Adventure, Bicycling, The Great Adventure, Travel

How a Bad Afternoon Becomes a Good Night

Photo by Tim Stelzer

I always pictured this sort of idealized afternoon arrival. I would coast into some new burg, tired but in good spirits, and follow tree-lined streets to a charming downtown. It was all shops, churches and little corner cafes. I’d choose the one that looked most inviting, lean the bike outside, and go on in.

“Where you comin’ from?” the waitress would ask. She’d always ask that, because she always noticed the bike out front and put the pieces together and had a deep curiosity. I’d tell her, and her eyes would go wide, and next she’d ask where I was going.

“South America,” I’d say.

“South America! On a bicycle?”

She then turned and announced this to someone else, maybe everyone else. The other customers were all regulars, people who lived in the area and could use something new and exciting to talk about. Soon they’d come over and ask me questions.

Next thing they’d sit down with me. My food would come and I’d have to struggle to take bites in between answering questions, learning about the local area, asking about their own lives.

“Where are you staying tonight?” they’d ask.

“I don’t really know yet.”

This would bring a chorus of invitations and suggestions. Sometimes I’d be invited to put my hammock right in someone’s yard. Other times I might be invited into their home—or into a local church. My hard day would be over, all the pedaling behind me. The evening would be social time with my new friends.

That was the dream.

As you’ve seen from the recent road logs, that’s rarely how it worked out. In fact on my entire ride down the Mississippi it only happened twice. Most of the time, if I hadn’t already made plans ahead of time, then my arrival was only the beginning of a long and stressful scramble to find a place to sleep.

There were many reasons why. Sometimes I arrived so beat I just couldn’t be social. I’d sit there at a lonely table staring at my computer, knowing I should be making friends but just unable to gather the willpower. Other times it wouldn’t matter how friendly I was. No amount of smiles makes a difference if someone thinks you’re a bum. Covered in sweat and dressed in my road clothes, I looked like a bum.

But it didn’t always come down to first impressions. Maybe there was no cute downtown, and I would circle endlessly through sprawl and gas stations looking for a friendly face. Other times—a lot of the time—I just arrived too late. Sure, anyone sitting in a diner at 3 p.m. has time to make friends, but not at sunset. At sunset people feel done for the day. The stranger on the porch is a nuisance, maybe a threat, not a fascinating curiosity.

I learned ways to offset this. I learned that I had to speak up, and be very open about what I needed. The waitress might think it was rude to ask about the bike, or she might not even notice the bike, even if it does stick out like a Mardi Gras Indian.

It’s not rude to ask someone a favor. Sometimes the person you’re talking to is quietly hoping you have a safe place to spend the night, but they don’t think to ask. Often, they want a way to connect with your journey, to be part of it. If they have that gleam of excitement when you tell your tale, it’s a good bet they want to help.

Other times you won’t find that. There are lonely nights on the road, nights when you feel like you could die in your tent and no one would really mind. Sometimes you shiver only a hundred feet from warmth and comfort that you can’t be a part of.

I wonder what it will be like on the Texas leg. This time it won’t be just me. With Pixi (and possibly others) keeping me company, I don’t think those nights will be as hard. A big part of adventure is just riding the lows and loving the highs. Having friends makes the lows much less difficult, and the highs much more exuberant.

The mileage on the Texas leg is in our favor. We have short, 30 to 50 mile days. That means we’ll reach town earlier, with a little bit of energy left, ready to keep exploring. We can take our time, find the right place to camp, and still finish setting up before sundown.

There’s no better feeling than a comfortable, cozy end to a long day of exertion. A bed, a shower, even just a cold beer can turn physical hardship into a badge you wear with pride. It’s in those moments that an adventure becomes a victory.

That’s when you realize your potential, and just how strong you really are.

The Texas leg happens July 18-20. If you might like to join us, email me at Beginners and experts are welcome.

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L Days cover_front only_half size

My book Lúnasa Days has been called “like Paulo Coelho only darker.” Available in paperback and on Kindle.


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