In the middle of Wyoming, on a day that was similar to many other days I'd had so far, I got a letter from my friend Emily. The envelope was on the bottom of my pile of letters, and I didn't notice the quote written in the corner until I was about to stuff all the mail into my handlebar bag. And then I saw it:
“...I do it for the
Joy it brings
‘Cause I’m a
I stared at the words, peculiarly transfixed for a moment. *That’s it!* I thought. *That’s why I do it! How did Emily know?*
I hastily scribbled the quote on a scrap of paper and put it into my map case, in plain sight. For the rest of the day, the quote rolled off my lips at random, practically unbidden intervals. When the wind got rough, I whispered to the Wyoming sky, “...I do it for the joy it brings!” As I watched the mountains' solid presence, the prairie dogs’ skittering, the sunshine on the sage brush, I said, “I’m a joyful girl...”
I wish I had the courage to say it to everyone! I thought. I could say it to all the people who look at me like I’m a space alien on a bicycle. “I do it for the joy it brings,” I'd say, “’cause I’m a joyful girl.”
Admiration, I decided later, is different from inspiration. You can admire someone greatly without changing your life because of her. Inspiration, I thought, was when someone or something makes you stop and look around yourself, re-evaluate and change.
For me, as I pedaled through windy, wide-open Wyoming during the seventeenth summer of my life, Ani DiFranco's quote provided inspiration. For the rest of the trip the words stayed with me, my mantra during difficulty, my talisman against despair. I would remind myself: I do it for the joy it brings. "Don't forget," I'd remind myself just a tiny bit ironically, as I pedaled up a steep grade, "you're doing this 'cause it brings you Joy!"
Those thirteen words, lyrics of a song I'd never heard, made me smile more for the rest of my journey.
The afternoon I read Em's letter, I climbed a steep hill up to Beaver Ridge. I reached the top, breathless, and as I started to coast down, I rolled past one of those lovely signs with a picture of a truck on an incline. It said, “6% Grade Next 6 Miles: Use Lower Gear.”
A 6% grade is perfect. My bike rolled fast enough so no pedaling was required, yet slow enough so that I never had to use the brakes on turns. And as the road rolled out in front of me, faster and faster, my quote sang out into the Wyoming skies.
“...I do it for the joy it brings cause I’m a joyful girl...” I laughed as I zoomed downhill past enormous red cliffs and tiny wildflowers, everything blurring in my vision until I was hardly aware of my body or space or time. My speedometer hit forty and I plummeted down into the valley. My bike was an extension of my consciousness, obeying me before I realized what I wanted to do. Then with the suddenness with which downhills always end, an enormous uphill loomed ahead. On the pavement in front of me, some cyclist had written “Resume Pedaling.”
Once in the afternoon, I stopped my bike and listened. It was totally, completely quiet and still—at that moment there were no birds, no cars, no crickets, no buzzing power lines, and the wind had died momentarily. I never heard so much silence. I stood alone with my bike, and thought-pictures flooded my mind. I saw my grandparents and my grandparents’ grandparents, stretching in a mass of humanity back to Russia, to farther back than anyone knew about today, to the beginning of everything. For a moment I was surrounded, in that Wyoming-quiet landscape, by all the people who made it possible for me to be who I was right then; to be riding my bike across the country. I thanked my ancestors. *Better enjoy living while you can,* I thought. *Who knows when you'll be gone.*
Then a bird sang and broke the spell. I shook myself as I found myself back with my bike in the silence, and I moved on.
Lander, Wyoming, was recently named the "fifth-nicest small town in America" by some person or publication that the sign didn't name. It was the first permanent settlement in Wind River Country, and Lander stood proudly in the middle of miles and miles of wilderness.
The Howdyshell family lived six miles out of town, in a small house bursting with kids. Two girls came out when I pulled up, one with bright red curls and the other with short blond hair. “Hey!” I greeted them. “I’m Sarabeth.”
“Mom’s been waitin' for you,” the blond one said shyly. “Come in."
"You must be Sarabeth! Make yourself at home," said Cindy Howdyshell, energetically bounding down the steps when I walked in. “My goodness, you got here quickly. We expected you’d get here by four at the earliest. Did the girls introduce themselves? This is Moriah,” she pointed to the blond-haired girl, “and she’s seven. Onnah here, the redhead, is four. Then there’s Bronwyn, she’s somewhere around, and she’s nine. Joe—hey Joe, come say hi!—is the oldest, he’s thirteen. The baby's Gwynnaedd, she’s two. And Keiry—her whole name is Keirwyth—is out riding. Keiry just loves horses.”
“Yeah!” Another girl walked in, freckled and smiling—the missing Bronwyn. “She likes 'em more than anything.”
“I guess that’s almost true,” laughed Cindy. “Okay, so that’s Bronwyn, and now you got everyone’s names. We won’t quiz you till tomorrow! So—do you need anything? Are you hungry?"
Moriah accompanied me to unpack my bike. She examined it carefully with her bright eyes. "What's in those bags. Is that gray one your tent? And are those the only clothes you have?”
