Thelma & Louise

Day 1  |  here  50 miles
Agadir to Taroudant

We woke in a surfing town in southern Morocco, popped a couple dates in our mouths and hopped on our bikes. They felt foreign to us. I have never been a biker. In middle school, I’d argue with my mom about wearing my helmet. She’d win, and I’d casually ride my mountain bike along the perfectly paved bike paths of my small Minnesotan town. Audrey grew up biking, but her road bike never amounted to more than a means of transportation throughout college in Eugene, Oregon. 

We were (and still are) rookies. Proved by the fact that I don’t even know how to properly mount a bike. Aud puts one foot on the pedal, gracefully glides forward and swings her other leg up and over. A smooth take-off. I, on the other hand, struggle with balance. Both feet on the ground, I launch one leg over the frame. Then I start pedaling. A clunky initiation.

Bike repair and mechanics were also foreign to us. So was gear. Actually, road bike equipment seemed pretty foreign to Morocco in general. Searching for bike wheels felt like navigating a black market.

People, some bike-experts and some fellow rookies, told us that it’s the worst season for touring in Morocco. The rain, snow and cold would stop us. Our bikes weren’t sturdy enough, and our tires needed more tread. It was a dangerous endeavor for two females. We ignored them until it was the day before our start date. My bike sat before us. Literally sat. It still didn’t have wheels. Or breaks. Maybe we dreamed a little too big, Aud and I feared.

We decided to focus less on the actual biking and more on our connections to landscapes and communities as we traveled, as human-powered as possible, across a country that repeatedly broke our hearts and overfilled them throughout the past two years.

Our confidence staggered as we set out that morning, but we had each other and four wheels. We pedaled away from the coast, past orange tree farms, diseased cactuses and goats in Argan trees. It felt like a miracle in itself to have even made it to that point: to be biking together in a country that we love so much. We’re here, we cheered.

 

 

Day 2  |  butter and pancakes  65 miles
Taroudant to Taliouine

The dry river beds and vast flatness slowly rose as two mountain ranges, the High Atlas to the North and the Anti-Atlas to the South, crept closer. Embraced between a mountain sandwich, we cruised by squash farms and yelled “butta’ butta’ butta’” when we saw perfectly paved cement ahead. Smooth as butter. We glided and slid along butter-roads and surprised ourselves when we arrived in the land of saffron. A lush, green oasis contrasted the burnt orange and tan hues of the Anti-Atlas towering above. The mountainside layers looked as if someone slapped perfectly browned pancakes onto their rocky faces.

 

 

Day 3  |  ferocious  52 miles
Taliouine to Tazenakht

We ate a ferocious climb up and over the pancake-mountains for breakfast. The world opened up to barren, beautiful nothingness and boasted hues of reds, oranges, yellows, lime greens, browns and purples. Ferocious hunger hit. We started our routine of second breakfast after our first couple hours of morning riding. 

“We should buy some eggs,” I suggested.
“How many?” Aud asked.
“Maybe six?”
“Six each,” Aud corrected.

Ferocious eaters. Ferociously happy. Ferocious winds. We flew during our final 14 miles of the day on a straight, butter-y, gradual downhill. The winds were behind us, propelling us forward. Our bikes quivered and teetered sideways as trucks blew by. When we landed in Tazenakht, we realized we rode 14 miles in nearly 30 minutes. “That was probably dangerous,” Aud admitted after we looked at the time. A ferociously fast 14. 

That night after eating as much bread and olive oil as we could fit in our bellies, Aud video-chatted with her Moroccan sister Nora and her niece Malak. Recently, Aud and Nora helped 9-year-old Malak complete surgery so that she could walk for the first time in her life. On video, Aud watched Malak walk with braces and some assistance. Then she bawled. We had to find a way to see Malak, a ferociously strong little lady. Neither Aud or I slept that night, preoccupied by thoughts of how we could re-route our tour to arrive in central Morocco on-time for one of Malak’s physical therapy sessions.

