The countryside flows by almost seamlessly yet still slowly enough to appreciate the little things: the trees, rocks, houses, and grazing cattle.
Amtrak’s Southwest Chief races along at 60-75 miles an hour. In a single hour, this train covers as much ground as Raphael and I covered on bicycles in an entire day. Trains are slow by most modern metrics, but for me, I feel as though I’m accelerating to a blistering speed.
The slow ticka-ticka-ticka of the rail joints beneath the train is hypnotic; the gentle sway of the train is soothing. Life on the way home is a combination of napping, reading, and watching the ever-changing scenery through the window.
Most importantly, though, this journey home is a time for reflection and synthesis. Six thousand miles, if laid out as the crow flies, is approximately one-quarter of a global circumnavigation. That’s a long, long way when taken at the pace we did. It’s going to take some time to digest.
What did the adventures of the past three months mean? Which memories and experiences will sink in and which will fade away?
Although I doubt I can rightly answer these questions now—and perhaps I won’t be able to for a long time to come—I can’t help but ponder the trips totality.
These are a few of the thoughts that have been percolating in my mind:
Firstly, bicycle touring is the most rewarding form of travel I have ever had the chance to do. You see, smell, hear, taste, and feel everything from when you ride out of your driveway until you reach the endpoint. And in the end, all of that sensory information crystallizes into a vivid experience. My memories of the trip are not postcard snapshots; rather, they are dense, multi-sensory experiences that have neither a clear beginning nor end. They are continuous. One flows into the next, inspiring ever greater webs of sensory associations, which are as unending as the roads and paths we traveled.
I can feel the journey in my legs and on my still sun-baked skin. I can smell it on my clothes, too, in the distinctive smells of the Ocean’s surf, the evergreen sap, the dust kicked up by my tires, the smell of the Oregon coast. It’s all there.
Secondly, I’ve concluded that three months is enough time for someone to change fundamentally. Raphael and I learned that we are quite capable of surviving in extremely difficult circumstances: Hunger, thirst, exhaustion, injury, and dangerous encounters. This, I think, taught us to trust ourselves and our ability to solve problems and to keep moving literally forward. It also reinforced our bond as brothers. It established a trust which was occasionally strained but never broken.
Our senses sharpened dramatically. I would wake up in the middle of the night when a mere field mouse scampered through the grass. My eyes were closed, but my ears were open. It’s difficult to describe, but I could, in a way, feel the forest at night. I would whisper to Raphael – “did you hear that?” He was awake too, listening in just the same way. When the bear circled our camp on Vancouver Island, we knew it was a bear long before it got near our camp. How? The way the branches broke. It was heavy and slow, unlike a like deer or an elk. I could see it moving in my minds eye. Living in the wild, we were always in tune with our surroundings. We felt, in a profound way, that we were small parts of something much greater. We didn’t master nature; rather, we surrendered to it and respected it. It constantly reminded us of our mortal insignificance, but also of our capability to endure and continue.
Thirdly, night becomes an adventure all its own. When sleeping in my own bed at home, I felt secure. I would fall into my comfortable bed, protected from animals, the elements, and not at risk of being awoken by police or other property owners.
Night was just the opposite while we were touring. We rarely stayed in campgrounds, so finding a place to sleep usually meant looking on Google maps until we spotted a clearing that was out of sight, hiking through the woods, usually after nightfall to avoid detection, with all of our gear, setting up, and then trying to get to sleep despite whatever might be going on outside. Weather, bears, raccoons, freeways nearby, roots digging into our backs, sleeping on a steep hill, being awoken by angry property owners or park rangers—all of these things happened, and when they didn’t we expected them to. Night was a challenge all its own. But we had to figure it out so that the next day we could get up at dawn and be ready for whatever the next day presented us with.
Fourth, we became much more resourceful through this adventure. Our problem-solving capacities were tested often. Navigational issues, food and water supply issues, and mechanical failures. We were presented with problems we had never dreamed of.
This trip would never have materialized without the exceptional generosity and support of Andrew, Skip and Anne Pratt. Without their help, this adventure would’ve remained just a dream. Raphael and I thank you for giving us the opportunity to live that dream. Raphael and I also thank Jan Booth, our good friend who helped us prepare for the trip and rode with us from Chatham, New York, to Havre, Montana. Without him, the trip would’ve been an even greater challenge.
I’d also like to thank the many people along the way who helped us. Whether you gave us directions when we were lost, welcomed us into your home for a night, or anything in between. The trip wouldn’t have been anywhere as wonderful without you, the warm people we met along the way.
What’s next? Well, to put it bluntly, Raphael and I have decided that we must do something like this again. That doesn’t mean we’ll become vagabonds who forsake careers and families for the open road. But touring was too wonderful not to do it again. And for our next tour, we’ll bring with us a wealth of experience and knowledge. We will find our back onto the road, and when we do, who knows where we’ll end up.