Family is Complicated

June 17th-26th Eureka KS – Ash Grove MO

In Eastern Kansas the sun was having too much fun with the sky. It danced through water molecules in the air, a congo line of heat continuously adding to itself during the day and refusing to leave the party all night, leaving me to wake the next morning puffy and dehydrated like hangover. I couldn’t decide whether to shower in the evening to remove the day’s sweat and road grime, or to shower in the morning to remove the night’s sweat and humidity dew. I wanted to do both – and shower throughout the day too just to cool my body a few degrees – but I had to push forward early in the morning and get within ten miles of camp before 11:00 am when the heat turned from uncomfortable to dangerous. I looked for places with air conditioning to hunker down during the long afternoon wait, but most days I found only shade in a park or under a tree. The heat never left, but after 5:00pm the sun would be low enough that I could cycle the last miles to camp before dark. I set camp in the city parks, and then settled into the long wait for everyone to leave before falling asleep, usually after midnight.

I was feeling better since adding huge quantities of salt to my diet, but I still had little brain function for writing, so I would lie in my tent until I felt it was safe enough to go unconscious, or until unconsciousness found me anyway. Camping in public spaces was wearing on me almost as much as the heat. I woke often and packed up early. Throughout the day I searched for places to rest my head, but was never quite comfortable enough to actually sleep. Once, about two miles from the next city park I planned to camp in, I reached saturation point. I couldn’t do one more sleepless night. So instead I snuck into a field filled with rows of newly sprouted soy beans. That night I slept without my rainfly, beneath a dark sky, gazing at the stars and mooonbathing in silvery comfort.

I cycled the Trans American Bicycle Route, and days and weeks homogenized until the only sense of passing time I had was the slow shifting of culture, which showed itself in how the roads were built, cared for, and driven. Wide empty space narrowed into confined corridors of concrete. Cars that used to swerve wide at full speed became patient drivers that would pace me many feet behind until the road was clear to pass. In each town I was welcomed by the locals. They were kind, telling me where to go to get supplies I might need, and each person smiled when they explained how safe their city parks were. But none of them understood just what happens in a city park at night and the kinds of people who come out of the woodwork when everyone else has gone to bed. Nor would any local allow themselves the ease of going unconscious, alone, in public like that.

I was a woman traveling alone in a culture that still believes it is somehow my fault if someone attacks me. And in a way, they are not incorrect. It is ultimately up to every individual to protect themselves. I knew the risks involved when I planned this tour. I have known the risks since before I ever toured by bicycle and at 18-years-old would drive long distances to car camp alone. There are many kinds of dangers we all face, no matter our gender, but I believe there is more danger for all of us when we let fear in and refuse to take risks. Hiding will not make the world safer, but pushing back might make it safer for the next generation of women. There are many things I fear in this world, but I refuse to be afraid of being a woman anymore. I am not of the weaker sex, though my strength may be different from a man’s. My strength is not in confrontation or bluff, my strength is much more subtle than that. On this road through Kansas I began to feel the power to take charge of my own life.
I pushed back against the thoughts that led me to fear until one night I broke through the barrier. I had camped on the lawn of the courthouse in the middle of town, right next to the crossroads of two small highways. I waited for hours for the rumble trucks to stop cruising by, and for the youth of the town to leave the public space. It was near midnight when the same rumble truck roared through the parking lot nearby for the fourth time that evening. My primal scream – the one that escaped my lips when my world pushed me too far, like when I found the body of my first pet, or when I gave birth to my son, or when I needed grief to give me just a little bit of space in my body to feel something other than pain – stretched silently from the part of my brain that needed sleep to the part of my brain that feared to. “Enough!” I thought. “I am allowed to exist in this world too. I am allowed to relax and take the sleep I need, rather than wait for others to offer me silence. This is my world too!”

As soon as I thought the words, my body calmed. I closed my eyes, and slept peacefully until sun up.

My road was easier for a while after that. I found some equilibrium with the heat. I still could barely write a coherent sentence, and instead of daydreaming in words I followed pathways of memory. I lost hours to memorizing my man’s face. His eyes that twinkled, his arms that somehow reached into my heart when they wrapped around me. I had the entire Ozark range to cycle before our next meeting up.

