Liam Garner always planned to travel.
“I always knew that I wanted to go on a big crazy adventure and run away after high school,” he said.
At 17, he set off solo on the adventure of a lifetime: biking the “Pan-American highway” from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to the southernmost point in Argentina, Ushuaia.
It took him 527 days, soaking in every destination.
“I’ve been more than surprised by more than a few countries, and I think everyone else would be, too,” he said.
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Now 19, Garner is slowly backpacking his way home to Southern California and sharing the highs and lows of his journey and lessons learned with USA TODAY.
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“When I was little, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s (syndrome) and that was a really humongous part in why I’ve always struggled in school and routine, and I think that was a really big part in why I’ve become so attracted to the idea of this big adventure away from civilization,” he said. “That was always my fantasy in the classroom that could help me get through it a little bit.”
camping and all of that kind of stuff,” he said. “Before I had a car, I used to bike everywhere. I would just bike somewhere, camp and go back home the next day. And that was originally how I started by bike touring unintentionally, on accident.”
“Eventually I did a bigger trip from L.A. to San Francisco, and that one took me eight days,” he added. “From that trip, I did a video series that went viral on TikTok and that kind of inspired me. Like wow, people actually care about this, and this is something amazing and really fun for me to do.”
Garner was further inspired by Jedidiah Jenkins’ best-selling book “To Shake the Sleeping Self,” which chronicles Jenkins’ life-changing bike trip from Oregon to Patagonia.
“I’m a first-generation immigrant from Mexico from my mom’s side, and getting to go through Mexico and actually really living there for a significant portion of time … getting to learn the language and see my family and live with them and really connect with the culture was probably the highest point for me,” he said. “I’ve actually seen more Mexico than my mom ever has.”
“I was able to see 14 states of Mexico,” he said. “Every state was so distinctive and unique, and going on a bike is a special thing because you really get to see the land as it changes, and you get to smell the smells and touch the ground.”
“My top three cities were San Francisco, Medellín and Mexico City. And my top three countries were Mexico, Colombia and Peru, I think,” he said, Mexico being his favorite.
“I think it’s really easy to create biases about foreign places with all the news,” he said. “It’s really easy for people to say, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t ever go there.’ I don’t think it’s fair for anyone to speak on a place or a person, anything, that they have never actually personally encountered … Don’t believe what you hear. Go see it for yourself.”
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“Progressively as I’ve gotten farther and farther on my trip and been away from home longer and longer, my mom, I think, has been adjusting more and more to it,” he said. “But the beginning phases of my trip, especially like when I first was getting robbed for the first time, my mom was mortified. I think I actually aged her by 10 years legitimately, and I feel really really guilty about it. But she’s been my staunchest supporter no matter what.”
“We actually just got robbed three days ago. This time, it wasn’t me. It was Chloe,” he said of his partner, Chloe Zimpelman, whom he met while biking through California. Zimpelman flew out to meet Garner after he completed his bike journey, and the two are backpacking home together. “They stole Chloe’s backpack with her passport, her phone and her wallet. Thankfully, we actually found the passport. They had tossed it.”
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“In Colombia, I was unlucky and I hit a pothole, going really fast downhill, that I didn’t see,” he said. “I ended up landing right on my head, and I ripped my ear open from landing on the pavement. I ripped my ear in half.”
“I got plastic surgery for that, and I had to get a bunch of stitches in my shoulder, my hip, where I rubbed away the skin, and that actually led to me being in Cali, Colombia, for over a month, in and out of the hospital,” he said. His insurance covered most of the medical expenses, and his mom took care of the rest. “It took an entire month plus to actually get back on the bike because it was such a bad injury. I was fully knocked out for about 15 minutes, unconscious.”
“But that’s the reality, you know,” he added. “I knew leaving on my trip that something could happen. And even if something awful, the most awful thing did happen, that was the sacrifice I was willing to make. I couldn’t have lived my life not doing this.”
“Subliminally,” he said. “I remember my first week back on the bike, I had a little bit of PTSD, even just biking slowly around the city. I was scared, like my heart was racing … I couldn’t even control it. It was like a physical fear.”
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“I was staying at a hostel at the time,” he said. “They took care of me, and they actually like rebandaged my wounds and fed me food and shipped packages for me and made phone calls for me.”
“People really have been the best part,” he said. “The kindness of strangers is the most refreshing, inspiring thing about traveling … I don’t know if I would have even survived the trip if I couldn’t have gotten help from strangers.”
He’s also grateful for a fellow cyclist he met while traveling through Oregon, Logan Rekedal. “We decided to bike together for a little bit and after a week of biking together, Logan told me, ‘Liam, if you would have me, I’ll bike with you as far as Central America,” Garner recalled. The two biked together for eight months. “Getting to have a partner through those parts of my trip was amazing.”
“My biggest advice for people would be to not get caught up on the money or the idea that (travel) is only for rich people,” he said. “I’ve been living on about $400 to $450 a month, and that’s less than my car insurance at home.” He started the trip with money he made off TikTok and has been carried by support through the member platform Patreon and one-off gifts.
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“I recognize the streets, and I remember stores and people recognize me and remember me and that’s not something that I had on the way down,” he said. “Everything was new. For pretty much the year after I left my house, going into Mexico, every single day I was getting farther from home … For the first time in over a year, I’m getting closer every day to my house, and that’s an exciting feeling.”
“I’m going to write a book,” he said, aiming to arrive home this summer. “I’m really excited to write a book, and I’m just as confident to do that as I was to do this trip.”
“I would love to do Europe to Asia or Africa, but I think that’s going to be a day in the future,” he said. “Hopefully I have some opportunities that I don’t know about yet waiting for me when I get home.”
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“Technically I am the youngest person to ever start then successfully finish biking the ‘Pan-American’ unsupported,” Garner said. “The reason it’s worded like that is because I started my trip in Alaska at a younger age than anyone who’s ever attempted and succeeded, but I didn’t finish at the youngest age of anyone who’s done it.”
Emmanuel Gentinett was the youngest person to cycle the “Pan-American highway,” which he started and completed while age 18, according to Guinness World Records. Garner hasn’t yet reached out to Guinness, but he may have set another record as well.
“I looked if I could find any info about someone with autism biking the Pan-American and as far as I can tell, there’s no info that exists,” he said. “That might be an unintentional record I broke.”
“People always ask me, ‘Oh, how did you even conceptualize biking for a year and a half? Like that must have been so overwhelming.’ For me, I wasn’t even thinking about that. I literally was just thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to Alaska and I’m going to bike for one day.’ And then the second day, ‘OK, I’m going to bike today, too.’ And every day, I took it day by day, and it became so easy.”
“I think if people would just believe in themselves, even if it seems improbable, they might really surprise themselves,” he added. “I picked an impossible thing to do just to say I was going to do it … If people just picked a goal, whether it was biking across the continent or getting a job, or writing a book or something, and they just said, ‘OK, I’m going to do this for a day and see how it goes,’ they would probably did it done.”