1,500 Kilometers Later: A Story About Cycling Across France

Oct 12, 2015    /    get off the beaten track, philosophy, stories & photos

There are things that no one tells you about distance cycling.

Like the fact that riding for hours and hours with your thighs and butt pressed against a seat leads to embarrassing and uncomfortable cases of butt chafing.

Or that changing a tire (tube) requires thumb strength…and who in the world works out their thumbs?

Or that you’ll probably come out of the trip with some mystery bruises from where you don’t even remember smacking your thigh against the handlebars or tripping over your panniers or stopping too quickly and plowing the pedals into your ankles.

They also don’t tell you that as you’re cycling, pushing your body to go just a little farther, ignore that knee soreness a little longer, make it just to the top of that next hill, that physical exertion and exhaustion cracks you open emotionally.

When you’ve cycled 20 kilometers and then 30 kilometers and then 100 kilometers in a day, all emotional roadblocks are down. It’s not possible to push down your feelings. The only thing left to do is face them head on.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This September I packed up everything I owned, strapped it to the back of a vintage Swiss military bicycle, and cycled from the Swiss border in Basel, Switzerland, all the way to the Atlantic Coast in Saint-Brevin-les-Pins, France, (and then across the water to Saint-Nazaire, which, unlike Saint-Brevin, has a train station).

Including detours (both planned and unplanned), I clocked a total of 1,494.48 kilometers (928.63 miles).

I rode along the banks of the Loire River and the Canal du Centre. I climbed hills in vineyards and worse hills in the middle of nowhere (though don’t get the wrong idea; the cycle route is mostly flat). I laughed as Luna ran along with the bike sometimes and nearly cried when I had to push everything I owned up a giant hill and then again when I had to visit a bike shop five kilometers away twice in one day.

And I felt awed when I arrived at the coast, locked my bike to a railing on a beachfront promenade, and walked down into the sand and then into the water.

I had cycled across a country.

I had somehow made it to the ocean.

It was hard—really hard—and yet I’d done it.

Which brings me back to the things they don’t tell you about cycling across a country.

When I think about riding across France, I don’t think about the pretty Canal du Centre or the wonderful hotel I found in Azay-le-Rideau or the surplus of castles. It’s not crepes (though there were a lot of those) or bakeries (though there were even more of those).

No, what I think of when I look back on cycling is the often agonizing internal journey I took through my own pain.

You see, this year has been an incredibly hard one. Remember when I got sick and ended up hospitalized on Malta back in January? While the worst of it passed later that winter, that illness also brought with it a series of horrible, lingering effects. And today, almost a year later, I’m still dealing with them. I’m still not fully well.

(Sidenote: If deciding to cycle across a country when you aren’t fully well isn’t an epic “Fuck you, universe,” I don’t know what is.)

Then there was the financial strain (caused in part by the illness and my many many doctor visits). There was my (somewhat self-created) too-large workload and the subsequent burnout that made working painfully difficult, with every task feeling three times as heavy as it had in the past.

And there were huge disappointments. Like when I came back from Malta and, aside from one friend driving me to the doctor that first week, not a single friend visited me. Not one. My roommate, who I hadn’t known until I showed up weak and sick on her doorstep that week, made me soup. But the people I’d known for over a year, the ones I’d shown up for, none of them came.

I cried myself to sleep a lot this year. And the depression I’ve struggled with off and on for years whispered, “Well, of course no one is here, who cares about you? Nobody.”

And arching over all of this like a twisted rainbow was an ever-present sense of aloneness. Now, loneliness is nothing new. I was horribly lonely in Denver before I left to travel the world. Traveling helped a lot. Then I moved to Switzerland and it started to creep up on me again, especially as my community left me alone in my hours of need. After all, the worst kind of loneliness is the one that happens when you thought people cared and they behave as though they don’t.

And finally, heartbreakingly, I started to feel terribly lonely even when I traveled. It used to be that travel alleviated that pain, brought scores of new friends into my life, distracted me, centered me, reminded me to take care of myself.

But suddenly I found myself painfully depressed in Chamonix, barely even able to leave the apartment, and then sad in southern Spain and crying myself to sleep sometimes in Slovenia. Alone and lonely and unable to shake the depression that I really believed would pass more quickly.

