I can be socially timid, especially in large groups. By timid, I mean that I hate being vulnerable. When interacting with strangers, my confidence goes weak in the knees. More than anything, I find it difficult to trust. My default has always been toward siblings and friends who are more dominant in conversations. It seems safer for me to stand invisible, fading into a background of others’ uninterrupted flow of ideas. I’ve noticed over the years how this hesitancy has become less about my own confidence and more about my distrust in others. Pairing the private work I do as a therapist with the increased isolation from a pandemic, I’ve been trying to work on moving toward a space of openness. As I say to my clients reassuringly, it’s a process.
Bessel van der Kolk is a psychiatrist and researcher who studies developmental psychopathology and neurobiology around trauma responses. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma Van der Kolk presents research findings on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex PTSD. Looking at the body’s response to traumatic events, his work highlights the importance of neuroplasticity. When people have experienced relational trauma, they often move through the world lacking a sense of safety. How might we thrive with a lens that tells us people are generally trustworthy when there is so much personal evidence on the contrary? In Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, the Nagoski sisters discuss how to do the work of healing from trauma. Modern neuroscience suggests we can retrain the brain to default to a state of trust by experiencing safe interactions with others. Paradoxically, what normalizes and repairs our ability to read danger ques, are safe human connections. Retraining the brain is about slowing down the nervous system, accessing the prefrontal cortex, and decreasing physiological arousal. It is about processing emotions in a way that desensitizes the fight, flight, or freeze response.
Working with families, couples, and individuals, there is a tendency for exposure to high levels of trauma. At times, this has resulted in my experiencing symptoms from vicarious (secondary) trauma. When this happens, my code of ethics holds me to seek consultation, supervision, my own therapy, or refer a client out when necessary. In my personal life, I have experienced trauma as a result of domestic violence as a child, which might become activated through exposure of other’s trauma. Another place of activation is being a woman in the world who witnesses countless cases in which women are abused, victimized, picked apart, objectified, held down, mocked, minimized, neglected, exploited, and inappropriately held accountable for the emotions and actions of others. That being topped off with pressure to follow a rule-book in which women are groomed to stay in their place; pleasant, agreeable, peaceful, quiet, compliant, and sensitive to the emotions of others. This compilation has resulted in my own difficulty to trust, or access an authentic sense of safety when it comes to human interactions.
Preparing to embark on a solo bike tour, my greatest hesitancy was the aspect of being alone. While planning a ride form Vermont to Maine, anxiety became provoked at the thought of being completely on my own. What if something were to happen to my bicycle, my gear, or myself? I worried about where I would sleep and how safe I might feel in such vulnerable conditions. Several days before the trip, I was on the phone with a friend who I hadn’t seen in several years. He tells me that I need to make sure to bring a knife and a gun. “I won’t be bringing a gun,” I say edgily. Does he not know I am a pacifist? I would never feel comfortable with a gun. Even having a knife on me, I know I would freeze up if I were being assaulted. This has always been my biological and emotional response to the perception of threat. Regardless, I packed a knife my brother-in-law had a military friend make for me, wondering what the point was in bringing it. It creates a false sense of safety, yet a true sense of pacifying those who are worried about my safety.
The day before leaving for tour my sister and friend joined me on a 60 mile ride in Cleveland called Bike Fundo. In the last 12 miles of the ride, my bicycle gears broke. I recalled several weeks ago when a small black plastic piece came out of my shifter during a rainy ride. I had a feeling it held importance to the gear set, but since everything kept working, I thought perhaps it was benign. With less than 24 hours before leaving for Vermont, I panicked and asked my sister to borrow her FELT bicycle. I had never ridden it before – a whole 7cm matured from my own frame. I was a little nervous to ride a bike this much bigger than mine. I switched out her thin leather saddle for my Brooks and mounted the pannier rack, loading them up in my car with my clothes. Without even testing out the bike, I left for Vermont the next morning.
