This article first appeared in the August/September 2022 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.
It’s fitting, in a sad sort of way, that Dervla Murphy passed away during the compiling of this year’s Final Mile issue. A woman after our own heart, Dervla pushed fears aside to live the life she wanted. And of course, that comes at a price, doesn’t it? To do what we want, we must also live with the aches and discomfort. Dervla and I share a broken (untreated) coccyx (and some other traits), but that never stopped her from pushing forth. Rather, her aches and ailments were a sort of liberation: if she was uncomfortable all the time, then it didn’t matter if she were in a bed or on a floor, and she might as well ride her bike and see what’s out there and be in pain than sit around and be bored and still feel lousy. The tenacity of that 90-year-old woman is inspiring to me, and so are these stories. In this collection, we celebrate the decision to keep going, to sit with the discomfort rather than giving up and choosing the easier, less fulfilling path. It’s a big world out there, and we’ll never know what it has in store for us if we let some rain or flat tires or heartache keep us home. –Carolyne Whelan
On a Sunday morning in mid-July, after eight days of pedaling through rain on the island of Haida Gwaii, the wettest place in Canada, I had had enough. I lay on my back inside my tent and watched the water cascade down either side of the rainfly. I felt a pool of water swelling up under the footprint. I was certain it was only a matter of seconds before I would be carried out to sea. As the downpour picked up, I asked myself what the hell I was doing. In that moment, I had no answer.
I had decided to make a detour to Haida Gwaii on my way from Seattle, Washington, to Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. Haida Gwaii lies 93 nautical miles from Prince Rupert, off the northern coast of British Columbia. It takes eight hours to get there in good weather on the BC ferry system. It had rained nearly every day since I left Seattle three weeks earlier, but the sheer volume of rain on Haida Gwaii was more than I could bear.
Part of the reason for this trip, apart from experiencing the beauty of northern Canada, was to regroup after a breakup that felt like being hurled against a wall and left comatose in a heap of grief and despair. In a single phone call, I was thrown into darkness. I imagined that a three-month trip into the long days of the far north would give me the light I needed to clear my head, process the pain, and revive my crushed soul.
I needed solitude but craved connection. An important part of any trip for me is meeting new people, getting new perspectives, and sharing new experiences. I need long stretches in nature to help uncover buried fears and expose outdated stories, but I also need people now and then to give me a sense of belonging. Wet, dark, dreary days were not conducive to chance meetings. The loneliness was undermining my newly found sense of balance and harmony.
As I lay in my tent at Hidden Island RV Park and Campground, all I could think was that I wanted to scrap the whole trip and go home. My usual resilience in the face of hardship and discomfort was gone. I just wanted out. My first step was to get from the tent to the shelter of the restroom. Maybe just being dry and warm would shift my mindset.
As I ran to the bathroom, I was surprised to see a man in his 40s at a table in a covered area nearby. Next to him was a backpack and a pair of hiking boots. When I came out of the restroom, he was still there, staring off into space.
“Hey, what’s up?” I asked.
“This sucks,” he said. His monotone voice barely acknowledged my presence.
“You got that right,” I said.
Looking closer, I saw that his tent and sleeping bag were in a big, wet heap on the table.
“Is that your tent?” I asked.
“It was,” he said. “I just called the Boy Scouts on the island. They’re coming to pick up all my gear, including the backpack and hiking boots. I just want to get the F out of here!”
“How are you getting home?” I asked, shocked that he was carrying out the same plan I was contemplating.
“I booked a flight back to Vancouver from Masset airstrip across the street. It leaves at 10:00 AM. From there I’m flying back to Northern California.”
He made it look so easy. After he left, I called my hardcore outdoorsy friend, Linda, to tell her that I was done with the trip.
“You’re done? Are you kidding me?” she said. “Why don’t you just find a dry place to stay for a couple days? Regroup and then decide. Don’t make a rash decision based on a few crappy days of rain.”
She was right. I would probably regret just hanging it up. I decided to give it three days. If things didn’t drastically improve by then, I would call it quits.
I wanted to ride to Towhill Viewpoint at the end of the island, but I was hesitant due to the rain and muddy road. I sat at the sheltered table until there was a break in the rain. Then I rode to the bike shop at the airstrip to put air in my tires before deciding what to do.
As I was filling my tires at the pump outside the shop, the owner, Tom, asked me where I was headed. He told me he was going to Towhill in a couple of hours and would be happy to give me a lift back if I wanted one.
That was all I needed to motivate me to go for it. After riding to Towhill, I found Tom right where he said he’d be. We threw my muddy bike in the bed and drove back. I had a delightful ride with him and his three-year-old daughter, Hazel. He dropped me off at the campsite, gave me a big hug, and wished me well on my journey. That simple act of kindness nudged my spirit gauge forward a notch.
