When I left the coast of Virginia on my bicycle in March 1997, I was in fairly rotten shape. I'd barely trained, and pedaling up slight inclines left me breathless. But subconsciously, I’d planned it that way. On some level, I knew that if I understood the real difficulties I'd face on my journey, I wouldn't end up going.
Before I decided to ride my bike across the country, my main interests were nice girly things like dancing, playing piano, reading, and acting in plays. I certainly never liked sports. I lived at home with my parents and my four younger siblings. My father was a professor at Rutgers University, and my mother stayed home since all five of us were homeschooled. We lived with our cats on a shady side street in a small town in central New Jersey.
Then in August 1996, I went to a camp in Oregon for homeschooled teenagers. I met people my age who were leading youth activist groups, traveling through Europe, publishing magazines, and playing in orchestras. Not Back To School Camp was a catalyst. That week I decided that I wanted to do something Big, too.
On August 31 I was in the Seattle airport, along with ten of my new friends, preparing for my red-eye trip home from camp. I was not looking forward to the flight. “There's got to be a better way to travel!” I said to my friend Ben. “My neck's already stiff, these chairs are uncomfortable, and I hate the feeling when the plane lifts off. In fact, I don’t like traveling by plane. It’s stupid.”
The next moment, as the clock on the wall clicked to 10:01 p.m., I said, “I’m going to ride my bicycle to camp next year.”
“Really?” Ben asked. Then, “Hey—I wanna go too!”
Really? Had I just said I wanted to ride my bike across the country? “Yes,” I said firmly, “I’m going to get to camp by bicycle next summer.”
*By bicycle? Are you nuts?* I asked myself. *You’ve barely ridden more than 15 miles at a time, you know next to nothing about bike mechanics and even less about bicycle touring. And anyway, you don't like bicycling very much.*
“Wouldn’t that be cool?” I continued to Ben, almost as if someone else were talking for me. “And wouldn't it be so neat if a bunch of us got together and rode as a group? We could take a few months and…”
I continued to chatter but I was far away, wondering at the decision I had just made. Later, on the bike trip itself, I learned a lot about strength—what it is, what it takes, how it feels to have it—and as I sat on the scratchy chairs in the Seattle Airport I was beginning to feel glimmers of what was to come.
Later that fall, a family friend told me about the Adventure Cycling Association’s TransAmerica Bike Trail.
“It started in ’76,” Ray said. “A bunch of cyclists made a route from Virginia to Oregon on public roads, and they called it ‘Bikecentennial.’ You might wanna look into it.”
Ray’s eyes were wistful. “The route goes through some beautiful places out west… If you get the maps, can I look at them? I’ve always wanted to do something like this.” I was to see that wistful look on countless men’s (and some women’s) faces in the next ten months.
After some research, I decided to take the TransAm Trail. I would have detailed maps, my parents would know my route, and I’d be meeting other cyclists. Two to three hundred people ride the Trail each year, my maps told me, and I anticipated joining a rolling community.
I took a Grayhound bus to Williamsburg, Virginia on March 24, 1997. When I rode from Williamsburg to Yorktown and back on March 26, for a total of 43.82 miles, there were no other touring cyclists riding down the shady highway. And even though the Trail's official beginning was at the Yorktown Victory Monument, viewing the white pillar somehow didn't fill me with anticipatory ecstasy.
Later on during the trip I would come to appreciate the ACA maps for their detail and information listings, but on that cold March afternoon when my trip officially began, all I noticed were staring eyes of strangers appraising me and my bike. At the visitor center, a man came over to ask where I was headed. I sheepishly explained that I planned to ride my bike to Oregon—and yes, I was alone. To his credit, the man was polite, and wandered off without saying, “You’re out of your mind!"
Before I'd left home, incredulous friends and acquaintances kept saying, "I could never do that! I'd be scared!"
*Did they think I wouldn't be?* I wondered, as I pedaled back toward Williamsburg.