Friends ask me how I made the trek. How did you get back to your car? How many miles? Where did you stay? Did you know where you would be staying? What was the scariest part of the trip? What was your highlight? I spent my first night with a cat. The cat’s owner is a friend I met in New Hampshire when I had lived there several years ago. I was closer with his sister. Through her I met him, as well as the rest of their family (a fun and creative group of folks). She is an artsy female who directs films and comes from a large family. We connected instantly when I first moved to New England for graduate school. Her brother was kind enough in allowing me to hire him to keep my car for a few days and drive it to pick me up at the end of my ride. I rode about 200 miles through the Green and White Mountains. I hadn’t booked where I would stay (with the exception of my final destination), so I found places along the way; a Bed and Breakfast in Vermont, a modernized lodge in New Hampshire, A Yurt near Mount Washington, and the Airbnb I had booked in Maine a few months prior.
When cat’s dad picked me up, we drove a conversation filled, sun-bursting route back to Burlington to drop him off before a work shift. From there I drove down to Surrey, New Hampshire to stay with friends for the next few days before heading home. Surrey is just near where my ex-husband and I had moved several weeks after we were married. I had been avoiding going back to that area because of the memories, the negative emotions, my grief, and my insecurities about what mutual friends may have wondered. Despite those fears, my experience returning had completely surprised me. I felt empowered. It felt like a reclaiming. I was able to genuinely connect with several friends which heightened my awareness to how much we have all grown emotionally and spiritually in the past 5 years – engaging in conversations that allow for reflection and depth. I could have never guessed where any of us would end up. In life we face changes, loss, adjustments – maintaining questions and regrets. All difficult things to sit in. Yet, within the difficulty, we are able to exist in new spaces (which is something the people I feel connected to also share in value). I spread my dog’s ashes on a mountaintop. I laughed with close friends. I played with adorable little girls. I walked along stonewalls on winding roads with trees bowing down to greet me. I sat around a fire sipping scotch and laughing in the safety of friendship. I moved away from that experience feeling high with contentment and joy. I survived. I did what I had set out to do. All the pieces had come together. I was unscathed. Not only did I remain safe in the world, but I found a confidence I seemed to have lost access to.
Day one of the bike ride I left Burlington early on a Tuesday morning. After sitting in the saddle up my first climb, I realized quickly my seat and panniers needed to be adjusted. Not long after the setback of fitting, I came upon a detour where a bridge had been out. Once I found a rhythm and my route, I was able to focus on the beauty of rolling hills along farmland with misting blankets dancing along perfectly paved roads. I passed many cyclists and pedestrians in Vermont. People seemed open, welcome, and friendly.
Just about 20 miles from the start, I came to a large hill in which I found myself hovered over the breaks to increase a sense of safety. A fresh burst of joy propelled my peddling once I hit the base of a steep decline. Soon, a white sedan pulled up alongside me. I noticed a blonde-haired woman leaning over the passenger side, “Excuse me, did you lose a small green sack?” as she motions with her hands. I look over my left shoulder and see panniers with a pouch propped between them. I’m scanning my memory for what could match the description but came up with nothing. “No, I think I still have everything with me.” She drives away. I tell myself that I should check my gear just in case. I stop the bike and make a mental note of what I’d packed. As soon as I stopped, I remembered my hammock rainfly. I had purchased it last summer after a cold monsoon weekend in Allegheny with my brothers and sister. It had been a sunny week with hot days the week of our kayak camp trip. I was so busy with work the week leading up, that I packed only a beach dress, shorts, and my hammock to sleep in. I recall anticipating a weekend sleeping outside under the stars and basking in the sun during the day. We kayaked to a primitive site, rowing by moonlight and collecting wood for a fire as soon as we landed a root-covered shoreline. By the next morning, we were greeted with pouring rain which lasted all day into sunset. My clothes and bedding were soaked. I was unable to recover, shivering in a wet hammock with a tarp my sister wrapped around me and the hammock, like a floppy burrito. With a smoking fire nearby, my brothers continued to fish through the night. I don’t think I slept more than two hours that night, unable to recover from being cold, wet, and the only sober member of our group. I purchased that rain fly the day after our trip, hoping to ensure dry hammock camping in the future.
