Life in the “modern” age doesn’t give us too many chances to take adventures. Yes, we make plenty of trips to the movies, but when was the last time we had a real journey—the kind that makes you grab a walking stick and head whistling down a wandering Road?
I think England has awakened my inner hobbit, because I decided to take just such an adventure this weekend. (Cambridge is in Cambridgeshire, afterall.) I decided to bike twenty-five miles north—through the fen-littered lowlands around Fen Ditton, Bottisham, Lode, and Wicken—to the small town of Ely, where I would end the trek at Saint Etheldreda’s beautiful cathedral.
I had no cellular data for Google Maps, little experience cycling outside the city jungle of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the cheapest “urban student bike” available from City Cycle rentals. I shrugged and took screenshots of the route when I was connected to WiFi. This would be an adventure! Getting a little lost or tired wouldn’t bother this wanderlusting hobbit.
Except, it very much did. The first twelve miles were all stop and go, brake and pedal, pant with exertion and grumble with exasperation. Road signs hid behind overgrown bushes and lurked in faded white letters on the obscure sides of nondescript buildings. Without fail, they disappeared every time I neared my next turn. Even when I pulled over every five minutes to double-check my Google Map screenshots, I couldn’t tell where I was until I was miles off track. Honking cars, glaring pedestrians, and confusing lane lines didn’t help. (Did I mention I was trying to ride on the left side of the road? It was like “Mirror Mode” in Mario Kart—with much more than a virtual trophy at stake.)
So there I was having the adventure of a lifetime and grumbling through every second of it. I was peddling by the beautiful River Cam, through quiet Cambridgeshire farmland, and along country roads that seemed plucked from postcards, and all I could think about was how annoyed I was at the dumb road signs—and how inaccurate my Garmin watch miles-per-hour reading would be after all the navigation stops. Come on, I’m smart enough to read a map! Why am I having such a difficult time? My ego was smarting almost as much as my quads.
Then came the cows. It was around mile 23—ten minutes outside Ely. I biked up to the base of a small hill, and blocking my path were five looming bovine. They looked at me with lazy suspicion, blinked, and went back to grazing. Their hoofs were glued to the bike path.
I dinged the cheap bell on my urban student bike. It must have sounded as pathetic as I felt—the cows didn’t budge. I dinged the bell again. They didn’t flick a tail. I walked slowly forward, and with snorts and stares askance, they stomped a few inches out of the way. I passed, slowly, between the rumps of the two nearest cows—the Schylla and Charybdis of Cambridgeshire.
Once free, I laughed all the way through those last two miles to Ely. I finally realized how utterly (or udderly) ridiculous I had been. I was frustrated with my own failure to navigate the route and blaming it all on the sign-obscuring powers of the UK government. My inner perfectionist was stubbornly, stupidly offended at all the wrong turns I had taken.
And yet—these cows couldn’t care less. They didn’t stir a hoof at my rushing to make up time lost to turnarounds. My schedule, my abilities, my frustrations were as unimportant to them as the flies buzzing around their rumps. That shocked me back into perspective. There’s nothing like a stubborn cow to make you realize you’ve been taking yourself too seriously.
The point really hit home on the return ride. More confident of the route, I risked listening to the audiobook of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy as I headed back to Cambridge. One line in particular put words in the mouths of those wise Ely bovines: “Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One ‘settles down’ into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness.”
My adventure only felt fun once I saw the levity of a misstep where I had before found only the gravity of a mistake. I think the lesson here is that adventures are full of error, and laughter is the best way to make room for fun alongside the blunders. Why take ourselves so seriously? A journey turns into a chore—or worse, a test—with the kind of grave self-seriousness that follows from a preoccupation with performance and perfection. Laughing at ourselves lubricates the adventure. And I’d say that applies to journeys much longer, harder, and more important than the fifty-mile trek between Cambridge and Ely.
I hope I remember to stay humble the next time I have an adventure. The forecast looks favorable; I’ve already had practice putting this new insight from Chesterton and the Ely cows to use.
As I was following the same route home, I took two wrong turns. And I laughed.
Lauren Spohn ‘20 is an English concentrator in Currier.