My name is Becca, and this is From the Ashes, Episode 8: How the fuck did I get here?
If you listened to my last episode, you know that I started a bike tour.
Three days into that tour, I got helllllllla sick. Like knocked down, laid out, couldn’t move kinda sick.
There was a moment during my illness where I asked myself the question, “How the fuck did I get here?”
Because I couldn’t really do much else, I delved real deep into that question, and I wrote what you’re about to hear.
Sometimes when I write, I surprise myself with what comes out, and this is definitely one of those pieces.
I really, really hope you enjoy it.
It’s 4:15 in the afternoon on May 27th.
The tip of my left pinky finger is numb, I have pneumonia, I am breathing in the stench that 3 days and 187 km worth of unshowered asshole sweat has leeched into my rented bed sheets, I am freezing, and my right knee doesn’t feel great.
I am wondering if I’ve made the right decision.
As the smell equivalent to a young, gooey french cheese wafts into my nostrils, pungent enough to make it’s way through the face mask I am wearing, I can’t help but ask myself, “How the fuck did I get here?”
It started sometime in 2013. I can’t pinpoint the date.
I am in New York . I’m living with partner. And for the first time, I’m not sure that things are going to work out for us. We are in the aftermath of one of our many terrible fights. Across the country from all the people I love, I feel really, really alone.
I contemplate breaking up with him for the first time in our relationship. I know I won’t stay in Brooklyn if I do. I start to wonder how I’m going to get back to California.
I love to cycle. I fantasize about shipping all my stuff back home, hopping on my bike, and riding all the way from Greenpoint to San Francisco. Away from the struggle of being with a man, who, despite being inherently good, is not inherently good for me. I do the research. I’m almost ready to do it.
Instead, he and I make up. I’m not yet ready to see that we aren’t meant for one another. I know he is good. I knew he is decent. I know he feels love for me. I know I feel love for him. I want for us to work. I open myself to that possibility that we can. The dream of cycling cross country fades into the background.
Fast forward. December 2014.
My partner and I are living in California. During the inevitable meditation that happens for me during long bike rides with awe-inspiring views from the mountains, I decide I could be with him forever.
I ask him to marry me. I tell him I want kids, monogamy, a house, a stable life.
Everything he ever dreamed of. Nothing I ever have.
He says yes. We set our wedding date for June 2016.
Fast forward. October 2015.
I realize that no matter how hard I try to convince myself I could do this for him, I know deep down that I don’t really want this.
I especially do not want to bear children. I do not want grow nor push a child out into the world.
On the eve of my 32nd birthday, made bold by the advice of my friends, I tell him this is the case.
I tell him, half-heartedly that I would consider adoption.
That doesn’t work for him. Bearing children doesn’t work for me.
We talk and we fight and we can’t hear one another.
Three weeks later, we cancel our wedding.
Three days after that, our relationship is over.
We cancel the flight we booked for our honeymoon.
I now have $1200 for a flight that I need to take by the following September.
Fast forward. December 2015.
I am attending SIYLI (pronounced “Silly”) and am learning about how to use mindfulness to become a better leader for my job.
I do an exercise that asks participants to imagine their lives 5 years in the future, and answer the following questions: Where are you? What are you doing? What are people saying about you?
The hook? That life has worked out better than you possibly can have imagined.
I write down a lot of shit that will never, ever come true. Human beings are notoriously shitty at predicting the future. That being said, the idea of cycling cross country is still with me, even if my ex is not.
In that moment, the idea evolves. Instead of cycling to flee a relationship that I wasn’t meant for, I am now free to cycle cross country simply for the grand adventure of it all.
I write down in my notebook that in five years time, I will have biked across the USA. I share it with two random people also attending the workshop. They seem impressed.
The sharing makes shit real. I share the dream with more people.
My deadline is 2020.
Fast forward. June 2016.
I am pulled into the head of school’s office for a ridiculously early meeting the day after graduation.
I am told that, despite the contract I signed for full time work in April, my position is being cut in half. I can come back and work as a 50% employee, or I can pull a golden parachute, get 3 more months of full time pay and leave. I am given three days to decide.
I walk out of the head of school’s office in tears. My respiration is beyond my control. I can barely breathe. I see a colleague and inform her that I may never see her again.
I do not agree with how this was handled. I will never condone the way I was treated.
However, after two days of contemplation. I take the safe path. I agree to return.
