“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” — Susan B. Anthony
It was after reaching the top of the busy, steep climb out of Crescent City, California that the thought came to me that that was the largest hill that I have ever accomplished on my bicycle. Soon after, sweaty and thirsty, I declared to Christopher, “I would never have been able to do that two years ago!”
I had pedaled up that hill with my four panniers using nothing more than my own two (now nicely toned) legs.
If someone had asked me two and a half years ago if I would travel all the way to San Francisco by bicycle I would have responded with a scoff and I probably would have said, just like Gandalf to the Fellowship, “fly, you fools.”
But now, here I was, at the top of a hellish hill suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of amusement, accomplishment, and pride. And, what surprised me most, was that I felt another unexpected sense — freedom. It should be noted though that this freedom was hard won.
It was over 100 years ago when a suffragette named Alice Hawkins put on pantaloons and bicycled around Leicester, England to promote women’s rights. Along the way she wreaked havoc by being one of the first women to not only wear pants in the city (how scandalous), but also as having the audacity to ride a bicycle.
This moment of bad-assery encased what bicycles and the act of bicycling can represent: liberation, and more specifically, liberation for women.
If you’re wondering how bicycling can be liberating for women, let me tell you a little more.
Throughout my life I have often felt weak. Growing up with three older brothers and two gorgeous older sisters, I got it in my head that I was small and insignificant. It wasn’t the fault of anyone really, but as I grew up, I questioned what I should look like, how I should act, and who I was. Magazines, Hollywood, social media, and public school didn’t necessarily boost my confidence level and also didn’t contribute to the formation of my identity.
In short, I rarely, if ever, felt confident or strong, or “enough.”
And while I wasn’t unhealthy or inactive two and half years ago before I started cycling, I definitely didn’t look at a bicycle and associate it with words like “feminism” or “freedom.”
But since starting our bicycle journey to San Francisco, I have changed.
I have felt confident. I no longer look in the mirror and see my weight or my body hair and think that I’m not good enough or beautiful. Because it is and I am.
I have felt powerful. I no longer question if I can or if I should, I just do.
And I have felt strong. My body, however imperfect it may seem to me sometimes, is my own. And it had taken me over 800 miles from my home in Tacoma to Crescent City on nothing more than a bicycle. That, I think, is pretty amazing.
And I’ve discovered that this newfound strength is, in many ways, freedom. Not freedom as in what gun-toting, I-can-say-whatever-I-want-without-consequence-because-America kind of freedom, but a freedom from limitation.
And it was in my moment, on top of that ghastly hill outside of Crescent City that I was simply a woman who could and a woman who did.
To take it back to Lord of the Rings, I am reminded of the moment in Return of the King when Eowyn says to the Witch-King, “I am no man” and then stabs him in his face. Bicycling that hill outside of Crescent City, was a metaphor for me stabbing it in the face.
And that, I think, is what Susan B. Anthony meant when she said that the bicycle is free, untrammeled womanhood (well, that may not be precisely what she had in mind).
But, now getting back to my story and building upon my theme of womanhood, once Christopher finally caught up to me (okay, he wasn’t really that far behind) we proceeded into a campground called Mill Creek, giving us our first glimpse of Redwood trees. After an uneventful night, we decided to ride to a hike-in campsite called Flint Ridge, just 23 miles out.
We once again ran into Ashley (our always-eating Canadian Pippin) and she decided to join us on our ride to Flint Ridge – something I’m sure she later regretted.
This turned out to be another steep climb and we had to push our bicycles up a grassy hill, but it offered a gorgeous sunset which was our first, scenic view since arriving in Northern California.
And as we sat around a fire, I considered our Canadian Pippin and her strength.
Not only was she a woman cycling alone from Vancouver to San Francisco, and then hiking Yosemite, but she had lived in Germany, Korea, and she wasn’t afraid to be her loud, food loving self.
I had never toured before I met Christopher and while I would like to think I would have eventually tried touring alone; I don’t know if I would have had the guts before now to do so. So, in a way, I envied Pippin for her solo-cycling courage and her confidence.
Pippin wasn’t the only solo female we’ve met on the road. Earlier on in Washington, we met a woman in her sixties, returning from a cycle tour around all of Oregon. Later on in California, we would meet two women touring from Spain, in addition to a rock climbing gym owner name Giona (who was cycling along the coast to San Diego in just 14 days — not to mention that she had never toured before and she even rode a century [100 miles] in 1 day, — yeah, she was a total badass).
