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Failing On A Bike Trip Taught Me Too Much About Myself

I'm back with more Life Lessons, oh no

A photo of a bike on green grass in front of a river. In front of the bike is a camping stove with a small pot on top of it

As I mentioned in last week’s newsletter, I went on a bike trip this weekend. I meant to go 60 miles out of DC to attend an old friend’s party in Harper’s Ferry, a ride I’ve done a few times without much trouble. This time, there was trouble.

Right before we started Aftermath, I went on a 350 mile bike trip across Pennsylvania and Maryland. I got home about two weeks before we launched the site, and with the exception of one 60 mile event and a few shorter rides around town here and there, since then I’ve mostly been glued to my couch upwards of 12 hours a day doing Business Things. I knew this hasn’t been great for my body, and that my trip might be more of a struggle than it was when I was more active. I planned for the possibility of an extra day on the trail in case I needed to break things up, but still figured the ride was well within my abilities.

It wasn’t. 

I left Friday late morning, excited to have one last adventure in the woods before I leave this part of the country. By the time I got to the landmark of Great Falls, about 15 miles out of town, I was feeling a little tired, but I chalked it up to just not having ridden a loaded bike in a while. I felt good emotionally though, and was especially bolstered by a very cool encounter with a tiny baby snake on the trail, which I paused next to to shout “Look, a baby snake!” at everyone passing by until a very brave science teacher picked it up and put it in the grass so it wouldn’t get squished by cyclists like me. 

I kept peddling on, hoping to make it what used to be a negligible 40 or 50 miles, but the metaphorical wheels started to come off my plan. I was really tired, and I was rapidly reminded that I am a 42-year-old man who has been basically entirely sedentary with stress for the last 6 months. I knew I was in worse shape than I was before we started this site, but I hadn’t considered the possibility that I might not actually be able to bike as far as I used to. I ground on, getting slower and more achy, trying to decide what to do. It still felt possible to get to Harper’s Ferry–the party was an afternoon party, so I just had to do enough miles Friday to do the rest of the ride Saturday morning–but there was the question of getting back again. I could try to get a train back, but I’d have to wait until Monday, or I could break the trip up into even smaller chunks than I’d planned, which means I’d probably still be out there at whatever time you’re reading this. In the meantime, since I kept biking while indecisively considering my options (my best skill!), I was slowly digging my way deeper into my problem.

Great Falls, Maryland. It's very beautiful!

Finally, around 30 miles in, I stopped. Things weren’t going well, and at the rate I was moving, it seemed unlikely I’d be able to finish the trip out Saturday morning without being in a world of hurt. I decided I could axe the trip, camp overnight to still get some joy out of it, and turn back to DC the next day. I sadly texted my friend my plan and began setting up camp.

There are free campsites all along the trail, and there’s an interesting little ritual everyone does where you exchange pleasantries as a way of feeling each other out, all while acting like you’re not doing that at all. I waved a hearty “hey, how’s it going!” to the other guy at my site, a hiker I’d previously passed who was mysteriously dragging a cart conspicuously draped with an American flag. He was wearing a very red hat, which Means Something these days, but lots of hats are red, right? I watched him walk over to the water pump and realize there wasn’t a handle on it, holding a water bottle and frowning.

“Oh, I think the water’s still off,” I called. (The parks service turns the water off in the winter so the pumps don’t freeze.) He looked up, and I realized it was one of those hats when I saw the telltale white writing on it, and he was one of those guys, just out here in the woods with his flag and his hat parading his status as one of those guys. “Do you need water?” I asked. “I have extra.”

“No,” he said curtly, gesturing to the nearby Potomac River, which I believe is a body of water you should not drink out of even if you have a water filter, which I wasn’t sure if he had. I offered water a few more times, trying to do my best impression of a straight cis guy, but he headed back to his tent.

For obvious reasons, this sketched me out a bit. I don’t want to make assumptions about people, even if they are very clearly broadcasting what kind of assumptions you should make. Especially in my bikepacking clothes, it probably wasn’t immediately clear that I’m a very queer, very trans anarchist, and even intense differences in political position don’t mean you can’t share a campsite for a night. There’s a rainbow sticker on my bike that he couldn’t see unless he got very close, but I leaned my bike against a tree to cover it anyway. 

You will be shocked to learn that I stood there indecisively for a while. I had some embarrassing self-congratulatory thoughts about offering water to someone whose political cohort thinks I’m responsible for the downfall of America. I tried to determine whether there was legitimate danger being alone in the woods at night with someone with those beliefs or whether the fear of potential danger would make my night miserable regardless. I imagined the good that could come from a viral human interest story about building bridges across the political divide if I had to help him if he got sick in the middle of the night from the Potomac against how I would actually help him if he got sick in the middle of the night from the Potomac.

