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Retired trucker shifts gears to long-haul biking with 16,000-mile trek

Casey Zmich likes to say he traded 18 wheels for two.

The retired longhaul truck driver returned home to Cheektowaga last week after logging 16,000 miles during a yearlong bicycle tour spanning the U.S.

"I wanted to stay healthy for retirement and see the country by bicycle, instead of from a truck cab," said Zmich, 66.

He retired in 2009, after 35 years hauling freight around the country, but started to develop osteoarthritis in his knees. Spin classes at the Southtowns Family YMCA in 2014 got him interested in the low-impact exercise of bicycling. He joined Buffalo's cycling community, met new friends and figured the rest of the country would be just as welcoming.

So in July 2016, he set out on his Surly Long Haul Trucker 30-speed touring bike, a fitting model given Zmich's prior profession.

After a trip to Toronto and back, he headed east along the Erie Canal and down the Hudson River Valley. After going north to Montreal from Lake Champlain, he headed down the St. Lawrence Seaway then south on the Great Allegheny Passage to Washington D.C.

From there he went to the southernmost point in the U.S., Key West, Fla., and west across the southwest to San Diego. He traveled north along the Pacific Coast Highway where he made some of his favorite memories riding among the giant redwood trees of Northern California, particularly the Avenue of the Giants.

Casey Zmich returned to Western New York last week after more than a year touring the U.S. by bicycle.

"When we started we just couldn't keep our heads from looking up at how tall these trees were," he said. "It made me feel as if I was in 'The Wizard of Oz.' It was as if they were going to come alive at any moment."

At a nearby campground called Elk's Prairie, he awoke up to find herds of bull elk standing in the fields.

Alaska was another highlight, he said, mainly for the challenges it presented.

"It tested me because it was all different kinds of climates -- wet, cold, warm as you get further inland and you get into the Yukon," he said. "It's a good test, especially if you're going to Denali, to use your smarts against the bears. The bears are everywhere."

At campsites, he learned to use bear-resistent "food lockers" provided to store food and scraps overnight.

"Anything that has any scent to it, any smell, you've got to be careful with that because they can smell anything," he said. "Anything that smells sweet they'll find it, even deodorant or toothpaste."

Riding through the remote Yukon Territory required carrying six days' worth of food and water in his saddlebags, which pushed the weight of his bike to about 160 pounds. The water had to be boiled and filtered before it was consumed so he wouldn't catch "beaver fever."

"I wanted to take every precaution I could to not get sick," he said.

Zmich estimates he camped about half the nights on his trip, including behind churches, fire halls and service stations. One night in a small Alaskan town called Tok, he camped behind a service station with 20 other cyclists and rode with them for some long stretches.

"Everyone had a different agenda though," he said. "Some wanted to go faster, some wanted to stay here or there and I had my agenda so I would keep on going each day."

An app called WarmShowers was also useful for connecting with hosts willing to take in a traveling bicyclist for a night. He met cyclists from at least a dozen other countries, including a Spanish filmmaker who shared with him movies from around the world.

For a daily average of 70 miles riding, he packed light, carrying a stove, butane canister and a pot to cook frozen vegetables for dinner most nights. Packets of dehydrated soups and energy bars were also staples, along with fresh fruit, bran cereal and coffee from McDonald's, where he would take advantage of free Wi-Fi.

A "stuff sack" sleeping bag rated for zero degrees, along with a rollup air mattress and blowup pillow were his bedding. Clothing had to be light, brightly-colored and made of nylon, but also included his distinctive cowboy hat decorated with turkey feathers and wild Russian boar tusks.

"You don't have very much room so you have to make sure you can ball it up real small," he said of his gear. "You don't want to carry too much weight."

He navigated with maps from Adventure Cycling Association, a nonprofit headquartered in Missoula, Mont.

After spending late June and early July in Alaska, Zmich took a ferry from Skagway, Alaska to Bellingham, Wash., because there too many forest fires in British Columbia. He returned to Buffalo via St. Paul, Minn. and Southern Ontario.

He credits the trip with bringing his blood pressure down to normal levels, giving him unbridled energy and healing his aching knees.

"I like what people say: 'You look happy and healthy. How old are you?' I say, 'I'm 66 years young and I'm going back to 16,'" he said.

But Zmich's wanderlust isn't satiated. Next, he plans to tour South America, and maybe Poland, his parents' homeland.

But mainly he hopes his story serves as inspiration for others to exercise, find their passion and not overindulge in unhealthy eating.

"Everybody likes to drink, everybody likes to have chicken wings and pizza," he said. "But don't overdo it. Eat good foods and move. Our bodies were made to move not to sit still."

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