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?”
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, unsad
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 http://memoirouswrite.blogspot.com.