 

 

Day 4  |  milestone  57 miles
Tazenakht to Ourzazate

We climbed our first real mountain pass, slowly but surely swiveling up and over. Then we dropped into Ourzazate, a city known as the “Hollywood of Morocco,” home to many film and television sets including Game of Thrones. To us, Ourzazate marked 222 miles of riding and our first big city. A milestone. As we flew down the mountains, a “cold beer” billboard smiled at us in the distance. “AUD!” I yelled back. “COLD! BEER!” We abruptly braked, giddy to celebrate. “No beer,” a British man coldly informed us about 10 seconds later. Turns out it was just a movie set.

 

 

Day 5  |  pound  56 miles
Ourzazate to Kalaat Mgouna

Strong winds from the High-Atlas mountains pounded us from the north, forcing us to intentionally tip our bikes sideways to ultimately ride upright. Blowing sand pounded us too. It invaded every part of our bodies: eyes, ears, hair, pores. Everywhere. We cranked out 50 miles before lunch, and our ferocious eating continued to intensify. Throughout our entire tour, we collectively ate 28 yogurt cups, over 3 kilos of peanuts and drank 36 espressos. Plus, hundreds of other unrecorded items. Megachok cookies scored as our favorite.

 

 

Day 6  |  perspective  53 miles
Kalaat Mgouna to Todgha Gorge

We took a slow morning with Bella, sipping on copious amounts of coffee. A few cups of black coffee each, followed by a few cups each of hazelnut flavored coffee. “Dessert coffee,” we called it. Overly caffeinated, we launched off through strings of adobe-home villages lining an oasis, dodging wild dogs as we whizzed by.

I had previously driven this same stretch of road four months earlier. It’s interesting how places remain the same, but humans change and adapt so quickly. I had gained, lost and experienced so much since the last time I had been there. That road remained still, unchanged. Seemingly frozen in time.

We neared Todgha Gorge, a narrow river canyon with burnt orange walls that tower 1,300 feet above. After almost a week on the road, the foreign adventure of biking became comfortable. We synced with our bikes and our nomadic lifestyle. Harmonized. Until we reached an unexpected steep incline. Two daunting switchbacks, which couldn’t have been more than a quarter of a mile in length, but they burned. To this day, Aud argues it was the hardest climb of the entire tour. Maybe because of the hot sun, the surprise, the hunger, the timing. The hill wasn’t inherently more challenging than any other, but our perspective allowed it to be. Perspective changes everything. Perspective is everything.

 

 

Day 7  |  next chapter  10 miles
Hiking, biking and 1 big bus ride to Er-Rich

We devoured breakfast that morning at an auberge. Traditionally, Moroccan breakfasts boast massive spreads: plates of olives, oil,  jams, honey, eggs, cakes and various breads. It’s for presentation. No one actually expects you to eat everything. But we cleaned each and every plate. The waiter was flabbergasted and hurried back to the kitchen to prepare big-eater-omelettes. 

During our breakfast feast, we brainstormed how we could realistically return and build our lives in Morocco. The tour had proved something very important to us: both Aud and my feelings towards Morocco extend beyond just our relationships. The communal culture, values, diversity, landscapes, pace of life, freshly roasted peanuts, connection to land, and of course the people, are all characteristics telling us not to leave. They’re loudly calling us back. “Sooner rather than later,” Aud and I agreed.

We took a rest day, partly because our bodies needed it, but also in order to see ferociously-strong-almost-walking-little-lady Malak on time. We explored the gorge by foot, coasted back down the body-burning hill from the the previous afternoon and hopped on a bus that shuttled us around the toughest part of the mountains.

As we sat and sweat, we longed to be moving through the landscapes more intimately: on our bikes Thelma and Louise. We named them that morning, inspired by the 1991 film. They’re our vehicles to adventure, to freedom. Once the bus finally arrived, we quickly hopped on Thelma and Louise and raced into the city, hooting and hollering and laughing so hard we could barely bike properly. Reunited with freedom.

