It is pretty much impossible to sum up the 69 days we spent cycling across America. There is no way to suitably convey the range of feelings and thoughts I have about our trip now that its over. But here’s a few random pieces of my mind.
I was quite worried before starting this ride that I would end up not enjoying it, that my sabbatical would have been wasted and I’d regret the whole thing. I’m greatly relieved and a little bit proud to say that I loved it all. In no way am I now ‘hooked on cycling’ or fanatical about bicycles being the Greatest Thing Ever. But neither am I about to sell my trusty Surly when I get home. No, there are plenty more two-wheeled adventures awaiting me.
My overarching reflection is that this was not so much a journey or a trip as it was a change of lifestyle. We quickly got into a daily routine that we got used to. The tent was our bedroom. The bike was our office. The diner was our kitchen, dining room – and often our living room. Each day was a separate entity – we learnt to not think ahead to the final destination but just to focus on today and enjoy it. On the plus side this meant we didn’t notice the enormity of the task we were working on and the miles and miles rolled by ‘in the background’. But inevitably it also served to dampen the feeling of accomplishment at the end. The Pacific coast, although truly a welcome sight, was not so much a finish line for an epic challenge but more a visual reminder that our adventure was over and normal life must now resume. That is, until the next adventure…
I can’t emphasize enough how much I appreciated having company along the way. As an introvert I always need some ‘Graham-time’ to myself each day (some of you have learnt this the hard way!) – but when you’re cycle touring you get more than enough of this as you sit on your bike, enveloped in your own thoughts. So for all the time off the bike you’re keen to have people around to chat to and share things with. Having done this trip, I would never consider doing a cycle tour on my own. I know I just wouldn’t enjoy it. Experiences like these have to be shared.
Things I’ve learnt
- To be Relaxed by Design, not Relaxed by Complacency. I wouldn’t say I’m neurotic or a stress-head but I’ve always preferred to plan ahead and stick to schedules and make decisions based on pros and cons etc. But I do tend to be a risk-taker as well. Right from day 1 of this trip we rarely knew where we would end up that day. We would take each day as it came, making decisions as we went along. We could afford to do this because we knew we had plenty of ‘contingency time’ for things to go wrong. If we had to take an extra couple of days here or there, it wouldn’t matter in the long run. If one of the group was tired or injured or just fed-up, we could do a short day – it wasn’t a big deal. We would try to give ourselves multiple options for food and accommodation each day so our plans were flexible enough to be changed as the day progressed. Other cyclists we met had meticulously planned out each days ride and accommodation before starting their trip, and would either delight in telling us how well they’d stuck to it or moan/worry because they hadn’t stuck to it. And other cyclists were at the other end of the scale, stuttering across the States by themselves, staying in silly places and eating poorly because they couldn’t be bothered to plan at all. We definitely saw the benefits of being, as I have called it, Relaxed by Design (having a plan, yes, but planning contingency into it) rather than being Relaxed by Complacency (having no plan!) or indeed Not Relaxed At All.
- To be Proactively Friendly. My default reaction and response to strangers used to be typically English (distrust anyone you don’t know – even if only subconsciously, mind my own business and never to initiate conversation with someone you don’t know unless you absolutely have to). Small town America has taught me (and it wasn’t easy) to do the opposite: to always strike up a conversation with someone who interests you (we stood out a lot as cycle tourers in tiny towns in the middle of nowhere!) and always offer to help if someone looks like they could use help but isn’t asking for it. The worst that can happen is they say they’re fine and don’t need any help. I have come to think of this as being ‘Proactively Friendly’ – and I shall try to stick to it when I get home. Do remind me of this!
- To be content in all circumstances. We stayed in some fantastic homes and even had a few nights in nice hotels. Other nights we were bitten to death by mosquitoes or almost drowned in our own sweat inside a cramped, smelly tent. Some evenings we were plied with free beers, wine and amazing food by generous hosts. Other evenings we made do with tuna and crisp sandwiches and warm water-bottle water. Some days we rode downhill along smooth bike paths past gorgeous scenery. Other days we struggled uphill along rutted roads with no shoulders as coal trucks whizzed by honking their horns. There are so many ups and downs on a cycle tour. You really can’t get one without the other. But as the trip progressed I really felt I was developing a calmness and a sense of peace and contentment about all these circumstances. I live in quite comfortable circumstances back home and I feel strongly that it is important to periodically throw yourself out of that comfort zone and check that you’re not relying on it, that you can still keep smiling when things aren’t so cushy.
Things I would do differently next time
- If I was to blog, I would definitely take a laptop/tablet. It is simply too much effort trying to a) type on a phone and b) make use of library PCs which are mostly time-limited and dead-slow. It also took a stupid amount of time getting photos uploaded as I typically had to copy them off my iPhone to a PC, optimize them, rotate them as necessary (why oh why does the iPhone save photos in a fixed orientation despite the fact it knows which way is up?!) and then upload them one by one (until I found this brilliant little plugin – after the trip had finished!).
- I really regretted not taking a dedicated digital camera (I made do with my iPhone 4 camera). There were so many great shots I didn’t take because I knew the wide-angle ‘capture the world’ view from my iPhone just wouldn’t be worth it. You really need a camera with a good (x10) optical zoom.
- I would make ‘business cards’ with my trip details (name, email, blog URL etc) to give to people I meet along the way. Much easier than faffing around finding a scrap of paper and a pen and they’re less likely to lose it. And less pressure than asking the person if they would like your email address/blog details! I would have a fairly clear photo of myself on it too to remind them who I am!
- I wish I’d meticulously noted down everything I ate along the way. It really would be
- We made good use of warmshowers.org but I’m sure we could have had even more encounters with generous, fascinating folk if we’d also made use of couchsurfing.org. I think I’m definitely going to embrace the couchsurfing/warmshowers philosophy when I get home and when I next go traveling.
- We didn’t take cooking equipment with us. This was for three reasons: 1) its heavy and bulky to carry and we were trying to travel as light-weight as possible, 2) its not easy to buy fresh produce each day and cook healthy (or at least appetizing) meals at the end of a long ride – and you very quickly tire of food from tins and packets, and 3) eating in diners etc is a fantastic way to meet locals and other cyclists and generally get a fuller experience of the local culture. However, I definitely plan to take cooking equipment with me on my next trip. Towards the end of our trip we all became very comfortable with the daily routine of camping and cycling and felt that we’d now be much more comfortable with the additional tasks of grocery shopping and cooking for ourselves. It would be different but very satisfying.
Lastly, thanks to all of you for sharing this adventure with me vicariously through my blog and for all the comments on posts and emails I’ve received along the way – they’ve been a huge encouragement. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I know I have