This is my dream job, after all. I mean ... isn’t it?
Fast forward. July 2017.
I use the flight voucher from my canceled honeymoon to go to Thailand.
While planning the trip, I think back to Chip and Dan Heath’s “Decisive.” One of their tips for making a big decision, a decision like, say cycling cross country on your bike, is to dip your toe in the water first. Try something small before you take the big plunge.
I decide to dip my toe in the water by doing an 800km (that’s about 500 miles), fully supported bike tour from Bangkok to Phuket to see if I actually like long distance cycling. It’s the right price and the right distance. And it’s fully supported. If I can’t hack it, I’ve got backup.
I decide that if I’m flying 30 hours to get halfway across the world, I might as well stay for a while. I book a cultural immersion tour to do some trekking in the northern mountains with a hill tribe.
On my second day of trekking with my tour guides from the hill tribe. I meditate for 30 minutes by a waterfall.
For the first time since I was pulled into the head of school’s office, I let myself fully feel the pain of being undervalued.
As I think about the series of events that led to my reduction in hours, I accept that the responsibility lies with me. I was honest about what parts of my job I did not like, and believed my supervisor when she told me I did not have to worry about those parts.
I was frank about which parts of my job I felt others were more qualified to do, and believed my supervisor when she said that we could transfer those responsibilities and create a new job that was more suited to my strengths.
I take full responsibility for blindly trusting my supervisor when others told me explicitly not to trust this person.
I am adult. I accept that this turn of events happened because of decisions that I made and actions I took.
Tears still stream down my face. My tour guide approaches to tell me that we are going to continue to trek. And then he sees my tears. He walks away and says that we will stay instead.
I turn back to the waterfall. I decide to quit my job.
A few days later, my guides and I are partway through the hardest leg of the trek, and I realize I am happy for the first time in a long time.
In the woods, out in nature, I feel free.
I leave the mountains, travel to Bangkok, and start my cycling tour alongside three Aussies.
Together, we cycle up crazy mountains. We cycle through rain so strong that it hurts when it hits my skin. We cycle up incredibly long climbs. We cycle past monkeys. We cycle along beautiful, deserted beaches. We cycle next to highways. And we cycle 148km in one day. This 92 miles is the longest I’ve ever ridden.
Most of the time, I am firmly in 3rd place, except for one perfect day. Queen’s “We are the champions” is the first song that blasts through my speaker. I take off like lightening. I am in the zone, and I lead the pack for a solid 10k. In the grand scheme of the tour it wasn’t a lot, but it was enough.
At the end of the tour, I feel like a fucking ninja.
I consider my toe fully dipped.
Someday, I am going to ride my bike across the United States.
Fast Forward. August 2016.
I feel happy. Relaxed. And because of one last mindfulness training before the school year starts, I decide to honor my word and return to my job.
There is still good work yet to be done for kids I care about alongside brilliant colleagues who make me a better professional. I make a decision to forgive, and to work hard despite the unfortunate circumstances.
I feel at peace with the decision.
Fast forward. November 2016.
I am miserable and stressed and feeling highly undervalued. It is impossible to do my job at the quality I desire in the time that is allotted.
It took only 2 months for the healing and recuperation of the summer to wear off, and I have been living fully in misery for 1 month.
I face the truth.
This is not my dream job. I have not “made it.” This is not what I’m meant for. This place is not the pinnacle of society or education, no matter what stories we tell ourselves. The stress in this place is manufactured and unnecessary. And the self-congratulation is so fucking empty.
And most importantly, we are harming young people.
I realize the issue is systemic. Not just the school but the entire system of school in the US.
The whole damn thing is broken and this school is a big part of that broken.
I have no desire to participate in nor fix the broken anymore.
So I decide to stop teaching. Forever.
I decide to shift my gaze to environmental sustainability. I look up places to volunteer in South America that I do not have to pay for.
I find a place whose philosophy speaks to me.
I fill out an application.
I do a skype interview with The Founder in a lactation closet while I am at work.
I like The Founder’s vibe, I dig his message, and I tell him that I’m not sure. It would be a huge leap for me to make. I would have to quit my job and leave my life behind.
The only thing he tells me to be honest with me and with him. If I want it, there’s a spot for me.
Fast Forward. December 2016.
I’ve decided to give the job once last chance. I go to one last conference.
