Rigell ’16 Puts a New Spin on the College Trek

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Laura Rigell '16, left, on her 18-day trek from Tennessee to Swarthmore.

The standard maiden voyage to college for the first time is classified by manic parents, a long car ride, and anxiety to arrive. But for Laura Rigell ’16, her freshman year adventure started with the journey.

Rigell and her friend, Alex Durand, set out for Philadelphia from the northeast corner of Tennessee on July 31st, equipped only with their bikes, sleeping gear, and some church phone numbers to serve as lodging. As two young women traveling alone, Rigell said the two of them expected some disapproval from people they met along the way. However, “the generosity that people showed us was inspiring and confirmed by belief in the goodness of people,” Rigell said.

Along the 834-mile, 18-day trek, Rigell and Durand usually camped in the yards of various churches, but ended up staying everywhere from parks to the “famed apartment of the ‘Cookie Lady’” in Ashton, VA. For the unfamiliar, June Curry came to be known as the “Cookie Lady” when she started hosting migrant cyclers in the 1970’s, when cross-country biking first started to emerge. Since then her apartment has become a legendary collection of left-behind cycling paraphernalia. Curry herself died this June, but left her legacy in the house that still takes in travelers.

Rigell and Durand paid only $35 each for accommodations over the entire trip – less than bus tickets to get from Boston to Swat. Though Rigell had never ridden longer than 20 miles in a day before, the two took naturally to the road. Following maps published by the Adventure Cycling Association, Rigell and Durand rolled through Virginia, Maryland, DC, and Pennsylvania, logging 95 miles on their longest day. “Though we had some estimates of our daily mileages,” Rigell said, “we really didn’t have any idea what to expect or when we would get to Philadelphia.”

While the pair averaged about 45 miles per day, their longer days were some of the most memorable – apparently sweat helps bring out the kindness of strangers. They pulled into Fredericksburg, VA after a particularly long day, and received an inspiring welcome. Rigell tells the story:

“I must have looked pretty worn and the man in front of me in line insisted that he put my drink on his bill, after paying he proceeded to tell me that he was homeless and knew what it meant to be thirsty. As we trudged the final stretch to the church where we were staying, a police car slowed down beside us. The policewoman invited us to fill our water bottles and shower in the local fire department.  The next morning, the woman whom we had contacted at the church talked with us for a while and then convinced us to accept $20 from her to go have breakfast at a diner she recommended.”

This type of kindness from strangers defined the bicycling experience for Rigell, which was the culmination of the two friends’ yearlong efforts in environmental organizing and sustainable living. Leading up to the trip, the two of them engaged in a number of other endeavors to reduce their environmental impact, including eating solely local foods for a month.

The two had moved to Tennessee the year before to work with environmental organizers there. At the beginning of the year, they decided to do everything they could to reduce their footprint, and followed through in every way they could think of.

Of the experience as a whole, Rigell turns to a recently read quote from Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey that she says she understands more deeply now: “[The journey] would even be in a sense more genuine, since one would be following more clearly, in a closer intimacy, the various contours by which the surface of the earth is wrinkled.” After nearly 3 weeks hugging country roads through a small-framed road bike, Rigell and Durand have more than found this intimacy with the topography of the east coast.

Photos courtesy of Laura Rigell.


  1. I also chose to bicycle to college. I plan to bicycle to where ever I find work or my heart takes me after college. Props to you both.

  2. Your parents must be specially proud of your accomplishment and determination. May God always be with you both in your travels.

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