"They Call Me 'Brave'" - Kathryn, on Solo International Bicycle Touring
I met Kathryn in 2011, in the midst of my first-ever bicycle tour. There were so many touring cyclists that passed in and out of my life as I rode across the United States, from Oregon to Florida, but none stayed in my head like Kathryn. She was confident, charismatic, daring, and fun. She was traveling alone on a recumbent tricycle, wearing jewelry and pedaling along at the leisurely pace of 5 miles per hour. It was Kathryn's first-ever bicycle tour, too. But she seemed much more sure of herself.
Over the years, Kathryn has kept cycling. And she's as sure of herself as ever.
Kathryn has now cycled solo through Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Cuba, Trinidad, and Southeast Asia.
How did this travel odyssey get started, you ask? After retiring at age 57 from a lengthy career at Xerox, Kathryn backpacked the Appalachian Trail, where she earned the moniker "Bag Lady." Her trail name stuck, even when she left the trail and picked up a recumbent bike instead. To this day, Kathryn's website and nickname is "Bag Lady."
"I like cycling," she tells me. "You can carry a lot more stuff. Food, especially. I like knowing that I can stay a few days at a beautiful lake, instead of pushing on because I'll run out of food."
"I wanted to find out what it felt like to be a nomad."
Kathryn, where do you call home?
I live on my bike. Have now for over 4 years. I had a lovely, funky house in Upstate New York for over 30 years, but when I started traveling I was always sad when I arrived back to my house. My 2 daughters, that I raised as a single mom, were both out of the house and I didn't want to live there anymore. I wanted to find out what it felt like to be a nomad. What's really funny is my sister-in-law told me that my father always wanted to do this, although he never did.
"After I hiked the Appalachian Trail [and returned] home, my life was too easy... I wasn't happy. I needed more challenges."
What methods of travel do you enjoy?
I like both long-distance hiking and long-distance biking. Both are physical, under my own power, and slow: I can see so much more. Hiking is much more difficult, requiring use of the entire body because I'm carrying about 20-25 lbs on my back. The terrain is quite rugged and gets the old heart pumping. And I feel great when I reach the top of a long climb, although I may not feel great on the way up. I call this cross training!
What role does adventure play in your life?
It’s big. I like to push myself outside my comfort zone. But the problem is that the more you do it, the larger your comfort zone becomes. I like the unknown and figuring things out for myself. I like a challenge. I found after I retired 10 years ago and hiked the Appalachian Trail that when I was home, my life was too easy. And I wasn't happy. I needed more challenges.
"I like to push myself outside my comfort zone. But the problem is that the more you do it, the larger your comfort zone becomes."
What excites you about traveling as a woman?
I never thought of traveling being different for a woman than a man. Until now. I'm on my way to Morocco next and I've heard so much about how women are harassed there that I'm concerned as a woman for the first time.
As I rethink this question, I think I like doing what others feel they cannot do. I like being a strong woman…a capable woman…a brave woman. And I like being different. I’ve never wanted to do what everyone else was doing.
(Update: Morocco was fine. No harassment. The men were extremely kind and helpful. )
Tell us about traveling alone.
I usually travel alone. I first bicycled out West for 3 months alone. That's when I met you, Olivia. Then I cycled a short time in Thailand alone, after I left a friend I was traveling with when it wasn't working. But not wanting to stay in SE Asia alone (it had been her tour), I flew to New Zealand and cycled there for 6 months by myself. And I spent a year in Australia alone. I may be biking alone, but the thing about being alone is you meet more people. I arrived in Australia knowing a few people that I had met in my travels in other parts of the world. I left with friends in most every city!! I like being with myself. I can do what I want, when I want, for as long as I want. And then I like to break it up if someone wants to join me for a couple months. Variety is good!!
"I like being a strong, capable, brave woman. And I like being different. I’ve never wanted to do what everyone else was doing."
How does traveling alone compare to traveling with others?
As I said previously, I think one meets more people when alone. More folks take me in. I start up more conversations with strangers. But what's lacking is someone to laugh with. Someone to share the experience with. Someone to help with the planning. Brainstorming is better with two!
Have you experienced feeling scared in unfamiliar territory?
No. The fear for me comes before I arrive because there's more unknown then, and my mind doesn't know what it will be like. Once I arrive, it's always less scary and I always figure it out. I try to remember that for the next trip. I'm going through that right now preparing for Morocco. A seasoned solo-traveling woman friend has told me she'd never go back to Morocco alone again. Yikes! Imagine what that does to my imagination! My gut is a wreck.
"The thing about being alone is you meet more people... I start up more conversations with strangers."
How did you overcome that fear?
I'm overriding it with "that was her experience and it may not be mine"..."other woman have cycled there alone and they were fine"..."you're an old lady, no one wants to hassle you” (but I don't think of myself as old, so this one is a hard one to swallow.)
I just keep moving forward towards the day I depart, giving myself affirmations. It's always been okay.
What lasting effect did that fear have on you?
None. Fear is good. It's your gut trying to prepare. It's also due to a lack of information so I try to get more. It's part of the adventure!
"Fear is good. It's your gut trying to prepare... It's part of the adventure!"
Men far outnumber women when it comes to solo travelers. Why do you think there are fewer women striking out alone?
Fear and the messages they’ve received growing up...”You can’t do this alone.” I still hear it. I'm told I'm so brave. No. I just know that the world is a lot safer than the news would have you believe. Luckily I grew up with a strong mother. She didn't have fear and raised me without it. She had a good head. She was way ahead of her time in her thinking and I benefited from that. We used to go to the windows to watch a thunderstorm with awe and wonder...not fear.
But I've met many woman that say their mother taught them fear. They've had so much more to overcome than I did...and yet I meet them out there on the road traveling alone. I think young women are doing some amazing adventures now at quite a young age. I wouldn't've had the nerve at 20. I believe it's due to exposure on the internet to what other young women are doing. Again, "if she's doing it, so can I!" That often gives me courage!!
"Luckily I grew up with a strong mother... We used to go to the windows to watch a thunderstorm with awe and wonder, not fear.
When has someone else has expressed fear for your safety?
In Morocco, locals told me, “it’s too dangerous.” Overcoming other people’s fears just adds another level of complication. I was told not to wild camp because of the wild dogs. A foreigner was killed by wild dogs there a few years ago. I had to dig deep to overcome that fear: “You can do this. You are the expert, not them.” I just relied on my 1000 nights of wild camping experience to say the risk was low and the rewards were high. I do believe I’m constantly doing risk assessment and knowledge assessment. Many people are ill-informed, so the information they’re sharing is false.
How did you respond to that person?
I tell them to turn off the TV. :) It's really a good world out there, full of kind people. People that will help me in a minute if I need it.
"We don't have to do this all alone. Find a good support person... Someone to listen."
How does the fear or support of others affect you?
Let's talk about support because that's critical. I have a rock back home. He's an ex and he's still the major person in my life. I don't know how I’d do this without him in my back pocket. When I'm rattled and need to talk things through, he's there for me and believes in my ability to pull through. He doesn't try to fix it. He just listens and encourages me when I can't think something through. He knows I'm strong. But I'm stronger because of him.
We don't have to do this all alone. Find a good support person. It can be a parent or another girlfriend. Someone to listen. I think it's critical. It also helps the loneliness. We don't have frequent contact. That's not necessary. It's just the knowing. That's true support.
What activity, besides traveling, helps you be a better traveler?
Be open and friendly. Talk to people. Smile at people. Connect with strangers. A stranger is just a friend I haven't met yet.