This article was first published in the South China Morning Post on 23 July 2016
What a comfort-loving Hong Kong wife learned on a bike ride from LA to New York
Imagine the only way you can make reasonable progress towards your final destination, 5,000km away, is to move towards it at about 60km to 80km a day on a bicycle. For someone who’s never travelled on a human-powered vehicle for more than 150km, it is an exciting but daunting prospect.
The idea of cycling across the United States was mine. A Hong Kong Chinese lawyer turned NGO professional, I had not spent a single night in a tent before my husband and I met, and even since had not been on a cycling trip lasting more than 72 hours.
My husband, Rob, is at the other end of the spectrum – a seasoned professional adventurer and inspirational speaker. He cycled more than 50,000km from Siberia to London over three years, and on another expedition walked 5,000km from Mongolia to Hong Kong. He completed these challenges either alone or with a male adventuring friend.
So when I suggested the cross-country tandem trip, Rob was pleasantly surprised.
After spending much of the past four years running a children’s charity in Hong Kong, we decided this was the sabbatical we needed. We had always been intrigued by the diversity and complexity of the US and couldn’t wait to explore it at ground level.
Venice Beach on the Los Angeles waterfront was our starting point. We spent three days breaking out of the urban sprawl, then kept on pedalling east on our tandem until New York. Not in a particular hurry, we would take five months to cover the 5,000km, with plenty of breaks along the way.
Aches and pains in the back, legs, arms – in fact, everything – are inevitable in long-distance cycling, as I soon realised, but I discovered a beautiful side to the US. The deserts – in California, Arizona and New Mexico – are stunning with their pale browns and yellows, and the sky is an ever-changing whirlpool of dancing clouds. The changing landscape continued to dazzle us, with cornfields and floods in Oklahoma, lush, rolling hills in Arkansas, and meadows and trees in Tennessee.
Although for the first few weeks I was largely preoccupied by physical discomfort, I started to feel the sense of elation and freedom that came with knowing we could propel ourselves forward, like the very fast vehicles around us, without resorting to using petrol.
During breaks, we would sometimes sit smugly outside a service station as fellow travellers got out of their giant SUVs, motor homes or trucks and marvelled at our mode of transport. Shaking their heads, the strangers would declare us “crazy”.
Our bicycle, loaded with panniers and a star-spangled flag, drew plenty of attention, smiles and shouts out on the road:
“Can we give you a lift?”
“Is she doing any pedalling at the back at all?”
“If I went on one of these with my missus, we would end up divorced!”
Far from causing a split, the trip was in fact very much a bonding experience for us. Rob felt a much greater awareness of the need to care for me – to keep me in a zone where I was not too exhausted, too hot or too cold. Together meeting interesting folks, facing fears and solving problems brought us closer. Rob was incredibly proud to see me rise to the unexpected challenges and overcome obstacles when we were on the road.
For a city girl accustomed to cleanliness, air conditioning and safety, I found many aspects of touring extremely challenging: snacking while sitting by the side of the road (I started with hand sanitising gel and eventually settled for a quick wipe on my cycling shorts), camping without having a shower (after copious sweating for hours), swimming in a flooded lake (learning later of alligators in the area) and accepting the generous offer of a complete stranger to stay at their ranch, where we were given steaks for dinner.
But what amazed me was that I could really get used to anything if I did it long enough. Before we set off, we had agreed on two to three nights in a motel a week on average. On days we had been camping or cycling in the blazing sun or for extra long distances, I would hold onto the wondrous image of checking into a cool, clean motel room, and washing off the sweat and grime in the shower. When the day’s cycling was over, there was indeed relief, but after a mere half an hour, I had got used to the comfort and started taking it for granted again.
Some of the challenges took on a scarier note. On day three, the very first night we camped on the outskirts of Los Angeles, we pushed our bicycle off a busy highway into the desert. We assembled our tent, when we saw a pair of headlights swing off the road. A pick-up truck drove slowly towards us and then stopped.
Rob gestured for me to get quickly into the tent. With shaky fingers I unzipped it, crawled in, and was on my knees praying. I was certain a murderer had spotted us and decided to follow us in his car, like you might see on TV.
This is our last night on earth, I thought. But after idling for a few minutes, the truck left. Of course it was no murderer, probably just someone who got lost and made a wrong turn down the small lane.
A more genuine danger was the traffic, with which we had a few close calls. Rob says it is healthy to have some “near misses” from time to time – it can help you appreciate life more and also wise up a bit (hopefully). I never understood what he meant until we went on the trip.
Sometimes we wonder if we should be less sanitised and resist the illusion of safety in our normal environment, as it desensitises us to the awe of being alive and the simple pleasures we often take for granted. Like when we rewarded ourselves with a big pile of pancakes for breakfast at a diner after a few hard days, or the sensation of wearing flip flops and walking on the ground (giving our backsides a rest from the saddles), or the much needed rain on our parched skin during a thunderstorm at the end of a scorching day.
I started out in Los Angeles a rookie, and finished in New York an adventurer in my own right. May these experiences and lessons we learned on this five-month journey live on and encourage us in ordinary life to be more grateful, more courageous and more alive.
5 tips to keep the wheels spinning
If you’re planning your first expedition, here are some tips from Rob and Christine Lilwall.
1. Go easy on yourself The fact that you’re going on your first adventure is already a big step, so don’t fret if you find it a bit hard, especially at the beginning!
2. Do it with someone It’s more fun and probably safer as it’s your first, and you can either learn from them or learn together
3. Do a shorter one as a practice expedition Before going cycling for months, try it for a weekend and see how you like it
4. Talk to someone who has done it beforeGet good advice, and answers to hard questions. For example, what if you decide to quit halfway through? You can also read books and blogs written by others who have been on adventures. Rob’s bookCycling Home From Siberia is a good place to start if you want to read about a first epic bike ride.
5. Find a good friend who will cheer you on from afar, via e-mail or mobile textingThis proved extremely helpful for Christine when things got tough.