Which Way Are You Choosing?

Which Way Are You Choosing?

Listen to the audio version of this story, written, spoken & sound edited by Karla Sanders, and recorded by Steven Tiller.

This story chronicles a cycle journey we took from England to Germany in late November to early December, 2021. It was a test ride of nearly two weeks long ahead of our official world journey launch, taking us through adventures in England, France, Belgium, The Netherlands and western Germany.

On the day we left to cycle from England to Germany, every summertime friend we’d made seemed to spill out of thin air to wave us off. No one knew about our day of departure. Yet there they were one after the other, standing on corners, sidewalks and street crossings as we cycled Mile 1 of 550.

By coincidence or universe working its magic, we burst into the world on a rush of sunshine.

Worn roads fell behind with each rotation, our elation masking the significance of leaving a comfort zone. We might not see those faces again for a long time. As the village dissolved into rolling fields, our climactic exit descended into the gentle rays of a familiar vista.

Leaving actually felt quite ordinary.

Is this how Frodo felt when he stepped away from the Shire? The ring of power burns in our hearts, only ours is a ringless passion not to destroy evil, but to help heal the wounded souls. Why did Sauron hate the world after all? What traumas did he carry?

The story never begins with the individual alone, but with the 10,000 things that made them. Those are words we received from Andy, who is about to enter this story.

We’d stopped ten miles in to readjust some packs; Steven moved bags while I fed him chips and hummus and enjoyed the easy task of eating. We hugged and it was at this moment I noticed a vehicle pull up.

Welcome, Andy.

A friendly face greeted us with a question, “Those are awesome bikes! Can I have a look?” What followed was a cascade of connection, the kind of encounter that begins with an innocent question and quickly leads to a depth of conversation more often shared in cozy candlelit spaces.

Andy revealed he is also a cyclist who has toured extensively, including a solo tour in South Korea during the height of winter when temperatures fell well below zero. We were touched by his calm and radiant aura, the kind of person who has time to listen and makes you feel at ease with their joy for life.

Reflecting on Buddhism and spiritual topics with someone we’d just met on a quaint British street felt perfectly normal. This is the world we yearn for. Where no one is a stranger and trust is freely given, rather than fearfully broken.

Time seemed to disappear even as the lowering sun reminded us of the many miles ahead. We bid Andy farewell on that day’s second surge of jubilation, waving “See you soon!” One day our paths would cross again, we felt certain.

That day arrived less than ten minutes later when Andy passed again and asked if could join us on the ride for a bit. Of course! He lived nearby and within an hour there he was, the first of several guides who would accompany us along the way.

What followed was a reminder of all the goodness in humanity. Andy suggested we could stay at his house that night, and we took him up on the offer even though it was only sixteen miles into our first day. We simply listened to a feeling. Let go of preconceived notions and experience the miracles that sprout. Expectation is the thief of joy, after all.

The afternoon blossomed into a vibrant sunset ride; spirits soared beneath a cloudless sky full of peaceful words, even as winter nipped at our fingers and toes. Andy welcomed us into his warm home where we enjoyed a night of complete serenity. His many books, insights and stories inspired us to embrace the deep purpose of our journey: We are here to rise into the highest versions of ourselves and carry this message into the world.

Meeting Andy at the start of our adventure set the tone for every day thereafter. We left him in a mist of start dust, empowered by a secret. It’s composed of three letters: J - O - Y. Joy. When every news channel flashes terror and glaciers are collapsing, what medicine can a single person possibly bring to the sorrows? The answer is when you close your eyes and imagine that moment when you feel your best. Does your heart rise, if only for a second?

What we’d come to discover over the next 430 miles is that there are very few choices in this life. In fact there are only two choices. We may choose to rise or we may choose to fall. This is the flow. Rising and falling.

While the universe is full of infinite possibilities, how we greet these possibilities is a matter within our control. Even if it feels a thousand miles beyond our reach veiled in the numb tones of depression, choice is still there.

