Family on Bikes – Leaps of Faith

The continuing adventures of the Family on Bikes. For the story so far read Week 1 – One Revolution at a Time, Week 2 – Sticking Together? and Week 3 – Decisions, decisions and Week 4 – Semi-Charmed Life and Week 5 – On The Road


The paradox of individualism is that it requires community. As the Vogels tackled the steep hills and steeper learning curve of family travel they developed a new paradigm of self-sufficiency. Safely ensconced in suburbia they didn’t think twice about relying on bus drivers to get the boys to school, teachers to educate them, and friends to shape their free time. But when they swapped those socially-approved dependencies for life on the road Nancy felt like they had to prove they could take care of themselves. “We felt we shouldn’t ask for help,” she admits. This reluctance or embarrassment gradually eased as they discovered their limits and the unexpected scope of strangers’ generosity. “People are basically good and kind. Most will do almost anything to help you out – without even being asked.”

This is a striking contradiction to the received wisdom that humans are inherently selfish, if not downright ill-intentioned. Aren’t we supposed to avoid strangers, lock our doors, keep a close grip on our luggage and look out for suspicious behaviour? Nancy doesn’t think so: “I’ve been around the world a few times and my belief comes from my experiences. There are very few bad people. Most will help if you need it.” Ask for examples of uncommon kindness and she chuckles: “How long do you have?” She rattles off a list of spontaneous gestures of goodwill: the man in Mexico who pulled over and offered them a gunnysack of fresh tomatoes; another Mexican family who filled their panniers with oranges; a date-farmer in California who invited them camp in his fields and let Davy and Daryl help out the irrigation system. “If we asked for help people would respond, no problem,” Nancy recalls. “Most of the time though they came out of the woodwork and just offered. This gives you a sense of security, a willingness to put yourself in a situation you wouldn’t otherwise.”

The family’s next epic journey put this trust to the test as they set out on a 17,000 mile traverse of the Pan-American Highway. Before the first turn of the wheel Nancy and John had to make a major decision. The Pan-Am highway, which was built in a desperate hurry during World War II to provide a land route for Allied war shipments, does not have a single, definitive official route. They could credibly begin in Anchorage, Alaska, or even Canada. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, however, the highway stretches from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. If they set off from there Davy and Daryl would be eligible for a World Record. The chance to be in the Guinness Book was a big deal for the adventurous ten-year-olds. They had no qualms about Alaska. But Nancy was nervous.

When she and John initially decided to travel with Davy and Daryl their mantra was: “Expect them to go out and have the time of their life, to love the freedom and opportunities, and they will.” The boys had proved their mettle in the States but they couldn’t possibly understand the scale of the new challenge. The Dalton Highway, which makes up the Alaskan stretch of the Pan-Am highway, crosses five hundred miles of mountain and tundra, uninhabited apart from a couple of erstwhile mining villages. The Vogels would be out of reach of phone signal, back-up supplies and extra food. If a bike broke down or one of them got sick or injured they would be on their own. Once again Nancy wondered what her responsibilities were as a mother. She took leap of faith: they would start in Prudhoe Bay. Life is risky. Was the Dalton Highway more dangerous than Boise? Maybe. But they were a team. Davy and Daryl had more than lived up to John and Nancy’s faith; now it was their turn to trust and respect the boys’ wishes.

The official northern end of the Pan Am Highway is Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, which lies seventy degrees north of the equator on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. There is nothing in the stark landscape or local legends to reassure a mother with two young children. Kevin Sanders, who leads motorbike tours down the Dalton highway, knows the challenges: “You don’t know what’s coming. We’ve had sunshine in July and we’ve had blizzards. There’s two hundred miles between towns that’s nothing but wilderness and bears. If you get in trouble,” he adds, “no one’s coming to the rescue.” The Official State of Alaska Travel Information warns that: “[Dalton] is also one of Alaska’s most remote and challenging roads. The road is mostly gravel, and motorists need to watch for ruts, rocks, dust in dry weather, potholes in wet weather… The volume of truck traffic… can be high and it is recommended motorists give these trucks the right of way.” It doesn’t say what cyclists should do. Presumably officials don’t expect anyone to be crazy enough to try it on two wheels.

The limitations of peddle power weighed on Nancy’s mind. They had never attempted such a long, remote ride. If they got into trouble there would be no one to call for help. Davy and Daryl were full of the insouciant confidence that comes with being 10 years old; John was physically the strongest. It was left to Nancy to wonder: will we have enough food? Will the boys stay healthy? Will the bikes break down? Will my troublesome knees be up to the task? Any one of these questions could have been an excuse to call the trip off or, at least, confine it to more civilised roads. Most dreams die because the dreamers can’t take the requisite and always terrifying step into the unknown. The best laid plans and sincerest intentions are no protection against the stomach-lurching sensation when you let go of the lifeline.

