Born in San Francisco in May 26, 1877 (some sources say May 27, 1878), Isadora Duncan was a trailblazer of sorts. Her unique dancing style established “major emphasis on the human female form and free-flowing moves” and her approach to life was just as nontraditional. Duncan was considered an early feminist defying social norms in a plethora of ways, including refusal to marry and having children out of wedlock. She defied the still quite Puritanical Victorian-era view of women and women’s dress by refusing to wear a corset and instead dancing in free-flowing clothing. Duncan forfeited more traditional fragile, dainty and chaste roles a la Sleeping Beauty or Giselle and “created images of strong, self-reliant women.”
Funny then that — some 141 years after Duncan managed to deliver a feeling of liberation to those who watched her perform — the strong, self-reliant woman is still something of a talking point. By that I mean misunderstood, baffling or maybe even threatening. Take my experience yesterday after a delectable breakfast with my parents in Kayenta art village outside Ivins, Utah. Some of you already delved into the tale via my Insta(gram) or Facebook post yesterday. Today, it’s still flipping around my mind like 17-year-old prodigy Red Gerard who recently nabbed a gold medal at the Olympics. Worth mentioning, since he’s from Silverthorne, Colorado, a town from which I recently jumped ship. Anyway, the conversation yesterday is still snowboarding on the ridges of my cranium because it was also a recurring theme on my recently completed solo jaunt across the Southern US.
My super cool, supportive parents approached a group of older guys at an outside table. There were four of them, two of whom my dad knew. Dad introduced me, mentioning I’d just ridden my silly self from Berkeley, California to St. Augustine, Florida (they’re proud of me, I can’t stop them 🙂 ). The reactions ranged from congratulatory and admiring to… well, you’ll see.
First the usual suspects in terms of questions lined on up: the guy on the front left, asked where did you start and where did you end? He was friendly, slight, with a tan fleece vest opened to a wrinkled t-shirt. Fleece Vest continued: how long did it take? The guy in the back right, sporting a mustache with such an aggressive handlebar shape it could’ve been ripped off a dusty Harley, was up next. Mustache asked, who did you go with?
Of course, the answer was me and my bike, The Pirateship Penny (the artist formerly known as Penny until I unearthed a Jolly Rogers flag on the ground in Glamis, CA)
Fleece Vest said, “Wow. Most American women wouldn’t do a trip like that alone… European women, sure, but not Americans.” I can’t back up either of these claims like a prettier and more modest version of the Cloud, but I can say I encountered just two other solo ladies during my four and a half month jaunt. And the folks who hosted me (often part of a hospitality web site for cyclists with a questionable name, Warm Showers) also largely noted single female riders were not as common.
Henceforth arrived one of my other favorite questions, which older men of a certain age (say baby boomer generation) have a penchant for posing. It bubbled up from the man on the front right, we’ll call him Slightly Balding. Slightly Balding said, how are you financing this? Otherwise known or formerly phrased as, don’t you work or why aren’t you working?
Now, I’m not ashamed to admit I haven’t jobbed it up since mid-April 2017, at which point I was logging 60-70 hours a week at two jobs to save up for whatever was next. I was going through a divorce and packing up a house at the same time. I knew what was next (I had been invited back to Italy in late April to work for a the same bike tour company I’ve been happily grindstone-ing for since 2009). But next-next? Who knows. In other words, I had a shovel in hand, digging up my gypsy roots, unearthing my rainbow-colored parachute out so I could go with the wind. Over the course of the wine, gelato, networking, beach and bicycle-soaked summer, this translated to my solo odyssey across the Southern US, and a lot of asking for help. Help asked for and freely given, from the financial kind via a GoFundMe (and an eventual thank you from me in the form of a book written on the trip**) to lodging, directions, food and so much more, from total strangers.
But, back to the question at hand, which irked me more each time I had to reply. Why answer in the first place? Because I’ve been taught to respect my elders, no matter how intrusive their inquiries. And Slightly Balding, after learning about my next step (securing a study visa to learn Italian in Bologna for the next year; I have a to-do list that looks like the Declaration of Independence) had another question: Are your parents financing this?
The answer is yes, in part; I asked for a parent loan for the first time in my life. I am forever grateful my parents are not only endlessly supportive and understanding of my unique, free spirit, gypsy lifestyle but also financially able to help out. But was I going to tell this pompous, nearly hairless amigo that part of the story? Hell no.