Some time ago when I found myself in the spiral of a bottomless pit, I eventually hit the proverbial rock bottom with dawning clarity. No one could save me but me. Help was there, but I had to move my hand and reach out. Inch by inch I crawled until that crawl became a walk, then a dance, then a run and finally a fireball bursting forth on a bicycle to share this story with you.

Let yourself fall, then let yourself rise. Sometimes we repeat the process several times, but each time we rise higher.

Ten families from the Warm Showers community greeted us over the next twelve nights. Warmshowers.org is a massive global network of cyclists who open their homes to other distance cyclists, and all return the favors at some point or another. Each host welcomed us in their own unique way, and each cooked incredible vegan meals in support of our plant-based, cruelty-free mission. We were awed by the thoughtfulness to make us feel at home in a time when COVID-19 has spread fear through the masses.

We cycled to the Thames River on our second day, arriving in Tilbury to take a short ferry ride across the river. We’d discovered a vegan bakery on a previous ride and it now called to us from the other side. Vegan Antics makes some of the best animal-free dessert we’ve ever tried and our growling bellies thanked the heavens for arriving just five minutes before closing. With seven miles to go before reaching that day’s host, we knew it was an ideal moment to gather some treats to share. Nothing spells vegan activism better than vegan cupcakes.

Strapping them to the bike was another question, but after a brief disagreement I shooed away my ego and accepted Steven’s packing brilliance. My initial idea to simply hang the cupcakes from the handlebars would have had them swaying into oblivion. It’s easy to look back now and laugh about the debate, but at the time it nearly dropped our high spirits.

Dusk descended into nightfall, the day’s long shadows matching our transition from a luscious pastry shop into an industrial labyrinth. We’d unknowingly crossed into the underbelly of society, that hidden tapestry of factories and warehouses weaving our modern comforts to life.

But we’ll never forget the swans. Several brilliant white swans graced the shores of the Thames just before we passed by the first factory. Their delicate bodies seemed otherworldly in this macabre maze of smokestacks, flashing lights, and flames shooting into the air. A stench hung over us. Dull street lights exposed layers of dust on all the parked cars.

We paused there, suddenly drawn to an orange glow in the darkness. Sparks flew about a tiny figure cutting with a circular blade, exploding as metal bit metal. The sight was mesmerizing. It was also not meant for our eyes, as the door to this scene was open barely wide enough to glimpse inside. It’s as if we were seeing in real life the light of this person’s soul, his willpower illuminated in the action of cutting metal. Never mind for a brief instant the damage these actions inflict. We humans are capable of such beauty, if only we learned to harness it away from such grotesque outcomes.

Moments later we stood along a rail track, still hypnotized by the sparks, but my desperation to pee woke us from the dream. I quelled any worry about privacy. The path stretched straight ahead of us and we could see no cycle lights coming our way. Anyone who must squat while peeing knows it’s especially challenging with sore quads from cycling. Normally Steven holds my arms so I can lean into the squat, but the call was too urgent to wait. I paid for it by peeing on my shoes, crying out “I peed on my shoes!” Just as someone passed by. We hadn’t noticed an approaching cyclist, who rode without lights. C’est la vie. We could only laugh.

Slowly, slowly the industrial zone relinquished its metallic hold on the landscape. Fresh countryside breezes soothed our pulses, eager now for a rest from all we felt but could not see. The last seemingly endless seven miles came to an end, but not without one last crescendo.

We’ll always remember the entrance into Toby’s home that evening, leaving our shoes at the door. In such a short period of time we’d passed through a myriad of diverse scenes, finally stepping through a portal into the light of a family’s embrace.

We presented the cupcakes to our hosts, who gratefully received them with a question, “Are you vegan? We are too!” Excitement erupted in the kitchen when everyone learned we were all vegan. The hugs and laughter exchanged in that moment seemed to vibrate with something much more magical than the realization alone. We were celebrating the joy of meeting others who share the passion of our growing movement. We were celebrating the arrival to a loving home after a long cold day on the bikes. And of course, we were celebrating vegan cupcakes.

