I am feeling self-conscious about my upcoming bike trip across America with my 15-year-old son. It is such a luxury and privilege to be able to just take off and step out of the rat race like this that I am a bit embarrassed.
It is not lost on me that I am a middle-income, white woman who has grown up with a lot of support and opportunity. I feel guilty doing something as self-serving as this bike adventure. Where do I get off thinking that I can get away with something so fun?
Perhaps, these thoughts come from the Midwesterner in me. My family hails from Minnesota and I fight a chemical in my blood that demands that we should all be a little bit miserable in order to earn our keep in this world. We are also supposed to praise frugality, hard work and keep a low profile so as not to draw attention to ourselves. This trip does not match these sentiments.
To add to these feelings of guilt, my husband Twain and I have fallen into all the financial traps that our society has set for us and I am choosing to ignore them. We have taken on tremendous school loans which we may never pay off fully, maxed out a home equity line and done the credit card dance throughout our adult lives. We live paycheck to paycheck and rarely buy new clothing or gear. We have three kids in college and often need to bail them out by helping them with rent and other expenses. We don’t have health insurance.
We decided to take a gamble this year because it felt like throwing money away and our coverage was terrible anyway. We drive a 2008 mini-van that has sliding doors on either side that get stuck open routinely. It is a big joke to watch our children and their friends struggle to slam the door closed only to have it spring back open again and again. We grocery shop at Trader Joe’s because it is the cheapest thing going. I don’t have a retirement account. Money is a constant stress. It causes a lot of conflict.
Yet, when we do get money do we save it? Do we pay down our debt? No. We impulsively spend it on travel. It seems that every time we get a little windfall we impulsively spend it on an adventure. They are low budget adventures to be sure, but they are still frivolous and seemingly irresponsible given the state of our finances. But this impulsivity has allowed us to do amazing things.
We have followed the Oregon Trail and ridden in covered wagons. We have walked on Glaciers in Iceland. We have explored Mammoth Cave and hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We have snorkeled in tropical waters and hung out with Capuchin monkeys. We have camped on beaches and forests and canoed down remote rivers. These trips define our family and the way in which we engage with the world around us. I wouldn’t take away a second of them no matter the cost.
So this bike trip? Totally financially irresponsible. Our money would be better spent paying off loans, saving for retirement or buying health insurance. But how insufferably boring! When Oakley and I leave, it will be necessary for me to close my private practice counseling business. My income will come to a crashing halt. We will defer our student loans and Twain (bless his heart) will keep working, but the trip will cost a lot in terms of gear, camping fees and other necessities. It is completely reckless and will add to our financial stress considerably.
But to not go would be worse. We hear about tragedies on a global scale every day and I also hear them on a personal scale through my counseling work. I am often overwhelmed by the state of the world and by the sadness that many people I know carry, such as depression and suicidal ideation, the crushing cycle of poverty, drug addiction and failing families. When I become overwhelmed everything seems gray. I get tired and worn and lose my spark. At these times I feel I have nothing left to offer. Then I feel bad about myself and become unmotivated. It is a sad state of affairs. I know it happens to everybody.
If I don’t have a spark and if Oakley loses his spark, what good are we? I want to be a positive force in the world and I want him to be one, too. The only way I know how to keep our sparks bright is to get out of the gray of the city. To get out off our screens and into the outdoors. To engage with others and nature. To stop worrying about ferry schedules and shopping lists. To stop rushing and getting lost in the lists of my life.
Adventuring in the outdoors is how I remember where I fit and what I am a part of. This is why, no matter how selfish it seems, this trip is a good thing. Yes, it is totally self-serving but, I am hoping, it will allow us to have more to give, by filling us up.
My role model is Frederick the mouse in Leo Lionni’s children’s book, Frederick. Frederick spends his days collecting beautiful images and feelings throughout the summer days to have something to share with the other mice during the dark winter months:
“And how about the Colors Frederick?” they asked anxiously.
“Close your eyes again,” Frederick said.
And when he told them of the blue periwinkles and the red poppies the yellow wheat and the green leaves of the berry bush, they saw the colors as clearly as if they had been painted on their minds.
I may never pay off my loans. I may never make the big changes that I would like to see in the world, but I think I can rationalize this expedition by believing that if we stay completely alive and awake we are adding something good to the world. At least believing us helps quell the scolding Midwesterner in me.