While I deeply love my colleagues and I feel closer to them as people as a result of going to this conference, the narrative being spun is not my narrative.
The opulence of and waste at this conference – and, actually, every conference I’ve been to as I think on it - is nauseating.
While I agree with the desired ends, I do not believe that the dialectic being used is the proper means.
I face my truth. I am tired of this world. I do not thrive in it.
I contact the volunteer coordinator of the farm in South America. I tell her that I’m coming.
I send a resignation letter to the one administrator I still respect. It is the middle of the school year.
I willingly pull the trigger and commit career suicide.
It has been a wonderful 12 years. It is enough.
I book my ticket to Chile and I think about riding my bike.
I research traveling with a bike. It seems like a lot of fucking work, especially considering the journey I would need to take to get this particular farm.
I say fuck it and decide to leave my bike at home. Maybe I can buy a bike when I arrive.
A few weeks later, I hop on a plane.
Fast Forward. February 2017
I’m a few weeks into my rebirth. A very attractive man rides up on a bike, fully outfitted for touring. I find out he has ridden this bike all the way from Santiago – a bus ride that takes more than 13 hours.
He looks exhausted. I think this is extremely badass.
The next morning, I tell him so.
Fast Forward, March 2017
After one and a half months on the farm, I am happy again. Myself again.
I have healed in a way I could never have predicted when I first stepped away from my life.
I have met incredible people with whom I share so much love.
I know I am going to leave soon. I am thinking about what comes next.
I casually mention that I’ve always wanted to cycle tour cross country. That I was thinking about bringing my bike to Chile, but that I didn’t want to because it was too much work.
The Head of Construction overhears me. He asks me if I knew that the man who rode from Santiago to the Farm was selling his touring bike. The Head of Construction would’ve bought it himself, if he hadn’t fucking destroyed his knee a month ago.
I hadn’t known he was selling the bike, but it feels like destiny.
That badass man actually ends up returns to the farm. I buy his bike right away. It, some pannier bags, cycling shorts, a lock, and many other things are waiting for me in Santiago.
Fast Forward. May 2017.
I’ve just spent my months following my time on the farm engulfed in deep love and community,
I’ve also spent time watching serious travelers travel.
I know how to find spots on the side of the road to camp.
I know how to stretch money so it lasts.
I’ve learned that I really enjoy living in a tent.
I am comfortable with body smells in a way I never imagined possible.
I have seen the depths of human kindness and the generosity afforded after a simple request for help.
Although it breaks my heart to leave the loves I have made over the past four months, I feel ready to travel alone.
I hop on a bus, finally pick up the bike I bought, take over a friends living room, upgrade my gear, do a test ride to see if I can handle the weight, help take care of a puppy, plan my initial route, and then I leave.
Fast Forward. May 24.
I load up all my gear, I finally get on the bike and ride.
As I ride, I’m trying to conserve water and food, even though I am riding through cities. I’m trying to prepare for the hard times ahead.
Even though I can easily resupply literally anywhere, I don’t eat enough, I don’t drink enough, and even though it is cold outside, I am stubborn and I don’t wear enough.
At the end of my ride, I come across the hardest climb of my life.
It is 4 hours into the ride, and I am depleted. I have eaten nothing but oatmeal, two tiny empanadas, and a handful of peanuts. I learn that hard way that climbing on a bike with 35 kilos worth of gear is not the same as climbing on a bike without that much gear.
Only 1/3 of the way up the mountain, I pull over, I flop down on the side of the road, my bike tips over on it’s side, and I feel a deep sense of despait.
I’m not sure I’m going to make it to the top.
Where I sit, it’s big enough to set up my tent, and I contemplate doing so even though the space isn’t the safest place.pp
Then, I think of my father two years earlier in Nicaragua. I think of the strategy he used to get up a 2km hike with a bad hip.
Thinking of him doing that, I know that I can get up this mountain. I know I can do this.
So I get back up and I use his strategy.
I struggle. I stop. And when I can, I restart. I zig-zag up the mountain to cut the grade.
I struggle. I stop. I restart. I zig-zag. I struggle. I stop. I restart. I zig-zag.
And finally around the bend I see the sun, and I know that I’ve made it to the top.
As soon as I get there, I snap a triumphant photo, I push my bike up to the top of a really steep horse trail, and I set up camp where it’s safe.
As soon as I set my tent up, it starts raining.
And I’m like, “Fuck.”
