Monday, July 26, 2010
Finales are tough.
I’ve come to the end of this biking odyssey, and the question that dominates my mind is How do I write about it?
Part of the problem is that I’m still sorting out all of my thoughts and feelings about this trip and its conclusion, and I imagine that I will be for some time.
So here goes: As I crested the sandhill yesterday with my bike and caught my first real glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean—
Nope. Can’t start there. I’m not ready yet.
Let me try another way. I’ll back up to Friday, when I left Concord, North Carolina.
Having gone over the map and having talked on the phone with my cousin Tom (whom I was meeting up with the next day), I knew that I had to put in a monster day if I was going to get to the ocean by Sunday—a deadline I had imposed on myself and a day that worked best for Tom. The weather reports for that morning were talking about a heat advisory. Stay inside if possible. Temperatures in the low 100s. A heat index that would make it seem even hotter.
I set out with the idea that I would make minimal stops, stay hydrated, and eat throughout the day. As I passed through downtown Concord, though, I had to check my Google Maps (following a twisty route through a little town can be difficult), and as I was trying to see through the fog on both my glasses and my iPhone screen, a pickup truck pulled to a stop in front of me.
A tall, lanky guy walked toward me. “Where you from?”
“San Diego,” I said.
I learned that this response—“no shit”—was a favorite among North Carolinans. I heard it at least four times that day: from the guys at a garage in Mount Pleasant; from someone at a gas station along Highway 27; and from Chad and Rachel, a couple I met late in the day when I still had about 30 miles to go.
But this time it came from Chris Nielsen, who also was a biker. He had done the TransAmerica Trail some years ago, and we commiserated about the Ozarks for a few minutes. He was getting ready to do some more touring this summer, but an emergency house project cut that short.
“My bike’s in the garage. I got the fenders and panniers on it,” he told me, looking over my bike. Then he looked up at me, and there were tears in his eyes.
“You’ll never forget this ride,” he said.
No. I won’t.
I hopped back on my bike and took off through the North Carolina countryside. A little ways down the road I—
You know, this doesn’t feel quite right either. This is the finale, for God’s sake; it should be about more than the details about the roads and towns.
Let me try again. Let’s say that the real finale begins the next morning—Saturday—in Lillington. That was when my cousin Tom and his wife Ann met me to begin shepherding me through to the end.
The plan was that Tom and I were going to bike the 100 or so miles to their home in Greenville (again, through temperatures in the high-90s/low-100s), spend the night there, and then leave Sunday to bike another 80 miles to Swan Quarter, where a ferry would take us to Ocracoke, a tiny beach community in the Outer Banks and on the Atlantic Ocean.
As I’ve written before, the last time I saw Tom was in 1976. I was nine years old, and one of the things I remember about that visit was a trip to the store. My family and I arrived at my Aunt Angie’s house in Miami in the heatmobile (black vinyl interior and no AC), and soon after we got there, my brother Vince and I went to the food store with our older cousins, Tom and Linda. I looked on in awe as the two of them hopped in their car without putting any shoes on. Vince and I exchanged a quick, wordless glance at this. Not wear shoes to go somewhere? Wasn’t that some kind of rule or something? I like to think that what flashed through my mind was something like, When I get older, I’m going to do things like that. I’m going to break rules.
That’s more or less come true with mixed results. But I think I’ll save most of that for the book…
Each time that someone has ridden with me on this trip has touched and lifted me in its own way, and biking with Tom was no exception. It was, in fact, the perfect way to end this adventure. We fell into an easy rhythm with each other, talking about biking, family, academia (Tom is the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at East Carolina University), politics, and whatnot. We also lapsed into comfortable silences as we pedaled alone with our thoughts. Of course, in my case, I was often conserving my energy so that I could finish the ride. But what a gift to reconnect with a family member—especially one that you didn’t realize you had so much in common with. I remember once—
But wait. I guess I’ve been here before, too. The personal reminiscences, the “deep” reflections.
