Why Evan is a 38 year old bike tourist

evan smiling on a cloudy day in the pine forests of northeastern south africa

It was Evan’s thirty eighth birthday a few days ago. I asked what he wanted. “A ticket out of here, back to west Africa, to keep cycling,” he quickly replied. It’s because of these long visits to Nairobi that he’s able to afford bike travel; one doesn’t come without the other. Nonetheless he wants to return to trading money for experiences.

Evan has been peripatetic for over a decade, and since 2015 he’s been arranging his life around bike travel. For his birthday I wanted to collect thirty eight reasons I believe he keeps living like this. Some of these reasons are also the characteristics I most admire in him.

It might seem redundant to explain why Evan continues to bike travel—anyone who had his time, money, lack of obligations and good health would do the same, right? I’m not so sure. I know people who stop before circumstances demand. People get burnt out, bored, jaded, and/or decide to do something else that excites them more. We also have reasons to stop.

That we plan to be on the road for a few more years is partially because of the following characteristics of my partner, who sometimes has a bit of difficulty remembering the myriad things he brings to the table while we’re on the road.

evan eating a big mouthful of spaghetti from a plate piled high at a rwandan buffet

An easy eater

1. Evan insists on cooking a full dinner when we’ve cycled the whole day. No matter how tired, hot, cold or irritated by insects he is, he’ll take few shortcuts. He’ll spend as long as it takes to chop vegetables, peel garlic, fry onions, cook a starch, simmer a stew. But our pot had better be full, and if I don’t do my tasks at an efficiency approaching his, he’ll grumble at me hungrily. I know the empty feeling that follows eating cookies for dinner in the tent, so I both understand and admire his dedication to dinner.

2. He finds it difficult to share food. While eating he subconsciously wraps his idle hand and forearm around his dish as if to guard it. But sharing what we’ve cooked when we camp at people’s homes has been a focus of ours this past year. This requires Evan to sometimes share more than he’d want to, or abandon the leftovers we’d otherwise have for the morning. He’s done well. It’s made these evenings more participatory for the people we meet. Sometimes I bring a few snacks into the tent in case he gets hungry overnight.

3. He’s simply pleased. What’s available where and when we’re there, (especially mangos or avocados) have a novelty that’s slow to wear off. If he can find any sort of cooked vegetables or legumes in restaurants, he’s set. He rarely gets flavour fatigue, though our spice bag helps with this. Oatmeal is the only bike travelling staple he’s fussy about.

4. If we’re not confident we’ll be able to find fresh produce along the way, we’ll buy several kilograms of it and somehow make space in our bags for heads of cabbage and kilograms of carrots. If there’s nothing fresh, we’ll carry cans of tomatoes, corn or beans—whatever is going. The weight is without question worth it to both of us, which says more about Evan as he’s carrying most of it. Maybe we are fussy eaters that forget because we’re so rarely caught without veg and spices.

5. It might take a little time, but he’s honest with himself when a gap appears between how he’s eating and how he wants to eat—whether for health, environment or animal suffering. In so much of the world today, eating along the path of least resistance while bike travelling fills our bellies with endless varieties of addictive foods like fried breads, processed snacks and ample beer and soft drinks. His willingness to admit to yet another backslide into lazy eating pushes us to get back on the wagon.

6. Perhaps antithetically to the above, we enjoy rewarding ourselves with a big cheesy pizza when we “arrive” somewhere after a long time on the road. In African countries, pizzas are commonly available in major cities, as well as some hostels and campsites.

His mindset

7. While thirty seven, Evan made gratitude more of a habit. He’s used his devices for this, which is maybe ironic given bike travel’s reputation for getting one into nature and away from screens. There’s a feature on his journaling app that shows him old entries written on the same day in previous years. He’s often excited to read these way-points of his past lives, clear snapshots in time because he wrote about both what he was experiencing and how he felt about his life. Sometimes these old entries remind him of old mindsets and struggles he didn’t see a way past.

8. And then there’s the thousands of photos he’s organized, edited, keyworded and backed up to the cloud this past year. Few things evoke emotions in him like looking at photos. Inevitably he’s reminded that through luck, fortune and saying an enthusiastic yes to many opportunities, he’s experienced a lot of life.

