“An 800-kilometre bike ride across Spain gives you plenty of time to think,” says Martha (Marty) Kendall, an American teacher, writer, cellist, wife and mother who bicycled the Camino de Santiago with her family in 2002 and wrote a book about the experience. The book’s title, Full Cycle, is a double entendre. It’s obviously about cycling, but it’s also about living a life. The captivating thing about Marty’s book, her 20th, is not only its account of a family’s three-week cycling trip across the parched plains and verdant hills of northern Spain, but the author’s skillfully interwoven interior journey.
It’s Marty’s reflections on her own early life, marked by her mother’s sudden death at the age of 50, and on the rearing of her own children, along with her relationship with her husband, Joe, a musician, musicologist and documentary film maker, that makes this book more than a travelogue on two wheels. Marty was 55 when her family made this ride together. Her two children, Jeff (17) and Kate (16) were largely grown up and it seemed to Marty to be the time for taking stock.
This Spanish cycle touring experience turned out to be the first of four, as Marty and Joe returned in 2006 to ride the Vía de la Plata (Silver Way) from Seville to Santiago. Then, in 2010 they took the northern route to Santiago, and in 2013 they cycled the Camino del Cid from Vivar, the birthplace of El Cid Campeador in the province of Burgos to Valencia. “There’s something about Spain that keeps luring us back,” says Marty. “It’s an irresistible combination of factors: the land, the people, old friends, the food, the wine, the birds…”
“Our first Camino ride was something entirely new for us,” says Marty, “as we had never done any cycle touring before. But Joe had lived in Spain for a couple of years when he was a student and he had long dreamed of doing the Camino de Santiago. Our son, Jeff, has always been an avid biker and he was ready to go. Suddenly one day Joe presented me with a new mountain bike and said, “Let’s go for a ride.” He did not say anything about a Spanish cycle touring project. When he finally did mention it both he and Jeff were full of enthusiasm. I was dubious and Katy said, “I think you’re all crazy!”
“OK,” said Joe, undaunted, “you girls can be the support team, driving a van.” It was probably that (cleverly calculated?) comment that ultimately got Marty and Katy on board.
The family got on their bikes in Roncesvalles, in Navarra near the French border, the place where a defeat for Charlemagne in a battle against Muslim warriors and Basque tribes in 778 a.d. bequeathed us La Chanson de Roland, the earliest surviving major work in French literature. Marty finds the first day’s ride daunting at first, then just challenging and deeply satisfying at the end. Besides controlling her own bike and feelings all along the Camino in the coming weeks, as Marty later characterized her “maternal job description,” her job was “to help everybody feel happy, loved, and safe.” Seeing her sinewy 17-year-old handle his bike like a pro under all conditions, Marty recalls his first tricycle and training-wheel days. “Is it possible?”
Despite moments in which “my thighs are mushifying,” Marty cycles on and soon finally finds herself actually enjoying 80-kilometre uphill and downhill days. “There was so much to love on that trip,” she says, “starting with the joy of the whole family undertaking an adventure together. Every village we rode into was more charming than the last, and every evening meal a surprise. In the end cycling all day every day turned out to be inspiring, enlightening and, though sometimes it was exhausting, my pride in my family made it all worthwhile. Also, sleep was heavenly and it was great knowing you could eat anything you wanted because the next day you would be pedaling off the calories.”
According to Marty the appeal of an admittedly tough ride is subtly varied. “I like the simplicity of it,” she says, “and the self sufficiency. You just get up in the morning, pack all your necessities into your bicycle panniers, get on your bike and pedal. Along the route you’re seldom bored and you live every experience intensely. You’re so close to everything: the people, the birds, the flowers, the smells and sounds. It’s nothing like zooming along in an air-conditioned car. There’s no intermediary. It’s you directly in the world.”
Then there are the health benefits. “I’ve never been in such good shape as since we started cycle touring,” says Marty. “The four of us make a great team. Joe plans the itinerary and shoots the video. Jeff maintains the bikes. Katy provides the humor, and I try to handle the mood adjustment. It works great.” She adds, “I think that trip was an important factor in welding the family together once and for all. We’re still in regular contact with our kids, wherever they may be.
Marty Kendall has recently retired from teaching at San Jose City College, but that’s not to say that she has stopped or even slowed down. “I manage to keep busy,” she says laconically. “Busy” includes occasional bike tours around the U.S. and Canada–Houston to St. Augustine in 2011, Jacksonville to Washington, D.C. in 2012, and Albany through Vermont and into Quebec province, also in 2012. She likes the extra time for long walks, friends and writing the odd magazine article. Where are they off to next? “I’m not sure,” says Marty, “but we would never rule out Spain.”
Video courtesy of Santa Cruz radio KUSP