Some people don’t smile for the camera. Normally that’s me. But on this occasion, being tired, sunbaked, and exhilarated, I smiled. At least I thought I did. Thin rippling waves of the Pacific Ocean were running through the spokes of my bicycle wheels and soaking into my old running shoes. I just wore these shoes 35 days in row, as I rode my bike across the United States, through the heart of America. The trip from Virginia Beach, VA, to Newport, OR, covered 3,461 miles.
You might think I would have let out a yell, or ran splashing into the water. But to be honest, I didn’t know what I should do on finishing my adventure. So I didn’t do anything, except just stand there and soak in the scenery. It’s like watching the Olympics and the sports reporter asks the gold medalist what it feels like to win the gold medal. What are you supposed to do or say? You have only focused on achieving your goal. And when you are done, what’s next? You haven’t really planned for that. So I was glad when my friends who greeted me and were taking the pictures didn’t ask how I felt. They knew.
Getting on my bike and starting the ride––and completing it––is easy to recount in hindsight in this travelogue. It was the ultimate road trip. Trying to explain why I made the journey and what I hoped to accomplish by it will take some doing. Maybe it will be clear by the end of this story.
A good place to start is the beginning. I grew up in a small valley called Big Willow in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina. This might be much earlier of a beginning than you expected, but bear with me. Willow Creek runs out of the valley into a bend in the French Broad River, about a dozen miles downstream from the town of Brevard and about 25 miles upstream of Asheville.
Big Willow was a bucolic place, ideally beautiful and peaceful. Growing up there I often imagined that it was not unlike how the Hobbits lived in the Shire of the “Lord of the Rings” fame, minus the wizards, elves, and other magical beings. We were happy and didn’t have want of anything, at least that is what I remember. Land rich, but dirt poor, so the saying goes. The ridges ringing the valley are now full of retirement homes, and two golf courses have been carved out of the woods where I used to roam with our family pet collie, Scotty. What was once a snug farming community is now … quite different. A few pieces of the rough mountain country are still left. But the land that was once our farm is now a housing development.
At any rate, we weren’t sheltered from the world. We were regularly going places outside the valley. Yet I spent much of my idle time daydreaming about taking trips to far-flung places. I studied maps and read books and magazines. I leafed through the “Encyclopedia Britannica,” staring at the pictures and imagining myself everywhere else. Many times my index finger traced the French Broad River, following its course to pick up the Pigeon River and the Nolichucky, then joining the Holston River near Knoxville, TN, to form the Tennessee River. Then on down the Tennessee Valley to the Ohio River, then to the Mississippi—the French Broad-Tennessee-Ohio-Mississippi is one of the longest and largest river systems on the planet. I wanted to see the world.
To make a long story short, I have now seen a lot of the world, but I have never completely satisfied that early yearning. On top of that, I wanted to do something special for my 50th birthday. And on top of that, my wife Jackie and I had just become empty nesters, after spending 20 years raising our two sons––music lessons, homework, science fairs, sports practices and games, and volunteering as school PTA officers, sports officials, coaches, referees, administrators of sports leagues, and more. We loved it. But now there was more to consider. It was a good time to get out and go.
I also wanted to challenge myself to an endurance event. Like many kids growing up, I had dreams of being a sports star. Football, basketball, baseball. I wanted to be Larry Czonka or Nick Buoniconti, Lew Alcindor, or Reggie Jackson or Rod Carew. I vaguely remember watching the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. The track events captivated me. In 1972, for the Munich games, I was fascinated by Steve Prefontaine, his heartbreak at being fourth in the 5,000. But Lasse Viren, who won the 5,000 and 10,000 races in 1972 and 1976, to be a champion like him … And there was Bruce Jenner, winning the Olympic decathlon in Montreal in 1976. I wanted to be like him. But alas I did not have their talent, physically or mentally, to take it to that level.
Once I decided to do this cross-country bike ride, I considered doing it to raise money for a charity or as an effort to bring awareness to some cause. In the end, I just did it for me. I wanted to reconnect with my rural roots. Trained as a chemist and by profession a science journalist for 20 years, I wanted to go out and see what it is people are doing every day across the country while I am sitting at my desk on the 6th floor of an office building on the corner of 16th & M St. NW, in Washington, DC.
With those thoughts rattling in my head, on Saturday, April 27, 2013, at about 9:00 AM, I dipped my bicycle wheels into the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach, VA, and my trip officially began.
Doubt is the scariest of human emotions. We are least prepared to deal with it. Not knowing what to expect makes it hard to think rationally about what you are doing. But being human we are good at convincing ourselves that anything is possible. We overcome doubt. While everyone succeeds at overcoming doubt, some do it better than others, and these are not always the most successful or gifted people. I was born a dreamer, as I mentioned before. Dreamers are often naive about things, and that often is what makes them successful.
I came across a quote attributed to the late football coach George Allen, of the Washington Redskins, which expresses this idea: “People of mediocre ability sometimes achieve outstanding success because they don’t know when to quit.”
I like to think that I have always made up for my average abilities and my shortcomings by going the extra mile. Sometimes it takes a little more than that, a little moxie. Not just knowing when to quit, but never quitting.
During the first mile of my trip, as I was getting comfortable on the saddle and my legs were getting into the rhythm of pedaling, I was letting doubt kick me around: I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, “My god, what am I doing here?” I went numb trying to fathom riding a bicycle across the country. Talking Heads lyrics popped into my head: “I can’t seem to face up to the facts, I’m tense and nervous and I can’t relax, I can’t sleep cause my bed’s on fire, don’t touch me I’m a real live wire, psycho killer … run run away.”
Okay, maybe you’re thinking “Psycho Killer” isn’t the right song here. I really wasn’t running away from something, I was running to something. Maybe “Once In A Lifetime” is better: “And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself, well, How did I get here? Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down … and you may ask yourself, What is that beautiful house? And you may ask yourself, Where does that highway go to? And you may ask yourself, Am I right? Am I wrong? And you may say to yourself, My god, What have I done?”
Now that song has an existential mood to it, which is what I was feeling.