There I was sandwiched between horse pasture and silos, twisting my back toward the hill I had just ridden down, contemplating if my $89 rainfly is worth a brutal climb. “I might as well try and see if it’s near there,” I think to myself. “If I don’t see it before the hill, I’m leaving it behind.” I turn around to head in the direction I had just come from as the white-sedan-woman pulls up next to me again. “It is yours, isn’t it?!” she says as I am about to verify that I am missing a green sack. “How far down is it?” I ask, assessing how worth it might be to head back. “Just across that red barn, right around that truck,” she pointed in the direction. I thank her. She drives away. I pedal on, looking intentionally along the roadside. I don’t see anything. A few minutes in, I notice a Tacoma pickup truck heading toward me with flashing lights. I am confused as to why they are flashing their lights until I see a man hold up a green sack with a bright expression of enthusiasm as he drives past me. We both turn around and meet up in a parking area near a farmstand. He comes out, we smile, he hands me my rainfly and wishes me a safe and fun trip. I am on such a high with this exchange. The amount of support and connection I feel from complete strangers gives me a sense that perhaps, there is safety in the world – that kindness without expectation exists, if only I open myself to it.
Late morning I arrived in a small town about 38 miles from Burlington. I fell so in love with the quaintness of it, that I decided to book a room at an old Bed and Breakfast. I wanted to take my time enjoying the area, now feeling confident the terrain of my ride would be easier than anticipated. I locked my bicycle up in a shed out back where I noted a bike pump and helmet. I showered up, walked down the street for dinner and tried some local bourbon while enjoying the one book I had brought on tour. I watched the sunset from the front porch before heading to bed, tucking my knife under the pillow next to me. I woke the next day feeling refreshed – ready to ease my way into my second day of riding. Before leaving, I would start off with a hearty breakfast on the patio. The chef and I chat about bike routes and mountain riding before rolling off into the day. He warned me there was a route ahead more appropriate for mountain biking. I imagined him riding before starting a shift in the kitchen or perhaps on the weekends, distracting myself from the possibility of a difficult mountain trail on a thin-tired road bike. Not long after leaving, I came upon a change in terrain. I was riding along the river on a beautifully paved road until the trail changed to gravel, which eventually led me off onto a thin mountain bike trail covered in greenery and mosquitoes. I carefully rode so as not to snag the thin tires or lose balance on such a delicate pathway. After several miles I landed back on the road until I arrived at a small town Co-op where the owner let me charge my phone over the counter as I sat on the front step of a Community Hall. The river ran behind me as I read some of Chanel Miller’s memoir and wrote in my small green moleskin. I ate some bean salad and enjoyed cold brew coffee. From there, I pulled away feeling optimistic about my time and how the ride was going. It wasn’t long until that optimism turned into a full-on panic attack.
In preparation for this trip, I had printed out a map of each route that would take me on the Cross Vermont and Cross New Hampshire trails. These were river rail trails that were used by pedestrians, cyclists, and snowmobiles. I had also been in contact with a board member of the Cross Vermont Trail who assured me the route would be easy to follow. He said that people had done the ride in a day. He also suggested a hybrid would be best, but that a road bike would work fine. I later spoke with a mutual friend’s husband who had led rides on this route several times. He told me it would be easy to follow and that I could assume two days was plenty of time to get me to New Hampshire. I had been using my GPS on my phone for easy directions and carried the print-out as a backup. For me, the most unpleasant part of touring is figuring out where to go next. Where there exists unexpected road work or detours, following a map becomes challenging. I find that it takes away from my ability to be mindful of the beauty surrounding me. So much of my head-space during my trip was focused on where to go next. It feels less meditative and more cognitively engaging than rides I might do back home or when following a marked event.
