Backroads: Adventures in Bicycle Diplomacy
When my kids were small, I poured over Backroads catalogs while they slept. I dreamed of exotic vacations where I’d bike through amazing scenery and eat better food than the boxed macaroni and cheese my children liked. But those were just pleasant daydreams.
When my children grew older, I started a new job teaching college students. I listened to them talk about adventures studying abroad and I began thinking about Backroads again. My students didn’t talk about the museums they visited or the art they saw. They were interested in the people and how they lived. Small details of daily life struck them, like witty graffiti scrawled on alley walls in Reykjavík, and the impossibly small-sized women’s clothing displayed in Paris shops.
I noticed similar things when I took my bike on vacations in the United States, but I hadn’t tried going overseas. I’d ridden within an arm’s length of iguanas and chickens in Miami and had watched kids ride inner tubes shaped like unicorns down the Truckee River in California, so I knew that bike touring was a special way to see a place. The stories my students shared made me curious about going abroad and interacting with locals, but I had never toured with a group and my family doesn’t bike together at home.
Last spring we signed up for a Backroads trip from Stockholm to Copenhagen. We practiced riding together for six weeks to get used to riding in a group and among traffic. It was worth the effort to prepare; the Backroads trip blew us away and exceeded our expectations in every aspect.
Riding along farm roads outside Stockholm, we saw fields of blooming flax that were a brilliant blue color. It looked just like a shimmering lake when the wind swept across these millions of flax flowers. We learned that cardamom is the secret ingredient in Swedish sweet buns, the most popular pastry in Sweden. We saw vacationing families dock their small boats along a river in Trosa the way Americans park their RVs in camping spots.
Beyond appreciating the natural beauty of the countryside and eating delicious food, we enjoyed the people. One morning we had a long conversation with our boat captain, who wore flip-flops and steered with one hand while he talked about Swedish taxes, universal healthcare and the Midsummer’s Eve parties throughout Sweden that celebrate the summer solstice. During walking tours of Stockholm and Copenhagen, local guides went beyond just pointing out historical sites. They talked about shared challenges, like how to raise children to be good people and how to assimilate immigrants into our respective countries.
The Backroads Trip Leaders are remarkable, accomplished people. One morning in the middle of a 30-mile ride, I turned to Rafi, our leader, and said something that led to a deep conversation about sustainability from the point of view of the activist and scholar, Vandana Shiva. I was not expecting this. The group leaders do far more than provide snacks and fix flats. They’re all highly educated and interesting people who have boundless curiosity and enthusiastically share their knowledge. And they’re fun to be around.
Some things are more memorable when experienced on a bike. Like the way invasive Spanish slugs squish under your tires along the bike paths in Copenhagen, or how the pale light of the rising sun shines through the grey mist hovering over the Baltic Sea. Backroads does that part exquisitely well–all the bike routes are laid out cinematographically.
Because of Backroads and our wonderful trip to Sweden and Denmark, my family was open to the idea of hosting a foreign exchange student from China this winter. We continued the Backroads tradition of connecting people from different cultures through bicycles. Along with trips to museums and cultural sites, we planned a 22-mile bike ride along residential streets and multi-use trails in Northern Virginia for our high school exchange student. He said riding was fun and he really enjoyed it, especially the mountain bike part. I think his trip will be memorable partly because Backroads did a great job showing my family that bicycle diplomacy is important and worthwhile. Our trip with Backroads wasn’t just a vacation; it was an education in cultural understanding.