I crossed into Missouri, and stopped at a town that, instead of offering a grassy spot in the park they offered an entire house, with air conditioning, and cots, and a kitchen. The woman who brought me the key to the house was warm and chatty. My mind split into sections, one that yearned for my man, one that dog paddled to stay awake in the turbulent water of road fatigue, and one that clung to this woman’s stories of her dog-children. I needed her instant familiarity to sooth the homesickness I felt. It was dark by the time she left. I snuggled into my sleeping bag on a cot, grateful for the walls that allowed my body to fully relax.

In the morning I took my time over coffee instead of packing up for a morning ride. I walked to the library and wrote a few pages in my journal. I gazed into the middle distance until noon. I had already decided I would stay another night. I needed the walls of the house to be my surrogate home again. I didn’t know why I felt so exposed. When I cycled down the coast in 2009, the trees were my walls and the sky my roof. Perhaps the fact that I abandoned everything I had called home after Vasu died made it easier to find home in the wilderness. Perhaps the fact that my only home now was with a man who traveled the country opposite me – crisscrossing my slow journey east, meeting up with me barely once a month – made it impossible for me to imagine any place as my home. Or perhaps, the fact that the road was just too hard meant that I would never find comfort except when I stopped.

I was heading back to the house, intent on going for a swim in the pool next door, when I checked my emails. There was one from my papa, and I opened it expecting a link to some world-is-coming-to-an-end-and-this-is-why article. Instead it contained a brief note. ‘In the hospital in Flagstaff AZ. Collapsed in the restaurant last night and transported to ER. Staying here today under observation.”

I stopped in the sidewalk and gazed at my phone for a long time before I responded.
His reply described his long drive to Arizona without air conditioning in a 125 degree heat wave, and how he was so hot he had pushed and pushed and pushed to get to his destination, and only after realized he didn’t drink any water.

I was angry. Angry that he had waited until the next day to tell me. Angry that, after weeks of nagging me to stay hydrated he paid too little attention to his own fluid needs. Angry that, because I had no family to care for, I was the person in my little family most capable of coming to his aid. But mostly I was angry that I cared for this man who was the only person in my life who regularly triggered my grief and my pain and that I loved too much to fire from my life. I knew it would not be a comfortable drive, three days in a car with him not feeling well and me feeling wobbly with my entire life. But I wanted to be there. He was family. My family. And that was more important now.

I emailed my siblings and we all agreed that I should be the one to offer to go to our papa. He refused my offer at first. Of course he refused. He and I were peas in a pod. Neither of us knew how to ask for help. I played every card trick that cancer and death had taught me for how to worm my way under his defenses. He wanted a quick release from the hospital so that he could continue his plans for his geo-tour and then another long drive back to Seattle. I tried reason. I tried speaking to his sense of responsibility, I tried to avoid threats. But eventually I just asked. “Please, papa, let me help you. I want to.” I don’t know if any of them worked. I suspect what actually worked was his own humility. His collapse had brought his expectations of his life and independence down a notch.

My brother offered to pay for my flight to AZ, all I had to do was figure out how to get to the nearest airport and find a place to store my bicycle for a while. I walked to the county office and found the dog lady there. For some reason I didn’t fear asking for help, and she didn’t hesitate to provide it. She gave me a place to store Old Blue and all my gear and then drove me to the airport 1/2 an hour away.

My flight didn’t leave until just before sunrise the next morning, so I found two soft chairs in the airport, pushed them together, and curled up into a ball, grateful that my world was so beautiful that when I had need all I had to do was ask.

When I arrived in Flagstaff, my papa and I got in his car and started our long drive back to Seattle. We had some great conversations, and only once blew up at each other. On the route was Boise, where my man happened to be for the week. The timing was perfect. I could see him for a night there and then spend the weekend with him in Seattle after dropping my papa off at home. We arrived in Boise at 3am and I slipped quietly under the covers into the arms of my guy. The comfort of his embrace erased the fear of my future and the strain of long miles yet to cycle. In his arms life was no longer a series of difficult processes, but instead became a playground, with all the time in the world to explore.