The most frequent question we receive about the bike tour is: “What has been the hardest part [geographically]?” The assumption that underlies this question is that the physical challenge of biking is our biggest obstacle. In fact, navigating and maintaining relationships has been and remains our greatest test. Several factors make our relationships so tricky to manage: we are always together, our setting is always changing, and almost all those settings are in public. How can we overcome those factors to continue the bike tour with relationships intact?
Leading up to our departure I expected we would encounter trials from outside sources (mechanical failure, human mischief, extreme weather), but we have largely and thankfully been spared. We prioritized date nights and play dates as our departure neared knowing those opportunities would be few and far between during this adventure, but we did not think too deeply on how that would impact us. This constant togetherness, while providing ample opportunity for great conversations and family triumphs, also has drawbacks. Old Man, specifically, was conditioned to be around the five of us during evenings, weekends, and holidays. Going from that to all day every day was a huge adjustment for him. The needs of personal space and time for uninterrupted thought were quickly recognized but difficult to implement in our ever-changing daily circumstances. Similarly, I was used to running things my way during the day without adult feedback or dissent. The kids were used to being split up over the course of the week for instrument lessons, sports, or play dates. And now, all those autonomous diversions are gone. Where one of us goes, all of us go.
The challenge of always being together can be offset with space, if that space is familiar and constant. In our domestic life we could go into different rooms or into our yard to take a break from each other, accomplish timely tasks, or simply think; all the while knowing that everyone is safely under the same roof or within the same property boundary, and if not an alarm of some sort would be sounded. That is obviously not the case with what we are doing now. Most nights our roofs are nylon pyramids with bathrooms of some sort a short, but always different (route, lighting, turns, etc.), walk away. Will we have some rowdy guys’ weekend camping next to us and keeping us awake or first-time parents treading lightly, armed with disinfectant on their first family outdoor excursion looking at us annoyed about the loud sibling collaborative play and/or antagonism keeping their baby awake? Does this campground have poison ivy, or border a raging river, or have a circuitous layout that limits our kids’ roaming radius? When camping, Old Man and I at least get our own tent to separate us from the kiddo madness at the end of the day, but when we stay in hotel rooms or Warm Showers’ hosts’ accommodations we usually share one room. We are tremendously grateful for the conveniences and hospitality offered in both, but again, they are not ‘our’ spaces, and we must behave as guests and pretend we do not have any warts or bad days as we trip over each other and try to assimilate to the new rules of each roost.
In addition to the much-appreciated hospitality, Warm Showers hosts give us a valuable window into life in their part of the country, and create an important opportunity for our kids to learn how to be good guests. To that end, I coach our kids that a good guest engages with polite manners consistently, is grateful for anything the host is willing to provide or offer, and exits the property leaving no trace of their occupation. I emphasize that Warm Showers hosts owe us nothing, so anything given to us is a gift, and we are in their home, so they set the rules. Host family schedules innately dictate our shower rotation, meal times, bedtimes, etc. We want to be helpful to offset our impact, but to do so we have to infer each host’s habits (will loading the dishwasher be helpful or annoying?; is our effort to reduce the burden we present by declining a provision welcomed or received as an affront to their hospitality?; what are the kids allowed to do inside/outside?). While this practice in flexibility, respect, and gratitude are valuable and necessary life skills, it ups the challenge for parenting considerably. Corrections and reprimands are often abbreviated to reduce social awkwardness. Proactively anticipating misbehaviors is tricky since we lack any real routine or structure due to so many variables beyond our control. Executing time outs or early bedtimes can be very difficult in someone else’s space and on their new-to-us schedule. None of that is a big deal over the course of a vacation, but when it becomes the norm for the longer-term unwanted behavior patterns start to spread roots, and we rarely have our own space in which to retreat to uproot the behavior problem.
