The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biking thousands of miles to my friends’ weddings, I found what makes me free

The author with her bike, which she rode from Seattle to a wedding outside of Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Tessa Hulls)

Welcome to Wedding Guest Wednesday, an occasional feature in which Solo-ish explores the joys and woes of attending other people’s weddings. Because it’s not all about the happy couple — it’s a big day for guests as well.

When I left to bicycle alone across the United States, there was an engagement ring on my finger and an understanding that I would come back.

My fiance and I had been together for more than four years. We’d fallen in love over a shared passion for exploration. But for him, adventure had become a story to warm your hands over as you sat in overstuffed chairs and drank wine from matching glasses. For me, it was still a quietly ravenous need that tugged at every thread of me.

By the time he asked me to marry him, our engagement was a way to make me stay. I had become so cowed by his constant anger that I didn’t know how to say no. When men are afraid, they make women small, and when women are afraid, they make themselves even smaller. In the years before I left, I folded myself in ways I did not know that I could bend until my body had become a curl of apology, an anxious ghost trembling in anticipation of the next wrong he would tell me I had committed.

When he finally let me bike across the country, it was less a granting of permission than an admission of defeat. One morning in bed, he turned his back to me and whispered: “Just go.”

I knew that I was supposed to say no, to tell him that I didn’t have to, that I loved him, that I would stay, that I’d do better, that I was sorry.

But I didn’t say those things. Instead, I left.

The way I chose my route was simple: A friend was getting married in Texas in April, and a cousin was getting married in Massachusetts in July. I would put my bike in a box, fly to Southern California and ride to their weddings. Then I would come back to Seattle, ready to settle down and face my own.

In the month before I left, I built the bicycle that I would ride. I wanted to be able to fix anything that broke while I was on the road, and for weeks, I cursed in our basement as I watched YouTube videos about derailleur cage lengths and cable throw. I became friends with my local bike shop, buying used parts and then coming back to buy different ones when I learned they wouldn’t work together.

As I planned my trip, I felt myself rumbling back to life. To get used to riding with weight, I filled my saddlebags with dictionaries and biked around Lake Washington. In the stolen moments when my fiance was not home, I spread my maps across our kitchen table, poring over the curves of the roads my body would soon take. I bought camping gear for the first time, pitching my tent in our living room, testing how I would lash everything to my frame.

On my first day’s ride, I left downtown San Diego and marveled at how quickly the city disappeared. Buildings and traffic receded behind me as my legs carried me over sun-bleached pavement, plunging deeper into the silence of dry rock and chaparral as I climbed for hours into the hills. My exhausted body shook, liberated and terrified by the scope of what I was doing. But as I stared at the open road, I recognized myself for the first time in years.

I wept in gratitude as I biked across the desert, as if I were a broken horse remembering what it meant to be free. My body once again became my own and years of my partner’s judgments — Who are you wearing that for? That’s a short skirt, isn’t it? I saw how he was looking at you; what were you two talking about? — sloughed away.

I raced past walls of wind-carved canyons, devoured miles of landscapes that sang in vibrant siennas and ochers, and I felt my body grow to be stronger than I’d ever thought possible. As my legs powered the means of escape that I had built with my own hands, I knew that I would never again be owned.

From our home in Seattle, with its matching wine glasses and overstuffed chairs, I had thought I’d meant it when I said that I was coming back. Within that world, my horizons had become so narrow that I had lost my capacity to imagine that love might mean something more than constantly forgiving someone’s rage.

I’d been on the road for three weeks when we broke up over the phone while I was illegally camped in a West Texas cow pasture. I slipped my engagement ring into my saddlebag, rode 4,000 more miles and never looked back.

Tradition builds on its own weight. Riding my bike to weddings quietly shifted from being something I had done a few times to Something I Do. Over the years I became part of officiants’ wedding scripts: “We thank friends and family for coming all the way from Tennessee and Wisconsin, and there’s even a girl who rode her bike.” When people saw the two-tone tan lines across my thighs beneath the hem of my dress, they would say in recognition: “You must be the girl who bikes to weddings.”

And it’s true: Seven years and 10,000 miles later, this is who I have become. I have mastered the art of stopping at a thrift store to buy a dress on my last day’s ride. I can step off my bike and enter a Port-o-Potty with wet wipes and eyeliner and come out ready to drink cocktails out of Mason jars and throw down on the dance floor.

When I started biking to weddings, I was 26. I didn’t know I was choosing a life that might preclude me from having a wedding of my own. I was young enough to believe that opening new doors didn’t mean closing others. While my friends got married in droves, I caught tail winds off glaciers as I careened down gravel roads in Alaska. As they began to have kids, I pedaled across the West African desert as the afternoon call to prayer drifted softly from dusty minarets. And in recent years, as too many died young in brutal, devastating ways, I biked through rainy coves on Whidbey Island to attend their funerals.

Ever since I made that first escape, my body has felt too small to contain its sense of wonder for the world and for how much of it I have been able to see. In all the places I’ve been and the moments I’ve witnessed, I’ve almost always been alone. I relish solitude, but I have often longed for a partner to help shoulder some of the beauty and the weight. There have been men over the years — men I shared sleeping bags with, men with whom I watched the Northern Lights, men who brewed coffee as I broke down the tent. But none of them ever made me feel free.

In my years of biking to weddings, I’ve heard the same sentiments echoed time and again in my friends’ vows: When we first met, I had no idea I could feel this way; you expanded my idea of what might be possible; my loyalty to you makes me stronger than I am alone. It seems the basic rule is this: You marry the one who makes your world feel larger.

As I have stood in the audience and listened to my friends commit to forever and for better or for worse, I have yearned for a partnership of my own. But I also know that, in those first days of riding across the desert and those first nights of trembling back into myself as I slept alone under the stars, I have found the one who makes my world larger.

When I rode away from my own engagement I had assumed that bike travel was a fling, something to get out of my system before settling into the contours of adult life. In the course of becoming The Girl Who Bikes to Weddings, I grew into a much grander freedom than the one I first set out to find. At 33, bicycle travel has become the one I married. For the past seven years, I have built a life around the very things the man I was supposed to marry told me I would have to give up. And while my bicycle has challenged me, pushed me and asked sacrifices of me, it has never made me small.

My hunger for exploration has not lessened with age. When I climb into my saddle I still feel a raucous joy for the world and what it might contain. I don’t know if my life will hold a wedding of my own. But if it does, I’ll show up on my bike.


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