Have You Always Wanted to Bike Across the Country?
Below are excerpts from Brooke Marshall’s memoir, Lucky: A Story about a Gal and her Bike:
Adults do this thing where we superimpose our current desires onto our past selves. “I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid” — as if the only justification for living a dream is waiting a lifetime to do it.
Well, how’s this for a confession: I hated biking when I was a kid. We lived on a winding dirt road at the top of a hill, so for me “biking” meant a few terrifying minutes of riding the brakes and trying not to fly over my handlebars, and then pushing my heavy-ass thrift-store Huffy two miles uphill.
Years later in college, I bought a $25 mountain bike to commute to my summer internship. I named him Bikey. His frame was eight inches too short, it took me 40 minutes to go two miles, and I got hit by a car, but god damn did I fall hard in love. Biking made me feel powerful, graceful, like I was moving at the exact right speed to appreciate the world around me.
A bike is fine for a broke college kid, but an adult needs a car. And sure enough, by the time I was 25, I owned a Honda Civic. I also had a nice apartment, a stable job, and a long-term boyfriend. All of the things that are supposed to make you happy.
I felt like I was in a cage.
So, I dumped the boyfriend, quit the job, sold the car, and went to grad school to study cultural anthropology. My family loved this decision.
“How do you think you’re going to get around without a car?”
“You can’t just ride your bike everywhere.”
“Have you really thought about this?”
Honestly, probably not. But I knew I couldn’t afford the car and go to school, and I knew I couldn’t work that office job anymore. Even if I had thought it through, I doubt I would have predicted what happened:
It’s been nine years since I’ve owned a car. I’ve been sunburned and sweat-soaked and caught in torrential downpours and frozen numb. I’ve ridden on an empty stomach, on no sleep, after giving blood, and after a few too many beers. I’ve hit loose gravel and slick pavement and sand. My chain has fallen off and my brakes have given out. I’ve flown over the handlebars, skidded on pavement, and toppled over sideways. I’ve patched flats and replaced frayed brake cables and trued my wheels. I’ve ridden a beach cruiser in Japan and a mountain bike in Africa and a fat-tire Surly in Antarctica.
And I’ve biked from Raleigh to Seattle.
Every day is the same on a bike tour: You move forward. The scenery around you blends like watercolors until you realize you’re in New England, which is a quite different thing than Pennsylvania, or the noble, tangled Virginia before it. And you’ll be surprised down the road to find yourself in the Midwest, in the desert, in the mountains, and, if you are tenacious and lucky enough, you will look around and blink and find that you have arrived at your destination.
Of course, you can’t think about that, not in the beginning, not even in the middle. You aim for the horizon, no further. You’ll never get there, of course, and that’s exactly the point.
Ballet of the Burbs
First come the runners, with their earbuds and bright shoes, diligently getting their workout in before the workday begins. Gradually, they must weave and juke to avoid the waves of pajama-clad dog-walkers, usually staring at their phones while their dogs strain at their leashes.
Their numbers thin, and they change costumes. Now, they play the role of professionals: collared shirts and laptop bags, coffee balanced on the car roof, some of them already barking into their cellphones. And finally, the stressed-out parents appear, shoving their protesting children into SUVs.
Biking life, I learned, meant there was usually a windshield between me and the people I met. But for these magic few hours, at least, I got a glimpse of the humans behind all the glass and steel.
If You Follow Your Dreams, They Will Lead You Where You Want
The bike trail is a featureless brown ribbon running through the tangle of gaunt springtime trees; an eraser dragged through a pencil sketch on a paper bag. At this time of year, the land looks at once old and young, like the wrinkled head of a baby bird.
The eraser smudge turns into a clean strip of concrete extending toward the vanishing point. A graphite scribble of forest surrounds the marsh, matted grass the color of a weathered old telephone pole. The sun calls its warmth across a vast distance. A few reeds stick out of the water like pins in a silk dress.
The path crosses a still silver river that hugs the brown curves of earth and reflects the sky like a mirror. And then it ducks back into the woods, between great mossy rocks and beneath thorny branches adorned with white apple blossoms.
When I’m cold, I put on a jacket; when I’m hungry, I eat; when I have to pee, an outhouse materializes and I use it. My needs met, I get back on my bike and continue to ride, smiling at the picturesque world around me.
A dream doesn’t come true when it concludes. It comes true in moments like these, when it takes you without fanfare to the places you never knew about, but that you recognize immediately as where you’ve always wanted to go.
The Price of Freedom is Riding in the Rain
I spent a soggy couple of days in upstate New York pushing through a constant, cold drizzle. All my clothes were damp. My rain shell was saturated; it clung uselessly to my puffy jacket, but I didn’t dare take it off. There was a big muddy stripe running right down the center of my butt from all the road water my back wheel was throwing up. I couldn’t get warm. The world was slick asphalt and young leaves trembling beneath gloomy, steel-colored clouds.
I’d scrape out a hard 10 or 15 miles and then pay for a place to sit and try to warm up. I drank hot water out of a Styrofoam cup in a shitty pizza joint and looked out the window, my shoulders slumped.
I managed another 12 miles that day. When I spied a muddy four-wheeler trail blocked by a fallen tree, it looked like home. I stashed my bike out of sight of the road and pitched my tent under some skinny trees. As soon as I got into my little shelter, I felt a fierce wave of self-sufficiency. In this bleak, lonely, rainy world, I had found a dry place to sleep.
Welcome to South Dakota
When I crossed the invisible line into South Dakota, my heart leapt into my throat, because now the only state I had remaining to visit was Hawaii. To my left, four mule deer bounded like UFOs over the fringe of the long, silken grass.
There is muted magic in this land, in the way the shadows puddle between the hills and the way the grass ripples in the wind.
The ever-present, 10 mph headwind that pushed back against me like it was trying to keep me away.
The weather gods had forsaken me at last, and that wind and I would become intimately acquainted over the next few days. But for now, it was a new state and a new state of mind.
I took three long breaks that day. The first one was under a railroad bridge, just before Highway 6 hits U.S. 12. A flock of swallows — iridescent arrowheads with forked tails — boomeranged back and forth, their indignant cheeping bouncing off the walls. I crouched on the ground and sat still, seeing if they’d eventually forget I was there. No dice. Barn swallows are a discerning lot.
“Thank you for letting me rest in your house,” I said softly.
The second one was in a massive, meatlocker-cold truck stop firmly planted at the top of a mountain. A fortification of what we call civilization, swarming with sunburned sightseers, a cacophony of conversation and canned music and morgue-white light and lunatic advertisements shrieking up from every surface.
I took my break and drank a shake that I bought from a machine with a flashing screen. Me and the sightseers were all the same: a flock of swallows seeking shade.
I coasted to the bottom of the hill and took my third break next to the glacial lakes outside Waubay. Mirror-flat and mirror-still, stretching nearly to the horizon, perfect portraits of the sky framed by stones and bare trees and the gentlest nascent undulation of far-off hills. Not a swallow or a sightseer in the whole sacred place.
It was so gorgeous I laughed out loud.