Chapter 16 - The Turtle Squad
I'd been traveling with Jeff and Wyeth for a week already, and they'd sounded sincere when they said they liked riding with me. That Thursday, I told my family that we were going to ride together "indefinitely."
"I'm having so much fun with them!" I said to my mom.
"Believe me, I'm very happy about that," my mom said. "I like them already." A moment later, I could have sworn that she sighed with relief.
It was hard to believe that a week ago I'd never met Jeff or Wyeth. I was more comfortable around them than with most people at home who I'd known for years. Both guys laughed at just about anything—and it was useful to have Jeff around, since he could make me laugh even when I was miserably pedaling uphill with sore knees. "My motto," Jeff told me, "is to laugh at anything, as long as I also laugh at myself.” Part of Jeff's skill at humor was that he had an uncanny sense of when not to make a joke. He never laughed at me for riding slowly, or for "taking things seriously" like Nate had. If I said something silly, he never made me feel stupid.
Jeff was a master of procrastination—he didn't, he told us more than once, see the point in doing now what he could do later. He also loathed getting up in the morning. Wyeth and I were invariably awake before he was. And at night, when I was ready to crawl into my tent, Jeff would be ready to talk and hang out all night.
Wyeth was like me—he liked to be organized, neat and on time. Partly because of that, he was the duo's designated cook.
Jeff was the dishwasher, because he'd decided that cleaning was the lesser of two evils. Wyeth would neatly place the soap and sponge next to the stacked dirty dishes, and Jeff carefully saved them to wash the next day.
On May 31, I sat in the pavilion in the city park in Houston, Missouri—in Texas County—writing in my journal. It was already dark, but the pavilion was full of action. In one corner was the silhouette of Jeff, amateur juggler. Nearby stood the tall, lanky figure of Wyeth sorting through his panniers; and across from me, our new friend Roel was playing—or rather, practicing—the saxophone that he'd removed from a large black case on the back of his bike.
We had left our camp outside Summersville at ten o’clock that morning, the forest shining bright green around us as we bumped down the driveway to the road.
We’d stopped for groceries in town when a man rode into the parking lot on a loaded touring bicycle. “You must be Sarabeth!” he said to me, with a vague accent. Then to the guys, “And one of you must be Wyeth!”
Roel Mazure's bike was heavily loaded, and his body looked like pure muscle. He told us that he began his trip in NYC and would end in San Francisco. And as soon as introductions were over, and we discovered that Roel’s destination for the evening was also Houston, the four of us rode out of Summersville together on Hwy 106.
Roel was from the Netherlands. He smoked cigarettes, drank beer for lunch, didn't wear his helmet, made broad hand gestures to passing motorists as he swerved into the middle of the road, drank very little water, ate hardly anything, and muscled up the hills faster than everyone—especially me.
He also made disparaging observations about American culture.
“I just cannot believe how many fat people there are here!” he informed us as we pedaled under skies that were, surprisingly enough, gray. “I rode my bike the first few days, and all I could see was fat people. People in your country never walk anywhere!" Roel got so worked up that his bicycle wobbled back and forth. "You three are the most healthy Americans I’ve ever seen.”
Roel had been with us for three days when we adopted a name for our group: “The Turtle Squad.”
"Tens and Tens of Turtles Saved—that's our motto," said Jeff. Rescuing turtles was definitely a worthy cause, since dozens of them used the road as a through highway. We'd gently pick them up and lift them to the side, feeling like we'd done something important.
The night we christened ourselves, we camped at the quiet city park in Marshfield that doubled as a fairgrounds. We decided to forego pitching the tents again, and set up "camp" inside a long, open barn that was lined with narrow tables—passable as beds. The night was calm and peaceful, and after some giggling and talking, we fell soundly asleep.
At around three a.m., I woke up with a start. Was it my imagination, or did I hear the sound of gravel skidding under the wheels of a car?
Almost immediately I heard it again, and saw Roel and Jeff and Wyeth sitting up sleepily on the tables nearby. Then suddenly the blinding glare of headlights flooded the barn and I blinked and covered my eyes. There was a car—a pickup—at one end of our makeshift bedroom, and it had driven right up to the wooden barrier.
"WAKE UP!!!" someone yelled loudly. "Wake up, you assholes!" Then everyone in the car started yelling and cursing at once. There was loud honking, raucous laughter, and they sharply backed up. The pick-up drove quickly around the barn, our tormentors evidently frustrated that they couldn’t get in. When they came back around, there was more shouting and honking, and the headlights spilled into the barn again.
"Wake up, fuckin' bikers!"
*I don’t have any shorts on!* I thought suddenly. I frantically pulled them on, got tangled in my sleeping bag in the process, and practically fell off the table. Then I lay breathless, helplessly listening to the barrage of insults pouring out of the pickup truck. *They were probably kids, probably drunk,* I reasoned. *Should I get up?* I looked around at the others, and decided that since they were staying still, I would too. I grabbed my pepper spray, even though I had no idea how it would be useful.
Meanwhile, the car drove around the barn again. “WAKE UP!" someone shouted again; they needn't have worried: we were up, all right. "Wake up, you fuckin' Butthole Bikers!"
