Michael Saari measures his life in hills. Up. Down. Rest. Repeat.
The ritual is simple, yet strenuous; one he’s perfected during his three years traveling by a recumbent bicycle of his own design. Faced with a hill, he unhitches a heavy trailer, filled with everything he owns, attached to the back of the bike. Leaving the trailer at the bottom of the hill, Saari sits back in the bike’s reclined seat and pedals to the top. He returns by foot to retrieve the trailer. At the top once again, he reconnects bike to trailer, marvels at the view and prepares to enjoy the momentum of the downhill ride.
Saari, who goes by Michael-On-A-Cycle, left his home in Wakefield, Michigan, three years ago, with one motivation in mind.
“I was wondering, how can a person be free? No bills, no work, no nothing, but still make it; still have food, still survive, still travel,” he says. “This is my way of being free.”
Saari’s bike, actually a tricycle, serves as both his transportation and his home. The reclined seat and three wheels give him more stability and comfort than an upright bike, and the trailer he tows holds all of his gear, including a tent that shelters him every night. With Saari seated on the bike, the whole thing weighs around 600 pounds.
That may seem like a lot of weight to travel with, but Saari has worked hard over the years to cut the unnecessary material items from his life. This less-is-more mind-set inspired him to start his journey.
After being married for 20 years, living in a typical house and enjoying all the amenities of a traditional home for most of his life, Saari decided it was time to make a change.
“One day I just realized we’re going to be working forever. We paid off the house, the car, the kid’s gone to college and is married with his own career,” he says. “But even though everything is paid for, we’re just going to keep paying and paying and spending all the money we make buying stupid things and ending up with a house full of junk.”
In an attempt to simplify their lifestyle, Saari asked his wife to consider installing solar panels, planting a garden and raising animals. Unfortunately, she didn’t share his goals, and a confluence of factors caused their marriage to end. It turned out that this was just the push Saari needed to fully adopt the lifestyle he craved.
“I didn’t want anything. I didn’t fight for my half of anything,” he says. “I gave her the house, I sold my truck and I bought a bike.”
From there, he hit the road and kept working on the bike as he traveled, making the necessary changes and additions to turn the bike into a home. Three years later, the bike is equipped with unique features, including a solar panel, flashing lights, turn signals, several cameras, an electric motor and a horn. Saari also keeps his speaker pumping music during his rides and uses a GPS to navigate.
The bike certainly draws a crowd, something Saari is happy to encourage. After leaving Michigan, he pedaled to Wisconsin to share his bike with cyclists at a recumbent bike rally, where his creation won the Most Unique Bike award. Last month, Saari visited Boulder to attend University of Colorado Boulder first annual Bike Fest, where he chatted with students about his lifestyle, and even let a few people ride his bike.
Jumping into a new self-sufficient lifestyle also helped Saari leave Michigan to be closer to his mother. For more than 10 years, his mother had been staying in an assisted living facility in Colorado after a brain aneurism and seizure prevented her from living on her own. Saari welcomed the opportunity to spend as much time with her as possible.
“I came out here to see her, tell her goodbye and give her some hugs,” he says.
The trip west to Colorado took about six months with Saari riding 20 miles a day. When he stopped in a town, he spent one to two weeks there, relying on the kindness of strangers to survive. His strong background in building homes and furniture allows him to make money on the road; he trades labor for a place to pitch his tent, and, if he’s lucky, a meal or two. One police officer gifted Saari a heavy wool blanket to keep him warm at night, and some workers at an event allowed the hungry traveler to cook his zucchini on their grill and shared a meal with him.
“I’ve ended up meeting some of the most amazing people out there,” Saari says.
Still, he is no stranger to suspicious looks and weird questions. He moves often to avoid scrutiny from residents of the towns through which he passes. One person even called the police after mistaking Saari’s trailer for a gurney. Often, these encounters lead to discussions of homelessness, something Saari struggles to define.
“I’m not sure if I’d be classified as homeless since I have my home with me, but I guess in a sense I am,” he says. “But I want to show people that if you’re going to be homeless you can still have some stuff, have some comfort, have some security with you.”
Although Saari’s bike offers some shelter from the elements, he cannot ignore the fact that another Colorado winter is fast approaching. After arriving a year ago, he planned to head south before the cold weather could complicate his travels. But he finds himself here still, enjoying the time spent with his mother, yet facing a second challenging winter. He hopes to journey to California later this month.
From there, he’ll look for a job on a ship headed to Hawaii, where an acquaintance offered him a place to stay. But getting his bike across the ocean is a whole new challenge.
“I have a few options. I could turn it into a submarine and go underwater, put pontoons on it and go on top of the water or turn it into a hot air balloon and float over the ocean,” he says.
Jokes aside, Saari would like to work his way across and take the bike with him in a shipping container. As far as long-term goals are concerned, when he has the time he’d love to write a book about his alternative lifestyle. When it comes to finding solutions to the challenges in his life, Saari wants people to know that he’s “not crazy, just creative.” If he can make it up those hills, he can make it through anything.
“I remember getting to the top of about the 50th hill in a row,” he says. “I pedaled up to the top and it was the last one. I started crying. I could see downhill forever.
“You just have to keep going.”