Cycle & Circumstances

Nonfiction / Jane Hertenstein

:: Cycle & Circumstances ::

A hybrid mem­oir about rid­ing from the top to the bot­tom of the UK 

 When I was fif­teen, my moth­er worked at the local hard­ware store where she got a dis­count. That’s where I bought my Huffy Scout—I actu­al­ly called it Scout (after the char­ac­ter in To Kill a Mock­ing­bird). I would ride well beyond Cen­ter­ville into the out­skirts of Day­ton and then beyond that. One time I woke ear­ly and left the house. By noon I was in Indiana. 

On the way back I remem­ber get­ting as far as Miamis­burg (see: Stu­pid Kids). I’d call Mom from a pay­phone (remem­ber those?) and beg her to have Dad come pick me up. It got to be a run­ning routine—me rid­ing too far and need­ing a ride home. Often when I called, Mom would be dis­mayed, “I thought you were upstairs in bed!” 

Lat­er she got used to my calls and would sim­ply ask, 

Where are you now?” 





Stu­pid Kids 

Stuff you don’t think about when you’re fif­teen and decide to go for a ride: 

Sun­screen, food, water, mon­ey, sun­glass­es, no cell­phone because they haven’t been invent­ed yet, no maps or GPS, no spare inner tubes or patch kit, or tools, or any way to fix anything 





Wak­ing up ear­ly before the dust of night has blown off. There is a dis­tant pale light throb­bing on the hori­zon. Birds are atwit­ter. The dew-grass soaks my sneak­ers as I pull open the garage door and grab my bike lean­ing against the wall. 

Scout is mus­tard yel­low with brown let­ter­ing and accents. A Huffy 10-speed. Just the idea that I can go any­where stirs my blood. 

There is nev­er any plan. I’ll be home before lunch, I think, before any­one even knows I’m gone—or cares. 

The roads are emp­ty, white lines mark the black asphalt sur­face. Ahead of me a rib­bon that I ride, col­lect­ing speed to make it up the next swell. Small white but­ter­flies flit above stalks of corn­flow­ers, fields of gold­en­rod, tiger lilies blow in the wind grow­ing in a ditch by the road­way, a fox skit­ters into a hole in a stone wall, turn­ing a cor­ner on a dew drenched morn­ing and com­ing across a deer, star­tled, it darts into the riv­er. Slow­ly the sun climbs. 

After a while I am hot and thirsty and go faster in order to fan myself. A dog chas­es after me, and I stand up on the ped­als and crank as hard as I can. He runs in front of my wheel and I almost hit him, only man­ag­ing to slow down. His teeth nip at my heels. I escape and mean­while for­get how hun­gry I am. 

Grasshop­pers thud me in the fore­head, leav­ing a tobac­co-stain pee. I’m not wear­ing a hel­met. It’s not a thing yet. I count tele­phone poles, low-hang­ing wires strung like a lady’s neck­lace. Glass insu­la­tors stud the top of the cross bar, glis­ten­ing like gem­stones as the sun bears down. 

I stop, sud­den­ly feel­ing light-head­ed. My breath is ragged and dense with humid­i­ty and exhaus­tion. I reck­on I’ve been rid­ing for four or five hours. At a small gro­cery store I ask about a water foun­tain and drink long and hard before get­ting back on my steed. If I can get as far as Miamis­burg where Dad works at Monarch Mar­ket­ing where they make labels, then I can wait until he’s done and hitch a ride home with him. 

At home I lie on the couch and drink a Coke. Lat­er, I’ll eat sup­per and go to bed, to wake up ear­ly to ride my bike. 





I might have been fif­teen or six­teen. I was on my bike rid­ing around in the coun­try on an asphalt road in the mid­dle of nowhere when a car pulled up at a T‑intersection beside me. It was one of those big-boat ’70s cars, the dri­ver had long Lynyrd Skynyrd hair. “Hey!” he called me over. 

And of course I leaned in the open win­dow to see what he wanted. 

He asked me direc­tions, said a street name that I didn’t rec­og­nize. In his lap he fin­gered what looked vague­ly like an ice cream cone, puls­ing with veiny red sprinkles. 

Sud­den­ly dread washed over me. I sped away with­out look­ing back. When I got home I nev­er once thought about shar­ing this inci­dent with my moth­er. I only wished I could tear my eyes out. 

What am I sup­posed to do now? I had thought. Too many girls have this same story.





