In 1985, I was one more unpublished fiction writer in New York City. To pay the rent, I was teaching, or failing to teach, college freshmen to write comprehensible essays, and I was grossly underpaid. So it was only by living on raw carrots and rotgut Jim Beam that I had managed to hoard enough money to light off for several months in Western Europe with a bicycle named Zefal. I was 28 years old. I had no idea that I was still very young, which may be definitive of being 28 years old.
In those days, cross-country cycling trips were not quite trite, though they would soon become so, to my annoyance. At least this was before the advent of posh package-holiday group cycles from one Michelin-star restaurant to another. This was also before the advent of mobile phones, so I had to make due with Let’s Go Europe. I launched off on this trip by myself. In retrospect, for a young woman to be biking solo in often deserted countryside was probably dangerous, but one of the delights of being young is being stupid.
By the end, I travelled a total of over 4,000 miles, averaging a hundred miles a day. Of my many days on the road, I had the wind at my back exactly twice.
When I was younger, I was constantly testing myself. (Now rounding on 63, I’m far less inclined to do so; there’s no joy in setting yourself tests that you fail.) You know, how many sit-ups could I do, how many days could I go without food—and rising to a challenge only upped the ante. I liked to think of myself as intrepid. So there was a particular ride early in my European adventure that I have never forgotten. Somehow the first time I laid eyes on Guim Tió’s paintings I was put immediately in mind of that day. Even now I can’t say if it’s a terrible memory or just an important one, though lest you get your hopes up: nothing really happened.
From New York, I had flown first to London, then biked up central England and through the mountainous Lake District (which was taxing). I had slept in a youth hostel in the northern border town of Carlisle, and I still remember what I had for breakfast that morning: cold brown rice leftover from my previous night’s self-catering, doused with milk and topped with fresh red currants—a concoction that didn’t turn out to be as tasty as I’d hoped. The day’s plan was to curve northwest from Cumbria into Scotland, then head due west to Stranraer, where I could pick up the ferry to Northern Ireland. The distance was sufficient to just about meet that requirement of a hundred miles per day.
Even chugging out of Carlisle was wearing. Though summer, it was chilly and grey. More forbidding was what motorists might casually call a “breeze.” That was no breeze. Horribly, too, once I finally started heading due west, the wind no longer cut an angle across my path, but slammed straight in my face. (An acquaintance once asked me in bafflement, “But what does wind have to do with cycling?”—and that was how I knew that this person had never biked for longer than five minutes.) By the time I’d been in the saddle for about four hours, the gauge on my handlebars indicated to my consternation that I’d still not travelled twenty miles. Ludicrous. I was falling behind schedule. I’d have to really apply myself to make that ferry.
I was riding on B-roads, with very few cars, but for once the lack of traffic made me feel not left pleasantly to my solitude, but abandoned. Houses were few, shops nonexistent. The landscape was stark and muted, its scraggy gorse hunkered close to the ground and twisted; had I the eye at the time, I might have recognized vegetation accustomed to being pummelled, punished, and beaten down. Glimpses of the Scottish coastline should have been exhilarating, but I had lost the capacity for exhilaration twenty minutes after my last bite of cold brown rice.
The head-on wind was now a gale. Not a gale in the careless hyperbolic sense of “rather a stiff wind,” but a proper gale, of the sort that weathermen denote with massive arrows on a map and warn their viewers against (viewers on sofas with hot toddies wrapped snugly in fleece blankets). I was travelling so slowly that it was a wonder the bicycle remained upright. I might have been dragging the machine through pudding. Two other cyclists who weren’t even bothering to pedal sailed past me in the opposite direction at something like 80 miles per hour. With a wave, they cried gaily, “Turn around!” They had a point.
My face hurt. My eyes hurt. To minimize my wind resistance, I was hunching in the lowest position on the handlebars, so my shoulders hurt—and my posture couldn’t reduce the drag of two wide, overstuffed back panniers. And then abruptly in the middle of a long barren uphill slog, the bike stopped.
That was my experience: not that I brought the bike to a halt, but that Zefal himself refused to go any farther, like one of those abused, bedraggled horses in westerns forced to pull a covered wagon beyond the creature’s endurance, and then the driver whips it one more time and it keels over dead. Straddling the inert carcass, I started to cry.
Oh, after sobbing for ten or fifteen minutes, I struggled onward again, because I hadn’t any choice. I was alone—in fact, I’d rarely felt that alone before, and I’ve rarely felt that alone since. But I no longer gave a thought to my ferry. I felt humbled, even broken. I cared nothing for my plans or my daily mileage, but only about respite, shelter, and rescue. At the very first opportunity I checked into a rundown bed and breakfast, although it was only mid-afternoon, when I never, ever called it quits. The B&B was a fleapit, but as far as I was concerned it could have been the Taj Mahal. I had two shots of whiskey at the bar next-door at a time of day I never drank alcohol, either, and then I went to bed and slept for thirteen hours straight.
That moment on the Scottish hillside is a touchstone for me. It’s emblematic of my limitations. I had asked too much of myself, and I was flat-out not up to it. I flunked the test. That great brutal is-ness out there was bigger than I was. The indifferent external world had beaten me, because a vast inanimate expanse can always beat me. Behold, I am not infinitely intrepid. I’m female, barely over a hundred pounds, and five-foot-two. I have little appetite for suffering like a normal person, and like a normal person, too, I crave not “challenge,” but warmth, sustenance, and safety.
That afternoon also emblemizes for me the awesome powers of landscape, of weather, of the fearsomely implacable, impersonal forces of this earth. Environmentalists are eternally warning about the “fragility” of our planet, but let me tell you, it is not fragile. It is mighty. We’re the ones who are fragile, and the planet will smite us without a trace of sentimentality, and it will lumber on grandly without us, all trace of our sandcastles blown away in a geological eye blink. The magnificent artwork in this book delivers the same message. These images may have a sense of humor, too, but the joke’s on us.
I’ve gone on many other journeys under my own steam—hiking trips, canoe trips, other cycling trips—and whenever conditions turn hostile I always feel very, very small. I look at Guim Tió’s paintings, their daunting immensities, their empty planes, their stoic mountain ranges, their wide oblivious horizons, and I point to the tiny, powerless, insignificant figure barely visible on a broad, heedless canvas, and I think: that’s me.