“You’re out here alone?!” cried the woman, her face a crinkled map of concern.
I was used to this. Standing at the entrance to a small-town grocery store in Missouri, with my fully loaded touring bicycle leaning against the brick wall a few feet away, I resolutely decided to keep smiling. The woman widened her eyes. “Please tell me you’re packing.”
The corner of my smile twitched. “Packing?” I asked.
“Yeah.” She said it stoutly, then waited for an answer. I searched my brain. Was this supposed to be an obvious question? It took me a moment to realize she was talking about carrying a gun.
I burst into peals of impolite laughter. “I’ve never shot a gun in my life!” I crowed, picturing the insanity. I was the kind of person who managed to injure myself with a can opener. I should not, under any circumstances, carry a firearm. “I’d be a danger to myself, more than anything,” I continued, chuckling.
The woman didn’t share my humor. “A knife, then? Mace?” She pressed, her voice quick and nervous. “You’ve got something in those bags, right?”
My smile faltered. This was turning into a full-blown interrogation, and all I wanted was to get inside the store and find a juicy apple and a couple of protein bars. Plus, it wasn’t her business what I carried in my panniers. I wasn’t asking about the contents of her purse, was I?
Then put on your reading helmet.
On that day in Missouri, I was in the midst of my very first bike tour. It was an intrepid, months-long adventure that would eventually take me over five thousand miles from Oregon to Florida. I was learning that as a solo traveler, and especially as a young woman, people worried about me. And they’d quickly make it their business to take care of me.
Despite some annoying interactions with worry-warts, there were major perks to this. Twice I’d needed to hitchhike due to dangerous riding conditions, and both times a vehicle had stopped within five minutes of me sticking out my thumb. “Sure is windy today,” the driver in Wyoming had remarked, noticing how I was wrestling with my bicycle against the gusts of wind. Even the simple act of rolling my bike towards his tailgate had felt like playing tug-of-war with an invisible foe. “Let me help you with that.”
I didn’t always want help. At that point in my life, there was a die-hard-feminist chip on my shoulder about pretty much everything. But boy, when I needed help I was always so glad that it was there, instantly, without question. When I spoke with male bicycle tourers about their solo adventures, I learned that the support they received wasn’t as instantaneous or as wildly generous as what was showered upon me daily.
Women, for the most part, are seen as harmless. When people looked at me as I pedaled across the country, they saw someone vulnerable. On a bicycle, this was amplified. As cyclists, we ride that fine line between asphalt and wilderness, marginalized at the side of the road, at the mercy of traffic and the elements. If it’s raining, we’re soaked. If it’s hot, we’re sweating. There’s no AC to turn on, or roof over our heads, or rumbling engine to help us cruise along when we’re feeling tired. And, if a driver is staring at their cell phone screen for too long, we’re toast.
My vulnerability was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, creeps could see me as an easy target. On the other, good people wanted to protect me. My hope, as I pedaled alone across the United States, was that the two sides would cancel each other out. The creeps would know that I had people looking out for me, and the good people looking out for me would know that I could use the help.
Four months after departing Oregon, I reached my destination in Florida unscathed. I’d discovered along the way that this nation is a more loving, friendly place than I’d originally suspected. I burst into tears upon my arrival in Florida, feeling a mixture of devastation that the trip would be over soon, and elation that I lived in a country where a young woman could safely ride her bicycle alone for five thousand miles. It seemed like I’d done the impossible. And I couldn’t wait to do it again.