I got myself a bicycle built for touring years ago, an aspirational purchase that I hoped would set me up for bike camping trips all over the world, so then I would be the kind of person who takes bike camping trips all over the world, and that would be cool. I've made lots of buys like this, and usually they fail. The fancy supplies from Williams-Sonoma didn't make me a baker. The racing suits and rubber towels didn't make me a swimmer. The digital drum set totally failed to turn me into a rocker—it's been donated to 901 Arts in hopes that some kid can take my place in that little fantasy. That dream of capitalism—that we are never good enough as we are, but we can buy ourselves new and better selves—is a total scam, meant to keep us spending.
The bike, though, has been something different. It took about two bike rides as an adult to know that I belonged on a bicycle seat. Unlike most of my phases, this wasn't a phase. When I got my first bike tattoo, and then my second, I never thought, d'oh—this is going to be embarrassing, like if you'd gotten a bread machine tattoo back in 2003. I knew it was permanent, this bike love, as deep and passionate a way of life as my lesbianism or taste for McDonald's. This was the real thing, even if, like so many other brief habits, it was also a way to spend a surprising amount of cash.
But then I kept not taking that bike tour my bicycle was built to take. We did one overnight camping trip together, my bike and me, in the back of that car that was totally a phase, a chilly December night, the only tent in a field of RVs in the Mississippi bend of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. I took some leftover lentil soup with me, heated it up on my camp stove, read my book in my tent using the head lamp I'd picked up at the drugstore, and headed back to New Orleans the next day, the camping gear into a suitcase for the next many years. It all seemed so complicated. How do you feed yourself in the wilderness, especially when you're burning so many calories getting yourself around? How do you carry all your stuff with you on a bike? How do you get yourself and your bike to where you want to ride in the first place? As an easily overwhelmed woman of convenience, things did not look good.
Finally, this year, I decided to pay somebody to take me on a tour (middle-class livin' FTW!) and show me how to do it, because I actually do want to be able to see the whole world—not just the city—on my bike. I ponied up the cash for the one tour that I could get to by rental car and that fit my schedule, ignoring the "Intermediate Plus: For Experienced Cyclists and Campers Only" rating of this 10-day tour of the Adirondacks. I may not be an experienced camper, I thought, but I've been riding my bicycle almost every day for eight years. I've got the miles in my legs to do it, right? I spent the summer "in training," doing longer and longer rides and kitting out my bicycle with new racks and bags and fenders and finding my tent and getting appropriately anxious about doing a bike tour in the fucking mountains.
And then it was here, and I was doing it, and I did it, and I'm back, and I find I have surprisingly little to say about it, and I'm never at a loss for words. Here's what happened: It was hot, it was hilly, and it was hard. I rode my bike for miles and miles and miles every day, and when I got to the campground, I set up my tent as fast as I could and then headed to the bathroom to get out of my bike shorts and wash them out so I could avoid getting some rash or infection in my sweaty vagina that would totally ruin the rest of the trip. I'd take a dip in whatever lake we were at and then shower before drinking one of the beers my tourmates had hauled up the mountain for us. And then we ate dinner at 6, every night some one-pot pasta or bean dish, met about the map for the next day at 7, shot the shit with virtual strangers around a campfire until bedtime at 9-9:30. We were up the next morning with the first light, making our PB&J sandwiches for lunch that afternoon, choking down bananas and oatmeal and waiting for the next round of coffee before packing it all up on our bikes for another day of the same. And amid it all, I had the full range of human emotions: joy, euphoria, fear, anxiety, intense homesickness, loneliness, despair, glee, wonder—all of it.
It was the most physically challenging thing I've ever done, up and down those mountains under hot sun. I haven't actually done that many things that are physically challenging, so that might not be saying much, but there it is. Everything boiled down to the basics—food, water, energy, and shelter—and not much else mattered. As a group of 15, we were all too focused on those needs that the things that usually matter didn't matter much anymore. My old standbys—class rage, radical feminist anger, etc.—couldn't even find a toehold, and I found myself just grateful for the group of men—and one other woman—who helped us all get up and over it. It was such a vacation, from all the things and all the devices and all the everyday, and I can't wait for the next one.