Commuting to work on a bicycle has plenty of perks. It's healthy, good for the environment and, depending where you're headed, often doesn't take much more time than driving.

Melissa Pritchard would know -- she's been biking to work for almost a year, even on days when several hundred miles have separated her from her next job assignment.

A 1997 graduate of Eugene's Sheldon and International high schools, Pritchard last August set off from Barcelona, Spain, on a bike tour across the world. Calling herself "the teacher on two wheels," she has covered more than 17,000 miles in locations such as Thailand, Tasmania and Australia -- and visited with about 5,000 students from international and local schools along the way.

"My adventure wouldn't be complete if I didn't include some sort of teaching along the way," Pritchard said over the phone from a McDonald's restaurant in Thermopolis, Wyo.

Her underlying message to the students she's met from around the world: Follow your dreams.

"Lots of people think I'm crazy for doing this, but as long as I enjoy it, that's what's important," Pritchard said. "(Cycling) is not everyone's cup of tea, but you should really pay attention to what your passions are in life and follow them. That's what I try to tell the students I meet."

Pritchard's current passion is to pedal back to her hometown of Eugene by Oct. 14 -- in time for her 35th birthday.

Pritchard taught elementary education at Benjamin Franklin International School in Barcelona for seven years prior to starting her solo bike trip. After graduating from International High School, Pritchard said she "really gravitated toward being around bilingual people and multicultural people."

On the website she's maintained throughout her trip -- called theloongwayhome.com -- Pritchard shares her experiences and various travel statistics -- such as miles logged, showers taken, average speeds and the cost of food items in different locales around the world.

She's shared the information she's collected with students and teachers at the schools she's visited. She said she hopes teachers can use her experiences to start new conversations and better connect with their students.

Estimating that the year-long trip would cost about $23,500, Pritchard used the extra money she made tutoring students to finance the trip, she explains on her website's list of FAQs. With no house, car or other expenses besides rent, Pritchard said life on the road is inexpensive.

"Once you start road biking, your life is pretty cheap; I'll bike so much that my biggest expense is food," she said. "I'm perfectly happy sleeping in my little tent instead of a 5-star hotel."

Pritchard's parents, Walter and Karen Pritchard of Eugene, said their daughter has been highly motivated from a young age, and associate her energy and personable attitude to being the middle of five children.

"She just has a knack for doing stuff that she wants to do," said Walter Pritchard, a retired financial advisor. "Sometimes, no matter what the consequences."

In high school, after quitting the volleyball team, Pritchard joined the school's cross-country team. Although she loved running and posted some of the team's top times, she wasn't able to contribute to the team's success -- because there were too few female participants to qualify for team scoring.

"That kind of tells the story right there," Walter Pritchard said. "When you're just doing it because you want to and there isn't really any reward or recognition other than having a good time."

Missy Pritchard has been no exercise slouch on her current adventure. Even while averaging 70 miles per day on her bicycle, she somehow found the time and energy to train for this year's New York Marathon in November.

"If you were a casual observer, you'd say, 'Is this woman nuts?'" said Bob Jackson, a family friend who in years past hired Pritchard to babysit his children. "She just seems to have boundless energy."

Anuncia Escala, a professor of Spanish at Oregon State University, experienced that energy firsthand when Pritchard, desperate to practice her Catalan, a language spoken in northeastern Spain, reached out to her. Originally from Barcelona, Escala happily agreed and began taking long walks along the river while the two spoke freely in Catalan.

"She was the type of person where I had to say, 'Oh Melissa, don't ask me any other questions, you're wearing me out!'" Escala said.

But Escala believes it's such energy that has allowed Pritchard to accomplish such an impressive bicycling feat.

"Some people, when preparing a trip like this, have to consider whether they're even capable of doing it," Escala said. "She doesn't have to consider that because she knows she is."

When Pritchard was planning her trip, Jackson made clear some of his safety worries about her going places "way off the tourist track." But once he learned about the vast network of supporters that Pritchard had lined up, Jackson said he realized she wouldn't be completely alone.

"She's very open to other cultures and has good antennae to pick up on things in place where she doesn't understand the language," said Jackson, adding that Pritchard is fluent in three languages: English, Spanish and Catalan.

Despite the many continents and countries she has traveled, Pritchard said she hasn't experienced many unsavory people or places.

While in Malaysia, she was followed by a man on a motorcycle for about five miles before she turned around and asked what he wanted. Not speaking the same language, the man merely rode up, touched her leg, and sped off, perhaps wanting to brag to his friends that he had touched a white Westerner.

"If you take away people's government and religion, just at the core of it, you just have these thoughtful, kind people all throughout the world who are extremely respectful and helpful," Pritchard said.

By the time she returns to Eugene in October, Pritchard hopes to have hit the 30,000-kilometer mark -- that's more than 18,600 miles. She plans to take a few months off to enjoy staying with her parents, before deciding what's next on her horizon -- beyond running that marathon in New York.

"She's always kind of been a free spirit, and after high school she's really been on her own because she never was close to home," her father said.

"We want to know where that came from so we can undo it and get her back," he said with a laugh.

Follow Ian on Twitter @MrCampbell17. Email ian.campbell@registerguard.com.

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