Canada: It was 11am at the Vancouver Amtrak station. I waited on the sun-drenched platform as a uniformed man unloaded the checked items. Mine was easy to find. It was a green Raleigh mountain bike. I moved quickly, well-aware that my belongings were large and in others’ ways. I pulled my bike to the side and loaded my possessions in two red bags hinged on the back rack of my bike. My hands shook as I worked.
I waited for my turn and then I wheeled the bike up to the woman behind a desk. She had her serious face on.
“What’s the reason for your trip?”
“How long will you be here for?”
“Uhh six days?”
“Where are you staying tonight?”
“At a campground north of Vancouver.”
“How are you getting there?”
“On my bike.”
She looked at my bike and back to me. She asked a few more questions about where I was coming from and where my home was.
“So you’re staying at a campground tonight?”
“I don’t remember the name of it, but, uh, I can look it up.”
“How are you getting there?”
The woman was looking a little exasperated now. “Ok, could you please look up the name,” she asked.
I dug through my panniers for my book. In the meantime families, couples, and other people without bikes were entering Canada through the customs station next to me. When I told her the name of the campsite she seemed only slightly appeased.
“And how are you getting there?”
“I’m riding my bike,” I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes.
“Did you know you have to take a ferry?”
“Yes,” I lied.
I thought she wouldn’t let me through. Or worse, that she would let me through, but that I would never make it to Robert’s Creek Campground by bike. That it was a fruitless journey and I was a bonafide crazy person.
Months earlier, when I decided to ride my bike from Vancouver Canada to Los Angeles by myself, I didn’t think too much about the gender implications of the trip. It was, after all, 2014, and I, a child of the American nineties: I did better than my brothers did in school and by the time I got to college, women were already starting to out-graduate men. I was taught that I could do anything a boy could do, maybe I could even do it better. Sure, as a woman traveling alone, I faced some risks that a man didn’t. But they didn’t worry me. I was much more likely to die from being hit by a car than I was to be murdered by a serial rapist. And death by car does not discriminate.
But I was already learning on day one: I was a woman traveling alone and that meant that the world would treat me differently.
In March 2014 Salon published a piece by Vanessa Veselka titled Where are the women Kerouacs? And, well, the title pretty much explains it—from Jack Kerouac to Huckleberry Finn to Odysseus—the road is the domain of men and that’s not by accident. Veselka writes, “Power and patriarchy can’t afford women the possibility of quest, because within these structures women are valued as agents of social preservation and not agents of social change.” We women can’t hit the road because we take care of the kids and the parents. We are the keepers of emotions and stabilizers of families. So when we strike out on our own, it confuses people. Or worse, it is viewed as a threat.
As if Veselka’s writings were a literal summons to women writers, female road narratives became easier to find in the months after I read her piece. I began to see road stories everywhere I looked. I read personal travel essays by Meredith Hoffman and Sarah Hepola about their time hitchhiking and sleeping in cars. I read Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about her solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995. I read Tracks, by Robyn Davidson about her trek across the Australian desert in 1977. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert—that’s a female road narrative, too (perhaps not the kind that Veselka envisioned for us, but it still counts.) Women are fighting their way to the road. But what a woman on the road looks like and what she means—that we still don’t know for sure.
Washington: After scarfing down a samosa and some energy bars for dinner I got back on my bike. I had about ten more miles to go and the sun was getting dangerously close to the horizon. I biked up a quiet road lined with small homes. As I pedaled, the sun started to disappear and the houses got sparse. The campsite should be coming up soon, I thought. I pulled out my map—just a little farther. I kept going but there was no campsite. Not even a sign. I took deep breaths, willing my heart to not beat so fast. I stopped again, this time to get out my bike lights… and onward. Headlights of oncoming cars blinded me. All I could do was grip my handlebars and concentrate on the few feet of pavement in front of me until the car passed and I could see the road again.
And finally, when I thought I was going to have to sleep under a lonely tree or go knocking on doors, I found it. I pulled up to the check-in window where my bike was small and awkward in a paved lane big enough for an RV. The park ranger, an older man, looked at me with a face of authority. It was the kind of face that made me think he was going to reprimand me for something. Was I doing anything wrong? Probably not, but I had no problem coming up with plenty of things he could yell at me about—you’re too late, the campground is closed, how reckless to ride at this time of night, your bike light practically blinded me!
