Food and Water, Silence and Solitude: The Bike Trip That Returned Me to Myself

all photos contributed by Mary Ann Thomas

I always knew I wanted to travel for work while contributing to the places I visited. While applying for college, I heard that nursing could be that profession. I figured I’d try nursing school; if I hated it, I could back out. I clicked a box on my college applications for “School of Nursing.”

I didn’t hate it. I’ve been an Intensive Care nurse for seven years. The day-to-day job involves monitoring ventilators, titrating medications to keep blood pressures within a certain range, and assessing patients for any changes. It’s more than that, though. We are the receptacles for multiple layers of anger, grief, and miscommunication. We are expected to be kind to doctors despite the rage or indifference they might throw our way, to be generous with our coworkers when they’re frustrated during a busy shift, to be compassionate with patients and family members when they’re experiencing the extreme emotions inherent to a hospital stay. I learned that part of my role is to be a wall: people need to fling their emotions somewhere and, if I can give someone a sounding board, we might be able to work together in a way that helps a person live.

I learned that part of my role [as a nurse] is to be a wall: people need to fling their emotions somewhere and, if I can give someone a sounding board, we might be able to work together in a way that helps a person live.

Just before I started my first job as a nurse in 2011, I went on my first bike tour. I rode from New Jersey to Nashville over the course of a month with a friend from high school. We camped in fields on the side of the road, crossed the steep Appalachian Mountains, and used cue sheets tucked into our sports bras to navigate before Google Maps had bicycling directions. I finished that bike trip and moved to Washington D.C. It was a huge pivot. I went from spending my days pedaling, drinking coffee on the side of the road and stretching in parking lots to working night shifts where I drew medication from ampoules, explained liver failure to patients and families, and scrubbed the sticky residue of hospital devices off people’s bodies.

Mary Ann and her friend, Sheena, as they bicycled from New Jersey to Nashville.

I spent two years at that first job. I was nurtured through the process of becoming a nurse by compassionate, brilliant women. I asked questions, advocated for my patients, and acknowledged what I didn’t know. After I gained my professional experience, though, I wanted to return to bicycling.

So I planned a tour: six months and 6600 miles from San Diego to Montreal. I planned it alone so that I could go wherever I wanted. I invited friends to join me along the way, but my route wasn’t dependent on anyone else’s needs. I became a travel nurse to allow myself a flexible schedule, to allow all the time off I’d need for this bike tour.

In 2014, after learning how to care for a person on the edge between life and death, I went on the bike ride that would, ultimately, return me to myself. It required pushing myself across mountain ranges, deserts, and plains. Some days, I felt miserable. I questioned why I was putting myself through this impossible task, why I couldn’t just work full-time like a normal person. On those days, the miles were slow. It felt like I’d never get to where I wanted to go.

In 2014, after learning how to care for a person on the edge between life and death, I went on a bike ride that would, ultimately, return me to myself.

Alone with my bicycle, there was no one else to notice my misery. No one could soothe me, no one could tell me how to take care of myself. Without the distraction of another person, I noticed that my moods were intimately tied to my physical needs: food and water. Often, I faced real physical challenges: headwinds of 30 mph, busy roads with semi-trucks zooming a few feet from my body, steep roads, deserts through which I carried 20 pounds of water. When it was hard, the difficulty wasn’t because I was underprepared, or ill equipped to deal with the challenge; it was simply because the tour was hard. I had to learn how to make my body function well enough to take on what I asked of it. I learned that my body performs best if I give it what it wants: food and water, silence and solitude.

On a long bike ride or hike, I often encounter what I now fondly call my “you-ain’t-shit” voice. This voice asks me: Am I going fast enough? Did I bring enough food? Why is my stuff so heavy? Is this a way to recreationally destroy my body? Will I ever make it to the end of this day, the end of tomorrow, to my destination? There is no messaging from mainstream outdoors culture that silences my “you-ain’t-shit” voice. There is no one who can convince the insecure, socially anxious, queer brown girl within me that I’m strong and capable and tough enough to bike across continents.