My mom could be arbi­trary. I nev­er knew which Mom I was going to get. The nice one who would promise me any­thing or the one who would sud­den­ly take it all back. Who might one day sign a per­mis­sion slip for camp and the next day rip it up. She was a depres­sive, the daugh­ter of a depres­sive. When things got bad, real­ly bad, she’d go off to the “hos­pi­tal” for a few months of “rest.” The worst was the shock treat­ments. One Christ­mas she came home for a vis­it and pre­sent­ed me and my sis­ter with gifts made dur­ing occu­pa­tion­al ther­a­py. I opened a box con­tain­ing a leather bracelet embossed with my name. Except she had spelled Jane as Jayne. I con­sid­ered point­ing this out, but thought bet­ter. I kept it at the back of my clos­et for years, even­tu­al­ly leav­ing it when I moved out. 

As a kid you have no pow­er. No mon­ey. No con­trol. I was always at the whim of her will. The trick was not to want. To give off the air of what­ev­er. But this was hard; invari­ably I’d show my hand and blow it. 

Cycling became a cop­ing mech­a­nism. Hills. Wind. I couldn’t make them go away, but I could tack­le prob­lems one by one. All I had to do was pedal. 

Rid­ing nar­rowed life down into the now. To the present moment. The wind in my face, tiger lilies wav­ing at me as I passed, the rib­bon of asphalt ris­ing up to meet me, but­ter­flies and bees, the thirst, the sun, the poet­ry of motion. 

Bicy­cling saved me. 





When I was a kid back in Ohio, I saw an adver­tise­ment for a talk at the library. A cou­ple had just rid­den their bikes from Alas­ka to the south­ern tip of Argenti­na, a Hemis­tour. Now they were propos­ing just in time for the country’s Bicen­ten­ni­al, Bikecen­ten­ni­al, an event intend­ed to get peo­ple on their bikes for a ride across the coun­try, from Asto­ria, Ore­gon, to York­town, Virginia. 

Bike­cen­ten­ni­al appealed to my vagabond spir­it. I sat spell­bound lis­ten­ing to Dan and Lys Bur­den describe their project. Folks would ride back roads, stay overnight in camp­grounds, city parks, church base­ments, com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters; they’d see the coun­try close-hand from the sad­dle; they’d expe­ri­ence weath­er and the out­pour­ing of hos­pi­tal­i­ty. They’d make friends and come home with stories. 

Count me in! Except I was fif­teen years old and would nev­er be able to get my par­ents on board with my plan. 

But it did plant a seed in my heart and mind—that some­day I would strap a sleep­ing bag onto the back of my bike and ride and ride until tired. I’d sleep and eat beside the road. I’d be free. 





At age 58 I had come to a point of reck­on­ing, or what some peo­ple call the buck­et list. 

When a per­son is old but not too old. When on the time­line of life they are more than halfway, far from the begin­ning, clos­er to the end. When the tolling of bells reminds you of mor­tal­i­ty, that death will one day come for thee. 

It is a time of assess­ment, to review regrets and add up cher­ished moments. What is it you did, and what is it you didn’t do? 

Mary Oliv­er, in her poem “The Sum­mer Day,” details the minu­ti­ae of the nat­ur­al world revolv­ing around her before zoom­ing out. The big­ger pic­ture requires us to take stock. She ends the poem with a ques­tion:   

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and pre­cious life? 





Was it midlife malaise? Grief from los­ing my par­ents? The feel­ing that I was on the cusp of los­ing my mar­riage?  

St. Antho­ny is the patron saint of lost items / lost peo­ple. He is said to have suf­fered from despair. In this way I think we can all relate to him, from one wound­ed heart to anoth­er.  He was told that any phys­i­cal task done in the prop­er spir­it would bring him deliverance. 

Seek­ing solace, I did what I’d always done in the past—I got on my bike. I would ped­al my way into sal­va­tion, ride to rid myself of the awful­ness inside of me. 

I bought a tick­et to England. 





So sigh­ing for new worlds to con­quer, I jumped into a JOGLE. I decid­ed I would ride my bike from John O’Groats in Scot­land to Land’s End in Cornwall—the length of the UK

Just to put this into per­spec­tive: it would be a jour­ney of 1,100 miles. 

Just to put this into per­spec­tive: most peo­ple who attempt a JOGLE or LEJOG (if going in the oppo­site direc­tion, south to north) are fit. I, on the oth­er hand, was not fit but a frumpy post-menopausal woman in her late fifties. 

Just to put this into per­spec­tive: I had no idea what I was get­ting into. 

