Cycling Today, May 1998
Ten years ago but still long after it had stopped being fashionable, my wife and I hitchhiked most of the way across the United States. This was before we got married, and for better or for worse, bought our own car. This was after we’d quit cycling as a childish thing and before we’d take it up again as an adultish thing.
A friend took us to California and we thumbed our way back, the gravity of our home in Ohio pulling us back as fast as we could accept each ride, almost like a relay race. We did it in three days. Although God or his outsourced labour may have made half of creation in three days, it still isn’t bad time to hitch from California to Ohio.
Afraid that dallying would lead to ennui, my one rule was to keep walking — even backwards — because any movement would deliver us, eventually. We had a wonderfully surreal time which has nothing to do with the ensuing story but everything to do with why, last February, I spent the night in a phone box in Dalwhinnie, Scotland.
We moved to London in ’95, my wife with a job and me with a bit of time on my hands until I found my feet (and my wheels, as it turned out). For such a leap we brought little luggage, though I did sneak about 25 lbs. in excess baggage past the stewardess as a carry-on, mostly in my gut, but also in my face, judging by some old photos. After a bit of eating less and exercising more I quickly discovered that physicists, to paraphrase them, are correct: less mass equals more energy. Energy to burn. And me, with a brand new city to explore. Time + energy + X = The best way to see the capital. It seemed a childishly simple equation to solve. Who needed a car? I could be my own engine.
You never forget how to ride a bike. Caveat: you might forget how to fall off. The day after buying my hybrid I did some remembering.
Seduced by freewheeling, I quickly learned that cycling isn’t free, not like hitching a ride is free. You earn your momentum, cherish it. Every hill is bought and paid for. I started touring the country, which is only to be expected from a reformed — evolved? — hitchhiker.
So, typecast from the start, I decided to do the end-to-end.
I aimed for a week. It was quick answer for the curious, while not an ideal span to gather and store more than the briefest impressions of fair green England. It was in fact to be my warm-up for a rather shorter tour of Scotland, my true love. I actually regarded this trip as a longer than usual commute.
Late February. Coldish. Early morningish. My wife accompanies me from Land’s End to Penzance, where she takes the train back to London. It’s less a send-off than an ease-off; ten miles of bittersweet togetherness as prelude to my own little bittersweet symphony.
It’s been awhile since my bike threw me. I’m competent, confident. There is no actual lycra on my person, though I’m not a bigot. I’m travelling light, but have brought my walkman, primed with Dylan. “How does it feel,” I’ll be singing in an occasional nasal duet punctuating the miles, “to be on your own….”
As is appropriate for a commute, I’ll be largely keeping to A-roads. Country lanes are too slow, too pretty, and too steep. As Robert Frost might have written had he been me: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep/But I have promises to keep/And have to make it in a week.”
And miles to go before I sleep. It’s a beautiful, brisk day, made for cycling, but it passes a blur, even at a lowly 15 m.p.h. (with occasional gusts up to 40, topography willing), what with my precious patch of tarmac to keep track of, and the occasional suctioning embrace of the lorries to resist.
I love it anyway, that wonderful feeling of moving and being connected to the earth even as it turns under my own spinning. It’s entirely physical. There are stretches where I won’t actually have a thought in my head, or rather, half my mind will turn into a simple but detached cheerleader for my body, chanting to my legs to keep going, you’re not that tired, soothing my muscles, keeping my arms steady and true, while the other half concentrates in an intense but empty-headed way on the road ahead. It surprises me that even cyclists can get road hypnosis.
My irrational fear of Cornwall leads to its premature sacrifice. I look but don’t dwell. Momentum must be established, enough to get me up and over Dartmoor, a chillingly bleak detour logical for someone who fancies a wintertime end-to-end. By early evening I’ve made it to Exeter, dinner, and the desire to press on.
And the evening and the morning were the first day.
At 6 a.m. it’s freezing in Bristol and I’ve got a flat, but I’m feeling invincible. The night ride was a good idea and I hardly noticed the lack of sleep except for the wee small hours. It made the A38 bearable and allowed me to fly for awhile, like I did as a kid down traffic-free small-town Ohio streets. I spend the afternoon hugging the edge of Wales and finally collapse in a hotel in Hereford, my 260 miles a trophy I’m too tired to polish.