 

 

Day 8  |  bowls  66 miles
Er-Rich to Zaida 

We ate big oatmeal bowls for breakfast, then floated by snow-capped mountains and dropped into Midelt. A geographic bowl enclosing high plains and apple farms, wedged between the High and Middle Atlas Mountain ranges. We had bowl-y dinners too. 7rira, traditional Moroccan tomato and chickpea soup bowls, for first dinner. Yogurt and muesli bowls for second dinner in bed.

 

 

Day 9  |  north  58 miles
Zaida to Azrou

We planned to take a slow morning and a low-mileage day in order to optimize our arrival time in Azrou, Aud’s Moroccan home, hoping to arrive first thing the following day. Hunger pains woke us early though, as they always did, and we spontaneously decided to book it to Azrou right then instead. “I’m going home!” Aud cheered. 

The world turned green as we climbed past patches of snow and massive, scruffy wild dogs that lined the road. Soon, an evergreen oak and cedar forest consumed us. The sun flickered between the trees and barbary monkeys swung from branches as we swerved down steep curves, dropping into Azrou.

The forest opened up, and we could see the town nestled into the valley. “I’M HOOOOOME!” Aud shouted. Around the next bend, a gendarme, similar to police in rural Morocco, waved Audrey to the curb. Two years later, and he’s still struggling to keep track of Aud zipping around on her bike. The day before, when Aud and I walked into the gendarme’s office in Zaida, a place neither Aud or I had ever been, “Jaaaaaack-leeeeen,” a man exclaimed. 

We were back north. Back to the familiar. Back home.

 

 

Day 10  |  faith  28 miles
Azrou to Immouzer

A big day. The day Aud would see Malak walk. We silently biked across Azrou in the morning to Malak’s physical therapy association. “She’s here,” Aud whispered, choking on her words, when she saw Malak’s wheelchair waiting outside. 

Tears erupted when Aud entered. Less than three weeks had passed since she had last seen her host sister Nora and her niece Malak, but Aud’s presence, especially her explosive laugh and her positivity, had become intimately intertwined with the daily life of her Moroccan family. Aud jokes that her Peace Corps house was her storage unit because her true home was with them. She shared all her time (and all her heart) with the Charrou family. The three weeks of distance felt like an eternity with love that strong.

Aud has the closest relationship with her host sister Fatiha, Malak’s mom. They’re a raunchy, bighearted duo. Fatiha never calls Aud by her real name: only “Amer-ee-ka” (America) or “bakra” (cow). Audrey informed Fatiha that she would be at Malak’s physical therapy session, but Aud didn’t expect her to show up. The first goodbye was too painful, Aud explained.

But Fatiha came, a surprise that launched Audrey into the air and sent her crashing to the ground. Fatiha hovered over her, hugging her and crying. All the women practicing physical therapy were worried Aud broke something during her emotional-crash.

Another one of Audrey’s host sisters surprised her during the reunion breakfast. Silent emotion felt loud. No words to say. Aud cuddled with Malak and Fatiha. “Dak 7amaqa” (that crazy), they’d say, referring to Aud and how deeply she feels her feelings: so much that they manifest physically and send her both soaring and collapsing.

It felt simple. True love is simple I suppose. “I have faith,” Aud affirmed later that day when we stopped to gaze down at her valley while biking away. “Faith in my relationships, that we’ll always be family.” Their faith is the strongest faith I’ve ever witnessed on a Thanksgiving Day.  I felt it too.  The universe spins beyond our control, but it always allows us to hug the people who are meant to stay spinning with us.

 

 

Day 11  |  raw  60 miles
Immouzer to Karia Ba Mohammed 

Freezing winds slapped us as we waved bye to the Middle Atlas Mountains and dropped into a valley of grape orchards and olive farms. We stopped for second breakfast at a classic Moroccan bread stand in Fes that I frequented during my Peace Corps service. Oily layered breads, coarse semolina flour breads, soft doughy breads, bubbly pancakey breads. Breads galore. The owner, per usual, joked about marrying me for a green card.

