A 49-year-old adolescent bikes the Northwest

After nearly twenty days and 800+ miles biking around the Northwest, my legs have gone on strike, my brain is ready to go back to work, and my heart is eager to come home to my family. It’s been a ridiculously fun adventure, with spectacular views, delicious food, and friendly people. A big thank you goes to my sweetie Beth, who allowed (some might say encouraged) me to go on this trip; my teenage children, who took on cooking duties and household chores in my absence; and my wonderful sisters Kris and Ellen for providing me a base camp in Seattle.

Thanks to high school friend Gayle for root beer in Portland

As I concluded my trip by pedaling into Portland, Oregon, one of the highlights was meeting up with Gayle Lemery Lutes, a person who I knew from our tiny high school in rural upstate New York, but had not seen in thirty years. Gayle spotted me on FaceBook, discovered that I was biking through her neck of the woods, and invited me to sit down for a cold root beer. She is a year younger than me, and while we were not close friends in school, we know many of the same people, and had some good laughs about growing up in a small town and transitioning to life in a larger city. Since people from Morrisville, NY don’t visit Portland every day, and I hadn’t seen many familiar faces during my three weeks on the road, I was glad that she contacted me. Bicycling helps to bring people together.

Bicycles also help us to get away from people, even those we love. When people asked me why I was making this trip, I usually joked about wanting to have fun and lose weight. But the deeper answer is that I really needed to get away from my responsibilities, at least for a short period of time. Responsibility has always been a watchword for me. As a teenager working in the family store, I learned early on that accepting greater responsibility was my route to becoming an adult. The same theme continued after college, when as a twenty-something I became a teacher and took responsibility for educating young people other than me. Later, when I proudly began a family with Beth, one of the most important lessons I share with my children on a daily basis is to demonstrate how we all share responsibilities to one another. And truth be told, the workaholic side of me got overwhelmed this past year by juggling a few too many responsibilities on the job (which, being the responsible party here, was entirely my fault). See, it’s kind of ingrained in me.

Last winter, when I sensed the opportunity for a month-long opening in my work schedule, I briefly contemplated going on a group bike tour. Fortunately, I realized in time that riding with twenty other people and sticking to the group schedule was exactly the wrong thing for me, at this particular time. Instead, what I needed was a solo tour, where I chose where to go, how long to pedal, what to eat, and where to sleep. Mostly, I just wanted time alone on my bike to think… about absolutely nothing.

Some might diagnose this as a classic mid-life crisis. It’s true that I’ll turn 50 next summer. But I’m not pondering mortality or questioning life-long decisions. A mid-life crisis implies that there’s some aspect of yourself that you wish to change, and I feel very comfortable with who I am. Rather than a red sports car, I bought a blue bicycle, about five years ago, for around $900. So it’s not a classic case.

But perhaps the common thread here is that my solo bike tour was designed to be self-centered. I had no one to take care of other than myself. Here I am trying to teach my teenagers how to become more adult-like, and I’m goofing off on a three-week bike trip far from home, escaping from my responsibilities. Seems like I’ve turned into an adolescent again, at least for three weeks. But not too wild and crazy, as the strongest substance I’ve had on this trip is root beer. Great stuff. Highly underrated.

What have I learned about escaping from daily responsibilities on my bicycle? It’s an exhilarating feeling, full of independence and adventure, as well as uncertainty and loneliness. Many of those are the same feelings I had when I was twenty years old. Great to get back in touch with those emotions again. Given that my children and my students are at this age, perhaps feeling this way again will help me to become a more empathetic (and more patient) parent and teacher.

PS: In case you’re wondering, Beth definitely deserves a 3-week vacation, too, especially for putting up with me! And I look forward to sharing even more adventures with her in the years to come. Will be home soon! With love, Jack.