9. Evan couldn’t have predicted, imagined or even wanted this life several years ago. That his life didn’t take a very different path strikes him as this amazing turn of events, which also terrifies him—“if I’d gone with the flow I might have had a mortgage and squawkers by now!!” he gasps. This realization, in turn, makes him consider this largely accidental life as something to be very careful about giving up.

10. Like everyone, Evan dislikes feeling trapped. He’ll react very strongly to people, situations and obligations that make him feel this way, usually through distancing himself as quickly as possible—pretty much regardless of what the other people in the situation want. Fortunately, he’s become more careful about committing to anything and anyone. When he reads this I know he’ll roll his eyes in a sort of cringing, self-deprecating gratitude for how lucky he is to be able to pursue what makes him feel free. That said, I’ve known him to chase it even at significant personal cost to himself.

11. When he does commit, he’s dogged. He throws himself into whatever tasks and challenges the day or relationship offers. I think this helps him quickly learn how to succeed and thrive in a number of situations, which in turn gives him the confidence to keep doing them and take on more. Whether it’s talking through an issue or fixing gear that he’s not even sure how to fix, he’s often ham-fisted, impatient and persevering.

Why he hasn’t burned out

12. Money, obviously! Having vast material wealth has affected his perspectives in two major ways. It’s seemed to lessen his motivation to prioritize making more. And I can’t overemphasize the effect such a sturdy safety net has on how he relates to bicycle travel (me, too). The lifestyle’s discomforts and difficulties are perceived as choices that can end pretty much whenever we need or want a break from them.

13. He’s accumulated wealth by remote freelancing while bike travelling and spending little compared to his compensation. These pauses for work have been baked into Evan’s bike travel life since he began. While they’ve clearly benefited him financially, I think they’ve also brought balance that has staved off travel burnout. I love cities, and often find them and their residents difficult to leave. I do most of my writing while we’re paused for Evan’s work. Busy as these days in front of a computer may be for him, I think the work has been the healthy counter to all the input and change that riding days offer. He throw himself into things so fully that I doubt he’d give himself enough breaks and chances to linger if work hadn’t forced him to. Freelancing has also been intellectually stimulating, and he’s savoured the opportunity to express his creativity and solve problems.

14. The reason he excelled in competitive endurance athletics in his twenties was his mental and physical ability to give races everything he had. He brought this attitude to his first year bike travelling, fixating on the speed and distance shown by his bike computer. He pushed himself to exhaustion because that’s what he defined as success, at the expense of interacting more with the world around him. Getting rid of his bike computer—he gave it to me and I didn’t install it—helped him change his philosophy from “110%” to “ride hard, travel slow.” The latter tries to marry his love of exertion with his desire to experience.

15. Gear that breaks or doesn’t work properly can be really frustrating on a long bike trip. Being able to afford quality gear and the cost of fixing and replacing it helps, but so does Evan’s stubborn engineering mind. He spends a lot of time sewing and fixing our stuff. He anticipates what parts and replacements we’ll have to make in the future so that we can order a shipment or ask a visitor to bring them for us. He has this confidence that even if he’s never fixed something before he can figure out how the thing is built and therefore get it working or close enough.

Photo by Richard Auden of Lush Longboards

Trade offs

16. Evan makes a few trade-offs. He looks forward to a stationary life for the chance to pursue meaningful work and build deeper relationships while enjoying fast wifi, green juice from his Vitamix blender and new Apple products. On the other hand, he doesn’t pine for his own space to buy or rent, is ambivalent towards many creature comforts and doesn’t see himself as a future parent.

17. The lack of downhill mountain biking probably remains the biggest trade-off for him. Before he began bike travelling, he’d spent a few years forming his life around downhill cycling wherever he was living, and even moved countries for the chance. He loved it then and sometimes misses it now. He doesn’t travel with a mountain bike because we choose to carry too much stuff. The suspension of a mountain bike would be finicky to maintain long-term, especially given that he tends to abuse his bicycles by riding them as hard as his skill, fitness and gravity permit. I think he’d miss downhill more if he hadn’t made the most of the opportunities he had. But he did, and revisits the photos and memories often.

18. When we first got together we joked that his friends thought he was only with me for my nationality, so that he could move to Canada to mountain bike. There’s still that draw, and now he also feels he won’t fully know me without seeing where I’m from. Until then, he sometimes gets a bit sad about not having visited.

