A Young Woman Adventurer

(Originally published in "Adventures and Challenges: Real Life Stories by Girls and Young Women," edited by Frances A. Karnes and Suzanne M. Bean)

By Sarabeth Matilsky

I was in the Seattle Airport anticipating my red-eye flight home to the East Coast with very little joy. I was returning to NJ from a camp for homeschooled teenagers, and it had been an incredible week. What a bummer to end all that with a trip on something as sterile as an airplane.

Suddenly I said to myself, There’s got to be a better way to do this. And then the next moment, all the inspiration that had surrounded me for the last week bubbled up in the form of a plan: I would ride my bike to camp next year. I rather surprised myself for a minute, but that was that. No matter that I’d barely ridden more than 15 miles at a time on a bike; no matter that I knew next to nothing about bike mechanics and even less about bicycle touring; I just knew in a flash that I was going to ride my bike across the country next summer.

In the months that followed, preparations took almost every ounce of my energy. I spent my time working to make money, poring over huge books about touring and mechanics, apprenticing at my local bike store to expand my (very) rudimentary knowledge of bicycles, buying gear, contacting homeschooling families and intentional communities with whom I wished to stay along the way—and beginning to feel pangs of self-doubt as the enormity of my plans began to hit me and people made negative comments and observations about my trip, especially because I planned to do it alone. In all fairness, lots of folks’ responses to my plans were positive, but there were quite a few people who seemed to feel it was their duty to warn me of all the dangers Out There. At the beginning of March I wrote in my journal:

-->In the last few weeks, especially, I’ve felt like there is a rope tied around me, pulling me inexorably toward the crevasse that lies between myself now and Something Else (adulthood??). Lately that rope has been tugging so hard at times, making me scramble over and around all sorts of physical and mental obstacles. I have to go.

So I went. On March 24, 1997 I boarded a Greyhound bus with my bicycle and we headed towards Yorktown, VA to begin our cross-country journey. I planned to use the Trans America bike route, a network of public roads that was put together in 1976 by the Adventure Cycling Association and had been used by thousands of cyclists over the last twenty years. It is over 4,200 miles long and passes through ten states: Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon.
From my journal on Monday March 31, ‘97:

-->My campsite last night was a sand pit with no drainage. It rained buckets and buckets, and though my tent didn’t leak, I didn’t sleep much. I could feel the rain sloshing under my nylon floor and I worried that the tarp might have blown off my bike which was leaning against a nearby picnic table. As soon as the sun rose, I left, pedaling my trusty gray Panasonic out into the hazy Virginia morning. But as the sun continued to rise, the wind began to blow, hard and fast and right in my face. In fact, every time I changed direction it seemed as though the wind always turned too, trying to push me backwards, back to the coast, back home to N.J., back to the time before I’d ever decided to go on this stupid bike trip in the first place. But I kept cranking, up the hills, down the hills, through the deserted and brown not-yet-springtime of the rural south. Then, in Scotchtown, I stopped in a little grocery store (which was the whole town, as far as I could tell) to use the facilities. The woman behind the counter directed me through the stockroom at the back of the store, and when I found the bathroom, I looked down and saw that I’d gotten my period. I groaned, went out to my right rear bike bag to get my tampons, and it was back onto my saddle again--for four more hours. Dogs chased me, thunder boomed menacingly not too far away, and I pedaled for what seemed like eternity. But I had to get to my campsite, that much was clear in my mind, and I pushed the pedals around and around and around and around...

March 31st was the eighth day of my cross-country bike trip, and it was the first day (of many) when I wondered to myself, “Why on earth did I want to do this?!” Sweaty and exhausted, both physically and mentally, I arrived at my destination that chilly, windy March afternoon after having to walk the last 2 miles because of a gravel road.

And then I began to understand why people down through the ages have pushed themselves to physical and emotional extremes while in search of challenge and adventure. As I stood there with my bicycle, at the end of my day’s ride, a warm glow began to come from my heart and spread throughout my body. I could feel it from the top of my head to the tips of my toes, a feeling of intense satisfaction and incredulity that I had made it.

Of course, every new day of my trip brought its own challenges--and I came to see that it would never be easy; that riding was instead gradations of challenge. But each night brought an ever-growing craving for more of the physical difficulty that inevitably brought that warm glow and the knowledge that I was strong and my body was beautiful, not because of how it looked but because of what it could do for me.
Although I was technically riding alone, I always found that just as I reached a point in my trip where I thought I simply could not go on, I met someone (or several people) who helped me to get over the hump. In Carbondale, Illinois I met Jeff Amaral and Wyeth Friday, also riding towards Oregon. We talked for two hours on a rainy May evening, and decided to ride together the next day. Wyeth and Jeff were patient with my slower pace and I was happy to be traveling with them. We rode together till the end of June. The steep climbs in the Ozarks and the heat of Kansas and eastern Colorado were made much more pleasant with Jeff’s jokes and Wyeth’s steady pedaling in the front of our little group.

Two things made me stand apart from many of the cyclists that I met in my five-month journey: first of all, I was young (17), and second of all, I was female and traveling by myself. I realized shortly after my trip began that very few women go cycle touring alone. I didn’t meet a single female cyclist till Kansas, and I met only two women on the entire trip who were riding alone. I interacted with men, primarily—men in stores, men at gas stations, or other male cyclists, and although I was usually treated with respect, there were times when I wasn’t. I felt fear sometimes, too, and I mostly felt alone in my fear.

Calling home was great, but sometimes I craved contact with other women whose first question wasn’t “Aren’t you scared?” I wanted someone to say “I’m doing that too…and you're right…t is hard sometimes to be alone and get one’s period while riding or get whistled at by obnoxious men or feel the need to prove oneself in order to be treated with respect....But you know what? You can do it!”

I met Wally in Montana, just as I was leaving the campground in the morning. A blue bike was leaning up against the restrooms, with a sticker on the top-tube that read “Wild Woman.” Wally was petite, blond, 30ish woman, and did not appear at first glance to be especially wild. But then she told me where she was going: in three summers—this being her second—she planned to ride from the top of Alaska down to the bottom of Chile. Although our conversation lasted only an hour, and her exuberance and courage were reassuring; they helped center me and gave me renewed confidence in myself. When we rode off in opposite directions, Wally gave me an owl’s feather she had found.

After I met Wally, I continued my journey to Oregon. I pedaled up many more mountains in those last few weeks, met many more wonderful, caring people, and on August 15th, 1997 I reached the sand dunes of the coast of Oregon. When I scrambled up the dunes and caught sight of the ocean I was laughing and crying at the same time. I started to run down, and ran and ran to meet the sea, not really believing anything until I felt its shocking coldness on my body.

My last journal entry was three words:

-->I did it!

I did it. Now that I’m home for a while, I keep that owl feather up in my room to remind me of the perseverance, exuberance, courage and strength I found within myself that summer. It reminds me of everything that is possible, both for me in my life and for all women, as we ride our “bicycles” over all sorts of mountains. I know at times we’ll get saddle sores along the way, but I believe that we’ll keep riding anyway. We can’t help it. We have the constant allure of the open road ahead of us, and no one--no, not anything--can stop us now.