“Yup, that’s the tent,” I said. “And yeah, these are the only clothes I’ve got. I do have a skirt though—I'll put it on after I shower. I get pretty sick of bike clothes!”
“I would too!" agreed Moriah. "Those—” she pointed to my cycling tights “—are the funniest pants I have ever seen."
I spent the afternoon singing with Moriah and Bronwyn at the piano, and reading from the Howdyshell’s well-stocked bookcase. Cindy said I could take a layover day with them, which caused the kids to squeal their approval.
"I'm glad you're staying," said Onnah, sidling up to me after dinner. She was adorable, with those flaming red curls. At the moment, Onnah was intrigued with her Disney-theme drinking cups. “Here’s the Snow White one,” she told me, holding out a cup. “And these—” here she paused proudly and dramatically “—these are the Seven *Dorves!"*
In the evening, when Keiry came home from riding, she and Cindy showed me the animals. Keiry had red hair like Onnah, but it was long and straight and tied back in a tight ponytail. When she smiled—which was often, especially when she talked about her horse—her whole face lit up.
"What's that stream?" I asked, as Cindy unlocked the paddock door. A small trench ran through the yard, looking out of place in the harsh, dry soil.
“That’s where we get our water for the garden and things,” explained Keiry. “It come down from Lander, and everyone can take some along the way.”
“It saves the expense of laying pipes and stuff,” said Cindy.
Besides the horses, the Howdyshells had chickens, various house pets and a couple of borrowed goats. The goats, Keiry and Cindy explained, were experiments. “Goats eat just about everything,” said Cindy, “so we figured that if we let them loose in the pasture, they'd keep it trimmed—the horses don’t eat enough to keep it short, and it's ridiculous to mow it. So, we borrowed Poppy and Napoleon a few days ago to help eat it. But then yesterday, they ate two young tree saplings that we’ve been nurturing along—and trees are a very valued commodity out here, in case you haven’t noticed! So that's it for Poppy and Napoleon.” Cindy looked at them with a mixture of amusement and annoyance. "Now they're locked in this pen and they're going back to the neighbors first thing tomorrow. I guess now we've learned that goats won't save us from being lazy and not mowing the lawn."
Next morning, I found myself sitting in the back of the Howdyshell's GMC Suburban, very much the city-girl-in-the-country. Moriah and Onnah sat next to me—and behind me was pandemonium. Poppy and Napoleon were being taken home, and they did not want to get into the back of the truck. Cindy and Keiry were matter-of-factly hoisting the animals in, feet first, which the goats did not appreciate at all, and so were bleating indignantly. Napoleon was larger than Poppy, and he kicked the hardest.
"Finally!" said Keiry as she inserted Napoleon's foot into the car. "They're in!" She and Cindy slammed the door, whereupon the goats resigned themselves to their fate and immediately began looking for something to eat. Moriah snatched a plastic bag from Poppy's mouth, but the goat kept looking. A second later, she saw my hair, dangling behind the seat.
“Hey!” I yelped, pulling it back just as Poppy was about to take a taste. “That’s mine!”
“Hey Sara, I’ll switch seats with you,” Bronwyn offered, “I’m used to sitting back there.”
I laughed, but I switched seats. I liked the goats a lot better when I wasn't sitting too close.
Keiry and I took a bike ride to Lander in the afternoon. On our way home, we spied a touring cyclist in the city park. "Wanna go say hi?" I asked Keiry.
"Sure!" she answered. We pedaled up to a picnic table that had a bike leaning on one end and a man sitting on the other. The man had a long, snow-white beard.
“Hello!” I said. “You look like a fellow touring cyclist! I'm touring too, cross-country, but I'm staying with Keiry today. This is Keiry, by the way. My name’s Sarabeth."
"Nice to meet you," said the man. Then he cocked his head. “Wait a minute: you said you are riding across the country? Why am I supposed to believe that? You don’t look like you are.”
“Well, uh–“ I was slightly taken aback. “I guess you don’t have to.”
“I was just kidding,” said the man, his face crinkling into a smile. “Now, where are you going and where are you comin’ from, and how much are you carryin’ on that bike when it’s loaded?”
I explained, and he told us that he was on a bike tour following the Mormon Trail. “I’m carrying a hundred pounds,” he said, “because that’s what the first Mormons carried. People say I’m crazy to be doing this, cause I’m sixty years old. My doctor said I shouldn’t ride in temperatures above seventy-five.” The man winked. “He ain’t never biked in Wyoming! It isn’t possible to ride when it’s cooler’n that, unless you ride at night. I sometimes do. Do you?”
“No, actually I avoid riding at night,” I said.
“You don’t ride at night?! Well then, you’re missing out on some of the prime joys of touring: riding through the desert with a full moon lighting your way… Ah, there’s nothing like it. That's really the only time it’s semi-cool in Utah, though I don’t think my doctor would've approved of me riding at night any more than he would riding in the heat. My knees are set to give out any day. But I take vitamins and I eat well—say, are you vegetarian?”
