By Audrey Alfson
Over the course of 11 years Houston has become accustomed to visitors traveling thousands of miles to attend the Festival of Owls. This year, in fact, award winners from Taiwan, Germany and Kenya flew in to receive their honors. And bird enthusiasts drove from as far away as Texas to take in the festivities. But they had never had a guest arrive by bicycle. Until now.
Over a year ago, on Jan. 15, 2012, 19-year-old Jude Cundiff set out from Los Angeles on his 1990 Trek headed East. With no real itinerary other than to travel across the country on his bike for a year, Jude found himself first in Austin, Texas (via places like Joshua Tree National Park and Tucson, Ariz.) where he stayed for three months with friends and modified his bike for further adventures. Since then Jude hasn’t set up camp for more than a few days anywhere.
With only a compass and a well worn map, Jude left Austin in April 2012 and once again set his sights East, stopping in places like Washington D.C., Portland, Maine and Detroit, Michigan, sometimes visiting friends, sometimes making new ones, as he wound his way through back roads and highways.
Last Thursday, Jude left La Crosse and pointed his bike West toward Los Angeles. When he rode into Houston that afternoon, the eve of the Festival, and made camp under the picnic pavilion at the Nature Center, Jude had no idea what was waiting for him when he woke up on Friday.
I met Jude when I arrived at the Nature Center Friday morning to fulfill my volunteer duties for the fest. Even though the nature center was already busy with the hustle and bustle of people on a mission, he wasn’t hard to see. At six foot two (or maybe six foot four, he’s not sure), his lanky frame loomed over others in the room. Windburned and frostbitten cheeks glowed pink against his ready smile, and when he spoke a hint of Louisiana – his birthplace – could be detected.
I was actually looking for him. I had just spent the previous few minutes staring with amazement at his bicycle as it rested against the concrete landscaping in front of the nature center: Two wheels, a seat and handle bars peeking out from a striking mixture of bumper stickers, license plates, bungee cords and memories.
After a November 2011 near-death bicycle accident left his bicycle totaled, a tooth broken, his jaw broken in three places and repaired with a metal plate and four screws, and a damaged helmet to prove its importance, Jude decided to live his dreams. He had always wanted to ride his bicycle on Route 66, but during his recovery he expanded that to include the whole country.
He bought a sleeping bag, tent and bike trailer, loaded up his bike, and with $200 in his pocket began his journey in January 2012. A bicycle mechanic by trade in Los Angeles, the trip has refined his skills by necessity.
“I went from a basic mechanic to an expert mechanic,” Jude said with a smile, recalling the handcrafted rims, frames and countless replaced tires and puncture holes. Two five gallon pails strapped to either side of the rear wheel for storage attest to his ingenuity.
He has a cell phone and also keeps in touch with friends and family via Facebook when he can borrow an internet connection to check in. Any money he has comes to him from donations from those he meets along the way and what he may find. Once, $57 in a wallet along a deserted road in New Mexico, or two shiny quarters that caught his eye on the sidewalk. Sometimes a friend will send him money through PayPal if he has a bike repair expense he can’t cover.
Along the way, Jude has discovered a love for Austin, Texas, Wisconsin, Vermont and New Hampshire and a firm desire to avoid any future trips to the East Coast “Megatropolis” as he calls it.
“The best part is the people you meet along the way,” Jude said. The worst part? “Failures or struggles with biking or camping, the cold and people you meet along the way,” he adds with a wry smile, thinking of not-so-friendly drivers.
Right now, it’s all good. In exchange for volunteering his time at the festival, Jude received an Owl Fest t-shirt and an admission button, as well as multiple offers of a warm bed and hot meals for a few days. Jude smiles. “Really,” he says, “the best part is the experiences you might never know about otherwise, like the Owl Fest.”
There was a winter storm warning on Monday, March 4, but Jude planned a departure none-the-less, heading West. “I was in Wisconsin when that last one came through and I’m here,” he said. “I’ve got pretty good gear. It’s not the best, but I’m still alive.”