After leaving the Co-op I came to another thin dirt-trail (I swear it had wildflowers, fairies, and magic dust floating about). This trail eventually turned into a gravel rail trail covered in pine needles and mud. My focus became intense while dodging mud puddles and roots. I was careful not to land my tires in a small ditch, against rocks, or wet dirt-cakes. It was a bit stressful. My pace became significantly slowed down in order to keep from falling. Eventually, my GPS directed me off the trail and up to another path. I was heading up a trail that seemed very off-road with the tree roots and mud becoming more complex. I continued on, anticipating another turn I expected ahead, based on GPS directives. The silence carried on as my brakes and tire became more compact with mud and pine needles. I got off the bike to check an electronic map. “Routing…” was what the GPS read. I had lost service and my battery level was dropping. Instant panic filled me. I looked at the trees around me, anticipating a night in the woods. I don’t have a bear bag. I don’t even have matches on me! I’m looking around in a panic, unable to think clearly about the next steps. I tell myself, “Rachel, calm down so you can think clearly.” When our bodies are in a state of panic, we can’t access the part of the brain that makes sense. We lose the ability to problem-solve under such distress. I knew I needed to get to calm before I could start moving again. I start skimming my printed map over and over, unsuccessful at finding where I had come from. Which turn had I made? What is the general area I’m in? Once I was able to de-escalate, I decided to backtrack. As I walked the muddy bike back the way I had come, I eventually noticed a rooftop through the woods. I could see a building and made a decision to move toward civilization. I walked the bike through the woods and came around the back end of a large garage with the car body parts leaning against various places in the yard. I made my way around the front of the shop and saw a house further down. There is an unnecessarily large pickup truck parked near the front of the house. I am standing between the nose of the truck and the front door, staring at a sticker on the front door window reading “US ARMY“. There are “KEEP OUT” signs on the trees leading up the driveway. I’m standing there for what felt like 20 minutes, pulling up my GPS and frantically rummaging through my paper map attempting to pin down my location. Now I am facing a different kind of personal panic. Do I go and knock on the front door? I felt safer in the woods than I feel at this moment. It’s never a soothing feeling to be in the middle of nowhere on the end of a Live Free or Die state with someone who was trained in the military. “I watch 20/20!”, I say jokingly when I am re-telling this part of the story to my friends. But I’m also not joking. There is a percentage of non-domestic murders of women who have been at the hands of men trained in the military. A shack in New England is just the type of place these things happen, or where a murderer might hide out. In the deep woods of the Green Mountains. Away from civilization. Off the grid. After another internal self-talk, I decided to head down the neglected sandstone driveway to see if I can find a road. The further from the house I came, the more relieved I felt. There was another gravel road off this one – an intersection of gravel roads and a few driveways that appear to home snowmobile shacks on private properties. I eventually find an intersection and see one or two vehicles in that direction. I get to the intersection and pull out my map. I ride a bit further down and pull out the map again. I am spending a good amount of time trying to figure out where I am. Eventually, I find a road I am on by the map and am able to track that the trail entrance should be close. I take a turn and see a parked car near the trail entrance. I double-check several times and contemplate if I should stay on the trail, or head back into the town I had come from. At this point, staying on the main road while in The Green Mountains felt so much more comfortable than being in the woods. I made a final decision to take the trail. If I were to lose myself again, I could always backtrack to the road and stay with traffic.
The rest of my ride that day was slow-going trail, up until the last 5 miles which were on a perfectly fresh paved road of rolling hills along cow farms and quaint New England river towns. It was the most relieving feeling to know that I was getting closer to New Hampshire. I now had reception again with ample cars driving past me. Once I made it into New Hampshire and crossed the river, I pulled off looking for a place to stay. I still had limited reception, so booking a place to stay was going to be a challenge. I eventually found a café and went in to use their WiFi. From there I was able to find a lodge and book a room less than a mile up the road. I rode up a large hill. The anticipation of a bed and hot shower after being on the road for 9 hours that day gave me a burst of energy. That night I slept soundly and woke early the next morning, determined to start the day strong. I was unknowingly anticipating what would end up being another 7 hours on the road.