I assumed Eng­land would be one great, big gar­den path with rows of cute thatch-roof cot­tages. I had no idea that the Scot­tish High­lands was lit­er­al. Not only would I have to tra­verse the High­lands but sev­er­al oth­er small­er ranges. The Lake Dis­trict was not only lakes but moun­tains, includ­ing the high­est peak in England. 

I didn’t have the right bike or the right gear. 

Per­haps it was bet­ter that I didn’t under­stand. Most ratio­nal peo­ple would have turned back, stayed on the lake­front path, or nev­er left the com­fort of their couch. 





I had to remind myself I was that girl who dared to dream, to risk. Who start­ed off ear­ly in the morn­ing with only a small ruck­sack slung over her back. Mus­cle mem­o­ry recalled that gyp­sy spir­it. Deep beneath my grey hair were blonde roots that turned white under the hot sum­mer sun.   

I just need­ed to sum­mon her back, call her forth. 

I had to believe it was possible. 





What was I doing? I asked myself this ques­tion a thou­sand times. 

What was I doing all alone in the far-flung High­lands on a bike? This was crazy. Stu­pid. I wasn’t Super­woman. I couldn’t believe what I had got­ten myself into. And, why? 

I ful­ly thought after sep­a­rat­ing from my hus­band that we would be able to begin again. We were smart, we both loved to read, we were on the same page polit­i­cal­ly, we loved our daugh­ter, now grown and out of the house. We had all the tools to fix what­ev­er was bro­ken. But, maybe that was the prob­lem: we didn’t know how bro­ken we were. 

I ped­aled in the mist, crying. 

                    Going down a road hoping to end up somewhere, to be found,  





It can­not be over­stat­ed, I got lost. A lot.




Get­ting lost is all about per­cep­tions. You start with a cer­tain frame­work and fig­ure out ref­er­ence points. With­out know­ing where I was, I couldn’t even begin to mea­sure how far off route I’d wandered. 

The same could be said of my mar­riage. I had no idea how far off the mark I was or where to go next. 

On my JOGLE I’d zigzag, careen from one cross­roads to anoth­er veer­ing toward my even­tu­al goal. 

In my mar­riage I moved from blun­der to blun­der, hop­ing to get some­where, together. 

I lacked a con­text; I assumed too much, and once I under­stood, I knew a course cor­rec­tion would cost in time and effort. I was far from where I want­ed to be. 





Shop­keep­ers, once they saw that I was by myself, would exclaim: You’re all alone!  

Yes. I was con­stant­ly aware that I was a stranger in a strange land. One time I stopped at a cafe. I couldn’t fig­ure out how to open the door. I could see they were open. Final­ly the counter per­son came out and let me in. I was pulling instead of push­ing. While sit­ting there eat­ing the best soup ever I shed a few tears. Alone. By myself. 





After fin­ish­ing my JOGLE, cycling back to Penzance—it hit me: I’d reached my goal after nine­teen days, 1,100 miles of wind, rain, round-abouts, get­ting lost, sting­ing net­tles, thigh-burn­ing climbs, and bro­ken spokes. I began to cry. 

I didn’t know I pos­sessed such endurance; I had no idea I was this strong. I deserved a pat on the back, or at least a cream tea. I prac­ti­cal­ly flew back to the hos­tel, pushed along this time by the wind. 





I sat in a tea room in late after­noon, my table fac­ing a win­dow look­ing out upon the street. I watched peo­ple flood past, their faces down­turned, hur­ry­ing to escape the rain now com­ing down. I’d plunged head­long, thrown cau­tion to the wind, and gone to Eng­land to cycle the coun­try top to bot­tom, and now I was done. What would I do next? My life, my future seemed to waver before me like heat off a hot high­way. I glimpsed a head­line in a news­pa­per left on an adjoin­ing table. Brad and Angeli­na had separated. 

I con­tem­plat­ed my mar­riage. I vowed I would return and tack­le this prob­lem head-on. I’d pow­er through it. I’d set up coun­sel­ing ses­sions. Ener­gized, I made lists. I was a new woman. 





My hus­band agreed to pick me up at the air­port. I texted him when I land­ed in Cana­da for a trans­fer. “In North Amer­i­ca!”  

At the Chica­go air­port I wait­ed with my bike box. And wait­ed. And wait­ed. I cart­ed it up and down the esca­la­tor, the ele­va­tor, bang­ing it against clos­ing doors think­ing I might be on the wrong floor. By this time I’d been awake and in trav­el mode for eigh­teen hours. 

Suf­fice it to say nei­ther of us was in a wel­com­ing mood when we met up. The van ride into the city was filled with awk­ward silence and the hum of traffic. 