19. He is very wary of venomous snakes, but he’s never been unwilling to go where these snakes might be—boomslang caves, tall grasses in the late afternoon, hiking trails warmed by the sun. It’s an aspect of bike travel that he tolerates instead of finds thrilling.

Staying healthy

20. Evan’s body seems resilient. He rarely gets sick, and when we’re simultaneously afflicted by similar ills he usually bounces back before me. His poops are museum specimens of perfection seemingly irrespective of what he eats or drinks. His bites, scratches and cuts heal quickly and this skin of his rarely gets dry even in the desert, with pimples being similarly absent even in the steamy jungle after days without bathing. He can get mopey quickly when his throat is sore or his toilet time is only good instead of great because he’s unaccustomed to physical ailments.

21. But Evan’s almost forty and it’s no surprise that this long using, abusing, challenging and neglecting his body will have some consequences. I’m especially proud of his attitude this year towards his teeth. It must be frustrating to pay for a painful root canal and then a surgical extraction after a year spent brushing and flossing far more than before. You have to understand that his mouth has been a sensitive subject for us. Unwittingly I built a wall between us when, while we were getting to know each other, he asked me what physical aspect I found unattractive in men. “Bad teeth and bad oral hygiene!” I responded. Little did I know that Evan had been insecure about this for most of his life. His friends know him as the guy who never brushes his teeth, because he rarely did, further ensnaring himself in a cycle of shame he felt for neglecting his mouth after his parents shoveled money into the orthodontist’s office for childhood braces. The scraggle-toothed boy inside him has come to trust me enough to admit he wanted to do better. Now even when we’re camping without much drinking water he’ll brush his teeth, usually twice a day. His breath still smells funky sometimes, as does mine, and the truth is I actually like it because these have become the tastes and smells of home.

22. He’s a sweater. If he doesn’t get enough salt, dehydration knocks him down. One of the stories about Evan’s life that I just can’t understand is how even after so many professionally organized competitive athletic events in hot weather neither him, his teammates nor the medical crew ever managed to tell him that he’d have prevented his sickening dehydration if he’d only taken some water with his salt! His life was forever changed a few short years ago when he discovered that eating lots of salt (via olives) allowed him to cycle in fifty degree heat without having to quit: one of his proudest physical accomplishments.

23. A cyclist for twenty years who has pushed himself for more adrenaline and challenge, Evan has technical skills. He knows how to fall well because he’s done it several hundred times. I’ve learned that this does not mean he enjoys falling, far from. I’ve seen first-hand how falls that would have wrecked me leave him pretty much unscathed–but shaken up. His skills also allow him to ride right on my back wheel to chat chat chat with me. Somehow he can simultaneously drive the conversation, enjoy the surroundings, avoid buzzing my wheel (usually) and also react suddenly if I swerve, suddenly pull over or change speeds (again, usually).

24. He always wears his helmet!

25. Evan has made huge strides this year in aligning his actions with his priorities. He’s had more time to spend as he chooses because most of his thirty seventh year he was in retirement. He drank less booze, read more books and slept more. The time he would have spent working was spent learning Spanish, about artificial intelligence, the countries we’re in, technology, meditation, organizing all our photos, creating, writing, building healthy habits, meeting more people and CHILLING OUT. He’s endlessly hard on himself for all he perceives as his shortcomings, so I wanted to remind him on his birthday that this past year he’s figured out new ways to flourish while tending to his physical and mental health.

Surviving doing this together

26. Our spending attitudes are converging and similar. There’s little differences: I spend money on coffee in cafes that he’ll never visit with me. He spends more money than me on smartphone apps, many of which he convinces me are useful. We both really hope we can continue living frugally by our standards for the rest of our lives.

27. We’re able to travel well together largely because our world-views are broadly similar. We often trust strangers unless they give us a reason not to. We like meeting new people, but not all the time; we like dirt roads in the mountains but not all the time. We as often choose street food as we do our own cooking. We appreciate comfort but find too much of it stultifying. To varying degrees we find discomfort and challenge rewarding. Neither of us wants to cycle every day. Thank goodness Evan has found value in time alone, because I need hours of this every day. We often view what we have and how we’re treated through the lens of our privileges. We often make efforts to learn new things and be surprised, and lest I paint too rosy a picture both of us are have many vices, bouts of small mindedness and lose so many hours to vapidity. A morning or evening without a bit of cuddling feels weird for both of us. If we’re filthy and sweaty in the tent we just touch toes as a substitute for cuddling.

