All the incredible life lessons I learned on a 730 mile bike trip

At the cusp of the summer of 2015, I was on the verge of both personal and professional burnouts. After watching a friendship with someone I liked turn into an epically failed romance, and revving in neutral at a job that left me completely unfulfilled, I was fighting a fierce wave of depression. I was desperate for a rope to pull me out of my slump.

My friend Tarina was also searching for clarity, and invited me on a 12-day 730-mile bike tour down Highway 101 — a huge departure from our daily commutes through Chicago. Not only did I learn how to pitch a tent in a sand dune and fix a flat tire, but I also discovered that cycling could teach valuable lessons about empowerment and humanity. Here are some of the lessons I learned on that epic trip:

Freedom rolls on two wheels.

The most wondrous aspect of cycling is its capacity to be such an autonomous yet humbling act; when cycling, I have the opportunity to indulge my inner-adventurer while finding a balance between understanding and also transcending my physical limitations. A bike affords a rare opportunity for complete accountability to oneself. In my day-to-day life, I am constantly told how to look, act, and feel. The saddle of my bike is one of few places in the world where I answer solely to myself.

I’m not always sure if it’s me or the bike that’s steering, but I always wind up where I belong.

My body is a machine — a beautiful machine.

Body image is a pesky concept that I’ve struggled with since I was forcibly nicknamed “thunder thighs” in third grade, but cycling has taught me that my body — especially those aforementioned legs — is a wondrous thing deserving of my respect.

Whether I’m climbing up steep hills, pacing across flat plains, or bombing down hills, I’m reminded that my body’s synchronicity with an object has made it all possible. At the end of the day, my bike doesn’t go anywhere if I don’t. Realizing that my body was the powerful force driving my bike across state lines has helped me to respect it more than ever.

It’s never too late to learn, even when no one will teach you.

The most common criticism that I encountered while preparing for the trip was my lack of mechanical knowledge. True, prior to my decision to embark on this journey, I had never changed a flat tire myself, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t watch at least 25 YouTube tutorials telling me how. I’d also never had to completely disassemble a bike, but that was another thing I had to do before shipping it out to the trip’s starting point in Oregon – and you bet I figured it out after spending an hour on the Internet, shedding a couple tears of frustration, and downing some victory beers.

Teaching myself these crucial skills was not just a liberating experience, it was an exercise in self-affirmation. I proved that not only did I maintain the aptitude to pick up these new skills, but I also managed to do so amidst criticism and doubt.

Dirt caked under my fingernails never felt so satisfying.

There is no real reason to compare yourself to others.

As an incredibly competitive person, curbing my urge to compare myself to fellow riders (especially Tarina) was perhaps the most mentally challenging aspect of the trip for me. For the first leg, I constantly held her as a benchmark to meet — and, subsequently, exceed. She’d be cruising over the crest of a hilltop as I sat at the trough, or would be lounging on the side of the road, noshing on an apple, as I trudged miles behind. Even early on, I could feel pangs of defeat in my gut.

After hitting the 40 mile mark on Day One, I lurched toward a tiny gas station with an elated Tarina cheering me on. I realized that comparing myself to her was fruitless; we were a team with mutual goals and respect. We started together, and we would finish together — we would also support each other every mile in between.

Life isn’t a race, anyway. It’s a marathon.

Being alone isn’t as scary as you’d imagine, but it does scare other people.

As I met gaggles of people in places named after things I’d soon forget, I fielded questions about the heaps of luggage astutely sitting on my bike. When I debriefed curious onlookers along our route, the reaction was always, “Oh god, and you girls are doing it all by yourselves?” Weren’t we worried for our safety?

The truth is, being two completely self-reliant women in unfamiliar territory was refreshing. Not only could we revel in our self-sufficiency, but we could also disprove all of the relatively unfounded fears that strangers had for us. Save for an eerie campsite situated on an open sore of Highway 101, I never felt the need to draw the 4-inch switchblade in my handlebar bag or unclip the mace in my pannier.

People are scared of those who can go it alone because they’re the ones who feel the most powerful. At least, that’s my theory.

Clearing your pores can clear your soul.

As I was packing up two weeks worth of clothes, camping supplies, bike gear and a couple of creature comforts (the night before our departure, naturally), I pondered how much makeup I should, could, and would bring along with me.

I picked and preened through my makeup bag for a good 15 minutes before realizing that a layer of foundation or streak of eyeshadow wouldn’t cruise me down the coast any faster. I had resolved to be more vulnerable during this trip; abandoning my five-minute face was part of that.

For those glorious two weeks, the only thing lining my eyes was a thin layer of California humidity. My lips were sealed with bug carcasses and chapstick. My overgrown pixie cut was slicked back by day-old sweat.

I’d never felt so beautiful.

Most obstacles look worse from a distance.

I don’t recall feeling such strong existential dread as I did on Day One of the trip — our itinerary for the day was an intense 80-mile stretch, densely packed with steep hills, baking in the Oregon sun. I seriously considered throwing my bike into a ravine and calling it quits, before we even started. Had I done that, I would’ve made the biggest mistake of my life.

I will never forget one of the last hills of that day; it seemed so insurmountable that I was convinced it was a cruel joke. The peak looked high enough to scrape through the cotton ball clouds, and this was only the warmup. Oregon was just the aperitif to the two-hour climbs and winding roads of the jagged California coastline. But after a pep talk soliloquy and some half-assed pranayama, I made it up the damn thing — coasting down a descent had never felt to deserved.

You don’t have to know the game to make your own rules.

When we embarked on this trip, neither of us knew diddly squat about bike touring, save for some anecdotes and Instagram posts from a handful of cyclist friends. Tarina hadn’t been camping since she was a kid in Kansas and the closest I’d come was pitching a tent in my backyard so I could read Walden “as it should be read.” Fundamentally speaking, we could have been totally and royally screwed.

That isn’t to say that we didn’t weather our fair share of mild disasters. When I forgot how to pitch my borrowed tent, we Googled and manhandled its wayward poles until we eventually got our assembly time down to less than three minutes. Summoning a flame from my camp stove often required some frantic fiddling and a brief prayer. We picked up tips from fellow tourers and developed our own modus operandi, like the fact that every day spent on a bike should end with an ice cold Coors Banquet and all the desserts we could find.

Most importantly, however, I just pedaled like I owned the road — that was the one and only rule.

Shannon Shreibak is a clumsier-than-most cyclist, writer, and professional social media whiz living in Chicago. When she’s not scrawling pitches on diner napkins, she can be found behind a novelty-sized mug brimming with coffee, recording demos in her bathroom, or accidentally killing yet another houseplant. Learn more about her 140 characters at a time on Twitter.

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