Maybe the best way to approach the momentous end is through details:
Wringing out a disgusting brown liquid from my sweat-soaked riding gloves at each stop.
A gray egret lifting itself majestically from some weeds at the side of the road.
The red glow of the sun just over the horizon as we pedal out of the dark and into the day.
The diesel fumes and rumbling turbines of the ferry cutting through the Pamlico Sound.
Do these help to put you in the moment?
What’s the right tone to strike? Looking back over all of these posts, I can see how much the tones vary, and how sometimes within a single post I’ll whipsaw from serious and thoughtful to ironic or irreverent. In many ways that’s been the nature of the trip. But this variety—this restless style—has also been a motivating factor for taking the trip in the first place.
Back in Green Hill, when I met a guy named Gabe at a gas station, he asked, “So what in the world possesses a person to do something like this?”
“Oh, lots of things,” I answered lamely.
Dissatisfied with my response to this trenchant question, I tried to categorize the reasons in my journal that night. One that came up was restlessness. My desire to break away from a comfortable, familiar setting. My tendency to wonder what lies over that hill and my need to wander over there and see. My flashes of just wanting to leave where I am.
It’s been a pattern. Though I remember my hometown with affection, I couldn’t wait to leave; though I had lived in the Midwest most of my life, I longed to explore other parts; though my marriage was comfortable and safe and familiar, I couldn’t stay.
I feel like I’m straying a little bit off the path, here…maybe getting a little too restless. Or maybe I’m just trying to avoid the weight of actually writing about the end.
One more try, and that’s it.
So there I was on the ferry. It was a two-and-a-half hour ride, and as we pulled closer to the Outer Banks, I wandered away from Tom and Ann and looked ahead, alone with my thoughts. I tried to articulate in my mind what the moment of arrival would mean to me, and truth was, I couldn’t come up with anything substantive. So I thought about where I’d been.
I thought about the five people who rode with me during parts of this journey—Brian in El Centro, Dave in Prescott, Lance in Missouri and Illinois, Christine in Asheville, and Tom here in North Carolina.
I thought about the people who took me in—Brian & Angie, Melissa & Robert, the Travises, Dave & Pamela, Jake, Deven & Jason, Tom & Stanna, John & Sharlene, Bill, Herman, Jan & Bill, Lawson & Beth, Rachel & Jack, Christine, and Tom & Ann.
I thought about Chuck, who gave me a ride when I needed one; I thought about David & Erin, who invited me to their home for lunch; I thought about Lisa, who was full of questions about touring and information about weaving; I thought about the guy who pulled alongside me on Highway 160 in Arizona to see if I needed a drink; I thought about John and his Harley and the help he gave me in finding a new route; I thought about Sam, who bought me a cold bottle of water in North Carolina; I thought about Greg, who generously helped out with some transportation issues.
I thought about the other bikers I met along the way—Daniel from Chicago, Calvin from Topeka, Michael from Orlando, Alan from New Zealand, Amanda from Ohio, Mike from St. Louis, Dan & Jordan from Massachusetts, Kevin from Philadelphia, and even John from Portland.
I thought about the guy in Missouri who never heard of anyone biking across the country and who bought me a Vitamin Water. I thought about Chris, who gave me $20, and about Chad & Rachel, who offered to put me up for the night.
I thought about all of the Wal-Mart greeters I met and how kind and curious they were. Most of them, anyway.
I thought about the workers of USW Local 7-669 and their families, locked out of their jobs by Honeywell.
I thought about Gabrielle and her big blue Suburban of mercy.
I thought about friends and family in Chicago—Pat, Teresa & Zach; my brother and his family; my parents. I thought about Jerry & Karen, their wedding, the old friends I saw and the new friends I met there. I thought about Jerry’s dad, who liked to pretend to choke me when I was a kid and whom I saw—for the last time, as it turned out—at the wedding; Jerry called me just as I was about to turn onto the Blue Ridge Parkway to tell me that he had died.
I thought about Dennis Hopper and Harvey Pekar.
I thought about the places I’ve seen that in many ways defy description—the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, the Rockies, the Great Plains, the Ozarks, the rivers, the Appalacians.
