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6 Month Bicycle Circuit of Northern Europe Art of Living Bicycle Travel Journal Outdoors Simplicity Trip Reports: Bicycle Travel

Winding Down the Weathered Road

Cherry Blossoms Bright
Playing with the light around a cherry tree in bloom, Nogawa River, Tokyo, Japan, 2004 (It is well past the cherry blossom season, but I’ve only this weekend had any time to sit down and work on my spring photographs)

This is the 23rd installment of the ongoing place-based essay series at Ecotone. This week’s topic is Time and Place. Please feel free to drop by and read what others have written, and if you’d like, to contribute your own essay.


The white wagtail scurried ahead and stopped, to glance back at us, bobbing his tail and wheezing his shrill chirrup, urging us to “Hurry, hurry! Come, right this way! It’s just a little further! Hurry!” When our bicycles neared just enough to loom over him, the loaded panniers brushing the grass at the edge of the asphalt, he popped up into the air and darted further up ahead, to repeat his encouragements. For more than 2500 kilometers it seemed he led the way, the same wagtail, forever ahead of us, like the second hands of a clock.

That was the warmer half of 1995, the year my wife and I got married and decided to set off for a six month honeymoon by bicycle across the northern circle of Europe. We left our jobs, packed away all our belongings, drew wads of traveler’s checks from our bank accounts, rolled out our heavily laden bicycles, and flew over the expanse of Eurasia to Holland, where the wind waited for us outside the alleyways and canals of Amsterdam.

Neither of us had ever taken off 6 months to just follow our whims and the first few weeks tailed us with the worries of Tokyo, and the Bullet Train accuracy of speed timed to within seconds. That first day pushing the pedals beyond the sign for the city limits of Amsterdam felt like being flung out the door into the cold; the hardness of the road under our tires seems to present a vast horizontal wall beyond which we could not perceive. In a kind of reverse deadline panic we raced from town to town, urging each other to make the kilometers count, tallying up the numbers on our cycle computers, and feeling unsettled when, because we were still out of shape and exhausted from the wedding preparations, the average day’s distance added up to no more than 30 or 40 kilometers. We shouted at Holland’s seething winds, holding us back, and bickered when darkness fell too soon in the campsites. The weight of unenclosed hours and days, and when we paused to accept them, weeks and months, whispered for us to hurry, not waste any time, and make up for the guilt we felt from taking so much unproductive time off.

Under a stand of dark leaved chestnut trees on the western edge of Germany we threw our bicycles down and threatened to each return to Japan, alone. It seemed the trip would be over before it had even started.

On the road, cocking its black capped head, stood the wagtail, tsk-tsking. It left us to stand silently gazing out over a field of flowering yellow rapeweed, the heads billowing like waves in the breeze and the slow whale bellies of clouds overhead dragging their shadows across the rolling hills. We munched on bread rolls with gouda cheese, and in chewing calmed down enough to look at each other again.

“It hasn’t entered our heads yet, has it?” I offered.

“What hasn’t?”

“We’ve got six months. Six whole months! What are we hurrying for?”

“I don’t know. You’re the one in a hurry!”

That almost stoked the fire again, but I nodded. “You’re right. I don’t know what got into me.”

“Ever since we arrived you’ve been racing to finish the day. I can barely keep up.”

“I guess I don’t know how to get my mind around this. How do you plan for six months?”

My wife had a way with time. She always turned toward the sun and closed her eyes. “We’ve got six months. We can take our time.” A gust of wind brought the fragrance of some distant flowers. My wife inhaled deeply, smiling, and then opened her eyes again. “Didn’t we come here to look around? Isn’t that why we chose to go by bicycle?”

I sat silent a long time, just seeing the fields and the swallows swooping through the air. A damselfly alighted on my bicycle handlebar and slowly relaxed its wings. I felt something deflate inside myself, replaced by a quiet beating.

“I think I was scared,” I said.

“Of what?” inquired my wife.

“Of frayed ends.”

She looked at me with a frown, but said nothing. She brightened and picked up her bicycle. “First we have to get rid of a lot of this weight.”

Everything changed that day. The whole journey. We slowed down to the point where moving forward invoked less headwind and trees and passersby fell behind with less sharp reduction. We stopped when something nicked the corners of our eyes or the sky swung us into stillness under its great pendulum. The kilometers rolled by day after day, week after week, more as expressions of movement in the scrolling panorama than as signposts. Much of the journey hovered above the bicycle handlebars, each of us lost in long reveries during the spells between towns, and much of that time as partners in a silent traverse of newness, leaving unanswered questions in our wake.

Our perception of time and our participation in the revolving of the globe reflected in the mornings and evenings, when we woke with the calling of the hooded crows, jackdaws, and robins, and with the first light filtering through the walls of the tent, and when we retired to books held up in the coolness of the evening air and the stirring of hedgehogs and shrews in the bushes, before turning out our lights and sleeping with the whole night wheeling through our minds. At times we happened upon a place that so merged the inner stories we bore with its character of wonder that we lingered for a week or more, tasting the place to its very fruits and vegetables and getting to know its hoary old inhabitants. The bicycles moulted into wings that flew between rest stops for our eyes and feet. We became like the wagtail, landing somewhere to root around among its rocks then flitting a few pedal strokes to the next sunny vantage point.

