Joy Magazine

On the road together

The Zells take time for a photo at the top of 9,945-foot Tioga Pass outside Yosemite.Photos courtesy of the Zells

Life is like riding a bicycle — in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.

— Albert Einstein


Ron had reached a point in his grieving process where he was open to meeting new women. Elizabeth's three daughters were fully grown, and she, too, had thoughts about finding another partner.

They both turned to the dating site Match.com with specific criteria.

"I wrote, 'must be an avid bicyclist and bike tourer,' " recalls Elizabeth, 65.


Ron's post also demanded an interest in bicycling. They soon found each other and shifted into high gear.

"Our first date was a bike ride," says Ron, 71. "It was a test. Would I pedal fast and leave her behind? Apparently, I passed the test."

Now married six and a half years, Ashland residents Ron and Elizabeth Zell have been inseparable. They have bicycled together across the country from Canada to Mexico and from the Pacific to the Atlantic, through the south of France and on many shorter trips, including daily "fitness" rides. By Ron's estimate, they've averaged about 10,000 miles per year.


The Zells are both tall and slim and walk with a grace that belies their ages. Ron has a measured, thoughtful manner of speaking and often brushes his salt-and-pepper hair from his eyes. Elizabeth has short, curly, brown hair and is an animated speaker who gestures frequently with her hands.

"When we're touring, we're together 24/7; he bikes behind me," explains Elizabeth. "It's fun to be working out the obstacles together."

It's an arrangement that suits them both.

"Oftentimes, there's a mismatch in riding paces between men and women, so Elizabeth sets the pace," says Ron.


What attracts the Zells to such a freewheeling life is simplicity.

"Life gets simple in this respect: Everything you have and need is on your bike," says Elizabeth. "You're like a turtle, and you sleep, eat and experience your surroundings directly, not through a windshield."

The simple life begins with 30 to 35 pounds each of gear packed in front and rear panniers. Each item is carefully chosen to serve as many uses as possible. A typical night is spent in a sleeping bag inside a tent at a campground, though the Zells have been known to dive into a motel to avoid pouring rain.

Gear can only take you so far.

"You never know what the next day will bring (on the road), and you never know where you'll really be," warns Elizabeth. "You have to be flexible."

This philosophy is a metaphor for their relationship, one that Ron echoes.

"You learn a lot about each other and yourself," says Ron. "What you face has more meaning when you face it as a couple."

The Zells prefer to be totally off-line and off the grid when they're pedaling. Their children seem far more worried about their safety than they are.

"We check in with our kids to ease their peace of mind," says Ron. "I'll Tweet from a library, and we carry a cellphone. That's it."

Perhaps the hardest part of a long tour is the end. Their 2009 cross-country trip began in San Francisco and ended at the Atlantic Ocean at historic Yorktown, Va.

"We both cried. We were done with that lifestyle," recalls Ron. "It was an emotional adjustment. Also a physical one: I was used to the mechanical motion of the bike."

After two and a half months on the road, life was about to change. Abruptly.

"It's like not having a tomorrow," explains Ron, pausing for several seconds. "I suppose it must be like postpartum depression. By the end, though, we're talking about the next trip."

It's not surprising, then, that this peripatetic couple is booked up for months to come. This fall, they'll head to the Czech Republic, Austria and Italy for a month of touring. Next spring, it will be another journey across the United States, this time via a southern route.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org


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