The Feeling of Being Free

Love has a feel that everyone recognizes. Fear has a feel. Depression and anxiety certainly have a feel. Although less frequently sensed, adventure also has a feel. It's that feeling the first time you got behind the wheel of a car by yourself or the first night you spent in your own apartment. It’s recognizing all the things that could go wrong with a plan and the excitement of proceeding anyway. It’s about never feeling more alive, or in some cases, any closer to death. It’s not knowing what the day will bring, but still being eager to get out of bed because you know it will be a day unlike any other. It’s feeling like you could go anywhere or do anything, because above all else, adventure is the feeling of being free.

I revived that feeling on this trip when I left the Keswick bike shop on two wheels. After momentarily heading down the wrong side of the road and not long after my brain froze at my first left-handed British roundabout, I was reminded of my first adventure.

I must have been eleven or twelve on that day, which would have been just another forgotten summer day if my friend Lloyd hadn’t suggested we ride our bikes into town to get McDonald's. I immediately agreed to the plan, although I admit I worried about dogs chasing us, speeding motorists running us over, or wrecking my bike so far from home with nobody knowing where we were. It might surprise you to know that I’m a worrier. Most of all, I worried about crossing the Wabash River and into town on the big green suspension bridge, which had no shoulders, sidewalks, or bike lanes.

Facing these concerns had nothing to do with wanting the food. McDonald’s was never a rarity in my childhood. As evidenced by owning multiples of each Muppet Babies Happy Meal toys in the mid-80s. What excited me was the thought of going beyond Pike Creek without supervision, which made up the northern boundary of my familiar world. South of the creek, on foot and on bike, I had explored every square mile of our small village of Bunker Hill, Indiana, with population just over 600, until I knew it like the back of my hand. I even made hand-drawn maps, which may not surprise anyone who reads my blog, but honestly, who didn’t dabble in a bit of cartography as a rebellious young lad?

Lloyd and I crossed the old wooden bridge over Pipe Creek where we once built small dams with boulders, skipped stones, and floated during the often hot and humid Indiana summers, but we never ventured further north on our own. We rode passed acres of farm fields and houses with occupants we'd never met. Dogs chased us and nipped at our manically peddling feet and spinning tires. No matter how hard I try, I will never forget wiping out on the road’s gravel shoulder after seeing a woman mowing her yard in a bikini and getting distracted. It's my first memory of embarrassing myself in front of a woman, and unfortunately not the last.

Each of my initial worries about riding into town were legitimate as they all actually happened, but afterwards, they didn’t seem scary anymore. There was still one left, however, the biggest one, crossing the Wabash on that narrow suspension bridge.

At the green iron bridge, we could see the golden arches on the other side. In that exaggerated childhood scale, the bridge was enormous. In reality, it spanned only about two hundred yards. We peddled like madmen with honking cars passing us uncomfortably close. The whole ride across lasted less than a minute and it wasn't as terrifying as I thought it would be. In fact, it wasn’t scary at all.

I vaguely remember standing in line at the McDonalds, since ordering then paying for my own meal was a new experience in itself, but I don’t remember anything about the food. It was the new things I remember to this day, my first taste of freedom, discovering that the world is a little bit less scary than it was the day before. Crossing back over the suspension bridge to get back before Lloyd’s dad got home from work has also disappeared from my memory. It wasn’t new or scary anymore.

Although I had my concerns about riding our bikes into town, going despite them opened up a few more doors for my next adventures. Adventures that opened even more doors, which would prepared me for the next and so on and so on until eventually I’d find myself as an adult hiking a 2,181 mile trail, climbing to several remote mountaintops all alone with only what I can carry on my shoulders, staring a bear in the eyes in the middle of the night with a bag of food in my hands, sleeping outside in below freezing temperatures, waking up with frozen water bottles and snow on my tent, trying to sleep in a swaying hammock with creaking branches overhead during intense thunderstorms, holding out a thumb to countless strangers to get a ride into towns, and finding myself thousands of miles from home zooming down a windy road in the English countryside on my new bike.

Even though I worry about my first grocery store visit in the Netherlands when the person behind the counter tells me my total in a language I don’t understand, and even though I worry about crossing border after border into new countries without knowing their cultures, crime rate, or how the locals will react to a drifter camping on private land, I’m going anyway. Adventure is many things, but perhaps most importantly it’s about facing what worries us and finding out they just aren't that scary after all, because when we do that, we open even more doors to even more opportunities to experience that extraordinary feeling of being free.