Whoever coined the phrase “as easy as riding a bike” never started out on two wheels on the Pacific coast and ended up at the Atlantic less than a month later…
My bike was a custom titanium Seven—very light, very shiny, with tires as thin and hard as Hula-Hoops. I named it Luna, Spanish for moon. Only later would it occur to me it is also the root word for lunatic.
I am not a camping-type person—I like warm showers and a real mattress. Nor am I a bike mechanic. My preferred tool for fixing flat tires is my cell phone. So we (I convinced a friend to join me) rented a motor home and hired Bob, bike mechanic and vegetarian chef, to drive. This freed us up to make good mileage (weight slows you down) and provided us with predictable sleeping quarters. After fixing dinner every night, Bob stayed at the best motel in town (which in rural America is sometimes the only motel in town) while we bunked in the motor home.
We started in California in September. Damp and cold, due to the marine layer blanketing San Diego. But by mid-afternoon it was in the 100s. At least the desert was flat—you could see your dog run away for three days. First leg was 112 miles. All the salt we ingested via tablets ended up sweated out into our clothes. And I learned you can never slather on too much Bag Balm (used by dairy farmers; the name says it all) as a preventative for saddle sores.
And so we rode, with infrequent stops to replenish our sunscreen. Through the Imperial Valley to the Arizona border. A moment of celebration: “Hey, a whole state is behind us!” Some minor mechanical problems, but Bob was only a cell-phone call away. We tried to be on the road every morning around sunrise, which meant between 6:00 and 6:30 AM. During the day we ate PowerBars, PBJ sandwiches, and bananas, and drank lots of energy drinks. Dinner was usually tofu with veggies and rice or pasta.
Our route took us north. I stood on the “corner” in Winslow, Arizona, before more riding through land that took a long time to change. My first flat tire of the trip (I would have five more) happened when I collided with a sheep on the Navajo reservation. The sheep was unhurt, but I scraped my knee and thigh. It was my fault—I was listening to a recorded book on my MP3 player and didn’t realize until too late the white rock on the roadside was moving.
Feeling adventurous, I detoured north on my own for a quick look at the Grand Canyon. My map showed a thin line that appeared to be a shortcut to the South Rim. After riding an extra 90 minutes, I gave up. The biggest hole in the entire earth, and I couldn’t find it. Later I discovered the “shortcut” was a stray pen mark!
Next stop was Four Corners, where we munched on fry bread and snow cones (we didn’t always eat like athletes), then on to Colorado, where the real mountains were. Stopped at an all-you-can-eat buffet—at $6.99, the restaurant lost money on us, even as vegetarians. One week down and almost a thousand miles under our tires. A map posted in the motor home was marked with our planned stops. Every night I drew a line showing our progress.
We started to climb, and I felt the effects of thinner air: shortness of breath, slight headache, extra thirsty. Lunch was at 8,000 feet. The greenery was a welcome change from unrelenting brown. Day Ten we crossed the Continental Divide. It’s hard enough on bicycles—I can’t imagine making the trip in a covered wagon. Rain threatened and it was time to break out the jackets and warmer clothes. We got a ticket from a deputy sheriff for riding side by side. (I tried to get him to change it to speeding.) Fatigue set in that would dog me for the rest of the trip. From then on, no part of my body ever felt fully rested. Even my eyelashes felt tired.
Day Eleven—the longest leg (150 miles)—took us from Colorado into Kansas. The trip was made even longer by a strong crosswind; I had to really grip the handlebars to avoid being pushed across the road, which made my shoulders ache. A lot of standing on the pedals to rest my bottom. (I was starting to walk bowlegged.) The road finally turned and the crosswind became a tailwind. My companion took off for a sprint. As soon as he was out of sight, I flatted my rear tire. Worse, I was in a dead area for cell service.
Slipping covers over my cleats, I shouldered my bike and hiked almost two miles to a gas station-diner-bar-feed store. I walked into the bar section, where four farmers were enjoying an afternoon beer. They were in denim; I was wearing neon yellow and green, with reflective sunglasses that looked like aphid eyes and a bike helmet decorated with orange flames (it had seemed a good fashion choice at the time).