I gathered my things and rode 26 miles back down the island to the small hamlet of Port Clements. I checked into a small hostel with two dorm rooms above the Bayview Market. I was in one and a family was in the other. I took a warm shower and sat in the common area to read my book and drink tea. As I sat there, lost in my novel, the young girl from next door walked up and offered me a freshly baked cupcake she had just frosted. My spirit meter sprang forward again.
The next day, I wanted to get back to the main town of Queen Charlotte to see if the ferries were running on schedule and find a dry place to stay. I rode the 42 miles nearly dry. About five miles from town, a gigantic cloud burst open and unleashed its fury upon me. I rode to the gazebo outside the tourist office, which didn’t open for another hour. Inside the gazebo, in bright yellow rain attire, was a man from Cuba and a young French boy. Each had sailed down from Alaska with their families.
Mario, the Cuban, asked where I came from and where I was going. His eyes sparkled when I told him. He excused himself. Ten minutes later, he returned with a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and two dark chocolate bars in the other.
“I want to celebrate with you,” he said, beaming. “Bravo, for being persistent and making it this far.” My spirit barometer bounced up to half mast.
When the tourist information office finally opened, I went in to scour the local listings for accommodations. One hotel had space, but the price was exorbitant. When the rain calmed down a bit, I rode around to see if I could find anything else.
As I was getting on my bike, I recognized Jean, a woman I had chatted with on the ferry to Haida Gwaii. I waved as she was walking into the store. She stopped to ask how I was doing.
“Not great,” I confessed. “Finding shelter around here is proving more difficult than I anticipated.”
“I have a studio out in the backyard,” she said. “Why don’t you stay there?”
I found out that the ferry back to Prince Rupert wasn’t leaving the island until the following evening. Jean invited me to stay as long as I needed. We had coffee together in the morning and talked about the history of the island and how she and her family had landed there. I cooked a hearty meal and washed and dried my wet, dirty clothes. By now the needle on my spirit gauge had swung straight over to the far right where it landed with a resounding yes!
It was still cold and wet on the island, but the warmth and camaraderie of the folks I bumped into turned my feelings of loneliness and isolation into a warm blanket of community and inclusion. The support I felt over those three days gave me the faith I needed to continue the ride. Linda was right: giving difficult situations a little breathing room is often the best way to let go and embrace the suck long enough to let the unexpected surprises of the journey find you and lead you back to the reason you are there in the first place: joy, discovery, and connection.
I wobble and veer along the gravel bike path. It’s a scenic route gradually making its way up to Snoqualmie Pass in Washington, but my eyes are glued to my phone. Strava ticks off the miles one-tenth at a time until it reaches the magic number: 32.4. I come to a stop. With that, I have pedaled 5,000 miles.
I smile expectantly, waiting for whatever emotion happens when you ride your bike 5,000 miles. A light breeze shuffles the leaves overhead, and a few birds chirp. I clear my throat. I’m not feeling much of anything: tired mostly, kinda hungry.
Aha! I snap my fingers and smile: I’ve got just the thing. I lean my bike (I call her Lucky) against a tree and gather up some pine needles, twigs, and rocks. Squatting in the middle of the trail, I carefully arrange them, and then nod and stand up to admire my handiwork:
I gaze at it and frown. This isn’t working. When I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail a few years back, mile markers were a cause for celebration. What’s wrong with me?
I started this tour three months ago in Raleigh and made my way up the East Coast to New England, then headed west. Along the way, I met with admissions counselors from 18 universities to tell them about the tremendous potential of students from the economically developing world — in particular, a former student of mine from my days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi. It’s been a deeply rewarding journey, but also a deeply solitary one. The AT is a communal experience, even hiked solo. You hike with an awareness of every other thru-hiker who has walked the same path, and you finish with the same communal celebration of having completed something iconic and unifying. But this tour is mine alone. There’s no one here to celebrate with me, on the path or from the past.
I try to drum up a sense of pride, accomplishment, something, but all I feel is a pang of melancholy. This patch of gravel bike path, with trees on one side and a fenced-in field on the other, means nothing to anyone in the world but me.
That’s okay, I think. I bet this little spot would be pretty excited to find out it meant anything at all to anyone, let alone something really significant, even just to one person.
That’s the emotion you feel at mile 5,000, I guess: consolation. I lean in the shade next to Lucky and take this moment to appreciate something unremarkable.
Around mile 5,003, I cross paths with a perfect mystery. A guy on a loaded touring bike, so he must be on a long trip … only he’s wearing a plaid button-down, jeans, and Keds. So maybe he’s just going to work? But what commute involves a remote bike path on a Wednesday afternoon? We share a smile and come to a stop.
