Going the Distance: A 200-Mile Bike Tour Called Marriage
Jeannie Ralston and her husband cycled around Scotland, through rain, sun, and steep hills. Here, she shares the surprising way it helped her understand her 25 years of marriage.
On the second day of our Scotland bike tour it rained.
I woke up and looked out the window, through the lacy curtains of our sweet bed and breakfast, and saw raindrops collecting on the sill. My husband, Robb, and I had to ride about 30 miles that day on our bikes to get to our next stop on our six-day biking tour of the Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland.
“Ugh. We’ll have to ride in the rain,” I said rolling over to Robb.
“It’s Scotland. We knew it would rain.”
‘Just think of the rain as a metaphor for our marriage,’ my husband said. ‘All the stormy times we had to make it through to get here.’
“I know, but just not today,” I said. On this day, we were scheduled to catch two ferries and we couldn’t be late. There was no time to stay in bed and see if the weather cleared.
“Just think of it as a metaphor for our marriage,” he said as he sat up. “All the stormy times we had to make it through to get here.”
I wasn’t crazy about that metaphor. We were here in Scotland celebrating our 25th anniversary—the first time we’d traveled just the two of us since before our now-college-aged sons were born—and I really wanted to focus on the positive.
But over the next few days as we biked a total of nearly 200 miles—some in downpours, some in sun, some in flat stretches by the sea, and others up steep mountains into a head wind—I had plenty of time to think about Robb’s comment and to realize that the comparison held up in some key ways.
Now I certainly don’t offer our marriage as any kind of glowing ideal. We’ve had as many struggles as anyone else. But certainly sticking together for a quarter of a century teaches you something about getting along and getting by.
Adjust Your Speed
Robb rides much faster than I do. When we ride together near our home in Texas, it’s not really together. I’ll see him as we start off and then again at the car. That couldn’t happen on this trip. We were in unfamiliar territory, plus I was the keeper of the GPS routes our guide company had given us to follow.
So we worked out that Robb would ride slower than usual and regularly ride back to meet up with me, so that we would get some time to pedal together. In exchange, I would not dawdle, and we’d start off early in the morning since Robb is one of those “we’re burning daylight” people. We settled into a rhythm of riding apart and riding together, which in fact mirrored our married life–feeling confident in our independent time, but appreciating the stretches together.
We weren’t always great at compromise. We’re both strong-willed and impatient and there have been many clashes in our history: Those storms that Robb mentioned. But the fact that we were actually in Scotland was a testament to how far we’d come at compromise.
We weren’t always great at compromise. We’re both strong-willed and impatient.
For any child who reaches their 25thanniversary, my parents offer airfare anywhere in the world. It took us a year to decide on biking in Scotland. Robb fancied Asia, but I didn’t want a long flight. Robb likes to stay very active and doesn’t like cities, so that ruled out beach trips and world capitals.
I have always loved Scotland, and my infatuation has only grown since I became a serious fan-girl of the Outlander series. (I didn’t tell Robb about my desire to visit Jamie-land.) When I found a tour company that would put together a self-guided trip through the islands—providing bikes, arranging our hotels, routes, and ferries, transferring our luggage—he was interested. The deal was sealed when Robb, a whiskey lover, learned we would spend a couple of days on the island of Islay, home of a number of famed distilleries.
Don’t Compare Yourself to Others on the Road
On our first day of riding, we took a scenic loop around half of the island of Arran. The final stretch of our 37 miles that day had us climbing up a mountain side. I struggled, partly because I’d never ridden that far at one time and also because I had had too much fun at the pub the night before (quiz night with 50 rowdy locals). As I panted and willed my legs to keep churning, I heard something approach from behind. Since I could tell it was moving quickly, I assumed it was a car. But no, it was another cyclist. A gray-haired man on a mountain bike with knobby tires zoomed right past me. Seriously, I felt like I was standing still.
I thought of the times I’ve looked at other marriages and envied a couple’s easy affection or equanimity.
As I watched him easily make his way up the slope, I wondered what was wrong with me. Had Scottish whiskey turned my muscles to molasses? Then I saw the man flit right past Robb. I could only imagine what Robb was thinking. Competitive by nature, he was probably cursing his body.
Five minutes later, I passed the speedy cycler sitting on the side of the road—making me think of him as the hare and me as the tortoise.
“Hey, you make it look too easy,” I shouted.
The man—who seemed to be in his mid-50s—grinned impishly. “I’m cheating!” he confessed happily. “I’ve got a little motor here.” He pointed to a contraption on the bike frame.
