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Two Wheels or a Mule Named Buford

There once was a lady by the name of Anne Mustoe, who lived in Southwold, a small town on the coast of England—also the home of the crime writer P.D. James, and you might know it as the location of the British drama Upstairs, Downstairs.

Miss Mustoe was born in 1933. She married a lawyer, worked in business for a while, became a teacher, and finally served as headmistress at a girls’ school called St. Felix, until she retired at the age of 54. Some of her students bought her an imaginative going-away gift: a bicycle.

Miss Mustoe had never been much of a cyclist, and in general she hated outdoor activities like camping and picnics. She hadn’t been on a bicycle in 30 years. But she was inspired. Her husband had died, and her three sons were all grown and married.

So Anne set off from London on the bicycle. It was the 31st of May, 1987.

The following August, Anne was back in London. In fourteen and a half months, she had cycled more than 11,500 miles. 

Through France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece and Turkey. 

Then through Pakistan, India, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. 

Then across the United States from west to east. 

Then across Ireland.

This prim lady in her mid-fifties, who admitted to being overweight when she started, had bicycled all the way around the world.

When she first set out from London, she had no idea even how to fix a flat tire on the bicycle. 

And when she finished the trip, she still had no idea—every time a tire went flat, some kind soul had been on hand to repair it for her.

At times, she had had to call on her experience as a school headmistress. Once, in India, she was beginning to worry about a crowd of young people who had gathered around her. 

She writes, “I glared around with a steely eye, and controlling the pitch of my voice with great effort, said slowly and authoritatively, ‘Will you kindly step back and let me pass through?’ It worked a charm. Whether or not they understood what I said, they recognized the magisterial tone. They quietened instantly and stepped back. ‘Thank you,’ I said coolly, pushing my bicycle forward and pedaling off with a confident air.”

I was thinking about Anne Mustoe recently while helping prepare this issue of Globe Miami Times. Every word you read in these pages has to be written by someone—even the obituaries. Writing those up is part of my job. At the end of each month, I visit the websites of the local mortuaries and gather the information for the column—people’s full names, birth and death dates, and some essential nugget of information about their lives, if available.

Let me tell you, reading through the stories of thirty or forty people’s lives in a single day can make you think.

About how different people’s lives are from each other.

About how a single small decision can change the course of a life.

About the impact people can make on one another.

And about how little we often know about the people we deal with every day.

One fellow who passed away in January had once walked a one-eyed mule named Buford across the state of Oregon. Imagine—maybe I once stood behind this guy in line at the Safeway, and he could have entertained me with stories of Buford the one-eyed mule—but I never knew it. How often do strangers make conversation in the grocery store line? And why don’t we do it more often?

Of course, reading all those obituaries also makes me wonder what mine will say – and what I would want it to.

Travel isn’t for everyone, and no one can judge what makes a life worthwhile. The point is to ask yourself, like the Mary Oliver poem, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

After Anne Mustoe got back to London, she turned right around and did it again – rode around the world, this time from east to west. She took a few other long-distance rides in the ensuing years – including one from London to Heliopolis in Egypt, one across India from Kathmandu to Sri Lanka, and one through South America.

She wrote seven books about her adventures, revealing the historical connections of the places she passed through, and describing the many stops for tea and generosity.

Anne Mustoe died at the age of 76 – still riding the same bicycle. In 22 years of riding, she had put around 100,000 miles on it. She passed away after a short illness, while passing through Aleppo, Syria.

You can still find her obituary on the website of her former school. It reads, “Sadly we can no longer plot her progress around the globe. We can, however, salute her as a great headmistress of Saint Felix School and admire her determination and resolve to break with her old career and launch herself into something entirely new but deeply challenging and immensely rewarding.”

Anne Mustoe’s life story shows it’s never too late. To get on a bicycle, to go back to school, to write that book, to learn to dance, to take up the piano, or painting, or writing poems—whatever might shine a new light on your life.

Or, if you don’t already know what that thing might be, to start exploring until you find it. If you don’t start searching, how will you find out what could bring joy to the rest of your days?

After all, Anne Mustoe barely knew how to ride a bike, when she started. But once she did start, she never wanted to stop.

Sounds like a great way to live—at any age.

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