Al quit his job as a big equipment mechanic for Caterpillar in Calgary, Canada. Yoly managed a year’s leave from her job teaching braille. Their 24-year-old son promised to look after things, including their 10-year-old golden retriever Xela.
And off they went last August, first to Paris, then by bike across France and a sliver of nearby countries, pedaling their way through dry heat and cold rain, over flat land and steep hills, carrying everything they’d need in saddlebags.
It simply seemed right, this silver wedding anniversary, cycle-tourism adventure. After all, Allan and Yolanda Wickerson met and fell in love in Antigua, Guatemala, when he was on another bike extravaganza in 1986, on his way from Canada to Argentina. He arrived in Antigua and enrolled in the Spanish class she was teaching. Languages had never come easily to Allan, now 51. But Yolanda, now 47, proved more than a skilled teacher. He originally signed up for two weeks of classes — and stayed much longer. He never did go on to Argentina.
He’s the more laid back of the two, quick with a wry comment and a laugh. Yolanda is warm, competitive, talkative and embracing. With both, there’s more than meets the eye. They’re doers, but thinkers, too. And if I have an interest in writing about slow lane travel, they’ve been living it for a long time.
Today, Allan remains the more accomplished biker. He’s crossed Canada, from East to West. And on this journey around Europe, he’s the one hauling four saddlebags, pedaling nearly 90 pounds of bike and gear each day. They’ve averaging about 40 miles a day when on the road, a total of about 1,900 miles so far.
But Yolanda’s a gamer, whether beating all the boys in the French game of boules or petangue or running circles around her classmates in French class at IS-Aix, where Kathy and I met the Wickersons. She’s never been afraid of trying something new, including moving to the snow-blown plains of Calgary, Canada, in mid-winter 1988 from her native home not all that far from the equator.
When the weather got better back then, Allan found her a bike in a dumpster behind his mother’s house, a yellow one that he put back together. Then in the summer of 1988, he took her out on a 60-mile bike ride to Big Hills Spring Provincial Park in the foothills outside Calgary. Camping wasn’t allowed. But Yolanda recalls arriving at the park exhausted.
“For me it was too much, so he pulled out his little tent,” she recalls.
That night they had visitors: a whole pack of coyotes.
“They were all around us,” Allan recalls. “There must have been a dozen of them.”
“I said, ‘I’m scared,'” Yolanda recalls. “He said, ‘me, too.’ I didn’t want to hear that.”
But even after that, she kept biking; it was part of her new husband’s DNA. When their son, Hugh, turned 11, the three of them biked for three days from Calgary to Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies, covering about 35 miles a day.
Hugh presumably shared his parents sense of adventure because soon the three were off to Vancouver and a 20-day trek on abandoned rail beds turned to bike trails along Canada’s western coastline. Then, in 2005, came two and a half months and a few thousand miles along the eastern side of Australia, sometimes dodging dead kangaroos and broken glass on the roadways because people had a bad habit of throwing beer bottles at roadsigns. They weathered two flat tires — Allan, the big-equipment mechanic, is handy with a patch as well. And they gloried in a ride through a herd of living kangaroo, skirted “unbelievable beaches,” and stopped somewhere far to the south at a restaurant that advertised “the last fish & chips until you make it to Antarctica,” Yolanda recalls.
And their current adventure? They’re chronicling it in a lively and colorful blog. First they biked north, sometimes in searing heat, as far as Amsterdam, Holland, Heading south again, along France’s border with Germany, they found themselves in hills so steep that they had to walk at one point because their tires were burning from applying the brakes so hard.
“It was unreal,” says Yolanda of the 19 percent downhill grade not too far from Aachen, Germany.
She pulled muscles in her back somewhere along the way and wished more than once that she had a second pair of gloves.
This is fun? Why, yes, they’ll tell you.
“You see everything,” Yolanda says.
And you learn things, adds Allan, from the people along the way. Near Avignon, for example, they stopped to talk to grape pickers about their techniques for bringing in the harvest.
But both clearly had more to say. A day or two after our dinner, Allan sent me a long email on the “philosophical question.” Here is some of what he had to say:
“I think the ability to be in the place that you are is achievable to a higher degree on a bike than other forms of transport. You feel the wind, rain, sun and terrain physically. I think there is a physical fitness aspect to riding [too]. I haven’t achieved my goal of being 30 years younger, but certainly don’t feel any older.
[And] the carbon footprint aspect of touring on a bike? It is something I think about when I make decisions and it makes cycle touring an easier decision.”
He continued: “Yoly likes it because it tests and strengthens her physical abilities. She feels she ends up with tools in her educator’s toolbox that others don’t have. Geography, culture, climate, recycling, language, history, customs, accents and adaptations for blind students are examples of tools Yoly has acquired … because of bike touring.”
Then there are the stories, the ones travelers share over food and laughter. It is the sharing of stories with couples like Allan and Yolanda that make extended overseas travel such a pleasure for Kathy and me. We hope to see them both again later this week when they return from a three-week adventure — this one by train — to Italy.
In mid-March, they’ll be off by bike again, heading north in their yellow slickers, back toward Paris.
If they have any concerns about what will await them back in Calgary, they’re not focused on them. Right now the road beckons, life lived day to day, mile by mile, pedal turn by pedal turn.
That’s an experience much too precious to cloud with extraneous concerns.