By Stan Purdum
“I have a family, and although my dream is to have a bicycle pilgrimage, I would feel incredibly guilty about leaving my family. I’d have a sense that I had abandoned them, and I don’t think I could shake that feeling.”
That declaration was part of an e-mail message I received from a cyclist who had read my book about my coast-to-coast bicycle trip. He wrote to me to ask if I’d had similar feelings and if so, how I’d handled them.
I was the right person for him to ask. In 1995, when I rode across America, two of my three children were still teenagers at home, and I was leaving them and my wife to pedal off alone.
Other cyclists who tell me they yearn to ride extended trips often assume that those of us who have done so took to the road guilt-free, shucking all responsibilities and embracing a gypsy freedom because we have no ties that bind.
It’s true, of course, that some long-distance riders are in a period where they can be footloose for a while. But for me, it was a matter of cobbling together some time off and negotiating with my family members regarding the extended absence. And I left home with mixed feelings. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was speaking wisely when he said that conscience “takes up more room than all the rest of a person’s insides.”
As I rode my journey on the TransAmerica bicycle route, I encountered several other coast-to-coast riders, and I gathered that some were either unattached or had brought their significant other with them. Many of those in the latter category were young adults, couples, married or otherwise, without children and who had not yet settled into careers. They shared the miles together, some literally linked on tandem bicycles. I also met a couple in their late 30s, who had brought their two children along as well. One child cranked her own bike and the other cycled on a tandem with her dad.
A few of the unattached riders were riding solitary journeys. Jim, a man I met Montana was typical of the older unattached rider. In midlife, his marriage had ended, and finding himself between jobs, he had decided on a long-distance bike trek as a way to reassess his life. With no relationship to tend, taking to the road for several months was not a hard choice.
But there were riders like me who were in ongoing marriages and had family responsibilities, but who nonetheless were on the road without our spouses or children. Riding eastbound in Montana, I met woman riding westbound. She was a member of an Adventure Cycling cross-nation tour group, with whom she rendezvoused each evening. During the day, however, she rode at her own pace and was often by herself. She told me that she was happily married, but that her husband had no interest in riding the journey with her. He was willing for her to have the experience of the bike trip, however, and joining the tour group rather than making the trek alone had been her concession to his concerns about her safety.
In my case, it wasn’t that I wanted to be away from my wife and kids, but simply that it was not feasible for us to make the journey together. My choice was either to go without them or to not go at all. In my book about my trip, I described my situation this way:
“My wife … wasn’t crazy about the fact that I would be away from the family for my entire vacation allotment …. Although I had occasionally taken a week off without the family before, this would be the first time in the 29 years of our marriage that my plans included no time off together. Two of our three children yet lived at home, and although they were teenagers, they still needed some supervision and chauffeuring, which Jeanine would have to handle while also maintaining her job responsibilities. … juggling both her own and my usual parenting tasks was asking a lot of Jeanine, and I didn’t feel great about it. … it wasn’t going to be a holiday for her.”
I’m glad to report that we are still married. In fact, although my wife was never happy about my being away from her for weeks at a time, she eventually put her objections aside and accepted my expedition without rancor. She even helped with some of the getting-ready tasks. While I still felt an occasional twinge of guilt about the disparity in our circumstances while I was rolling across America, receiving my wife’s blessing for the trip alleviated a lot of it.
Certainly part of the reason we were able to negotiate this arrangement was because our marriage was stable to begin with and because we had a strong level of trust and respect for each other. But beyond that, here are some of the specifics that really helped:
We talked about personal goals. From the time we were first married, I had frequently voiced my desire to “someday” ride my bicycle across the country, and from almost as early, I realized that such a trip was not my wife’s idea of a good time. Her vacation preferences always included more conventional forms of travel and time to read by the pool, and over the years, we’ve taken some of those kinds of holidays together. They were pleasant, but they never satisfied my bicycle-travel itch.
On the other side of the equation, my wife, as a nurse, has had opportunities to participate in foreign mission trips, something she enjoys more than do I, and I encouraged her to go when possible, while I stayed home with the kids. We eventually accepted that not all our goals have to be in sync, and that there is value in allowing each other some room for occasional experiences that may not include the other. Her mission trips and my bike journeys have satisfied something in each of us, which makes us more content overall, and that is good for us as a couple.
I broke up the trip with returns home. The reality of my job meant that I could not take enough time off to make the coast-to-coast ride all at once. I ended up breaking the trip into three time-blocks over a year. While this was necessary for my job, it was also beneficial to our family situation. The longest I was gone at once was four weeks.
Where feasible, I included the family. The timeframe of my ride worked out that my daughter, then 15, could ride with me for the leg across Virginia. As soon as the trip became a father-daughter event, my wife, who believes in the importance of parent-child bonding experiences, became more enthused about the journey — it was no longer just for me. And I thoroughly enjoyed having my daughter along. On that same leg, my son got involved by transporting us home from the destination point.
We threw money at the problem. After I rode the first chunk of the trip, I realized how inexpensive bicycle travel can be, especially when camping out at night, as I usually did. So when I planned to ride the mid-portion, we reassigned the lion’s share of our vacation money so that my wife and kids could go to Walt Disney World while I pedaled by myself across Colorado, Kansas and Missouri. Knowing they were romping with Mickey assuaged most of my remaining guilt.
I accepted that total freedom from guilt is not a reasonable expectation. No matter how accommodating my wife and family were, what kind of a person would I be if I cycled off without any unease at all about the circumstances I’d left behind? In this life, you do the best you can, but if you have ongoing relationships, some mixed feelings are appropriate whenever you are apart from your loved ones for whatever reason.
I’ve taken other long bike journeys since that first one, and each one has required a certain amount of give and take in our household. But that’s part of what life together is about. Because of the pervasive nature of guilt, which can inflict itself even in situations were no guilt is warranted, some trips begin with a degree of tension. But in my case, open discussion and attention to each other’s goals means that my cycle trips usually occur under a dispensation of grace from my life partner.