“Are you here alone?” he asked. Yes, I said, relieved that he wasn’t actually upset about anything, yet.
“Do you feel safe?” Yes, I explained. I had had a great trip so far. Without a hitch. But there was something about his tone that made me keep my guard up. He didn’t sound curious. He sounded scared.
“If I had a daughter,” he continued, “I don’t think I’d let her do something like this.”
I was everyone’s daughter on my trip…or sister or girlfriend…. I got approving nods from strangers, couches to sleep on, gifts of orange juice that my male counterparts didn’t get. In Wild Strayed gets a nickname: Queen of the PCT. She shakes off the joke, but it resonates. I received the same kind of treatment on the road. Strangers doted on me and offered me all kinds of things for free (because I was a woman and thus, more vulnerable).
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take the orange juice. I will always take the orange juice. But this special treatment is only one side of the coin. The other side is the night on the beach in California by the bonfire. A motley crew had gathered around the flames. There were people I had met on the road and some of their friends from town and a few strangers who were drawn to the fire. I was twisting my feet back and forth, letting the sand get between my toes while I talked to a new acquaintance. He asked me what I was doing over here and when I told him about my trip, he said, “If I had a daughter… I’d be like no way you fucking whore.”
It can go from endearing to alarming in seconds—the way people will imply some kind of relational responsibility for a woman on the road. Strayed recalls it time and time again on the Pacific Crest Trail. When she arrives in a small resort town on the trail, she meets a vacationing family. “You’re not alone are you?” the mother asks. Strayed affirms. The mother continues, “What on earth does your mother have to say about that?” Farther down the trail Strayed runs into two creepy hunters. One says to her, “I wouldn’t let you come out here alone if you were my girlfriend.”
Most of the time these statements are made out of genuine concern. But even those with the best intentions have a dark twist: they imply that my choosing to do this—this bike trip down the west coast all on my own—was contingent on the permission of other people. Of course, ask any one person and they will affirm that yes, I had every right to be out there on my own. But all of these comments about daughters and girlfriends seemed to reveal a lingering collective, perhaps subconscious, belief that women require the protection of those around them, that we are possessions.
Oregon: on a mid-July morning I crawled out of my tent, bleary-eyed, and shivering. The Pacific Ocean makes for chilly mornings and nights, even in the middle of summer. Around me tents made the swishing sound of nylon against nylon as they collapsed to the ground. First I found my dew covered shoes and fumbled my way to the bathroom. When I came back I made a spot at the picnic table to eat. Food. Always food. That morning’s breakfast (almost every breakfast) was nuts and peanut butter. Maybe a grapefruit or yogurt if I had stopped at a store the day before. While I gorged myself a twenty-something guy with a red beard and broad shoulders sat down across from me. Behind him, his bike was loaded up with gear. He would be out of here in fifteen minutes. He asked me a question, “Why exactly does a girl decide to bike across the country by herself?”
I was a little flustered. Uh, I don’t know, why are you riding your bike across the country by yourself? I wanted to ask him. But instead I said, “For fun I guess.” I could have given him the long answer. Something like: I had wanted to bike the Pacific Coast for years—ever since I met an guy in passing who had biked it and told me about his trip. Then I happened to be working at an unsatisfying job and my lease was ending and…I ended up on the road. Were you expecting a different kind of answer?
You were, weren’t you? Maybe a sad story about a dead parent or an ex-boyfriend. It’s all part of the new female road narrative. In the wildly popular memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert tells the story of a women suffering through a divorce, who finds peace and self-love on the road. Similarly, in Wild, Strayed uses the road to confront her mother’s death and her heartbreaking divorce. The road is what puts these women back together. Their justification for being on the road is that they are broken. (Side note about male road narratives—men on the road are almost never broken. Instead they are rebellious and adventurous. Think Jack Kerouac and Chris McCandless.)
