One Question, Five Voices: Lessons From The Road
For our fourth installment of One Question, Five Voices, we round up a group of experienced bikepackers and bicycle tourists to find out how traveling by bicycle has informed their understanding of the world today. Find out what important lessons they’ve learned while pedaling through places unknown…
There’s no question that traveling by bicycle offers nearly endless opportunities for learning about familiar and new places alike. We wondered if it was possible to summarize those lessons from months or years spent on the road, and we put this month’s One Question, Five Voices panel up to the difficult task of doing so. Here’s what they had to say:
How has bicycle travel shaped your understanding of today’s world?
In 2016, I biked across America during the Presidential election. Prior to the tour, I lived in New York and was accustomed to seeing Hillary and Bernie signs sprawled in every neighborhood. After biking for two and a half months through ten states, I only saw one Hillary sign and a handful of Bernie signs (and only in the west). The rest, as you can guess, were for our current president. Not to say that I expected the outcome of the election just from assessing campaign signs. The experience did, however, give me a different perspective that challenged the expected “norm” that I’d find if I just read news headlines or talked politics with my friends in New York.
I still live in an insular bubble, this time in Portland. But, every time I grow accustomed to the rhythms and motions of everyday life, I try to remember to go on a bike ride in an unfamiliar place. The beauty of bicycle travel is that you can transport yourself to a different environment that allows you to meet people who are “different” than you.
It’s easy to feel like you’re just a cog in a wheel, but remember you can always choose to break that cycle of familiarity. Even if it’s just an overnight trip 30 minutes away from home. The most important thing to remember is that your bubble should be popped, at least every once in a while.
Santa Cruz, CA
Bicycle travel has taught me to read maps like stories: to look for unexpected connections and see the narrative behind the landscape. It’s given me a way to engage with the world that is both humbling and empowering.
Spending hours in the saddle each day gives you plenty of time to think about how things, people, and places relate to one another. How climate and terrain can affect the way a town is built or dictate the diet of the people who live there. How our complicated history of land use and natural resource extraction has influenced the development of roads and trails. How politics and funding can dictate the trajectory of a long-distance bikepacking route. How centuries of genocide and erasure have impacted the ways in which people engage with nature. How climate change has directly affected landscapes and livelihoods all over the world.
I used to think bike travel was all about self-reliance, escape, and exploration. The freedom of being able to go just about anywhere with everything you need on your bike – just getting out there. But after years of relentless rambling, I’ve come to the realization that #outsideisntfree and I recognize that bike travel is still an extremely privileged way to engage with the world.
In her book, On The Beaten Path, Lucy Lippard made the apt observation that, “Travel is the only context in which some people ever look around. If we spent half the energy looking at our own neighborhoods, we’d probably learn twice as much.” Having been recently domesticated by a new job, I’m trying to not lose sight of what I’ve learned. I hope to continue to cultivate a sense of mindful awareness about the world and to never stop reading those narrative landscapes.
Bike journeying has shown me the gifts of silence, solitude, serendipity, and slowing down in a world that is only growing and accelerating. My most profound insights that have surfaced from the saddle were when I could not have expected them, but had created the space to receive them. There’s an arc to every tour, whether it be a single night in the wild or living on the bike for multiple years. It’s like the meditative practice of walking a labyrinth: You spend the entire time walking inward toward the center of the labyrinth focusing on formulating your question. You take a moment at the center to formally ask the question. You spend the entire time exiting to invite and receive a response.
I think of this concept when starting my tours, to help bring intention to the experience. We must leave temporal and psychological space for insight to appear, it adheres to no reliable schedule and surfaces when the time is right. We can’t control what we gain from bike travel or when we gain it. However, I have learned much about facilitating the conditions for insight arising when the rubber hits the road:
For me, slowing down and getting quiet are vital. Letting go of arbitrary goals of reaching specific destinations within specific times. Letting go of time in general. I try to cover and silence electronic devices like phones and GPS that mark distance, time, or otherwise pull me out of awareness. Rather than distracting my ears with music or podcasts I ride in silence, listening for nature’s symphonies and lessons.
