image title

13,000-mile cycling trip includes encounters with weather, wildlife and human kindness

October 27, 2023

ASU alum and former staffer Dan O'Neill's journey around the perimeter of the US took 7 months

Dan O’Neill leaned his red Salsa Warbird gravel bike against the front porch of his Tempe home and removed his helmet and face covering.

He looked out at the scene: Friends and family members cheering and celebrating with a bottle of champagne. Decorative balloons lined across the fence in his front yard. Two signs that hung from the porch, one reading “You did it! 4 corners of USA,” the other, “Welcome home Dan!”

Below the first step of the porch stood Tempe Mayor Corey Woods, who read a proclamation declaring Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, as Welcome Home Dan O’Neill Day.

O’Neill, who was a student at Arizona State University in the 1970s and two decades later a portfolio manager for the Sustainability Solutions Service in ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, took it all in and smiled.

His journey was complete.

After a seven-month, 13,000-mile solo bicycle ride of the perimeter of the United States.

After encountering pouring rain, high winds and, memorably, a snapping turtle.

After receiving the kindness of strangers, appreciating the food in convenience stores and thanking, often, the makers of Tenacious TapeA repair tape that fixes rips, holes and tears in outdoor gear and fabrics..

O’Neill’s son, Trey O’Neill, had no doubt his father would make it home. He just wasn’t sure when that would be.

“My only worry was that he would wander somewhere in discovery and come home three months off schedule,” Trey said. “Because he’d just be enjoying too much what he was doing.”

First question: Why?

Why does a 68-year-old man decide to punish his body in such a way?

“It’s just something that I’ve really wanted to do,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill and his wife, Jenny Lucier, always have been adventurous spirits. They were married at the end of a six-month, 2,500-mile bicycle trip around Europe. O’Neill got his pilot’s license in his early 40s and learned how to do aerobatics, the practice of flying maneuvers not used in conventional passenger-carrying flights.

He and Jenny have bicycled through Scandinavia, Germany and Croatia, and already are contemplating a trip through the Far East. They completed, in their words, a “simple” tandem cross-country bike trip from Santa Monica, California, to Chicago, and then from Chicago to Bar Harbor, Maine.

“If we’re not on our bicycles, we are hiking or paddling or doing a mixture of those kinds of things,” O’Neill said.

The perimeter trip around the U.S. has been something O’Neill has wanted to do for years. He decided this was the year, in part because it’s also the 50th high school reunion of his 1973 Tempe High graduating class.

Second question: How does one go about planning a seven-month, 13,000-mile bike trip?

“Well, we don’t plan much,” O’Neill said. “The planning for us is choosing a basic route.”

For that, they used detailed maps from the Adventure Cycling Association, which has mapped out more than 52,000 miles of bike routes throughout the United States. The maps provide precise directions, emergency numbers, campsites, grocery stores and more.

O’Neill’s route would take him from Tempe to San Diego, and then San Diego south and east to Key West, Florida, up the coast to Fort Kent, Maine — which is situated on the border with New Brunswick, Canada — west to Point Roberts, Washington, and then down the coast to Imperial Beach, California, and finally back home to Tempe.

O’Neill began his journey on March 29. Because he had no support van riding alongside or following him, he packed what he not-so-kiddingly described as “a house, with a bedroom and a kitchen.”

In two packing cubes, he had a tent, a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, a small stove, a bowl, a knife, a cutting board, tools to repair flats or tighten bolts, Tenacious Tape — “if you rip a hole in your tent, you have to repair it so mosquitos don’t fly in” — a down jacket, one set of riding clothes and merino wool clothing, which O’Neill described as a miracle material that can be worn for several days straight without becoming real “gooey.”

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

Each night, O’Neill, who averaged about 70 miles per day, would plan the next day’s route. He built in rest days and weather delays — like the driving rain and 20 to 25 mph winds that kept him in Cut Bank, Montana, for two days.

