Planning An Unplanned Life

August 10th to Aug 19th – Lake Erie to The Erie Canal

I crossed the border from Ohio into Pennsylvania and just a short ride after that into New York, I was in “know your farmer” territory. I found fruit stands everywhere, with ripe cantaloupe for a dollar and peaches still warm from where they had hung on the tree in the sun. Organic heirloom tomatoes cost little for a fist-sized fruit exploding with essential nutrients. I no longer saw vegetables and fruit as low calorie foods that wouldn’t sustain me, but rather great big containers of potassium, chloride, magnesium, and calcium.

The weather along Lake Erie was more mild than the Midwest, and as my body stopped leaking moisture like a dripping faucet (taking my vital electrolytes with it) I began to add more water to my diet. My energy was noticeably better every day, connecting me to want and desire, allowing me time to explore. I stopped at a beach, even though it added an extra quarter mile to my already long day. There were several families picnicking on the shore, and no outbuildings at all, not even a pit toilet. I found a corner of the park that was just barely out of sight from people, changed into my swimsuit and peed in the grass. I walked to the waters edge, letting the difference of my thoughts roll around like a new wine on the pallet. A month before I never would have dreamed of stripping naked in a public park, even if the park was empty.

I had wanted to learn how to push back at the world, take and own my space here. I was now on the other side of that want, deep within the territory of owning my self. After I swam, I made a short video, talking about the quest. I wondered after if I would be daring enough to post it.

I cycled to the Northeast corner of Ohio, into Pennsylvania, and a few hours later into New York. Grapevines grew everywhere in tidy rows separating different wineries from each other. As evening came on I turned into my next campground, and my rear wheel slid across the pavement in a sickening lazy sort of way. I braked hard, trying to be slow enough to keep upright against the sudden sideways movement. I dismounted, and chuckled at the deflated, flaccid wheel. It was my first flat in almost 3,000 miles and I was only a few hundred yards from camp.

The next day I got a late start. I putzed with Old Blue, replacing the popped tube and cleaning and greasing him. I loved how it felt to be in charge of myself, to be capable of caring for my own needs. It was for exactly this reason that I had chosen months before not to cancel my quest when I realized I was falling in love with my childhood friend. I didn’t want to bring only fear and dependence into our partnership as I tried to get my life back in order. I needed to meet him on more firm ground than the quicksand I’d dove head-first into over the last year. I knew the tour would bring back my confidence, as it had done after Vasu died. It is in daring and taking risk that I find something akin to balance. Like a tightrope walker with her long pole, by trying something different I am more able to feel the nuances of my wobbling life.

I was looking at a long hard day into Buffalo, and temperatures were being predicted in the 90’s. But I was confident as I stopped at the nearest store and filled my bags with nutrients. That confidence began to drop as the miles crept by and sweat once again poured off my skin in the afternoon sun. Another tourist cycled up and chatted with me awhile. He was doing the Northern Tier with a buddy, and his wife that day was carrying their gear in the car. I envied his weightlessness, and pretended it didn’t hurt to keep up with him. I don’t think he even suspected how slow I normally ride with easily 60 pounds of gear and juices. I tried not to gasp my questions as his story of bravery and inspiration poured out of him. He was classic, almost cliche, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-and-inspire-the-world-to-live kind of guy. His smile was infectious, his hope almost overwhelming. He told me about his children’s book he had written to encourage children to move. He was everything so many people had wanted me to be on this trip.

The world desires to be inspired to reach for more, to find the redemption at the end of the rainbow. But I did not want to inspire people to rainbows. I wanted to tell a story that would reflect how important all people are, whether their tale is comedy, tragedy, or drama. Whether they feel life were inspiring or not. I am no cheerleader. I am no leader. If I inspire it is because somehow my story gives permission for my reader to find inside themselves their own beauty exactly as they are.

This cyclist soon moved on, excited to inspire the next person he met, leaving me behind at an ice cream shop. I found a bench to sit on in the shade, and then stretched myself fully out on it as the effort it had taken to keep up with him finally took its toll. The heavy sleepiness was creeping back into my arms and eyelids. I drank some coconut water and popped a salt tablet. I still had miles to go, and the temperatures were not expected to drop until near sunset. I pushed only a little harder, not wanting to burn myself out far from the home waiting for me. It was going to be my first Warm Showers host in quite some time. The husband had responded to my email the night before, telling me that his wife normally would have but she happened to be in China on a cycling tour herself.

Ten miles from Buffalo I ran over a nail and instantly popped my rear tube. I expertly removed my bags, flipped Old Blue over, and even took some time to make another video before changing the tube. As I was finishing up, another cyclist, this one a local, stopped by to make sure I was okay. It was a particularly nasty stretch of road with little shoulder, and lots of traffic with little regard for ‘obstacles’ on two wheels, so he waited until I was packed up again before heading out. I reached the outer limits of Buffalo, pulled into a left turn lane, and saw my light turn green. I whipped into the intersection, the car in the oncoming lane swerved hard to miss me, and flicked me the bird as it careened away. I rested with one foot on the curb for a minute, shaking my head, reminding myself that part of being in charge and responsible also meant identifying when I’ve pushed myself into road delirium. This land of lights and traffic was so different from the miles of highway and back roads I’d been traveling for so many months.

My Warm Showers host met me a few miles from his house and guided me in just before sunset. After a shower, he and his son took me out to dinner, and I was delighted to hear his stories of other tourists that had visited them. The way he spoke about cyclists and bikes and routes, it was easy for me to feel comfortable taking advantage of his hospitality and friendship. Or perhaps, after months on the road relying on others and finding myself reliable, I was forming a truce with my social anxieties.