We escaped tourist territory. Confirmed by the gangs of school kids who shouted as if they saw aliens and darted after us. In contrast to the buttery roads in the south, our bread-y bellies bumped over pebbles as we neared north. Series of rolling hills with 20 percent grades left our legs screaming too.

We popped by my Moroccan cousin Ikram’s house for a couscous lunch. I met Ikram two years ago when she was visiting her aunt (my Moroccan mama) back in Ourtzagh. We spontaneously collected snails in the rain and boiled them for dinner. Ikram criticized me and my dish-washing-style that night. I was too shy to ridicule her back at the time, but that’s changed. Bickering reigns now, but Ikram remains a bit bolder than me. We stretched our stuffed bellies by piling into her bed after lunch, and she joked that my lips looked like a vagina.

I hugged her goodbye, hoping to see her later that night at her family’s house nearby. Ikram’s husband falsely promised me they’d meet us there. Aud and I biked just up the road to a rural village of 12 homes, surrounded by fields of wheat and lentils, where Ikram was raised and her sister Hanna lives with her parents. 

Both Hanna and Ikram were taken out of school after second grade in order to help run the household. They used to split duties until Ikram got married last summer, leaving everything to 16-year-old Hanna. Managing a traditional mud home with an open roof, no running water and no ready-made meals (or even basics, like bread) is a full-time job in itself. 

Hanna also cares for her mother between chores. Over the past few years, Hanna’s mom’s ability to walk, talk and eat solid foods has slowly diminished. The family says she has Diabetes (common in Morocco, affecting at least 14 percent of adults), but Aud recognized the illness immediately, reminded of her late grandpa. Parkinson’s. A disease that only gets worse and slowly sucks life away. Hanna’s dwindling energies will inevitably get zapped too. 

Hanna’s only access to a chance of freedom or to experience life outside of the tiny village is marriage, but her mother needs her. And when the Parkinson’s eventually claims her, Hanna’s father will still need a homemaker and a caregiver. So she’ll remain.

Despite the weight of her responsibilities, Hanna welcomed us in with her soft grin and warmness. She’s matured immensely over the past two years, now taller than me. The most gentle giant. She baked us a cake, an elaborate chicken dinner and literally tucked us into bed. Scared we’d be cold, she piled up a mountain of blankets on top of us both. 

Physical and mental exhaustion consumed me as I laid under my blanket heap, my brain spinning about the multifaceted injustices and the rawness of reality. The unfairness of life. It was screaming in that very room. Two blanket heaps burying mid-20-something-year-old-girls zipping across the country on bikes (and feeling as if they could zip to wherever their hearts desire). And one blanket heap burying a 16-year-old who wouldn’t be allowed to hop on a bike even if she knew how to ride. A 16-year-old who can only dream of freedom. Inaccessible, precious freedom.

 

 

Day 12  |  dive  28 miles
Karia to Ourtzagh

Hanna baked us harsha, my favorite pan-fried Moroccan bread made from semolina flour, for breakfast and sent us off with a bag full of cake, dates and oranges. It was homecoming day, and I was shaky. Unsure if I wanted to race to town or inch my way there. Many emotions exploded after I left Ourtzagh, leaving me scrambled and still trying to digest. I wasn’t ready to go back, but I needed too. I wasn’t ready to say my final see-you-sometime-s, but I needed to.

I eased my hesitancy with a second breakfast of two espressos. Then we launched forward. We rode through a swarm of kids walking home from school for lunch. Their herd devoured us, ate us alive. Two little girls dove onto my back bike rack. 

Then I dove back into my life in Ourtzagh. Stinky-hugged my brothers and Moroccan mama and took a seat on my plastic stool at the table where I’d spent the past two years slowly eating and listening to Radia’s life lessons. Today’s lesson: speak the truth even when it’s tough. 

Radia shared many more life lessons that night, lasting until early hours of the morning when I couldn’t understand Darija anymore. We finally fell asleep, holding hands.