Some things O’Neill could control — like washing the dust and grime off his body. He used an app called Warm Showers, a national network of cycling enthusiasts who offer accommodations such as a warm bed, a shower and a hot meal. O’Neill said he stayed with about 30 Warm Showers hosts; other nights, he slept in a campground or found a local motel.

Some things he couldn’t control — like the snapping turtle he encountered in the middle of the road in Florida. He and Jenny — who joined her husband at different points of the route — came around the bend and saw the turtle, who was directly in the line of oncoming traffic.

“I wanted to move it off the road, to some kind of safety,” O’Neill said. “But this thing was big. And snapping turtles will take your hand off. They are vicious animals. I was able to grab it somehow and run over to the side of the road. And then we just had this staring contest. It was a very primal thing, staring in its eyes and having it stare back at me, ready to kill me.”

Jenny thought the turtle needed to be further removed from the road. But as she went over to lift the animal, she decided, “He’s good.”

Sadly, O’Neill said he could identify different parts of the country by the roadkill he saw. Armadillos in Texas, for example. Or songbirds in North Dakota.

“That’s the one thing you see all across the nation,” O’Neill said. “This massive amount of roadkill.”

O’Neill didn’t have any dangerous encounters with bears, although he saw two on his ride. But he did have to deal with farm dogs outside Austin, Texas.

“I had 20 dog encounters in the span of about an hour,” he said. “It was just one of those places where people let their dogs run free. Interestingly, the way to deal with a farm dog is to get off your bike. They chase you because of their prey instinct. As soon as you stop, they’re like, ‘OK.’”

For food, if Warm Showers hosts were not available, O’Neill would stop at local diners or restaurants. He also became a big fan of convenience stores.

“In a lot of rural America, the convenience store with a gas station has evolved to be the social center,” said O’Neill, who lost 20 pounds on the trip. “And they’ve upped their game in terms of food availability. I mean, you still get a lot of crap, but they always have donuts, egg sandwiches and hot coffee in the morning. And a lot of them have partnered with chains like Subway, so you can get a sandwich, too.”

Everywhere he went, O’Neill was struck by two things.

First, the beauty of the United States.

“It’s nonstop,” he said. “I tell everybody who will listen that there’s beauty everywhere, every moment of the day. All you have to do is open your eyes.”

Second, the hospitality of strangers.

“I would say the theme of this trip was human kindness,” O’Neill said. “Anything from the Warm Showers network to interactions on the street or at the convenience store. People couldn’t have been nicer.”

That kindness included unscheduled trips to bike mechanics. O’Neill went through three sets of tires, broke a wheel and had his rear brake bust, and each time, a local mechanic would make sure, even if that meant keeping the store open late, that his bike was ready to roll the next day.

“One of the ethics in the biking community is that bike shops and bike mechanics will drop what they’re doing to assist you if you’re on a distance tour,” O’Neill said.

The day after his trip ended, O’Neill sat in his dining room and thought about the journey just completed and the wonders — both human and otherwise — he received along the way.

“I don’t know how exactly in context to say this, but I feel like I’ve been in an altered state for seven months,” he said. “Just flowing from one moment to the next, one day to the next. And I consistently got everything I needed. I woke up some mornings not knowing where I was going to stay, and then I ended up staying in some spectacular situation, either with a Warm Showers host or in some beautiful campground.

“There were so many favorite moments, like you roll into someplace and ‘Oh my God, there’s the White House,’ or we’re in New Hampshire, come around a bend and pop out on the coast and it’s so beautiful.

“But in the end, the most important part of it was the human interaction and the kindness. I’ll never forget that.”