I learned that my body will perform best if I give it what it wants: food and water, silence and solitude.

On my most recent bike tour in India, when Himalayan mountain passes tried to convince me I was an imposter, when men staring at my fragile body made me feel exposed and vulnerable, when impossibly hot days gave me heat stroke, I returned to the basics. Food and water. Silence and solitude. Taking care of myself pushes the “you-ain’t-shit” voice to the background. Often, I simply need to take care of myself, and I need periods of quiet in which I demand nothing of my body. Rest is how my muscles repair themselves, how my saddle sores heal, and how my body regenerates in a way that allows my confidence to grow. By the end of that ride across India, my travel partner and I scheduled rest days after every three days of riding because we learned to respect our bodies’ needs.

Mary Ann and her travel partner, Daniel Baylis, as they rode through Andhra Pradesh, India.

Nursing formally taught me how to perform customer service for strangers in the ways I’d already implicitly learned throughout my life. My professional life involves giving care for everyone but myself. That’s part of my role as a nurse, but it’s also part of my role as a woman, a queer woman, a brown woman. I’m taught to minimize my needs in favor of others’, to ensure the comfort of men in my space, to blame myself when men react with anger or violence because they are uncomfortable. I’m taught to hide my queerness if I want to stay safe, to dress down in order to blend in, to not be so loud with my desires. And everywhere I go, I’m brown. I’m taught to be kind to people when they ask tokenizing questions, to empathize with people even when they don’t see me or my people, as fully human.

My professional life involves giving care for everyone but myself. That’s part of my role as a nurse, but it’s also part of my role as a woman, a queer woman, a brown woman…the outdoors help me prioritize myself and give care to my body.

Through my work as a travel nurse, I’ve had the opportunity to live in many different places: San Francisco and Anchorage, San Diego and upstate New York. I’ve spent time in cities with millions of people and rural places with more horse-drawn buggies than cars. Travel nursing allows me to take time off between contracts; I can take three, six, eight months off of work and be guaranteed employment when I’m ready to go back. I’ve used my time off to bicycle over 10,000 miles in the last five years, road trip across California and Canada, hike and ski to remote cabins for the night. The life I live between gigs is radically different from what my life looks like when I’m working, but since my 2014 bike tour, I’ve made the outdoors a bigger part of my daily existence. These moments in the outdoors help me prioritize myself and give care to my body.

Being outside in any capacity can teach us so much. Outdoor recreation allows us to notice our bodies and to understand our bodies’ needs in ways we’ve never acknowledged before. We can witness the rhythms and cycles of our physical body in ways that we can’t when surrounded by millions of people in cities, or when expected to give care to the other humans at work, home, and in public. We can give care to ourselves. Being outside taught me how to care for myself.

Mary Ann Thomas is the queer brown daughter of Indian immigrant parents, a travel nurse, bike tourist, and writer. She has lived and worked in Washington DC, NYC, Anchorage, San Francisco, San Diego, and Cooperstown. She has bicycled over 10,000 miles in the last five years: in 2014, she bicycled solo from San Diego to Montreal; in 2017, she biked across India from the Himalayas to Kerala, the state at the tip of the subcontinent where her family is from. Her writing has been featured in literary and travel platforms, such as The Rumpus, On She Goes, Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, and She Explores. She is working on her memoir-in-progress about bike touring across North America.

Mary has written 3 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. Mary Ann, I love your writing so much and I am so grateful that you wrote this for us! Thank you for articulating so many of the feelings nature gives me, and reminding me how important it is to care for myself. <3

  2. This is amazing. I’ve recently gotten into solo backpacking in the most entry-level, low-key of ways… but reading this makes me want to try more, longer trips, and see what I can do out there in the world! Thank you for the inspiration and the beautiful words.

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