I thought about the people I love, waiting for me back home—Nick & Tony, Shannon, friends from work, students, coaching buddies.
And I thought about all the people who made this blog a part of their day, even if only once. I thought about all the people—some whom I’ve never met—who took the time and trouble to leave a comment. To all of you I want to say this: you have no idea what your comments meant to me or how much they lifted me on my loneliest and hardest days.
I wondered how all of these memories would play out on the shores of the Atlantic. I was having a hard time keeping a lid on my emotions as we pulled closer to Ocracoke. My throat was tightening and my eyes were tearing up. I envisioned breaking down into a blubbering mess, forcing Tom and Ann into the awkward and uncomfortable role of having to hold me together.
We got off the ferry. Ann was in the car and we decided that she would drive up and scout out a place for us to get to the beach. Tom and I would follow on bike.
We pedaled through the touristy downtown part of Ocracoke on Route 12. The buildings fell away and the road looked more or less open. Despite my stretching on the ferry, my legs had cramped up a little, so I had an excuse to hang back a little.
I wanted to savor the moment.
We rounded a bend and saw Ann up ahead. She had found a road leading down to the beach. Tom and I pulled in behind her, and while he stopped to talk, I kept pedaling.
As I crested the sandhill with my bike, I caught my first real glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. Tom and Ann pulled in behind me. Ann started to drive onto the sand closer to the shore.
This was it. The moment that I had been imagining ever since I first got this insane idea—the triumphant, emotional, spiritual arrival at the end of my journey. I took a deep breath…
And then the car got wedged in the sand about 50 yards from the water. Ann revved the motor, and I saw the front tire sink into the sugary sand. This might take a while, I thought.
Believe it or not, I was grateful. This little hiccup saved me from that flood of emotion that would be impossible to capture in language. Instead, I quickly became distracted with the very physical task of trying to unwedge the car: letting some air out of the front tires, pushing against the blazing hot hood as Ann tried to reverse, smelling the thick metallic scent of burning clutch (yes, it was a manual shift).
A guy in a tow truck rolled up and pulled the car back to safety. Ann and I waited while Tom parked it back by the entrance road, and while we waited I tried to knock some of the sand from my shoes and bike with little success. My legs and arms—sticky from sunscreen and sweat—were caked with so much grit that I looked like a Shake ‘n’ Bake chicken.
Tom rejoined us at the crest of the sandhill. I caught my second glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean…
And mother of God was that wind strong. I tried to negotiate my way through big sand drifts while holding my bike up (it was impossible to roll) while the wind hammered my side. A family of four walked in the front and to the side of us, and two of the kids held skimmer boards (they’re called boogie boards out West) by their leashes while the gusts held them aloft. One of the kids lost his grip, and the board went whizzing by like Oddjob’s hat.
“Careful, honey” his mother said. “You’ll hurt someone.”
Hurt someone? I thought. He’ll kill someone.
They continued to walk upwind of us, and I had one eye on the Atlantic and the other on their deadly boards. We were right in their path. Only an eleven year old’s grip stood between me and a new set of teeth.
And then we were at the ocean. Tom and Ann took pictures while I stood in the water. The kids could not hold those boards to save their lives, so Tom ended up taking one clean blow to the arm and a glancing shot to the head. I wasn’t sure why those kids were right next to us; we were the only people on that beach.
At some point the front tire went into the Atlantic and my trip was done.
Back on the ferry, it was clear that we were all pretty worn out. I watched Ocracoke recede in the distance and I tried to conjure up some appropriate phrase or image that would put a fitting capstone on my adventure.
Just then I heard someone cackling—a caustic laugh that sounded like it came from some cartoon villain. I looked around to see who it was.
A guy next to me pointed to the sky. I looked up and saw a gull riding the wind current above the ferry. His wings were still and he appeared to be hovering in midair. As he floated there, the wind holding him in place, he let forth another mocking howl.
“He’s laughing at us,” the guy said.
He sure was.