I’ve been a Backroads Trip Leader for seven years and one of the most frequent questions I’m asked by my guests is, “What’s the life of a Backroads Trip Leader like?” It’s a simple question, but not an easy one to answer. When I applied for a leader position at Backroads, I had no idea of the complexity of this job and how much it goes beyond any regular work environment.
Sitting on the vibrant red rocking chair on the porch of my hotel room at Kennicott Glacier Lodge, I listened. The early morning calls of birds waking the world and the creaks and groans of the shrinking Root Glacier just a stone’s throw from me dominated the otherwise quiet scene. It seemed to me as if this morning show of song and silence was for me and me alone. Any other sound that was occurring in the surrounding expanse of the park’s 13.2 million acres was muffled by the ripening raspberry bushes, trembling aspen groves and deep blue glacial ice.
Looking through the window of the bus that was driving me from the airport through town, I understood this trip was going to be very different. I could see many people walking the dusty streets of the capital in oppressive heat, some of them carrying jugs of water on their head. For the first time of my life, I was in Africa.
As Backroads leaders, we wear many hats in a given day: concierge, mechanic, translator, chauffeur, navigator, motivator… the list is infinite. One of my favorites to don, however, has to be that of “chef,” because that’s when we get to perform the magic that results in the famous Backroads picnic lunch!
What happens when 65 Backroads employees take almost 600 DaVita staffers on vacation together? It’s called Tour DaVita and it’s the biggest deluxe camping and bicycling trip that Backroads runs! This annual event was extra special last year — not only did it mark Tour DaVita’s 10th anniversary and a return to Nashville where the bike trip originated, but it was also the largest with nearly 600 riders, almost 400 tents, 250 miles of cycling, one enormous catering operation, two mobile shower trucks, a mobile dialysis center, live country music and tons of Tennessee sunshine. Right now we’re gearing up for another incredible tour in Washington at the end of September!
Backroads Trips aren't cheap. We get it. As a Backroads leader, it's not uncommon for me to hear (always from someone who hasn't traveled with us yet) "I could go there and do it myself for half the price." When I hear someone say something like that, I usually just smile and say, "Well, there are certainly a lot of ways to travel, but you'd be surprised at just how much you get from a Backroads trip." And the reason for my smile is that, having seen firsthand what our guests experience in the course of their trip, the question of "Where is the value?" is hardly a question at all. I've lost count of how many guests have expressed to me how worthwhile their experience has been. So what is it? What makes a Backroads trip so well worth the price?
If the power of an engine can be measured by how fast it goes from 0 to 60, then a relationship with a Backroads co-leader runs at lightning speed. Meeting your co-leaders isn’t like meeting your average stranger. That first handshake says, “We are now friends, family, coworkers, confidants and sounding boards, and I have your back no matter what.” This is the best friend you just met.
My friend stands at my side eagerly pumping the brakes of his sleek road bike; ahead is another divide in the road. We are in the Sierra del Rosario forest, a birdwatcher's paradise and nest of Las Terrazas eco-community, close enough to reach Havana by pedal--easy enough if you are a passionate Cuban cyclist, but it still highlights your struggle (and that of your compatriots) to live a life with no vehicle of your own.
As a Trip Leader, a phrase I find myself coming back to often when speaking to guests or potential guests about traveling with Backroads is some version of, "We take care of all of the annoying aspects of travel to let you enjoy the good stuff." This philosophy applies to every trip Backroads offers, but after leading trips for two years, I can see no time that it's more valuable than when my guests are traveling with kids.
When I decided to embark on my first Backroads adventure, I was not a biker. I was not even particularly athletic. I was a 24-year-old, newly single teacher in Tampa, Florida. I had just spent months planning the June wedding of my dreams, but I knew something was not right. I called off my engagement and was at a loss of what to do with my newfound freedom. My summer of 1988 was now wide open.