Susan Minnich writes:
I was determined that I could do this, travel solo on my bike, in France, as a 61-year-old, reasonably fit woman, with some ability to speak French. It didn’t really occur to me not to do it, though I can’t say why I was so clearly sure that all would go well. After all, I had only been to France once before, the previous year, and other than that had only been out of the US to Canada (mostly hiking trips that were many, many years ago, in an English speaking country, not solo.)
I think something happened to me sometime around turning sixty. I don’t quite know what, but I started thinking of a different future. I didn’t want to take anything out. Well, that’s not true: I wanted to take out the complacency and sameness that had edged in. But I didn’t want to take out my home here, my husband, friends, job, cats, family. Some people say of themselves: “Oh, I’m too old to do that.” But it was abundantly clear to me: “I’m too old not to do that,” and my that is solo travel, on a bicycle.
Back in my fifties, I had decided that if I couldn’t travel (money, time, the usual old excuses) I would be a world-class reader of travel literature. There are a lot of good, inspirational books by women: Freya Stark, Edith Wharton, MFK Fisher, and many others. These books helped to give me the confidence to dream, and to be bolder. Not that I’d been totally timid.
I’m sometimes, somewhat, intimidated by eating in restaurants alone. I have no fear of negotiating subways, trains, planes alone, well maybe a little bit, sometimes. Somehow I’m sure I’ll find a place to pitch my tent, or stay. There are good strategies for dealing with that kind of thing. But I do think that society — literally all cultures — see men and women traveling alone differently, and that leads to different experiences. Some good experiences, some not-so-good experiences and not all predictable experiences.
I’ve had lots of people point out the risks, and I know there are more risks for women. But they do not seem to me to differ greatly based on distance from home. They seem to me to differ based on culture, economics, and other social conditions. I have very, very, little experience of solo traveling. So far I’ve been, as the speed limit sign said on entering Wyoming in 1972: “reasonable and prudent.” I plan carefully, I train, I do a bit of research and I set out to have a great time.
I am off – The Trip Begins…
After meticulous route planning, considering daily mileages and ascents, and after having finished a week of language immersion school in Toulouse, I was on my way, my bike loaded. Strangers had helped me to carry it up the steep steps and load it onto the TER train at Gare Matabiau in Toulouse, and other strangers had helped me to carry it off that train at Gare SNCF in Montpellier.
It weighed about 75 pounds, panniers loaded with tent, sleeping bag, clothes for riding, clothes for restaurants or museums, a guidebook or two — everything I imagined needing for my solo bike tour in the Cévennes Mountains of southern France.
My planned route included medieval villages (St.-Guilhem-le-Désert, Nant, Ste. Enimie, others); incredible deep gorges amidst steep, colorful rocky cliffs (first the Gorges du Tarn, then the Gorges de la Jonte) and provided chances to see 12th century Romanesque churches, architecture and art. I wanted to learn something of the culture and history of this region, and to meet people.
The route went first north, up into the mountains; then east, south and back west through the gorges, and ended by following the Tarn River back to Albi. There were many potential side trips that I hoped to fit in. In all I had 10 days. I planned for about 16,000 feet of climbing, 375 miles of riding. I also planned on eating lots of good food. I certainly wasn’t looking to set records. I didn’t want a trip that would leave me too exhausted to enjoy my surroundings, stop, look, smell, watch, learn, talk to people.
Now, I was heading out of Montpellier, dressed rather weirdly for a cyclist. I had had no intention of being treated like the cyclist that I was, so brought along a decent blouse, skirt, clothes for town, or trains. Leaving the city, riding uphill, I still had them on, over bike leggings and a plain, white shirt. Guess I’d been too excited in the visitors bureau where I picked up a map of the city to remember to change my clothes after the train trip.
I had dreamed of long bike trips, solo travel, with the freedoms those things offer. The link is the story of this trip, starting at the beginning, at home in the Berkshires. It did go marvelously, I did have a wonderful, absolutely fantastic, time, and am planning, already, a return trip to France.