Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost
Time permitting, my husband and I like to turn on the “no tolls” function in Google Maps on road trips. We prefer the less direct route: the one-lane roads that wind over a mountain, skirt along a river or a rugged shoreline, meander through a dense forest, or glide past acres of farmland, with herds of sheep gently grazing, or cows dozing in the grass with their calves curled up nearby. I guess you could say we prefer the road less traveled. It is in these slower, softer places that a quiet profundity can emerge from the seemingly unremarkable.
There are risks of course. Like getting stuck behind an old truck, overloaded with bales of hay, lurching along at a peak cruising speed of 40 kilometers an hour, belching diesel fumes in its wake. Or an even slower wagon, full of oranges and pulled by a horse clip clopping along, bells ringing from the bridle, driven by a slightly hunched old man holding the reins with a loose grip, trusting the animal’s innate compass to get them to their destination with only titular supervision. The road less traveled has no shoulder to speak of. And even if it did, it is unlikely the driver of either vehicle would be inclined to pull over to let a faster car zoom around. He’s in no particular hurry and probably doesn’t understand why anyone else would be either. That’s what the autopistas are for.
But the rewards are almost always worth the minor inconveniences. On the road less traveled, we discover a different side of a town, a city, a state, a province, a country, a culture. There is an intimacy, an authenticity, a lack of pretense. On the road less traveled, sometimes the waiter will size us up and determine we are worthy of tasting his mother’s homemade goat yogurt that he brings with him each morning for his own lunch and which isn’t on the menu. It is thick and tangy and we gulp it down without sweeteners. On the road less traveled, sometimes the elderly cafe proprietress will motion for me to follow her through the tiny kitchen and out the back door to proudly show me her little vegetable garden resplendent with cucumbers and tomatoes that she uses in the menu’s salad. She carefully breaks off one or two for us, pressing them into my palms as she hugs me goodbye. In broken English she wishes us a safe journey and then, with a raised eyebrow that’s clearly a well-practiced guilt-inducing maneuver, lets me know she is praying for my poor mother who’s an ocean and a continent away.
Over the years we’ve met like-minded people who also prefer that road, many of whom have become close friends. Our circle grew exponentially once we joined Warm Showers. Through this convivial organization that connects long-distance bike trekkers with hosts, we have gotten to know exceptional people who are riding across the country, the continent, the hemisphere, the world.
Opening one’s home to strangers or entering in as such involves a mutual level of trust and vulnerability. And yet in the eleven years of our affiliation, we’ve never had a bad experience. We’ve hosted individuals, couples, and small groups. We’ve welcomed university students, environmentalists, families with teenage children, retired folks, hippies, artists, dreamers, idealists, and quirky misfits. We’ve housed, fed, done laundry for, and drunk beer with Americans, Canadians, French, Germans, Belgians, New Zealanders, Koreans, Bulgarians, Spanish, Norwegians, Argentinians, English, Irish, Scots, Dutch, and Danes. But despite their differences – largely superficial – at their core they are the same: courageous, open-hearted, generous, full of integrity, and fueled by a burning desire to see the world and learn and grow as a result. The experiences they’ve shared with us – their stories, their histories, their insights, their goals, their dreams – have changed our lives. And through spending time with them, the world has become for us, at one and the same time, bigger and smaller.
Our former guests still send us quirky postcards, heartfelt letters, delightful care packages, thoughtful texts and emails, and tag us on social media posts. We’ve traveled with some and have stayed with others. We have bonded with them. There was Mark, our first Warm Showers guest, a former ballet dancer from Texas who continually rides his bike throughout North America and Europe, stopping every so often to teach dance lessons or work in restaurant kitchens to help fund a few more legs of his journey. He came back a year after his first stay to ride with Tom and his bike crew from Arlington to Richmond for the 2015 Cycling World Championships. There were the three young Englishmen – recent graduates from Cambridge University – who cycled around the United States. They carried with them a “Where’s Waldo” doll complete with glasses and a red and white striped T-shirt, which they posed in social media photos as a way of documenting their journey.
There was Nadia, a marine biology major at Plymouth University, now a scientist living and working in Antarctica. Although it was December when she stayed with us, in the mornings she’d jump in our pool or swim in the sea, although neither was warmer than 12 degrees Celsius. There was Simone from Denmark, who as a child was obsessed with Alaska. When she was 18 she hopped on a plane, solo, her first time ever on US soil, where she bought an old beater bike and rode from Anchorage to Wisconsin. She fell in love in Madison, got married, and now lives in North Carolina with her husband and chickens.
