The Traveller’s Ego
Posted on August 30, 2023
We exited an oppressive darkness through a hole of blinding light cut into a sweating tunnel wall. The sound of rushing cars and tinny horns echo behind us, as a stream of anger projects from the drivers roaring past. Bent over the handlebars of our bikes, our breath comes in frantic gulps. We attempt, with little effect, to calm our frayed nerves as a cerulean sea stretches out before us. On the headlands above, the pastel homes of Cinque Terre stand sentinel. Drenched in a warm light of a sun dipping into the Ligurian, a pair of fishermen sit sleepily on buckets sipping beer and watching as their lines dance gently in the water. This is the Italy my fiancé, Mel, and I had dreamed of seeing on our month-long tour from Munich to Foggia. But somehow, here we were, dead-eyed and rattled, completely beaten. The beauty of the country completely lost on us.
After several moments of staring blankly into some distant oblivion, our trance is broken as a speedo-clad man shuffles past us. A sweating Birra Moretti in hand, he smirks and shakes his head conveying a mixed message of “you sweaty idiots” and “glad you’re here, grab a beer.” Distraught but safe, we feel a perverse mixture of relief, fatigue, gratitude and a more present sense of uncertainty about what we were doing on this trip.
Eight days prior, we had set off in Holzheim, Germany from the home of Mel’s aunt. For months leading up to the ride we had meticulously planned the route. Spending countless hours pouring over Google Maps and Ride With GPS, we created a meandering point to point ride that would take us 1200 miles from Germany to southern Italy. As we had planned it, each day was precisely routed requiring a rigid schedule in order to make our train back to Germany at the end. With having recently packed up our life in Massachusetts, moved everything into a storage unit in North Carolina, and quit our jobs. We had given ourselves ample time and space to be fully present for what we believed to be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of trip. 28 days of riding, camping and eating our way through southern Europe.
Mel and I are now over 500 miles into our trip. After a blissful descent through a lush and temperate Riserva di Pesca Salsominore, we found ourselves sitting at a standstill on the Strada Provinciale 370 amongst idling RVs and mopeds sputtering anxiously in a dry September heat. The pleasant evergreen world of our morning now filled with a noxious perfume of two stroke combustion and rancid sea air. We are very much in need of some time off of the bike. All that separates us from a zero-day on a beach in Genoa appears, on the map, to be nothing more than a benign stretch of coastal road and a couple of short tunnels.
The light above the tunnel entrance turns green and as we groan to a start, our misfit crowd of vehicles plunges into the dark abyss. In an ample shoulder we pedal in a fatigued, rhythmic silence. At intervals we descend into and emerge from the pale light of the ancient incandescent bulbs that light the tunnel. Our world is quiet save for the hum of exhaust fans and the cavernous dripping of water from the landmass overhead. For a moment, I find myself slipping into a peaceful cadence knowing that camp is likely just around the bend. As the walls of the tunnel appear to narrow, the shoulder begins to disappear. Then without warning I am enveloped by the roar of a revving engine and a piercing horn reverberating from every angle at once as a car traveling no less than 70 blows violently past me.
Every muscle in my body tenses as I shudder from the sudden and violent burst of this ghostly mechanical force. Suddenly the walls of the tunnel feel claustrophobically close. The ample shoulder I once felt safe in is now reduced to nothing more than a faint white line pressed against a jagged wall. The lights begin to feel spaced further and further apart and the world around me feels dark and vulnerable. At once, I become aware my breathing has become clipped and frantic. The cadence of my pedaling increases. In the tunnel my Wahoo GPS is rendered useless and I have no clue how much further the tunnel extends. I long for any semblance of light around the bend to break me from the torture of uncertainty. As a light begins to appear faintly on the wall ahead, I breathe easier knowing that this is likely the end of the tunnel and we’ll momentarily arrive at camp.
With relief, we exit into the light, only to find that ourselves trapped in purgatory. The light that once offered hope was nothing more than a scenic overlook. To our left a sheer sandstone cliff rising hundreds of feet vertically. On our right a guardrail and waves crashing relentlessly onto a jagged cliffband. Ahead of us still more tunnel. We were stuck.
