Coming of age on two wheels

Cinque Terra, Italy, 1983.

I’m going to deviate a bit from my normal pondering. As I do, I recognize how infrequently I write about a joyous memory without its accompanying tie to grief. And while processing grief and sorrow in my writing is part of what has been powerful for me, I too have other stories to share. Recent television coverage of the Tour de France amplified by my last post Loneliness, friends and social support triggered memories of my three and a half month-long cycling adventure.

This grand adventure took place in what feels a lifetime ago–four decades. While the Tour de France may have returned my thoughts to this time, so too does the recognition of how much has changed in the way we travel and communicate. Just prior to taking this trip in 1983, I graduated a quarter early from Missoula’s University of Montana to work full-time (in a restaurant where elk and other wild game might show up in the walk-in freezer during hunting season). My traveling buddy and best friend Karen and I shared a fall birthday making us not yet twenty-one, our sizes and dress choice made us look younger. We traveled with American Express checks and a paper map, leaving our parents with four European mail drop addresses. Fortunately, as we found out the night we stayed at a hotel in Zurich, we carried Karen’s parents’ credit card for emergencies. (We’d had another flat, couldn’t find a hostel or campground, and our so called mail drop contact was on holiday for a month. It was in this hotel we both learned that if you open “just to try” minibar offerings, you will pay for them in their entirety. Yes, we learned expensive hotels aren’t “all inclusive.”) While I had money saved in my bank account in Oregon, true to the times one day I called home from Cannes, France, for someone to wire me more money. My parents were divorced then, I didn’t realize I was calling in the middle of the night and am grateful my younger brother answered the phone: Dad would have been clueless as to how to help.

The only time I’ve written publicly about this cycling adventure, was a blog posted on Fred‘s Blog which still exists if you want to read a little bit more. Thank you to Fred’s Blog – check out the stories there from all over.

While my journals over the years mostly rely on words, on this trip I too doodled and sketched. I have led workshops on the power of journaling for well-being, and yet too we know how wonderful journals are in bringing special experiences back to us later. Here’s a few bits from our trip.

Pre-trip planning, May 1983, Missoula MT
June 30, 1983, Ed, Västra Götaland County, Sweden
Dede at another 5 star accommodation. (Nope, not on a phone as we didn’t have those back then…not sure what I’m doing.) Our tent was tiny for two people, apparently so we could carry the weight of the cabbage and fresh veggies that Karen insisted on for dinner. At some fancier German campgrounds, people actually laughed and pointed at our tent staked in the middle of caravans and trailers.
July 26, 1983 Lake Greifense, Switzerland
Dede and Karen outside of Horgen Switzerland
August 3, 1983, Florence, Italy. (Oh yes, the train experience – we’d been told we could sneak into a sleeper car but got caught in the middle of the night and found ourselves standing in the aisle with our panniers and belongings until we arrived in Florence. Florence was amazing even though we got bed bugs and we waited 4 days for our bikes to arrive.)
Karen in Florence (nicely dressed up in her one dress). We each carried one dress and would joke about what to wear on the evenings we decided to change out of our biking clothes.
August 6, 1983, A churchyard in Levanto, Italy
Our Italian (churchyard?) friends. Oh my, we were so young!
August 23, 1983, St. Georges, Auvergne, France (Russ was sending me beautiful love letters from home. I was reading one in a square in Cannes and crying, and an elderly man came up to me. Somehow we could converse and he told me I was too young to settle on one man yet. Note: Russ and I married in 1988 and are still married.)
Dede at Fontainbleu? France
September 18, 1983, Canterbury England

