(Book excerpts in italics)
I was interviewed by the Intrepid Traveler. He was a great interviewer, thorough and carefully prepared. The title of his podcast made me laugh. Intrepid means fearless. I am the opposite of fearless
Like many assault survivors, I’ve got fears that follow me wherever I go, and coping mechanisms that may or may not be rational. I have developed a general sense of trepidation that has seeped into many aspects of my life.
When I began my fourteen-month long bike ride, I dearly wanted to leave my fears behind, but they did not obey my commands. Instead, they snuck into my panniers, my bike bags and came along for the ride.
So, if I’m not intrepid, what kind of a traveler am I? Aspiring— Intersectional—Feminist— doesn’t roll off the tongue like Intrepid does, but I think if gets at what I’m about.
As I rode my bike through urban and rural communities, crossing those proverbial tracks, I thought about resources, access, and sustainability. Who owns the land? Who is homeless? Who has access to education and health care? Who has access to clean water, quiet places, green spaces? What are the natural and human resources of this place? Is the economy sustainable or is it based on a non-renewal resource? Is it based on production that enhances human life, or enterprises that are not life giving? Who works? Who profits? What resources are held in common? Are they built to fill the needs of the community or to attract tourist dollars? Are the commons accessible to people without financial resources? People with disabilities? Do women feel safe there? Do parents and children and old people have access to these public spaces? Do Black, Indigenous, Latina/o/x people and Asian Americans face barriers to these public places? Are there people who are over-policed and underserved there? Are LGBTQ people free to be who they are? What stories are told, and which go untold on public history sites? Who stands on monuments and who is left out?
The intersectional feminist traveler does not accept the inequalities they see as natural. They question what is, envision a new world order, and find ways to share that vision.
I’m going to read you a bit from three sections. I picked the first because now we all know something about a town of 14,000 people, called Uvalde, Texas. We know about the mass murder at Robb Elementary and the outrage of law enforcement ineptitude.
When this scene begins, my spouse David and I are riding west on the same 80 mile stretch of highway that ambulances took to bring the wounded and the dying from Robb Elementary to hospitals in San Antonio. The road is depopulated, but there are places for a bicyclist to stop for water, shade, food, repair.
The stretches of West Texas coming up—desolate miles that people had been warning us about for weeks—were on my mind as I rode.
By afternoon I began ruminating on the treacheries ahead. Even drivers found West Texas frightening. At a motel in Uvalde, worry became terror. David tried to calm me, taking trips to the grocery store, filling our bags with extra water, food, and toilet paper. But he could not change the facts. The next day’s ride to Brackettville was forty miles of desert without a place to rest—a practice test for the sixty-five- and ninety-mile stretches without services to come.
The Texas desert sun could still parch in January, and then seep away by late afternoon, sapping the earth of all warmth. Leaving Uvalde, we said goodbye to grocery stores, cafés, motels, color, water, and bathrooms, and entered the land of scrub brush, thorns, dust, and decay. I carried a stone in my stomach, imagining accidents, snake bites, and waterless camping in a place God had forsaken.
At mile five, physical exertion and the monotony of the task allowed my mind to wander, the hardness in my gut beginning to dissolve. At mile ten, I had to pee. I began searching for a culvert or a bigger bush, not for privacy— there was no one to hide from—but for shade.
At mile twelve, a dark object emerged in the distance. By mile thirteen, it had taken on the shape of a structure.
No, it was clearly a building. I did not question it. I imagined entering, resting in the cool dark, on a real toilet.
Cars stalled on the other side of the road as we approached. The only vehicle we’d seen since Uvalde was a green and white Border Patrol truck.
here it was. Three men in uniform came toward us. Border guards. Looking at their young faces, I made my request, donning a sweet smile.
“We don’t have a public bathroom,” one said. “This is an immigration checkpoint.”
My smile got less sweet, more desperate. The officer exchanged glances with his partners. He pointed to the open door of a tiny room.
“You can use that.”
David went into the men’s holding cell, closing the door. I propped the women’s door open with my handlebar bag, peeing in sight of young men in uniform.
During the empty miles left in the day, I mulled over my reaction. Fear that I would be locked in a detention room wasn’t rational. I did not fit the profile. And my fear of the desert was overblown too. If we got in an accident or ran out of water, those ever-present green and white patrol vans would be a resource. A woman walking across the border, however, faced real life-threatening perils: dehydration, sexual assault, starvation, and a Border Patrol nightmare that might begin in the cell where I relieved my bladder.
This section, from Montana, I call Beware the Woman with 10,000 Miles and hips under her belt.
In Missoula, I needed a new jacket. The bike shop didn’t have women’s sizes. “Try the men’s large,” the young man said when the men’s size medium didn’t fit over my hips. His innocent suggestion set me off, unleashing frustration accumulated from a year of encounters with a bike industry geared toward men, who viewed biking as competition, paraphernalia as status, and touring as male bonding.
Men took to the road, fulfilling a lifetime dream. They lost their paunch, exchanged stats: miles, speed, equipment, how much they could eat. They’d boast of surviving in the wilderness, seedy hotels, days without showers, stealth camping, beautiful women on the road. The bike shops, manufacturers, and organizations catered to them.
I didn’t go fast or care a stitch about equipment. I hadn’t lost a pound, couldn’t eat whatever I wanted, didn’t feel safe most anywhere, couldn’t go without a shower or I’d get a rash. Biking alone added another level of fear. Biking with even the best guy added a level of dependency, a constant source of tension.
I’d met so many women who said they would bike cross-country if their partner would go slower, if they felt safe. I’d been on the road long enough to say touring is for people like us—not just men or wiry athletes, but femmes of a certain age who want to get out of themselves and into the world. I was having my cycling adventure. Was it too much to ask for a jacket wide enough for my women’s hips to go with it?
Finally – from my concluding chapter–thoughts on what I learned about fear.
The daily practice of seeking comfort in strange places taught me how to be at home inside my skin. Often, the road did a magic trick. Liabilities became assets, transforming the definition of a successful life. I learned I could do the impossible if I calibrated my expectations—but things often didn’t work out how I expected. I expected I could outride my ghosts. I could not. But the road toppled my hierarchy of fears, and that led me to question everything that caused me trepidation.
Fear is endemic in this nation. And like me, most people—in real danger or not—rely on imaginary thinking to protect themselves. At worst these coping mechanisms add to a spiral of violence and rob us of the resources we need to build healthy communities. What makes us safe? Not more guns in our closet. Not more cops on our streets. Not a bigger border wall, or a larger gate around our community. Not another bomb, or another war. Full security is illusive in a world of climate crises and pandemics. But we will be safer when we embrace radical hospitality, build sustainable economies, and address historical trauma.
Sometimes I lose proportionality, taking on dangers that don’t belong to me, in situations where my job is not to protect myself but to be an interrupter; to decrease the danger experienced by others.
It is my hope that my book Allegiance to Winds and Waters: Bicycling the Political Divides of the United States — is one form of interruption.