“Well,” he said, satisfied, “that’s good. And do you take vitamins?” Without waiting for an answer, he gave poor Keiry and me a ten-minute lecture on the benefits of taking nutrition supplements. Finally, we managed to extricate ourselves from the conversation—we said we’d better be on our way home.
“…Well, it was nice talkin’ with you!” said the white-haired man. “An' it’s too bad you have to leave so fast. I have lots more questions I could ask! Oh well, just be sure you take your vitamins, now!”
“Not all of the cyclists I meet are like him!” I said to Keiry as we rode out of the park. "Really, they're not!"
The Howdyshell girls were sad to see me go the next day. Moriah watched me sorrowfully as I packed up and said, “We’re going to miss you a lot!”
“I’m gonna miss all of you, too,” I said.
“You have to come back someday,” Bronwyn wailed, “‘cause you’re practically our sister now.”
Charles had stayed in a motel while I visited the Howdyshells, and he would stay in another one in Dubois. But on July 8, we met at a café in Lander to ride together for the day. The ride would be long, and we both wanted company. As we headed out of sleepy Lander, the landscape was dry and open. I faced the headwind, turned my cycle computer to “clock” mode, and vowed not to look at how far I’d gone until I’d gotten there.
The longest I'd ever ridden in one day was back in Kansas; I'd done 75 miles on a flat road. But today I would have to pedal 86 miles to reach the Liesenfeld family, north of Dubois.
After about 13 miles, we entered the 2,250,000-acre Wind River Indian Reservation, home of Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Indians. And as we rode deeper into the reservation, I couldn't stop thinking of all the roadside historical markers I'd been seeing lately. The signs extolled the bravery of white men marching westward, who “civilized” and “settled” this "savage" country. The historical markers grossly overlooked how the Native Americans were forced into reservations upon the white man’s arrival, cut off from their traditions, and introduced to a life-style that has thrown them into poverty. There was mention of a few Indians who helped out the settlers, but mostly the signs talked about how the Indians, for some strange reason, didn’t like the white man’s coming and so attacked him from ambushes.
As I rode through the reservation alone—Charles had gone on ahead—I started to feel guilty. Like I was trespassing, and somehow a part of the vicious cycle of violence and cruelty just by being there, seeing the situation and yet not doing anything to help it. It was Kentucky deja-vu. I shivered, even though I wasn’t cold at all. A second later, a pick-up came barreling down the road and a blond boy stuck his head out the window and screamed at me, wordless rage that echoed abrasively even after he was gone.
Feeling more vulnerable by the minute, I caught up with Charles and we rode together out of Fort Washakie. We were both uneasy, and riding together seemed infinitely better than riding alone.
Thirteen miles before Crowheart the highway began to parallel the Wind River. The scenery grew even more expansive and there was little traffic. I relaxed from the boy's yelling. And another twelve miles past Crowheart, the landscape became yet more spectacular.
The river followed the road closely now, beautiful, strong, foaming, and moving fast. I rode up to the crest of a hill and red cliffs rose in front of me as I began a short downhill. It was fiery, flaming red all around as I began to sink down into the canyon. The rock walls were wildly red, and I blinked to see it clearer. The road curved, and I curved with it—and for a few amazing minutes it was just me and the blazing color and the wild water. I rolled fast despite the increasing wind, and the beauty combined with the air whistling past made tears come. I wiped them away so I could see, though it didn’t matter because more came.
“I do it for the joy it brings ‘cause I’m a joyful girl,” I whispered. Over and over. I’m a joyful girl. I’m a joyful girl.
After riding 86 miles on July 8, I made it to the Liesenfeld's house at 4:30, ate dinner, and went square dancing. "You don't have to come if you don't feel up to it!" Cathy told me. "It's just that we go every Tuesday."
"No, that sounds cool!" I said.
And so at 8:15, I found myself walking through a bar in “downtown” Dubois, into the back room where a good old-fashioned square dance was in progress. About fifty people were dancing, and a short, stubby man in black drawled out the calls while the floor pounded with a hundred feet in boots. There were some tourists, but there were also people wearing cowboy boots and cowboy hats, not to look like cowboys, but because they were cowboys. Round and round we went, the air growing hotter and hotter as even more people came trickling in. The room rocked with laughter and music and “...do-si-do yer partner!”
I left with the family at nine-thirty and Rick Liesenfeld drove around the corner to the ice-cream parlor. “Really, I can pay for myself!” I tried to insist, but Rick Liesenfeld was quietly stubborn and would not even look at my money. His gruff face softened under his broad-brimmed hat, and he smiled.
“It’s our treat,” said Cathy, in her soft, sweet voice. “We’re so glad you came to stay with us.”
Back at home, on a futon in their living room, I pressed my face against the glass window and looked up at the stars. They shimmered brightly in the huge Wyoming sky. *I am so lucky!* I thought. *And I really can't believe that I rode 86 miles today and then went square dancing! I didn't used to be like this.*