4000 Miles of Portraits:
A New Spin on Traveling with Diabetes

Greetings from Annalisa van den Bergh in West Yellowstone, Montana. It is July 18, 2017, and Annalisa, 25, is approximately 900 miles from Astoria, Oregon, her final destination. She started her 4000-mile, three-month journey in mid-May in Yorktown, VA on her bicycle, an REI Novara Randonee, with her Canon Mirrorless camera in tow. Her goal? To tell a story about America through the portraits she takes each day of the people she meets.

And that’s the easy part. Annalisa, a RISD grad, a graphic designer and a native New Yorker also has type 1 diabetes (T1D), so along with her insulin pump and her continuous glucose monitor, she is usually carrying around an extra 10 to 15 pounds of diabetes gear (“it’s not really something you can pare down,” she said) in her 83-pound pack. It took her weeks to plan the diabetes aspect of the trip—her father sends her packages every two weeks—but the payoff has been divine. “I just find it so liberating to use your own energy to go from point A to point B,” said Annalisa. “I think it’s the best way to travel.”

The Berrie Center caught up with Annalisa, (a patient of Dr. Lauren Golden) by cell phone and talked about her colorful project 4000milesofportraits.com and what it’s like to plan a trip of such magnitude with diabetes. What you are about to read is one woman’s story and experiences. If you too are interested in long-distance cycling, please check with your doctor or diabetes educator to come up with a care plan of your own.

What Gave You This Idea?

I had actually done a similar trip in 2008. It was a team cycling camp with two counselors and a group of 8 of us went from Seattle to New York. It was before I was diagnosed, and it was basically the highlight of my life. This time I’m riding with friends.

What motivates you to cycle 8 hours a day?

I have a lot of reasons I went on this trip. For one, my mother passed away three years ago and just seeing her in the hospital bed in the ICU made me want to take advantage of my own health, and that I’m able to do this. But the second reason is my diabetes. Ever since I did the first trip people would ask me if I would ever do it again. I didn’t think it would be very easy with T1D, but I just kind of wanted to challenge myself.

This is no ordinary trip out of town. How do you even begin to prepare?

The main concern is having enough supplies on hand. So I calculated where I was going to be every two weeks or so and had my dad send me pre-made packages of supplies including disposable Omnipod pods, Dexcom sensors, skin tac wipes, test strips and monkey grease—to remove the grease from my hands.  

I pick up my Humalog pens at CVS pharmacies along the way. These are just for backup if my pump fails - which it has once. (I ordered a new one. Great customer service—they overnighted it to Pueblo, Colorado, the next town I was in.)

FYI: Insulin out of the fridge goes bad after 28 days so you can't carry a lot with you. I keep my insulin in an insulated bag and put a cold water bottle on top of it. I'm still not sure why I can't just get insulin at pharmacies along the way. For Lantus and Humalog vials, my insurance will only give me a 90 day supply a certain amount of times a year. So my dad has some stock piled in his fridge in NY and ships it to me when needed. Total pain and extra money!

What have some of the highlights been?

After being in the flatlands of Kansas and Colorado for so long, there was one point where it started getting hilly and we could see in the background the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

We went over the crest of one particular hill and saw the snow packed Rocky’s in the distance. I nearly cried when I saw that because it meant we were finally in the West. It was unreal. It’s not as if I ever doubted myself, but we’re here in Montana right now and I’m surprised at myself.

We used the Adventure Cycling Association’s maps and on the Transamerica Trail, and I actually crossed paths with another type 1 diabetic. He needed more Dexcom sensors and I needed more insulin, so we traded on the side of the road.

Sometimes we used warmshowers.org, a community of cyclists and hosts, but we were surprised that so many people just opened up their homes to us. In  Kansas, a lot of Churches just opened their doors to us. There’s an awful lot of kindness towards cyclists out there.

Any advice for someone motivated enough to follow on your bike path?

I think if you really want to prepare your body, you should go on some 50-mile rides so your body starts getting used to biking all day. Be prepared with your supplies and calculate how much of everything you’ll need for each span of time. And make sure to keep in touch with your diabetes care team throughout your journey!

Follow Annalisa through her portraits at 4000milesofportraits.com and at instagram.com/annalisavdbergh