Nancy drew on a core of courage developed, pearl-wise, throughthe years. She knew that sometimes you have to just go. Confidence comes later. “At time I was so nervous I didn’t realise that Alaska, and especially the tundra, would end up being one of my favourite parts.” No amount of trust could alter the fact the four of them were alone, together, in a land that was vast beyond imagination. The sweeping, treeless grasslands stretched as far as the eye could see, the green rippling like a sea beneath the driving wind. Herds of caribou grazed free. Snow-capped mountains shrugged jagged shoulders against the clear arc of the sky. They set off in high summer, where 2AM and 2PM looked identical beneath the unblinking Arctic sun. The road offered no comforting illusions of security: no houses, hospitals, gas stations, power-lines, police, or any of the other taken-for-granted tokens of civilisation. “I felt overwhelmed by Mother Nature,” Nancy recalls. “Everything was so big and we were so small. We were dwarfed by the sheer magnificence of nature.”

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Bikram Yoga – Learning to Bend


Everyone who gets into Bikram yoga eventually takes up the 30-day challenge: 2,700 mind- and body-twisting minutes. My Day 28 is off to an inauspicious start. The yoga studio is locked, the instructor outside on the pavement with us. We fidget and pull up collars, rubbing our hands against the chill. “I got up at 4.30 to get here,” one woman grumbles. I check my watch. If I miss this class it will mean rescheduling an interview so I can come after work. The mere thought makes me tired. I can just about manage morning yoga but post-work is a different, more brutal ballgame. Thankfully someone arrives with keys and we scuttle inside, shedding shoes and coats as we fast-forward through our usual pre-practice routine. Then we are in the sauna-like studio, breathing, bending, flexing, balancing, and stretching.

I understand why people look askance when I enthuse about Bikram yoga. Superficially, it is more pain than pleasure. I often lie on my mat before class, eyes closed, enjoying the 110-degree heat, hoping the teacher won’t come in, won’t turn the lights up, won’t cajole us to our feet. But he or she always does. Then I hoist myself up, gaze into my sleepy eyes in the mirror and think: There is no way I can do this. It isn’t possible. Practice builds confidence, but most days Bikram yoga remains a contemplation I neither desire nor understand. Yet it’s as addictive as chocolate brownies and Fraser box sets. At least in part because it poses problems I can solve. For 90 minutes the hardest decision I have to make is: “Am I going to stand on one leg now?”

These little disciplines have larger echoes. From bad weather and bureaucracy to late-running trains, most things are out of my control, much to the despair of my inner control freak. When the universe refuses to cooperate I want to demand better; or use irritation as an excuse for bad behaviour. For example, I love to travel, but I hate airport security. Just thinking about it makes my neck tingle. On a recent trip the security attendant pulled me aside. My liquids were in the wrong sized plastic bag. My jaw clenched. I fished in my mind for a sarcastic remark but then the discipline of the yoga studio came to mind, those hours of minute-by-minute decision-making. Maybe I was entitled to be angry, but I could also just stand there for thirty seconds and wait for the wave of pique to pass. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. The woman transferred my shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste to a fresh Ziploc bag and handed it over. I took another breath. That was it? She smiled, told me to have a nice flight and, instead of sulking off ashamed of my petulance, I could look her in the eye and smile back. My god, I thought, I don’t have to be a bitch anymore.

It was a minor moment of clarity. My choices don’t change the world but they change my experience of it. Bikram devotees do 30 day challenges, 45 day challenges, or 100 day challenges because regular practice rehearses a truth: Life is a challenge and we have no idea how many days we’ll be required show up for. The best we can do is try to pick right, moment by moment. Every time we choose between anger or patience, kindness or judgement, bitterness or forgiveness we create new possibilities and alternative relationships.

Smoothie Central

A couple of my favourite smoothie recipes:

Mango Chilli Smoothie

A crazy concoction but incredibly tasty: this cool, slightly sweet, fresh tasting with just a hint of chilli heat. The ingredients list might look like a dog’s dinner but trust me, it’s the cat’s pyjamas.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 ripe mango
  • 1/3 cucumber
  • 1 ripe medium pear
  • 1 large handful fresh spinach
  • 1/2 chunk fresh ginger
  • 1 fresh bird’s eye chilli
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2-3 ice cubes
  • water as desired

Green Goodness Smoothie

This is my favorite breakfast at the moment. Simple, healthful and delicious. I make mine extra thick so it’s basically ice cream. Yum.

Ingredients

  • 1 banana, frozen
  • 1 ripe pear
  • Small chunk of fresh ginger, peeled
  • Handful spinach or other dark leafy greens
  • Small handful raisins or 2-3 prunes
  • 3/4 – 1cup soy or regular milk
  • 3/4tsp ground cinnamon

 

Not least my nearly-award-winning Un-beet-able Breakfast Smoothie

A fabulously thick, creamy, bright pink, gently sweet drink chock full of goodness. Try it at home!