“Try coming in here and saying that!” I heard Roel’s furious statement before he launched into a litany of Dutch. Soon after, with a roar and a skid on the gravel, the car drove away and didn’t come back. I slept in my shorts, just to be sure.
"Such hills today!" I wrote in my journal the next day. "Over and up they go, and when I reach the top, a breathtaking descent follows that makes my eyes water and my soul (or maybe my stomach?) leap with joy. I love the downhills, but then come the ups—and I can’t say I’ll be sad to see them smooth out tomorrow as we head towards Kansas."
That day, Roel taught us some Dutch.
Wyeth was saying how he wanted to name his bike. “We’ve been wanting to do it since Virginia," he added, "but we couldn't think of any good names. We haven’t tried another language, though… Hey Roel—how do you say bicycle in Dutch?”
“Fiets,” answered the red-jerseyed Hollander.
“I could name mine ‘Fiets Friday!’ ” Wyeth said.
“That's your last name—like the day of the week?”
“In Dutch, we say ‘Fridoch.’”
“Cool!" said Wyeth, "I like that even better. Okay: I christen you, my trusty Peugeot, Fiets Fridoch!”
"We wanted to name the bikes after we left Damascus,” Jeff said. “We stayed at a hostel with the Appalachian Trail hikers, and they all had trail names.”
Wyeth laughed. “Remember how they were all kinda hobbling around, with blisters on their feet and stuff? Bandages, too. And remember how we'd ridden only thirty miles that day and they were flabbergasted?"
"Well, my ego rose a few notches!" said Jeff. "And I was pretty glad after that that we were riding, not hiking. But I liked how people got trail names. There was 'Big Bird,' and ‘Toots'—she farted a lot. There were lots of others, too, and they wanted to know what our names were. I was like, ‘uh…Jeff,’ and Wyeth was like, ‘uh…Wyeth.' Not very impressive…"
Almost every church that we’d passed since VA had a billboard outside, sometimes with blinking lights, proclaiming the wonders of God. “Jesus Saves,” was a popular saying. One day in Missouri, though, we passed one that read, “Sign broken—message inside.”
“At least they had a sense of humor,” said Wyeth. “Wouldn’t it make a great little coffee table book if we went around the country photographing these signs? Hey Jeff—remember that one we saw…back in Illinois, I think?”
“Oh, yeah,” Jeff answered as we began coasting downhill, “it said ‘Woe unto the Wicked…’ ” We zoomed away then, the wind carrying our voices away into the cloudy Missouri afternoon.
When we left Golden City, Missouri on a gray June morning, I was glum and gloomy for no particular reason as I pedaled lethargically toward the state of Kansas. I was tired of gray weather and I missed my family. But at the border of my fifth state, my spirits lifted. Maybe it was the bright sunflower on the “Welcome to Kansas” sign on the side of the road. Maybe it was the sunshine that finally poked through the clouds as we arrived at the sign. Maybe it was the smile from the first woman we talked to in the state, who said “Welcome to Kansas, and enjoy your stay!” As Wyeth snapped my photo at the sunflower sign, the enormity of the trip hit me for the millionth time—and Colorado seemed less like a dream than a soon-to-be-adventure.
The four of us camped in Lincoln Park, the largest city park we'd seen yet. It had a mini amusement park, a small train that drove around the perimeter of the playground, a huge picnic area, and an enormous sports complex.
After a round of miniature golf, we sat on our picnic-table beds and talked for a long time, Jeff making fun, as usual, of my lack of pop-culture awareness. He was always talking about music and television shows and movies which I’d never heard of before. Around ten-thirty, Jeff and Wyeth were sitting opposite me, laughing about something. I watched them for awhile.
"You guys are so cool," I said finally. "I hardly ever see guys have a close friendship like you do." Most twenty-something guys I met at home, who had their own jobs and girlfriends, slapped each other on the back and talked about sports teams.
“Friends like Wyeth are pretty rare,” Jeff said. “I’ve never met anyone like him.”
Thursday, June 5, was the easiest 60+ miles I’d ever ridden. For the first time since Illinois the sun shone all day, the terrain was flat, and we had a gentle tailwind most of the day. The miles fairly flew, and it was great not to be the turtle of the Turtle Squad—I could actually keep up all the time and join in the conversation. The exciting event of the day was getting a copy of Bicycling Coast To Coast, by Donna Lynn Ikenberry. I had ordered it last week and had it sent general delivery.
The Turtle Squad held its farewell supper in Chanute, in a small Mexican restaurant at the edge of the town. The décor was questionably tasteful, the food mediocre, but it was the company that counted. I almost started to cry. "Are you sure you have to go ahead?" I asked Roel.
"Yes," he said. Later, after the trip, he told me that one of the best weeks of his journey had been when he traveled with us—and that for the rest of his ride, he had wished he'd stayed with us longer.
That night, I wrote in my journal:
"I can’t believe it’ll be summer soon. The time goes by like crazy. Today was so much fun, and it’s so hard to make it sound right in here. The jokes don’t sound the same when I try to transcribe them, the humor and laughter of our days seems empty on paper, and I dread the thought of forgetting it all. When this trip is over, I want to remember these dear people, the intensity and warmth and humor of our interactions, the loneliness and beauty of the land, the inexplicable sorrows and joys of traveling on a bike."