways with me by offering me some sandwiches, snacks or even soda. Other times they would shout words of encouragement as I passed by. The people really made this trip a little more memorable.
On the downside, there was a very small number of truly dreadful people. I remember when a guy in Oregon once asked me how long I was planning on cycling in the U.S. and pressed me on when I was going to go back to China. Unbelievable!
(Plus, I’m an American citizen so I’m not going anywhere!)
Still better than the time I almost got run off the road, though.
A while ago I could never imagine myself doing such things like cycling across an entire country, and for that, I think photography has truly made me a better person. It’s opened me up to new experiences, and to build not only my confidence in myself but also my character.
Like many teenagers, I’m still looking forward to the day I can finally have a car of my own, but for now, I think it’s safe to say that it’s not going to be a problem.
‘Till the next one!
About the author: Ethan Chin is an 18-year-old landscape and travel photographer based in Toronto, Canada. You can find more of his work and writing on his website, blog, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published here.
Image credits: Photographs by Ethan Chin. Map screenshot via Google Maps.