“How far are you going?” he asks.
“Seattle!” I say, and then add shyly, “I actually just passed 5,000 miles. You’ll see my marker a little ways down the trail.”
He meets my eye and says, sincerely, “Congratulations.”
“Thank you. How far have you gone?”
Cocking his head and squinting up at the trees, he says, “This is … probably … 48,000 miles.”
“Are you kidding me?!”
Meet Jim. He’s been touring for three years. He pedals until he runs out of money, and then he makes his way to L.A., where he works bike delivery gigs and sleeps on the beach. When he has enough in the bank, he takes off again. Kinda like me: I do seasonal jobs for six months at a time, save every penny, and spend the rest of the year traveling.
“I used to work in an office,” he admits.
“It’s unfulfilling, isn’t it?”
“Dude, it sucked!”
“I had a Toyota Camry.”
“I had a Honda Civic!”
We share a laugh.
“It’s all just stuff,” he says. “I used to have a whole house full of stuff.”
We grin at each other like a couple of runaway inmates. And then he shares that today he’s been “putting Pee Wee Herman in movies where he doesn’t belong. Like Pulp Fiction. And then playing it out!” He clears his throat and continues in a Pee Wee voice: “A Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.”
For a moment, my mouth hangs agape in an astonished grin, and then I throw my head back and laugh. “Jim, my dude, it was a pleasure to meet you,” I say, and then we go our separate ways.
Bike tours are therapeutic, a perfect chance to clear the junk out of the attic of your mind. But given enough time, you run out of meaningful things to think about. That’s when you play weird brain games, like putting Pee Wee in Pulp Fiction, to amuse yourself. There are people I’ve known my whole life who wouldn’t understand that, but this stranger does. Which raises the question: Is he really a stranger at all? Aren’t we cut from the same cloth?
Nomadic hermits are a strange community. The things that keep us apart — rootlessness and solitude — are paradoxically what unite us. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. Here I am, with a lonely 5,000 miles behind me, and here is Jim, with 10 times more. Two strangers on two different paths sharing a moment of recognition of our common journey. Smiling at that chance conversation and pedaling my way through Mile 5,004, I finally feel the wave of pride and accomplishment I had been hoping for.
“We’re not cyclists. We’re just people who cycle.” This is how Liz and Duncan described themselves when my friend and adventure buddy Bailey and I met them for the first time at a rest stop near Libby, Montana.
Little did we know that over the next few weeks, Liz and Duncan would become so much more than just “people who cycle” to us. Their friendship — however brief — continues to be a reminder that just because a friendship isn’t long doesn’t mean that it’s not impactful.
We had heard about this 71-year-old Scottish couple riding a tandem bike across the country through the touring grapevine. We’d been keeping our eyes peeled for them ever since. To us, they were already icons, and we couldn’t wait to meet them.
Our first meeting was nothing special. We didn’t even exchange names. When we asked where they were headed, they said they were riding until their asses and legs couldn’t take it anymore. We laughed. They were serious. This short conversation left us wanting more; we ached to hear their stories, ask them about their lives and their past adventures. As new tourers, on our first cross-country trek, we were enamored by their calm, their confidence, and their realism.
Unfortunately for us, they were not so taken by us curious, bubbly Americans, and we soon parted ways. We watched them pedal east, their Scottish flag waving off the back of their bike, and thought we’d never see them again.
That rest stop near Libby was the first of many for Bailey and me that day. Thirty minutes later, we were off our bikes again to ooh and ahh at the Swinging Bridge in Kootenai Falls. As we neared the last town on our route a few hours later, we stopped to grab a few quick groceries, only to realize we’d just reached our first milestone: 500 miles! We had to celebrate. We found a local brewery, shared a flight (at this point our tolerance had plummeted), and wrote postcards to friends, happy for another excuse to get off our bikes for a while. Finally, we decided we couldn’t procrastinate pedaling any longer.
The last hill leading to the campsite was brutal. It started to drizzle as the road wound farther into the sky. By the time we pedaled into the beautiful campsite, we were too tired to enjoy it. That is until we heard the sounds of bike wheels and Scottish accents in the distance. Acting on a burst of energy, we walked down to meet our not-yet friends. We chatted a bit, scrummaged for a few extra dollars to pay for the sites together, and hung their food with ours after they told us they were planning to sleep with it in their tent.
In the morning, we said our goodbyes — again — this time believing it was for real. They were headed south of Glacier National Park, we were heading through it.
