My husband and I were at a small junction near the north coast of Northern Ireland and had two choices. We could either take the larger, busier road labeled “Coastal Route” or we could turn off onto a small road going up a steep hill. My navigation device showed me that the smaller road would allow us to cycle closer to the sea’s coast. That’s what settled it for us. We took the smaller road.
Immediately we were lurched into a long series of steep, hilly cycling battles. Cycling downhill was almost more challenging than cycling uphill. The downhill gradients were so steep that it felt like the bike might do a somersault and tumble down the rest of the hill. One uphill climb was so steep and so long that I had to stop to catch my breath. Once I was breathing normally again, I discovered it was impossible for me to continue cycling up the hill. When I tried to put both feet on the pedals, I lost balance. I struggled to pull the bike upwards until I found a gradient that would allow me to get back on.
I had cycled on very steep hills before. These reminded me of that time in France, a few months earlier, when my navigation system and me had a little misunderstanding that resulted in a huge detour up a big, steep mountain.
I knew I could do this. I knew I even enjoyed it. There is a very primal sort of satisfaction that I find in putting every single ounce of energy I have into the movement of my legs. It’s an enjoyable pain. That sounds almost masochistic. It’s not.
We cycled up and down, both of us letting out a very loud “Ahhhhhhhhhh!” when we reached the steepest part of a hill, perhaps thus allowing our own voices to push our legs up that last bit. I have no idea how much time passed at first. It could have been five minutes. It could also have been 30 minutes. And then we saw the coast.
I don’t care how many times I have seen coasts. It doesn’t matter how long it has taken me to reach them: weeks, days, or hours. Every single time I reach a coast by the power of my own two legs I am spellbound. It is as if I am seeing it for the very first time. It is an almost childlike sensation of awe.
The coast of Northern Ireland is particularly breathtaking. My husband and I had already spent the past two days tagging along its side for most of our rides. But this time, after pedaling up and down some of the steepest hills I had ever tackled as a cyclist, there was something very Godly and spiritual in what I saw before me. I was filled with an emotion I can only describe as paradise. It was love, peace, Godliness, satisfaction, joy, reverence, and wonderment all rolled up into a nuclear bomb of emotions, waiting for its moment of explosion to be transformed into eternal bliss.
There is something about being in touch with the land that you visit that you cannot have if you see it through a chartered bus window. It’s almost as if you and the land develop an understanding with and a mutual respect for each other.
Three years ago I went climbing in the Mont Blanc massif in the Alps. Part of the climb involved some intense scrambling up 3000-meter-high ridges. As my hands felt around the rocks for holding places, I was developing a relationship with them. We talked. We got to know each other intimately. As long as I was delicate with them, they were happy to carry my weight and to help me upwards.
When I walk, run, hike, or cycle, I’m also in direct contact with the elements. My relationship has completely changed with them as a result. I used to hate walking in the rain. I hated getting wet and feeling cold. I’m much better now at protecting myself from wind, rain and cold. I know how to dress properly for being out and about regardless of the weather. I have a newfound deference to changing weather conditions. I’m learning how to read the changes, how to deal with them, and how to continue to be active and enjoy myself while experiencing most of them. I also know when to stand back and give way to them.
It’s nice going on organized trips with large groups of people every now and then. It’s easy to be shuffled from one place to another, getting fed according to what the organizers believe is best for you, and seeing the sights they choose for you.
Those kinds of trips can also be expensive, noisy, and bothersome.
There is something alluring about unraveling the mystery of the road ahead for yourself. There is something tantalizing about getting lost and stumbling onto a sight of great natural beauty. There is something deeply satisfying about using your own two legs to get to places that most motorized vehicles will never be able to reach. There is something very intimate about being directly in touch with the land. There is something natural about going somewhere different without spending your life’s savings to get there. There is something relaxing about spending your night in a tent and listening to the crickets as they chirp the night away. There is something reassuring in having a small roadside crisis (such as the husband’s inner tube getting punctured for the third time in two days) and having three different people stop to help. Those Irish are the nicest people you could ever meet.