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The comforting vapors of steam warmed my face as I sat on the edge of a felled tree in a dark forest. I chuckled to myself as I poured boiling water from a $200 stove into an 89 cent cup of spicy chicken ramen. The anticipation of this meal was a welcome reprieve from the anxiety brewing in my mind. I felt neither alone nor safe as trucks growled past me on a nearby road. As I raised a spoon of decadent ramen towards my mouth, my body tensed. A car just turned onto the nearby prohibited dirt road I took to find my camp spot. Shit. What are they doing here? That night I was stealth camping, meaning I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been, and neither should this person. My heart raced as I ducked behind a tree to avoid being seen. The car slowly drove past. Phew. I was utterly exhausted. My body had handled enough adventure for one day. But damn was I having fun.
This is day one of a bike tour of the Ocala National Forest. Bike touring is packing all necessary gear for travel on a bike, and riding it from point A to B. This can include anything from camping supplies, clothing, cooking utensils, food, and other luxuries of travel. Bike tourists can opt to travel lightly, stay in hotels, and eat in restaurants every day (also called credit card touring), or choose to select their camping spot each night, with their menu selection limited to what they could carry.
The appeal of this open-ended approach struck me on a bus ride from Montreal to Toronto. As the vast Canadian landscape drifted by, I felt an urge to to scream “stop the bus!”. I wanted to push open the doors, run into the field of birches and pines and soak in the view before it vanished forever. Here I was headed to yet another metropolis and missing everything else along the way. Later that week after sharing my burgeoning desire to travel differently with a friend, they would introduce me to the idea of bike touring. I knew I needed to try it.
I went to work on being tour ready the moment I returned. Starting from scratch, there was a large list of items I’d need to get started. A steel bike, pannier bags, lightweight single person tent, portable battery charger- the list went on and on. Thank the gods for Facebook Marketplace. Gear was of course useless if I couldn’t ride down the street. My father, a 30 year cycling veteran, helped me train day after day as well as learn the mechanical ins and outs of the bike. It wasn’t long until I was riding 25 miles a day and slowly becoming confident in my abilities. “Remember”, he would say taking note of my pride, “riding now is easy. But when your gear is loaded up, your bike is going to feel like a Mack Truck”. It was these sorts of careful considerations that made the preparation processes so exhaustive and delicate. What if I’m not strong enough to make it to my next destination? What if I’m missing the proper tool, part, or knowledge to fix a mechanical issue? The margin for error for the entire operation seemed small. One wrong move and I could be stranded in the middle of nowhere. It was awesome.
The beauty of bike touring lay in its unyielding challenge and the benefits that come with it. Cars would whiz past at 70MPH, hills would send burning pain up my quads, and hidden roads would beckon a gamble at either a quenching shortcut or an unbearable backtracking. It forced my mind to be present and one step ahead at all times. With focus came greater perception. Subtle features of the land and people began to spring forth once granted the time to pay attention to them. What was once whirling past me on the bus was now in front of me. It was now my playground. There was no Facebook to pass the time, no busy stations with departure and arrival times to meet. There was only challenge, reward and my own path. I was finally untethered and free to explore that which once taunted me through the window.