Over the next week, Bailey and I took our first day off with friends in Whitefish, pedaled through the snow into Glacier, climbed up the extraordinary Going-to-the-Sun Road, spotted our first bears, rode through a border crossing into Canada, and experienced our first piercing crosswinds (or side winds as we liked to call them) into Cutbank, Montana.
Out of Cutbank, we rode our first century: 115 miles through the blistering heat across the Hi-Line. We’d planned to stop around mile 80, but when we arrived, we felt uncomfortable with the camping options. And so, with just a few hours of daylight left, we filled our bellies with grocery-store bagels and avocado, and put our butts back on our bikes. The next campsite wasn’t for another 35 miles.
We took turns feeling sorry for ourselves and captaining the positivity train — a rhythm we were grateful came so naturally to us as pedaling partners.
As we turned down the dirt road that led to the B&B we were going to camp outside of in Dodson, Montana, my eyes settled on an oddly familiar site: a long, gray, anteater-like tent. A huge smile spread across my face. “It’s Liz and Duncan!” I shouted to Bailey. We couldn’t believe our eyes. We’d split ways over a week earlier, traversed completely different terrain at different speeds and with changing plans. Crossing paths again felt like sweet serendipity — a phenomenon we were learning to love about bike touring.
In the morning, we exchanged stories over breakfast in the B&B, soaking in the air conditioning and other-than-oatmeal breakfast. It meant we’d get a late start on a hot day, but at the time it felt worth it.
Again, we said our goodbyes — laughing this time as we wondered whether it would actually be the last.
That day, Bailey and I made it about half the distance we were intending. We’d dreamed about making it to a Warmshowers host in Glasgow, but by 2:00 PM we began to accept that the heat and headwinds had other plans for us.
After a surprisingly magical night in Hinsdale, saved by a local angel named Carol, we hopped on our bikes early, determined to beat the heat. We had just 30 miles to ride. A distance that after 115, felt like a warm-up.
As we rounded the bend, before the town, Bailey stopped suddenly in front of me. I slammed on my brakes, unsure of why were stopping. My eyes followed her hands as she leaned down to the ground to pick something up. And then I understood. It was a Scottish flag. Liz and Duncan’s Scottish flag. Our hearts and minds began to race. Were they okay? How had they gotten in front of us? They were planning on riding many fewer miles per day.
We picked up the flag and carried it with us to Glasgow. We were determined to find them, make sure they were okay, and return their memento. Luckily, we’d exchanged email addresses at the B&B.
At a sweet little coffee shop in Glasgow, I opened my email with the intention of writing a note to Liz and Duncan. But they’d beat me to the punch:
Good the email is working. We reached Glasgow very late last night but on the back of a pickup from two miles outside Saco where we were going to camp. The heat and the hills were making us slow and we had three punctures within an hour. We ran out of inner tubes and could not find the puncture hole. It was 7.30 and we ran out of water so we flagged down a pickup. The couple came from Glasgow and offered us a lift right through so we took it. Stayed in the Cottonwood hotel and will stay tonight to sort out the bike and put a new tire on. Hope you made it ok in that heat. We had a beer with a British cyclist who had done 130 miles and looked fresh. What are we doing wrong?
Liz and Duncan
“Wahooo!” I thought. “They were okay!” I quickly responded, letting them know we’d found their flag and asking if they wanted to meet at a brewery to grab a drink. They agreed, saying they hadn’t realized they’d dropped it. They asked if we’d hung on to it.
The brewery would not, in fact, be the last time we saw Liz and Duncan, though that day seemed to cement our status as friends. Each time we left them on the road, we’d say goodbye and hug a little harder wondering if this time, it was for good. Friends on the road are not meant to be forever, after all. It’s their serendipity, not their longevity that makes them so magical.
P.S. We still keep in touch every so often with Liz and Duncan over email, exchanging memories and sharing cycling dreams. Scotland is definitely top on our list.
Somewhere in western Greece, the spokes on my back wheel started to break. The first one snapped without my noticing, and the light chime it made swiping the chainstay took 30 minutes to auger into my awareness as the harbinger of annoyance and detour it was. I stopped and squeezed each spoke for tension and felt a billowing sense of doom when the bad one gave.
It didn’t take long to realize my mistake. At the bike shop in Athens a few days earlier, I had insisted on a steel rim and didn’t reconsider when the shop owner retreated to the basement to dig around. What he came up with was 40 years old and, it would turn out, as brittle as phyllo. “Vintage,” he said, charging me extra.
This trip, a solo bike ride across central and eastern Europe, denied me any chance to share blame when things went wrong. Six weeks after starting in Berlin, I’d made more mistakes than I could count. I’d ripped myself multiple new ones and salted many kilometers with hissed, obscene self-recriminations.
