Jesse asks on a Whatsapp call over a good-enough wifi connection for me to respond at length to: “What’s the most scared you’ve ever been during bicycle travel?” It was a conversation about fear and we laughed a lot; fear is so often ridiculous in hindsight (1,700 words).
My knee-jerk reaction when Jesse asked involved a soapbox. To remind her with well-intentioned condescension that most people treat me far better than I deserve to be treated. That if bicycle travel must be defined by one condition it would be pleasant mundanity, not fleeing from threats.
Also bubbling up inside of me was an anecdote from my mom that I can’t even think about let alone talk about without a lump growing in my throat. Mom had brought her stoicism to Malawi. We looked towards the nearby lakeshore, searching for the two resident crocodiles. I was strategizing aloud about hitting them in the eyes or on the snout if a crocodile attacked us during our walking safari. It’s so tempting to think we can out-manoeuvre, out-smart and control all threats.
“Well guys,” she addressed Evan, my Dad and I, “If that happens to me don’t worry, the shock sets in pretty quickly and then I won’t even be aware of what is happening.” My mom, on being violently drowned in front of her family by a prehistoric reptilian.
She’s right—faced with real, immediate dangers your body and mind crank out automated processes, marshalling chemicals and their related muscle reflexes. There is neither time nor energy available to devote to fear—this is my hypothesis. For now it can only be a hypothesis, because the “most-scary” situations brought about by bicycle travel have so far not given me much to deal with. My mind was free to entertain worry, paranoia, irrationality, waking nightmares.
My first answer was an afternoon several months ago in western Tanzania. The dirt road’s texture made it easier to hear the sedan slowing down as it approached me. Its windows were tinted silver, reflecting back at me the withering glare I shot. The windows remained rolled up as the car crept along at cycling pace, before accelerating to stop up ahead, to wait.
By the time I’d cycled up to the car the two men were already out of it, waving me down and seconds later waving Evan down. Their hands flapped, hinging at the wrist. From Tajikistan to Tanzania this is a global gesture that alerts me to a road-side man eager to exercise his power, be his intentions benign or less-so.
The bigger of the two enveloped himself within my personal space. The questions he asked me would have seemed peculiar in any East African country but especially so in Tanzania where the people are generally placid. He demanded to know what was written on the paper inside the plastic insert clipped onto my bar bag. He kept flipping it over and trying to find a map inside, asking me for the map I did not have. The paper within the insert had Swahili numbers and phrases for ordering things at the market. He scrutinized how I’d written the numbers into different columns, as if to find a secret code. He quizzed me on the phrases in a way that made me feel uncomfortable.
My irritation turned to fear the moment I tried to pedal away, muttering “we’re leaving;” at once he gripped my handlebars. I looked him in the eyes and my stomach dropped as he responded, “NO.” On the quiet road there were no cars to flag down with my own hand-flapping borne of panic, in search of help from other Tanzanians.
I feared extortion, mostly. I quietly separated my passport out of my wallet while he was momentarily occupied speaking to his colleague, to avoid showing shillings when I inevitably handed it over, as he had moved on from demands of maps to demands of passports. But extortion is a minor evil that does not usually make me tremble. There was something else, something unnerving about how quickly he had wrapped his hand around the handlebars, how close that hand had been to mine.
While it was happening it was difficult to know that his “NO” was the apex from which the encounter diffused. The man had been inappropriate and I had floundered. It was stupid to show my emotional deck to someone so clearly bent on intimidation. In an application of feminism Evan had hung back, letting me try (and fail) to be a cool cucumber. Eventually he stepped in, casually appealing to the better angels of the men’s nature. By this time, the two had been more forthcoming: they were high-ranking, plain-clothed military officials returning from what may have been a boozy lunch. We were cycling through their military base. Perhaps they thought us spies.
