Last summer, shortly after losing my job and turning 50, I loaded up my green Kona bike with about 70 pounds of gear and pedaled 2,700 miles from Seattle to Halifax, Nova Scotia.* Bicycle touring was something I had read about, thought about, talked about, dreamed about—and delayed—for years.
Those 11 weeks on the bike were transformational. I crossed the Cascade Range in a spitting rain, pedaled into the 450-year-old heart of Quebec City, and conquered Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail in half the expected time. But the ride was so much more than a physical feat. Countless strangers (and friends, too) showed me amazing kindness every day: People fed me, sheltered me, took me knee boarding, helped me with directions, took me hiking, let me camp in their yards, fixed my bike, took me kayaking, gave me rides— the list goes on. As my friend Bill put it, my vulnerability gave other people permission to be vulnerable in turn.
That trip was one of the happiest times of my life.
So, I’ve decided to set off again. This time, it’s an open-ended journey that will combine two of my biggest passions: writing and bicycle touring. On June 22, I’ll leave Seattle–where I’ve lived for most of the past 25 years–on the same green Kona bike. I’m setting out first for Jasper and Banff in Alberta, and then heading east toward Newfoundland. After which, it’s on to, um, Cuba?
In the past couple of months, I’ve reduced my possessions by 95%, moved out of the shared house I called home for two years, and confronted a lot of fear and self-doubt: People my age–especially women–don’t do this! I should try harder to be normal, get a regular job, find a husband, buy a house. And so on. The voices can get really loud sometimes.
In big transition times like this, I find a lot of comfort in returning to my favorite books. My go-to this month has been Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, in which she tells the story of growing up in post-war Pittsburgh.
I love the passage where she recounts the time she decides to see if she can fly, even though she’s old enough to know it’s not really possible. She takes off down Penn Avenue, running full tilt, waving her arms. “Just this once,” she writes, “I wanted to let it rip.”
After encountering an embarrassed businessman who flattens himself against a building and avoids her eye, Annie realizes:
How surprisingly easy it was to ignore him! What I was letting rip, in fact, was my willingness to look foolish, in his eyes and in my own. Having chosen this foolishness, I was a free being. How could the world ever stop me, how could I betray myself, if I was not afraid?
I’m borrowing some of Annie’s courage to help me through the bumpy spots as I get ready for this next chapter as a bicycle traveler and writer. Foolishness as the path to freedom–now that’s something I can work with.
*For those of you doing the math at home, yes it’s farther than 2,700 miles from Seattle to Halifax. I had some motorized help—a minivan, Amtrak and ViaRail—to help cover the distance. I like to say I skipped the boring parts. I’m looking at you, Indiana!