I pedaled as gingerly as I could with the broken spoke and prayed to the God of Flat-Bed Pickup Trucks. But after about 10 minutes, I saw a cyclist cresting a hill, earbuds in, pumping a carbon-fiber racing bike. He looked determined not to acknowledge me beyond a brusque dip of his futuristic helmet, but I waved him to a stop.
I wore iridescent blue Spandex dance shorts, a tortured pair of old running shoes, and straddled a 14-speed Giant road bike older than he was. He wasn’t eager to engage until I spoke to him in English. He perked up, told me his name was Panos, and asked where I was headed. The sodden printer paper I pulled from my handlebar bag was folded in quarters and more closely resembled a used bandage than a map. The ink had bled through, deltas and kappas melting across unmarked rivers and roads. I tried to show him where I thought I was, but his pity kicked in before I could finish.
He’d gone far enough for the day, he said, so he could turn around and help me. His coach owned a bike shop in nearby Agrinio and he’d lead me there. Plus, he needed to practice his English.
As we rode, he told me he was 16 and training for a road race. If he could earn a place among the top three amateur riders in the country over the next two years, he’d be given a 10 percent bonus on his entrance exam to Greece’s air force academy. He wanted to be a pilot.
His foresight was impressive. On our way back, he asked if I wanted to ride in the road to avoid the glass on the shoulder, but I shrugged him off. When I got a flat, he neglected to gloat, but I could almost hear him thinking, How did this guy manage to get this far?
When we reached Agrinio, I followed Panos through a maze of side streets to the bike shop. He hopped the curb and rode through the front door. His coach quickly and ably got to work replacing my broken spoke.
Panos, another mechanic or two, and some jovial bike shop loafers made a comfortable cadre, and I relaxed as they asked me about my trip and chatted among themselves. I used the bathroom, refilled my water bottles, and enjoyed the warmth and orderliness inside the shop. It was dark outside and had started to rain. I reveled in a fuzzy sense of accomplishment and safety, feeling another mistake metabolize into memory.
When he finished, the mechanic charged me a negligible five euros for the job and threw in some extra spokes in case I broke more, which he seemed certain I would. I shook hands all around and pushed off into the rain.
The steel rim held for another day and a half. The next time, feeling the spoke snap on a pedal stroke, I was reminded of losing a tooth as a kid. Then another one broke, and another one. I hopped off before the wheel failed completely and, after groaning into my fist for about five minutes, stuck out my thumb.
A couple of Germans gave me a ride to Igoumenitsa, a port town in northwest Greece. I had weighed the idea of continuing north into Albania, but it was Friday evening, and any bike shops were already closed. After eating dinner with a cyclist who was getting on a ferry that night for Italy, I decided I couldn’t bear to sit around waiting for the bike shops to open on Monday. Italy it was.
In Brindisi, I had my lucky steel rim fixed again. I hadn’t counted on ending up in Italy or made any plans to be there, so I asked the mechanic where I should go. He said Lecce, 30 miles south, was pretty.
Just as I rolled into Lecce, another spoke snapped. Lacking a phone, I began to introduce myself to the locals, asking for directions to the nearest bike shop. After a few busier shops passed me off, I made it to Massimo’s, a one-man affair run by a sour, efficient mechanic who would hardly meet my eye. I bought an area map while he fixed the spoke and asked him, in high school Spanish, the safest way to get out of town on a bike. Rather than try to speak to me, he leaned out the door and waved down a neighbor chatting on the sidewalk.
Adriano was an architecture professor in town and spoke a little English. I pointed to a park on the map where I planned to camp that night. A stricken look crossed his face and he told me it would be too dangerous to go in the dark. Ah, it’s fine, I said. He said I could stay with him. Ah, it’s fine, I said, but I was already wilting. It was dark, I was hungry, and the spoke crises had tired me out. He practically prodded me into his garage, and I let him.
An hour later, I was showered, eating a mushroom pizza, and watching old home videos on VHS with Adriano’s family. His wife Marcella poured me wine and pushed a slice of cake in front of me. To have slipped so suddenly from grimy dirtbag to sheltered guest sent me into a fugue state of contentedness.
The next day, I decided to test my luck on a day trip. I packed a pannier and rode from Lecce to the tip of Italy’s boot heel, where the Ionian and Adriatic seas merge. It was a great ride along an empty, gorgeous coastline but took longer than I had anticipated, and it was evening by the time I turned around. I had bitten off more boot than I could chew.
About halfway back, a spoke broke. I rode a while longer, panting expletives at myself, until another one snapped and the wheel suddenly warped into a helix, jamming me to a halt. It was dark by then, raining, and I was still 30 kilometers from Lecce. I had no way to get a hold of Adriano and Marcella, and the back tire was so warped that I couldn’t even push the bike. I hoisted it onto my shoulder and walked the few kilometers to the nearest town.
