Grief brought my life to a standstill. At first, I didn’t know who I was anymore: whether I would be able to continue nursing, and, if I did, what that would look like. After years in the ICU, years during the pandemic, and then finally watching my father waste away on a ventilator, work was a constant trigger point.
What I also knew is that I don’t do well when I’m not moving. I decided to take the leap and try travel nursing out in California, which was the last place I had really felt like myself. The year prior I had worked at the clinic in Yosemite National Park and it had been life changing. I had fallen in love with the West coast, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and backpacking. I wanted that energy back again.
In the frenzied weeks leading up to my move, I kept my eye out for a bike that would be able to handle the terrain I was hoping to branch out to (sandier, choppier, more mountainous). I kept coming away empty-handed- with the shortage in the supply chain, finding what I was looking for seemed like a tall order.
Until I randomly stopped in a small town in Vermont and found the Flaanimal. I eyed the bike, excited by the prospects, but also weary of the cost and the fact that it would need to be built out before I left. I still had not been able to find a job. I half-heartedly committed to the build and got into my car to continue my journey and suddenly I was singing along to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” while driving down old dirt roads. I was shocked- I couldn’t remember the last time I had sung out loud before. The prospect of that bike and the adventures I would be going on took hold of me and opened another window of joy- reason enough to actually get the bike.
As luck would have it, I ended up finding a contract only 45 minutes from where Emily Elliott, the organizer of the bike packing trip, lived. I got the chance to meet up with Emily once before the trip, picked her brain and showed up a few weeks later with my bags packed as full as possible for the Ranchita Rambler. I had never bike packed before, never ridden with anyone in the group, never ridden in the desert- it was a series of terrifying firsts that quickly gave way to one of those experiences that just turns your world upside down. There was a LOT of sand, hike a bike, and nerves, but more so there was awe. I had never heard of the Anza Borrego Desert and here I was, with a bunch of strangers, riding off into the desert, sleeping in the shadow of a mountain, putting in over 50 miles and 5,500 ft of climbing.
I loved it.
From there I continued to find more people to ride with, more big events that I might have no business doing, but trying anyway. I am consistently one of the slowest, but that has never mattered. What I have found is just wanting to be out there, last one or not, is enough. And I have rediscovered what I have always known to be true: that, by and large, bike people are good people.
As a travel nurse, I’m used to being alone a lot.
Suddenly, it has become a lot easier to meet people. I go to work and talk about bikes, asking if anyone knows good routes or wants to go for a ride. This past contract I connected with so many people on bikes- within a few weeks I had made more friends than I had at any of my previous contracts. I signed up for a local ride and never shut up and suddenly I made MORE bike friends. Only slightly kidding.
It has also become how I ground myself in a new place, not just with people, but with the landscape, the roads I find, explore and inevitably get lost on.
It isn’t easy. I still get hung up on logistics, still groan about getting up early, and feel incredibly intimidated trying out new routes. It’s still one of the more difficult things to convince myself to do, although the reward is feeling more giddy and joyful than I have felt on pretty much any hike.
I got diagnosed with complex PTSD this past fall. The sources are varied, but my father’s death and work are high on the list. The bike has become as intrinsic to breaking any negative spiral as hiking, meditation or any of the other coping mechanisms I have. Being present in the body is integral to healing and on the bike is where I am most present. It is where I feel the most free and the most alive.
This story isn’t just about my father or resolving my grief or PTSD. It’s everything. It’s all of it. It’s reclaiming my sense of joy, wonder and hope. It’s the sense that I can take on big things, but also that I can find wonder pretty much everywhere I go. It’s getting up in the morning to ride a new route that might end with me having to figure my way out of some kind of mess. And once I find my way back, I get into the car, my face stretched in a grin because I just spent hours playing outside.
My father’s death made me sit down and really reevaluate my life. Once I did that, I started to jump on the things that I had been too scared to do before: I moved, I got on my bike, I signed up to do all the things. Grief gave me the need to move again, to do the things that scared me, but would also bring me back to myself.
The guilt that I didn’t share more of my life with him over the past few years is waning. I look at how far I have come, how much I keep choosing joy and realize that this is what keeps my father with me. In honor of his life, so mired in regret and pain, I endeavor to seek out delight and play. I know that in the end, he knew that I loved him. And he loved me more than he knew how to love himself. There is no better way to keep him with me than to live with resolute passion and love.
While riding the dirt roads of Patagonia with my friends, I declared I had settled on a name for my bike. Wallsy, in honor of my father- Toby Walls. What I didn’t get to share with him in life, I will carry with me on my new adventures. As cheesy as it may sound, now when I leave the house I say, “here we go Wallsy. Off on another ride”.
A few months ago I rode my first metric century while riding the Peregrine Grondo on the Carrizo Plain, put on by Ride California. It was one of the first times I’ve ridden out to something hard and didn’t even really think that I might not be able to do this. That day the fog lifted in the cold, gray morning to reveal the mountains and valley just on the verge of spring bloom, the distant hills water-colored with purple and yellow.
Between taking shots of tequila with strangers at around mile 40, pushing myself through fatigue because others were cheering me on and riding in a group of people just out to enjoy the beauty of their surroundings, I realized that I had something back that I didn’t even realize that I had lost- the idea that people are kind and that they want to see you succeed. That I am unquestionably capable of difficult things. That these difficult things can be possible, even fun, especially when shared with others.
And so it goes- I probably won’t win any races. I will never be someone who sets records. But I don’t need to be. That isn’t why I ride. I ride because every time I do, I feel thrillingly, heart stoppingly alive. I ride because suddenly I don’t want to escape from society anymore- I want people in my life, good people. I want to be part of a community again. It’s a practice of hope and of faith, both in humanity and myself.