Additionally, we are always in public. We go to a grocery store almost daily. We do most of our homeschooling at parks where there are picnic tables on which we can spread out. We stop roadside throughout our day’s journey and frequent public restrooms along the way. Our campground meals are at our unsheltered picnic table, Warm Showers’ meals are in their yard or at their table, and almost all our hotel meals are in their dining room, at a park, or at a restaurant. None of these settings offer privacy—we are completely exposed in all of them. I wish I could say that we have nothing to hide, but we do have bad days. Old Man and I succumb to parental and marital impatience and snarls, our kids have been known to bicker, make messes, be inappropriately loud, forget their manners, or spontaneously start to cry when overly tired. While we have been blessed by more acts of kindness and generosity than I can count, our fellow man is harsh and judgmental when it comes to parenting. Well-intended people are calling CPS on parents who let their kids walk a mile to a park (*side note: When I was in kindergarten and my brother in fourth grade, we walked a mile each way to school, as did most everyone else in our neighborhood as we awaited the construction of our elementary school). A select few of the many people we encounter voice their disapproval of our adventure, specifically in the context of our kids. Some have made it clear they think the entire operation is at best offensive, and at worst abusive. Abusive enough to call CPS? Would a whining four-year-old seated in the middle of a bike, a disinclined homeschool student pouting at a park picnic table, or a moment of parental impatience cement the abusive assessment? I have yet to meet a four-year-old who has not ever whined, a student who is consistently joyful, or a parent who is exclusively patient. The fear of that minute possibility puts a lot of pressure on our always-in-public parenting, and the resulting vigilance is exhausting. We must always be alert to the hazards or pitfalls of our ever-changing setting, and equally attentive to how we execute that alertness and how it is perceived by our fleeting and ever-changing, but quick to judge audience. We feel under pressure to pretend that this non-conforming way of life is exclusively blue skies and butterflies in the presence of our critics, even though their mainstream life is far from that utopian dream.
So, given this long-winded description of the challenges that face our relationships, why would we even consider continuing? We were indeed ragged when we pulled up to this respite location and I was seriously contemplating ending the tour here. Old Man and I were mentally spent and I worried about the resiliency of our familial relationships. The health and cohesion of our marriage and family is far more important to me than the personal triumph of completing this tour. As we continued to mull over our next chapter, God placed people and provisions in our path to restore us and guide us. My aunt and uncle generously allowed us the use of their house, where we have space that is constant and quickly became familiar. We have bedrooms in which to retreat when we need breaks from each other or just time to think. The same aunt and her grandaughter drove up to us and took the kids to lunch and a movie one afternoon, which enabled a leisurely date and uninterrupted conversation for Old Man and I for the first time in two months. We now have a game plan on how to better tackle our in-public existence thanks to that break. This same aunt (again!) and my cousin took our kids for an evening of fun so Old Man and I could catch up with another cousin and her husband without the distraction of kids. My cousin opened her home to us for a weekend and hosted an extended family get together that included other kids for our kids to play with. My cousin’s neighbor let all our family’s kids utilize their backyard pool for entire dayparts over the weekend. We played, ate, and relaxed.
That should have been the end of it, per our original schedule, but my mom’s college roommate invited us to stay with her as we cross Indiana, as did Mr. C (from our Montana roadside rescue), but both of their schedules called for us later than we were set to be in their part of the state. We took that as God’s sign to SLOW DOWN and rest longer; my aunt and uncle open-handedly approved our extension, and we are better for it. We are now thoroughly rested, relaxed, and very much restored. We had time and opportunity to reminisce on how blessed we are and have been: our physical triumphs, the people we have met along the way and the gifts they have bestowed upon us, the places we have seen, and the experiences we have had. We had time to process the past four and a half months and figure out what to continue and what to change. The biggest change will be slowing down altogether.
We are over halfway done with the tour in terms of distance, but the pace we kept during the month of July contributed greatly to our fatigue. We were not trying to race, but there either were not places for us to linger or linger-worthy places had no space for us at the height of tourist season. We kept chugging along and rarely took a rest day. We are approaching shoulder season, so touring space and flexibility will return, and soon after that we will encounter our toughest geography yet.
The Appalachians are said to be significantly tougher than the Rockies. Despite being shorter in elevation, they are far steeper and the roads are older and were constructed without regard for grade. We must have our ducks in a row as a family if we are to surmount this mountain chain. Lucky for us, God continues to provide for us: with time, with family and friends who embrace us along the way, and with strangers who open their doors for us and cheerlead our journey. Without these people and provisions, both along the way and now supporting our respite, we never would have succeeded coming this far and we would not be able to continue. Bad days are still going to happen as they do in any other way of life: kids are still going to try to dodge chores and responsibility and pick fights with each other; spouses are still going to disagree at times; some days a headwind will override gravity and you will have to diligently pedal on a downhill to only arrive at a major uphill. But here we are, ready to face it all. Fully-energized with full hearts, maps and parenting-in-public game plans in hand, carrying a few extra pounds from eating like kings the last two weeks, packing up, and ready to begin again tomorrow morning. God is good.