Luckily, there was a train to Lecce in 30 minutes, enough time for me to inhale a panini and swill a cold Peroni, the best I’d ever had. When I finally got to Adriano and Marcella’s apartment building, I reached for the buzzer. Before I could push it, Marcella was there, swinging open the door and ushering me in, relief flooding her face. Adriano appeared at the top of the stairs in his bathrobe, telephone in hand, mid-call to the police.
That was it for the wheel. I let Massimo replace it with a new aluminum rim and didn’t have any mechanical issues for the rest of the trip. But I’ll be forever grateful to the lucky steel wheel for introducing me to Panos, putting me on a boat to Italy, and leading me to my surrogate Italian family.
In 2019, I rode from Miami to Key West with my sister, brother, and 15-year-old niece. My brother and his daughter were new to cycling, but I lured them in with the prospect of a great adventure. My sister had been cycling for a few years and needed no persuading. All three of them have a fear of heights — a family trait that, thankfully, had skipped me.
I’d chosen this ride because you can’t get flatter than Florida, and when you plan a ride for newbies, flat helps sell the idea. I hoped the trip would be easy and fun, but I didn’t consider the number of bridges in the Keys and what crossing them would involve for people who don’t like to look down.
With a little research, we determined that most of the 42 bridges we’d have to cross were low and flat. “We’ll just deal with them,” said my sister, but she worried two of them would present bigger challenges. The first came on Day One when we reached the Card Sound, which separates the mainland from Key Largo. We stopped for a quick lunch of fried conch and a beer while the acrophobes wrapped their heads around the mountain of road rising up like a great wall between us and the magic of the Keys beyond.
In order of severity, my sister’s fear is by far the worst. She avoids climbing anything as high as her attic ladder. I’d describe my brother as nervous about heights rather than phobic, and my niece ranks somewhere in between.
To cross that first bridge, we assigned teams. I would ride with my sister and my brother would ride with his daughter. It’s not a long bridge, but it’s 65 feet tall in the middle, has no shoulder, walkway, or other accommodations for nonvehicular traffic, and the railing opens at the bottom, exposing a horrifying sliver of the distant water below.
I told our crew we would ride in pairs and take the whole road to prevent traffic from passing us. My brother and I would ride on the outside so my sister and niece could stay as far from the railing as possible.
We pedaled onto the bridge at a good pace, but halfway up, the incline proved steeper than it looked, and we slowed considerably. As my brother and niece fell behind, I stayed with my sister. Someone once told her that singing can ward off panic, so she frantically belted out “Yankee Doodle” as we pedaled. She’s never been known for her singing voice, and it didn’t improve when it turned screechy and hysterical in the crosswind that caught us at the top. I could feel the bridge swaying and thumping under the weight of the northbound traffic. Still, I took a second to appreciate my first real view of the Keys and marveled at how their blue-green water glowed like Easter egg dye in a bowl. I took it all in to a chorus of “and called it macaroni!”
My sister relaxed once we began our descent. We pedaled off the bridge and coasted until we found a safe place to pull over and regroup. When I dismounted and turned around, I expected to see my brother and his daughter, but they weren’t there. I didn’t know that their first hill with loaded bikes had overwhelmed them. They’d gotten off to walk, which, my brother later explained, only heightened their feelings of instability as the road swayed and rumbled under their feet.
My sister and I stared at the top of that bridge, willing them to appear. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” I whispered. If they couldn’t get over, what would that mean for the rest of the trip?
And then, there they were, two small blotches on the tippy top. My sister and I threw our fists in the air and screamed with joy. We watched as they remounted their bikes and pedaled over the crest, taking the whole road to cruise down to the Key side of the sound with a long line of traffic trailing behind. As they descended, I jumped and cheered loudly, tears springing to my eyes. When they caught up with us, we all hugged for an adrenaline-induced laugh-cry before hopping back on our bikes so my sister and niece could ride the jitters out of their knees.
We had two days to enjoy that victory before facing the next big hurdle: the Seven Mile Bridge. This bridge is flat except for one section that also rises to 65 feet. If you’re not afraid of heights, crossing presents a thrilling prospect: ride for seven miles over expansive emerald water under an arc of blue sky and feel the magic. But for the person who’s afraid to climb a ladder, magic does not come to mind. How would my sister and niece control their fear for seven long miles with a drop to the water on one side, heavy traffic on the other, and another 65-foot hump looming out front?
It didn’t help that many folks we met on the trip regaled us with warnings about the dangers of this crossing. One happy storyteller called the bridge a “death trap,” and another suggested we’d never get four bikes across without at least one flat tire because of all the shoulder debris.