28. We spend hours a day communicating. Bickering, discussions, conversations and debates (not necessarily in that order) are punctuated by small talk, gossip, thinking aloud and describing what we’re reading. We try to work through conflict and disagreement as soon as we’ve calmed down.

29. Upgrading from a two-person to a three-person tent has materially improved our relationship, especially now that we’re cycling in sweltering west and central Africa. Now we have to consent to touching each other instead of involuntarily mingling the sweat of our skins in our old tent, where the choice was to have parts of our skin touch each other or the tent walls, where the mosquitoes could bite through the fabric.

30. Some tasks we take turns doing, while others are consistently owned by me or him. We don’t have a formal system. We’re prone to falling into our respective comfort zones: I’m our public-relations Team, Evan fixes everything; I clean, he carries. We’ve each lost some of the self-sufficiency that we built by travelling alone. There’s a lot of rhetoric between us about changing this. Until then, we just aim for the division of labour to feel fair to each of us.

31. If we rode a tandem bicycle together we’d be even more confronted than we are with our different approaches towards quiet time and exertion. So no thanks.

32. Evan thinks I’m pretty slovenly and too lazy to clean myself properly. I think he’s slovenly but it must be said that he cleans himself in a wonderfully efficient and anal-retentive manner when convenient. He washes his body parts in a rigid, unchanging order whether he’s having a hot shower or a cold bucket bath. The most important thing here is that we’re both fine getting on with daily life without being clean or smelling fresh (sorry, everyone else), whether that’s sex, sleep or grocery shopping.

33. Whereas in Asia we each carried “our own” possessions, in Africa Evan persuaded me to let him carry far more stuff in order to slow him down to a speed closer to my preferred one. My pride and burgeoning feminism made this difficult to accept, until it just became normal and difficult to change because whenever I try to take something from his bags and put it in mine Evan says “you can carry whatever else you want, if you’re willing to ride harder than you do.”

34. Because of him I’ve gone from reacting to the heat of the day taking one or four naps each day in the shade to riding pretty much nonstop through it. I never thought I’d say this but in a way I prefer it because it keeps the momentum. Because of me Evan gives himself permission to pull over to take photos when he wants to, or stop and have relaxed conversations with people we meet roadside, instead of slaying himself from dawn to dusk trying to cover an “acceptable” distance, which just happened to be whatever distance required him to ride hard dawn to dusk.

Why he loves it

35. I think Evan’s become more of a generalist. The list of what interests him about life and about travel is growing. A bird call will intrigue him, a termite mound might make him stop, he’ll take photographs of old man’s beard from different angles for creativity and for appreciation of this funny, beautiful moss. He’s chill around children, smiles easily at live music (but won’t dance), loves forest jungles swamps marshes and the desert (kind of) but also marvels at painted murals on urban walls and traffic jams canary yellow with taxis. He enjoys talking to people, and people watching and people avoiding. Religion, industry, politics, architecture, pop culture, technology and trains all interest him—especially trains. We’ll set up camp to the sounds of people and music we’re hiding from, or silence, or music from our phones, or the rustle of trees, or the giggles and gasps of a crowd that have welcomed us because we were deemed trustworthy, which surely his great smile and self-assured manner contributed to. Chaos stirs him, solitude in nature makes him fall in love. There’s no single type of experience he’s seeking.

36. It’s in this lifestyle, detached from the cultures that made him, that he’s developed a lot of the perspectives and opinions that inform his worldview. He’s keen on continuing living in the way that helped him learn whatever he has so far.

37. Though he’ll express curiosity and a sort of naive, wistful FOMO about not having ever worked in a hostel, backpacking or taking an organized bus tour, Evan is pretty obsessed with doing his own thing, his own way, at his own speed, with people of his choosing. I think he’d last about a week as a barista. His core values have remained fixed for a long time: in addition to this freedom he values passion, time outdoors and challenging oneself. Bike travel continues to offer so many opportunities to seek these.

38. It’s in bike travel that we’ve built a life together. Our love for it contributes to the other’s. So thanks for that, and all of it, and happy 38th birthday Goat.

2 Comments

  1. What a love letter. Thank you so much for sharing so many intimate details of your relationship that I think most people probably forget about or are unable to find beauty in.

    “His poops are museum specimens of perfection” really got me laughing. 🙂

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