Memories

By Anna Brones

Before you embark, a bicycle trip feels grandiose.

There’s often a big mileage number, a few digits that act as your guiding light; eventually – you hope – you’ll be able to say that you pedaled those miles. You trace lines on a map with your finger, trying to estimate how far you might be able to go in a day, knowing perfectly well that the best trips are the ones with only a loose plan. Better to leave a few things up to serendipity.

A bicycle trip is also grandiose in the stories that you tell about it afterwards.

You can rattle off miles pedaled, and depending on whom you tell, perhaps elicit a few eyebrow raises at how far you traveled. You can recount tales from the road, stories that sound foreign to anyone who has never traveled by bicycle.

Yet from the seat of a bicycle, the adventure is not necessarily a grandiose affair.

A bicycle trip is a series of ordinary adventures, one pedal stroke at a time. In the moment, you focus not on the final destination, but the day’s endpoint. You make food, pedal, take a break, pedal some more. One day after another, you continue to ride, the wheels continue to spin. In the course of those revolutions, mileage and stories begin to accumulate, but you’re not busy checking those off of a list. You’re just pedaling.

This is why I love bicycle trips. Bicycle trips, both short and long, are as much about the mundane as the novelty.

Whether you ride close to home, or on the other side of the planet, they are a lesson in daily exploration; taking the time to see the small details of the world around you as you pedal through it. It’s why even a 10-mile trip just to go camp at a park close to home can feel monumental.

After all, the beauty of bicycle trips is not in the miles ridden, the elevation climbed, or the borders crossed, but in what happens in the small moments along the way.

The grandest of my bicycles adventures was a trip from my house in Western Washington to San Francisco, California a couple of summers ago. The reason was a pedal-powered book tour, in conjunction with the release of my book Hello, Bicycle.

After all, the beauty of bicycle trips is not in the miles ridden, the elevation climbed, or the borders crossed, but in what happens in the small moments along the way.

Really, I’ll just use any excuse to ride my bicycle. Roadtrips down Highway 101 were some of my favorite childhood memories, and there was something about looking at a map of San Francisco and saying “let’s bike there.”

I should stop here and say this: I have never been a seeker of grandiose adventure.

Certainly I love travel, and the experience of a new place is always enticing. But I have always felt that I was missing the adrenaline gene. I love hiking and backpacking, but I have never been tempted by the mountaineering adventures that consumed my father’s younger days. I only kind of know how to downhill ski, enough to get me down a green run – maybe even a blue run on a good day, and I’ve never really been tempted to learn how to do more. Snowshoeing – on a clear day so that there’s a thermos of hot chocolate with a view – is all I need.

It’s the act of being outside, not what I am doing outside that matters to me.

On a bicycle, I don’t like descents, where my mind is constantly playing through a crash scenario. Instead, I prefer rollers where I can pedal hard and build up speed, enough that I can stop shifting when there’s an incline, and instead stand up on my pedals and power through.

I like routes that are built off of experiences; I could care less about how many miles I’m going to clock, but if there’s a bakery stop along the way, count me in.

At times, this has often felt like a “not epic enough” kind of an attitude, particularly compared to the pursuits of other outdoorsy friends. We live in a culture of extremes, one that is constantly telling us to go faster, higher, bigger, bolder. If you don’t opt for this path, or at least don’t try, something must be wrong with you. Why settle for just enough when you can have The Best?

Unfortunately, that’s an attitude that keeps a lot of people from getting outside in the first place, and it certainly makes a lot of us not identify with the outdoor culture around us.

We live in a culture of extremes, one that is constantly telling us to go faster, higher, bigger, bolder… and it certainly makes a lot of us not identify with the outdoor culture around us.

The truth is, I like the small moments. I believe there is beauty to be found in the everyday.

It’s also why in the face of my first long bicycle ride, I didn’t want to push things too hard. Pedaling almost 1,000 miles took my husband and I a little under three weeks. This was an incredibly comfortable pace. “Lazy” some might say. “Enjoyable” I would call it. Plenty of time for second (sometimes third) breakfasts and coffee breaks.

I have extremely vivid memories from that trip.

The smell of blackberries cycling on Highway 30 towards Astoria, a ripe, pungent, earthy smell, contrasted with hot asphalt below my wheels and the exhaust from the cars around us.

A truck outside of Charleston, near Coos Bay in Oregon, that flew by us, slowed down, turned around and drove back just to give us a pint of strawberries, fresh from that morning’s farmers market.

When you slow down, every moment becomes a story.

A headwind on the way out to Cape Blanco in southern Oregon that made me get off my bike and walk, for fear of being blown over. A raccoon that managed to unzip my handlebar bag in the middle of the night, only to disappointedly find an empty chocolate bar wrapper.

Holding my breath through farmland in Northern California as we watched the spraying of fields, all the while passing sign upon sign with a skull and crossbones and a notice in Spanish about the potential harm of pesticides.

These memories are made up of specific events, conversations and landmarks, but also of small moments. Those are moments that otherwise may never have been the topic of a tale from the road. They may have been deemed “insignificant,” merely relegated to the background while a bolder story took center stage.

But when you slow down, every moment becomes a story.

