People always want to know what it was like to ride my bicycle across the United States. And I always wonder how I can encompass such an incredible experience in the few sentences they are patient enough to hear.
It isn't enough to tell them that your legs get tired. Or that you get thirsty. It isn't even enough to describe the deflation of turning a steep corner on your way up a winding mountainside road in the Appalachians only to see yet another turn in the road leading to another steep incline. Or the elation of seeing a water tower in the distance across the massive stretch of the Great Plains. Or the extreme exhaustion that takes over during the last miles of a 120-mile day when riding across the desert.
Perhaps people can picture me in these moments: sweat-covered, dog-tired, despairing, or celebrating. But these "snapshots" don't really tell what it is like.
The trip took seven weeks, for which the 12 of us, traveling as a pack, carried everything we needed. Jars of peanut butter were stuffed into the panniers next to dirty T-shirts. Pots and pans, tents, and sleeping bags were strapped to the back racks of the bicycles with bungee cords.
In the desert, we shipped our cold-weather clothes home to make room in our bags for gallons and gallons of water.
We rode from Virginia to California, traveling an average of 85 miles every day, crossing four mountain ranges, the Great Plains, and the Mojave Desert. We slept in tents wherever we could get permission to set them up: in schoolyards, churchyards, and children's parks, and on baseball diamonds and the lawn of a county jail.
Perhaps the best way to describe what it was like to cross the US by bicycle is to relate an experience we had while traveling along the edges of the Mojave Desert in western Arizona.
Visualize a day in August, hot and made hotter by a ferocious wind. Twelve bicyclists emerge over the crest of a low hill, slowly, in a tight line. Beside the lonely road, scraggly bushes give way to a vast expanse of golden sand, which is whipped into giant clouds by a vicious swirl of wind far from the road. Our lips are gritty with dust, and the wind is constant and head-on.
It has been like this all day. After 80 miles, we continue to struggle onward, each pedal stroke an effort of stamina and will. We are in a draft line, each person close behind the next to cut the wind.
I am behind someone with a bag of bread strapped onto her bike. Sunbeam, I think to myself, Sunbeam, Sunbeam, Sunbeam. The head wind must be 50 miles an hour, and frustration rises inside me as "Sunbeam" repeats in my mind.
My legs are aching with fatigue, and I falter, losing the draft for a second, allowing a space of a few feet to open up between me and the bread.
My frustration rises as I try to move ahead, and the wind beats me back. Frowning, I make a desperate effort to surge forward, but fall farther back, exhaustion creeping over me.
Someone sprints by me to fill in the gap I've created. "How're you doing?" he asks as he goes by, his pedals pumping in their lowest gear.
"Bad!" I reply, unable to control my feelings as I struggle to keep up with him. This boy has a box of cereal from breakfast strapped onto his bike. Rice Krispies, my mind repeats like a mantra. Rice Krispies. I smile. It's pretty funny, after all, to be riding through a windstorm in a desert behind a box of Rice Krispies.
As soon as I have smiled, I understand the mistake I had made. My earlier frustration made it impossible for me to keep up, which frustrated me even more. It was a vicious cycle. But now, as I chuckle to myself, it isn't all that difficult to keep pace with the cereal ahead of me.
I continue to smile with my gritty lips, allowing blowing sand to collect on my teeth, and I continue to keep my gap in the line closed.
My good attitude turns out to be a cycle, too – a benevolent one. Once I have one amusing thought, everything about the situation seems funny: that our leader's calf muscles seem to have grown as big as pumpkins. That I have somehow been nicknamed Bubba. That our bags are filled with gallon jugs of water that is now warm and no one wants to drink. That we are doing this at all.
Now I am the one to fill someone else's gap and call "How're you doing?" as I sprint by.
That is what it is like. It is about reconciling your inner self with your external circumstances. It is about your attitude. It is like thinking about the cereal ahead of you when you could be dwelling on the wind.