The bruises on my knees are yellow, a sure sign of the last stage of the heal. The skin on my bum has started to reform, the little bit of weight I lost, piled back on… I am back sprawled on the couch at home, a cup of tea in hand allowing nostalgia to seep in. That most complicated of emotion that has its wicked way with you, sucks you in every time, props a rose-tinted lens over your memory and keeps you coming back for more.
For twelve days, Dad and I took to the bikes to make the journey from Boston to Toronto. The two prominent cities were chosen merely because we had relations in both that we could crash with while we prepped and subsequently recovered. A relatively easy trip for us both, we had taken on much more badass adventures together and separate in the past. This was a holiday. Not even 1000km in total, roughly 80km a day, easy as. Ignore the fact that I hadn’t so much as seen a bike in the past six months owing to the fact that I was busy living life amongst the snow in the high Alps of France for the ski season. It proved to be a rookie mistake.
I should have known. It’s always the trips that you underestimate and belittle that fight back and prove to be the biggest test. Alas, that is the terrible beauty of adventure. So off we went, leaving my waving mother behind in the pissing of rain in a Boston suburb, blissfully oblivious to what lay ahead.
An hour in, I hit a pothole disguised as a puddle and burst my knees open on the tarmac. And that was it, a baptism of fire and our introduction to cycling in America. From then on our days were filled with linking Greenways and bike tracks, scary highways, nods of hello, intermittent rain, blazing sun and the constant hunt for food that contained a bit of sustenance. A Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s on every corner, of course, but trying to find quaint coffee shops and grocery stores filled with fruit and veg proved futile.
The American hospitality prevailed everywhere we turned. Everyone wanted to talk; everyone wanted to help. We ran out of water along a highway so we pulled into a power electro store and I ran in to ask for help. I emerged twenty minutes later with ice-cold water, a print off of Google map directions and beaming from ear to ear. There were so many little meetings that played out like this… the lovely volunteers at the canal museum doling out pistachio cake and coffee; the casual banter of people walking past us every time we stopped for a second to consult the map or take a bite of a cereal bar. And that’s the beauty of these little trips scattered throughout the year, that despite all the issues you see on the road; the lack of recycling, their consumer society, the prejudices… it restores some hope in humanity within my bones that people are essentially good creatures.
On day three, things started to unravel for me. I bonked so hard that I wanted to quit. I hit a wall; shed some tears. It was a constant slog, hills after hills, climb after climb, all in the pissing rain. Eventually, we pulled over into a little creamery at the side of the road to collapse momentarily. And it was my kind of place, fresh fruit and veg, organic produce and vegetarian options (hallelujah!). We went in for a coffee and stayed for a quiche while the rain poured down outside. That hour or so out of the saddle rejuvenated me, providing a new lease of life for the second half of the day. Yet, I had never been so happy to see the end of the day. Tomorrow will be better, I told myself constantly.
It was not. It was a disaster in fact. A severe weather warning was issued. Thunder, rain and hurricanes were coming for us. I woke up floored, feeling like a fever was ready to engulf me, plus perfect timing, as usual, my periods came to further torture me. I was stuck in my own personal hell. The tears came and my old friend, self-loathing, kicked in.
But I was not yet ready to call it quits on this trip, not after all I’d given up to be here. So on the fifth day, we packed the panniers and started pedalling. Moving from Massachusetts into New York State, quickly noting the startling difference; moving from money to poverty, riches to rags, Obama to Trump. While I continued to simmer in my own personal pity party, smothered in a cold while on the hunt to find food in these one-horse towns.
The misery continued like so, interspersed with moments of beauty and joy. Day six and I felt every bit of the 82km. The pain, the fever, the hurt rolled over me like a wave. I passed out the moment we reached the shitty motel. My head so congested that I was barely able to unload my bike. I showered and collapsed into bed to sweat the fever out. Meanwhile, Dad hovered in the background taking care of me. I questioned constantly if I could do this. My body yearned to stop but my brain kept resisting, repeating the mantra; ‘I’m not a quitter,’ over and over again. In every adventure I’ve ever done, the question always looms, especially when misery strikes…why? Why do we do this to ourselves? My reasoning is that hardship makes real life more tolerable; makes it seem easier. It teaches us how to endure and persevere when all we want to do is quit. Because the rewards at the end are just too huge to ignore.