Ultimately, I decided that even if the actual danger was fairly low, my not-totally-illegitimate anxiety over it wasn’t worth it. I biked another five miles to a different campsite, alternately castigating myself for being a judgmental coward and praising myself for my very generous offers of water, because I am obviously a very good person with all kinds of valuable lessons to teach his kind of person. Since the universe was clearly rewarding me for how good I am, the next campsite was much more beautiful, and I got a lovely flat spot with a great view of the river. A father and young kid camping for the night showed up, and we did our own version of the trail greeting ritual in which I performed just the right amount of friendly interest despite how incredibly adorable their kid was being about a camping trip.

A very beautiful sunset over the Potomac

While setting up camp, my phone buzzed; it was the friend whose party I was trying to get to, offering to drive out to pick me up so I could still come to the party. I realized I could cover just enough miles in the morning to make a drive for him not totally miserable, though there was still the question of getting back. We argued for a while over it, with me absolutely mortified at the thought of accepting help even though it is one of those life lessons starting a business has taught me. He kept insisting the drive was worth it to have me, his friend whom he likes, at his party, while I kept insisting that I was a terrible, out-of-shape asshole who did not deserve to be at his party because of my failures. Ultimately, he won, and we arranged a pickup spot for early the next morning and decided we’d figure out my trip back later.

I ate my dinner and crawled into my sleeping bag to think about the trip so far. I was disappointed in myself for not being able to bike as far as I thought. I thought about the unhealthy habits I’ve developed around Aftermath, largely self-imposed, and how I can stop falling into them. I thought about other times people had helped me on bike trips–the old man who drove me to a campsite when I was stranded on a 90-degree day, and the friend who drove over an hour to rescue me–and the times I had helped others–offering a bike tool or a water filter, or the time I was part of a heroic cohort to help a cyclist with a bad flat. I thought about how this would likely be my last time on this trail, where I’ve found so much joy despite how badly things have gone for me in DC, and how fitting it all had been, even if it wasn’t what I’d hoped. 

The night was a little colder than the weather had predicted, and I woke up before sunrise. There’s always an hour around then when it’s the coldest it’s going to be, and I huddled in my bag watching my breath steam and listening to the distinctive call of barred owls. The first time I’d heard the sound, on my very first camping trip, it had scared the shit out of me; now that I know what it is, it was beautiful and comforting. I thought about all the new skills I’ve gained learning to bikepack, and how I’m such a different person now thanks to my sobriety, finding new things to love in a life that keeps getting bigger and bigger, even when I make it small with the resentments and self-loathing that fueled my drinking in the first place. When the coldest part of the night ended, I made coffee and watched the sun come up, teary-eyed at the beauty of it all and feeling a complicated combination of sadness and gratitude.

When it got light enough, I packed up camp and rode 13 miles to meet my friend. I was frustratingly tired and sore, but I felt on top of the world in the cold morning, shouting “hello” to ducks and a relatable “you just have to make a decision!” to indecisive deer trying to cross the trail. My friend drove me to Harper’s Ferry, where I got to help cook in a way I’ve missed from my activist days. I met a ton of awesome new people who of course tried to convince me not to return to New York and instead start a new life in small-town West Virginia, which I won’t say was not very tempting as they told me amazing stories about their towns and old houses. I thought about how much joy I would have missed out on if I hadn’t accepted help and gone to the party, how I would have been castigating myself on my couch in DC instead of having great conversations and eating way too many deviled eggs.

The next day, despite my useless habitual protestations, my friend drove me to a metro stop, and I rode the train back to DC. I got one last bit of trail magic when I had exactly enough money left on my transit card for the ride. The trip feels like a failure, but it wasn’t; it wasn’t the last ride I wished I had, but I came out of it with a wonderful new experience and a pile of life lessons to sort through, as well as a sense of how much I’ll need to train up for a big ride I’m doing this summer. I’m not sure I’ll still be able to bikepack when I’m back in New York, but I have some other friends who are into it, so hopefully I won’t have to trade my cool new hobby for being able to live in a familiar town with more friends nearby again.

The Big Lesson here for me, and maybe for you, is that it is OK to accept help. You don’t have to be punished forever for failing, a very bad belief that lives deep within my bones despite the years I’ve spent in both prayer and therapy trying not to believe it. My trip was a reminder to look up once in a while, to not fall into unhealthy habits like working all the time or apologizing constantly. Also, I hope that guy didn’t get giardia.

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