I was filled with relief, and so was Robb when I told him later. It made me think of all the times, I’ve looked at other marriages and envied a couple’s easy affection or equanimity. Who knows what’s really going on in those relationships? I thought of the maxim, “Don’t compare someone’s outside to your inside.” Just stick to your own road, right?
Take a Break
This is how we thought our days would go: After cycling a while, we’d stop midmorning for tea at some cozy spot; then take another break for lunch; and mid-afternoon for more tea (it’s the U.K.!) or a snack. On the first morning I passed by some scenery that made my eyes drool—shaggy Scottish cows enclosed by an artfully crumbling stone wall with the sea behind them—but because I didn’t want to hold Robb up more than necessary, I kept pedaling rather than stopping to soak it in.
But then I began noticing a strange thing. Every so often on the tiny road we were riding on Arran—and later on other islands—I’d see a bench in the middle of nowhere. Not near a town. Or a bus stop. Or even a house. Just a bench looking out on the view. Waiting for someone to sit on it and contemplate the wonders of nature: The way years of gusts have left some trees on the windward side of the island looking like inside out-umbrellas. The way muscular white clouds in the huge sky could feel as imposing as mountains.
Those benches were telling me something, and maybe Robb heard it, too.
Those benches were telling me something, and maybe Robb heard it, too. Often when I came upon him, he was stopped—not to wait for me, but to take a photo or just to lean on a fence and gaze out on a grid of pastures so green you’d think the whole countryside was a putting green. I would pull alongside of him and relish the break from pedaling, but even more, I enjoyed the time oohing and ahhing with him and letting the rest of the world fall away.
It made me think of a ritual we’ve built into our marriage; Every morning, we play four rounds of cards. I know therapists and self-help books will tell you to take a date night regularly with your spouse. We have never been good at that, but it seems what the experts are getting at is the importance of escaping the grind together, concentrating on connecting. When we play our cards, we’re intensely present. It’s a sacred time for us, unless I lose too many days in a row, at which time I’m known to get profane. These views in Scotland, though: just plain sacred.
Scotland Bike Tour: You Build Muscle
I didn’t really feel myself getting stronger. I guess you never do. I would just move my legs automatically to propel myself on. My quads ached at night—so much that I could barely lower myself to the toilet. I slept long and hard and got up to do it all again. After a couple days, the hills didn’t make me cry. Then, around the fourth day, I noticed my quads didn’t hurt much anymore. Bathroom breaks didn’t leave me shrieking in pain.
On the last day, I got clear evidence of how much progress I made. We were going to ride back over a mountain that had wiped me out on day two (I had to get off and walk my bike for a long stretch). I was dreading climbing that 2,400-foot vertical gain again, even more so when it turned out that it was pouring rain and we would be riding directly into a 16-mile-an-hour wind.
When I brought my bike alongside Robb’s on the bare mountain top, he nodded and said: ‘You were pretty badass back there.’
When it was time, I kept my head down—even when the wind around one curve almost knocked me over—and only focused on how I’d feel when I got to the top. I didn’t look at how the hill rose up ahead of me, only the road right in front of me, watching the pavement inch past. Yes, I panted and was miserable, but my legs kept moving, my heart kept beating. And then the road started to level out, and, daring to look ahead, I saw Robb up ahead waiting for me, smiling.
I thought of all the difficulties in our marriage. His years of intense traveling when the kids were young. Our disagreements about money: he’s a saver, I’m a spender. His frustration with my lack of organization. My irritation with his rigidness. I thought of how we’d built some sort of emotional muscle over the 25 years. We’d figured out what battles were worth taking on, how to recover quickly from a disagreement, what parts of each other were never going to change. We’d learned how to make our way together without losing ourselves—a particular challenge after our boys left for college and we had to reacquaint ourselves. We’d gotten better at climbing mountains.
When I brought my bike alongside Robb’s on the bare mountain top, he nodded and said: “You were pretty badass back there.” That felt like the best compliment Robb had given me in years. Maybe that’s sad, but at 57, it was what I just longed to hear.
I wish I could tell you that it stopped raining and the sun broke out and there were no more hills. That didn’t happen. But it was mostly downhill from there—straight to the town where we waited in a charming pub for the ferry back to the mainland, drinking and eating and sighing.
Black-and-white photos by Robb Kendrick
Jeannie Ralston is the editor and co-founder of NextTribe. Ralston’s work as a journalist has been published in National Geographic, The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler and many other magazines. Her years growing lavender was the subject of her memoir, The Unlikely Lavender Queen, published by Broadway Books; her e-book, The Mother of All Field Trips, was about the three years she homeschooled and traveled with her children.