There was Moon from South Korea, who upon graduating from university and completing his compulsory military service, flew to Los Angeles. With almost no English skills he bought a bike with a heavy steel frame and proceeded to pedal cross-country, starting with the Mojave Desert in July. It took him three months, and I doubt he ever stopped smiling. He went through Missouri where an old dairy farmer and his wife put him up for a week, feeding him hearty midwestern food, and teaching him English along with how to milk cows. In rural Alabama, he broke down and sought help from two grizzled men in a pick-up truck who managed to help him fix his bike. By the time he reached our house in May, he was near the end of his journey. We took him to a Memorial Day party hosted by good friends. Proud Italian Americans, they introduced him to grilled peppers and salsiccia, to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, and to bocce, which we played in their backyard court. When he rode off two days later for his last leg to New York City before flying home, I cried as I watched him pedal down the street. His panniers were covered in metal pins from every city and landmark he visited, making his heavy bike even heavier. At no time in his journey did he have a helmet, proper bike shoes, padded shorts, gloves, or even a lock.
There was Colin, who stayed with Tom in our new house in Spain. He arrived before I did, and before our container ship with our furniture and other belongings. Besides a bed left by the former owners that Tom was using, the only other thing in the house was a fold-out couch from IKEA Valencia, still unassembled in the box. He helped Tom put it together as much to have a place to sleep as out of generosity. There were the three French students at the École Polytechnique who sat by our pool as we ate dinner and explained their intensely rigorous curriculum in a casual, offhand manner as if it were nothing. I later learned only the cream of the crop are accepted into that university – people who eventually become Prime Minister of France or hold top cabinet positions. Alumni are known simply as “The Cadre.” There was Mel, Ben, and their two teenage daughters from Aix-Les-Bains, France. After a serious medical scare coupled with the pandemic, they put their jobs on hold, pulled the girls out of lycee, and home-schooled them on the road for a year as they pedaled through Spain and France. I’m convinced the girls got a better education in that time than any classroom could have provided.
And then there was Iohan.
It’s hard to find the words to describe Iohan. He contacted Tom the usual way, through the Warm Showers app. All we knew was he was Canadian, and was riding to South America. He needed to spend a few days in Washington, DC to renew his visa at the Canadian embassy. The minute he entered our house, he radiated a sense of peace and calm, but also loneliness and detachment. He was a remarkable listener. He didn’t say much about his past, except that he was born in Sofia to a Bulgarian father and a Vietnamese mother. As a young teen, he was sent to live with his uncle in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. Although a short drive from his uncle’s home to the city, it took a few years until he made it there. A few years after that, he finally crossed the Canadian/US border to visit Niagara Falls. It was there he caught the travel bug. I asked Iohan how he came to live with his uncle. I always ask questions of our guests: I’m curious about people; what makes them tick, who they are, how they got to be that way. As I like to say, I’m nosy but not judgmental. He gave me a vague answer. Although his response was in the same slow, gentle voice I had come to associate him with, I immediately took it as a sign to drop the subject.
We did Iohan’s meager laundry (any bike trekker worth their salt travels as lightly as possible), and cooked homemade, vegetable-heavy meals. The following day, he got his visa sorted, but as he was preparing to leave we persuaded him to stay another night. He agreed and Tom and his cycling friends took him on a day-long ride to show him DC by bike. Afterwards, the group came back to our house for dinner. Another friend of ours happened to drop by, as did my parents. We pulled up extra chairs and crammed around the table. Dinner was lively. Naturally, everyone peppered Iohan with questions: Where was he headed? (Everywhere.) What was his goal? (To ride his bike and see the world.) How did he fund his travels? (By finding work here and there as a tree planter, and by accepting small donations for his blog.) There was laughing and talking and much trading of stories. Our friend, Paul, regaled us with tales of being at Woodstock. Who could top that, we all thought.
Then someone asked Iohan to share some of his adventures. They were nothing short of remarkable: riding alone to the Arctic Circle for his very first bike trek, carrying an inflatable kayak, which he had never before used. He camped outdoors in record cold and paddled around the Arctic Ocean, his first time kayaking, mistakenly holding the oars backwards. Along the way he met a group of hikers. One of their friends had been swept away in a river along with their satellite phone and navigation tools. Without it they were lost and unable to locate their food drops. Desperately, they flagged down Iohan. He was the first person they’d seen in days since their friend’s death, and they needed help badly. Without a moment’s hesitation, like the runner at the Battle of Marathon, Iohan made a 180 degree turn and pedaled as hard as he could for over 16 hours back to civilization to organize a rescue helicopter.
