REVIEW: WITH YOU BY BIKE
BY KATRINA ROSEN
Review by Christy Barnes Mackintosh
After many years together Katrina and Mike’s marriage has unravelled. In a quest to mend their relationship they embark on a year-long, 13,000-kilometre cycling tour with the hope of strengthening their commitment to one another.
Eleven years into their relationship, 29-year-old Katrina Rosen and her husband Mike had drifted inadvertently, and dangerously, apart. While laid-back Mike enjoyed staying home and watching sports with his buddies, high-energy Katrina went off adventure-seeking with her (male, also partnered) best friend Alex. You can see where that story was headed, right?
Except that, unlike most couples that find themselves teetering on the brink of divorce, Katrina and Mike did not fight, point fingers, seek counselling, or separate. Instead, they pulled a 180: quit their jobs, remortgaged and rented out their house, invested in touring bikes, and headed off together on a bike ride that would span continents and the next year of their lives – a journey Katrina transcribes in With You By Bike: One Couple’s Life Changing Journey Around the World (Rocky Mountain Books, 2019).
Full disclosure here: eleven years into my marriage, I was in a similar quandary, only I never would have succeeded in convincing my husband to heal our marriage with a bike trip. We had two kids when we separated. To this day, I have not found someone to love who both shares my sense of adventure and enjoys my company enough to ride bikes with me. Not here, not halfway around the world. So, I might be the worst person to review such a book – one that describes another couple’s ultimate, extreme re-bonding experience. I am happy for their outcome, but Rosen’s story was never going to provide me with a sense of comfort or catharsis.
Katrina and Mike’s remarkable journey begins from their home on Wolseley Avenue in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and takes them across the Canadian Prairies, south through Colorado, Utah and Nevada, across the ocean to New Zealand, then on through Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Tibet and Nepal. Along the way, they are joined on and off by friends and fellow travellers. They gain expertise in stealth camping and changing flat tires, endure heat exhaustion and altitude sickness, and rely heavily on the kindness of strangers for finding food and shelter as they pedal towards a new understanding of themselves and learn to navigate the world as a couple.
Marriage is a messy business and it’s a brave and vulnerable choice to write about one’s own, particularly when doing so impacts and exposes others. It is, perhaps, because of this that Rosen’s details of her relationship with “the other man” are sparse and vague, leaving most to the imagination (as I suppose it should be, given that it was never really about him anyway). Still, it leaves a reader curious about the entanglement and unable to grasp its emotional complexities.
I expected, given the impetus for this couple’s journey (and my own proclivities), that Rosen might get more personal than she does, and that she might draw more connections between the external landscapes they navigate by bike and the shifting internal landscape of their relationship. However, this is not the path Rosen takes.
If anything, With You By Bike reads much like an apology and a tribute to Mike. Though, in the context of home, Rosen failed to fully appreciate his calm acceptance, competence, and unwavering support, she grows to respect and learn from these qualities while on the road with him. Their travels are certainly arduous and challenging at times, but she and Mike fundamentally get along; their relationship is not characterized by tension and conflict. And so, there isn’t much in the telling that would distinguish this journey from the one any other couple, under any other set of circumstances, might take. It is a well-lived, well-intentioned story, told with candour and a sense of vulnerability.
As a travel diary, it offers insight into the delights and the hard realities of navigating these parts of the world by bike. Readers seeking a more literary and philosophical approach will perhaps find Rosen’s prose awkward and overly descriptive at times. In particular, numerous scenes play out in which Rosen’s descriptions of an interaction or exchange inadvertently raise a flag on the way affluent North Americans perceive their experiences in the developing world.
“My soul softened when her palm pressed against mine,” Rosen says, describing the couple’s encounters with children at a foster home in Cambodia. “Happiness filled my body to see Jack providing the kids with a safe place, good water, food and an education.” Yet Jack had just bluntly told the Rosens that their clumsy attempts to help with physical labour were not wanted or needed; that funding, and exposure to those who can provide it, is what is sorely needed to prevent girls from being sold into sexual slavery by their families to pay off debt and buy food.
It is moments like these, in With You By Bike, that a reader might question the habit we affluent, white, privileged Westerners have of throwing ourselves upon the mercy of the world at large, seeking salvation and/or running from the tyranny of our First World Problems and into the arms of Third World strangers who feed and shelter us, astonish and inspire us with their joy and generosity despite their poverty and oppression.
And while Rosen’s bright-eyed, 29-year-old self doesn’t seem to fully realize the questions she’s raising here, they are fascinating to ponder from another perspective. How do our affluence and privilege impact the way we relate to one another in our intimate, long-term partnerships? How do they contribute to our drifting apart versus staying together? If more couples were willing to take such drastic measures to recommit to a specific path and direction in their relationships, would more overcome what ails modern marriage?
Though it would not be the path to salvation for just any couple, With You By Bike restores order in the Rosens’ marriage. Katrina and Mike return home after their year of travel, feeling closer than ever. But what happened next? What kind of marriage do they have now? How did their journey by bike change how they function as a couple in everyday life, back in North America? Relationships are not static and, like bikes, they need regular maintenance. Parts wear out. The elements take their toll. Rosen leaves us with some fascinating emotional terrain yet to be explored.
Christy Barnes Mackintosh is happiest when playing outside in nature. She is celebrating her 26th year of “playing Life” in Banff.
The views and opinions expressed in the articles on CrowfootMedia.com are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.
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