The next day, My Love flew into town. It had been a long road since I’d last seen him in Ohio. We drove around Buffalo, searching for all the abandoned places a city this old has to offer. All the hole-in-the-walls and dive bars. We visited a cemetery that took us nearly an entire evening to explore it was so large, and found a brick and copper insane asylum that had been shut down years before. Someone was resurrecting it into a hotel, which we promptly promised each other we would return to someday. We ate Buffalo Wings and drank too much, and made love for hours.

The weekend ended too soon, and My Love packed early for a Sunday evening flight. I wondered why no one in my 42 years on this earth had ever said “Elea, you should go visit Buffalo.” Perhaps, in my earlier years I would not have appreciated the age of that place, the history behind all of its dark, rusted and degrading industries. But within the dark crannies there was creation, a muse of sorts; and more than light ever had I was inspired by dark and shadow.

I spent that night back at my Warm Showers host’s house. I had planned to travel the Adventure Cycling Route the next day, which would take me into Canada for Niagra Falls. But by morning I could barely move. I woke at 8:00, 9:00, and again at 10:00. I drank some coconut water and milk but could not eat food. My host returned early from work, worried that I had not called him yet to say I was leaving. We talked, and he showed me a shorter route, that would take me directly in one easy day to the beginning of The Erie Canal. Then he suggested that, instead of following the maps up into the Adirondaks, that I should just continue on The Canal until Albany. “It’s a lovely ride. A few hundred miles of easy riding and beautiful towns.” I didn’t know anything about The Canal, and promised to look into it when I got a chance.

I emailed ahead to the next Warm Showers host, about 35 miles away, and got a response immediately. I would have a warm home and bed waiting for me when I arrived that evening.

The road was easy all the way to the canal. I didn’t know what to expect after. The only thing I knew about the Erie Canal was a song I used to sing as a girl, and I could only remember the chorus of it. For some reason, when I hummed the tune, I recalled barges and mules and tight- knit families.

The Adventure Cycling Maps followed the canal for the first few days. I turned onto the path, paved at first but soon turned to a fine gravel that crunched under my tires and added to the resistance against my force. But the path was completely flat as it disappeared around the bend in the canal ahead, and then the next, and the next.

Near towns, I passed a few joggers or walkers, and now and then a cyclist. But the miles in-between I was alone, with not even traffic to disturb my thoughts. My Warm Showers host met me in Lockport and gave me a history and tour of the locks. She described the journey of barges, and how the old locks worked long before the new ones had been built. She, too told me I should leave the Adventure Cycling route and follow The Canal instead, and by the next morning I had changed course, setting my tires towards the road of least resistance. I had hundreds of miles of bike path ahead with Warm Showers hosts every 30-40 miles. My body responded to the sudden ease of each day by releasing me into memory and daydream. I slipped on my earbuds, started up some tunes and danced carelessly along the bank of the Erie Canal.

It was a cyclist’s dream, with the only obstacle in my way being my own mind. I ate well, I cycled every mile strong, I was greeted warmly into the homes of strangers each night, and as I slept, my newly relaxed mind began to metabolize the anger it had stored for years in a lock box without a key. I was coming up on Vasu’s 7th Deathday, one year dead longer than he had been alive.

Every year his Deathday affected me the same, by stealing my ability to feel today. I would go numb, fuzzy, wobbly a few days to a week before, and the day before, on the 18th of August, I would go wobbly; like a severe acute case of ADHD and mood swings. And then on the 19th I would be freed from the strain like a kite relieved from its tether. But not this time. On the 18th I woke in my tent, I woke to living memory of Vasu’s death. I hadn’t had the vivid experience of his death since near the end of my tour down the Pacific Coast after he died. His last moments played themselves out in detail as I surfaced into consciousness. I let them take form, pausing to notice detail I had not been able to see before. I had nothing to fear about Vasu’s death. I’d made that truce with myself a long time ago. In giving him permission to be dead, I freed myself to experience the rest of my life. But as the last of his breaths faded, I realized I was not free, not unfettered to float with any breeze. What I felt was a building anger.

I spent the rest of the day cycling through arguments. All the unfairness, all the burdens I did not deserve, I raged against. Events though I had taken the high road long before it suddenly became imperative that I let each person who harmed me know just exactly how much it hurt. I worked my way through coworkers and friends, into family. They had all failed me in some way, failed to be what I needed even though I hadn’t known what I needed. I felt the unfairness of my past as if it were still happening today.

I stopped in the middle of the path where a willow wept over a perfect reflection of the sky and clouds. I was angry. There was no AT Anymore. All those old arguments were just the excuse for anger to travel through, like my cycling was just an excuse to find the outer connectedness of human kindness. I was just… angry. It was the clearest feeling I’d had since I cycled into the Kansas wind three months before. Except for love.

Through suffering, through grief, through belief that I had no value, love had always remained.

I took out my phone, set my earbuds in place, turned on Fiona Apple, and let rage follow all the pathways of memory it desired to find. It traveled through my thoughts like spring snowmelt, cleansing the debris and cracking open new ravines, and that night I slept long and deep.

The next day was Vasu’s Deathday. As I followed gentle bends through quaint towns I gave myself entirely to the canal. I would follow it, without map, without direction, without worry. I no longer owned the road, the road owned me, and it would either provide for me or leave me wanting. I no longer wanted to plan beyond a vague direction. I pointed my desire towards Albany, 100’s of miles ahead. I had survived the long miles of the Midwest, discovered my Pit Crew along every stretch of beautiful earth; and I felt suddenly capable of living my life on any road I needed to choose. I could take my place in this world, and explore wherever the road led me.

I wanted to plan for an unplanned life.