“May I use your phone?” I asked the bartender/cook/gas station attendant. “You have telephones on your planet?” cracked one of the farmers. They gave me a lift back to Bob, not understanding why I was biking across the country when I had a perfectly good motor home available. “You can have a cold beer whenever you want while you’re driving,” said one of them wistfully. (Another reason to pull far to the right whenever a Winnebago appeared in my rear-view helmet mirror.)
We finished out the week in Kansas and hit Missouri on Day Fifteen. The states were getting smaller; progress seems faster when you can say “I rode across a whole state today!” Folks pronounce their state’s name “Mizzer-ah.” At the end of the day I thought it should be “Misery.” A beautiful place, but wet. Downright downpour, actually. It shorted out my speedometer, and the slick roads were treacherous. After navigating two tricky hairpin turns, I was feeling rather successful. What is it that comes after pride? Oh yeah. The next corner did me in—a skid became a slide, the slide became a lay-down. Acres of road rash and a smashed digital camera. Ouch! A heretofore fan of Southern cuisine, chef/driver Bob (who usually ate dinner in town wherever we stopped) announced he was swearing off chicken-fried anything. I bet him in another two days he’d be eating veggie burgers with us.
The next morning was sunny, and the rolling hills that had been tortuous yesterday were now beautiful. Monarchs fluttered across the road like pieces of stained glass and historical markers sprouted everywhere. (I wanted to read them all but realized I wouldn’t make 20 miles for the day if I did.) For the record, we never encountered any nasty drivers. Several honked and there was a stray raised finger or two, but no attempts to run us off the road. There was, however, the occasional dog-induced sprint, and a few semis nearly vacuumed me under their wheels.
Eighteen days, and we were crossing the Mississippi. The flat boat was my second “lift” of the trip (after the Kansas farmers). We could have ridden over a very narrow bridge, but the water route seemed more fun. I wanted to pedal around the deck (to “ride” across the river) but the captain wouldn’t let me.
Illinois. Kentucky. Tennessee. The states were whipping by now. Our route (more or less) was Route 66. Whenever I saw one of the famous road signs I would hum (badly) a few bars of King (make that Queen!) of the Road. We were tired, I think mostly from not eating enough. I never thought this would be a problem. One night I fell asleep in between bites of spaghetti. I put my head on the table and was gone. Three weeks into the ride, and I was ready for it to be over. I began daydreaming about sleeping late, wearing something other than Lycra shorts, riding on four wheels instead of two.
Georgia. South Carolina. Whitewater rivers, cool forests. Lots of kudzu. My odometer was still acting up after its soaking, so I had to figure out the miles on my laptop. The hills were steep but not long. Calves burning, I climbed them listening to S.J. Rozan’s latest book, comforted by the thought that going up meant downhill on the other side. I passed a sign for the city of Homer, “Home of the Largest Easter Egg Hunt.” Are they looking for the largest Easter egg? my fatigued mind wondered.
Bob had managed to make it thus far without getting on a bike. He took a spin in a Wal-Mart parking lot (many of our overnighters were at Wal-Marts; great prices on Gatorade, by the way) and promptly crashed into a light pole, breaking his arm. A delayed start that day while we visited the local emergency room. The nurse was flummoxed. “You-all are the bike riders and it’s your driver with the broken arm?” My companion took the wheel, with a pain-pilled but protesting Bob at his side (“C’mon, that only means you can’t drive tractors and stuff like that”), while I pedaled.
Day Twenty-four. The last day—less than 100 miles to go. Small towns, country roads, friendly people. Watermelon and boiled peanuts for lunch. Finally, the beach at Charleston. I kicked off my shoes and ran into the surf carrying my bike. We had made it!
Two-hundred-plus hours in the saddle. (And some extreme tan lines.) Over 3100 miles on the road. That evening, I enjoyed my first bite of sweet potato pie. “I’d ride across the country for a second helping,” I told the waitress. Almost.
This essay first appeared in Mystery Scene Magazine, Issue No. 83 (2004).