I was riding my bike the other day, on Leslie Spit, and I was truly happy. The weather was perfect, the midges that fill my mouth were being blown away by the wind, I was only two kilometres from my house but I felt like I was out of the city. I was on my current favourite bike — the intrepid bombtrack — and I felt that sense of complete freedom and joy that only a perfect bike can bring.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the Spit during the lockdown, walking and running and riding, and I’m very grateful for it. I’ve also been in the don valley trails at least twice a week. Actual nature in the middle of the city. Freedom to move. Trees.
As most of the world peeks out from under the lockdown (not us — in Toronto we’re still in phase 1), I am filled with a desire that I can’t fully express. It’s a feeling that never had to have a name before. It’s like missing a person, yearning for someone I long for who doesn’t quite love me back, the person who makes me more of myself. But it’s not a person, it’s a way of being.
The only way I have to express it is through a kind of metonymy: I’m yearning to move my body, on a bike, by myself, in a place I don’t know. I want to actually do those things. And I yearn for the me that comes with the freedom to do those things.
Over the past few years, I’ve been privileged to do cycling trips in a bunch of countries: with organized groups in Laos, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Cambodia and Thailand; with a solo guide in Vietnam; with two friends and a tent in Germany; with a van and friends and a lot of chilly wind in Newfoundland; and — most preciously — by myself, carrying all my stuff, in Australia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I’ve also grabbed bikes for a day or two for solo explorations in Beijing, Singapore and Myanmar.
I’ve written about these trips a lot, and I went back to browse a few of those posts to try to understand exactly what it is I’m missing. And I found it in this post — it’s what I called “mindful surrender.” The absolute presence of a being on a bike in a place I’ve never been before, having to take what comes, discover what is there, navigate unexpected issues.
When I list those issues, they don’t sound very relaxing: unexpected forks in a road not captured on the map; shooting out of a park onto a highway entrance; the sense of never knowing for sure if you are going in the right direction; an unexpected corrugated, almost unridable dirt road that shakes all of the screws off your frame; unexpected stairs to a train you have to persuade urchins to help you navigate with all your stuff; dropping the bike with all its stuff onto you trying to go up a train ramp and having to be rescued by oblivious teenagers; running out of water on a hot day; ending up on the wrong side of a river with a boat schedule to meet; hotel clerks who find bikes distasteful; wind wind wind so much wind.
But after three months of adapting everything in my life to an online, distanced, anxiety-inflected world, I am yearning for the muscle and soul flex of setting out alone from a non-descript hotel, finding my way through a foreign land, the unexpected encounters of a beach, a popsicle, a holocaust memorial, a bird sanctuary, a new kind of baltic scone. I long to find myself alone at the end of the day riding through a wind farm to a tiny hotel at the end of the sea, and to have a woman ask “meat?” then serve me a mess of fried pork and onions and vegetables and a weird little liqueur I end up pouring out into the long seagrass. I long for pink soup and the unexpected find of a perfect meal in a small town. I long for the imagination of wondering what it would be to live in a town with pigeon cotes in the backyards and the worn down history of occupation.
It’s not as easy as saying “I miss traveling”. I do miss “traveling,” my personal rituals of tomato juice and haribo and fig bars on airplanes, the incredible privilege of being able to transport my nieces to new landscapes.
But it’s not that — it’s about missing the sense of openness to make choices that aren’t really very consequential, the elemental sense of finding myself alone on a literal road with literally no idea what lies ahead, seeing the unexpected pieces of lives you only see from a bike or your feet, like a woman selling a piece of a pig by the side of the road, just a table and a piece of flesh and an old scale and a knife. The transcendent joy of finding the strength in my body to make my way, alone, up 35 km of mountain road to a hidden monastery tucked in the himalayas. The radical acceptance that comes when you don’t know what terrain is really behind the lines on the map, you can’t ask for anything but the simplest needs because you realize, over and over, that English is not as ubiquitous as you think.
What I most miss is being able to *practice* radical acceptance in a non-consequential way, being able to experience not having control but trusting that it will all work out, knowing that at the end of the day, there will be a bed, some kind of meal, a sense of accomplishment.
In January, I wrote a post about taking a breather from travel for a while, especially organized bike trips. I wrote about how maybe I had done enough building of that muscle of strength and flexibility and needed to turn that energy elsewhere for a while. Now that being “grounded” has been imposed on us, that dealing with the unexpected — which for me isn’t that difficult, just wearying — I realize how much I yearn for the incredible privilege of being able to play at being accepting.
Nice one, universe.
What are you yearning for, right now?
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is still hoping to be able to travel to the west coast of Canada at some point this summer.