Rebecca Solnit in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking writes, “It’s the unpredictable incidents between official events that add up to a life, the incalculable that gives it value.” Walking and bicycling are the same in that sense, methods of being present for those unpredictable incidents, instead of just plowing through.

What if we don’t take the time for those moments in between?

Two years later I’m watching the same landscape fly by. This time we’re going to San Francisco on four wheels, our bicycles strapped to the top of the car. We’ve decided to take the same route that we rode, opting for scenic Highway 101 instead of the quicker I-5.

The tent is in the back, along with an assortment of a bunch of things, most of which we probably don’t need. I think back to when my life on the same route fit into two panniers and a handlebar bag.

This is a literal trip down memory lane. Driving a route that you have previously bicycled is like scanning a book you have read many times for your favorite passages.

You know how the book begins and ends, and there are dog-eared pages, whose underlined sections help to bring you right back into the story. But without reading the book in its entirety, that’s all it is: a scan. You are reminded of the overall story, but you don’t dive back into the finer details. To put it in more digital terms: it’s like if your memory bank were turned into a film, and you watch it by fast-forwarding through.

Three weeks is all of a sudden squeezed into 48 hours.

At every turn in the road, some memory comes to fruition. My mind is taken back to that day and that place, and I start to think of everything that happened around it; what the weather was like, what we ate that morning, etc. But I can only explore that memory for so long until we get to the next turn in the road, and the same thing starts over again.

I feel like my brain is on overdrive. Never have I felt that 55 miles per hour was so fast paced.

In roadtrip terms, we are taking the scenic route, but I can’t help but think that we are speeding through at an abominable pace. I can barely able to take in everything around me.

I think back to when my life on the same route fit into two panniers and a handlebar bag.

On a bicycle, I noticed the minute changes in landscape; here I can barely keep up. Smells and sounds that before were so present are boxed out by steel and glass. On a bicycle, the changing landscape took place gradually, unfolding at a pace that I could follow. Now it feels like if I take a few minutes to change a podcast, or pull out the map, when I look up, we’re surrounded by new trees, new grasses, new roads.

“I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour,” writes Solnit, again in Wanderlust. “If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”

A bicycle is faster than walking, but in the same way, it facilitates those thoughts, and thoughtfulness. I am reminded of the Christopher Morley quote: “The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets.” I am not a novelist or a poet, but I know that I work through my own thoughts and sentences in the midst of the revolutions of the bicycle wheel.

A bicycle is faster than walking, but in the same way, it facilitates those thoughts, and thoughtfulness.

I think of a story my father has told me many times, about a professor of his in college who insisted on taking a boat instead of an airplane to Europe. That way, he told his students, not only do you ease into the time change, but your mind has a chance to catch up to the cultural change.

In the car, our conversation flows easier than it would on a bicycle, without the obstructions of a loud RV passing, or the rush of the wind as we go down a hill. Yet I can’t help but feeling that there’s a bit of us that’s distracted. Distracted by the traffic, or by how many more miles we need to go to get to our destination, or by the simple fact that sitting in a car all day long really isn’t that comfortable and my legs are starting to cramp up.

I think back to the final day of our cycling trip down the coast. We stayed at Samuel P. Taylor State Park, a popular overnight destination for Bay Area bike campers. At the check in booth, we met a man in a camper van. He kindly offered us some heirloom tomatoes, and asked where we were headed. You’d never ask a strange motorist where they were going, and even more strange would be to offer them food just because, but if automobiles are the vehicles of independence, bicycles are the means for conversation and community.

“San Francisco,” I responded back. “We started in Washington.”

“Oh wow, you’re almost finished, that must feel good!” he exclaimed, with a bright look in his eyes. I smiled back, and said, “Well, we’d love to keep going.” That morning I debated on changing out train tickets to head home from further south, just so that we could keep riding. The destination might be grand, an accomplishment even, but my happiness had been found in the revolutions of every one of the last twenty days.

As we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, we talked about the last time that we had crossed it. How crazy the wind had been, how erratic the tourists on rented bicycles had seemed, how a majestic crossing was also a bittersweet ending. “Can you believe we left home yesterday morning?” I said to my husband. “Isn’t it amazing how far you can go in so little time?”

Physical distance covered in a short period of time, yes. But how many thoughts have we not given ourselves the time to contemplate in that process? As we’re traveling fast and far, checking off destinations and experiences, how many potential memories have we missed along the way?

Digital devices and a nonstop plugged in world have taken their toll on our physical and mental health; instead of being present, we’re busy being distracted. We don’t allow ourselves the time to process. We don’t allow ourselves the time to see, to hear, to smell. In our quest for bigger, better, faster, just think of everything that we didn’t catch.

The car may get me from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time, the kind of time that better fits the pace and schedule of modern life. But on the bicycle, there is time for thought, time for presence.

There is space to think, space to daydream.

And isn’t that the most grandiose adventure of them all?


Anna Brones is a writer, artist, and producer. She is the author of several books including Best Served Wild: Real Food for Real Adventures and Live Lagom: Balanced Living the Swedish Way. She is the founder and publisher of Comestible, a bi-annual zine about food, and also works as a papercut artist, handcutting illustrations out of single pieces of paper. More of her work can be found at annabrones.com.