Top photo: Former ASU staffer and alum Dan O'Neill, 68, relishes his welcome-home celebration on Tuesday, Oct. 24, at his Tempe home. He just completed a 13,000-mile bicycle trip around the perimeter of the United States. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

image title

The hidden threat lurking in Phoenix soil

October 27, 2023

ASU researchers find increasing concentrations of microplastics in Valley soil samples

Lurking in the sunbaked soil of urban Phoenix is something much more malevolent than scorpions or rattlesnakes — among the dust and rocks, Arizona State University scientists have found systematically higher concentrations of microplastics in 2015 soil samples compared with those of 2005.

Fourth-year doctoral student Kanchana Chandrakanthan, School of Molecular Sciences Professor Pierre Herckes and Professor Matt Fraser, associate director of ASU’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, have just published their findings in the Journal Science of the Total Environment.

Microplastics in general refer to plastic pieces less than 5mm in size. This can include beads, fibers and broken-down plastic fragments. Most attention has been given to the roughly 5 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans, but terrestrial ecosystems, where most microplastics originate and have the potential to accumulate, typically receive less attention despite the potential physical and toxicological risks they pose to organisms.

“What amazed me the most about our findings was that we saw microplastics in significant numbers in all samples,” Herckes said. “There were no cases with nothing or close to nothing. Also, the lack of clear patterns was unexpected, with some rather remote places having higher concentrations than some of the more urban ones.”

For more than 25 years, the National Science Foundation-funded Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP-LTER) program has been studying urban ecology in the Phoenix metro area from an interdisciplinary, social-ecological perspective.

“CAP has a number of long-term, multi-decadal data sets that are publicly available for use, and with many of our long-term monitoring efforts, we archive samples for future use to answer questions that may have not been conceived when the samples were actually collected,” said Dan Childers, program director and professor at ASU's School of Sustainability.

“An excellent example is our Ecological Survey of Central Arizona (ESCA), where we return to the same (roughly 200) points every five years and sample the sites for a suite of ecological variables,” Childers said.

In this most recent publication, Chandrakanthan and colleagues analyzed ESCA soil samples collected in 2005 and 2015 for microplastics content.

“The work is really all Kanchana Chandrakanthan,” said Herckes, who served as her advisor. “She worked really hard on this very time-consuming and labor-intensive project to extract and isolate the plastics and then count and characterize them. She is a really dedicated graduate student.”

The resulting paper revealed microplastics in all soil samples, and increasing amounts of microplastics in 2015 soil samples compared with 2005. There was no spatial pattern to microplastics deposition, but the size of the microplastics found in local soils appears to be decreasing.

“The issue of plastics pollution and microplastics in the environment is getting increased attention in the press, particularly in relation to the oceans. But little is known about microplastics pollution in arid regions such as the Phoenix metro area,” Childers said.

Chandrakanthan and colleagues also documented atmospheric deposition of microplastics on ASU’s campus for a year, at two-week intervals. They did not find a distinct seasonality to the deposition, but the rates of microplastic deposition they reported for Tempe were on par with those from a number of cities around the world, including cities in Europe, Asia and South America.

Characterization of microplastics in 2005 and 2015 soil samples revealed an array of polymers including polyethylene, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, polyacrylate, polyester and polypropylene. A large majority of the microplastics remain chemically unidentified. Weathering of microplastics over time could potentially make them unidentifiable as Chandrakanthan has shown in an earlier study. Polyethylene was dominantly present in a majority of the sampling sites and was the most abundantly identified polymer on average in all soil samples, indicative of the large production of polyethylene on a global scale.

“The data presented in this publication has important implications for both human and environmental health, as attention to the 'over-plasticizing' of our lives, societies and environment grows,” Childers said.

As an interesting aside, Herckes describes an experiment that undergrads in his environmental chemistry laboratory class perform at ASU. They leave a glass or aluminum baking sheet outside and wash it off after two to three days.

“The students are always amazed as to how many microplastics they collect,” Herckes said.  

Top photo: Plastics and microplastics in a soil sample. Photo courtesy the School of Molecular Sciences

Jenny Green

Clinical associate professor , School of Molecular Sciences