Two times I have ridden my bicycle from my home in Knoxville, Tennessee through the mountains to Asheville, North Carolina. Both times the ride took us most of three days, though I often hear of people doing it in two and occasionally in one. There’s a novel’s worth of stories tied up in those bike trips, but lately I have been thinking about the few miles of Highway 25 on the far side of Hot Springs, North Carolina.
Hot Springs is a tiny mountain town that is mostly campground with the Appalachian Trail and the French Broad River running right through the middle. The ride into Hot Springs is stunning. Highway 25 mostly follows the French Broad through the sparsely populated and fertile river valley. We spent our time pedaling easily side by side, telling stories and laughing and dreaming big dreams. We ate our lunch on a boat ramp by the river, and slept peacefully amongst the trees.
Both times I did this ride we coasted triumphantly in Hot Springs, flying down from the ridgeline into the valley and leaning our bikes against the wall at a place aptly named “The Restaurant,” where we devoured veritable mountains of potatoes and eggs and slices of pie feeling bold and courageous and overall quite pleased with ourselves. We set up our tents by the river and slept deep.
And in the morning, we loaded our bikes with our tent and sleeping bags and food and water for the day, pointed them towards Asheville with sleep still in our eyes, and pushed off onto the pavement. Almost immediately we began to climb, and all day as the sun inched its way across the sky, the road just kept winding up the mountain, and we kept on climbing.
Lots of you reading this will know exactly what this feels like. Lots of you have ridden your bike up this very same stretch of road. But if you have never been on a bike tour, or ridden your bike up a hill so big you couldn’t see the top and didn’t know when it would end, here’s what it’s like:
In the beginning you feel tough and courageous, you drop down into your lowest gear and you set your teeth for the long haul. “I got this;” you think, “How bad can it be?” Between each bend in the road, you are hanging on to the thin hope that around the next bend you will see the top of the mountain, but around each bend you are crushed by the discovery of only more pavement climbing interminably upward. You spin your pedals wearily, but you are all too aware that really a toddler could walk faster than you are moving right now. The cars speed past you on the highway, and their drivers turn to look at you with some mixture of pity and concern and horror, like clearly no sane person would intentionally do what you are doing right now. You try to remember whose idea this was anyway, and in your mind you lash out at everyone who played a part in convincing you to go on such a stupid trip, including yourself. You think about stopping, taking just a little break, before you keep going. And maybe you try that once, but you feel even more exhausted after resting than you did before you stopped. So there’s nothing to do but to keep on trudging.
I have been thinking about this few miles of highway because this is what my life has felt like lately. Like I have been hauling ass, working as hard as I can just to get someplace, but the terrain is unrelenting and no matter what I do I cannot move faster than an inching crawl. Every time I come around a bend, instead of seeing the top of the mountain I just see more climbing, and another bend, and another bend. You start to wonder how much longer you can stay on the bike.
Last week I didn’t get a job. It was a job that I really wanted, a job that I had really settled in my mind as being my way out. It was my top of the mountain, my golden ticket: I was gonna get that job, and then Joseph and I were gonna be just fine. We’d have enough money to buy a house, even. To afford our own groceries. To go out to dinner and not always buy the cheapest thing possible.
But I didn’t get the job. I was crushed. Now what are we gonna do? I thought frantically. It was like I had just enough hope and courage to get myself around the last bend, and I was just sure that I was gonna see blue sky at the top, but instead I just saw another mile of twisting pavement, and someone had tied a ten pound bag of rocks to my already loaded down bike, and then it started to rain.
That sounds a bit melodramatic, but things are much more likely to feel like a disaster when now that I am the sole person responsible for an infant.
Many times during that climb out of Hot Springs and during the weeks afterwards when we traveled the length of Georgia and back, I’d be feeling tired or achy and we would pass a lovely old oak tree casting a wide cool shadow on the grass, and I’d want nothing more than to get off my bike and lie down and maybe-probably-not ever get back on a bicycle ever again. Or just rest for a few minutes and eat about a pound of trail mix, whatever I could talk the rest of the crew into.
But never once did the courage I needed to keep going come from stopping and lying down on the side of the road. It came from way deep down inside somewhere, from the part of me that knows myself to be powerful and courageous and capable, that knew I could climb the last mountain and somehow knows that I’ll be able to climb this one too.
Last week I protected myself from despair by attacking the job search with a renewed fury. And, in the charmed way that the fates so often present themselves, a few days later I was accepting a different and in many ways much better suited job — one that’s going to let me do the work I love and support myself and Joseph and not have to be away from him eight hours a day every day, one that’s going to leave me free to keep writing and educating myself and making art and teaching children and building community.
And it’s very slowly settling in: I see the top of the mountain. Pretty soon I’m goanna stand at the crest of the ridge and let the wind dry my sweat. There’s gonna be more mountains to climb, there’s gonna be rolling foothills and headwinds and days where you ride all day in a cold rain and sleep in a wet sleeping bag. But every time you get to the top of a climb, you know a little bit better what you are capable of.
It’s like Anne Lamott says in her book Operating Instructions, a journal of the first year of her son’s life: “…it turns out you’ve already gone ahead and done it before you realize you couldn’t possibly do it, not in a million years.”