Today was the longest day — just under 100 km — and the day I finally found my “just be here” presence. Yes, I’m headed for Haapsalu. Yes, it’s far, and it’s still windy. But I was just riding. That sensation where “I’m going from A to B” transmutes into “this is what I do — ride this slightly unwieldy, mostly obedient, sturdy bike, with all my things on it. I have nothing else to do and nowhere else to be.”
And at the end, my favourite town yet, Haapsalu, where I ate an enormous piece of rhubarb cake and drank a pot of tea at the foot of a castle. Where today’s random Estonian soundtrack included a Josh Ritter album that was one of my dissertation-writing playlists. (Lunch was ABBA)
Haapsalu is little fingers of land clustered around a bay, a resort town for the last century and a half. A favourite of the doomed Russian royal family, apparently. Sweet winding streets, colourful wooden houses, happy blonde families eating on patios. Sparkling blue sea all around. Big enough to have a bike shop so I could get a new lock.
My ride today was steady, persistent effort, but less of a tussle. Hard to say if it’s because I finally gave in and just accepted what is, I’m feeling stronger, or the wind was less. Probably a combination of all of them, though I can say with certainty that I have yet to feel a tailwind. The pedalling was effort, but I took the time to wander a few kilometres off course to see a random village — where I was intrigued that wooden buildings had historic markers on them in both Estonian and English, to stop to eat sour Russian soup and pancakes for lunch in a restaurant by the side of the road, to go 350 m off the road to see a view.
I’ve seen a lot of signs indicating a view, but they are usually 3 or more km away, and no view in western Estonia is worth an extra 6 km on a gravel road on a 97 km day. But I figured 350 m was doable… and found a very elaborate, mobility-accessible, viewing platform for migrating cranes and greylag geese and breeding great snipe. In September and October this place will be rocking. But for now, it’s more farmland. But I was glad I stopped to see it, glad that I felt so in flow that I was comfortable taking my time, looking at the world.
When I ride like this, I start to feel a little bit of the women who inspired me to start riding in the first place. About 25 years ago, I started to read books by women who just sort of got on their bikes and just kept going. Dervla Murphy, who left her unhappy life of caring for her aging parents in Ireland in her 30s to just go for a bike ride and eventually became a travel writer doing astonishing things by bike, trekking, by trans-Siberian railroad. Anne Mustoe, who retired from her life as a headmistress in an English girls’ school and thought she might ride to Italy on the bike the girls gave her as a gift — and didn’t stop until she’d gone around the world. Many times. The tiny perky Josie Dew who rode across Japan, the US, the Sahara, New Zealand. They are the ones who made me believe it’s possible for a woman to ride alone, to travel alone in unexpected places, to love other people but prefer your own company while immersing yourself in a new place. I’ve written before about why I like traveling alone, and it’s these women who inspired me to take that leap.
I think one of the most important things these women made possible for me was trust that other people are much more likely to want to help you than to hurt you. When I went to Myanmar, one of the first things someone told me was “people want to help — just ask them.” In my experience, this is almost always true. And it’s a much better way to navigate the world than with a flare of fear.
It’s fairly common for people — especially women — to say that I’m “brave” for traveling alone. I don’t feel brave, but then I suspect people mean a lot of different things by it, depending on the nature of their fears and anxieties. Fear of getting hurt and no one helping, fear of the unknown, fear of being not at your best when you don’t sleep or eat well, fear of not getting your needs met, someone stealing your stuff, discomfort with not knowing how things work, fear of what happens in your inner soul when you’re alone too long? I am not a stranger to anxiety, and I spent a whole lot of my life not doing things because they scared me. I can be impatient, especially when I’m hungry and service is super slow. But somewhere along the way I realized that travel was a practice to work toward grace with whatever is.
I’m a fan of this podcast called My Favorite Murder, two women talking about true crime. They have a huge following of mostly women who call themselves “murderinos.” It’s actually a very funny and fun podcast, but the two women and the community around it are really leaning into a very real fear and belief that the world is a dangerous place, especially for women, and that dark murdering strangers are lurking around every corner. Their tag lines — like “stay out of the forest!” and “stay sexy, don’t get murdered” are expressions of real, everyday anxiety. When I went on my first solo bike trip, a co-worker said “Aren’t you afraid you’ll get snatched!”
I think I felt that fear once — but I don’t now. The world is mostly a warm place, a friendly place, maybe sometimes an indifferent place — the Estonians really don’t smile and say hi — but most of the things that scare us are in our heads. And when I’m on a bike riding nearly 100 km through fields of hay and canola, through tiny villages, past old women tending to thriving gardens , feel the layers of history in this land — I feel this more than any other time. I feel strong and so grateful even for the effort and the flickers of boredom. I do have moments where I think, hm, that truck carrying bales of hay is kind of leaning — wouldn’t it be a weird and absurd death if I were crushed to death by hay in Estonia? But that’s not scary, just… absurd. In the best way of life. So I ride on.