After packing up the next morning, we headed to Elk Prairie. We decided to follow a road that our map said was paved (which was — like 50 years ago), but was now an overgrown, bear playground that we for some reason decided to ride through in the early morning fog…Oops.
On the “road” we had to ride through overgrown blackberry bushes, stinging nettles, and over heaps of bear poo, while trying to be noisy and stick together in case a black bear made an appearance. Luckily, no bears came out to play, but we did have one final, grassy and steep climb which involved two people per bicycle to push them up the hill.
After what felt like hours, we escaped the bear path and arrived onto an actual road. And it was here that the view, downhill ride, and gorgeous Redwood trees, made up for the rough trek in.
When we arrived at our next campsite in Elk Prairie we were excited to see that it was both secluded and beautiful…at least until a bunch of other cyclists showed up, but I’m not complaining because two of them were Ralf and Frederic, our new friends from Germany.
I decided, without their permission, that they should be our Thranduil and Legolas since they’re father and son, they speak a language I can’t speak, and they’re both awesome.
Anyway, we decided to have a rest day and thought we would do an easy, short ride nearby towards the beach and what was known as Fern Canyon. We invited Thranduil and Legolas to join us on our ride, which they probably regretted saying yes to because, like Frodo & Sam, we have a habit of taking people on crazy adventures. Our “short” ride, ended up being 20 miles of mountain biking, a lot of uphill climbing, and it even included Ralf being bitten by a dog (PSA: If you have a dog who hates bicycles, don’t take them on a bicycle trail).
In the end, the ride itself wasn’t awful as it included a beautiful scene of elk grazing just a few feet away from us in a meadow, exploring Fern Canyon (which was, as the name suggests, a giant canyon covered in ferns), and ended with a bonfire and meeting more cyclists from the U.K.
The next day, we rode to the town of Arcata where we stayed with two warmshowers.org hosts named Wendy and Mike. Wendy, was yet another bad ass woman who had cycled all over the world and was a former doctor. In addition, she also started a climate change awareness podcast called Coolsolutions. Basically, she’s who I want to be when I grow up.
Wendy and Mike made us the best meal we had had in a while, which Wendy had made in a Dutch oven, followed by ice cream and granola for dessert (we felt like royalty).
In the morning, we had a final farewell breakfast with Thranduil and Legolas and rode onward into the city of Eureka where Christopher and I decided to stay for the day. The following morning, we rode to Ferndale, with the intention of riding the infamous Lost Coast.
We explored Ferndale, an old Victorian town which happened to be home to a small Carnegie Library, and ate delicious local pizza and ice cream (obviously).
The next morning, we began the slow climb towards the Lost Coast, which boasts the largest climb in the state of California.
Now, I would like to say, since this post has a theme of feminism and liberation for women that sometimes, failure is imminent. Taking on hills and trying to empower other women to bicycle is certainly my goal, but sometimes the hills win and accepting defeat is just a part of life.
So, with all of our heavy gear, the California heat, and our sore legs, we gave up on the Lost Coast route and decided to head straight for the Avenue of the Giants.
Now, while I will say that I felt low for not finishing the Lost Coast, the shame quickly went away when we entered the Avenue of the Giants, which was easily my favorite experience in Northern California.
It was like being transported into the Lord of the Rings when Mary and Pippin enter the ancient Forest of Fangorn and meet the Ents. There is awe, and fear (for falling branches called Widowmakers), and there is a feeling of insignificance when you stand in the shadow of a 500-year-old Redwood tree.
It was in the Avenue and while sleeping under the mercy of giants (hoping we don’t get hit by widowmakers) that I was struck by how far we had come – of how far I had come.
I was reminded of when I first bought my Fuji Touring bicycle and the frustration of having to relearn how to ride and how to my use bar-end shifters. I was brought back to our first tour in Washington when I felt weak and slow riding to Port Townsend, how I still felt slow later on when we rode the Iron Horse Trail. I recalled cycling Mt. Constitution on the San Juan Islands. I reminisced about our first week of cycling on this tour, the way I felt myself getting stronger. And I considered how we have cycled over 70 miles some days, climbed massive hills, and bicycled all the way from Tacoma to the Redwoods of California.
When I first started cycling two years ago, I felt weak and unsure of myself, and I wasn’t confident when Christopher said he wanted to go on an extended bicycle trip around parts of the world, if I could do it too.
But now I know that I can.
And now, when I think of who I am, and who I have come to be, I know the answer.
I am a cyclist. I am strong. And “I am no man.”