We began following his blog, Bike Wanderer. Although English was not his first language, his grasp of its nuances, his rich and deep vocabulary, and his effortless way with words was at once humorous, evocative, and poignant. He communicated on a soul-deep level, it was almost instinctive. In addition, he had an interesting and broad knowledge of and appreciation for music. He made videos which he posted along with his exquisite landscape photography set to esoteric music to match the mood. It was through his blogs we came to learn he never complained. Ever. He turned every so-called negative into a positive. He had chosen this life and for him a bad day on a bike was still way better than a good day conforming to societal standards. Once, while camping in the frozen tundra, a wolverine approached his tent. Not knowing what it was, he stopped to film the animal, asking in his gentle, soft voice, “Well hello there…what are you? A dog of some sort?” The wolverine simply stared for a bit into the camera, then appeared to shrug it off as no threat and ambled away. Another time, after biking hundreds of kilometers to see Mount Denali with its iconic view of the ocean, he happened to arrive on a rare cloudy day. Laughing as he filmed, he expressed how lucky he was to still be able to see the sea, even if it was only “a sea of clouds.”
The morning he left our house and we said goodbye, I felt a pit in my stomach. I didn’t want him to leave. In spite of his courage, intrepidness, and fortitude, I sensed in him a profound vulnerability, a deep unspoken sadness. Unlike other cyclists who rode to see the world, Iohan seemed to be running from it. It was as if he needed to keep moving, and cycling was his way to do this, the more arduous the better. Perhaps he needed a certain level of physical discomfort to avoid having to sit with any emotional pain. We hugged him and told him we’d always be here for him. No matter where we were or where we went, we said, you are always welcome in our home. After he rode off, I went up to the guest room to strip the bed. He had already done that, leaving the sheets carefully folded. And on the dresser was a small Land Rover, along with a note of thanks.
Last September, Tom and I took an 18-day road trip through Spain, Belgium, and France. Friends from Tom’s old cycling group back in Virginia were flying in to meet us for part of the journey to watch the 2021 UCI Cycling World Championships. The plan was to take bikes so the guys could ride through Belgium from town to town for each stage of the race, while I drove the “support vehicle,” a 2007 manual Toyota Yaris with hand cranks on the back windows. We drove over 4,000 kilometers, from the Spanish Mediterranean over the Pyrenees and into France, past Paris through the Loire Valley, into Belgium through Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, and Brussels, then back into France, through the countryside and into the Alps above the Rhone to Aix-Les-Bains. Along the way we cheered the cyclists on each day’s stage. We toasted Julian “Lulu” Alaphilippe’s victory in Leuven. Standing in a square in Bruges for the time trials, amidst a crowd of thousands of spectators from all over the world, the woman standing next to me turned out to be from, of all places, my hometown of Reston, Virginia. This is what happens on the road less traveled.
It was perhaps our fifth evening of the trip. We were in Antwerp. By that time, our friend George had arrived and we were having dinner in Elfde Gabod, a bizarre, creepy-yet-charming restaurant packed with religious iconography. Gothic statues of angels and saints, tormented, twisted gargoyles, and gilt-framed Baroque paintings of biblical scenes covered the walls, the stairway to the upstairs restrooms, even the ceiling. As we drank strong dark beer and tackled heaping plates of meat-heavy entrees, laughing at the day’s adventures and honing the itinerary for the next leg of the journey, my phone buzzed. It was a message from a friend. She had called to tell us about Iohan.
This past February, Tom and his friend, Ed embarked on a three week bike trek through southern Spain and Portugal. It ended up involving 6-9 hours in the saddle each day, into strong headwinds, and relying on cue-cards they wrote by hand the previous evening for direction. For the first time, they were on the other end of Warm Showers — as guests. They slept in sofa beds, often with one guy on the floor, and washed their laundry in bathroom sinks with shampoo. Their hosts were wonderful and generous: cooking hearty food, showing them around their towns on bikes, and offering advice for subsequent legs of the journey. When I told my brother about their adventures, he thought for a minute and then said, “Do you know what luxury means to me?” “It doesn’t mean leather car seats or expensive watches. It means being able to do what you want when you want, with the people you love. It means seeing the world, especially from a different perspective. It means not taking the easy way, the smoothly paved, two-lane, well-lit, pre-figured-out route. It means continually challenging yourself by opening yourself up to new experiences. It means what Tom is doing.”
It means taking the road less traveled.
This post is dedicated to Warm Showers, and to bike and hike trekkers everywhere. It is especially dedicated to Iohan Gueorguiev, whose gentleness, open heart, and delight in the world deeply touched each and every one he met along the road less traveled until the very end.