Some­time after this he informed me that he had tak­en off his wed­ding ring. 





My heart was broken. 

At writer’s con­fer­ences I’d sit invis­i­ble. The mid­dle-aged woman. There was noth­ing remark­able about me. My once blonde hair had turned the col­or of cold shrimp. 

I had no plat­form. I wasn’t on Twit­ter or Instagram. 

Sell­ing books at a book fair, sit­ting behind a table with peo­ple stream­ing by, wait­ing for some­one to final­ly buy my book, I’d for­get I’d done amaz­ing things. I’d have to remind myself that I had a secret pow­er. It was under my clothes. 

                    Tan lines, left by my bike shorts.






After my divorce I went to New York City to see a friend.  

When Elanor sug­gest­ed we rent Citi Bikes, I hes­i­tat­ed. “C’mon,” she berat­ed me, “you ride your bike all over the world.” 

An exag­ger­a­tion. Though since my JOGLE I’d man­aged a few oth­er trips—one of which took me from Ams­ter­dam along the North Sea and over the Tele­mark Moun­tains in Norway. 

She talked me into it. We jerked the ungain­ly bikes out of iron racks and set off. In busy Brook­lyn traf­fic, my over­sized han­dle­bars jig­gled as I swerved to stay in a bike lane, jug­gling my phone and bag that kept slip­ping out of the loose bungee at the front of the bike. 

At first all I could see was the pot­holes, the cars dri­ving way too close, the trash in the streets. But then, some­thing mag­i­cal hap­pened. I began to forget. 

Soon I was a tourist fly­ing around a big city, see­ing things for the first time. The Ortho­dox Jews push­ing baby bug­gies, dog walk­ers in the new park along the East Riv­er, old men play­ing chess out­side a bar. They waved at us. 

It was weird, peo­ple were stop­ping and smil­ing. Para­noid, I checked to see if my under­wear was show­ing. I was rid­ing in a skirt and pulled at the hem that kept blow­ing up. I tucked my tank top in at the back. 

Slow­ly I came to real­ize we were sum­mer girls. We rep­re­sent­ed free­dom. We had tak­en a step away from the every­day rou­tine and were buzzing around hav­ing fun.   

Life at its best and happiest.





These days I dream more and more of riding my bike.  
In my mind I ride a thousand roads.  
After years, the light has changed, yet still I see,  
                    up around the next curve—a wider world! 
          So I keep going.




From the writer

:: Account ::

Fragili­ty. That was the theme of the year 2020. Work­ing as a full-time vol­un­teer at a home­less shel­ter, I encoun­tered many peo­ple who con­tract­ed COVID and a few who died from the virus. I got to see first­hand how frag­ile life is—especially for those liv­ing on the mar­gins. As a woman, I’m used to being invis­i­ble, but these past few years have felt like a weight. Under the pan­dem­ic I real­ized I had very lit­tle agency in my life; thus, when lock­down lift­ed in Illi­nois at the end of May, I jumped on my bicy­cle and rode 2,400 miles to the Pacif­ic Ocean, Chica­go to Sea­side, OR, fol­low­ing an approx­i­ma­tion of the Lewis & Clark Trail. 

I had plen­ty of time to think in the 45 days it took me to com­plete the trek. I decid­ed, per the ques­tion put forth in the poem “The Sum­mer Day” by Mary Oliv­er, that I need­ed to live my one wild and pre­cious life, start­ing by tak­ing risks. 

In my piece “Cycle & Cir­cum­stances,” I write about the ori­gins of my cycling passion—and how I believe cycling saved me from a chaot­ic child­hood. Fol­low­ing up on that, in 2016 I rode the length of the UK from John O’Groats to Lands’ End in an effort to make sense of the breakup of my mar­riage. I need­ed to find once again a place of well-being—the fact that I turned my life upside down to do it is doc­u­ment­ed in the piece. 



Jane Herten­stein is the author of over 90 pub­lished sto­ries both macro and micro: fic­tion, cre­ative non­fic­tion, and blurred genre. In addi­tion she has pub­lished a YA nov­el, Beyond Par­adise (Harper­Collins, 1999), and a non-fic­tion project, Orphan Girl: The Mem­oir of a Chica­go Bag Lady (Cor­ner­stone Press, 1998), which gar­nered nation­al reviews. Jane is the recip­i­ent of a grant from the Illi­nois Arts Coun­cil. Her lat­est book is Cloud of Wit­ness­es (2018) from Gold­en Alley Press. She teach­es a work­shop on flash mem­oir and can be found blog­ging at