What a trip we had! While my journal returns details to me I have forgotten, there are many I hope never escape my memory. How it began snowing as we crossed into Norway, so we changed course to Denmark, getting to Kronberg Castle and Copenhagen. Each night we would look at our paper map and decide: where next? Yes, that got us into crazy terrain like Italy’s Cinque Terra where we did get into a truck with a man (sorry Mom and Dad) bikes and all, to get up a hill, later stay overnight in a churchyard so we didn’t have to ride up another hill, and agree to stay the five nights at the only hotel with a vacancy in Levanto. (We joked it allowed us to have a “vacation from our vacation”.) However, we said no to the man who gave us the lift to “also visit his vineyard” and though we were flashed by the same flasher twice on the coast of France, we were more angry than scared. How we happened onto the sign for Monet’s home in Giverny France – simply by being there. We too took a ride from the Zurich train station from a young mail carrier named Karl who wanted to practice the English he was learning from BBC mail-order tapes. Karl invited us to spend a week with his family who owned a small bakery in nearby Horgen. He drove the 20 kilometers like a maniac and it was while in the tiny car with our bikes strapped on top that we worried we’d made a bad choice. We were soon to find, though, an experience richer than what we might have imagined: drinking coffee with his parents in the morning before the bakery opened relying on gestures and “ya, ya, so, so”, hiking in the Alps with Karl and his friend Alex, where one day we heard yodeling. Just a year later, Karl and Alex traveled to the U.S., tracked down me (and Russ) in MIssoula and we took them rafting on the Blackfoot River. Now, that’s a story!

Russ and I have raised two daughters who went off on their own sometimes solo adventures at similar ages (Kenya, Japan, Italy, Costa Rica). When they did, we had cell phone and email though not always with coverage. I admire my parents for supporting this trip Karen and I took, though I also know how different the times felt then. Somehow our parents didn’t worry as much if they didn’t hear from us for a month or two, or maybe they did but didn’t have much choice but to trust us and believe all would be well. They didn’t know that we (sorry safety professional friends but please remember this was before helmets were widely popular everywhere) stopped wearing our helmets after traveling through Holland and Sweden, even mailing them home before later regretting the decision as we tried to figure out how to maneuver roundabouts in Paris. Our parents certainly didn’t know how much two (American) females cycling on Italian roads at that time stood out: cars would go by and men would literally hang out their window. Or about the young Italian police officer who took our passports for much longer than we know was necessary as we stood with our bikes on the road. We made a lot of friends besides Karl and our Italian friends, including our Australian hostel friends in Denmark who toasted our national July 4th holiday. And yet, aside from some flat tires and a few non-serious bike crashes, we returned braver, stronger and unhurt.

Circling back to the Tour De France: our favorite joke was created when the Tour passed through the same French town on the day we did. We stayed away from the crowds but from then on we reminded ourselves we “still had the lead.” We made a lot of jokes that to this day are only between the two of us. (For you Karen: “just go straight…you can’t miss it.”) Karen and I too got tired of each other and after Canterbury, separated for four days. I don’t recall where Karen went but I headed to the coast, through the town of Rye and beyond. We planned to meet at noon at Windsor Park – a day or two before our flight home. And yes, without the help of phone or email, we did in fact meet on time. There is no doubt, a lot of bad might have happened on that trip but it didn’t. We mostly made smart decisions, but we too embraced opportunities. While things are so different in today’s world, I am still hopeful that as parents and mentors and communities we can still somehow help those among us take on challenges that allow us to come of age by building our own courage, confidence and strength, and in doing so, develop trust and deep bonds with others different than us.

Karen and Dede, 2022, Glacier National Park.

2 thoughts on “Coming of age on two wheels

  1. I sure love this Dede! You know I no longer have my journal from our big adventure as it was destroyed in the great Boston earthquake…of sorts. Such a loss but so glad that you have chronicled so many of those juicy memories for us. It was glorious, sometimes scary and so very special to share both the hardships and the triumphs. I’m fairly certain the vegetables sustained our health on that long ride. Otherwise, we would have only eaten baguettes and grape jelly with a gigantic chaser of fine chocolate. I don’t know how we slept at night after such a LARGE consumption of chocolate.

    Liked by 1 person

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