December 13, 2010

It has been over three months since I reached Yorktown. “Normal life” has re-prioritized my time, and distance has dampened the urgency to write. But, being a ponderer, I have been comfortable letting the mash of this summer’s experiences go through some thought distillation. Past TransAm riders have said their journeys changed their lives. What had mine done for me?

The fact that I have had a hard time answering that question suggests there has been no grand life-altering effect. Getting married changed my life. Becoming a parent changed my life. Day-to-day, my life now is still very similar to life before the TransAm.

What this journey has done is deepen some personal wells. Not the ones used every day, but those emotional and physical wells in reserve on the back acre. “Going to the well” conjures up raising something from down deep. I now have new reference points from which to contrast future situations. Is this as bad as feeling homeless in Hindman? Is this as much of a struggle as climbing the Kentucky Appalachians? As importantly, I have annealed one of life’s anchors—perseverance. The TransAm is often simply viewed as a physical challenge, but it was my mind that got my body across the country. Other riders told of companions, younger than me, who gave up and went home.

I cannot truly say I came to fully understand the persona of America, or even the West, the Great Plains or Appalachia. I traveled too quickly to get immersed in the lives of locals. I had snapshot encounters with people across the country; not frequent enough to stitch into a panoramic view of American life, but detailed enough to appreciate the richness wrought by a micro view. Being a traveler, and sometimes importantly a bicycle traveler, gave me an entree, or an approachability that led to these encounters. Talking to the opportunistic cook in Baker City, the vagabond National Park Service employee in Eminence and the mischievous Mangus House owners in Vesuvius sometimes gave me a sense of life in that region, but always offered perspective on how lives can play out.

In writing this blog I wanted to absorb, then relate as much of this experience as seemed informative and evocative. That desire prompted me to not just skim over the land, but eagerly wade through it, primed to discover what was present above, below and around me. This heightened awareness was energizing and rewarding and instructive. I looked more and found more. Some days I just knew the itinerary would create an interesting day to write about. On others, even after hours had gone by, nothing had materialized. Yet more often than not, the days were memorable ones, birthing a good story and headline.

The blog was not only to be descriptive but also reflective. I usually process thoughts and experiences in my head, but here I was broadcasting and analyzing them out in public, often hearing my introvertedness bark out a pull-back signal like a Montana prairie dog. But again, contrary to how you might typically categorize bicycle travel, this was an emotional trip (with a lower case e). Leaving out that dimension would have been akin to turning off one channel of a stereo. I wanted a high fidelity recording.

Certainly I did this trip for myself, but it was also a trip for and with others. I wanted the kids I work for in my youth development programs to believe they could make their own grand plans some day. One I know already has. I wanted my own kids to have a bicycle touring experience. I had three weeks of travel with a good friend. And there were all of you readers. I had you in mind each day as I wrote, feeling as subscribers to this blog you were due a reporter’s best effort.

Multiple times during the trip people asked me why I was doing it. I often responded with some variation of “to get to the other side.” At those times that seemed like a simplistic answer. Now I realize I had to reach the other side of many things, not all physical. Looking back at where I came from, it was all worth the effort.


Bestowed on the beach

December 13, 2010

August 26

By the eighty-seventh day you are programmed to do what you’ve done for the past eighty-six. But what you’re not prepared for is the reality of no Day Eighty-eight. While going through all the morning rituals, I footnoted many with “That’s the last time I’ll do this…” I was on an emotional ledge—eager to lay claim to a TransAmerica crossing, yet reluctant to face the screeching halt to my simple, yet adventurous life.

The morning’s comfortable temperature and slight breeze made it feel like a good day on which to end the journey. Just out of the campground Ellen and I again picked up the Virginia Capital bike trail. We rode eastward on flat, smooth pavement, encountering cyclists out for some morning exercise. Our first stop was to be at Jamestown Settlement, a re-creation of the first English foothold in America. The real site, a few miles away, has become an exciting archeological dig for the past fifteen years since remnants of the actual fort have been unearthed. One of the morning cyclists hailed us to say that the connection from this trail to the Colonial Parkway that would lead us to Yorktown was broken. I decided to deal with that problem later, with the advice of the Jamestown staff.

Today’s Jamestown Settlement is hardly the tenuous colony of the original. A vast parking lot, colonnade of flags and an enormous museum/visitor center stood between us and the re-created structures and ships. Inside the visitor center we viewed a video chronicaling the formative years of the English/Powhatan tribe relationship. The presentation strove to offer a balanced portrayal of the conflicts within and between both groups as each sought to sustain their culture while responding to the impositions of the other. Remarkably similar culture clashes would, of course, repeatedly fester and ignite across the country over the next two centuries.