Fast Forward, May 25th
I wake up with a cough and it is still raining.
I wait out the rain and I assure myself that I will bike the cough away. Nothing like riding for 5 hours to boost my immune system, right?
The rain finally stops, I pack up my wet gear, and I ride.
The downhills are sweet, but any time I exert any effort my lungs burn and my chest hurts when I breathe deeply.
I think to myself, “Fuck, this can’t be good.”
I still ride as long and as far as I can.
I pull over, exhausted, with just enough sunlight to set up camp.
I find a horse trail. It is covered in shit, but it’s also far enough off the road where cars can’t see me, and it’s wide enough to set up my tent.
I move the shit aside and I set up camp.
To be honest, I feel like the shit I just brushed to the edges of this small space.
It’s 6pm. I take a nyquil. I can feel the layer of sweat created by 10 combined hours of cycling on my skin.
I feel swampy. I definitely have a fever and the chills.
After two hours of struggling to find sleep, I sleep for 13 straight hours.
I wake up. My cough is definitely worse.
I contemplate staying right where I am for another day. I have enough food and water.
I decide not to. There is just too much fucking shit here.
And in any case, I just need to reach the next town. It’s only 15k away.
I pack up my stuff, and I ride.. As a middle school parade in the middle of a square provides background music, I research what to do next.
There is a campsite in a small town. It has hot showers and wifi, and is reasonably priced. I just have to get there by 7pm.
I look at my watch. It is 12pm right now.
It’s only 60k away. I calculate that if I am efficient, I can make it.
I buy water, ibuprofen, cough drops, and some bananas.
I hit the road. I climb up major hills, I ride over dirt trails, I accidentally trespass and ride through private property.
I reach the campsite at 6:30pm, just as the last beams of light are winking out over the mountaintops.
The lights are off. The gate is closed. The campsite is closed for the season.
After a brief moment where I think about throwing my shit over the wall and breaking in to the campsite, I go next door to an empty restaurant instead.
In tattered, exhausted Spanish, I ask them where I can sleep for the night. They direct me to a residencial. It’s only 2km away.
I roll up and there is a man in a red sweater who speaks English and assures me that I am in the right place.
He feeds me an Empanada, Ensalada Chilena, and warm tea. He discusses his life as a traveler.
After 90 minutes, I can no longer stay awake. I want to shower and go to sleep.
I thank him, and excuse myself.
My room, that is the definitely the right price for me, is freezing. I begin to shiver.
I dream of hopping into that hot shower.
I turn the hot water knob and wait for the water to warm before I step in.
My shivering is getting more and more violent.
As the water gets hot, the pressure reduces to a trickle. I turn the knob. The pressure returns, but the water is cold.
My shivering is now full-body, and I can no longer stand it. Even though the smell coming off of me is almost visible, I give up.
As the shivers wrack my body, I barely dry myself off, I run to the bed in my room, and I create a cocoon under the sheets.
As I shiver violently for another 5 minutes, my brain finally shuts off my capacity to smell myself.
I thank evolution for that particular survival strategy.
Now that I can no longer smell myself, I realize that this is the most comfortable bed I’ve slept in since the foam mattress I owned with my ex in California.
After a time, I finally warm up, I stop shivering, and I fall asleep.
I wake up and the smell is suffocating. I think to myself, “Fuck, Who knew my body could smell so fucking foul?”
I have to shower. I have to. But it is a struggle because my room is still freezing, I’m still hella fucking sick, and I know the shower is crazy.
I talk myself out of bed.
I try the shower again. It is not satisfying, it is not warm, but I scrub the gnarly smell off my body.
Again, I am still sick as fuck.
My room is still freezing.
My pinky is still numb.
My knee still hurts.
And despite showering, my sheets still smell like the rancid shit that comes out of a cyst.
I fall asleep in the smell for another few hours.
When I wake up, I walk around the small town to get food, and I can barely walk three blocks without feeling exhausted.
I come back and curl up in the bed after the man in red sweater is kind enough to feed me lunch.
And I wonder, “How the fuck did I get here?”
I put on a face mask to protect myself from my own rancid smell.
In this bed that is the most comfortable bed I’ve been in for a while. I write. For hours.
I look over the crazy journey that led to this one moment in time.
I reflect upon how most of my decisions have been the right ones.
I chuckle to myself as I realize that I’m not sure if this bike tour is one of those right decisions.