The morning of my New Hampshire ride was met with several setbacks, despite my attempt at getting an early start. I first forgot to drop my key off at the office once I checked out of my room, which resulted in an irritating climb back up a massive hill. Once I made it onto the trail, it was only seconds before realizing the impossibility of following the rail trail. My breaks were instantly caked with charcoal-like mud of black gravel and pine. “There is no way I can do this,” I say with a sigh as I pull out the GPS and zoom the trail along the river, exploring which road I might be able to take. After the time it took on yesterday’s Vermont trail, I am determined to find a steady pace and avoid having to walk my bike. It appears I can ride this main route on the road mostly following along the river. I see several miles of roadway that correlates with the Cross New Hampshire Trail and I’m deciding to stay on the road, which means climbing back up that massive hill. This also means I will be passed by semis, trucks, and cars throughout the day. There will be more intense climbing, but it feels safer and more practical if I plan to make it through to Maine in the next two days. I ride for a few hours before stopping for coffee at a café on a river where mills have been turned into a quaint shopping district of breweries and boutiques. I charge my phone, charge my bike lights, and recharge myself with espresso and reading. I’m exploring where might be a good place to stay tonight. If I go another 35 miles today, I can stay at a woman-owned glampsite run by a female who supports bikers by hosting riders who come to the White Mountains for trail-riding. I reach out to her and communication maintains through the day as she confirms and verifies vacancy. Although she has indoor lodging, she tells me she only has a tent or yurt available that night. I don’t have a preference. They both look fancy on the website. She finally offers me the yurt, making a comment that she has a larger group trying to book for the night. When I pull up to her property, I feel relieved and exhausted. Another long day on the road. I can feel the fatigue from the day before catching up with me.
The ride that day was rhythmic – the sounds of traffic passing by as I roll large hills in the White Mountains. It’s easy to enter into a trans-like state, the bilateral stimulation of peddling up and down rolling mountains. My stops become systematic and it’s only a matter of covering miles at this point. I’m enjoying this terrain but in different ways. I’m thinking more. I’m engaged in more reflections about life, my relationships, growth, loss, and meaning. I feel the ease of my journey with the predictability of today’s ride. I’m along the river the entire route, winding, rolling – climbing and rolling. It’s beautiful. The traffic becomes background noise and I’m able to enjoy the landscape. That night I slept in the most romantic yurt with rain hitting the canvas above my head. I felt the most lonely on this night of the trip. Perhaps because I was the only single person lodging this site. Perhaps from the fatigue of the trip. Perhaps knowing that my riding part of this adventure was nearing an end (with tomorrow being my last day on the road). I had some scotch to celebrate my ride that evening. A steady flood of rain dis-invited me from making a campfire, so I retired to bed early. I fell asleep to the sounds of wilderness magic, drowning my body into a thick marshmallow of bedding as sweat built up around my body.
The final day of my ride, I felt anxious and eager to get on the road, ready to complete the biking part of the day. But first, I’d mind sipping coffee from this adorable handmade ceramic mug and enjoying a moment of deep-breathing moss-covered stones scattered on the green carpet between birch and pine. I could effortlessly stay in this moment for hours.
There is a certain feeling when you have been on the road for days, when you know you are nearing the end of a trip and there is this inability to stay present because your mind keeps wanting to move you toward the next phase. That was my last day riding into Maine. Another gorgeous morning cupped by mountains of pine. My body felt the excitement of that final destination. I was riding along a winding road with pine walls alongside me overlooking a cliff to the left, steadily drafted in fields of goldenrod. I kept wanting to stop and read or relax, but I also felt chilly and wanted to reach my destination so I could shower and enjoy the rest of the day.
Maine has a certain feeling to it, boggy and shore-like. Bostonians on vacation remind me what it was like when I worked in Massachusetts doing community-based family therapy. I feel my bias growing as I reflect on each phase of the ride. Vermont was the most enjoyable, New Hampshire was beautiful, and Maine felt neglected in a sort of romantic way. I miss living on the east coast because I miss the beauty of it. I had always felt like a foreigner, yet I know that the friendships I have built during my time there have the potential to last forever. I know, too, the relationships really are a huge part of what makes it matter to me – the perfect balance between being both connected and also alone in the wild.