“cycling is an activity that gets under our skin”

I washed my hands before I sat down to work on my computer, but there’s still dirt under my finger nails and cuticles. I purposely didn’t scrub my hands for longer, even though the hot water felt good, because there’s something novel about the dirt. The dirt and the tender calluses forming on my palms are signs that I’ve been working with my hands—building things and lifting vegetables out of the earth. I arrived at the Sheardrum Farm late last Saturday night and was welcomed to a cozy kitchen warmed with a wood stove. Onions were being sautéed and three slightly wet and very affectionate dogs licked my hands and pressed their heads against my sore thighs hoping for a scratch behind the ears.

Sheardrum is owned by a couple, Ali and Claire, and is about 40 miles from Edinburgh in a small valley with a creek running through it. The creek used to power an old mill and the blonde sandstone buildings on the property are almost two centuries old—currently each in different phases of restoration. There’s a huge garden, a greenhouse, cows, sheep, goats, chickens, geese, ducks, and African guinea fowl. It isn’t a commercial farm; it’s a hobby and teaching farm. They have a small studio space that Claire uses to teach weaving classes, they’ve taught barn building classes, and throughout the year they host a constant stream of WWOOF volunteers and friends who help out with various projects. I’ve been keeping busy harvesting onions, potatoes, beets, beans, raspberries, and peas. I spent a day repairing a fence that had been damaged because the cows have a habit of leaning against the fence’s metal wiring when they need a good scratch. Over the years, this practice has made the wood fence posts holding up the wiring wobbly and loose. A few days ago I spent the morning splitting logs that will be used throughout the winter to fuel the farm’s wood stove and boiler. I’m not so bad with an ax actually, but I’d throw Josh—a 20-year-old neighbor—the thick logs with knots in them because I’d just get the ax stuck in those and he could easily split them with one powerful swing. Josh keeps an old Land Rover here that he’s trying to fix up and apparently he also just enjoys swinging by for a meal and a few hours of work when he can fit it in. Claire warned me when she spotted him walking down the long driveway that I might not be able to understand him because his Scottish accent is so thick that sometimes she, a former Londoner, can’t understand him. She was right. He had to occasionally repeat himself two or three times before I could understand him and once I could make out the words, their meaning wasn’t always clear. Josh’s explanations of Scottish slang and idioms were good entertainment and I barely noticed that we spent almost four hours splitting logs. I’ve been eating voraciously and sleeping hard since I arrived at the farm—partially because the work on the farm is physically demanding and partially because I’ve been recovering from my ride here.

I left Beverley last Thursday and continued up the east coast of England on The North Sea Route, a EuroVelo route maintained by Sustrans. The strong wind had stopped, but throughout most of Friday and Saturday the weather consisted of dark clouds, a low layer of marine fog, constant drizzle, and sporadic rain storms. The weather didn’t help my fragile state of mind. There’s something about September that makes me feel like I should be going back to normalcy, a routine, and the familiar. Summer adventures are so commonplace, but when you continue on into the fall it starts to feel different. The cycle routes and campsites are deserted now that the summer holidays are over, the sun is going down earlier, and my body seems to be tiring more easily.

The route I was on cut through a range of different landscapes and communities—from manicured boarding school campuses to industrial complexes to quaint finishing villages to depressed towns in middle England with some of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. I didn’t always make it to the end point I had in mind when I started in the morning and my tent and sleeping bag really proved their worth on this segment of my trip.

One night I ended up at a trailer park. The sign for the trailer park made it seem like it was more of a campground, but there were no other campers there that night—and there were many permanent residents in trailers. I was in a relatively rural area and the closest town with a hotel was at least ten miles away. The attendant at the gate was pleasant and it was a well-maintained trailer park near a lake—probably popular with local families in the summer. I couldn’t keep biking in the dark, so I decided to stay there. I kept telling myself that shouldn’t be such a snob about trailer parks, but the truth was that morning couldn’t come fast enough. I felt so out-of-place. All I needed was a little sleep and some daylight and I was going to be out of there.

The attendant gave me a registration card to fill out and while I was writing he asked me what my story was. I think he was as confused about how I ended up at his trailer park as I was. I told him quickly what I was up to, eager to get my tent up while there was still a little light left and not really interested in talking. The attendant was about the same age as me and was very friendly—obviously conscientious about his customer service responsibilities. I know he wasn’t trying to be rude, but I was bothered when he asked me bluntly, “Don’t you get lonely?”

It wasn’t just him. I stopped for coffee earlier that day and the two women at the shop kept telling me how brave I was when they realized I was biking alone. They gave me two free scones and told me, “Be careful, flower.” It was very kind of them, but I also felt like they pitied me slightly. An American I met at the hostel in London told me again and again how she could never do a bike trip or camp alone. “I’d feel too exposed,” she told me. When people say things like this, my response is to tell them that I’m not lonely, that it doesn’t require much bravery, and that I don’t feel exposed. The truth—at least that evening in the trailer park—was that I felt incredibly lonely, I didn’t feel brave at all, and the idea of camping alone there made me feel very exposed.