The morning after with Toby's Parents :) (Toby had to leave super early that day)

The world is different when you’re out on two wheels away from the news and tuned only into your local surroundings. Suddenly a jar of peanut butter becomes the best thing ever and shelter from the cold rain is no longer guaranteed. Every sense wakes up to experience the raw taste of living.

We quickly learned that joy is medicine for all journeys. While crossing the English Channel, we felt the weight of our fellow ferry passengers, mostly tired-looking truck drivers on their long hauls across Europe. Yet even their somber faces softened into wonder as they photographed a brilliant sunset, that daily ritual we humans gather around. My tears of joy mingled with frothy sea foam as the white cliffs of Dover faded away, saying all the things I could not say.

A truck driver like these guarded us from heavy traffic on an earlier ride, and we silently extended our gratitude to all his peers among us. We felt the same form of protective energy from Andy when he’d handed us a parting gift. Two colorful elephants now hang from our handlebars, forever warm with his blessing. He’d received the elephants from a loving friend in Cambodia who gave them for protection on his cycle tour. Elephant, who encourages us to protect the young and weak in our herd.

What guiding force is more fitting than the spirit of elephant? Setting out on our mission to advocate for the billions of enslaved animals and humans in our society, elephant leads the way.

Many people also led our way to Germany. Some in less cheerful ways, like the ferry employee who helped us on the boat. After trying to explain directions to the outdoor pavilion, she eventually personally escorted us with a note of exasperation, “How are you going to make it to Germany if you can’t even find this door?”

We smiled and thanked her. Challenge accepted.

To all those who hosted us or shared a moment of friendship and support, we thank you.

To Coldplay, we thank you.

Their song “Yellow” was one of many anthems keeping us warm on one of the most difficult days. We’d just crossed from France into Belgium at mile 233 when the ice rain began to fall. Snowman’s twigs quickly replaced our fingers, only these sticks throbbed and screamed, “Are you mad?!” Our hearts laughed back, “No! Just sing, ‘Look at the stars, look how they shine for you!’”

It worked. Belting out the lyrics of “Yellow”, we sang into the dreary horizon and felt the cold recede. Joy is a balm, a coat, an armor of roses when the air feels full of thorns. We must choose, what kind of gardener will we be?

“You’re going to have many, many more beautiful moments like these,” Andy had prophesied back in England, in response to our wonder at meeting him. Before departing we bowed our three heads together in a circle and took a few deep breaths. This shared breath carried us to Germany, and many more contributed their wisdom.

Toby and his family who shared the joys of veganism and guided us on a less busy route out of their area. They cooked an amazing meal and we learned about some of Toby's exciting biketouring adventures around the world, including a race in Morocco.

Chris who treated us with a personal piano concert in his living room and left before us in the morning, giving us the space to depart in our own time.

Arnaud and Mathilde who made their first ever vegan lasagna and rode with us along the French sea to a bike trail into Belgium.

Bram and his family, who invited us to stay two nights for a full rest day from the cold wet, and showered us with kindness. We recovered in their intentional living community, staying in an old barn converted into a community hall and guest suite. Bram led us along Belgium’s canal to Ghent, pointing out many birds who dotted gray fields. One stood out stunning red, a rose among daisies.

Naomi who filled our imaginations with delightful tales of cycling adventures and gifted us a pair of headphones after Steven’s broke. He’d been navigating on his phone while cycling when his front tire hit the pavements edge and he took a sudden fall, tearing his headphones to pieces. As we all know, don’t use your phone and drive, and here’s our pro tip: don’t google maps and ride.

Natalie who left her house keys hidden for us in case we arrived after she went out for work, even though we’d never met before.

Toon and his family who greeted us with a delicious meal and insisted on helping us find the next day’s host, after a planned one cancelled due to COVID-19.

Jacqueline and Gerard who welcomed us last minute and treated us to an abundance of food and routing advice.

Cornelius and Denise who delighted us to laughter with their many adventurous stories and supportive energy.

