There’s nothing like taking a risk,” says Orian Welling, who recently rode his bicycle from Alaska to Argentina –– a 15,000- mile trip.
“It was the peak experience of my life,” he says. “The trip built my confidence and made me realize that just about anything in life is possible. It’s just a matter of taking the first step, which is the hardest part of the journey.”
For the love of adventure, Welling left the farthest north road in North America in June 2004 and arrived at the farthest south road in South America in June 2005. He rode part of the way with his childhood friend, Will, but most of the trip he was on his own.
Often he rode 12 to 15 hours a day, carrying 100 pounds of equipment. On a tiny budget, he camped outdoors, and if it rained, he slept under a bridge. Also, he cooked his own food.
“There were times when I didn’t want to be on my bike and wasn’t having a good time,” he says, adding for example, his bike frame snapped in Ecuador and he had to weld it together himself, but he adds: “I made a commitment to myself to finish, so it never crossed my mind not to.”
LEARNED ABOUT WORLD
On this day, Welling is sitting in an armchair, reflecting on his journey. “Why did I do it?” he asks. “One reason is adventure. Another is curiosity.
“The trip really taught me a lot about myself and about the world. The great thing about traveling on a bike is you’re approachable. People would ask what I was doing and invited me into their homes.
“I learned about politics and different cultures. It was great to meet people from different classes, different countries, different backgrounds, to sit with them and share stories,” he says, adding his experiences enlarged his vision not only for himself, but enlarged his vision for the world.
At MIT, he plans to study mechanical engineering. His dream is to work with sustainable energy technology, an area he has been acquainted with most of his life. The son of a cabin-maker and a science teacher from Steven’s Point, Wisconsin, Welling’s parents in 1990 launched a renewable energy fair in their town, which is now the largest and longest-running renewable energy fair in the world.
“I don’t know what work I want to do exactly, but I hope to find some way to help the world make the transition from petroleum-based transportation,” he says, adding that cycling is one small way of his contributing to the health of the planet.
APPLIED TO MIT
Welling, now a sophomore, recently transferred to MIT from the University of Wisconsin. Although his grades were good there, he did not feel challenged. So he decided to transfer and also to take a year off to make the bike trip.
“Because college applications were not available before I left, and the deadlines were before I got back, I had to apply to school while I was on the ride,” says Welling, who applied to MIT from an Internet café he encountered while passing through Central America.
Welling began bike touring when he was eight, when he and his parents rode 500 miles in two weeks through Wisconsin and Michigan. At nine, he made his first century ride with his Dad –– 100 miles in one day. At 14, 15, and 16, he rode 500 miles across Iowa. Then, when he graduated from high school, he rode twice across the United States.
His goal, he says, is to travel to one new country every year. “You name it, I’d like to go there,” says Welling, whose recent ride led him through 15 countries. “By the time I’m 50, I want to have traveled to as many countries. And by then, I’d like to have helped change the world for the better.
“The trip changed me. Mostly, it made me grateful,” he says. “In Peru I met people who worked sorting recyclables out of a landfill, and who made 60 cents a week. It made me realize how lucky I am to have so many opportunities, like being at MIT.”