I leave at four in the morning, aiming for Liverpool. My first stop is Ludlow, where I buy a monkey for my wife and send it to her, which is sort of like sending flowers but not really. I also buy the first pair of gloves that don’t have their fingers cut off. They’re for gardening, but I’ve always fancied myself a lateral thinker. Then I spot a bright red pair and get those. Hit a bicycle shop and opt for some neoprene ones, too. On to Shrewsbury, with miles of well-kept cycle-lanes, and end day three successfully near Liverpool.
Awake at 3 a.m. and head into the rain: Accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone, as Dylan sings into my ear.
I enjoy a leisurely pre-dawn ride: a true rush hour. Head for the Lake District and straight into a gentle blizzard up a mountain pass, where I frantically work my way through my useless collection of gloves, keeping a close eye on the handlebars to ensure that my fingers are still gripping them.
On the way to Carlisle my knee casually gives out, refusing to bend in the painless way I’ve come to expect and rather depend upon, so I spend the last 10 miles imitating a broken piston. If you can limp on a bicycle that’s what I do, coming into town. I hit the first B&B to be greeted by a polite “We’re full,” which in my misery I misinterpret as “Come on in.”
“But I’m injured!” I’m afraid I may have wailed, which elicits only a look of interest. When I finally bed down for the evening it’s with the conviction that I’ve pushed too hard, and will have to settle for being an end-to-middler. The next morning I take a long, hot bath, thinking Ah, well, and am pleasantly surprised to find my knee working again, well enough for me to take the scenic road to Edinburgh.
Five days in, 300-odd miles to go. I’m already starting to celebrate. The day goes well and I opt for another all-nighter. I start the infamous climb up the Grampians, spirits on a stall, mood not enriched by the slush, the wind, and the snow transmuting into rain. Around midnight a tyre goes flat. Conditions become cartoonishly impossible. I numbly inflate the traitor tyre, hoping to have simply caught the end of a slow leak, and coast into Dalwhinnie, which bills itself as the highest (read: coldest) village in the Scottish Highlands.
I change the tube and promptly puncture that one as well. To complete this farce — had I read the instructions on how to change a tyre backwards, or what? — only then do I find and remove the thorn. I run through my patches attempting a fix, but everything’s too wet and my hands are shaking too violently. It’s pouring now and the wind is howling, so I take refuge in a phone box and arrange my few bags around the bottom in a sorry attempt at insulation. Then I simply stand there for the next four hours like I’m waiting for the phone to ring.
Not wishing to keep my wife up all night, I wait until 5 a.m. to give her a wake-up call. I’m miserable and rather deliriously bored with my misery at this point. Perhaps influenced by my experience in Carlilse, it never even occurs to me to knock on doors to demand somebody let me in, because I feel so awkwardly stupid about my predicament that I’d rather dance on the edge of hypothermia all night than inconvenience somebody.
In a weird way I feel like I’m hitchhiking again, only this time I’ve thumbed down an idiot phonebox.
My quest for endless momentum, my unwavering faith in it, has led me here, and for once I’m not going anywhere.
The next morning I take the train into Pitlochry and find that they don’t have a bike shop, but they’ll be getting one next week, which strikes me as intolerably funny, so it’s back to Edinburgh, momentum well and truly shot to hell, where I spend the day recklessly indulging my happy-to-be-alive mood and stock up on inner tubes and gloves.
I catch the train back to Dalwhinnie and cycle straight into a blizzard south of Inverness. It absorbs all my strength just to stay on the bike, and not for the first time I wonder about this odd basic training course into which I’ve almost absentmindedly enrolled.
My last day (day eight, says my heart; day 10, my brain; day 20, my knees) is a lovely half-remembered dream lit by limitless sunshine. I tickle the coast and for a brief spell take an unexpected ride on wonderful roller-coaster hills.
John O’Groats is a ghost town, not a soul to even tell me where to sign the end-to-ender’s book. So I leave no footprint in this little windbreak off the North Sea. I ring my wife to have an audience of at least one, and wonder how each night’s dispatches have affected her: at times she must have thought I was some kind of dream, veering into nightmare, that she was having back in London. I take a picture of myself, and climb back onto my hybrid — half bike, half me, for better or for worse. I head off, whimsy my compass, to see Scotland. No direction home. Like a rolling stone.