My mom worries about me when I’m out riding my bike, for multiple days at a time, alone. By the way, I turned 30 in March. She says it’s not that she doesn’t trust me, it’s other people she’s worried about. And while she’s never outlined this explicitly, I’m sure the fact that I’m an only daughter—not an only son—also plays a role. But, to her credit, she’s getting more comfortable (or, better at hiding her discomfort) with the idea of me pursuing solo endeavors. This time around, when I called her from the car to let her know I was en route to the Ozarks to attempt an Individual Time Trial on the 380-mile Ozark Gravel Doom route, instead of a flat-lined, “…what?” I heard her pause, then—on the tail-end of an exhale—say, “Okay.”
The fact that I carry a Garmin InReach gives her more peace of mind, but I also wonder if it allows her to jump too-readily to worst-case hypotheticals if, say, there’s a delay in the satellites relaying my location, or the tracker dies and I have to stop for several hours to charge it while sleeping, and then I forget to restart the tracking once the power is back on. The latter scenario played out over the course of the second night/ following morning of my ITT.
But, I digress—the point of this reflection is not to outline in great detail my Doom travails (I will be writing an in-depth piece for the Summer edition of the print magazine Bicycle Quarterly for this!). Moving along: after my tracker died, I slept in a glorified dog house, charged my stuff overnight, and got rolling the next morning by 4:30am, ultimately arriving at my breakfast destination, the Quik Stop in the next small town over by 6:45.
On the ride there, I checked my phone to find a worried text from mom, “Looks like you’ve been stationary for a while, all okay?” Oops—forgot to turn my tracking back on (I find this—that the InReach necessitates re-starting the tracking after it’s been turned off—to be a bit of a UX flaw).
Outside of the store, while I was basking in the warm early morning sun, drying out my various layers, charging electronics, and counting down the minutes till open, a stereotypical group of retired-age men stood clustered together, shooting the shit over cigarettes. I find such crews of elderly coffee clubbers—always the first to arrive at whatever local, caffeinated watering hole they frequent—to be one of the more endearing cliches. Most of this group were none too warm to me, however. The first one to arrive nosed his truck up to about three feet away from where I was sitting without so much as a small town nod in my unkempt direction.
After the store had opened and I’d purchased my haul, one of the Coffee Club guys clad in a camo jumpsuit came over and started making conversation, asking the usual where had I come from and where was I heading questions. I was inclined to brush off the attempt at small talk (it would be my last day of riding and I was feeling the urgency of making miles) but he seemed genuinely curious about my little mission. I told him I was following an organized route that started and finished in Oark, that I’d driven from Colorado to ride it, and that I was riding alone.
At this last piece of information, his eyes widened and he shook his head. In a tone that was more baffled than patronizing, he said he couldn’t believe I was out here “riding over these mountains” by myself. In response, I told him that all of my interactions with people had been quite positive (but, there had been a lot of dogs that were less friendly). At this, he laughed and said most of the people in this area were good people and that Oark was a safe place for me to have left my car (good to know, in hindsight). He added that going up the (many) hills, “some redneck in a pickup” might get impatient with me but don’t pay it any mind.
After we talked a bit more about the terrain in the Ozarks, he said, “Well, I don’t really know how to ask this but…are you retired? I mean, do you work?” I think this was the most polite way he could think to ask if I had a trust fund. I told him that, while I don’t have a typical 9-5, I do work on a steady freelance basis as a copywriter, a path that gives me somewhat more flexibility to take on such trips. At this, he seemed reassured—it’s interesting to wonder what his lasting impression of me would have been if I was “retired” and maybe how that would have tainted our brief moment of connection. At this point, I’d ridden by many houses that had seen better days, some in total disrepair—obscure rusted machinery and old cars littering the yard—but still inhabited, others worn down but seemingly maintained with a sense of pride and ownership—a sagging porch, or paint half-gone but the yard clear of debris or a side garden meticulously kept. In more rural parts of the country, the Puritanically-rooted values of boot-strapping and hard work and pride seem deep rooted and to feel that I—at least in-part—shared the appreciation for, and value of, the grind maybe allowed this man to relate to me just a little bit more. In parting, he told me to ride safe.
At any rate, I got rolling again around 8am and for several hours I felt bolstered by the experience—by having, barely and briefly, bridged the divide between the disparate realities of someone living in rural Arkansas and a cyclo-tourist based in Boulder, Colorado. They’re universes apart, separated by only 900 miles.
I finished the ride that night, Sunday, just before 10pm. I had just snapped a quick photo of the Oark Cafe sign and was just generally reveling in my quiet little moment when a truck did the creepy slow roll up as a man sat sort of draped out the passenger window, “You been doing some motorcyclin’ lady?” He semi-slurred. Yuck. Without clarifying the lack of motor on my bike, I curtly responded that I was wrapping it up for the day and he could have a good night, while slowly walking away (my car was parked a little ways down the road). He told me—in a tone that felt more jeering than cautionary—that I better be careful out here and the unseen driver rolled the car off. It’s possible he would have done the same thing if I were a man, but my instincts tell me otherwise.
