I recently completed a cycling trip through western France. It was my first time traveling internationally by bike — and the longest time I’ve spent traveling alone. I dreamed of this trip — in some iteration — for years, and the year of my 30th birthday seemed like a perfect opportunity to learn basic bike maintenance and hit the road.
My days were filled with profuse sweating, a considerable amount of rain, many sandwiches, much espresso and — of course — hours of cycling. Around mid-afternoon, I would begin to think seriously about where to stay the night. I had campsites along my route saved to my phone, selected indiscriminately from internet searches, but just as often I would roll into a town and pick from one of the few options, no research required.
For me, this ability to carry all with me and literally set up camp wherever I happened to be was one of the best prospects of a cycling trip. It allowed me a kind of freedom I craved. I daily edged up on a feeling of wildness and aliveness that seemed to augment me and make me bigger, stronger, and full of joy…
It was also sometimes daunting. There were many times I felt afraid.
I’ll clarify right away to say that nothing scary ever happened to me, though I feared it would. I worried that something would go very wrong with my chain or brake cables in the middle of an uninhabited stretch of woodland. I worried that I would get to a town and there wouldn’t be a campsite and I’d have to carry on for 20 more kilometers, into the dusk. I worried that my phone battery would die and my backup navigation would be lost. I worried about so many things that never once happened.
I don’t speak much French, but — bless them — plenty of French speaking people still engaged with me. They struggled through my limited vocabulary and used many visual aids to communicate. Usually, they would ask where I was from, where I was going, where I’d started the day, and sometimes… I would get my favorite question…
“Vous etes toute soule?” … “You are all alone?”
Invariably, I smiled and gave a hearty, “Oui!”
I sometimes saw a twinkle in their eyes which, I presume, was some combination of respect and incredulity. I was approached by one man whose opening line — without knowing anything about me, other than that I was alone with my bike — was that he admired me.
And more than twice, I heard someone exclaim “Très courage!” … “Very courageous.”
The word courage is a familiar one for me. Perhaps 20 or 30 times between the months of September and May, I speak with middle school students on the theme of courage. Anyone who’s ever been 13 years old will understand why this is an appropriate topic at this particular developmental stage. You are beginning to shape your personal identity, to identify the ways in which you are unique — but simultaneously, all you want to do is blend in.
The common middle school experience wasn’t dissimilar from my time in France. I was often by myself, spending hours of pushing pedals in solitude and musing on my life as the scenery changed. Yet, surrounded by a foreign culture, I longed to fit in. I poured energy into not drawing attention to myself, as if it were a real possibility, with my ready-for-anything clothing and my American bike laden with gear. My croissant calorie burn was spent sweating over my pronunciation, rehearsing the lines for shops or cafes over and over in my head. I observed others first, always, before acting (Do they order at the counter or take a seat at the table? Do they eat the mussels with a fork or with their hands? Is that public toilet really a public toilet or a trap that will enclose you in a wet tomb of aluminum and hand soap?!)
I felt a lot of small fears, and they drove my daily actions: walking past the same cafe three times to determine whether I should order at the counter or take a table; ordering the patisserie’s simple paine suisse when I really wanted to sample the alluring mille-feuille but — unsure of the pronunciation — wanting more to avoid embarrassment; grabbing a sandwich to go when I’d really rather enjoy a leisurely seated meal because I couldn’t stomach the thought of sitting alone in a restaurant without being able to converse even with the waiter.
(I swear I did other things than eat)
(But not many)
My fear wasn’t limited to my culinary adventures. Attempting to fall asleep in the nights before I left the US, my mind churned over and over the details of my arrival. Did I have all the materials to pack my bike? And what was the address of the hostel? I’d better check the weather forecast in the morning, there might be rain. And what if there was rain, what ought I to do then…
I couldn’t possibly know everything that was awaiting me, so my brain was working overtime to fill in the gaps. Even after the bike was boxed and together we were aboard the plane, my worry was wide awake. We rumbled down the runway and I wondered if there might not be a mechanical issue with the plane, forcing us to stay grounded, deplane, head back to our homes and stay put on this side of the ocean.
Oh well, I imagined I’d think with a rush of relief. I tried!
In moments like that, I didn’t feel très courage. I felt scared. I felt weak. I felt like there was only a thin and pitiful string towing me towards the adventures I hoped for and the adventurer I wanted to be.
I’m so grateful for those people I met, with their admiring (and also slightly alarmed) looks, and their kind (French) words. I longed to hear them because I longed to feel courageous, when so often I didn’t. I reveled in being reminded by them that courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is losing sleep and having a quickly fluttering heart and being drawn forward into the fire and continuing to take the next step, and the next…