I was half way up City Creek Canyon, totally out of breath. My bike was heavy, and I told my friends to go on without me, I’d catch up. As they pedaled out of sight past the next turn I cursed to myself and thought about my weighted disadvantage. It’s true, my bike is heavy, but so am I. My mind wandered to a quote from the fabulous author Lindy West in her book Shrill:
“Maybe you are thin. You hiked that trail and you are fit and beautiful and wanted and I am so proud of you, I am so in awe of your wiry brightness; and I’m miles behind you, my breathing ragged. But you didn’t carry this up the mountain, You only carried yourself. How hard would you breathe if you had to carry me? You couldn’t. But I can.”
With my wiry and bright friends miles up the road, I urged myself to feel proud of my strength but landed somewhere closer to frustrated. The truth is, I thought somewhere between the endless rides up the steep canyon roads of Salt Lake City, I might lose a few pounds. But I didn’t lose weight, and so I compensated with grueling Strava training routes and long and impressive bikepacking trips to prove to everyone else, and myself, that I was a bikepacker even if I didn’t look like one.
On my third long bikepacking trip, something shifted. Well above the arctic circle, walking my bike up a steep Alaskan haul road, a group of tourists from South Korea stopped and indicated they would like to take their picture with me. Me, a fat women on a bike, had done something so physically impressive, that it warranted a photo-op. I wrote in my journal that night, “my legs have carried this fat body, pedal stroke by pedal stroke, to parts of the world few ever get the privilege to travel to.”
And while my legs have truly taken me to some extraordinary places, in pursuit of proving that I was a bikepacker, I had skipped out on the joy of the weekend trips, or quick gravel grinds with a group of close friends in lieu of proving what a fat person on a bike is capable of.
So this past summer, I took on shorter trips, closer to home. I turned off Strava, and I turned towards the aspects of bikepacking that have enthralled me since the beginning. Slow travel through remote places has given me the opportunity to connect with friends, myself, and the natural environment. And let me tell you what, it has been a blast.
Fat as ever, I planned a trip with a few long-time friends that left from my front door in Corvallis, Oregon. Via old gravel logging roads and sections of single track we weaved our way across the Coast Range, heading towards the ocean. The first day we traveled 30-miles. I walked up most of the steep hills, and I even walked down a few of them after I scared myself by fishtailing through a looser section of gravel. Sometimes we rode together, catching-up on our lives or reminiscing about past rides. Other times my lighter friends were well ahead, out of sight. A more introverted person may have naturally cherished the alone time. For me, it is a work in progress. I tried to notice my emotions as they pass. Frustration with my speed faded into fear of isolation. Minutes later I’d find joy in the way the wind moved through the ferns or in the moment that my breathing quieted and I heard a bird in the tree above. I sang to myself, and sometimes I cried, stopping my bike and resting my head on the handlebars wondering why I continue to subject my body to these physical feats. Eventually I found myself free of thoughts, numb in a way most refer to as rhythm.
The second day started with one of those multiple mile, slow slog climbs. The gravel road gave way to pristine and carless pavement, the width of a single truck. We rode three wide, blasting funk music from an iPhone. It was an uphill party. When we reached the ocean later that day I felt that familiar sense of accomplishment that comes after slowly moving through a gradually changing ecosystem only to find yourself in a world so different from the one you began cycling through earlier that day.
The next morning started with a short foggy ride down highway 101. The hills were rolling and the weight of my body on my bike carried me quickly down with almost enough inertia to carry me up the next hill. Again, I fell behind at times, but the slower I went, the more time I got to spend with the noise of waves crashing into capes, in the moodiness of coastal Oregon weather.
I hadn’t had room in my bike bags for a swimsuit, and premiered my first ever two-piece look at the hotel we excitedly decided to stay in on the third night. In a sports bra and underwear I jumped in the hot tub with my friend and another hotel guest. Something mysterious happens on bike trips. My muscles tire and my brain slows, and while I was aware of the rolls of fat on my stomach and the way my sports bra cut in to my back, my brain passed over those thoughts as facts, without judgement. Instead my mind lingered on the feeling of warmth soothing my joints, and the immense sense of complete relaxation that only comes after you stop pedaling and shut your eyes.
The last two days of the ride, we took it easy, connecting small backroads with old gravel paths and trails, weaving our way back across the coast range towards home. When it rained, we found shelter in local coffee shops and brunch spots. We stretched our legs on the walls of church buildings, and played card games by lantern light. We rode slowly to read the political signs in people’s yards, or ponder just how all of the windows in an abandoned house had shattered.
On the fifth day we made it home. I thought to myself – My legs have carried this fat body, breathing ragged, pedal stroke by pedal stroke, mountain over mountain, from my home and back.
Kailey Kornhauser likes to ride her bike slowly across long distances. When she isn’t riding her bike to the cinnamon roll shop or grinding some local gravel, Kailey is a forestry PhD student at Oregon State University. Through writing about her cycling adventures, Kailey hopes to create more size inclusive spaces for cyclists.