The day we planned to cross, my brother emerged from his tent rubbing a stiff neck. Worry about what he’d gotten his daughter into had kept him up all night. Over breakfast, we revised our original crossing strategy. This time, we’d ride single file on the shoulder and my sister would lead so she could pedal herself to safety as quickly as possible. She worried that if one of us stopped in front of her, she would panic. My brother and his daughter would go next, and I would ride in back so I could perform any quick tire changes if the warnings about debris proved true.
Just before crossing, we stopped for a “scared selfie” and a high-five. Then my sister zoomed off, already singing “Yankee Doodle.” The rest of us followed. Within a quarter mile, my niece and I saw an iguana on the shoulder trying to climb the Jersey wall. My niece hopes to become an exotic animal veterinarian someday, and she yelled over her shoulder, “Oh no, poor thing!” At that moment, I knew she would be just fine. If she could worry about the iguana, she wasn’t worrying about herself. Maybe she would even enjoy it.
Like every other day of the trip, we had a tailwind that day, so we sailed on a westward gale at over 20 MPH — quite a clip for a novice teen cyclist on a fully loaded hybrid. The wind was so strong I hardly pedaled.
Meanwhile, the 65-foot hump approached quickly. This time, my niece had no trouble climbing. She was more prepared and less afraid; plus, the tailwind propelled us straight to the top where it scooped us up and slung us down the other side. “We’re flying!” I yelled.
My niece hollered, “I knooow!”
When we reached land again, I realized I’d been smiling so hard my lips were stuck to my teeth. We’d crossed in 20 minutes. Euphoria electrified all of us, and I felt so proud of my sister and niece I thought confetti might shoot out of my ears.
The trip ended two days later in Key West. We’d kept count of interesting things along the 180-mile route — one aggregation of manatees, two leaky tents, one five-pound bag of gorp, three drunk campers, one crocodile — but the best by far and the greatest source of pride: 42 bridges.
I laid my bike down in the debris-strewn shoulder of MEX-1 and hopped into the grassy ditch lining the road in search of a cardboard scrap. Back at my bike, I dug into my stuffed framebag and pulled out the red-tinted Chapstick I’d bought in some small town a ways back. I scrawled NORTE in big letters. Wearing a long dress I’d picked up earlier that day to give the illusion of clean, I stood up, faced oncoming traffic, and stuck out my thumb.
After six weeks of Baja bliss, my travel companion Adam and I begrudgingly turned our attention back toward home.
It was about 4:00 PM, and we were feeling doubt creep in that we’d be able to catch a hitch so late in the day. Golden light bathed the dusty highway as 18-wheelers barreled through Loreto, Baja California, Mexico. Our hearts leapt with a bittersweet pang when one finally slowed and pulled off the road 100 yards ahead of us. We were relieved for the lift but disheartened that our bike tour was coming to an end.
I let Adam do the talking. Even though I’d been laboring to cement as much Spanish as I could in my brain for the past month and a half, Adam was at a joke-making, conversational level of fluency. He explained to the truck driver that we were headed to the border. The truck driver nodded and told us he could take us all the way to Tijuana, happy for the company. He threw open the roll door and helped us lift our loaded mountain bikes into the cargo space, surrounded by mountains of tomatoes.
When we piled into the cab of the truck, Adam took the passenger seat and I scooted back on the built-in twin bed with my tattered copy of 100 Years of Solitude. As the truck engine roared to life and we puttered forward, I listened to the men up front chattering away in Spanish. I’d hitchhiked plenty before, but usually for shorter distances in the beds of pickup trucks. I peered around the sleeping quarters with fascination as I gathered information about a lifestyle I knew absolutely nothing about.
They say you learn a great deal of wisdom on every bike tour, and in my experience, hitchhiking is included.
An hour north of Loreto, I felt the truck slow as we turned off the highway and into a dirt lot in front of a small restaurant called Las Palmas. I recognized it as a spot we had stopped for breakfast with the rest of our touring companions about 300 miles back on the Baja Divide. We laughed at how quickly we reached the restaurant in a vehicle on the highway compared to the serpentine dirt roads we’d been weaving down as we pedaled across Baja. We graciously paid for our new friend’s dinner and loaded back into the cab.
About an hour later, Adam relayed to me that we’d be stopping at a checkpoint momentarily. The driver shuffled through some papers on the dash, selected one, and bounced out of the cab. This happened several times during our trip up the highway — lots of checkpoints and presenting of papers.
It seemed a bit too early for a checkpoint stop the next time I felt the truck turn off the road. The sun had just dipped beneath the horizon and, after putting the truck in park, the driver turned and rummaged through his belongings scattered on the small shelving unit next to me. He became frustrated, even a little panicked, and started speaking rapidly to Adam and me.
