A trip to remember: Bemidji man arrives home after 3,000-mile solo bike adventure
"It's simply a matter of trust," I managed to grumble. I had just repaired my second flat tire for the day and an afternoon full of rain was giving way to a darkening evening filled with more of the same.
I was wet, worn-out, and hungry. I didn't know where I would stay for the night.
"It's simply a matter of trust," I repeated more calmly to myself as I jumped back on my bicycle. I coaxed my legs to slowly arc around once more, propelling my body along with the 40 pounds of food, water and gear I was carrying closer to home, one pedal at a time.
I was traveling along the thin shoulder of an Ontario country road tracing rich-smelling pastureland, and I was right in the middle of what would become a 3,000-mile journey back to Bemidji. Like so many moments along the way, as I began to bike again, I found myself fixating on doubt - doubt that I could really make it all the way back home by bicycling. Doubt that what I was doing was safe, made sense and would ultimately be worthwhile. And, like so many moments along the way, as I dealt with and worked through these thoughts, a slow transformation took place.
For the six weeks of my trip, I woke up every morning to a new day and repeatedly put my life in the hands of people I had never met, including what seemed to be an endless supply of vehicles hurtling by next to me at death-defying speeds. For six weeks, far from being a bike expert, I depended on the mechanical well-being of my bicycle, christened early on as "Tranquility." I was challenged by the many moods of weather I encountered, the silence and intensity of continual hours and days spent by myself and the freedom, yet limitation, to sit and ponder as I pedaled home.
Tranquility, my aging, red, Schwinn mountain bike, and I developed a kinship that only deepened as we traveled each mile home together. I put grease in her chain, and she carried me from the dense metropolises of the Eastern Seaboard to the remote, rocky Canadian Shield north of Lake Superior. I occasionally replaced a flat tube of hers, and she took me up the wooded foothills of the Adirondack, Green, and White mountains and along the fjord-like coast of Maine. I checked her brake pads, and she brought me through dense, enchanting old forests and across the flood-plains, pastures, farmlands and fields of the scenic Saint Lawrence Seaway. We were inseparable, and by the end, I was talking to her as if she were a sister.
The trip began out of my deep desire to continue discovering the natural world and to travel more, but to do so as sustainably and community-centered as I could manage. I spent the past two years working and living at Camp Amnicon, a wonderful year-round Lutheran wilderness camp for youth on the south shore of Lake Superior. This past fall, I left my position to travel and spend time with my extended family by living with each of my grandparents', aunts' and uncles' families. My family tour ended with my aunt in Manhattan, New York.
As I was planning my travel arrangements home, I realized the significant opportunity provided by needing a means back to Minnesota. If I chose to bicycle, I could choose a pace of travel that would allow me to discover the landscapes and communities along the way. On a bike, I could satisfy some of the deep wanderlust I felt while seeing the world in a way that was mindful of its finite resources. Although I value travel for its own sake, it is even more important to me to travel in ways that are ecologically aware and as low-impact as possible.
I also wanted to know what real, tangible, engulfing distance felt like. Modern world travel has reduced the distance between New York City and Bemidji to nothing more than a blip of a six-hour plane ride. But the distance between the two locations remains incredibly vast and full of life. I wanted get on a bike in Manhattan knowing the only way home was to start pedaling.
I could fill the rest of this article describing the thrill of the open road. Having lived 24 short years, I have found no greater joy than carrying only what I need to simply live. Throw in the freedom of traveling by bicycle, the flexibility of being alone and the excitement of never knowing what the next turn in the road would bring - few more satisfying experiences exist. However, I had just as many moments where I felt lonely, challenged and overwhelmed.
My trip was indeed a physical journey. Any given day could be filled with grindingly steep hills, strong headwinds and heavy rain storms. There is a beauty in diversity, and soon enough I would be biking along a waterway on flat terrain, with hearty tailwinds and a clear blue sky. Through it all, rather than relying on fossil fuels my engine ran on peanut butter and oatmeal.
I loved the natural way bicycling required me to interact with the communities I was traveling through. For half of the nights on the trip I camped in beautiful state or provincial parks, scenic public lands or simply in a copse of trees along the side of the road. For the other half, I stayed overnight with generous hosts, in their backyards or on a spare couch. Even though before departing I did not know anyone on my route, I found myself with an abundance of new friends by the end. This happened through fantastic online communities like www.couchsurfing.org or by knocking on someone's door and asking if they were comfortable with me staying in their backyard.
A solo bike tour is also a deeply introspective journey. The time, intensity, and rhythm on a bicycle provided me a freedom of thought that I haven't found elsewhere. This mode of travel provided the free time to reflect on what I wanted in life and to delve into as many questions as my brain could generate. How does gravity really work? Where do red-winged blackbirds go when it rains? What is true happiness? I deeply appreciate the chance my trip gave me to look at my life, examine where I am satisfied and where I can continue to push myself.
Amid the bustle of returning home, I try to hold on to a few fresh perspectives gained from the journey. I revel in the sheer gift of a warm meal, a safe place to sleep and many of the day-to-day privileges that fill my life back at home. I feel empowered to commute by bicycle around the beautiful Bemidji trails having traveled such longer distances on my trip. I am inspired to weave the lessons of the journey into my personal vision of how a human community should be formed.
I recognize that what I've shared is the perspective of one young adult who may come across as naïve, inexperienced, and perhaps overly idealistic. And yet, after going through with the reality of my journey, I actually feel more conviction that taking thoughtful risks and opening oneself to dependence on others is not irresponsible. On the contrary, finding ways to challenge our modern notions of independence and consumption can greatly enrich human life and recreate an older form of societal security by trusting in one another.
Our culture today can be filled with negative and untrusting messages, stories focusing on the dangers and dark sides that exist within each of our human potentials. And yet, I believe that at the same time, human compassion abounds everywhere, especially in unexpected situations.
There is a distinct feeling of vulnerability when riding along vast stretches of wilderness, through regions where you don't speak the primary language, or amidst bustling urban centers with traffic whizzing by as if you weren't there. Yet, it was bicycling that helped me meet the face of compassion in the form of motorists stopping to check if I needed help on the roadside or sharing a bowl of strawberries and cream at a rest area. It was bicycling that brought me to compassion in the form of complete strangers opening up their homes to me and so many kind hearts sharing their own precious resources with no expectation of return. The truth is that there is no way I could have done my trip without the massive support and generosity that I met along the way home.
After so many days and miles on the open road, it is such a comforting experience to return home to a place as wonderful as Bemidji. Now home, I hope that through sharing my own experiences and reflections, I discover more about others and that this enriching process allows us as a community to engage in dialogue and learn from each other. And if stories like these can help each of us discover the joy of alternative travel and be inspired to reach out in ways we might have been too afraid or unwilling to before, even better. With Bemidji's wealth of cultural and natural heritage, excellent educational opportunities, and so much happening around the area, I deeply look forward to finding ways to give back to a community that has provided me with so much.
As the summer sun began to slowly fade behind the horizon on that day of rain, I found myself spreading my bivouac sack and sleeping bag in the backyard of a kind young family I had just met. That night, as I gazed up at the deep black Canadian sky I remember reflecting, "It's simply a matter of trust," one more time. I was slowly beginning to trust in the power of my trip, trust that my bike and body would hold out, that vehicles passing by would respect my right to be on the road too, that the people I met would continue to be friendly and willing to help and that I could let go of doubts and worries beyond my control. I was beginning to understand that this trust went beyond my bike trip. Trust is not only an essential tool when cycling, but a rediscovered necessity in life and communities.