While society is learning to swallow the idea of a female road narrative, it can only take it in a particular narrative structure: broken woman goes into the wilderness—or hits the road—to find herself. Finds herself. Returns as a useful part of society. Take the broken woman out of the equation and everyone gets thoroughly confused.
In Tracks Robyn Davidson crosses the desert alone except for her dog and camel posse. Her motive for this dangerous expedition is not quite clear. As a reader you think you’ve found it and then it slips right through your fingers like sand. Trying to explain how she ended up in the desert, Davidson writes, “A couple of years before [my trek through the desert] someone had asked me a question: ‘What is the substance of the world in which you live?’ As it happens I had not slept or eaten for three or four days and it struck me at the time as a very profound question. It took me an hour to answer it, and when I did, my answer seemed to come almost directly from the subconscious: ‘Desert, purity, fire, air, hot wind, space, sun, desert desert desert.’ It had surprised.” Throughout the book Davidson describes her reasons for leaving a comfortable life on Australia’s East Coast: sometimes it’s boredom, other times it’s rebellion. And then in the middle of the desert, miles away from another living soul, Davidson backtracks: she doesn’t know why she’s here. Why is she here?
In the book Davidson’s motive is fluid. It’s tangible, then intangible. It makes sense and then it doesn’t. The movie adaption of the book, however, might as well be a whole different story. The film hints at a troubled childhood, including a flashback to the suicide of Davidson’s mother, pitching the story towards a broken woman road narrative. This was a far cry from the book, especially since Davidson’s memoir mentions her mother’s death only briefly, and nothing at all about her suicide. Her mother’s fate is far from the story’s center. I get it: movies need to be marketable. And if the woman isn’t broken, most of the world can’t relate.
As I biked down the coast, I thought about the young man at the picnic table and his question. My story didn’t match what people wanted to believe about me. Did I have to be broken to be here? If so I would hardly qualify. I came from a whole and healthy middle-class family. My relationship catastrophes were only a middle school level of tragic.
The bearded young man at the campsite was not the first nor last to ask me why I was out there on the road. A woman at a pizza shop asked, “Are you doing this to raise money?” No, I answered. Another young man, “Are you doing this to get fit?” No, I said, annoyed. I was strong before this.
California: It was under some tall trees with flakey red bark that I met Sam. He had an angular face and curly hair that fell to his chin. He was sitting at a picnic table with a group of cyclists and I joined in. I proposed a plan to the group: to sneak in to some private hot springs that would be on our route tomorrow. Sam was my only taker. The next day was the first of five days biking together. It was also my first day of the entire trip that I did not bike alone.
There was newfound joy in having a riding partner. I worried less. When I left my bike and all of my belongings outside to go to the bathroom, there was someone to watch over it. If I got lost there was someone lost with me.
It wasn’t until the third of fourth day that I started to notice the change. No one told me that I was brave anymore. No one said I was bold. No one called me a whore, either, which was nice. In fact, no one really talked to me at all. People talked to Sam. They asked Sam where he was from and where he was going and then they smiled at me and made on their way. Now that I was traveling with a man everyone stopped making a fuss about me. It proved what I was only just beginning to grasp from my time on the road alone—a claimed woman was a safe woman.
In late August I loaded up my bike with gear one more time and rode from the Kansas City Amtrak station to my childhood home in the suburbs. Our house was empty when I got there. My parents were at work and my brothers lived in different cities then. I wandered around the house in a kind of culture shocked state. I was not fixed. In fact, I was more confused than before my trip. I was nostalgic for my yellow tent and I cried when I realized that the ocean was suddenly unreachable.
In the next few months I eased myself back into a life that most of us consider normal—one where I worked most days and slept in the same bed every night. It was in that time that I read both Tracks and Wild. Wild was a beautiful book, about grief and recovery and human capacity. But the book that really spoke to me was Tracks. It was not about being broken and getting fixed. It was about the road. Pure and simple. The strangeness and the beauty of it. The way it instills doubt and fear in your mind and yet always calls you back. Davidson writes, “Clouds rolled in and clouds rolled out and always the road, always the road, always the road, always the road.”
Anne Foster works at a bike shop in Brooklyn. Her work has been published in The New York Times and The Kansas City Star.