Between words I didn’t catch, I heard, “Una bolsita? Una bolsita?!”
“He’s looking for a little bag,” Adam said to me.
An expression equivalent to a shoulder shrug distorted my face. I began to sense that the man worried we’d taken something important from him.
After a few more minutes of searching, our friend located his misplaced bolsita and sat down on the bed next to me. Understanding that we didn’t share a common language, he smiled and nodded at me as he reached into one of the shelves and retrieved a cloudy lightbulb. He flicked a lighter open and brought the lightbulb to his lips as if it were a pipe — a trick I had certainly never witnessed before. Our thighs were touching as he took a couple puffs and exhaled the mystery smoke into the cab. I shielded my nose and mouth by pressing my open copy of 100 Years of Solitude to my face, wide-eyed as I searched for calmness in Adam’s face. What have we gotten ourselves into? I asked myself, fighting off fear and regret.
Friendship and trust somewhat restored, he and Adam faced the road once again, and I was rocked to sleep by their melodic chatter and the rumbling of the truck.
The next time the driver exited the cab to present papers at a checkpoint, Adam translated a conversation they’d been having about the mysterious bolsita. “He said it’s somewhat common for truck drivers to carry a small bit of drugs to help them stay awake as they drive up and down the peninsula — and they don’t get in trouble for it if it’s a small enough amount. It’s how he’s able to make this 13-hour drive in one go.” Accepting this, I added the tidbit to my small but growing list of knowledge about long-haul truckers.
When our friend returned, Adam and I switched seats so he could get some sleep in the back. Ten minutes of awkward silence later, I pointed to the radio and said the only thing I could come up with: “¿Tienes ‘La Bamba?’” He laughed, obviously not understanding my request to listen to “La Bamba.”
Instead, he pointed out the window into tenebrous darkness and said, “¡Mira las vacas!” I noticed the hefty black lumps on either side of the road hurtling past the truck like comets as we flew down the twisty cliffside highway. Our headlights illuminated the absence of fencing to contain the cows. I checked his speedometer: 100 kilometers an hour.
Holy shit, this is how we die.
Distracting myself from certain death, I looked up at the multitude of stars sprayed across the pitch-black sky. Many things about Baja are magical, and the stars near the top of the list for me. Counting shooting stars and concocting imaginary constellations was like a nightly Netflix routine as we cozied up in our sleeping bags without tents. I’ve seldom been in a place where so many stars were crisply visible.
The driver’s voice brought me back to the present. Taking his eyes off the road and directing them to me, he asked something I didn’t understand. He held his hand near his jaw and made a dancing motion in his seat, then pointed to the small aisle between our seats. Sensing my confusion, he put his hand on my bare knee, sliding it towards the outside of my thigh. He wants me to stand up and sexy dance for him? As we speed down this treacherous, cow-dotted highway in the middle of the night?! Spanish wasn’t the only language we didn’t have in common.
I jerked my knee away from his hand and told him, “No,” sternly, followed by an involuntary disarming laugh. It astonishes me how incapable I am of standing up for myself in situations like these. My insides grew hot and my outsides felt paralyzed.
Attempting to further communicate my discomfort with body language, I turned away and shifted my posture as far into the cab door as I could. This unexpected threat spun me into a search for a new plan. I heard Adam’s soft snores floating through the drawn curtain that separated us. When a long row of bright streetlights appeared, I squinted through the window to see where we were. I quickly recognized Vicente Guerrero, a town we’d spent a rest day in weeks before.
The driver pulled over at yet another checkpoint. Once he was out of earshot, I pulled back the curtain and roused Adam. “Dude touched my leg and I’m not feeling comfortable anymore — what do we do?” Without needing further explanation, Adam expressed mild disappointment and offered, “I’ll tell him we have friends staying here and they’ve offered to host us for the night.” Desperate for any decent excuse, I agreed.
When the driver reentered the cab, Adam held up his flip phone and delivered our story. Dejected, the man’s shoulders slumped, and without a word, he led us back to our bicycles and the tomatoes. Once we had our bikes, he held a hand up as goodbye, climbed back into the truck, and disappeared down MEX-1.
Bummed about such a weird hitchhiking experience, we rode to a familiar motel and booked a room.
As I sank into the safety of the bed and sorted through my maze of thoughts, I flipped back to something I wrote in my journal preceding the tour: Just calm down, breathe slowly, and go with the flow, Ally. It will take you where you need to be. Our bike tour may have felt over as we watched the truck pull over that evening, but with 170 miles left to reach the border, we’d have to wait until tomorrow to see where else the flow would take us.