Recent grad hits Europe on two wheels 

On the surface, Nathan Hughes (‘19) is a lifelong rural Kansan who has never been out of the U.S. and who this summer suddenly found himself traveling from Denmark to Greece. Alone. On a bike. 

But it’s a trip four years in the making, and he started his journey well prepared with what he learned and experienced while a student at Pitt State. 

“This journey combines everything I’ve learned, and everything I love, so far: photography, communications, web design, adventure, fitness, cycling, a curiosity about other places and cultures, with the goal of putting it all in a book I design when I return,” he said. 

The title of his journey: The Flatlander Project. 

Nathan

“It’s possible” 

Hughes grew up in rural Crawford County between McCune (pop. 406) and Girard (pop. 2,707), where the TransAmerican Bike Trail brings riders from east coast and west several times a week throughout the season. 

"I’d see people riding by, and my grandparents and parents hosted riders sometimes,” he recalled. One, a recent high school graduate, was biking from Oregon to North Carolina. It was the first time I thought, ‘This is something I could do. It’s possible’.” 

As a cross country runner in high school, he bought an old steel bike from a garage sale and found he could go further faster. 

“I became known as the guy who would ride from his parent’s house to town,” he said. “You can see more. You can get in tune with the environment and explore.” 

He enrolled at Pitt State, majoring in graphic communications in the Department of Graphics and Imaging Technologies, where he would begin honing his photography, design, and communication skills. Associate Professor Rion Huffman praised his photo skills and approach.

"His talent really came through in the studio and with environmental portraiture," Huffman said. "I could always look forward to seeing his unique perspective coming through in the images he would turn in for class."

Hughes joined the climbing club and worked out with the cross-country team. In his sophomore year, he and members of the team biked across Missouri. 

“It was very thrown together – we put supplies in milk crates and laundry buckets, and we camped along the way wherever we could find a place,” he said. “I had never done anything like that, had no idea what was going on.” 

But he loved it. 

Upping his game 

He began hosting international riders passing through Pittsburg and built a rapport – looked at their bikes, paid attention to their kits and set-ups, asked them about their countries, made note of what challenged them.  

The summer after his junior year, he and his roommate upped their game: they planned and executed a 2,000-mile ride on the Pacific Coast Bike from Vancouver, Canada, to Tijuana, Mexico. It took 28 days and was entirely self-supported. It was the first time he had flown and it was daunting.  

His goal: to use what he had learned in school to photograph and interview one person every day of the trip. When he returned, he shared the outcome of that trip in a TEDx Talk at Pitt State. 

And, Hughes, who most recently worked at Brookside Studios Custom Web Development and Digital Marketing in Tulsa, began planning his next ride: Europe. 

“Once you tour for awhile, it becomes what you do, who you are,” he said. “You just start peddling. The rest takes care of itself.” 

That may be a bit of an exaggeration — for months, Hughes planned what he would need, how he would get it there, the route he would take, and how he would document the people and places he saw. He also drew on the expertise of local bike shop owner Roger Lomshek. 

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“Moments in time” 

“My photo equipment weights more than everything else. But setting out with a goal to document, you just wind up learning so much about the world in that way,” Hughes said. “Studio work is fun, but the reason I started taking photos was to stop time for just a moment in certain places and share it with others.” 

To that end, he created a website, The Flatlander Project, which tracks his ride in real time on a map, and plans to use it to share photos and journal entries as he’s able. He makes almost daily posts on Instagram and Facebook. 

His project very nearly got derailed when he arrived in Denmark to discover the airline had lost all of his luggage but his bike. Once reunited with his possessions, he soon met new challenges: the heavy traffic in Amsterdam. The torrential rain and wet, muddy farm roads in Belgium. Language barriers. 

“Having been on the road for awhile now, though, it’s been everything I wanted it to be,” he said. “I’ve had days where I’ve never wanted to quit more than anything in my life, and days where I would want to be anywhere else.” 

As of 2:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 23, he had made it through Luxembourg to his sixth country, France. Still ahead: Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, and Greece. 

He hopes to stay with fellow Gorillas living abroad along the route. 

“The nice thing is, people are pretty receptive to you when they see you arrive on a bike,” he said. “They know it’s a pure thing with no ulterior motives, and that it took some effort for you to get here." 

Associate Professor Rion Huffman is watching his progress and is proud.

"He was a talented student, and I could always look forward to seeing his unique perspective coming through in the images he would turn in for class," Huffman said. "His talent really came through in the studio and also with environmental portraiture. I'm so happy for him, and I’m living vicariously through him on this journey. I would love to do something similar some day, so I’ll be asking him for pointers!" 

 

 

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