And so it is in this state I found myself bicycling across France, physically exhausted from the cycling itself and, because of that physical exhaustion, with my emotional doors thrown wide open.

I didn’t have the energy to push those feelings aside, to try to focus on the positive, to ignore the heaviness in my chest.

So instead I rode through the feelings, I pushed into them, I felt them fully and agonizingly.

My lowest day was somewhere near Saumur. The cycle path had wound its way away from the Loire River and into the hills to pass through vineyards and small towns and sunflower fields.

Pushing up those hills, I felt heavy and breathless and the landscape seemed to reflect my mood mockingly back at me as I passed through fields of thousands and thousands of sunflowers, all shriveled up into little black stalks, their heads bowed to a cruel, cold slate gray sky. Dead. Gone. Ugly. The landscape of hell.

The word agony circled my mind. It was the only thing I could come up with to describe how I felt.

It doesn’t matter what I do, I told myself. I work hard. I take risks. I push myself. I try to live kindly. I care about the world. I tell stories even when they’re hard. I choose love no matter how many times it burns me. I’ve done everything I can, and still the things that truly matter are outside my control. I cannot cure myself of these feelings. I cannot make people love me. I cannot cure this shameful depression or embarrassing anxiety. And no wonder I’m unloved when I’m such a complete and total fucking disaster.

And I cried. I cycled up and down those hills and through those ugly, spent-up flowers and I felt that their ugliness and spent-up-ness was a mirror, reflecting myself back to me.

I cycled on, about 70 kilometers that day, I think, not knowing that this wasn’t the end of the road, but rather the crest of a hill, the worst circle of the hell I was cycling through.

After that, the sadness and depression I’d been cycling through gave way to my anger. Because who could feel worthless and not respond with anger? And so the next phase of my journey was fueled by this. Anger at how poorly I’d been treated. Anger at the universe (didn’t it owe me something? Hadn’t I been good?). And then anger at society for making me believe that the universe rewards the good and punishes the bad. Because life is so much messier and more complicated than that. In fact, the truly bad people I knew–the building manager that sexually harassed me and had me scared to walk down my own street, for instance–they were doing just fine, thank you. And I was cycling through fields of dead sunflowers with my butt chafing and my shins bruised and my heart in tatters. And fuck you, society, for not teaching us to accept reality on reality’s terms.

Reality on reality’s terms.

That’s something I heard Dr. Drew say a few times on old episodes of Loveline. And as my anger raged and I threw more than one temper tantrum from the back of a vintage bicycle, it became a central thought.

At first it made me even angrier…because why were reality’s terms such complete shit? Why were reality’s terms that good people got horribly sick and other good people died unexpectedly and still other good people were left behind? Why was so much in the world left to chance? The chance that you could be born a girl in Saudi Arabia, brutally murdered by a man in your family without any consequences to him. The chance you could be born in a country at war and forced to flee in terrifying conditions to countries that bar their borders and turn their faces away from your suffering. The chance that you could fall in love with someone just before their unexpected death and be forced to bear the heavy burden of grief. The chance of chemical depression, anxiety so bad it causes seizures, OCD that paralyzes you from leaving the house.

I rode and rode and rode and the anger burned itself down to a more manageable (but still present) ember, the thought stayed with me:

Reality on reality’s terms. 

Really, I can’t live any other way. You can’t see the world, care about tragedy, volunteer your time and money, ask diverse people for their stories, and read everything you can get your hands on without eventually realizing that reality’s terms are harsh ones. And you can either go on being angry and sad and resentful or you can find a way to co-exist with the current reality and—perhaps quietly and without fanfare or perhaps angrily and with lots of cursing—try to make it slightly better with whatever gifts you have.

And so I rode on, through the aching knees and bruised ankles, through the accidentally circular detours and the too-tall-for-a-vintage-cycle hills, through the sadness and the rage, all the way to the Atlantic coast, where I kicked off my shoes and stood in the water while Luna dug a hole in the sand and emerged covered in the stuff. I felt calmer, if only a little. The anger burned down. The sadness smaller and more manageable. The disappointment of the year faced head on and no longer quite as terrible.

I stood there on the ocean’s doorstep for a long while, knowing that something had been burned up and something in me had changed, but still waiting to see exactly how that change will manifest and how much more burning there is to do.

I’m still not sure.

