“You could be sad at how many stories go untold, but you could also be delighted at how many stories we catch and share in delight and wonder and astonishment.”
The esteemed Brian Doyle (1957-2017)
A small beach in Bar Harbor, Maine, a spot of momentary quiet together, and time for just us to soak it all in amidst the bustle of tourists and cruise ships.Just behind us on the beach having their own celebration are new friends Mackenzie and Carson, a couple from Seattle and Vermont that we met in Washington State in July and then reconnected with in New Hampshire. We are also in the company of Rory and Jim, two cyclocross racing friends from Seattle and Chicago that we met just a few days prior but who have also completed the Northern Tier ACA route. We have just commemorated our thousands-mile journey with these four by cracking open beers- sharing smiles and hugs and merriment on that small beach surrounded by the cries of gulls and a setting sun over the Atlantic.
That evening, as we celebrate, we tell story upon story. Taking turns asking each other questions, we stand in a circle and ask each other, What was your best day? Your worst? What was the most delicious meal you had? The least appetizing? The most generous hospitality? The hardest climb? Your most embarrassing moment? We are all eager to commiserate with each other about the good and the bad.
Now, two months later, Jeff and I continue to tell these stories to friends and family as we slowly adjust to the “normal life” of jobs and schedules and sleeping indoors. Day by day, we recount our ascent of Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier NP, climbing Kancamagus Pass in White Mountain NF in the height of fall, and how we got picked up by unassuming strangers during South Dakota thunder storms…twice. These stories have become our lore, details to share again and again in hopes that maybe we’ll continue to remember them. With each question, “How was your trip?” becomes an invitation to immortalize, a chance to tell more stories. Our memories are a chance to highlight the most perfect gems in a treasure chest of jewels.
Two travelers, many copilots
Though it was the two of us and our bikes traveling through foreign lands, we had many copilots along with us for the journey, people that colored our trip and made it worth doing. Of course there was the week in Washington, Idaho, and Montana traveling with Mike, Kate, Carson, Mackenzie, Gary, and Martin and exploring some of the most magnificent public lands in the West. Then a week later we met up with our friend Rees from Ashland and eventually reconnected with Mike for another week! We needed their company to make it through the never-ending heat of Montana and North Dakota. Daniel and Dave saved us from a violent thunder storm in South Dakota in August, as did Gregg and Marilyn just a few days later, bright lights on a lonely stretch in the Midwest. We didn’t see another bicycle for about 10 days during this time. Visiting with Annie and Sean (my dear bicycle-riding roommates from Portland) in St. Louis was a breath of fresh air, as we got to ride bikes with them in the city and then for a couple days as we advanced into Illinois. In Ohio, we met Mark Looney on the Ohio to Erie Trail and shared stories of cross-country adventures.
But a story I haven’t told yet occurred in September, when we rode through sauna-like conditions in eastern Illinois. We popped into a Caseys General Store in West Salem, IL desperate for ice water and a bathroom only to find out that the area was under a boil-order. Disappointed, we pored over our maps to figure out how where we could find the next spot of civilization in which to refresh our water supply. It didn’t look good. Much to our surprise, a local inquired into our situation. We told him we were about to have lunch in the park and try to find water, but before we could explain much more, he was inviting us to his air conditioned house for lunch and promised all the ice water we could carry. Shannon and his wife Debbie loaded down the table with a spread of food, sending us on our way afterwards with vegetables, candy, and granola bars. Shannon even escorted us to a shortcut that would take us more efficiently to our day’s end destination, Mt. Carmel. Though we had received buckets of generosity and hospitality from strangers on Warm Showers, cattle ranchers, and fellow cyclists, this topped the list. A brief encounter, letting us go on our way in short order, but a lunch that filled us with much more than turkey sandwiches, Doritos, soup, and hot dogs. And if you were wondering, Debbie’s mints lasted us well after the trip was over, a reminder of their warm generosity many months later.
Team JK: stronger than ever
One of the most important choices one can make when considering a trip like this is their travel companion. Those who have traveled extensively know that the person you spend a bulk of time with under stressful and ever-changing circumstances can make and break your trip. Not to mention the fact that you will get to know them more than you ever imagine- or, maybe more than you want! Of course, the fact that my travel companion happened to be my significant other played greatly into our dynamic, but we still had to make a choice to travel together, and one of us could have said no at any point in the planning process. Yes, we lived together before the trip and spent countless hours talking about routes and gear and what we would do when Jeff biked ahead of me on a daily basis or when I, inevitably, had a low-blood-sugar incident. Choices and plans aside, there was no way of knowing what we would encounter together over the many months on the road. Of course, we knew that we would balance each other out, based on our experiences traveling together in the past. Jeff is a skilled bike mechanic and I am a map nerd, so we both had something to offer our team on a daily basis. I tend to make decisions more emotionally, while he is more rational. I am a writer and documentarian, whereas he shies away from social media and purposely turned his phone off at times throughout the trip. We both cooked and cleaned and contacted possible hosts and set up our tent each night, though of course we gravitated towards certain tasks after a while. And we both supported each other through challenges as they emerged.