Another important part has been finding a balance between community and solitude. Riding alone can provide some space for that elusive insight to surface, but riding or camping with inspiring people can provide the opportunity to reflect on and integrate that very same insight. I find that creatively allowing the pendulum to swing between the two serves me best.
One more helpful practice for me is saying yes to opportunities as they arise. The world is so full of reasons why we can’t do things. Sometimes it can feel like we are living in a jail cell that we ourselves created. I sacrifice weight savings and carry an extra day’s food, just in case I am suddenly inspired to stop early. Not because I have to, but because I can. So many serendipitous moments have occurred by just ignoring all the reasons why I should follow my arbitrary plans and: Just. Say. Yes. Yes to exploring fear, discomfort, challenge, growth, joy, and fun!
Franziska Wernsing and Jona Riechmann
On The Road
The most fundamental thing that we’ve learned through traveling the world on bicycles is that 99% of the people in the world are incredible kind and warm hearted. It’s easy to get scared to leave your house for work in the morning when you’ve watched the evening news, and we can’t even recall how many people have warned us of places they’ve never been to but seemingly know everything about, generally referring to what they’ve seen on TV or read on the internet. Some people even considered us suicidal because we crossed the border to Mexico without carrying at least a can of pepper spray to fend of the many brutal bandits, thieves, and kidnappers they assumed we’d face.
The truth is, we’ve traveled across many countries by bicycle in the last five years, and not a single bad thing has happened to us. Not one. We never got threatened, robbed, or assaulted. On the contrary, we’ve been invited to stay the night in strangers’ homes, we’ve been offered food by poor farmers who had hardly enough to fill their own plates, and we’ve received tremendous amounts of support and help from everyone any time we’ve asked.
We don’t deny that bad things can happen, of course, and we always do our research before traveling to foreign places. We acknowledge and are aware of possible hazards and dangers, but usually don’t get too absorbed by them. “If it happens, it happens,” is what we usually say, and so far nothing ever has. Maybe we’ve been just incredible lucky, or maybe we as people aren’t as bad as our reputations, and putting some trust in each other from time to time can dramatically change how we understand and inhabit the world around us.
On The Road
The world is more polarized than ever. It’s not just politics and tough issues like immigration that are driving us apart. Even us bicycle travelers are guilty of letting our gear setups (panniers vs. frame bags) divide us, rather than focusing on our shared passion for two-wheeled travel.
However, bicycle travel forces you to burst out of your bubble and shake off the tribe mentality. While touring in the southern US, I once stayed with a Warm Showers host who proudly displayed a “NRA Lifetime Member” certificate in his home. Upon seeing this, I rolled my eyes and pegged the host, Brad, as a narrow-minded gun nut who’d probably never set foot out of his home state. Wrong! Brad turned out to be a travel fanatic, well-versed in international politics. Brad’s a foodie, too, and makes a mean salmon quiche.
In Turkey, my husband and I spent a week with a conservative Muslim couple, Ahmet and Ecrin. Ahmet trekked to the local mosque several times daily and Ecrin sported a veil and dressed modestly. While our views on evolution theory and religion are diametrically opposed, that didn’t stop us from forming a strong connection. Turns out, we share a love of camping, riding bikes, and rocking out to Beyoncé.
I once pitched my tent beside a village in Malawi. The women there took me under their wing, and we spent a rollicking evening together singing songs around a fire and cracking jokes. I can hardly imagine their daily lives and I’m sure they can’t fathom why anyone would voluntarily ride their bike around Africa. Yet, we formed a bond.
Bicycle travel has taught me that I can find common ground with almost anyone. It’s helped me get past stereotypes and overcome fears and preconceptions. People around the world are very different. Not better. Not worse. Just different. And those differences are exactly what make travel so interesting.
What has bicycle travel taught you? Let us know in the comments below!