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24 Comments
  • rob
    October 12, 2015

    Good on YOU.

    I’m so sorry you last year was so difficult. If I’d known I’d have included Switzerland into my travels and brought you chocolate…

    But you’ve gained some things not necessarily obvious. You’ve proved you can do something really hard. Hiking the Appalachian Trail hard. F-you world I’m going to DO THIS hard.

    You’re in a part of the world where people fought and died. Where my uncle was turned into pink mist trying to keep France from acquiring German as it’s first language. You’re standing where SO MANY people have done things they never thought they could do. Just like you.

    Even if you’re still puzzled about the transformation, never forget that you’re frakking tough. And that toughness makes you worthy of whatever they hell you want to be or do. Spooky depression voices or not.

    You’re awesome, and you know it. Perhaps that was the lesson.

    • gigigriffis
      October 13, 2015

      Thank you.

      And what an interesting perspective. The reality of the war on that landscape hadn’t really hit me during the trip.

  • Carol C
    October 12, 2015

    Gigi, thank you for being so brave ~ for telling your story, for surmounting the physical pain while cycling, for going so deep to confront the demons within, and for being such a wonderful, authentic role model for us all.

    • gigigriffis
      October 13, 2015

      Thanks, Carol.

  • Lynne
    October 12, 2015

    Wow! I knew you had a tough year, Gigi. Kudos to you for your accomplishment. Perhaps you needed to do that ride to get all of that out of you and for you to be “reborn”. I truly believe all things happen for a reason and we learn and grow from these difficult times. Looking forward to this next chapter of your life.
    Lynne recently posted…Trying not to forgetMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      October 13, 2015

      Thanks!

  • Katherine Gray
    October 12, 2015

    Hmm, that’s a really interesting take, Rob. Gigi, you left the land of people who, historically, *don’t get involved* and rode a bike, not a car nor a train nor a plane to protect you, but completely prone and exposed over a land that has known the best of love and beauty and the worst of war and grief. Perhaps your journey to healing also healed a bit of those old wounds on the human psyche. I think you actually do have the power to do that. I have more for you later…if you don’t hear from me please remind me! Facebook is best.

    • gigigriffis
      October 13, 2015

      I love this perspective. Thank you!

  • Motowngirl
    October 12, 2015

    Gigi, that was a very powerful post. I’m so sorry your journey was difficult, both physically and mentally. You are a strong, brave person. Depression is a terribly formidable foe, and I send you all the good energy I can to help you continue to find your own ways to tame it. Wishing you peace and healing.

    • gigigriffis
      October 13, 2015

      Thank you.

  • Evren Kiefer
    October 12, 2015

    Thanks a lot for sharing this. It leaves me a bit speechless. All I can say is “Thank you and your writing’s great — as always”. Wishing you the best.

    • gigigriffis
      October 13, 2015

      Thank you.

  • Kathryn
    October 12, 2015

    Stunningly written as always Gigi.

    I understand. And I don’t have the answers.

    But keep going.

    My strong, brave, vulnerable, loving, tender-hearted friend.

    I don’t know why life can be so hard.

    But keep going.

    Just one pedal revolution at a time.

    Just one.

    Keep going you beautiful, beautiful woman.

    • gigigriffis
      October 13, 2015

      Thank you.

  • Helen
    October 12, 2015

    I feel for you..wish I could give u a hug!! I know this feeling you are talking about. And there is no solution or cure but the only thing you can do is keep pedaling/trudging/breathing on .. to eventually get to that ’ember’ state. You are a brave soul.. keep seeking out the beauty and the calm.. and love yourself. You have worth! I have worth! We are all in our own life journey.

    • gigigriffis
      October 13, 2015

      Thanks, Helen.

  • Melissa Adams
    October 12, 2015

    Sorry, Gigi, but everyone tells you those things about distance cycling. Mostly, it’s common sense that you’d hurt both inside + out during your long ride, considering your lack of training and bike maintenance skills, as well as your recovering health. Cycling buddies warned me about the inner + outer journey, too, when I was a recreational cyclist in a bike club and tackled my first “century” (100 miles) in California, with just 3 months of training. Distance cycling can be brutal, especially when you’re without another human to support + cheer you on. I was going to mention this before you started your journey, but didn’t want to discourage you.

