The Thing You Think You Cannot Do

A picture of a two-lane country road going up a hill.
Another hill to climb.

At the end of the second week of my bicycle journey across the United States, I am in the vicinity of Pulaski, New York, having pedaled 627 miles.

The journey as a metaphor for life is well-worn and so I don’t want to unravel its already tattered threads. But, I hope you will indulge me this one last time. On this trip, I have encountered various situations in which I find myself having to ride quite a few more miles in a day than I really wanted.

Despite the fact that what I am doing could be considered athletic, I don’t consider myself much of an athlete. Throughout my school years, I was usually one of the last to be picked when choosing sides for whatever sport it happened to be. As a cyclist, I am quite a slowpoke. And so, while cycling through the White Mountains, Green Mountains, and then the Adirondacks, 50 miles per day has been about all my body has felt like doing.

A picture of a fast running stream with rapids going through evergreen trees in the Adirondack Mountains.
I passed I don’t know how many clear running streams like this one in the Adirondacks.

Nevertheless, when traveling using any means of transportation, things come up. If your own body happens to be the locomotive moving you forward, those things that come up usually mean extra physical exertion for which you didn’t plan. I’ve had a couple of “Oops! Wrong turn!” moments that have meant pedaling a few extra miles and doing some climbs another time or two. But, it really wasn’t that bad.

A picture of a big red farm house which is the Paradox House Retreat B&B
Paradox House Retreat B&B. If you are ever in Schroon Lake, NY, stay here. These are the kindest folks ever.

So far, the most challenging moment in which I realized I was going to have to pedal a lot farther than I planned was driven by the weather.  On that day, my planned stop for the evening was Hancock, Vermont. The weather was dry and warm that day but cold rain, possibly mixed with snow, was predicted by the end of the day. That meant it was necessary to find shelter indoors for the night. When I researched the possibilities for places to stay in Hancock, I realized just about everything was priced beyond my budget.

Now, the elevation of Hancock is 1266 ft. The elevation of Middlebury Gap, the pass over which I would have to climb the next day is 2144 ft. I thought that if it might snow in Hancock, it seemed almost a certainty in the gap. With the sky clouding up as I neared Hancock, I began to worry about depleting my funds staying there until the roads cleared in the pass. So, after already having covered my 50 miles per day quota, when I got into Hancock riding north on route 100, I turned left on 125 and braced myself for the extra 20 miles to Middlebury. The first several miles of that day’s bonus miles, of course, entailed a 1000 ft climb over the gap, not something I was eager about at the end of the day.

As I made the left turn, I passed the porch of a local restaurant at the corner. There were two tall men dressed up like cowboys from Montana, complete with big bushy mustaches, drinking from oversized glasses what looked like the kind of leggy red wine that I love so much.  I waved and they lifted their glasses as if to offer a toast. It was starting to drizzle and my body was telling me to pull over and share a glass with those fellas, and maybe have a nice dinner there. But, I managed to keep going. I made it over the pass, in the pouring cold rain, in spite of my tired body telling me I couldn’t do it.

I made it to a warm dry place to stay in Middlebury that night. The next morning, there was a chilly and steady rain coming down as I loaded up my bike. It was predicted to come down like that all day long. But, I took heart in the plan to do a short hop that day of about 40 miles, planning to arrive in the vicinity of Schroon Lake, NY where I had already booked a relatively inexpensive place to stay to wait out the weather for a day or two.

The view of Lake Champlain and the New York shore from the Lake Champlain bridge.
Crossing the Lake Champlain Bridge into Crown Point, NY

So out of Middlebury, I left that morning on the road which would cross Lake Champlain into New York State. In a classic example of how unquestioned assumptions can get one into trouble, about five miles from the “bridge” across the lake, and perhaps fittingly near the town of Orwell, NY, I encountered a sign that said, “Ticonderoga Ferry: CLOSED.” I started to feel panic thinking about how many extra miles, or days, or dollars it was going to take to get across the lake. Darn. I forgot to pack the pontoons.

I rode back to the last diner/gas station combo that I passed and asked the clerks how to get across the lake. They gave me directions to the bridge which would entail another extra 20 miles of unplanned bike fun. I wasn’t really up for it but I managed the trip, through the cold rain, in the gloom, up another 1000 or so foot climb, past frozen Adirondack lakes, despite my body saying I couldn’t. Actually, I was kind of relieved that my bad assumption only cost me 20 miles. 

As these things have come up, the words “You must do the thing you think you cannot do” kept coming to mind. These are the words of someone who to me is one of the greatest persons of American history, Eleanor Roosevelt. That quote in context is:

A portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt in 1933
Eleanor Roosevelt in 1933. Photo credit: Wikipedia

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

I have to do a reality check here though. I am a person of relative privilege on a voluntary journey. It is really turning out to be, as people said it would be, one of the most extraordinary experiences of my entire life. There is nothing horrific about what I am experiencing. There has been just a little bit of unplanned inconvenience entailing some extra physical exertion, nothing to be compared with the real horrors that people are facing as a result of economic inequality in the United States and throughout the world. If you want to get a sense of the kinds of horrors the poor are facing in the this so-called “greatest country in the world”, I suggest that read the book Evicted, by Matthew Desmond.

I think we can think of these words, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do” also in a collective sense. As a society, we are stuck telling ourselves that we cannot do what must be done. We have known that poverty is a problem in the United States all along, but almost 50 years ago we decided either we can’t do anything about it or have deluded ourselves with the fairytale that is free market economics: the market left to its own devices will make everyone prosper. Bullshit. A very few are getting wealthy while the rest of us are mostly left to fight over the crumbs that fall from their table.

A picture of a sign showing the high water mark of a flood that occurred during Hurricane Irene.
Vermont was hit hard by Hurricane Irene in 2011. The water would have been well over my head.

Also, it has been evident for decades that unrestrained economic growth would lead to global ecological collapse—the sixth great mass extinction now rages on—but again, we kid ourselves that we can keep living beyond our planet’s carrying capacity if we just make some minor adjustments to the consumer economy.

Somehow collectively, we must face the horrors that our fellow human beings and living creatures are now suffering, or about to suffer, and start doing the things we think we cannot do. And what those things are can fill, and have filled, many books. There are lots of policy solutions, and technical solutions, for the crises that we face. Our collective body has the strength to pedal over the pass. It is our spirit now that fails us.

At the end of the initial post announcing this trip, I linked to these words of Martin Luther King Jr and will do so once more here because I want to make sure readers know them. I listen to them when I feel my own spirit start to wane. As Dr King so eloquently asserted 50 years ago, collectively, we must incite a revolution of values. We have dallied at the bottom of the hill for too long now and so our survival as a species may now depend on it.