Christmas Eve Day:
I’m determined to hold up better today than I did yesterday. I take a deep breath. I sink into my seat. I put my right foot on the pedal, set in the power position, of my recumbent bicycle. And then I pushed off. By the time I reach the 60 m.p.h. sign, the paved shoulder starts fizzling. Then it disappears. Whenever I look in my mirror, every few seconds or so, I see Lothar behind me, holding the lane. And I imagine that he’s hoping too; that I’ll keep it together, that is.
“Break it down like you are running a whitewater river,” he said last night. I responded in protest, “But my comfort zone is Class IV whitewater rafting and yours is Class V whitewater kayaking. It’s not the same for me as it is for you.” Regardless of how we both feel, today I’m at a crux. And I just need to stay on my bike long enough to get to Savannah, Georgia.
Savannah. I love that name.
And Georgia, or Joe-Ja, as Lothar and I have been fondly calling it for the last three states (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina) that we have ridden through since we left Washington, DC., somewhere around a month ago. Savannah, Georgia. I have read a lot about this place and how magical it is. I badly want to get there—preferably in one piece.
I have negotiated my way over, under, around and through lots of cruxes on various adventures but this one is a far cry from any other. I’m used to hazards that I can assess and manage, keeping within my realm of risk tolerance like those associated with making my way up a cliff face, or down a river rapid, or across an ocean gap, or through braided back channels with scatterings of fishing grizzly bears.
But to face (or rather to put my back to) thousands of people encased in metal and plastic, individually or in small groups, hurtling down the highway goes against the grain of my existence. Particularly, when I’m seeing so many drivers talking on cell phones, some even texting. When randomly the odd person shaves by me or blares their horn as they pass, it triggers a visceral response that cuts to my core. I’m terrified. Sometimes, I bail by launching my bike into the grass (thankfully it’s easy to do). Sometimes, I fight back by yelling at people that can’t hear me and don’t care, anyway. Eventually, I notice that deep breathing is my innate coping strategy. Long silent inhale. Long loud exhale. But it is a far cry from the breathing to relax that I was taught in Yoga. I’m dimly aware that it might be making the situation worse but I do it anyways because to stop it would be more mental energy than I can muster.
I keep riding, looking in my mirror, bailing off the road and into the grass when people take longer to change lanes than I can hold on for, and then working my way back onto the road when it’s clear. I’m sweaty from riding in the grass plus it’s a humid 26C and I’m exhausted from forcing my body to do what my mind won’t tolerate. Meanwhile, Lothar calmly and patiently holds the lane behind me; he’s ready to bail at the last second, which thankfully he hasn’t had to do yet. He’s managing his risk well like many expert cyclists do. I’m not.
A horn blares—one, two, three angry blasts—from a truck approaching, passing, and then accelerating past me; it’s a tow truck with two mangled vehicles on deck. Rocketing off the road—before my terrified mind can catch up with my body to tell me that now he’s finally moving into the left lane—and lurching to a halt, I leap off my bike. I start walking.
I rethink my options: its a short day. I should be able to wiggle my way through this.
We’ve ridden 9.5 km and we only have somewhere around 15 km to go. I comfortably hike four kilometres per hour when I’m working in the bush. It’s a bit of a struggle pushing my bike in the grass. I think that I can walk three kilometers per hour. So it will only take me five hours to get to Savannah. I’ll be there just before dark. Thoughts of having overestimating how fast I can walk and the prospect of blisters from my cycling sandals niggle in the background.
All I want for Christmas is to not be here in this place. Not now.
I walk for ten minutes, settling into my decision, when I realize that a vehicle has pulled off the road behind me. I look back to see a big white pick-up truck. The dam bursts. Tears flow. Now I’m feeling embarrassed because I’m thinking this poor fellow is thinking that he’s encountered a real crisis. With an apology and smattering of details, he kindly offers us a ride into Savannah. Excited, I accept the offer; I just need to check in with Lothar who is now just ahead of me waiting patiently. Then I read, the crest on my rescuer’s shirt, “Good Shepherd Pet Services.” Fitting.
Lothar and I can’t easily pack both of our bikes into the short box pick-up truck, due to the solid cover. Lothar says he’s happy to ride and I leap to take the ride into Savannah, relief for both of us. This situation fits the umbrella of a theme that this bicycle adventure of ours has produced, as if it was orchestrated. In the last few days, we have encountered some of the nastiest drivers we’ve encountered yet but again and again we are learning that it’s also true what they say about the outstanding hospitality of southerners. When adversity rises, opportunities follow.
The coastal terrain that we’ve been travelling through the last few weeks might be predictably flat but incongruities on a number of fronts abound in the southern U.S.A. They more than fill the physical void that I felt when we completed riding up and down hills—hill after hill after hill—around the Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec, with the psychological gymnastics of traveling through landscapes and communities that are vastly different, yet vaguely familiar to, from where we come from. But these stories are for another blog post.
At the end of the day, yesterday, another psychologically challenging day of negotiating road hazards, I surfed the net (yet again) desperate to find someone, anyone, with wisdom to impart about an easy way to ride through South Carolina and Georgia. Instead, I found account after account of the challenges including a recent post on a forum from a seasoned bicycle tourer that was thinking of bailing from his trip down the east coast of the U.S.A. because he was finding the roads more hazardous than anywhere else he has ridden. I reflected on what I read. I’d be crazy to keep going.
Now I reflect some more. The only continuities in this adventure of ours are that the vast majority of people that we are encountering are remarkably interesting, generous and compassionate, and that change is perpetual whether it’s the local climate, geology, ecology, terrain, culture, economics, or usually a vibrant and unique combination thereof. Despite some of the intense challenges I have encountered, it’s a curious combination of the benefits that keep me going—the stories that have unfolded for us; our deep, albeit brief, connections with many of the people we have met (I feel like my community is in an exponential growth phase); the diversity of landscapes and communities that we are travelling through; and an insatiable curiosity that I have about the commonalities and differences in the challenges that people and communities are facing from social–ecological perspectives. These are the things that jig me along, most often merrily and sometimes barely. I’d be crazy to quit.
And finally, this is why I ride.
Believe it or not, I had no idea that my camera was on video…but as if by the magic of Christmas it captured the spirit of so many stories that we have experienced on this bicycle adventure we’re on. I will keep riding.
Some video translations:
“There you go. Travelling all around the world. Yes, I heard about y’all.”
“I like them things.”