Either we push ahead into a tunnel of unknown length and more dangerous riding or back track, adding over 15 miles and who knows how much climbing to an already 10+ hour day. In an instant, all the fatigue, frustration, and disappointments of the preceding days came crashing in. We’re on our honeymoon, feeling broken. We sit and catch our breaths while traffic spills out of the tunnel ahead of us. Slugging water and weighing what little options we have, we decide the only way out is through the tunnel ahead of us. We don’t know how long it is, how narrow the shoulder will be or whether we’ll be able to cover the distance before traffic once again descends upon us. The light above the tunnel flashes green and we book it. We’re fatigued but manic as we pedal at a heart-pounding and unsustainable pace. Distantly I hear the roar of an engine. Visions of a car blowing through us without prejudice flash through my mind. With my left hand I am frantically waving my headlamp alternating between the tunnel walls ahead of us and the dark abyss behind us. Hoping that the chaotic dancing light of my fear will alert any approaching car that there are a couple of dumbasses in way over their heads in a tunnel they may or may not be allowed to pass through. The roaring intensifies. With no end in sight I begin looking for any nook or alcove to duck into for safety. As my peaking fear and the approaching din of oncoming traffic meet at their apex, a literal sign of providence reveals itself: “Camping Smeraldo, Exit Right 100m.” I yell to Mel to get off at the exit. We scream into a parking lot where we’re greeted by our speedo-clad friend and a tranquil Ligurian sunset that could not be further from our personal state of torment.
In a matter of moments, we grab the keys to the cottage, explode gear over every surface, don bathing suits and in short order find ourselves sipping gin and tonics as the nerves of the whole ordeal begin to slowly melt as another day slips into dusk. As we sit in contented silence, the idea that maybe this trip was beginning to take on a character of something to endure rather than enjoy begins to take a more noticeable residence in our minds. The trip thus far had been beautiful but difficult. We had cruised languidly along the Rhine. Switch-backed up and over the Alps via the 8000ft Albula Pass. Endured a hot and touristed Lake Como. Sleep-walked our way through a barren, post-harvest Lombardy. By the time we had arrived in Genoa our spirits were already profoundly dampened. With each day the miles and elevation gained increased, all in order to keep with a schedule I had naively planned months before from the comfort of our home in Boston. With each day that passed, the stops became less frequent and our focus became more narrow; heads down thinking only about how many miles it would be until the next camp site.
The trip was once in a life-time but we weren’t present for any of it. We simply sank into routine, put our heads down and pedaled; completely missing how truly special this place and this time in our lives was. I think about how it took the episode in the tunnel to shake ourselves awake from the stupor of routine we had ground ourselves into. For the sake of adhering to this selfimposed, arbitrary plan, we had driven ourselves past the point of enjoyment. Each day we began to tip ever closer to abject resentment of the trip and spaces we were moving through. I mean, who would care whether we did or did not do all 1200 miles of the route we had created? Why were we holding ourselves to such rigorous expectations at the expense of enjoying the places we were riding? When did ego and personal pride become somehow more important than joy?
On our day off we gorged ourselves on croissants and espresso from the camp bar. Gin and tonics were drained effortlessly beneath a striped umbrella as we alternated between napping and swimming under a powerful Mediterranean sun. We people-watched for hours. We worked on our Italian and made friends with the bartenders with each handful of Birra Moretti we acquired. For the first time on the trip, we eased into the warm and comforting feeling that we had nowhere to be but “here.”
Somewhere in the bliss, Mel and I agreed to add a second day off the bikes. Our bodies needed it and the comfort of our cottage by the sea was simply impossible to pull ourselves from. We promised each other that we would make up time elsewhere on the route but we both knew that the trip from then on would be completely changed. Somewhere in one of our dips in the Ligurian our egos washed away and a perspective shift took place.
In the weeks that followed, our trip took on a much more leisurely pace. We still covered miles, but we took more detours and adhered to plans less. Lunches became 3-hour, culinary affairs. We took trains and skipped segments and spent more time off the bike walking around. We swam in the ocean and wasted hours reading and chatting about the future. In the last week we awoke each day with no plan or route to follow. We’d simply pick a point on the map that looked interesting and then let the day unfold as it may. As we boarded the train in Foggia to take us back north to Munich, we felt that which we had hoped to accomplish when we set off; tan, tired, and profoundly present in one another.
In total we biked over 900 miles, experienced five countries and grinded up roughly 72,000ft of climbing. The cold damp of fall was beginning to settle on Germany as we boarded the plane in Munich. Ahead of us in the States lay a life of relative uncertainty. We had boxes to unpack, a home to make in a new state, new careers, a wedding to finish planning, and a life to build with one another. If this trip taught us anything it’s how to pivot and adapt. Life’s undoubtedly going to sneak up on us, continuing to present any number of challenges. I’m certain that with a dissolution of ego and few gin and tonics, we’ll find a way.
Check out Tyler & Mel’s complete cycling route here.