Cook's County is on the road. In that spirit I will be posting traveling stories.
Some time back, when I had fewer commitments and obligations and a much greater sense of whimsy, when there wasn't such a thing as a smartphone, I pedaled down the coast of California with a dear friend. I am not adventurous, nor brave, nor athletic in the least, and this trip was a great, not to say foolish, adventure. This is the story of that adventure.
And whatever stage you are in your life, I hope adventures still fit into it.
We wondered if we were dead. Had we died? Maybe been run over by a semi on the highway? We were sitting in a hot tub, high atop a rocky precipice on the edge of the ocean, watching a golden, silver, otherworldly sunset, a mist in the early evening sky lending blurred edges to everything, the ocean’s slow undulations rippling with light. In my memory we’re drinking wine in that hot tub. But why would we have wine?—certainly wine glasses alone were completely out of the question. We were on the first night of a ten-day self-supported bicycle trip down California’s coastal Route 1, my adventuresome friend Elisabeth and I, and packing wine and glasses would have been too absurd. But there we are in my memory, sipping wine. Wherever we were, with wine or not, it was a welcome, literally heavenly respite at the end of the most challenging day of our trip, and probably my life.
A San Francisco friend had picked us up at the airport and taken us to a bike shop to unbox and reassemble our bikes. He then drove us south of the city and dropped us off in the middle of nowhere. He chivalrously offered to wait around and make sure we could even get on our bikes once they were loaded down with our luggage, and actually pedal them, but we declined. We’ll be fine! we crowed, a little too energetically. He drove off then, and there we were in the silence, a long ribbon of empty, shimmering road stretching behind us and beyond us as far as there was.
Death—ours—or more specifically, mine—was rather a prominent theme that day. Things were fine in the beginning. We found to our happy surprise that we could pedal without falling over, my shoelaces didn’t get tangled in the sprockets right away, and it was a gorgeous, golden afternoon. The gently rolling road was largely empty. Then we made a fairly ill-considered rest stop. A sign indicated a small store down a hill to the right. This was the first time, but lamentably not the last, that I neglected to calculate the consequences of a thrilling steep descent, all joy tinged with fear, and no pedaling. Down at the bottom of that at-least-100-foot drop we met a woman who was back on her bike for the first time in months—years?—since her accident. She showed us her mangled, now healed leg, told us the story of how she had been dragged under a truck on a city street. “I nearly died,” she added, in a totally unnecessary footnote to the story. I could hardly take my eyes off that disfigured leg. I swallowed my terror and revulsion and with a numb smile wished her all the best, and my friend and I talked bravely of her bravery after she left us.
It probably took us half an hour to wrestle our rear-heavy bikes back up that godforsaken hill. We began to bicker about whose idea this clearly idiotic trip had been in the first place. Overcome with misgiving about our foolhardiness, and graphically aware of our vulnerability up on that highway, I slowly began to seethe with annoyance, fear, self-doubt, and hotness. And then the hills began.
Route 1 is not a mountainous road, although some of it runs along coastal cliffs hundreds of feet above the ocean. But it has long, low-grade hills which seem to ascend forever. It was these grades which afforded me my next contemplation of death. By now I was having a little rougher go than my friend, who seemed to be leaping up the hills like a gamboling lamb. I was humiliated—why couldn’t I keep up?—then grew angry—well I’m sure I’m carrying more weight, after all I’ve got all our food. The sun beat down mercilessly on my back and neck. Our destination was 30 miles away at least—no problem on an ordinary bike ride, but a distance unendurable to imagine on these hills. There wasn’t a car in sight, or a town, or a gas station. We had no cell phones. My arms and legs trembled with the effort of trying to turn my wheels. I worried about my weight distribution—all in the back—causing me to pop an inadvertent wheelie and fall over backwards. I worried about getting separated from my friend, whom I had by now lost sight of altogether. My anger and self-doubt redoubled their efforts in their competition to fill up the most space in my brain. That companion to fear, anger, and self-doubt—self-loathing—now arrived and assessed the situation as pathetic, the obvious outcome of a poor plan, the only possible redemption being to quit before things got really humiliating.
But quitting was not an option. Not because I am not a quitter. No, simply because it would have been impossible, short of leaving the bike right there on the side of the road and walking the 30 miles to our first night’s stop. Hitchhike? I was even contemplating that, which for a girl who came up in the 70’s with a strong consciousness of Stranger Danger was nearly unthinkable. I now began to cry.
