The Cycling Poet - Katie B. on Writing & Bike Touring
Katie Boehnlein weaves writing into all aspects of her life, always bringing a notebook and pen with her to document any adventure. When she bicycled across the United States with her boyfriend in 2017, she challenged herself with a poetry project: Every day, rain or shine, saddle sores or rest days, Katie wrote a poem. Her work became a beautiful journey through this country, one that her family and friends could enjoy as well.
Katie was born and raised in Portland, Oregon but now lives in Ashland. She's an outdoor educator and classroom instructor, and works with environmental conservation nonprofits in her community. In her free time, Katie enjoys hiking, camping, cooking, gardening, playing music, singing, and of course, bike touring. In the next year, she hopes to publish a book of the poems she wrote while traveling by bicycle!
When Katie bicycled across the United States with her boyfriend, she wrote a poem every day.
Katie, what role does your bicycle play in your life?
Cycling has played a huge role in my lifestyle for many years and even brought me and my boyfriend together (more on that later)! I love commuting and bike touring. Right now I’m mainly commuting: cycling around Ashland for all my errands and to meet up with friends.
What makes bicycle touring special, compared to other modes of travel?
As a writer, I'm always seeking out experiences where I feel connected to the world, immersed in landscapes and cultures. Bike touring is the epitome of this connectedness for me. It is faster than backpacking, but oftentimes just as immersive. Unlike backpacking, however, we don’t always have to prepare our food a week in advance and instead see grocery shopping as an insight into the places we’re passing through. And though it’s faster than walking, biking is slower than driving, our 10-15 mph pace the perfect rate at which to smell wheat fields and coffee shops, see the expressions on people’s faces when we pass their porches, call out a greeting to them, and still cover enough ground that we feel accomplished at the end of the day.
"As a writer, I'm always seeking out experiences where I feel connected to the world...
Bike touring is the epitome of this connectedness for me."
I also love self-propelled travel. It is so satisfying to cover all those miles, with help from our bicycles of course, knowing that no one else got me from A to B. And plus, what’s better than a mode of travel where you earn your food at the end of the day? All right, I just biked 60 miles over a mountain pass- all the pasta for me!
Tell us about your trusty two-wheeled steeds.
I love my 1980’s Trek 800 bike with its sparkly black paint job and front basket. I also have a custom touring bike made by Portland-based Sweetpea Bicycles. It’s a small, purple, zippy, strong, cheerful companion and I use this bike for day rides along our Bear Creek Greenway or to visit friends 20 miles away. My boyfriend Jeff and I also love to tour, so my Sweetpea is my perfect compatriot for exploring the world over many days.
How do poetry and cycling go together? What inspired you to write poems on the road?
As I said previously, I have always thought that cycling and writing are the perfect companions.
Whenever I get on my bike and start hearing the crunch of gravel, the whir of tires, the songs of birds, the dance of the wind, or the gurgle of a creek, I can’t help but hear poems in my head.
I am by no means a trained poet, but I find that riding my bike, especially, brings out my best poetic self. I also knew that I would need and want to document our trip, as I knew that Jeff would not do that as readily. So I bought an iPhone to take photos and had a small journal in which to record each day’s events for myself to look back on later. However, I also wanted to bring friends and family along for the ride with us, as I knew they would be anxiously awaiting updates. So I committed to writing a short poem every day of the trip.
"Whenever I get on my bike and start hearing the crunch of gravel, the whir of tires, the songs of birds, the dance of the wind, or the gurgle of a creek, I can’t help but hear poems in my head."
Had you done a poetry project like that before?
I'd already been publishing what I call “tiny poems” on my blog for a few years, little scraps of wonder and meaning throughout my daily life, oftentimes also accompanied by a picture. So it was an easy transition for me to take photos while on the road and publish them alongside tiny poems on Instagram and Facebook.
I would write the poems while riding- tossing words around in my head and endeavoring to capture the essence of that day’s experience in a small space. It ended up being an incredibly gratifying experience. I was able to express myself creatively, but didn’t feel pressured to write long and meaningful essays about my experience when at the end of the day all I wanted to do was shower, eat, and drink a beer all at the same time. And now I have a record of my experience out there in the world that is a little bit more polished than, say, a personal journal.
Could you share one or two favorite poems from that tour?
Each poem was accompanied by a picture, miles traveled, daily beginning and ending points, and the location where the photo was taken. Enjoy a couple of my favorites!
Day 19: Republic – Colville, WA
Sherman Pass, Washington
We journey from wet to dry yet again.
As we ascend, we coexist with Grosbeaks.
And sing with the Hermit Thrush.
To climb is to embrace this slow time,
This time of transition.
Day 79: Mt. Carmel, IL – St. Croix, IN
The crackle of end-of-season corn husks,
The buzz of cicadas and grasshoppers,
The whoosh of the wind,
And the sing of the sometimes songbird.
What advice can you offer to other women who are considering bike touring for the first time?
On my first bike overnight, I was surrounded by people who had done it before. This was essential for my own learning. I’d recommend seeking out at least one companion to go with you the first few times to share tips and tricks as well as cooking duties and group gear. Bike touring can be an incredibly bonding experience. I also love to read about other people’s experiences to prepare for big trips, either on blogs like this one or Adventure Cycling magazine.
I had my touring bike built custom for me by Natalie of Sweetpea Bicycles who works with Lydia of Gladys Bikes in Portland, OR to build up the frames. It was an amazing experience collaborating with these women business owners and bike lovers to create my ideal setup. It was Lydia that reminded me, “women are not small men!” and that the bike industry has a long way to go to include women in their building philosophy. Talking with other women about my love of bikes and bike travel has been gratifying and encouraging. It validates our place in a male-dominated sport.
"Talking with other women about my love of bikes and bike travel has been gratifying and encouraging. It validates our place in a male-dominated sport."