George Christensen, a 55-year-old bike messenger, likes to set challenges for himself. In 1975 he sat through every inning of every game in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. In 1991 he made 73 deliveries in one day, a record for Chicago bike messengers at the time. Last spring he attended 70 movies in 12 days.
But of all his serial obsessions, one stands out. Any bicycling enthusiast might take one long trip of 5,000 or more miles. Some take two or three. Christensen has taken 15. He's also done at least one 1,000-mile tour every year since 1977 and more 300-to-500-mile trips than he can count. At this point, he says, "It takes several days of jogging the memory to shake them all out."
Since 1989 he's been a messenger with Cannonball, now called Dynamex. He works only in the winter--he says there are fewer pedestrians to contend with and the money's better because fewer messengers are working--and the rest of the year he tours. He says sometimes on a frigid January morning a downtown office worker will ask sympathetically if he's all right. He isn't insulted. He knows you don't see many white-haired bicycle messengers, especially in the winter. "If I tell them a little bit about myself," he says, "they're relieved." Then it's his turn to feel sorry for them. "I feel like I'm out there riding around the Loop asserting my freedom, going by buses with all these people that are comatose and people sleepwalking down the sidewalks. And I'm intensely alive out there, alert and sensitive to every little stimuli."
Christensen could have been one of them. He grew up in comfortable circumstances in north-suburban Glenview, where his father was a trader, his mother a homemaker. As a 12-year-old he bet his younger sister he'd never get married. Realizing he'd have to die to collect, he bet her instead that he wouldn't be married at 40. On his 40th birthday his sister sent him a dollar.
As a kid he was always saving his allowance for something, but didn't know what. He wanted a better bike than the one-speed his parents gave all their kids but wouldn't spend his money on the Schwinn Varsity ten-speed he coveted. "My brother, who's two years younger than me, he bought the Schwinn Varsity," he says.
He also understood early on how limiting full-time work can be. His family took a vacation once a year. "Everyplace we went I always liked it and wanted to go back," he says.
"But you can't do that when you have just one vacation a year like my parents did."
Christensen graduated from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in 1973, then got a job as an administrative assistant for a trucking firm. He says everyone seemed to be working toward retirement, so he decided to save his money and retire at the end of the year. He saved $10,000, which he figured he could stretch to last five years. But he had friends who owned small businesses, and they kept asking him to do odd jobs for them--deliveries, painting, bookkeeping. Still, he took the winter off and went skiing.
He was also getting serious about biking. "It combines a lot of things I like to do," he says. "I like to travel, I like to be outdoors, I like to be physically active." In 1977 he took his first cross-country trip, from Virginia to Oregon, and by the time he got to Kentucky he was ready to quit. He was on a ten-speed with skinny tires, and one or the other would blow out two or three times a day. In Lexington he discovered thicker tires and decided he could keep going. "There's a certain amount of suffering to touring," he says. "You've got to endure."
Since then he's biked up the "world's most dangerous road" (a one-lane mountain path in Bolivia), across "America's loneliest highway" (Nevada's Highway 50) three times, and over various "highways from hell," including some in Cambodia. In 1984 he cycled across New Zealand and Australia, including the Nullarbor Plain, a 750-mile stretch of treeless desert. In 1986 he rode 900 miles from Chicago to New Orleans in mid-January, hoping to get into the Super Bowl. He couldn't get a ticket and wound up watching the game in a bar. Afterward he headed off to Mexico. In 1989 he rode 7,000 miles in South America, from Medellin, Colombia, to Tierra del Fuego. Along the way he crossed Chile's Atacama Desert. "It was headwinds that hold for 3,000 miles," he says. "It was the first trip I'd done where I thought, jeez, this is one I don't want to do again. I'm not enjoying this." But he's proud that he made it.