To the many people who gave us directions, like the man who volunteered to show us where to cross a wide waterway in Antwerp. He randomly stopped on his ride home from work, somehow sensing we needed help. He then went out of his way to show us the crossing. We thank you.

And finally, Gabi.

The rains continued to pour as we crossed into Germany. “Some shit weather we’re having!” One hiker exclaimed as he saw our impromptu picnic spot in a forest. He was smiling. We’d happened to find a bench that had a vegan sticker on it, clearly marking this place as our idyllic lunch stop. The hiker invited us to his house, but we already had a host awaiting us.

We didn’t know it would be our last night of the journey.

Birdsong filled Gabi’s artistic haven, heated by a giant wood stove. She quickly ushered us out of the rain and revealed the true source of warmth. Her heart fondly shared stories and memories of the many cyclists she and her late husband hosted over the years. The cold thawed in the presence of Gabi’s memories, including tales of her own cycling adventures with her husband. We soon learned that he’d passed away the previous year, in a time marked with other personal tragedies.

We were touched by Gabi’s bright spirit, especially in light of her recent grief. She talked about the choice she had to make. Yes, her husband was gone, but she was still here. She wanted to live her life fully.

Through her eyes, we learned about many other unique ways people were living their lives. One of her previous guests was a climate activist who walked around with a 3-D display of an ecosystem on wheels. In the photo, it looked like a science fair project. The man was in his 60s at the time and had devoted his life to walking with this display and educating people about the climate crisis. He survived on his two feet, his belief in a better society, and the goodwill of others.

The next day we abruptly decided to end our journey early. We were exhausted after long days in the winter weather and Steven was starting to come down with a cold. That day we rode to the nearest train station, veering from our eastward direction to head south to Essen.

Relief carried me into the plastic seat; we‘d made it to the train, and I could already smell my childhood memories waiting with tentative, open arms as the three more days ahead melted into three hours. We were now quickly heading toward my family’s home, our hibernation nest for the next couple of months as we prepared for the official start of our world cycling adventure in the spring.

As miles melted away at breathtaking speed, I reflected on our privilege in all of this. We’d easily crossed the English Channel to France, while thousands of others risked their lives to cross the other way. How can I speak of joy when so many others are struggling in ways I’ve never known? I thought of the shadowy figures we passed by as we cycled at night from Dunkirk’s harbour to the town centre. Refugees were set up in camps, evading deportation.

It’s a question that humbles me in this mystery of life, although my higher self knows the answer. Cultivating joy is one of the greatest gifts we give. We can only speak from our intuition, and borrow the wisdom others have realized in their toughest moments. Others like Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust who wrote about his experiences in various Nazi concentration camps.

Frankl wrote in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”,

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

So we ask, which way are you choosing?

Written by Karla @karlasandersart
Photography by Steven @steventiller

Music Notes from the audio

All songs featured in the Which Path are You Choosing audio above are licensed from Epidemic Sound. We credit the artists here with gratitude:

  1. Illuminations - David Celeste 0:00
  2. Sun Kiss - Heath Cantu 1:53
  3. Into the Forest - Jacob Ahlbom 4:07
  4. Soaring Symphony - Jon Bjork 5:45
  5. Dreaming of Tomorrow - Francis Well 6:24
  6. Life Anew - Gavin Luke 8:06
  7. The Sum of All Things - Gavin Luke 9:38
  8. Nordic Shine - Savvun 12:27
  9. Storytellers - Francis Wells 13:58
  10. Steven & Karla singing Coldplay to keep warm 14:38
  11. April Snow - Gavin Luke 14:49
  12. One Defeat Means Nothing - Brightarm Orchestra 17:16
  13. Desert Dew - Alec Slayne 18:35
  14. Muddy Waters - Gavin Luke 20:18
  15. Tales of the Deep - Lama House 21:51
  16. Bloopers - Steven & Karla behind the scenes - at the end

Written by Karla Sanders @karlasandersart | Photos by Steven Tiller @steventiller