The largest of these 1607 ships held only 71 people. One hundred forty-four people made the initial voyage.

Ellen and I then headed out toward the “living history” taking place inside the Jamestown Fort and on the trio of amazingly small ships replicated to match those making that seminal voyage. Pantalooned sailors described what amounted to the passengers’ imprisoned journey across the Atlantic. Fort guardsmen demonstrated musket firing. Seventeenth century Jamestown was offered to us in real time, yet it made less of an impression on me than more austere sites like Malvern Hill. For there, I had to create the scene in my mind, and I did that like an actor, trying to imagine myself in the situation at hand. That was more memorably powerful than when history was fleshed out before me as it was here at Jamestown.

Before leaving, I asked about the road closure at the information desk. Happily, the bicyclist had not been updated about the completion of the construction project. We would have no need to backtrack or detour.

Walking up to our bikes outside the building, I noticed a piece of paper taped to Ellen’s saddle. At first I thought it was some advertisement, but it was a note from that morning bicyclist, apologizing for what we all now knew was outdated information about the road closure. When we spoke two hours before, he had been traveling in the opposite direction. It was apparent that he had gone out of his way to come back and find us. Ellen and I could only smile in appreciation of his gesture.

A tributary meandering down to the James

Under a basking sun we rode out onto the Colonial Parkway toward Williamsburg and Yorktown. It was a tourist’s road, wide and truck-free, connecting the sites where colonial settlement began and British rule ended. The roadbed had an earthen tone and a semi-rough surface, due to large, smooth gravel embedded in the concrete. We found that some of this distinctiveness came at a price—riding this textured road created a vibration that made our hands tingle.

On our right we had the broad views of the James River that I had hoped for yesterday. Pristine-looking streams coddled by wetlands passed underneath us on their way to the James. Turning away from the river to head into Willamsburg, our dreams of a slide down to the sea were dashed by some unexpected hills. The inland heat and the heights made Ellen ready for a break, so we stopped in town for a drink.

Ellen--of a different scale and a different era--outside Williamsburg's Governor's Palace

Juxtaposing the endpoints of two and a quarter centuries of life against each other is bound to expose some amusing incongruities. While on the street near Willamsburg’s historic district, I watched a sword-bearing colonial bedecked in a frilled shirt and tri-corner hat time warp up to a tourists’ lunch spot accompanied by a t-shirted friend with a messenger bag. In retrospect, there was probably little difference between the incongruity within that scene and the numerous ones where I entered rural America grocery stores and gas stations clad in my lycra biking shorts. Leaving town, we got to bike through some of the peripheral streets of Colonial Willamsburg. Amidst only pedestrians and horse-drawn carts, it felt a bit intrusive to be so twenty-first century.

We now had only 13 miles to go. The terrian was still hilly, but now forested and shady, which made the effort more tolerable. A few miles out of Willamsburg a man was standing on the side of the road pointing his camera at us. The car, the photographer’s stance…somewhere, my memory told me, I had seen this before. Drawing closer, I recognized the photographer as Wayde. He looked just as he had taking pictures of me approaching the Virginia border two weeks ago. He was making good on his promise to be present at our trip’s end. He panned the camera and shouted encouragement as we passed by. At the next turnout, and almost every one thereafter, Wayde was waiting for us with poised camera and supportive words, “Your lookin’ great!”–words that brought out our grins. Wayde, I came to realize, was the guy you wanted to have on your team during the last mile of the marathon.

Earlier in the trip Ellen had asked me when I would feel like I had accomplished my goal. “When I smelled the sea,” I had told her. At mile 4678, nearing Yorktown, the singe of salt registered in my brain. The smell of success.

Headed toward the wheel dip

TransAmerica, complete

In late afternoon we finally reached the beach at Yorktown. Wayde once more took our picture as we pushed our bikes toward the water for the ceremonial front wheel dip. Next, he took pictures with my camera and cell phone. Then, he turned around. Facing the small crowd of beach goers, he raised his hands and in an announcer’s voice said, “Ladies and gentleman! This man has just ridden his bike 4200 miles across the country, from Oregon to Yorktown! And his daughter has ridden 400 miles across Virginia!” The crowd applauded. A man whom I had only known a total of fifteen minutes had created the most unexpected, satisfying and memorable end to an already incredible journey.

Tom, Ellen and Wayde at the celebratory dinner