Before I even had time to expound upon my springtime work bender and the money I’d saved squirrel/midden style for just this sort of thing, the man on the back left piped up. Let’s call him Sunglasses, because I never got a good look at his red, beady eyes. Sunglasses said, “Let’s get down to the important question though: what kind of bike did you ride?”
“A Ritchey,” I said.
Sunglasses’ eyebrows went up, behind the blackened frames. “Expensive bike,” he said. “Did your dad pay for it?”
Ladies and gentlemen, did I accidentally backflip back in time 141 years to the days of fainting couches and restricting corsets? I took a deep breath and said, “No, sir, I’m an independent woman. I just rode my bike solo across the US.” That shut him up well enough but the comment irked me like a completely misspelled email irks an English teacher, armed or not armed. What is it about being a strong, self-reliant woman that irks these men so much in this day and age? Why do I still find myself proving myself even after I’ve completed what many on this trip called a “life-changing,” “unique” and “brave” journey? Why must I prove myself at all?
This day and age is an interesting one, regardless of which side of the great political and ideological divide your lawn chair is set up on. I can’t even tell you the amount of times on this trip I came across a man who was older than me who just had to know how I was financing my trip and with whose help. Or how I — as a “vulnerable” female — was going to protect myself. Or didn’t I know the trip was more dangerous for me, a single, pretty (yes that was a point they made, too) female? And more than once, I got a “where is your husband/boyfriend?” Or another which is dearer to my heart than an iphone to a modern five-year-old: your boyfriend/husband lets you do this trip?
Honestly, yes I realize women are more vulnerable than men for a whole mess of reasons when striking out alone. But much of the answer to this “problem” is being aware of one’s surroundings — at a Safeway parking lot in Portland, Oregon or on a bus in Ethiopia. Furthermore, not expecting bad things to happen; for him (or her) who is afraid every leaf trembles. It’s also about listening to the intuition and not entering into situations that could go south. Unless you’re riding a bike southeast, that is… But (at least for me) the mere possibility of increased danger isn’t important when undertaking an adventure, a trip, a chance on a new job, a move — or anything at all.
Which brings me to my next related point: I, the intrepid single woman traveler was a reflection of other people’s views of themselves and their lives. Aren’t you afraid? They’d say, because they were afraid. I couldn’t ever do anything like that, they’d say, you’re much braver than I am, because they figured they weren’t brave. With the world the way it is these days… they’d trail off and shake their head, as we watched a tumbleweed or a fast food wrapper or a bit of newspaper fly across the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly, a Family Dollar, a Walmart.
So what reflection do these middle-aged men present, asking a perfect stranger about her financial situation or the protector she supposedly needs?
I have no answers for this interesting interplay between myself and older guys that I experienced all the way from bleeding-heart liberal California across the dusty, cactus-infested slopes of Arizona and New Mexico, into the swamps and rabid pit bull territories of East Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and onto the sunny sands of Florida.
By riding a bicycle across the US on my own I wasn’t looking to stir up any dormant pots or break any stereotypes. I wasn’t trying to blaze a trail (I more or less followed the path many others have taken, including many other single ladies who are way cooler than I am). I was trying to better understand myself and my country. In so doing, my bike tires* unearthed a whole gamut of insights and issues within myself and my fellow citizens, some of which surprised me. I have to admit, this is one of them.
*Another common query: how many tires did you replace on this trip? Answer: two, not because of catastrophic, nuclear blowouts or the arrival of hungry, tire-eating sea monsters. Like finally cleaning the toilet once the inside is blacker than the Grinch’s heart, it was just time.
The only way I know to show people anything at all is by my own actions. So I suppose I’ll keep doing what I do — sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, happily, freely, openly — and see if I can’t change a few more cranky old mindsets before 2018 is out like Kevin Spacey’s career. And if I can’t change them that quickly, the only surefire method I can think of is more trips, probably by bike, probably in foreign countries, possibly alone or with another fiery, strong independent chick. Yep, that should do it!
**And here’s the part where I shamelessly plug my vulnerable, fragile, pretty self: if you want to know more about my trip across the US than this blog and many others can deliver, you’re luckier than an old-fashioned aged guy stumbling upon a vulnerable solo biker chick. I will be releasing an ebook called “Through” later this year. Sign up for this blog to stay in the loop and thanks for reading!