Fifteen years ago Christensen read a Roger Ebert column about the Telluride film festival and decided to go. He began working at the festival the following year and has gone back for a month every year since, usually as the head of its shipping department. Now film festivals are part of his cycling itinerary, and he's been to fests in, among other places, Rotterdam, Berlin, and Sodankyla, Finland. "As a cyclist I'm an endurance athlete, and when I go to film festivals I'm an endurance filmgoer," he says. "I am sort of obsessional about both." Yet after he went to Cannes this year, where he watched the 70 films in 12 days, he didn't see another movie for two months.
"There's a Greek saying that you shouldn't do anything to excess, although Blake says that by going to extremes, that's how you learn," he says. But then he adds, "There's a Japanese saying about climbing Mount Fuji--that's sort of a rite of passage for them. 'He who doesn't climb Mount Fuji is a fool, but he who climbs it more than once is an even greater fool.'"
Christensen usually tours alone, though he sometimes rides with a friend. For many years he took trips to Mexico with his girlfriend, Chrissy Daly. "Chrissy and I spent all or parts of a dozen or so winters in the small fishing village of Puerto Escondido," he says. "We drove down a couple times. I also biked down and met up with her several times. She died of cancer two years ago. Last winter I took her ashes to Puerto Escondido and sprinkled them on our favorite beach."
When he's touring Christensen rides his Trek 18-speed an average of 12 hours a day, two hours on the bike and one hour off. He usually rides 90 to 100 miles each day, eating nuts and energy bars almost continuously. His panniers weigh 50 pounds, and among the things inside are a tent, sleeping bag, one change of clothes, tools and parts, and a can opener. He took a stove on his first cross-country trip but hasn't since. "I discovered you need extra water for cooking and cleaning," he says. Occasionally he'll eat in a restaurant if he can find one that's cheap enough, but most of the time he shops in local stores for items such as peanut butter and bread or baked beans, which he eats straight from the can. One time in rural Cuba he and a friend couldn't find a store that accepted anything besides ration cards. They waited outside a store trying to find someone who'd take American dollars for something to eat, but nobody would. They ate their emergency rations--peanut butter out of the jar--until they reached a city.
He says he's never had trouble finding a place to camp. "The one great lesson I've learned, the one true axiom, is there's always a camp spot awaiting you," he says. "Something is going to turn up."
For years Christensen never took more than a few snapshots on his trips. "I didn't wish to be preoccupied with looking for photos and be just another schmuck with a camera taking pictures that others only feign to have interest in," he says. But in 1991 he was headed to India and Nepal, and his friends persuaded him to take slide film. He liked the results. "It's the difference between a toenail and a full body shot," he says. Four years ago Richard Houk of the DePaul Geographic Society invited him to speak about the Nepal trip. "He gave a great program," says Houk. "In fact, he's done two programs. The other one dealt with Indochina." Its focus was his 2002 trip through Thailand and Vietnam.
In a typical year Christensen rides about 8,500 miles--3,500 as a messenger and 5,000 as a tourist. This year he figures he'll top 11,500 miles. He biked the 600 miles from Paris to Cannes, then spent a month cycling through eastern Europe. On the way back he rode ahead of the racers in the first and last stages of the Tour de France, his third Tour in three years. The racers and their bikes are sometimes taken in vans to the next stage, but Christensen says he couldn't accept a ride. "Once you start doing that," he says, "you're always tempted." In mid-September he left for Japan, biking across the northern part of the country before returning to Chicago on October 29.
As the miles pile up, Christensen sometimes wonders when he'll have to slow down. But he still puts in as many miles every day as he did when he was in his 20s, and he doesn't want to quit. "I've seen an awful lot of the world," he says, "but there's still an awful lot more out there." In October he rode his bike to the Mount Fuji trailhead at 7,800 feet, where he set up camp even though it's not permitted. The next morning it was cold and raining, but he headed up the trail, which was closed for the season. He made it to 10,000 feet, 2,385 feet short of the summit, before being turned back by driving snow. Would he try a second time? "If the opportunity came along I wouldn't mind going back and doing the lower half of the country," he says. "And since Fuji's south of Tokyo, Fuji would be there to pluck again."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.