By the time we reached the Shetland Islands and the Orkneys our muscles took us without protest to where we pointed our front wheels, the rhythm one with our bicycles. Our breathing seemed to exhale from the soil, and we headed on and beyond in all weathers, thoroughly entranced by the light of the sky. We walked for hours, sometimes alone, and returned to the tent with sprigs of flowers or seashells that we handed to each other as if they replaced the money that we used now only for food and occasional transportation. At the campsites other long term travelers joined us over hissing camp stoves to converse and relate tales until deep in the night. Our time and their times brushed together like passing veils, always with the light glimmering through.

We had ceased to exist wholly in the modern world.

So when it came time to return to Japan and back to jobs and four walls and alarm clocks, we floundered along the highways and took every opportunity to escape them. The last days of the journey wound down in the copper light of late autumn, among the wet country hills of Northumberland, England, and the gray tangle of backroads in Belgian town outskirts. Neither of us could find words to protect the dream we had just woken from. Six months had passed and it all seemed like a single instant, like shaking loose summer leaves from a tree.

Japan crashed into our ears, cut into our eyes. We slept for two months with the apartment windows thrown wide open, welcoming the bite of winter air, feeling our breath stoppered in our chests, our muscles aching for resistance. And gradually, insidiously, the clocks ticked louder and the television screen held our gazes longer, and that lone figure tramping along the sandy lanes retreating further and further down the road.

It’s been nine years. My beard has sprouted white hair. The bicycles stand furled in the kitchen by the window. Days pass when the sun creeps past the curtain. Sometimes I wake at dawn, after a evening laboring at some other person’s dream and falling into dreamless sleep, and hear the wagtail calling. He bobs his tail, like a finger beckoning. “Hurry! Hurry! No time to lose. It’s out here where the heart beats like thunder.” Like a storm moving across an endless field, and the road leading straight into the dark, gathering clouds.

Categories
Bicycle Travel Japan: Living Journal

Stopping for Milk

Mikuni Pass Motorcycle
Motocyclist topping the high point of Mikuni Pass, Chichibu, Japan, 1994

Motorcycles don’t usually impress me all that much, especially when they roar through the backroads where I’m trying to get away from the noise of the city on my bicycle, but this one moment has stuck with me.

It came after a grueling 12 hour grind up the “wrong” side of Mikuni Pass… the side which even four-wheel drive landrovers had a hard time negotiating because of all the ruts, protruding rocks, and gullies. I had figured that the climb would take only about 6 hours, but halfway through, with half of the time spent shoving the bicycle up the steep gradient, I knew that I wouldn’t make it to the top before evening fell.

All through the day all terrain vehicles and motocross motorcyles came bouncing by, occasionally spraying gravel or spitting pebbles like bullets that had to be dodged. I wasn’t too thrilled then, when, reaching the top of the pass and just wanting to stop and take my breath amidst the stillness of the lowering evening, yet another motorcycle puttered up behind me. But this driver took his time. He stopped, switched off his engine, and stood beside me as the sun set. Neither of us said anything. When it began to grow dark, he mounted his motorcycle without a word and slowly zoomed off down the other side of the mountain.

I decided to set up camp in this lonely location, along a side road overgrown with susuki grass and kudzu. After that motorcycle the place fell into a different kind of solitude. The trees seemed to loom larger and noises amidst the underbrush at the side of the road grew more distinct. I heard rustlings and chirrups and pattering of feet. Insects seemed to multiply into millions of crickets and katydids and buzzing, bumbling cockchafers and whirring sphinx moths. A shadowy ghost of what I figured must be an owl stitched its way amidst the shadows of the trees above. I set up my tent in the middle of all this and made dinner.

I hadn’t noticed earlier, but from back on the main road an eerie, white light glowed over the thicket there. I picked up my flashlight and sauntered over to check it out. Upon rounding onto the main road I was surprised to discover a lone vending machine, humming in the darkness, its flourescent light illuminating the new asphalt pavement that started on the other side of the pass.

I walked up to the vending machine and peered at its contents. Would you believe it? Milk! Four different kinds of milk! Plain, strawberry, chocolate, and banana. I pondered this a moment, weighing my policy about not relying too much on convenience when out in the mountains. But, this was too much. A vending machine? Here? Milk! Who would ever have thought…?

I dug in my pocket for some change and bought a chocolate milk. The carton tumbled into the tray and I picked it out. Stabbing the hole at the top of the container with the provided straw, I shuffled back to the campsite, humming the tune to the Christmas carol, “The Boar’s Head”.

No one but the insects heard the satisfactory slurp as the straw sucked out the last drops of chocolate milk.