Liam Garner always planned to travel.
“I always knew I wanted to go on a big crazy adventure and run away after high school,” he said.
At 17, he set out alone on the adventure of a lifetime: cycling the “Pan American Highway” from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to the southernmost point of Argentina, Ushuaia.
It took him 527 days, soaking in every destination.
“I was more than surprised by more than a few sides and I think everyone else would be too,” he said.
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Now 19, Garner is slowly backpacking back home to Southern California and shares the highs and lows of her journey and lessons learned with USA TODAY.
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Why did you want to leave?
“I was diagnosed with (Asperger’s syndrome) when I was little, and that was a really huge part of why I always struggled with school and routine, and I think that was a really big part of why I became so attracted to the idea of this great adventure away from civilization,” he said. “That was always my fantasy in the classroom that could help me overcome it a little bit.”
What inspired you to take this journey?
“I’ve always loved the outdoors and camping and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “Before I had a car, I rode my bike everywhere. I would just bike somewhere, camp and go home the next day. And that’s how I initially got into bike touring unintentionally, by accident.”
“I ended up doing a bigger trip from L.A. to San Francisco, and it took me eight days,” he added. “From that trip, I made a video series that went viral on TikTok and that inspired me. Wow, people are really into it and that’s amazing and really fun for me.”
Garner was further inspired by Jedediah Jenkins’ bestseller, “To Shake the Sleeping Self,” which chronicles Jenkins’ life-changing bicycle trip from Oregon to Patagonia.
What are some accents?
“I’m a first-generation immigrant from Mexico on my mother’s side, and I got to go through Mexico and actually live there a significant amount of the time… learning the language and seeing my family and living with them and really connecting with the culture was able to would be the highest point for me,” he said. “I’ve actually seen more of Mexico than my mom ever did.”
“I was able to see 14 states of Mexico,” he said. “Each state was so distinctive and unique, and riding a bike is a special thing because you really see the land as it changes and you can smell and touch the land.”
What are your favorite places?
“My top three cities were San Francisco, Medellin and Mexico City. And my top three countries were Mexico, Colombia and Peru, I think,” he said, with Mexico being his favorite.
“I think it’s very easy to create a bias towards foreign places with all the news,” he said. “It’s really easy for people to say, ‘Oh, I should never go there.’ I don’t think it’s fair for someone to talk about a place or a person, whatever, that they’ve never personally experienced… Don’t believe what you hear. Go see it for yourself.”
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How did your mother take your trip?
“Progressively, as I went further and further in my journey and was away from home longer and longer, my mother, I think, adjusted more and more to it,” he said. “But in the initial stages of my journey, especially when I was robbed for the first time, my mother was horrified. I think I actually aged her by 10 years legitimately and I feel really guilty about it. But she has been my staunchest supporter no matter what.”
How many times have you been robbed?
“Actually, we were robbed three days ago. It wasn’t me this time. It was Chloe,” he said of his partner, Chloe Zimpelman, whom he met while biking around California. Zimpelman flew out to meet Garner after completing his bike ride, and the two rode home together. “They stole Chloe’s backpack with her passport, her phone and her wallet. Luckily we did find the passport. They had slipped it.’
“Personally, I have been robbed five times during my bicycle journey,” he added. “Hopefully no more times on the way home.”
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What other accidents have you had?
“In Colombia I was unlucky and hit a pothole going down very fast that I didn’t see,” he said. “I ended up landing right on my head and tearing up my ear from landing on the pavement. I tore my ear in half.’
“I got plastic surgery for it and I had to get a bunch of stitches on my shoulder, my thigh where I scraped the skin off, and it actually put me in Cali, Colombia, for over a month, in and out of the hospital,” he said. His insurance covered most medical expenses, and his mother took care of the rest. “It took a whole month plus to get back on the bike because it was such a bad injury. I was completely knocked out for about 15 minutes, unconscious.”
“But that’s the reality, you know,” he added. “I knew going into my trip that something could happen. And even if something terrible happened, the most terrible thing, that was the sacrifice I was willing to make. I couldn’t live my life without doing that.”
Were you afraid to get back on the bike?
“Subconsciously,” he said. “I remember the first week back on the bike, I had a bit of PTSD, even just cycling slowly around town. I was scared like my heart was beating… I couldn’t even control it. It was like physical fear.”
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Who took care of you when you got hurt?
“I was staying in a hostel at the time,” he said. “They took care of me and actually bandaged my wounds and fed me food and sent packages for me and called me on the phone.”
“The people were really the best part,” he said. “The kindness of strangers is the most refreshing, uplifting thing about travel… I don’t know if I would have even survived the trip if I hadn’t been able to get help from strangers.”
He’s also thankful for a fellow cyclist he met while riding through Oregon, Logan Rekedahl. “We decided to ride together for a little bit, and after a week of cycling together, Logan said to me, ‘Liam, if you want, I’ll ride with you to Central America,'” Garner recalled. The two rode together for eight months. “Having a partner through those parts of my journey was amazing.”
How much does the trip cost? How do you pay it?
“My biggest advice to people would be not to get caught up in the money or the idea that (travel) is only for rich people,” he said. “I live on about $400 to $450 a month, and that’s less than my car insurance at home.” He started the journey with money he made from TikTok and was carried over from support through the Patreon membership platform and one-time gifts.
“If you can save like a few thousand and work for a year and save some money, that’s fine. You can plan a trip,” he said, adding that a bike tour is “by far the cheapest way to travel, if it has to be.”
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What’s it like to come back?
“I recognize the streets and I remember the shops and people recognize me and remember me and that’s not something I had on the way down,” he said. “Everything was new. In almost a year since I left my house and went to Mexico, every day I’ve been away from home… For the first time in over a year, every day I’m getting closer to my house, and it’s an exciting feeling.”
What are you going to do when you get home?
“I’m going to write a book,” he said, intending to go home this summer. “I’m really excited to write a book and I’m just as confident about doing that as I was about this trip.”
“I would like to do Europe in Asia or Africa, but I think that will be one day in the future,” he said. “Hopefully I have opportunities that I don’t know about yet that are waiting for me when I get home.”
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Does this trip count as a world record?
“Technically, I’m the youngest person ever to start and then successfully complete a Pan American bike ride without support,” Garner said. “The reason it’s phrased that way is because I started my Alaskan journey at a younger age than anyone who ever tried and succeeded, but I didn’t finish at the youngest age of anyone who did.”
Emmanuel Gentinet was the youngest person to cycle the “Pan American Highway,” which he started and completed at age 18, according to Guinness World Records. Garner hasn’t reached Guinness yet, but he may have set another record.
“I looked to see if I could find any information about someone with autism riding the Pan-American, and as far as I can tell, there is no such information,” he said. “This may be an unintentional record I broke.”
What do you want people to know?
“People always ask me, ‘Oh, how did you even imagine cycling for a year and a half?’ Like that must have been so overwhelming.”For me, I didn’t even think about it. I was literally just thinking, “Okay, I’m going to Alaska and I’m going to ride a bike for a day.” And then on the second day, “Okay, I’m going to ride a bike today, too.” And every day I took it day by day and it became so easy.”
“I think if people just believe in themselves, even if it seems unbelievable, they could really surprise themselves,” he added. “I chose an impossible thing to do just to say I’m going to do it… If people just pick a goal, whether it’s cycling across the continent or getting a job or writing a book or something, and they just say, ” OK, I’ll do this for a day and see how it goes,’ they probably would have.’