The Little General

Sep 12th, 2022

When I told my mom I was cycling across the U.S. at the age of 24 and that I planned to go solo, she started crying and then got a little mad. My dad just cried and sighed. It seems like a lot of riders get a similar reaction from their parents. To those of you who have parents or kids who are more understanding because they also bike tour: lucky you.

When a friend decided to join me on my cross-country trip, my mom cheered up and called him “an angel.” I didn’t feel like he was an angel when he got drunk and threw up in our tent one night, but that’s another story. I think my mom wanted me to have monogrammed towels, china sets, or a house that looks like a magazine. In her eyes, a “normal life.” Instead, I have lived in shacks, trailers, closets, my car, and my tent.

My mom’s Lebanese heritage gave me my wild-as-hell curly hair. I wake up looking like Medusa. Some people have parents who look like them, and others don’t. Some folks have two dads, two moms, a grandparent, or a chosen family of friends and mentors, which I also have. The thing, to me, that really makes a family is not blood or even history — it’s when you know someone’s got your back. They call you whether you are having great successes or if you’re down on your luck and need a $100 loan. That’s family: the people who support each other through good and bad, despite their particular mix of similarities and differences. Families of all shapes and colors are beautiful, but most seem to have the same, or similar, misgivings about those they love flinging themselves into the unknowns of bike travel. 

As a kid, I played all the sports and still do. In contrast, my mother’s main sport is being an incredible chef, cooking food for anyone and everyone, and being a nanny, which requires real muscle. My mom, Teresa, has incredible style, an outfit for every occasion, and bins labeled “blue and green scarves,” not to be confused with the bin of “orange and red scarves.” She is feisty, opinionated, and claims from her five-foot two-inch petite frame, “I am not bossy. I just have the best ideas.” 

Three photos of Hollie's mom showcasing her matching hats and scarves.
My mother’s main sport is making food for anyone and everyone and ensuring her huge hats match her purses and shoes.
Hollie Ernest

Without a car in college, I cycled everywhere, and Teresa told me, “Do not bike at night.” 

“I have lights,” I said. She persisted until I said, “Okay, I’ll try not to?” 

I was 21 and continued to bike everywhere at night, the best time to ride in the eastern Tennessee summers. When I got into mountain bike racing after college, she asked me if it was dangerous. I mentally tallied the friends who had recently broken their collarbones, swallowed my breath and replied, “No, Mom. It’s totally safe. I always wear a helmet.” 

“Oh, good,” she uttered with relief. 

Fast forward 10 years, and my mom has slowly, haltingly, sort of accepted that I am not going to have matching dishware. Her acceptance first took the form of a calm resignation coupled with frequent prayers for my safety, then later it morphed into something more. When I left to cycle around the world in the winter of 2019, the only truly reassuring words I could give my tearful parents were that I would make good decisions. They stared at me with uptight faces that looked like they had just drank lemon juice. Then I blurted out, “You can come visit me somewhere! You can pick the place!” and their faces relaxed. I didn’t think they actually would — the expense and time off work may or may not be possible — but the idea set them at ease. 

The next thing I knew, my mom and sister were meeting me in Costa Rica. Because my mom has nine siblings, she can’t triangulate her position in the world without at least a few of them; Teresa doesn’t do things in normal numbers and still thinks 20 people is a “small group.” She is the eighth of 10, and takes charge in a way that has earned her the title, “Little General.” So she and my sister, three of my aunts, and two of my cousins were all en route to Costa Rica. True to form, they chose an upscale resort where I was utterly out of place with my crisp cycling tan lines and eco-conscious concerns. Couples on their honeymoon drank Mai Tais at the pool bar while our group of eight loud Lebanese women laughed so hard our stomachs hurt and shouted our conversations because the only volume my family operates at is loud and louder. 

Mom had gone from “why can’t you stay put” to one of my biggest cheerleaders. She nearly knocked over a waiter in her rush to hug me tightly and said, “I know you are capable of this, but I missed you, and I prayed a lot.” 

Hollie and her mom sit next to each at a fancy restaurant. They are laughing joyously.
Hollie and her mom.
Hollie Ernest

She not only bragged to everyone at the resort about my travels but had apparently directed countless people back home to my blog and convinced others I was doing something sane, maybe even something to be celebrated. She had sent me talismans to protect me on my trip, and I showed her how I kept them in my handlebar bag. She had even started bragging to her book club. “Oh, your daughter has three kids and a good job? Well, mine is cycling in Central America!” Her pride is endearing, borderline embarrassing, and completely normal. At 35, I’m now a stepmom myself, and I perfectly understand her protective tendencies and prideful support. I am so proud of my 20-year-old stepdaughter I could burst. I boast about her endlessly. She really is incredibly awesome. The smartest! Most kind! Most athletic! 

Some families have an easier time than others accepting each other for who they are. I love my mom, and we do not — do not — discuss politics. But when my aunts and uncles told me not to go on my trip and that I was wrong to leave my husband for so long, the Little General stepped in to defend me. Those who love us might not understand why we endure saddle sores and tired legs for the reward of sleeping on the ground and waking up at dawn. But they don’t have to understand. Adventure cycling almost always involves some version of pursuing dreams big or small, and most families can understand that. If they love hearing your stories (pro tip: keep the scary ones to yourself), seeing your photos, and start bragging about you to their gardening club/book club/drinking buddies, you know that they’ve got your back, and that’s what matters.

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