It was only the second day and all I could see were more hills along the coastline in the distance.
I could barely see the two colored specks ahead, a white and neon green, which I had been following for the last six hours. On a normal day, those specks were actually two friends, illustrators who I share the same studio building with in Brooklyn. Somewhere behind me were two new friends—usually designers, currently cyclists. A cheerful reminder came from my right, “Make sure you drink enough water!” I had lost track of where my boyfriend had been during this stretch since he was stopping to photograph what we were too tired at the time to appreciate: the southwestern coast of Hokkaido, Japan.
A few months prior, we had all decided to become temporary cyclists instead of commercial artists. Our reasons varied, but aside from enjoying short commutes by bike, the collective agreement was to create an opportunity and experience a different state of mind. There is a sense of loneliness when working, and the stress is personal. Solving problems, answering briefs, and telling stories is demanding, so we wanted to leave our desks and still feel similarly challenged, but as a group. Maybe this would give us time to learn more about each other, outside of the environment that doesn’t easily offer the same opportunity.
Touring was only new to me—the rest of the group had already done at least one. The physical demands were intimidating, but thanks to five months of training for a half marathon earlier in the year, I felt somewhat prepared. Still, my anxieties ranged from being the only woman in the group to getting seriously injured and prematurely ending the trip. I could have sunk deeper into self doubt, but my cycle-mates were of a different mentality and drowned my fears with encouragement. Knowing that I was in good company was enough insurance for me to buy the plane ticket and deal with the reality in the following weeks.
Planning the trip was the easy part. We dismantled our bikes and packed them into boxes, padding them with our clothes and camping gear before shipping them across the world. We were going to be on the road for a week with all our belongings in panniers, adding about 25 pounds to our load. Not wanting to think about work as I was preparing for the upcoming ascent, I wondered about what a vacation meant—conventionally understood as a break your normal life, but inclusive of comforts, convenience, and relaxation. Is it still a vacation if it contains none of those things?
Jetlag aside, I didn’t expect to be so tired. We were riding for 6 hours a day on average, with no rest days in between. Our 5am wake up call from the sun baking us in our tents to pitching them again at the end of the day, in the dark. I also didn’t know that I could eat so much and still feel hungry. It was a feeling of not having enough. There was no way to be totally prepared: we were unequipped in the language and could only try our best with the help of Google translate. It was frustrating to rely so heavily on our devices, especially when it came to showing gratitude.
But like every climb, there is a wonderful descent. Japanese hospitality and patience helped clear some of the obstacles that could have made our hard moments much harder. The state of constant hunger and fatigue were forgotten when the sky would turn oranges and pinks at sunset, and of course after our frequent stops at Family Mart and 7/11. All the insects bouncing off our bodies as we rode reminded us that we were out very much alone out here, charging through the wilderness.
We always started the days together and convened for breaks, but a large portion of the trip was spent by ourselves. The solo time was meditative and helped power through the seemingly endless climbs while also jolting me into keen awareness when I sped downhills. Our days back home weren’t devoid of isolation either—but that was just fine. The ability to keep going has always been driven by personal goals: physical, mental, or both. It just felt good to know that we were sharing the solitude together.