Ingredients

1 medium apple
1 medium banana
1/2 small avocado
1/2 small raw beet
8-9oz unsweetened non-dairy milk
1tsp maple syrup
1/2tsp cinnamon

Sweet-tart Cacao Smoothie


Ingredients

1 medium banana, frozen
2 small purple plums
1 medium ripe bear
1/2 inch chunk fresh ginger
1tsp maca powder
1/2tsp cinnamon
1 1/2tsp cacao powder
Water and/or non-dairy milk

Melon, Pear & Orange Refresher
Ingredients

1/2 Galia melon
1 ripe pear
1/2 beetroot (cooked)
large handful round head lettuce
1 orange, juiced
1/2 inch chunk fresh ginger
200ml almond or rice milk
Ice

Family On Bikes – On The Road

The continuing adventures of the Family on Bikes. For the story so far read Week 1 – One Revolution at a Time, Week 2 – Sticking Together? and Week 3 – Decisions, decisions and Week 4 – Semi-Charmed Life

Nancy moved back to Boise with the boys in February 2005; John followed at the end of the school year. She knew in her bones it was the right thing to do. For the first time in years they could spend time with family without casting one eye ahead to goodbye. Davy and Daryl could revel in Fourth of July firecrackers, Thanksgiving turkey and a white Christmas. It felt odd to put the boys on a school bus and not see them till the end of the day, but after the emotional and physical strain of the Vogel’s final months in Malaysia Nancy was prepared to accept daily separation as the price of much-needed stability.

So when John came home after his bad day and suggested taking the boys on the road Nancy’s response was reflexive. It was an absurd idea. “That’s not what parents do,” she reiterated when John kept talking about it. A week passed, then two. They stopped by to visit her mom and John, to Nancy’s surprise, talked about the mooted trip as if it were a solid plan. His determination was infectious and she found herself wrestling with two diametrically opposed value systems.

On one side everything cautious, conservative and conventional argued against the idea. She rationalised that it was normal for families to lead separate lives – mom and dad at work and the kids at school – and that it was normal for husbands and wives to communicate in hurried conversations between carpooling and ticking off the to-do list. Every time Nancy sat in a school meeting, or chatted with other parents on the sidelines at soccer practice, she heard the same thing: separation is normal, this is how people live.

Weighed against social expectations was Nancy’s long-cultivated habit of considering the options and choosing based on the merits of the situation. Though she struggled to reconcile her notions of responsibility and freedom, the more she thought about John’s plan the more Nancy felt like she was the crazy one for clinging to staid ideas about what parents do. “My boys were never going to be eight years old again. If I didn’t spend this time with them I was going to lose the opportunity,” she says. “Life is short. You have one chance and you have to grab on to it.”

Once the decision was made Nancy and John acted swiftly. Within weeks they commissioned a custom-built bicycle for three, recruited family members to housesit and packed their panniers. In  June, when school let out, the Vogels strapped on their helmets, mounted up and became the Family On Bikes.

What was their biggest worry as they faced the unknown? Nancy chuckles: “Our only real concern was that the boys enjoy themselves. We were afraid they wouldn’t like it.” It didn’t take long for more pressing issues to arise. From Idaho they peddled into the tawny expanse of the Oregon desert, which stretches for hundreds of thinly-populated miles. “I’d driven through it numerous times but I had no concept,” Nancy admits. “I didn’t understand how remote it was.” They soon discovered that just because a town was on the map was no guarantee it would provide anything as useful as food and shelter. Early on, they found themselves working through a string of hamlets too tiny to even have a grocery store. After one leg of the journey fuelled by potato chips and candy from a tavern they began to quiz the locals as they planned their route. Other challenges included waking up to find their water-bottles frozen solid and, once, leaving their gear out only to have it drenched in a midnight downpour. Each minor catastrophe added up to another piece of wisdom: no matter how tired you are, always repack the panniers and cover everything in a tarp before you turn in; keep a water bottle close so you can at least clean your teeth on an icy morning. “It felt like every time we figured out the rules the whole game changed,” says Nancy. “There were so many things we hadn’t thought about – that we didn’t even know to think about.”

The one thing they needn’t have fretted about was the boys: Davy and Daryl were too young to worry, or second-guess their parent’s decisions. They took life on the road at face value. It was Nancy who was the family worrier during that first, year-long tour of the states. Each day a knot of tension would clench her stomach as the afternoon waned and they needed to find a camp site. John had a knack for spotting a good pitch, though, and gradually she grew confident he would find them a safe home for the night. Touring together was a daily lesson in trust: trust in herself, her husband, her children, their physical strength, their relationships, and in the kindness of strangers.

Relying on others runs counter to America’s superstitious belief in self-reliance and at first Nancy wasn’t comfortable with the idea of relying on anyone else. “We felt we shouldn’t ask for help,” she recalls. Over time and distance, though, they encountered warm hospitality, freely offered. One time a farmer pulled up alongside and asked if they’d like some dates from his orchard. They followed him to his farm and wound up camping on his land and the boys got to help run the irrigation system. Generous residents offered food, water, directions, advice, sometimes even a place to stay. The graciousness they encountered helped Nancy develop a new perspective on self-sufficiency. She and John tried to be prepared but plainly they couldn’t control everything. Nancy began to embrace spontaneous kindnesses as a “huge source of comfort.”