    The truth is, you were unprepared for that cycling trip, both mentally + physically. But you’ve learned. Hopefully, the next lesson will be figuring out how to be your own best friend and lowering your expectations for others. After all, even that nasty building manager may be dealing with issues concealed from you. He may not be doing “just fine”…you just don’t know. When people come through for you, it’s just gravy. That’s reality!

  • Greta
    October 13, 2015

    Wow – what a journey! So brave of you to go for the physical journey and choose to also share the internal one. I too love the perspective that your ride reflected so many of humanity’s past pain in the area and helped heal that. And loved reading about your journey through your own pain and how riding through it rather than avoiding it helped it transform into anger and then something much calmer and in harmony.
    Try to be gentle with yourself and notice the small internal steps forward, together they make up amazing achievements that I personally overlook in my expectation of sudden complete change.
    I also really recommend meditation as a means of learning to distance your self from your mental stories of not being worthy / loveable etc etc. It’s no quick fix but a tool I’ve personally found very helpful.
    Much love and big high fives on the amazing journey.

    • gigigriffis
      October 15, 2015

      Thank you.

  • DCGriffis
    October 15, 2015

    WOW! Left me kinda speechless for a few. I went thru some of the same a few years back. Lost the luv of my life. Had a grievous injury. Was told I would never be able to do certain physical tasks. That put my career in jeopardy. Went thru the depression/anger phase and hated the world. Then someone suggested yoga. I was like what? ‘That’s not me.’ But, I didn’t know what ‘me’ was anymore.
    Well, I tried it. Was relieved that once I concentrated a lot of the emotional poison was being filtered out of me. I could focus and see the light. It didn’t make the world a kinder, gentler place, but it put me at peace with myself. After months of physical therapy, I told myself I was going to prove to myself n everyone else that I would NOT have physical limitations. I was going to do something, but what?
    I chose the hardest thing I could come up with. Triathlons! Yes, I was going to train to do triathlons. Well, I did. I got the best coaches I could afford and busted my ass and did it. What poison yoga didn’t filter out, the training for this sport did. I felt on top of the world and didn’t give a shit about what the world had done to me! I was better than all the crap it dumped on me. Whatever anger/depression I had, I took it out by putting miles on the road and finishing it off with yoga. I never felt better in my life!
    Now, I’m not suggesting you do tri’s, but I think that by do something physically demanding and accomplishing it was definietly the RIGHT form of therapy for you. It was like , ‘Fuck you world! I’m going to prove that I’m not a piece of shit! That I am worthy and I can accomplish feats that most wouldn’t even try!’ And when you get to the finish, don’t forget to lay down and CRY YOUR ASS OFF! Get the last remnants of that poison out! Because you’ve earned it!
    ps. It nevers hurts to go to the ocean either, that’s another form of ‘mental floss.’ That’s why I moved to the beach! Don’t forget to floss ‘mentally’ everyday!

  • Paulo
    November 3, 2015

    I crossed Spain by bike as part of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage I did earlier this year and I could totally relate to what you experienced, although at perhaps a different level and for different things (marriage break-up, separation from my kids, take your pick…).
    This was an awesome post and I would like to thank you for sharing it with the world.
    Proves that even tough people can be affected by reality’s terms and made me feel less alone today.
    Having said that, I would prefer a million times over, having these thoughts on the saddle of a bicycle, crossing a beautiful (or not so beautiful in the case of your dead flowers field), enduring some physical discomfort that sitting on a coach and feeling sorry for myself. If you are tired or in pain at least you know you are still alive and living life to it’s fullest.

    • gigigriffis
      November 3, 2015

      Thanks, Paulo! And totally agreed. If I have to feel [fill in the blank with not great feeling], I’d rather do it while I’m outdoors, cycling, hiking, traveling, etc.

  • Maria
    November 6, 2015

    Reality on reality terms. My son died 18 years ago, not that the time matters, it still feels like yesterday. I agree that reality sucks. If made me angry, very angry at the world. I saw if as a battle, either I came to terms with it or it wins. My other two children were young and I refused to let it define us. The score at the moment is Maria 984, Reality 478. It is a daily battle but you can win.

    • gigigriffis
      November 6, 2015

      Wow, Maria. I’m glad you’re winning the battle and so sorry you had to fight it in the first place.

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