Expeditionist. Writer. Professor. Cyclist.
Written by Joe Cruz
Cycling is motion and possibility. It can be the meditative repetition of doing your standard training ride traversing roads that are so familiar that they become invisible. Or it can be an open-ended meander, like arriving in an unfamiliar city and grabbing a ride-share bicycle to tour the neighborhoods. Cycling is simple positive transportation or just play, social or solitary.
But there are also rides different from all of these where you make a plan to be somewhere, in the sense of wanting the place to speak back to you. That means learning something of the place, being open to its story. It means spending time—days, months—looking at maps and satellite images, feeling the art and literature from there, and seeking its history, even while remaining mindful of its complexity and the foreknowledge that incompleteness is inevitable. It’s what I aim for in my bikepacking trips.
"For me they aren’t just bike rides or campouts, they are a chance to be curious and to be changed."
Of course a bike trip makes vividly recollectable memories that are then the materials for future imaginings. But that’s only a sliver of the possibility, since feeling from the inside outward is to start with oneself and fit an experience into one’s life’s scaffolding and patterns. Cycling gives us a chance to try something else in addition, to hear the memories of the places that we visit, to go from the outside in and according to the voice of where we ride. When we ride with openness and curiosity and our bodies are in effortful harmonious motion, that’s when there’s something more than the usual memory collecting that we do.
I took my first off-road bike tour in the late 1980s. I didn’t know to call it bikepacking then, even though the word had been around for a decade and a half. I hardly even had a sense that what I was doing was what bicycles were for from their earliest conception, namely pedaling on dirt past the limits of your town, feeling the distance in your tiredness, breathing in a cyclical rhythm to mark a departure from the usual boundaries of destination.
"Bikepacking is riding a bicycle with an aesthetic and regard for the outside, for movement, for breathing in new places."
Since that first trip I’ve created bike routes around the world for myself, and sometimes those have been shared and ridden by others. That route-making process is my interpretation of a place, it’s my read of geography and memories that are not my own but that, if I’m lucky and receptive, I can learn something from. Once there with map and hope, the place itself opens a dialogue with that interpretation, a conversation that is the thing that keeps me doing it. Though I have most often found kindnesses and acknowledgement from the people in the places I’ve visited, I’m not owed it.
"Travel is too easily consumption off of a bucket list, but that misses a fundamental respect for how a place is in its own terms."
We’re not explorers, discovering horizons anew and recording for posterity our own truths about them. Instead and ideally, we’re learners and askers, optimistic about bringing back something that changes us positively and distinctively.
The metaphors I reach for claim that I listen for the voice of a place and its own recollections. But how does one properly listen? I don’t have a finished answer to that question, but for me it has something to do with letting the exhaustion, the altitude, the shivering against the cold, letting all of that dilute and smear my consciousness so that I loose track of the rigid distinction between me and the environment. It’s finding quiet against a hyper insistent internal monologue that asserts itself, my identity and self conception and the shapes and forms of the small world I’ve built up around me in daily habits. I don’t find detachment from that background noise easy, but the fragility and vulnerability of a ride points in the right direction.
It’s in those moments, then, that listening has a chance, and, therefore, when being in a place in its own terms might happen. I’m not so conscious of a goal or a plan or point of view on what’s happening, but instead when the environment and its history passes through me I’m an element in its flux. Some of my most meaningful times spent on a bicycle are when my self evaporates into the landscape. I think about that from the perspective of neuroscience and our nervous system’s resonance with natural systems as well as more poetically.
"There’s a paradox, I suppose, in this way of being in a place in that I want to lose track of having a location at all and in that loss I want a more honest sense of being."
These attitudes are possible when riding near home, but it takes a willful committed unguardedness. Again, I don’t claim to have mastered it, and mastery is probably the wrong attitude. There are times when I can go a little past familiarity and see again the history of the nearby hills, the perfection of the sky and the bent purple end-of-day light, a neighbor’s wave as part of an unfolding of lovely life, or the layers of meaning in an urban intimacy. Possibility is motion and cycle.
Joe Cruz is a Professor of Philosophy at Williams College, and splits his time between his native New York City and southern Vermont. On Insta @joecruzpedaling.