Mary Ann Thomas: Brown Queer Travel Writer

Biking through Small-Town USA as a Brown Woman

When I decided to ride my bicycle across the country, my family and friends were worried for me. How would a small brown woman be treated? How would a daughter of immigrants bike across Small Town, USA, and landscapes pockmarked with xenophobia? It was 2014 and I was about to embark on a six-month, 6,600-mile trip, biking from beachy San Diego in the southwestern corner of the US to the Northeast and into Montreal. I grew up on the East Coast and thought of the middle of the country only through the stereotypes I’d seen in movies: racism, homophobia, and intolerance to outsiders. While the cities I lived in had their fair share of hostility, I assumed that they must be a relative sanctuary compared to more homogeneous states in Middle America. On a bike, I could be vulnerable to harassment, assault, or theft. I left home with the understanding that every stranger I encountered had the potential to harm me in some way, but I refused to let fear prevent my ride.

A few years prior, I biked from New Jersey to Nashville. It was my first bike tour, a whopping 850 miles, and I rode with a friend. I loved the hard work of riding up a steep hill with a tent, sleeping bag, food, and water, and the thrill of flying down the other side. I loved the way biking took me on country roads and trails I would have never seen from a car. And I loved the simplicity: every day, the goal was to pedal as hard as we could for as long as we could. That ride was after college and before my first job as a nurse. When I was working, I constantly dreamed of bike touring again. Once I felt confident in my skills as a nurse, I saved up money and bought a touring bike, a Trek 520, for my cross-country ride.

I planned to ride solo simply because no one I knew was willing or able to take an indeterminate amount of time off to bike from California to Canada. I chose the route based on several factors: avoiding California’s fire season, hot summers in the South, and not wanting to bike the same trail through the Appalachian Mountains as I had on my earlier tour. In most cases—because I love making things hard on myself—I rode the least direct route. This ride was the first time I’d bike toured, camped, or traveled for more than a couple weeks on my own.

In April 2014, I started from San Diego and headed north along the Pacific Coast Highway, pushing up and down the jagged mountains of the California coast. I went around the Olympic Peninsula, through pouring rain every day, and took a ferry north to Vancouver. I dropped back into the US, went across the lonely deserts of Washington into Montana, through the Rockies and to Glacier National Park and Yellowstone. From Wyoming, I biked through the steep Black Hills of South Dakota, the farmlands of Minnesota, the northern forests of Wisconsin, and the isolated, foggy Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

When I entered Canada again, I rode on bike trails along the St. Lawrence River, camped in below-freezing temperatures in parks that were closed for the season, and arrived in Montreal to feel snowflakes land on my face—a first on my tour. By the time I reached Montreal, spring, summer, and fall had passed; Canadian winter had arrived. After six months, I still loved everything about bike touring and, had the weather allowed, I probably would have kept biking until I hit the eastern coast of Canada. In Montreal, I reluctantly finished my ride across North America and accepted that the end of this adventure would one day yield the beginning of many more.

Before and during the trip, I reached out to my communities. I hit up my nurse friends, queer people of color, my friends from previous travels, my high school acquaintances, and the larger bike touring community. I wanted to create a safety net, maybe even a home on the road, anywhere in the US.

Throughout the six months I spent pedaling, complete strangers in small towns across North America came through in ways I’d never anticipated. In towns of just a few thousand people, I became a temporary public figure. In Winner, South Dakota, a retired couple waited outside the grocery store near my bike to find out where I’d come from. Almost every time I had a flat tire, multiple people offered to help me fix it. When I was finished fixing a flat, a woman invited me to stay with her and have dinner with her family in Bigfork, Montana. That night, her family showed me that their small town life meant kayaking and camping trips every weekend. In South Dakota, when I pitched my tent in a town park, a couple who lived nearby brought me homemade soup and vegetables from their garden. In another South Dakota small town, a man let me stay at no charge in an empty unit of an apartment complex he owned.

Almost every week, a stranger on Warm Showers, a website for hosting bike tourists, let me into their home, and I received a hot meal and a warm shower and did laundry. Through the site, I stayed at a nature center in northern Wisconsin where I watched the Milky Way shine so brightly it reflected off a motionless lake. I met other bike tourists headed the same way and, occasionally, spent a few nights biking with them. We struggled together across foggy mountain passes and found rivers to pitch our tents next to at night. Other bikers offered to fix or tune up my bike in ways I didn’t know and taught me what they could. When I stopped at bike shops for a mechanic to take a quick look, like I did before riding across the sagebrush-covered deserts of eastern Wyoming, they’d never charge me for their labor.

There was, of course, that one time. That one time I felt unsafe, where another human made me think, “Oh shit, I am so vulnerable right now, I could be beaten and dragged out to the bushes to die, and no one truly knows where I am.” It happened in a 500-person town in Eastern Washington. I sat outside of a gas station at a picnic table eating my lunch when a lanky white man walked by, muttering in a fake Indian accent to the woman with him. I ignored it. He walked by again a few minutes later, and said to a woman getting out of her car, “Whoo-ee! That’s a darkie over there!” The woman asked what the fuck he was talking about, and he repeated it. I felt like a circus freak, like if I didn’t get out of that town ASAP, the bored white dude would start shit.

I packed my lunch up and rode away. By the end of the day, after miles on country roads with almost no one on them, I found myself at an RV park, eating a communal dinner and drinking beers with a group of women of color who had driven out from Seattle. I went through so many phases of terror, anger, and frustration that day, but ultimately it ended in safety.

Once I finished my 6,600-mile bike ride, I realized that the dude in Washington was the only person during the entire journey who had made me feel unsafe because of my identity. There were the occasional awkward questions from hosts like “Where are you from? I mean where are you really from?” and comments like “Wow, you don’t even have an accent!” But I only felt targeted once, and those feelings of fear were dwarfed by the kindness I found.

As a queer brown woman, I’m still hella privileged. I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, and speak English with a mid-Atlantic accent. I’m a US citizen. I’ve got a name that sits easy on English-speaking tongues. My family is Catholic. I had saved enough money that I could have bailed on my trip and flown home at any time. My family could have offered financial assistance if necessary. While I experienced a moment of hatred towards me because of my skin color, the language used by that dude comes from racism against Black folks, and I can’t assume that all people of color would have been met with the same kind of overwhelming generosity that I found throughout my ride. Bike touring as a cis woman, in some cases, made people become even more welcoming towards me. I had Warm Showers hosts tell me that they don’t host single men as guests, and that they let me in because I am a woman. The very reason why people told me to be most afraid—my vulnerability as a single woman—was a reason why people opened their hearts and homes to me.

It took riding across the country for me to be able to see myself in the small towns of the US. Growing up on the East Coast led me to believe that small towns were no place for a child of Indian immigrants, no place for a woman with my skin color. While riding across Middle America had in some ways seemed like a way for me to get myself killed on an isolated road, I was offered countless homes to stay in, generous meals to eat, and once, even money, with nothing asked for in return. My bike tour opened me up to the possibility that I could be treated well in unexpected places, and to the possibility that strangers there would look out for me.

Originally published in On She Goes

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