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Published: July 12th 2018
This first entry in many years is lengthy, with a protracted timeline that is hard to follow. Pour yourself a cup of tea and take your time....or don't. Some things need to be written as much as they need to be read.
In 2014 we were crossing the Karakolpakistan border into Uzbekistan on a hotter than hell desert morning. We had heard some rather cross tales about this border and the magnifier it would bring us under. In the last town in Kazakhstan, many people warned us that the Uzbek officials were wary of foreigners in general but that this particular border was the worst of all, mixing corruption and extortion with scrutiny of every kind....
The crossing was hectic. There were a lot of dusty locals queing and no small amount of push and shove to get to the officials themselves, who were nonchalantly milling about. Our gear made it through just fine, and it had come down to a one on one discussion with a rather friendly gentleman regarding the contents of our med kit which, to be fair, deserved a bit of discussion. We were carrying a small pharmacy and the only reference as
to the actual contents of all those little bags and vials was us; two dirtbags with a tattered paper EMT card as a credential.
We had cleared the bulk of the kit when the official pulled another item from the bottom of one of our panniers: A large pill bottle filled with large tablets and the label obscured with black duct tape. It was the most secret and sensitive matter in our lives and we knew that there was no chance to conceal the truth. It was time to come clean.
The official spoke a little English, and as he peeled back the goopy piece of tape his eyes fell on two English words that he surprisingly recognized: Prenatal Vitamins. He gave a small inspiratory gasp, looked at us, and asked if we were expecting a child. We told him no but that we were planning to become pregnant, and this was in preparation for that. The Truth. It hit him hard. His eyes swelled with tears. He congratulated us on making this decision and immediately showed us photos of his family. We bonded immediately and the rest is history. We sang songs, talked about California, and he
opened the gates of hell for us to ride through.
Several of our closest friends had their suspicions, but there in the desert that day, an Uzbek border guard became the only person in the world who knew we were planning to have a child.
The two of us went through over a decade together solidly sworn against reproducing. Going about our lives out here on the road, we had come to the conscious conclusion that there were simply too many people. Furthermore, our lifestyle seemed too precious of a thing to sacrifice. However, when we ran these ideas past folks we met out on the road, some of them were politely reserved and many others told us that we were full of shit. "I push 5000 sheep across the steppe every year with my family" posited one herder. "Are you really telling me you have no room for a child? You don't even have any sheep!" How do you reply to that?
Slowly but confidently, a desire rose up inside of us. We were so scared, we did not want to admit it. Our inner animals growled and eventually we decided it was our time,
if our time was to ever come. We knew that we were seriously rolling the dice with what felt like a well crafted lifestyle. We knew that making plans might be futile. But one of the most compelling thoughts was that if either of us was ever going to become a parent AND keep running wild, it was going to be in partnership with the other. "Settling down" to raise a child did not sound appealing to either of us. It is not a lifestyle we are familiar with. It would mean that our child would grow up watching its parents struggle to construct a new way of being that neither ever really had any interest in building.
We have often heard it said that each generation should have the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of the last and look out to a further horizon. If this is actually to happen then it seems that parenthood carries with it the responsibility to build the strongest, highest shoulders possible. And so we went into the commitment with our own commitment to one another and the life we have taught ourselves to live. We had no idea how much work
all of that would be!
Sylvia was born on the birthday of our late friend Kevin who died while she was in utero. We are not inherintly spiritual people but one does not need to be spiritual to hear the universe breathing. We set to work immediatly, knowing that we had a limited time to prepare our pelaton for a third rider.
We spent that first winter wearing the baby and skiing our way from feeding to diaper change to feeding. Babies get the vibe better than adults and she had a way of sleeping harder the faster we were moving. We felt like she was somehow on our page, or at least we liked telling ourselves that. As the winter drew on, we began to construct an expedition-worthy bike trailer for the little one. It took about 200 hours of labor to make it road worthy but the end product was exciting to be around. It sat in the middle of the shop glowing in the worklights. We were getting stoked.
The following summer we took a three month test ride from our place up to Canada and back down the Washington Coast, visiting friends and
family along the way. We had loosly made the goal of putting in as much saddle time as the shop time we had put in building the trailer. When we finished, our cyclocomputer read 200 hours. Perfect.
It took another year to wrap up a lot of loose ends and set ourselves up with a life to come home to in between tours. This spring, as the visas came in and the tickets were booked we let out a collective "gulp". Sometimes you get what you dream of, but these are not the kind of dreams that find you waking up thinking: "that was nice" or something like that. This is more like some "deep in the underground lab" type of stuff. We were nervous, really nervous, but one day we saw a bike tourist standing on a bridge eating a candy bar and we could see it....that would be us soon.
