Sunday, February 12, 2006

First post.

I guess before I get into all the details: how I picked the route, what I packed, what kind of bike I took, how I convinced the airlines to ship my bike without breaking it (like they did my brother's bike 4 years ago, when he and I embarked on a similar biking trip through Italy, and arrived in Innsbrück, 1 day and 60 km from our trip starting point to discover with a combination of great panic, anger, and dismay that his derailleur was "transposed" front to back and quite inoperable), and all sorts of other various preparatory steps taken with the associated anecdotes and entertaining anxieties, I should attempt to provide an answer to the question that everybody has asked ever since I let the idea pass from an amorphous haze in my head out through my lips into the open air, where it could no longer be ignored, and held in, and postponed, because in the process of saying it, I had created witnesses, and could therefore no longer take it back, without the loss of pride and dignity, which many of us fight tooth and nail to preserve.

But no, it is not all in this, that I embarked on this adventure because I had mistakenly said a random thought to someone, and could not afterwards take it back, as if on a dare or a silly game of "chicken." I think, in some way, it was a bit more than that, though what exactly I don't know. It is true, that I had had a similar idea bouncing around, the idea of travelling through Nebraska in the summer alone by bike along the Oregon Trail, the reason for that one being, that Nebraska is basically a huge prairie, and the feeling, I imagined, of being the only person riding along an interminable sea of green with no one around you for miles seemed to me at the time a rather "cool" idea.

But the more I thought of this, the more the difficulties presented themselves. First of all, the US, and especially in states like Nebraska, is a rather sparse country. You can easily drive around here for hundreds of miles without encountering the smallest city, town or village. And while that aspect is appealing for introverted, adventurous types who enjoy being alone for long periods of time (like myself), it also requires a certain self-reliance that I found I could not posess: I know nothing of bike repair, I am small-framed and weak, and I'm also female, which while sounding politically incorrect, it is also true that this creates certain safety concerns that would not be present for the opposite gender.

So, here was the dilemma. I would have to go with someone to Nebraska. Or, as a congenial co-worker with a sense of humor suggested, "Go by yourself, and carry a shotgun strapped to your back." Heh. So the idea was put on the back burner for a while, and I went back to work on my software like a good engineer.

At any rate, some time passed. Here and there I bounced the idea of a long biking trip to a friend or acquaintance, test to see if I could find a companion one day, for Nebraska or elsewhere, I don't know. And as this time passed, along parallel tracks of speculation, and they were parallel for a while, for the several musings didn't intersect for quite a long time, were the thoughts that:
1. I wanted to travel abroad more, now that I seemed to have a little more money avaliable than when I was a student.
2. I had already biked through Italy with my brother, and it had been very safe (friendly people, villages spaced 10 kms apart, no one hassled us, routes were easy and traffic fairly polite).
3. China seems like a cool country, I wonder if one can bike along the Great Wall, and
4. The best way to travel through Europe is by bike.

Now, back when I was a kid in Mexico, at summer camp once, I remember wanting to jump off the 5m diving board at the local university's diving pool, near where we took our swimming lessons. And every day after swimming class the coach would say, "As a prize for a good class today, you get to dive off the diving board you like." And every day I would go up to the 5m diving board, which then to me seemed 10 stories tall, and stand right at the edge, and not be able to jump. It wasn't fear, per se, that stopped me. A big part of it was seeing my fellow classmates do what I did, get to the edge, pretend to jump, and then their feet would remain glued to the edge, not moving a millimeter. Or hearing them say: "O.K., at the count of 3, I'll go," and then hear them count to 5, 7, 10, and not jump. And I was just like them, always wishing, going even as far as pretending, but never doing. Until one day, one of the boys in the class took a running start, and jumped! He even did a quarter sommersault (the landing, a bit on his back, must've been painful, I'm sure) while in the air, the trajectory excruciatingly slow to watch, but he did it! And then what happened: a few of the classmates went to the edge, paused, as usual, and while some of them, too, counted again, interminably, to 10, 20, before they were convinced to step aside, some of them actually simply paused, closed their eyes, and jumped.

So. It was possible. My turn came. I went there, paused, and started thinking: "O.K. at the count of 3, I'll go." One. Two. Three.... and still my feet were glued. It was frustrating and I was mad at myself. Sillier people than me could do it, so so should I. After some time of this hesistation again the other kids started hassling me like they'd done the previous kids to step aside. Until I looked down (down the 10 stories, the kilometer drop to nothingness!) to an older kid, who simply said to me from below: "Don't think about it, just do it." And then I took a step back, and walked resolutely to the edge of the platform, pretending the platform extended 2 meters beyond its end, as if I were simply walking along a corridor, until I felt myself fall. A veritable leap of faith.

Deciding to bike through Italy was a bit like that. I was lucky, because my brother agreed to come with me, and I had therefore a built-in security system in case one of us were to run into trouble during the trip: an accident, an illness, a bike breakdown. In two, you can work things out, and even though there's risk in choosing a route through the unknown, we knew the language, and our Italian aunts and uncles were a quick phone call and short train ride away if we had needed them. But the good thing about that trip was, once again, reaffirming the realization I had had on the diving platform that day so many years ago: the only thing stopping you from doing something is your own little mental gymnastics. Just do it, don't think too much about the risks. Otherwise, you'll end up freaking yourself out of ever doing anything. And honestly, had my brother and I known everything about what could've possibly happened to us, we probably wouldn't have gone. But, you see, nothing bad did happen. So. Maybe we were lucky. Maybe the well-meaning people who were concerned and tried to discourage us even while we were already halfway through our trip overestimated the risks. Maybe, we simply managed the risks well. I don't know. But I do know that the biggest obstacle then, not only in deciding to embark on the adventure, but during, while slowly creeping along the 8 hour ascent of the Passo Cisa, or pedalling furiously as if there were no tomorrow while trying to find the nearest village before dark, or pleading with village owners to let us stay in the overbooked hotel because the next one was 30 kms away, was not the actual, immediate, present physical obstacle. It wasn't the pedalling, or the incline, or the hours, or the time of day, or the intractable hotel hosts, or the lack of food, or the bike breakdowns that force you to improvise a pedal out of a piece of plastic and bungie cords and carves a deep ridge along your sneaker soles, it was the thinking "Do I give up and go home, or do I finish this and collect a beautiful set of stories for my grandchildren?"

Anyway, I think at this point I'm no more closer to answering "why?" than I was when I started writing. But I guess the point is that, a good part of the answer is: "Well, because I can't see no reason why not to."

As for the reasons why to, or why now, there are many. But for that, I think, you have to find me, and ask me in person. This writing is getting too long anyway, and I'm sure you're more interested in hearing, how it was I managed once the decision was taken. And that, my friend, is what this blog is for. I'll keep you posted.

No comments: