Yup, I did it!!!
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
So this is the wrap up blog from my latest adventure - a 60 year old woman’s experience with a 1,000+ mile solo self supported bike packing trip exploring the SE side of the US. I had trepidation about this trip before I left. I felt the anticipation of exposure to being on a bike day after day, the perceived risk of being a single woman out in the world alone and my own concern about the gun culture of our country…. NONE of those fears came to fruition. Instead, here is what unfolded.
So there are a few things I learned about a self supported bike packing trip I want to share. I haven’t read nor had anyone told me about the rigors of camping (and humor needed) day after day, and as a result, I think I need to start a new style of yoga!
I often have to get up in the middle of night to use the bathroom and this is where a little yoga comes into play. In a one person tent this nightly ritual is a little more complicated than simply rolling out of bed and stumbling across the hall. In a tent that is small enough to carry on a bike, flailing your arms to provide momentum in order to sit up is often necessary as the back may be a wee bit rigid from sleeping on a mummy shaped blow up mattress. In a sleepy haze, a quick search for a headlamp and a down jacket may be needed as the temperature could be a bit nippy. Creaky knees begin to bend and a quick unzipping of the inner tent is followed by a swivel of the hips aiming the phalanges through the zippered door (without touching the ground as dirt inside the tent is a PAIN!) and nimbley placing them inside a pair of sandals that have been strategically placed at the entrance in anticipation of this annoying nightly ritual!! LOL.
Remember, this is all happening at something like 2am, and I don’t know about you, but in the middle of the night I have one eyelid that refuses to open. Yup, it’s a weird thing… The next big effort is to unzip the rain cover and then move into a squat to propel the body underneath the dew laden rain cover. And if I’m not agile enough, my head will graze the tent flap and the chilled water that has collected will roll down my head and find its way to my neck, jolting me awake! Once outside, I have to place my hands on my knees and slowly roll up to standing… Yup, there’s some yoga going on at what is now 2:03am. A brisk walk to the bathroom (or into the woods if it’s a primitive site) to do the business and mentally prepare to reverse all of that effort to get back into the tent and hopefully back to sleep, though by then both of my eyelids are fully open…
I took stock of the reading recommendations that came my way from the amazing humans that crossed my path one gorgeous morning as I was heading south out of Natchez, MS on a wide bermed undulating 4 lane state highway. I had pushed an earbud in my ear and was listening to “Dispatches From Pluto” and found myself both horrified and laughing out loud at the hilarious and difficult observations made by the British author as he explored his new home in Mississippi. This suggestion came from a witty and smart gay man I met while in Jackson, MS that had grown up in the Delta. I asked him what it was like to grow up in the area of the country that had the worst racial policies in the US (Emmit Till, lynchings, etc), and he said I just needed to read this book in order to understand the Delta. I heeded his advice and listened while swearing at cars that came too close and learned about the messy and complicated relationships of the people of Mississippi.
Earlier in the trip a kind, gentle Tenessian woman suggested that I read “A Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” as we had talked about the influence of our conservative religious upbringing. She and her husband, along with 7 other families live on 165 acres which formed the intentional community they had created over 30 years ago. I listened (and again laughed out loud) as I wound my bike around curves and up and down hills in Southern Tennessee, and was reminded that humor is always a salve…
I met Natalie when I rode up to the Meriwether Lewis Campsite off the Natchez Trace Parkway south of Nashville. I noticed her sitting next to a tent reading as I arrived, and called out to her and asked if I could pitch my tent close to her. She smiled and said, “It’s ok if you are quiet!” We both laughed and the bonding started. I learned she was a Kansan and had been on the road for over two months taking extended hikes along the eastern shore and was now headed south. She was a chef and offered to cook dinner that evening, and we feasted on quinoa with peas and onions followed by canned pears - a treat while on the road! Through the evening I learned that she had left home at a young age as her childhood was a bit challenging. She wants to start a nonprofit called COR (Children of Rape…………) Her grandmother had been an English teacher and her savior, and distilled in her the love of reading. The books she suggested were spot on, and I found myself giggling like a schoolgirl as I rode the beautiful and safe Natchez Trace Parkway listening to “A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.” I don’t know how I missed that book….
At night I would pull out my kindle and fall asleep reading “Bicycling with Butterflies” which was a book that several friends had suggested once they heard about my crazy bike riding plans! The young female author had more than a passion for the plight of the monarch butterflies and took off on an adventure to follow their annual migration route, starting her trek in their winter home in Mexico. She mimicked their path in search of milkweed following them north to Canada and back again to Mexico; over 10,000 miles on her bike! I found myself delighted as the occasional monarch fluttered across my path in southern Tennessee and Mississippi, and surprised to see so many orange wings as I rode east along the gulf shore. Her exploits included more intense riding than mine, but it made me pause and ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” It seemed she had a grand and maybe more noble cause than mine, pausing her trip to speak to school groups bestowing the importance of protecting habitat for the migrating butterflies. As I rode, this book prompted me to ask myself why I was riding? I realized my trip was more of a right of passage to prove something to myself. Riding solo as a 60 year old woman letting the path unfold day by day was my way of surrendering to and preparing me for whatever this next chapter in my life is to look like….
I had 4 crazy mechanical breakdowns on this trip which was more than I’ve had in the last 6 years of being carless combined! And in each case I was gifted with amazing saves by complete strangers… And as I reflected, I realized it was the stuff that didn’t go as planned that became the guts of the amazingness (is that a word!?) of my ride!
It was my last full day of riding, and I was heading to the southernmost point on my trip - St. George Island (SGI). I took a longish route and found myself spinning on low traveled country roads paralleling the coast. The sun was shining, the weather was perfect, a glorious 64F, wind at my back and I found myself just grinning as my feet spun. A friend from high school I hadn’t seen for something like 30 years saw my facebook post and learned that I was passing through Tallahassee where she lived. She insisted that her boyfriend come and retrieve me from SGI because it was too dangerous for me to ride north on the construction laden highway. I pushed back a bit as I had wanted another day of riding along the coast, but her insistence backed me off. I remember shaking my head and thinking there must be something to her concern and reminded myself to just let this unfold.
The next morning after having a cup of joe with my gracious hosts, I jumped on my bike to explore the 28 mile island. It was a beautiful time to be in Florida as the weather was in the mid 70s and most of the tourists had returned home leaving the roads much safer for a girl on a bike. The St. George Island State Park was deserted, and I rode for miles through the sand dunes that had been reshaped by the last hurricane up to a gate that blocked the end of the road. I pushed my bike through and onto a sandy path walking deeper into the dunes. Beautiful.
On the return I had just shifted to maintain a smooth pedal speed when all of a sudden my rear derailleur froze. Pushing on the shifter did nothing. Now you must know that I’m not much of a mechanic and really didn’t know what the loose cable meant, but assumed that something was broken - lol. I was able to remount the bike and apply low pressure and s l o w l y ride the bike back. I was shaking my head - again - as had I taken off to ride to Tallahassee, I would have been deep into the Florida backcountry stranded. But once again, someone was already on their way to rescue me and I didn’t even have to make a call….. Doug collected me and my broken bike; we lunched at a cute dive oyster bar on the bay and visited a heart warming family run aquarium that worked hard at rescuing and releasing marine life back into the wild. Once in Tallahassee he took me to his favorite bike shop and 20 minutes later I wheeled the repaired bike out the door. Thank you universe.
The question I get over and over again is, “What was my favorite part of the trip?” The answer is easy for me. It was the people that I met along the way - new friends, reconnecting with family and old friends - that made this trip remarkable. This trip found me sleeping in primitive campsites, motels, beautiful luxury retreat homes, bachelor pads, George Strait’s Touring bus, apartments, retiree abodes, an intentional community, a 1966 airstream, a home with an outdoor shower for the 400+ bike riders they host annually, a farmhouse, a mid-century modern home, a church parsonage and lots of regular homes in between! Riding (and occasionally pushing) my bike loaded with 50+lbs. across mountains, flat land, hills, bayous, low country, roads that paralleled the ocean, National Park roads, heavily traveled city roads, curvy county roads, 4 lane state highways that intersected high in the sky like spider webs, gravel roads, roads with berms of 3’, and scary stretches without berms, l o n g bridges over wide spans of water, ferries and stress free protected trails. But at the end every ride, it was the people that made this trip memorable. I have never taken a trip where I have stayed with so many strangers, and after having traveled this way, I’m not sure I want to do it any other way! Warmshowers and RoadTripHers connected me with people that in EVERY case were gracious and generous with their homes, meals and time. The hours talking and learning from all these people expanded the quality of my life.
Such an amazing experience. Lifelong friends made. 4-5 hours of riding a day. Problems were never problems… Thank you universe.
September 23 - November 24
Bike: Indianapolis, Nashville, Natchez, New Orleans, St. George Island = 1,049 miles
Car: St. George Island, Tallahassee, Amelia Island, Beaufort, Pawleys Island, Spartanburg, Hendersonville, Asheville, Indianapolis