And so one day it happened. All the work was finished. All the details were finalized. We checked in our bikes and panniers at the United Airlines counter at SFO and walked away with a few light packs. We made it 20 steps before we had
to set down and sob. This took so much work, so much sacrifice, and so much opportunity cost that it cannot be described in words. We must really want this, because it could have so easily never have happened.
We landed in Beijing and it was hot. Our taxi driver was waiting for us with our name on a piece of paper; such strange luxury. It took over two hours to get to our hotel in standing traffic. Beijing is improving on itself in many ways but the traffic seems worse than our previous experience. We were exhausted and plans to eat at our favorite restaurant quickly melted into some ramen in the hotel room under the air conditioner.
In the morning we hit the street in search of essentials. We needed maps, a SIM card that would work in Inner Mongolia (an unthinkable place for the average Beijinger), some fuel canisters for our stove, and a bike for Sylvia. The maps, the SIM, and the bike were all a scavenger hunt but not so hard to locate. The fuel on the other hand required several trips, a lot of questions, and a critical helping hand from
the folks at Sanfo outdoor stores. The reason: Butane canisters are legal in every part of China except Beijing. This is out of fear that someone will use one to blow something up. The truth is, there are a lot of ways to blow something up but, if that lets some public safety officer sleep at night, so be it. We eventually found some canisters anyway, making it yet another time when we have purchased contraband in a foreign country for the sole purpose of cooking our food. Beijing is seemingly on red alert at all times. Cops everywhere patrol every corner, every viewpoint in the subway network, and every large gathering point. Most of these people are little more than lightly trained whistle-blowers, but if such cheap protection actually keeps things on the up and up then so be it. They do not seem to care about us at all, besides the loving smiles they cast on Sylvia.
We rode out of the city in a heat wave and headed north. The first night found us in a perfect campsite that we spotted just before dark. The second and third nights went similarly well. We had hoped to
find our rythm quickly but by day four our team consisted of two adults with saddle sores and sick bellies, and a two year old with a low grade fever. We hid in a cemetery and took meds, all of us homesick and wanting to bail. But the final resting place of some was the needed respite for us. By noon the following day we were back in the saddle, fed, and feeling a little better. Most of these trips have presented us with a hazing period in the first weeks where we have questioned why we would ever do something like this. The added responsibility of caring for and guiding our child on this trip has us more on our toes, but she opens doors that were not available before.
People everywhere love children, but a foreign child on the back roads of Inner Mongolia gets a lot of attention. Sylvia is usually not very open to strangers in her face. She swings her arms violently at the dozens of people a day who try to enter her personal space and she kicked an old woman in the knee the other day as the poor soul was reaching
out to pick her up. She spends most of her time in quiet mountain environments and has always had a repulsion to people who approach her with nothing to offer. Who can blame her? We try to steer her towards tolerance, but we understand her feelings. We also tend to be more drawn to stoic people and have only learned to tolerate masses of selfie taking yahoos with phone cameras through these types of experiences.
Those who approach with a little more tact have a better chance of making her aquatintence. The other morning we were hungry in the early hours and looking for some food in a dusty little roadside village. Eventually we were led to a little roadhouse where someone was awake to make us some dumplings. As we waited and enjoyed some pickled treats, a few truckers with sleepy eyes appeared from the back room. Sylvia was pretty put off by the crew until one of the truckers shared some sound clips he had made of her voice. The two of them enjoyed some food as the proprietor brought out roast dog meat and liquor to share with the guests. In the end we tried to
pay but they would not have it. We rolled up the next hill out of town with our bellies full of dumplings, dog, and booze, and our spirits set straight for the day. As the same day ended, we were treated to meal by a family who offered us a free room in their hotel. Our first shower in over a week of hot riding felt nice but the sight of our children playing together in front of the hotel was the real treat for all parties involved.
And so it continued. Lots of attention, more gifts than we could carry, endless selfies, and one popular little girl. We stopped for our first rest days here in Tongliao and it was much needed. Our legs were tired, our bikes needed love, and Sylvia needed to hide. Somewhere in the past two weeks we have found a new version of our old game. Cycle touring continues to teach us the same lesson: when we forget where we are going and what we are looking for, when we forget about the heat and just learn to be cool, just when we start to lose our minds... We find ourselves... In the
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