YOUNGSTOWN – Lee Packman has visited 1,000-year-old temples in Myanmar (formerly Burma), been caught in dangerous downpours in New Zealand and stretched his muscles to the limits on the mountains of Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands in the Adriatic Sea – all on a bicycle.
In just over a decade, the Youngstown resident has visited countries in Europe, Africa, South and Central America, Asia and Australia.
And at each stop, he immerses himself in the local culture, meeting apprentice teen Buddhist monks in Myanmar; tasting the specialties, like impala and kudu in South Africa; and experiencing the terrain firsthand, like the treacherous mountain paths along the shores of the Mediterranean in Turkey.
It isn’t easy to catch up with this fit, tanned 71-year-old grandfather of six.
“I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica, and I don’t plan to go there – too cold,” he said with a laugh.
In addition, Packman has visited every state in the United States and all 11 Canadian provinces – some on bike, some not.
“I think you see things up close and personal from a bicycle that you just don’t get from a tour bus or driving through in a car,” he said.
“It gives you the opportunity to interact with the local people more. It’s like when I ride my bike in the fall down Route 18 here, and I can smell the apple and peach trees and grapes. I think the bike gives you the chance to get in touch with the land a little bit better, and that’s what I like.”
Upon retiring after 32 years of teaching biology, physics and math at LaSalle High School, Packman segued into an entirely different career – that of a figure skating judge and computer data specialist for the United States Figure Skating Association and Skate Canada. This work still takes him up and down the Eastern Seaboard year-round, to competitions held from Southern Ontario to North Carolina.
After moving to Youngstown in 1971, Packman and his wife, Dorothy, raised four daughters. Margaret, Kathryn and Sharon got their father interested in figure skating when they were young, which eventually led to his second career, while youngest daughter, Mary, was the one who set him on the road to bike travel.
“Mary was pretty athletic, and when she was 13, she and I went on a three-day bike trip in Vermont through Vermont Bicycle Tours,” he recalled. “The next year, we did a trip through VBT to the Chesapeake Bay. Mary and I just went on those first two trips together, then I started going all over the country. In 2002, I went to Austria – my first bike trip in Europe.”
Packman spent about three weeks on that trip, renting a car after the bike trip was over and visiting the site of his great-grandfather’s home in Germany as well as his grandfather’s German birthplace, which is currently a part of Poland. His knowledge of German came in handy. He also speaks French and has picked up Italian.
He keeps in shape by lifting weights year-round and doing a little biking around the area when he’s preparing for a big trip, he said.
“I also do some reading to see what the geography of the area is like, mostly online,” he said.
He said he encountered some of his toughest challenges in Mississippi, where “it rained so hard we were soaked in two minutes, and we had rain gear on. The same thing happened in New Zealand, which made the roads very dangerous. The Napa Valley/Sonoma Valley was tough. Turkey was tough because it’s so mountainous. Nova Scotia was difficult because we rode 75 miles in one day.”
Packman has been on more than 40 bike trips through Vermont Bicycle Tours and Backroads Bicycle Tours, which provide interpreters and usually two tour guides in foreign countries. The tours also provide the bicycles.
“Europe is for people interested in the historical buildings,” Packman said. “My wife and I have been there several times. South America is so totally different – it’s for those who want to see the natural environment. The Galapagos Islands are fabulous. Asia is very different, it’s for those interested in very different cultures. You see the same English influence that you see in the U.S. and in Canada, in Australia and New Zealand. If they didn’t have the accents, you’d swear you were in Western New York.”
Packman said he toured Panama in December and Myanmar in March by bicycle, and the couple is headed to Turkey next, but you won’t find his wife on a bicycle.
“Then, in June, we’re going to the Moselle River Valley, which runs between Germany and France and is known for its Riesling wine, and I love Riesling,” he said with a smile.
He added that he stayed in youth hostels during his earlier excursions but enjoys the resorts he stays in now.
“I’d like to see the northwest area of India someday and Bhutan, which is a biking and hiking trip through the Himalayas – I’m very interested in that culture,” Packman said.
His recent 11-day trip to Myanmar took him through little towns in remote areas of the country.
“Kids would line up and wave and smile as we rode through,” he recalled. “We were the ninth group since January and the last group before the rainy season. Before that first group came through in January, it had been 25 to 30 years since the villagers had seen Westerners because their government had shut the country down to tourism.
“We visited Buddhist temples, where we had to be absolutely barefoot to enter – no shoes and socks out of respect to Buddha,” he recalled. “The men all wear ‘longyi’ there – a floor-length piece of material tied around and rolled at the waist. We wore them, too. We also had the chance to talk to Buddhist monks.
“There are very few paved roads in the cities, and once you get to the countryside, there are even fewer, and you see that all of the road-building is done by hand,” he added. “They bring stone and gravel in by the basket, and the tar is liquefied over a wood fire.
“The beer there is cheaper than soda,” he said. “We visited one country store where we wanted to sample the local fruit juices, and the owner wouldn’t take our money. She waved it off.
“The country is just starting to open up [to tourism] now,” he said. “I’m just glad I got the chance to see it before it becomes vastly different.”
Packman has brought home a few mementos from his travels – a wall hanging purchased at the Great Wall of China; a colorful, handmade basket from Panama; a beautiful cotton rug from Turkey; and photographs to help him remember his world travels.
“Sometimes I take a lot of pictures, sometimes not – if I get involved in doing things, I don’t take as many pictures,” he said.
Packman, once a teacher of science and now a student of the world, invites questions about biking abroad at email@example.com. He said he’s always interested in learning of others who might want to join him on future trips.