Family on Bikes – Choose and Act

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 and Week 6 – Leaps of Faith

The paradox of any huge goal is that the best way to achieve it is to forget about the big picture and concentrate on the next step. Otherwise, you risk getting frozen in the Klieg light of your own ambition. Kids are lucky: they don’t have the same hang-ups. When the Vogels set off on their year-long jaunt through the States Davy and Daryl were only eight years old, and content to follow their parents’ agenda. By the time they set off down the Pan American Highway the boys were in double digits and enthusiastic, seasoned travellers, yet untroubled by creeping adult concerns. They were old enough to understand that 17,000 miles is a tremendous distance; astute enough to trace the winding ribbon of road across two hemispheres; experienced enough to expect hills, rain, cold, heat and aching muscles but young enough to live in the moment. To this day, they don’t see what the big deal is about their journey. “To them, it’s just something they did,” Nancy remarks. Set against the scale of the wilderness and the uncertainties of the road Davy and Daryl’s unself-conscious pragmatism was a blessing, a continuous reminder to take the journey one revolution at a time.

 

It helped on days when they faced towering mountain ranges, like the 10,000-foot peaks that shot out of the earth in Colombia like impenetrable green walls; or when they encountered blustering wind; or bears. “I told you about the bear, right? No?” Nancy chuckles and settles into story-telling mode. It was in Canada. They were moseying along, minding their own business. She and Daryl stopped for a breather while John and Davy went on. A dark, low-slung figure caught her eye. The form was familiar from a thousand pictures. “You’re supposed to back away from bears, but that’s kind of hard to do on a bike.” The critter ambled towards them, trailing a moustache of half-chewed grass. Voice low, Nancy told Daryl to pull away slowly, hoping it wouldn’t provoke a chase. A split second later, four legs sprang into action. Time compressed into the stroke of a pedal. Bears can up to 30 miles per hour but, Nancy notes, sufficiently motivated cyclists go even faster.

 

There is a smile in Nancy’s voice as she tells the story that belies some serious thinking. Once the adrenaline rush passed she asked the questions any good parent would: Am I doing the right thing? Is the goal big and important enough to justify the risks? What are my responsibilities? Conventional wisdom would have suggested a swift end to the journey. What kind of mother gambles on turning her child into a bear’s dinner? But Nancy hasn’t spent years asking questions for nothing. The mere act of setting out on the journey demanded a commitment to weigh situations on merit rather than out of habit and to banish automatic judgements. “The vast majority of people aren’t making conscious choices,” Nancy says. Most don’t need to. They have bosses, teachers, husbands, wives, children, parents, preachers, mortgage payments, and television to tell them where they have to be, what they have to do, and how they should live. On the Pan Am highway the Vogles’ only obligation was to each other and their goal. Nobody was there to tell them “go here”, “do this” or “stop now”. Freedom comes with the simple imperative to choose.

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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.”

Family On Bikes – Decisions, Decisions

Welcome back to week three of the ongoing adventures of the Family On Bikes. Click through to read Week 1 – One Revolution at a Time and Week 2 – Sticking Together.

Looking at all they’ve accomplished, it is hard to believe that John ever balked at teaching abroad; or that Nancy refused, even briefly, to consider taking the boys out of school. It goes to show how fast and hard habit strikes, and how quickly it can strangle a person’s sense of possibility. One of the defining strengths of the Vogel’s relationship is that they are braver together. When Nancy put her foot down and said it was time to move and find a way to be together all John had to do was say “no” and the door would have closed. Maybe she would have gone to teach abroad without him; or stayed in Albuquerque warring with her discontents. But there would have been a limit – however faint – on the scope of the future.

Contrary to what many people believe, to be daring is a decision, not an accident of personality. “The vast majority of people aren’t making conscious choices,” Nancy says. “They’re just keeping up with the Joneses.” She had the courage to conceive of a different life because she had already seen and experienced such a thing.

Mexico City

Nancy can pinpoint the moment her world turned from monochrome to Technicolor. When she was 15 her parents, who were from Minnesota via North Dakota, made the surprising decision to go on a family holiday to Mexico City. They had lived in Boise, Idaho since Nancy was eight and her primary exposure to other cultures was National Geographic magazine. Innocent of the wider world, she admits: “It literally never occurred to me that people lived differently.” Then they went to Mexico. A smoggy cauldron crammed with more than twenty million souls, its capital city was so alien that Nancy’s voice is still laced with awe at the recollection.

Instead of modest Lutheran churches people worshipped in a cathedral that was sinking beneath the weight of its towering dome and sad-faced icons. Instead of well-kept suburban streets they walked along thoroughfares jammed with rattletrap buses, hustling vendors and ferocious little taxis. Stunned by the rich, anarchic world that existed beyond her imagination Nancy went back to Boise full of unformed but urgent curiosity. An ad for the Peace Corps gave her an idea: “I’m going to do that when I finish university,” she vowed. And she did. Two years in the Peace Corps setting up special education programmes in Honduras lead to seven months of solo travel around South America, which inspired her to return to the US and work on a Navajo reservation. Then she took a sabbatical to tour India by bike and met John.

So by the time the couple hit what looked like a personal and professional impasse they already had done a great deal of the legwork that goes into making a life-altering decision. They knew what it was like to be foreign; they had cultivated persistence, self-sufficiency, and patience; they had taken risks together and overcome challenges; they had chosen experience over material goods; they’d camped in the rain, eaten out of tin cans and mended flat tyres. Despite John’s reflexive “no” their joint experience held the possibility of a “yes.”