Before we married, my husband and I were avid bicycle tourists.
Six months after we met, he presented me with the crazy idea of taking a self-guided bicycle tour with him across the States, during which time we fell in love.
The following summer, we pedaled up the iconic Highway 1 from San Diego, California to Eugene, Oregon, towing our 70 pound Black Labrador in a bike trailer.
Throughout the next several years, we saw many other beautiful landmarks all over the western United States and Canada from the seat of two bicycles. After moving back east and settling in the Finger Lakes area of New York in 2007, we bought a home and started a family.
The desire for this type of adventure lay dormant inside the both of us, as we raised our two young children and grew successful in our careers.
In spring of 2020, the COVID-19 crisis hit and wreaked havoc on our summer plans. We decided to try a one-week family bicycle tour through the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a 150 mile rail trail that runs from Cumberland, MD to Pittsburgh, PA. Our 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter could finally be introduced to one of our greatest passions.
We trained, packed, and planned, but a week before our departure, the state of Maryland was closed off for New Yorkers, derailing the first 30 miles of our trip. So, we pedaled the Pennsylvania section, a distance of about 120 miles. The following July, we returned to the GAP trail for a redemption and completed the entire 150 mile segment. While this type of vacation may seem crazy to some, my husband and I are convinced these trips are incredibly important.
There are many life lessons that we teach and learn from bicycle touring. Here are seven:
1. “Less is more.”
My husband has a rule when the children pack their panniers. “You can bring it, but you carry it.”
And believe me, a pound of weight ends up feeling like five during a climb, and even more after it gets rained on. Traveling by bicycle forces you to prioritize what’s really important, and teaches you how little you really need in order to be happy. This is true of luxuries as well. While our family enjoys an evening stay at a B&B every once in awhile, what is most memorable are the evenings that we snuggle close in sleeping bags next to a raging campfire. (Especially the one during which I held my 11-year-old son tight all night in a thunderstorm because he asked me to.)
2. “It’s about the journey, not the destination.”
The greatest thing about biking a popular rail trail, specifically the GAP, is that there are markers at every mile. This is great for littles as they can track how far they’ve traveled, and exactly how much they have left for the day. It is equally nice for the parents who are navigating, for they can be certain that they are going the right way.
However, bicycle touring is less about getting there than it is about the actual journey. Every time we reach our final destination, we feel a little sad that it’s over.
3. “The ups don’t stay ups and the downs don’t stay down—such as in life.”
Traveling in this way teaches important lessons in mental fortitude. Each and every hour is filled with highs and lows and it’s important to learn how to ride with the waves.
When you are feeling great, appreciate it. When you don’t, remember that this, too, shall pass. Know that at your highest moment, your companions may very well be at their lowest, and vice versa. Be tolerant and compassionate. The hills and the valleys are only a metaphor for life.
4. “The simple, small moments are the most memorable ones.”
Sure, it’s great to reach those big milestones like the Mason Dixon Line, the Continental Divide, or the 100-mile trail marker, but most of the time, the idea of those places far exceeds the reality. The moments that will stick with my family for many years to come will be the time we stumbled upon a black raspberry bush and ate ourselves sick, the dew filled morning when a fawn crossed the trail just a few feet in front of us, and the crisp, delicious sweetness of a strawberry lemonade from a cute bakery that we pedaled upon unexpectedly.
5. “Kindness is everywhere.”
Touring on bicycles puts you more in tune with your environment, and the people who surround you. And, humans are inherently good. Give kindness, and it will return to you tenfold. These trips reminded us of this over and over again; especially when my family was riding down a particular desolate stretch of trail on a hot, humid afternoon and we saw a sign that resembled an oasis in a desert. For, it said, “free snacks and waters for hikers and bikers!” The sign was just there, without a soul to be seen, and, alas, no one to thank! Each one of us quietly committed to paying it forward.
6. “Expect the best, but plan for the worst.”
Sure, there are things a bicycle tourist can do to prepare for success: eating healthy, packing the right items, training hard, keeping a positive frame of mind. But, there is always that element of unpredictability, such as the weather, the mechanics of your bicycle, and so, so much more that may not be on your side. As on the day that a simple string from my luggage got tangled into my chain ring and derailed my whole family of four, for 90 minutes. Prepare the best you are able, but leave room for flexibility.
7. “The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory.”
When Bob Marley said these famous words, he probably wasn’t speaking in bicycle terms. But, in any event, our preteens have already grown to learn that the things that come easy in life are never the ones that we can take the most pride in. As in the night we finally fended off two fat, persistent raccoons who returned to our primitive campsite time and time again. It’s the experiences that most challenge you, that make you authentic and unique, and go on to build your character.
On the car trip home from our most recent bike trip, I anticipated the chores of sorting through the hundreds of photos, cleaning dirt out of the chain links, and emptying stale water from the camelbacks. I thumbed through my Facebook newsfeed to see many different friends wearing smiles, some beach going, some on amusement park rides, others taking off in planes, or enjoying fancy meals in ritzy all-inclusive resorts. My heart filled with regret for a brief moment that we’ve put our own children through “so much work” as they would say during a tough day in the saddle.
I wondered. Are we depriving them of something important by not giving them a more traditional type of vacation? Not a chance. My husband of 15 years and I exchanged exhausted, yet satisfied grins as our 9-year-old woke in the back seat only long enough to ask, “Where are we biking to next summer, Mommy and Daddy?”