(published in “New Moon” magazine in March 2002)
by Sarabeth Matilsky
I’ll admit it: I used to be a couch potato. Up until 1996, when I was sixteen, my main interests were dance, piano, reading, and acting in plays. I was definitely not an exercise fanatic. Then, that summer of ‘96, I decided I wanted to go on an adventure. The following March, I set off alone from the coast of Virginia to ride 4,500+ miles to Oregon on my bike. Even a couch potato can change her ways!
When I came home six months later, I immediately began planning a trip to Europe for the next summer. But my younger sister April, who was almost 12, was annoyed. “You haven’t spent any time with me lately! Can’t we do something together before you go away again?” We decided to take a bike trip next spring, from western New York to April’s summer camp in Fairlee, Vermont.
The first half of May was rainy and cloudy, and it was still raining the night before we were supposed to leave.
“Well, what do you think?” I asked April. “Do you still wanna go tomorrow?”
“We're all ready,” she said, “and if we don’t leave tomorrow, all we’ll do is sit around! Let’s go.”
“Are you sure? We’ll probably get totally wet, and you can’t back out after we’ve ridden twenty miles.”
April’s face was serious and she didn’t answer right away. Then she said, “I can do it.” The next morning, we rode into a solidly gray, foggy drizzle.
It rained for our first two days of riding, but once the rain stopped, we started having a lot more fun. In Seneca Falls, NY, we learned that it was the 150th anniversary of the American Women's Movement. The clerk in the bookstore told us that in 1848, the first convention on women’s rights, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was held at the Wesleyan Chapel--right down the block, where April and I had just eaten our lunch.
That night, as we were riding home to our campground outside of Seneca Falls, I had an idea. “Hey April!” I yelled over my shoulder. “I thought of a name for our bike trip: the ‘Tour for Elizabeth’! If Elizabeth Cady Stanton and all the others were alive today, I bet they’d be glad that we’re taking this trip.”
In Seneca Falls, we bought a book of quotes by famous women and a rummy card game called “Great Women.” Each morning we’d pick an inspiring quote before we started riding, and while we ate dinner at the edge of mountain lakes in the Adirondacks, we played Great Women. Every night, as April beat me at rummy, we'd thank the long-dead Elizabeth Cady Stanton and all the others who fought for women's rights. “It's really 'cause of them that we can even wear our bike shorts,” April said. “Back in 1848, they had to fight just to be able to wear bloomers in public!”
The Tour for Elizabeth wound up to Lake Ontario, through Adirondack Park in the Adirondack Mountains, down to Lake Champlain and Lake George, over on a ferry to Vermont, and into the Green Mountains for our last few days on the road. As we rode through rural New England, we met wonderful people. In the middle of a hot day heading uphill, a car full of vacationers cheered us on; on Memorial Day we camped with cyclists from England, and shared stories until dark; in Middlebury, Vermont a family at the local food co-op took us in for the night, and we cooked Indian food and played cards till nearly midnight; at the campground near Lake George, the homeschooling family who owned the place took us swimming and April played soccer with the boys. I kept thinking about how far women have come in the past 150 years. "Two young women couldn't have taken this trip back in 1848," April and I would often remind each other.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s dream of equality for all women hasn’t come true quite yet, but a lot has changed in the last 150 years. My sister and I were celebrating those changes with each pedal stroke we took toward Vermont.