By Tuesday afternoon, I was leaving Arkansas. The intervening 36 hours of languid brain fog since finishing had been lovely, but it was time to hit the road and return to real life back home. I queued up some news podcasts and of course the very first one shared word of the Politico story about Justice Alito’s leaked opinion, a document that most have interpreted as a bellwether, foreshadowing a future ruling that will likely overturn Roe vs. Wade and leave abortion legislation in the state’s hands. Back to reality indeed.
Over the course of the 12 hours home, I listened to the stories, interviews, and theories surrounding the leak. It felt, and still feels, surreal.
Along with being intrigued by the route, my main motivation going into this trip had been to put myself into an unknown situation, a test of my physical and mental resilience. I’m from the South, and maybe because of this, I was more nervous touring here—alone—than I’ve ever been in Colorado, where most areas of the state are highly familiarized with cycling culture. At the same time, there’s an ineffable feeling of nostalgic familiarity that hits me when I’m in the South—the thick, warm air of a humid summer’s day, the smell of the rich dirt, the endless overhead canopy—and I want to be able to feel at home here, on the bik,e too.
Growing up in North Carolina, as a teenager, I was cautioned against showing too much skin, advised not to walk alone at night, not to talk to men I didn’t know, and later, not to leave drinks at parties or bars unattended. After college, during a short stint as a bartender in Tennessee, I was keenly aware of how a certain demographic of patrons (read: middle-to-older men) would call me “sweetheart” and invite flirtation. (I even had a couple once leave me their room number at the hotel around the corner on their receipt.) I felt there was a fine line to walk in being friendly, but not too friendly as if somehow the fault were mine if a customer got a little too forward.
I’m not trying to generalize the South as a place that’s more sexist than other parts of the country, or necessarily make the South synonymous with Conservative views but, broadly speaking the culture has been less progressive with regards to gender equality, and this has been reflected in the area’s political trends over history. Because it is far less commonplace in the region, the notion of a woman traveling under her own power, alone, becomes more remarkable, or at least a more acute source of contrast to the prevailing culture. And while I do think the fact that touring by bike conveys a sense of vulnerability to those you encounter, thereby making you seem more approachable (99% of the time), I think there’s also a chance that anything so radically different (even such a benign act as riding a bike) can feel like a challenge to someone’s worldview.
The second afternoon of my ITT was still and hot. Gaining over 12k’ in the 125mi I rode that day meant I was met with many pitches of climbing that hovered between 8-12%—a stout grade on a loaded bike! During the blistering doldrums, I unzipped my jersey to let in some more air flow. It felt heavenly. Then, a line of about a dozen ATVs—mostly piloted by men—paraded by me coming from the opposite direction. I immediately felt self-conscious, stopped and re-zipped, just in case. I recognized that maybe I was just being paranoid, but the fact that I even had this thought—I think—points to a long engrained understanding of the potential vulnerabilities of being a woman. I hardly ever feel worried when I’m just out there riding alone, unnoticed. It’s only when my identity as a woman is reflected back at me, by the presence of others, that I feel fear creep in.
I don’t want to write-off concerns over personal safety with a naive attitude that nothing could happen, I also don’t want to be cowed by fear. On the balance, I’ve had innumerable positive encounters to a single unsettling one. I think the most rewarding aspect of bike touring is the extent to which it is an exercise in agency—given enough food and water, you can ride however far your legs can carry you (which, with some sleep now and then, is quite possibly forever). It is when I feel the most free—in mind and body.
For 36 hours after finishing my ride, I felt dizzyingly emboldened. To then hear news that the highest court in our country seems to be taking very tangible steps to restrict the freedom of women was incredibly deflating. In a small way, I’d felt that my conversation with the man at the gas station might have nudged his perception, just a bit, away from more traditional perceptions of womens’ abilities towards one that was more open to possibilities. After sharing a mutual appreciation for the land, maybe seeing me alone had left him thinking about the interaction afterwards, just as it had me. On the other hand, my brief encounter with the man in the truck at the end of my ride felt, depressingly, like an all-too prescient reminder that progress is not inevitable, however much we’d like to think it is. And if you think that the (likely) overturning of Roe vs. Wade will have no bearing on womens’ societal liberties—like bike touring—to me, that seems willfully nearsighted, as the decision would imply that women are—somehow—less capable of making decisions for themselves.
For me, the beauty of touring alone—outside of an event, or otherwise—is that all expectations are lifted. There’s no looking at dots and making comparisons that leave room for doubt, there’s no one else to influence what you think of as a worthy day’s ride—you’re as free as you want to be. The idea that a law would be passed that seeks to restrict the freedom of a woman and her bodily autonomy seems like a metaphorical line in the sand that says, this is how free you can be. And when anyone places parameters around freedom, it’s not freedom at all.