Outside, the mountain bike I call The Wedding Dress (it was purchased after happily parting with my gown on eBay) has been freshly tuned. Everything that I'll need to live for the next two months has been strapped to it.
This will be a summer of sun and sunscreen and dining on dirt. On Saturday, my husband and I are flying to Calgary to ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route over the next seven weeks. The route follows the Continental Divide from Alberta, Canada across the United States to the Mexican border. The route traces past Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. It cuts through Wyoming's desolate Great Basin, and snakes through Colorado's Rocky Mountains and across the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. The route's remoteness facilitates sightings of wild horses and wildlife, while crossing through meadows, mountain passes, historical ghost towns, small town America, and golden desert.
In short, the Great Divide is an epic life adventure.
During preparations for such adventures, in the thick of them, and afterwards, people often want to know why. Why ride over 2,700 miles and over 200,000 feet of elevation, subject oneself to mosquitoes and possibly bears, and live with only the supplies that a bike can carry? Why commit to being dirty: to the rhythm of slathering on sunscreen, sweating, showering (only if lucky), and repeating, all summer long?
This question is usually in the context of: "What's your cause?"
The Strange Marriage of "Raising Awareness" and Life Adventures
A recent phenomenon is to justify adventures (and provocative spectacles) as "raising awareness" for a cause. It's almost expected.
Raising awareness itself was popularized out of the 1960s US feminist movement to educate the greater public about sexism. As an educational tactic, raising awareness is a noble and helpful precursor to moving the needle forward on particular issues towards equality, peace and justice.
But the modern trend of hitching awareness-raising to an adventure has the slippery potential to place a noble mask on an experience that is personally desired, e.g. "I'm going bungee jumping to raise awareness about childhood lymphoma!" With an action so disconnected from the cause, and with limited communicative or educational value, such an action's helpfulness is often fairly limited beyond perhaps guilt-tripping Aunt Marge into scribbling a check to a stated foundation (or worse, to help pay for the leap).
This trend of displaying selflessness while doing something wildly self-serving is disconcerting, especially when the resulting Facebook "likes" seem to become more important than the cause itself (I raise you the Ice Bucket Challenge).
The thing about raising awareness is that adventure in no way needs to be attached. Further, raising awareness for real issues should have no endpoint. There's always more work to be done.
Causes with Resolve and Adventures for Themselves
An important cultural conversation needs to be had about focusing on causes with serious resolve and leaving adventures to their real justifications. In other words, to live our values in our daily lives and accept one-off adventures and other fun for what they are.
I have a passion for cycling and bicycle touring, which has to do with my cravings for exercise and the feeling of being alive. I'm also passionate about being a vegetarian and doing my best to address climate change both personally and professionally. My passion for vegetarianism and addressing climate change is borne out of my desire to do as much as I can to prevent the suffering of current and future generations of living beings and ecosystems. These interests overlap often (such as when I bicycle commute instead of drive) but not always (bicycle racing).
While we all need our fun, I believe daily actions, such as voting with one's fork, purchasing power and ballot, are far more important and effective than one-off adventures.
The Adventure for the Adventure Itself
As for riding my mountain bike across the United States this summer: it's just an adventure for the adventure itself. To the extent all actions are ultimately political, whether intended or not, then it could contribute to, say, showing how environmentally friendly and economical bicycle travel can be (lentils and rice for fuel do not cost much). But this is not why we are taking on this adventure. If our trip inspires someone to take on cycling or another epic adventure, great. Otherwise, I'm not worried.
Why ride the longest off-pavement bike route in the world?
For fun. For strength. To center myself within this world. To feel alive, to feel rain on my face and to sleep under the light of distant stars. To marvel at sunrises and fields of wildflowers.
For the experience itself.
Because life slips away. Because without these adventures, I would feel less connected to this world.
For inspiration and stories about this adventure, check for updates on via Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. You can also track Libby and Adam's geographical progress across the continent on http://trackleaders.com/divide.