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 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.