Alumni bike around the world
by MARGARET FARISH
This article originally appeared in The Tiger on October 6, 2006 | PRINT

When Clemson University alumni Andrew Norton, J Hite, and Rodger Willis graduated college, they made a slight detour off their career paths. A 15,000 mile detour to be exact - around the world, and by motorcycle.

Hite and Willis had had been thinking about taking a world trip ever since they completed an Alaskan bike trip in the summer of 2003.

"We knew that we would have to do this before we got serious jobs…or worse yet, got married," said Hite on the group's website.

When Willis bought a bike for the trip, Norton knew it had to be a sure thing.

"At that point it was 'oh ok, this is serious now,'" he said. "Until that point it was just

in its planning stages. Once J bought his bike a few months later it was pretty much set."

So, when Hite completed his masters in Bioengineering at Clemson last spring, Norton quit his architecture internship in Charleston and Willis left his sales job. After a little over two months of planning, the trio arrived flew from Charleston to London on April 29th for the first leg of their trip.

From London, the plan was to move westward through Europe, Russia and China. Along the way, they biked through Germany, Hungary, Liechtenstein, the Ukraine and Tibet, just to name a few.

The boys' budget was outrageously low, with food projected at one dollar per day. This meant eating a lot of Ramen, which Norton said was available in every country. Lodging was taken care of by a mix of "couch surfing" (a network in which to meet people in foreign countries and then "surf", or crash on, their couches) and roadside tents. They also found they could rely on the occasional friendly local to let the boys stay at places ranging from a mother's day spa, a fuel tank renovated into a café/house and a motoclub/bar/disco.

The disco was located in Kazakhstan, which of the 15 countries the three visited was one of Norton's favorites.

"Kazakhstan was completely unknown to us, so we had no expectations," he said. "The people

turned out to be some of the nicest on the trip, and that is where we stayed at

the Russian-owned off-road motoclub for a week while we figured out how to get

into China."

Norton thought China had the best scenery, although he found the nonexistent personal space there and in other countries to be somewhat of a culture shock.

"When you're three bearded white guys on motorcycles loaded with gear in a place where

tourists rarely go, you're going to attract attention," Norton said. "Crowds would gather around

us every time we stopped."

"Many of them seem content to just stand three feet behind us while we talk/eat/repair and not say a word," he said again in a journal entry from the trip. "It's become common for us to say 'Please just stand there and don't talk. It's not weird at all that I'm practically sitting on your shoes while I fix my bike,' knowing that they have no idea we're even talking to them. The peoples that do talk with us are always friendly but are so close to us that we know what they ate for breakfast."

Although most of the people the boys encountered were friendly, they met their fair share of seedy characters, most particularly a Russian border guard who tried to elicit bribes from each of them in turn.

"A huge 6 foot 5 inch bear of a Russian man started to hassle Rodger for money," said Hite. "I watched through the window in the front of the room as the man's hand gestures became more exaggerated and he became angry. Rodger choose to go with the "puppy dog" approach to bribe avoidance. This was a gamble on the idea that this big man had a soft side. Rodger opened his wallet. The official reached in and snatched the 30 dollars he had left inside (the rest was hidden in various spots on his body). Rodger said 'Hotel Money' in a sad voice with hunched over posture. After some delay he gave the money back. I couldn't believe it…well played Rodger! Too easy, we thought."

Corrupt border guards were nothing, however, in comparison to what Norton called the greatest ordeal of the trip; crossing into the mountains of Tibet.

"We all got altitude sickness and throbbing headaches," he said. "Going over the peak, we were over 15,000 feet. Rodger debated going back, but stuck with it because of false information saying the next place we were headed was at a lower altitude. Once we got there it turned out to be the same elevation."

The group pressed on and made it into China where they rode around for a month, partly on expired visas.

"If the Chinese government asks," said Hite at the time, "I am a temporary Chinese resident living in an apartment in Xi'an."

China marked the last country of the trip and on July 26th, Norton and Willis flew from Xi'an to Los Angeles. Hite flew back August 10th and the three met back in Clemson on August 17th to complete the final and shortest leg of the journey.

"After riding around 15,000 miles we were on the last 250 mile stretch, I-26 straight to Charleston," said Norton.

After going through nine bikes and countless boxes of Ramen noodles, their three month trip was over. Of course, before the end came, Hite and Willis were already planning one for next summer. This time, the two want to either bike South America or Africa or sail around Europe. Hite earned his captain's license while he was an undergrad at Clemson.

"That was back when I was considering the life of a professional yacht mover," he said.

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