All this mental battling began to take a rather extreme physical toll: now my throat constricted from the anger and the tears. I couldn’t breathe. I was gasping for breath. It felt and sounded like an asthma attack. My arms and legs shook involuntarily. My heart pounded audibly, hollowly, angrily like it might just burst out of my chest and go to some other body, someplace pleasant where less was required of it. In front of me stretched a vast hill, upward into the golden afternoon, shimmering, empty. And my bike, despite my best efforts, teeth-gritting efforts, had slowed without my noticing to a near-complete stop.
With that power of the will that only accompanies fear for one’s life, I stepped out of my mental anguish in an attempt to consider my situation reasonably. Since I could not breathe, I had to stop. Since my bike wasn’t going any further, I had to stop. I had to stop, get off the bike, and calm down.
I took small shallow swallows of air and tried to persuade my throat to relax. I closed my eyes and let the sun warm my face. I listened to the wind in the tall yellow grasses. Slowly my body became calmer as my mind enforced calm. And I made a plan. This plan wasn’t exactly rocket science, and it was the plan I admittedly already had, and it was the only possible plan, but in that moment I felt clever, like McGyver, or brilliant, like Einstein.
I would get back on my bike, and pedal it.
And so I did. My main priority now was to keep breathing. I didn’t care so much about making the bike go. I didn’t care how far ahead my friend was or that it might take me ten more hours to reach my destination. I just knew I had to stay calm no matter what unless I wanted to asphyxiate myself. In that effort to breathe, the unwelcome crowd left my mind: humiliation, anger, abandonment, resentment, misgiving, self-doubt, self-loathing. There was room in there for only one thought: breathe.
And as I breathed, I pedaled, and as I pedaled, the wheels turned. Ever so slowly. You could walk much faster than my bike was moving, easy. But I was going, and I was breathing, and I knew then that I would not die, and I would not leave my bike at the side of the road.
As I breathed and pedaled, scarcely moving up the long grade, but moving, recollections and illuminations rolled into my mind, rolled in like the ocean lapping into the shore on my right. I hate for things to be hard. This is hard. Lap.....lap. But I can do this. It’s okay. Lap.....lap. It’s not as hard when I don’t hate it. Lap.
As I pedaled my heart began to feel ever-so-slightly lighter. If I didn’t fight the difficulty, if I didn’t resist it, if I didn’t hate it, it wasn’t a struggle.
This was a revelation to me.
All my life I’d hated effort, strife, challenge, difficulty, struggle, hard work, and sweating. Hating it, or thinking I did, I always responded instinctually, unconsciously, viscerally. Get away from difficulty, or fight it. All my life I had done this. In every kind of difficulty. In this moment I knew that all my life I’d been wrong. The only way out of struggle, it became clearer as I pedaled, clearer and clearer, was to accept it, to submit to it. This is hard. This is impossible, even. But it’s fine. I’m fine. Do not reject this. Accept it, welcome it, submit to it, and in an instant all that fear, revulsion, and resentment disappear.
I had always understood every aspect of my life in these terms, that struggle was bad and to be avoided. And when avoidance failed, pain inevitably ensued in the subsequent fight. Moving to Chicago had brought me months or years of pain and tears. Graduate school, difficult every day for seven years, was something of a living hell. And my spiritual life was filled with frustration and sorrow. I hated the struggle and was unwilling to work within a parameter of struggle. Perhaps—perhaps—now I could attempt simply to pedal and breathe, stop fighting, embrace that parameter of struggle—in everything. The connections to all aspects of my life rolled into my mind gently, lucidly, freeingly.
I regret to say that I did not then go faster and faster, ascending to the top of that long grade and stopping to survey all that was beautiful around me in a triumphant moment of oneness with all that is, while crescendoing violins mingled with the song of the ocean. No. I don’t even remember getting to the top. Or getting to our destination. It was a long, long, barely endurably long, slow afternoon. When I finally arrived at our place of rest—actually a lighthouse that now housed travelers—I felt like a wrung-out rag, semi-conscious at best. That hot tub was so surreal, out of context, isolated, and indulgent that even while we sat in it we had a hard time reconciling and recalling the details of the day.
About that day I remember almost nothing after this: that when I accept the difficulty, when I embrace the struggle, even submit to it, the wheels will begin to turn and I will not die.
Photo of Bixby Creek Bridge on California Highway 1 by Sandeep Unnimadhavan taken for his travel and adventure blog, Sandeep's World (usandeep.com).
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