Reckoning: Adventuring Alone
by Micah Ling
It’s hard to say which of the details of my great-grand mother’s story are true. I’ve always imagined a small fire in her that just wouldn’t go out. This is because when my great-grandmother was 5 years old, her adopted parents hanged her. My great grandmother was Mohawk. She was my mother’s father’s mother and she was adopted by a white, Christian family who took in several Native children. When the couple fell on hard times, they couldn’t provide for so many mouths. The solution was to get rid of the mouths.
My great-grandmother survived, she lived through the hanging. Her adopted parents placed her in a bed — thinking she was dead. But before they could bury her, she ran.
This is a story I heard over and over at family gatherings, repeated with the type of reverence for an elder that inspires a lot of family pride and personal character. Years ago, my mother did some research and found a newspaper article that confirmed most of the events.
The story we tell now is that my great-grandmother never stayed in one place very long after that.
And there’s a bit of that in me.
I grew up riding bikes, but I didn’t take it seriously until I moved to Colorado 4 years ago. I spent most of my life as a runner. I ran cross-country in college and then spent years running an hour each morning alone, no matter where I lived. It was more a meditation than tracking numbers, though I’ve always been extremely competitive, mostly with myself. But when I arrived to the Rocky Mountains, I started spending more and more time on two wheels.
It only took a matter of months before solo adventures on the bike became vital to me. I needed to really breathe. I needed to go miles and miles and see trees and mountains and alpine lakes. My ride of choice was anything that involved serious climbing and views from the top. I looked up mountain passes and researched routes. I invested in a gravel bike and then the best gravel bike and the best wheels money could buy. I got addicted to waking before dawn to see the sun rise from someplace spectacular. When I had done something that pushed my limits before most people were awake, I felt powerful. And by the time I had descended, I was usually thinking about the next one.
As I’ve increased my mileage, and upped my adventure game, I’m aware that there aren’t as many visible women documenting their solo rides. I follow a lot of bike adventurers on social media, and almost all of them are men. I get it. Lots of women come to the sport socially — they join a group ride, or only feel safe biking with friends. But I also think more women should take on things that intimidate them, in whatever way they feel ultimately safe. Doing big things alone is good for us. Reaching the top and having nothing to do but high-five yourself is actually super fun.
It’s not that I’m anti-social, necessarily — though I’m certainly closer to the introverted side of the scale — it’s just that solo adventures are entirely about observing, and learning. And I feel I can use a lot of both. Social rides are about, well, being social. Even before our current reality of social situations being dangerous, or just irresponsible, I preferred discovering new places on the bike alone. I simultaneously like to take in my surroundings at my own pace, and pride myself on as little “down time” as possible, even on all-day adventures.
For my great grandmother, some version of hanging and escape happened. Some version of absolute survival enabled me to be alive. It was the ultimate reality of caring for yourself. That’s not “self-care,” or being selfish, that’s enduring. That’s doing what you need to do to make it to another day. And while I’ve never had my life threatened in such a severe way as my great-grandmother, sometimes bike adventures feel like survival.
In a year without races or group events, I’ve taken on more solo challenges and adventures than ever before. A friend recently told me that it’s not an adventure unless you don’t know the outcome. I like that. I like to think of adventure as trying something you’ve never tried before — especially if it scares you. But fear inevitably comes with risk. I know that, especially as a woman, I take risks every time I set out alone. And there are two versions of danger to battle: the weather, the mechanicals, the running out of nutrition, getting injured, or lost. And then the intimidating reality that people — especially women — get taken, harassed, abused, and killed just for being alone. But I’ve trained myself to control the controllables. To be aware of my surroundings and my situation. I always have lights and nutrition and tools. I always have a Garmin inReach, which allows me to contact someone (or emergency services) from anywhere in the world. I research the route, the weather, and the facilities available. And then I just dive in. I ride year-round, in all kinds of weather. I constantly hatch new goals and dare myself to take on unique challenges.
And certainly, things have gone wrong. Or, gone not according to plan. Late in the season last year, I went up Old Fall River Road through Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a narrow dirt one-way road that goes to above 12,000 feet elevation. From the top, you can make it a loop by descending a more heavily trafficked, beautifully paved, Trail Ridge Road. Oftentimes, the climb up the dirt is lovely and quiet, and once you breach the ridge, things turn windy and colder. I’ve done it many times. But this particular day, I experienced wind like I’ve never been in before. I had gloves and a jacket, but the wind was so dangerous that I thought often about stopping a stranger and hitching a ride. I made a deal with myself that if someone offered to drive me down, I’d take it. I’ve never been so terrified on the bike before. I was going pedal stroke by pedal stroke, not thinking about the miles it would take to get down, just “stay upright, stay upright, stay upright.” Reinhold Messner’s famous quote, “Mountains are not fair or unfair. They are only dangerous,” came to mind more than once. But I survived it. And I have a greater appreciation for the elements now. Wind is nuts.
And then sometimes things go better than planned. Just days ago, I set out to ride Marshall Pass near Salida, Colorado. I looked at maps, elevation profiles, and weather reports. I was prepared for the logistics. Twenty miles of climbing up winding gravel roads. What I wasn’t prepared for, was the staggering beauty. This happens more often than not in Colorado. This is why I keep doing it. The aspens were at peak color. A miles-long canopy of gold, accented by a perfectly blue sky. I saw almost no other people for the entire ride, and plenty of wildlife. Elk, rabbits, redtail hawks. The road switched back and forth between cobbles, dirt, sand, and perfect gravel. I reached the Continental Divide, snapped a photo of my bike with the summit sign, and descended back down. The views of Mount Ouray and O’Haver Lake were unreal. I’ve got dozens of experiences like this — where I have no idea what’s around the next turn, and almost always, it blows my mind. I like people. I really do. But these rides are significantly heightened by being alone.
I never met my great-grandmother. She’s been an almost mythical symbol of strength and survival for me. Something to tap into when I need to remember what endurance really means.
There are certain things you can only learn on your own — certain lessons that come when it’s just your mind and body working together. And at the end of the adventure, I appreciate my abilities, I wonder how much stronger I can get, and I make still more plans to find out.