song of the open road (walt whitman)

Kate biking in Nevada on her x-USA trip. Photo by and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune—I myself am good fortune;
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Strong and content, I travel the open road.

Allons! the road is before us!

It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well.       
Allons! be not detain’d!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!    
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!    
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!

-Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Everyone sings their own song of the open road, especially when it comes to bike travel. Some push pedals to earn an honest appetite, others to sate wanderlust. Some ride bikes to escape, like writer Diana Ackerman, who feels like “the world is breaking someone else’s heart,” rather than hers for once, when she’s off cycling. Others bike in search of the life abundant, like Christopher Morley, who exulted that "the bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets."

Why travel by bike? To whet hunger, to blunt it. To flee life, to find it. Space, time and two wheels transmuted by the alchemy of the open road into — something else, different astonishments, various and singular for each cyclist.

Given these motley reasons for bike travel, the four of us Bicycle Travel Network founders had a heck of a time brainstorming a website/project name to encompass them all. One early idea was “The World Cycling Alliance,” but I protested that this sounded too bland, too corporate, too are-you-with-us-or-against-us — qualities antithetical to the footloose freedom I lived and loved on cycling trips. I ventured “Vagabiking” as an alternative possibility, feeling rather chuffed at my clever play on vagabonding, a name true to the scattershot, wandering side of bike touring. But as the boys pointed out with some glee, Vagabiking sounded like it should be a brand name for female-specific chamois cream. Touché. So we needed something in between — a name that was professional, but not stifling; adventurous, but not anarchic. And above all, not medicinal.

We settled on “The Bicycle Travel Network,” a name to accommodate all breeds of bicycle traveler, from seasoned road warriors who can fix a flat, pitch a tent, and shoo away the dogs filching their pasta simmering on the campstove, all at once, to neophytes oblivious to the fact that wearing underpants beneath bike shorts is an open road leading directly to disaster. I began as the latter breed of cyclist. (Though I’ve since learned my lesson: ditch the underpants, bring the Vagabiking™.) My first bike trip was a coast-to-coast USA traverse that saw me covering more miles on day one than I’d ridden sum total in 23 years of life. I had no idea what I was getting into, just a vague and romantic notion that a bike could take me places otherwise difficult to reach.

For once, a vague and romantic notion of mine found traction in reality. That first day on the road both annihilated and entranced me. With bike travel, you are exposed to the world around you in a way and to a degree that few other modes of transportation afford. That kind of raw vulnerability has its drawbacks — like choking on the fumes of transport trucks that roar past, or feeling every teensy bump in the road translate itself into a saddle sore. But in the end the perks take the prize: the freedom to explore a landscape at your own pace, under your own power, and the exhilaration of traveling with all you need strapped to your wheels. This is nomadism at its best, each day yielding some new acquaintance or adventure, insight or dream, vast horizon or gnarl in the road.

Cruising is never complete without crashing, though, at least not on any bike trip worth its sweat. When I first test rode my touring bike in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I was a college student, I came to a stoplight and forgot to twist my feet out of the clipless pedals. Cue a slow, ponderous, tree-felled-in-forest tumble. Fortunately nothing was bruised but my dignity. Then on the final leg of my cross-country trip from San Francisco to the coast of North Carolina, I passed through that same intersection. In two months, ten states, and nearly four thousand miles of biking, I had crashed a few times, mostly toppled over by the bluster of dogs and sidewinds. But never out of brute incompetence since that intersection in Chapel Hill. As I braked to a stop at the red light, I mused nostalgic over how far I’d come, in every respect, since forgetting to kick out of my pedals right here. And in that self-congratulatory reverie, in the heart of my adopted American hometown with people who knew me on the sidewalks, I forgot to kick out of my pedals. Boom.

Lost in space and wonder, stumbling and soaring, humbled every day anew — this was the state of play on that first cycling trip, and this has remained the state of play on trips since. I wouldn’t want bike travel any other way. As writer Rebecca Solnit put it, “Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery." Discovery requires exploration, and exploration demands risk. When I travel by bike, risk means putting my coddled butt, precious dignity and cozy presumptions on the line, the swerving potholed line that is the open road through an uncertain and fantastic world.

As the saying goes in mountain bike racing, and holds for bike touring and life itself: if you’re not crashing once in a while, you’re probably not riding hard enough.

Kate Harris2 Comments