Berkeley 12-year-old bikes entire West Coast to combat climate change

Zeke Gerwein began biking recreationally when he was nine years old. Three years later, he biked from the California-Mexico border to Seattle.
Carli Baker/Senior Staff
Zeke Gerwein began biking recreationally when he was nine years old. Three years later, he biked from the California-Mexico border to Seattle.

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On a coastal highway in Southern California, drivers sped by in the comfort of their cars, unaware of the small 12-year-old boy biking two miles per hour downhill through forceful headwinds.

This was only one day in Berkeley resident Zeke Gerwein’s 1,851-mile-long bike trip up the West Coast this summer.

For more than a month, Zeke rode his bicycle from the U.S.-Mexico border to Seattle. As part of his Bar Mitzvah social action project, Zeke decided to use his biking trip to draw awareness to climate change, raising more than $2,000 in donations so far for the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club.

A growing ambition

Zeke started biking recreationally when he was 9 years old. It was not long until he began biking as far north as he could, taking daylong biking trips of 40 to 60 miles with his father, said Katya Gerwein, Zeke’s mother.

Zeke needed no encouragement from his parents in developing his interest in climate change or long biking adventures. Sometimes, Katya Gerwein said, they would have to discourage him.

“He would say, ‘Can I bike to Napa?’ ” she said. “No, you’re 10. You can’t bike to Napa.”

“Can I bike a mile?” Zeke would ask.

“OK,” she’d say.

“So what’s really the difference between a mile and 40 miles?” Zeke would reply. “You can’t see me. I have a cellphone. What’s really the difference?”

Naturally, it wasn’t easy for Zeke’s parents to allow him to go on such a long journey.

“He had to do a lot of convincing to convince me it was safe,” said Katya Gerwein.

After months of persuasion, Zeke’s parents finally approved the trip. Soon after, Zeke approached the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club about setting up donations with the organization. Michelle Myers, director of the chapter, noticed Zeke demonstrated a wealth of knowledge about climate change, including some information she wasn’t entirely aware of.

“I just wanted to give him a blow horn and have him walk around and talk to people,” Myers said.

After hearing about Zeke’s ride through the Sierra Club, Councilmember Kriss Worthington proposed the City Council honor Zeke with a Proclamation of Honor, which it did at its Oct. 1 meeting. Zeke is the youngest person Worthington has honored in his 17 years on the council, Worthington said.

“Many people might think of doing such an ambitious thing, but they wouldn’t actually do it, because it’s very physically and emotionally demanding to actually follow through with it,” Worthington said. “It took a lot of discipline on his part.”

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Zeke Gerwin, here with his friend Jonnie, trekked from the US-Mexico border all the way to Seattle with his bike. (Sue Phan/Courtesy)

Biking up the West Coast

Katya Gerwin said most of the inspiration and planning for his biking adventures come from Zeke himself.

It took him nine months to plan his own 1,851-mile trail, using maps he ordered from the Adventure Cycling Association to plot rest stops, restaurants and camping locations.

On June 16, he set off from the fence at the U.S.-Mexico border with Ashmodai, his bike, which is named after the “King of Demons” from a story about King Solomon.

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Zeke traveled with one or more companions at every leg of his trip, alternating between riding with his father, grandfather and various family friends. At least twice a day, Zeke would call home to update his parents about his safety.

Each morning before sunrise, Zeke would leave from his campsite or family member’s home and bike anywhere from 40 to 80 miles in a day. Over the course of his trip, Zeke was impressed by the changes in landscape, from the shores of Southern California to the Lost Coast in Northern California, which was one of his favorite destinations during the trip.

“The (geological) diversity was sort of cool to see, the contrast between the Lost Coast and Los Angeles within 700 miles,” Zeke said.

A few weeks into the trip, Zeke overcame what is known locally as “The Wall,” a hill on the Lost Coast that has a slope of about 24 percent for a quarter of a mile — a difficult feat with the amount of supplies he had to carry on his bike.

Despite facing harsh headwinds, steep inclines and a few stops for bicycle repairs, Zeke reached his final destination of Seattle on July 30, the end of a 45-day trip that included a brief break for a family vacation to Hawaii from July 4 to 11.

After meeting many kind strangers during his trip and staying with generous family members and friends along the way, Zeke said he has gained a more positive view of humanity. One woman in Washington, for instance, gave him some money directly to donate to the Sierra Club.

“The generosity of giving up the money that would have come to him is beautiful,” Worthington said.

The next endeavor?

Worthington and Myers already have high expectations for Zeke’s future.

Zeke, however, doesn’t yet know what he wants to be when he “grows up.” Right now, he’s just enjoying his algebra class, reading as many books as he can and, of course, planning his next trip.

For his next adventure, Zeke has already started planning his route along the Sierra Cascades and is trying to find enough people to bike with up north and all the way back down to Berkeley.

“The sky’s really the limit for him,” Myers said. “Zeke for president. Why not?”

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Zeke was awarded a Proclamation of Honor by Berkeley City Council last month. (Jonathan Farmer/Courtesy)

Tara Hurley covers city news. Contact her at [email protected].

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