One particularly hot day traveling through the Kansas City suburbs in Missouri (it actually happened to be the day we reached our 3,000 mile mark!), I chose not to drink as much water as I needed. We would stop periodically for water, but it just wasn’t enough given the heat and terrain. As the morning progressed along with the truck traffic and its insinuating stress, my head got foggier and foggier. I felt slightly dizzy and panicky from all the box trucks passing me with only 6 inches to spare. We stopped at a gas station near Tracy, MO and I rested my flushed face and drained body in the shade. After about an hour (and a distressed call to Adventure Cycling Association in Missoula about the efficacy of the route), we got back on the road. But the traffic and the rollers continued, and there was a point just an hour or so later when I couldn’t take it any longer. A campground was just ahead, and Jeff made the call to cough up a couple Benjamins and get us a site. He set up our tent, laid out my sleeping bag and pillow, and stroked my brow until I fell asleep. I woke up a couple hours later, drained but significantly better. Thanks to him, I avoided what would have undoubtedly been severe dehydration due to stubbornness.
Over a month later, I would have my time to play nurse. We entered Vermont on October 1st by triumphantly crossing sunny Lake Champlain after dizzyingly descending the Adirondacks. Looking ahead at the shore, we were filled with a thrill of accomplishment. Vermont was our third-to-last state, and our entryway into New England! After lunch on the shore, we were slammed by Vermont’s famous hills. Up and down, up and down, we struggled for a couple hours at least before we reached our night’s destination of Middlebury, exhausted. The next day, we would climb our first of the East’s killer hills that we’d been anticipating since descending the Rockies back in July: Middlebury Gap. And indeed, it was a doozy. A consistent grade of over 10%, we heard that Middlebury was the steepest of Vermont’s many gaps, certainly not graded for trains or the faint of heart. However, as with any great physical feat, there is a reward at the end. Sure enough, descending the backside of Middlebury Gap into the White River Valley was one of the greatest feelings of relief and astonishing beauty of the trip. We arrived that night in Bethel, VT into the home of a generous friend of a friend, who had offered us their apartment while they were out of town. We ordered a pizza, bought beer from the grocery store, and relaxed. However, by bedtime, Jeff was complaining about a slight pain in his lower back, discomfort that only got worse throughout the night. By morning, he was hobbling stiffly, and by the time we had finished breakfast, he could hardly walk. Terrifying, right!? We had a mere 300 miles left, and only now was one of us suffering from great pain. As with any challenge, however, patience would win the game. Two full days of rest, heating pads, ice packs, and two more pizzas/tubs of ice cream later, Jeff was back on the bike. With no pain. It was astonishing! How could he have gone from incapacitated to biking up Vermont hills in just two days? We still don’t know the answer, but I credit it to my excellent massages.
Who am I, if not a cyclist?
Just two short months ago, we identified ourselves as cyclists. We had donned our helmets and our cycling gloves day after day for months and had everything we own strapped onto two bicycles. Now we are ordinary people walking around in sneakers and jeans. It is a strange transition of identity, returning to normal life. It is astounding that sometimes I forget this accomplishment. I guess it is a big deal, isn’t it, pedaling across the country? In my mind, we bicycled a normal amount of miles (average of 60) per day, just repeated 114 times, and somehow we got there. But by encouraging us to telling stories, others remind us that we crossed the Cascades, the Rockies, and the Great Plains, rode alongside the Missouri River, traversed a thousand miles of rail trails, skirted the Great Lakes, crossed international borders four times, summited the Appalachian Mountains, and finally smelled salt water in Maine. We did it. I did it.
At times of great struggle, when I needed food or water or when my legs hurt, I would turn to Jeff in frustration. “I don’t think I can do this!” I would wail. “I’m just a fake cyclist!” Some days I felt like a fraud putting on my jersey and cycling shoes, sore muscles and tired spirit defying reason. As if every day I had to be perfect and strong. As if others who documented their cycling trips on Instagram had never puffed up a hill or even walked up a hill that was too steep to ride. “What do you mean by ‘fake cyclist?’” Jeff would ask, puzzled. “You ride your bike. That makes you a cyclist.” By the end, I think I had embraced this identity, reminding myself that I didn’t have to be perfect to accomplish something great.
So with each of these scraps of memory, we are allowed to enter that space again, to define ourselves as cyclists, to remember that we did, in fact, bicycle across the country on our own power. There is a sadness here, a realization that a huge chapter of my life has come to an end, and here we are, rolling forward into the next phase. Thank you, readers and friends, for reminding us that our stories can live on- that these things actually did happen.