I feel so weak and pathetic. My body is failing me. I am mired with disappointment. I am battling my demons and constantly feeling like I am losing. I know I should quit and call it a day but I really don’t want to. I can’t bring myself to do it. I’d never rid myself of the failure. It has become a case of mental endurance and stubbornness to get me to the end. I’ll crawl across that finish line if I have to. But the fear of pneumonia presses in. And the question is knowing when to call it quits; when to opt for your health over your stubbornness? We conclude that if I wake up the following day and it’s any worse, then it’s time to call it a day and get a bus to the border; the ultimate march of shame.
The alarm sounds. I wake warily, checking my body for any sign of recovery, any victory that I can cling to and use as a talisman to get me through another day. I didn’t feel better but I didn’t feel worse and that is all I needed. The relief of not having to throw in the towel is enough to lift my mood. I had the first good day on the bike that day and it was a great one; Constanta to Weedsport. Just when I thought I was a goner, I come back and the feeling of relief and joy is unparalleled. My body is coming back to me finally.
We celebrate the day against a backdrop of rolling hills, red barns, grain stores, long green grass and blue skies. We were in Amish country, witnessing first hand a bygone era, a community in frocks, trotting by in their horse-drawn carts. A young couple rode up to us to greet us, they were on their way to the lake for a picnic.
Deep down I knew that the momentum couldn’t last but all it had to do was get me through one more day… we had agreed to cut the journey short by one day and instead of Toronto been the final destination the border into Canada aka Niagara Falls would be our new finish line. A decision that I was happy not to rally against. The end is nigh, the finish line is looming.
Day 12 and with one last heroic effort, I pedal across the border into Canada. By god, we did it. Sweat, blood and tears, an iPod in my ears blasting Bon Iver for the latter half of the day in a dismal attempt to take me out of my own head, tears streaming down my face, chest infection strangling me and wet to the core from the lashings of rain. It was hard, so fucking hard. But crossing that border after 90km, handing over that $2 entrance fee and hearing the sound of that stamp hitting the passport page felt like we had reached nirvana. By god, we fucking did it.
This trip was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, especially so because I naively thought it would be one of the easiest. But two things, just two, made it so worth doing.
The fact that I endured when I know so many would have stopped. For someone that constantly questions their self-worth, their abilities, this was huge for me. The fact that I didn’t quit when the odds seemed stacked against me. For the first time in a long time, I was proud of myself. It was not the trip I imagined but it tested me, it pushed me to my limits and I came out the other side, albeit sick, bruised, sunburnt and worn but still, out the other side at least.
Number two, Dad and I. I know a lot of shit Dad’s and mine, I am happy to report, is not one of them. I struck gold with mine. I don’t know many people who have that relationship with their fathers. We are just easy in one another’s company, sometimes we small talk, sometimes we discuss the bigger things in life, and sometimes we lapse into a comfortable silence for hours on end. When I came off the bike, his sheer panic and concern made me calm, made me stand up and walk it off. When I wanted to call it a day halfway through, he knew exactly how to make me stay. He said if I go then he goes too. And that, frustratingly as I longed to quit, I could not agree to ruin his trip as well as my own. So together, we knuckled down and pedalled on.
Day to day life can be great, idyllic at times but it can also be really fucking difficult and monotonous. Trips like this scattered throughout the year lift me out of that routine, shake my soul and break the stupor. It’s like coming up for air after holding your breath underwater for too long. And that right there is the appeal. Something about been out of doors all day long in rain, hail or shine, the aches and pains of pushing your body past what you normally ask it to do. It’s addictive. And why I know, despite the suffering, that this is far from the last adventure I will ever do.