We parted ways amicably, even with laughter: the parting words of the man who had gripped my handlebars was “you should listen to your husband.” This kind of thing would generally anger me. But Evan had handled the situation with grace that I wished to learn for the future. In response to the man’s command, I laughed sheepishly.
After I gave this answer I realized that Tanzanian afternoon wasn’t THE MOST SCARY. In a sense, it’s an impossible question to answer accurately; recency bias and the outcome of each scary-ish situation makes them difficult to rank. However, I gave a second, better answer to Jesse. A night in Ontario, Canada where I lost my nerve completely.
That most horror movies I have seen have featured a white, English-speaking male villain came back to haunt me. Central Ontario was quiet—silent pine forests, small independent motels and gas stations with beef jerky in a jar on the counter and gripes against competition, “will you sign our petition against Parks Canada?” Small cabins in the woods, rusted-out pickup trucks, hunting enthusiasts, not poverty but not prosperity. Bears scared me. The thought of my own end via an axing by a bogey-man with a mullet scared me much more. Even in the daytime I would look both ways before ducking off into the woods to squat and pee.
Jesse was in stitches by this point. She grew up in a small town in northern BC with comparable characteristics to those that stressed me out in Ontario; her home wasn’t far from the infamous Highway of Tears. Could my paranoia have arisen not only from horror movies, but also from my suburban-urban upbringing, where a love of hunting was immediately equated to chauvinism and a violent streak?
In planning where to sleep, my ambient state was anxious. I planned ahead to sleep at Warmshowers hosts wherever I could, throwing away spontaneity. Sedate provincial campgrounds made me uneasy. I would quietly wheel along their gravel paths passing arrows for toilets, arrows for paid hot showers, arrows for site 33-101, arrows for the exit, arrows for firewood. My search would end when I found friendly looking neighbours to camp next to. I would approach them, asking to store my food in their car overnight because of bears. Inevitably they would laud me, “you’re so brave to do what you do, especially in those kinds of countries (the dangerous world outside of Canada).” I felt like a hypocrite.
I was so afraid of wild camping that I forced myself to do it, “just once,” I assured myself.
Wasaga Beach on Georgian Bay’s southern shores was crammed with expensive camping spots and single-story motels in the town centre: astroturf, plaster animals, plaster trees, signs with letters in black and fluorescent colours, all for more than I was willing to pay. I decided that I would wild camp, and wheeled over to the inevitable Tim Hortons to strategize over an iced coffee and late-afternoon oatmeal.
I loaded the satellite imagery for a nearby cross-country ski area butted up against residential neighbourhoods. The real world did not get scarier as I cycled across town and down Blueberry Trail that ran along the park’s western edge. It was dusk, and the only people I had to avoid being seen by were children, playing, not yet going home.
How far to go inside the park? Too close to Blueberry Trail and I’d be hunted down, visible from the road. Too far into the silent pines and I wouldn’t be able to escape when I was hunted down from within the park, where a murderer was almost-certainly using the forest to hide from the law or had chosen this particular evening for a moon-lit stroll down the dirt paths that in winter become ski trails.
The woods in July were dry and anything creeping around in the ochre pine needles and grey-brown leaves seemed ten times its size. Overnight there were many animals or insects on the move, probably tiny things. I can’t tell you their actual size because fear prevented me from even unzipping the tent. Wasaga’s noctural life whizzed, crackled, crept; my imagination raced. I assured myself that I would hear any approaching human if I used the crunchy forest floor as an alarm system. Though there is little need for an alarm system when sleep is only fitful naps.
Dawn brought relief and overwhelming fatigue. I cycled back to Tim Hortons and entered in my funny outfit, looking strung out and relieved.
One of the reasons I am passionate about bicycle travel is that it forces me to confront my fears. It offers daily opportunities to question and improve my thinking process, particularly in situations where fear is my first impulse. When I share this story of fearing Ontario’s lunatics, I wonder if the only lunatic in this story was me. That’s probably what Jesse thought!