I got my tent set up in an out-of-the-way location and was just taking my shoes off in the vestibule when I heard my phone start vibrating. I remembered, happily, that I had bought a SIM card for my phone and e-mailed my parents the number before I left London. I hadn’t talked to my mom in almost a month and it felt strangely remarkable to hear a voice that was so familiar and comforting to me when I was in such an unfamiliar place. I could tell it was just an ordinary day for her—she began updating me about her work, the dinner party they went to the night before, and how she hurt her foot.

She tells me she made spanakopita—in my honor—for Sunday family dinner. I went through a phase as a child when making spanakopita with my mom was a special weekend treat. I liked how the floury, thin sheets of filo dough felt in my hands and I’d delicately brush the melted butter on the top layer. Thinking about this makes me smile and I tell my mom that I haven’t made spanakopita in years. We promise each other that we’ll make it together when I get home.

Then she tells me that she saw my ex-boyfriend at the grocery store. I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want to think about him. Not now. Not when I’m alone at a trailer park—already digging to find reasons for why I’m here and why my life is so drastically different than it was six months ago. My reaction belies what I’m feeling. I make it seem like I’m uninterested. We move on to other topics, but now there’s an image of him in the grocery store floating through my mind.

I get off the phone with my mom, have a restless night of sleep, and begin cycling towards the North York Moors early the next morning. The landscape is eerie. I feel drained of the optimism and energy I usually have. I let my mind begin to think about things that depress me. I think about him and the process of ending our relationship. I let myself think about it for hours. I think about dinners with his family, the long conversations we’d have at the little phở place we both loved, and the lazy Saturdays when we’d let the dog in the bed. I think about what I really know for sure and believe about love and relationships. I realize I don’t know very much, but that I’m learning. Failure forces you to reflect.

I was so afraid of this before I left Seattle—of being alone with my thoughts for too long. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if dark, painful thoughts emerged. I start crying, crying hard—but I don’t stop biking. My momentum and the wind brush the tears off my face quickly. The wet, country roads are empty, but I wouldn’t have cared if anyone saw the tears. I needed to cry.

This sadness was impossible to avoid. We’re complex and we’re meant to feel a range of emotions. I knew I wasn’t weak and, in fact, the crying made me feel brave again. Cycling alone for a week or a few months or a year is as much a mental exercise as a physical one. This was a day I would remember; a challenge I overcame—just like getting over a mountain pass. A man from the UK, James Bowthrope, recently circumnavigated the globe on a bike (18,000 miles in 174 days). He wrote an article about his experience and said that there were days on the bike when he would be full of joy and there were days when he would just weep. He writes:

The bicycle is the instrument I turn to when I want to think about things that are tough to pin down. The question that non-cyclists sometimes ask cyclists—why would you cycle when you can drive?—has lots of practical answers.  Sensible reasons that are easy to articulate will answer the question, but they are not the real reason for me.  I cycle because it makes me feel different…just as music can unlock parts of us that other sounds cannot reach, cycling is an activity that gets under our skin.

I didn’t make any concrete discoveries or resolutions, but I had confronted the thoughts I had been avoiding and dreading the most. There was no one to reassure, distract, or comfort me and so I had to find my center and my strength on my own. The sun started going down and I told myself it was time to stop being sad; I needed to forgive myself. I needed to concentrate on the hills, the route, and the place I was in—not the past.

I was lucky to find a run-down hotel to sleep at that night in a small town just south of Newcastle. It was almost 8 pm when I checked in. I showered and climbed into bed immediately—I didn’t even bother getting dinner. The hotel didn’t have wifi and I didn’t care. I was fine being completely alone and disconnected. My mind was peaceful again. I started reading a compilation of short stories I bought in London about people’s experiences learning to ride  bicycles. The stories explored themes about trust, letting go, family, and overcoming failure. One of the stories was hilarious and I found myself laughing out loud. Laughter that made my stomach hurt. God, it felt good to laugh.

I took some really bad falls off my bike as a kid, but I never was afraid to get back on my bike. I seemed to understand that falling was normal and part of the process of learning. Now that I’m an adult, I don’t give myself much room to fall or fail. I feel like I should get it right the first time. Ending a serious and long-term relationship feels like a serious fall, a fall that’s clearly left me hurt, but the stories about how people haphazardly learned to ride their bikes provided me with a sense of levity. We become less honest and open as adults about our falls, missteps, and failures, but we learn nearly everything in life—whether it pertains to career or matters of the heart—much the same way we learned how to ride a bicycle. It isn’t always elegant at first and sometimes we really hurt ourselves. Eventually, though, we find our balance, trust ourselves, gain confidence, and forget how much the falls we took while we were learning hurt.

***

Here are some pictures from the rest of my ride and from my first week on the farm.

Crossing the Forth Road Bridge--about fifteen miles from the farm. The sun finally came out!

View of farm from driveway.

Norman and Jake resting in the hay loft.

Making pie.

Eating pie. Apples and raspberries were picked on the farm.

The other dog at the farm, Skye.

I spent Friday night enjoying some great local music with an old friend who lives in Edinburgh.

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