 

 

Day 13  |  ordinary  10 miles
Home, Ourtzagh 

A morning stroll. Dried figs at breakfast. Dish duty. Peeling veggies. Dish duty. Little bro speaking in goofy voices. A rainy bike ride to a lake-lookout. Little bro begs Radia to play with live chicken hanging out in the bathroom. Older bro makes fun me. Cookie baking. Dish duty. Tea time meal with host family. Laughing too hard that we get in trouble. “Jm3o raskom” (get yourselves together), Radia advised Aud and I, though she couldn’t help laughing too. 

Ordinary. An ordinary Ourtzagh day.

 

 

Day 14  |  forward  26 miles
Ourtzagh to Taounate

Started the morning with my last Ourtzagh jog. Embracing the mountains, olive tree groves and the fields of freshly-planted beans one final time. I realized I couldn’t juice much more out of my life there. I had learned enough for now, and it was time to move forward.

A quick few minutes of alone time with Radia in the kitchen after breakfast. Two years and no problems, just love, she said. We secretly cried. Then, she brushed and braided my hair. And Aud and I were on our way.

I felt weak when we made it to the final hill for the day. Six switchbacks and nearly 2,000 feet up. My emotions were stuck in my throat. A raspy climb. “Fragile, but strong,” I repeated in my head. A mantra that felt like a lifeline at the time, but Aud and I regularly joke about now.

 

 

Day 15  |  chills  |  1 lone mile
Bus from Taounate to Al Hocima

We bused around sketchy roads through a sleet storm. Freezing rain and snow fell, and we couldn’t feel our feet by the end. “Now what?” we asked ourselves as we walked our bikes through a rainstorm when we arrived to the Mediterranean coast. Oatmeal and eggs, per usual, and more chills. Chills about endings, beginnings and in-betweens.

 

 

Day 16  |  seashells  |  some # of miles
Coastal Ride

We hopped on Thelma and Louise for our last day of riding in Morocco and cruised along the Mediterranean gulf. During the middle of the ride, we climbed down a cliff to a rocky beach and became transfixed on searching for seashells amidst pebbles and trash. I was reminded of Radia, my Moroccan mama who regularly discovers threads or beads or other treasures in dirt and then transforms them into bows or bracelets. She has a knack for seeing beauty where others may overlook it. For creating light out of chaos.

Aud and I both felt like we were treading on a tight-rope: on the verge of being consumed by gratitude or spiraling into fear. Teeter-tottering back and forth between basking in the beauty before us or allowing anxiety to dilute it. 

Throughout our tour, we were overwhelmingly grateful for our adventure and for how vulnerable we’d allowed ourselves to be over the past two years. Mostly grateful to the people who opened themselves up, despite our differences, and allowed themselves to be vulnerable with us too. 

We were simultaneously terrified though. Terrified of the future. Change. The unknown. Of becoming passive, rushed and distracted humans back in the states. Mostly terrified that all those people who opened up to us would slowly retreat, move on, or worse: forget. Or maybe we would too. 

Seashells in hand, we climbed back up the cliff and pedaled off. A rainbow broke through the clouds, and the final hill carried us up too soon. “That’s it,” Aud wailed, “it’s over.” 

We glided down to another beach, and plopped in the sand with Thelma and Louise. The sun was setting and lighting up the chalky cliffs. Life was silent. Thelma and Louise were still. We were tired. Tired, smelly and calm. I realized that the tight-rope between beauty and chaos that we thought we were tip-toeing across was all in our heads. We didn’t have to choose one or the other. Life is a weird blend of emotions and paradoxes. Happy-sad. Grateful-terrified. Tired-excited. Chaotic-beauty. 

All we had to do was continue practicing what the past two years (and people like my Moroccan mama Radia and Aud’s sister Fatiha) have taught us: to acknowledge the chaos, but to seek the good instead. To find seashells. To ride through rain. To find hope in the uncertainty. To connect. To reconnect. To accept fears and flaws. And to continue moving forward. Pedaling, racing and tip-toeing into the unknown. Deliberately seeking good. And things much mightier than that too.

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