In Metal Cowboy: Tales from the road less pedaled, Joe Kurmaskie writes:
"Contrary to what Dorothy learned at the end of the yellow brick road and what the IRS requires for documentation purposes, home doesn't have to be a place. It need only be something or somebody that keeps you grounded, focused, and well, sane. A spot you fill up with passion and don't mind putting a lot of work into. One true thing that you can reach for at day's end that connects you to the world. Roots."
Now I felt like my trip had roots. In the last five months I'd learned to be Home just about anywhere I pedaled. I was discovering how to connect to my world, and in the process, I was truly growing up.
On my second day alone, I stayed in the church hostel in Dayville, Oregon. I signed the logbook, and read entries from people I'd come to consider my friends. Alice and Dale wrote, “Sarabeth: We’ve missed our biking buddy, and hope to see you when you get to Oregon. Remember, you’re always welcome to stay with us in Portland.” Come to think of it, maybe a visit to Portland would be fun before I went home…
On the phone that night, my brother Loren said, “Sara, guess what? Today I am exac'ly four an’ eleven-twelfths-years-old! Will you be home for my birthday?” No, I had to tell him, but soon after.
The next morning, when I left Dayville at 6:00, it was almost cold. After pedaling through six miles of a jarringly bumpy road construction site, I rode through a small portion of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. I wasn't expecting a canyon to loom out of the high prairie, but there one was. Rocks were jagged on both sides, and the sun’s first rays illuminated the tops as I rode. I was alone with the John Day River and the cicadas, and I was supremely happy.
As I emerged into open, sagebrush-covered hillsides, I surprised myself with the strength of my legs. Because of the hills, I hadn't expected to get to the campground until late afternoon. But the wind became a strong tailwind, I cranked solidly, and I got to Ochoco Summit at 1:30, smiling. At the entrance to the campground stood a guy holding up a cardboard sign: “To Boise, please!”
“Hello,” I said.
“Hi,” he said. “Man, that bike must be heavy." He talked slowly, and his voice matched his demeanor: placidly calm. "Hey, d'you got any idea where there’s some water 'round here?”
“Well, I’ve never been here either,” I said. “But there's usually water in campgrounds.” I needed some too, so I continued up the access road and found the spigot. The man followed me, not in any hurry.
"I'm hitchin' from Eugene to Denver," he said, after scooping up some water in his hands. "An' my name's Jamie."
“I’m Sara—nice to meet you.”
We lapsed into silence. The sun was warm, and it felt good to sit still, no need to move or go anywhere.
“I went to the Rainbow Gathering last month, right near here,” he said presently.
“Oh, that’s right!” I remembered someone telling me about it.
“The Gathering was in this national forest, right?”
The guy nodded. “Yeah, I guess so. Prob'ly on the other side of the mountain or somethin.' " He looked about 20. His straggly black hair hung down past his shoulders and he wore a vacant, tired look on his face. He seemed safe enough, I decided.
After awhile he got more talkative. “After the Gathering, I hitched down to San Francisco for awhile an' kicked around with some folks I met. Then I went back to Eugene and hung out there, but one night somebody stole my wallet and my backpack. I was sleepin' under a bridge someplace, an' when I woke up it was gone." Jamie seemed a little out of the loop when it came to street smarts, but I didn't interrupt him. "I was getting kinda tired of being a hobo anyway, though, an’ now all I want is to get back home. But no one’s stopped since yesterday mornin'. This woman gave me a lift from Prineville to about ten miles from here, then I walked. I’ve been trying for a ride ever since then, an' I walked seven hours yesterday. I slept in a ditch last night.”
As I started to eat some of the food that was weighing down my packs, I realized that Jamie probably hadn't brought along a picnic lunch. “Are you hungry?” I asked.
“Aw no, I’m fine. That's nice, but I had some nuts with me and some apples a guy gave me. I'm fine.”
“Are you sure?” I looked at him doubtfully. There was no way he could not be hungry. “Here—I got an extra muffin back in Mitchell, so you should have it. Also, if this cheese doesn’t get eaten it’s gonna go bad.”
“Yeah, but do you have enough?” Jamie asked. He did have some manners. “I don’t want you to run out of food 'cause of me.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “In fact, my bike is too heavy right now, and it would help if you’d eat something!” I'd concluded that I shouldn't have been so ambitious with that care package I sent ahead to Baker City.
As we chewed, we lapsed into silence again. I reflected that this must not be prime hitchhiking territory. Traffic mainly consisted of tourists going to the John Day Fossil Beds, and truckers, two groups that weren’t likely to give people rides.
“Well, thanks for the muffin—and the sandwiches," Jamie said, after a while. "I think I'm gonna give it up for the afternoon—getting a ride, I mean." He yawned. "In fact, maybe I'll head up to that campsite and take a nap…" He happened to head toward the hiker/biker sites, so I followed him up the grassy slope. Jamie settled onto a nearby picnic table, and I wrote in my journal. Birds twittered overhead, and it was comfortable in the shade.
Earlier, when I'd passed through the little town of Mitchell, the woman in the grocery store had asked if I was riding alone.
"Yup," I said gleefully.
"My goodness," she said. "I dunno, but you gals bikin'—especially when yer alone—always bring out the mother in me. I know you’re all able to take care of yerselves and everythin’ but still—I worry ‘bout you!" She rang up my groceries with forceful pecks of her index finger to accentuate how worried she got.
“Last summer, there was this gal in here ridin' with her fiancé. And I tell you, that guy really made me mad. They’d just started out a week or so ago, and this was the gal's first trip. She told me she’d never ridden much at home. The bike trip was the boyfriend’s idea." The woman was about to punctuate her story by thumping my bananas onto the counter, so I rescued them from her clutches. "Her bicycle was too heavy for her, and she was carryin' a lot and they was doin’ long days and she was really sore. That guy didn’t seem to understand that she needed a break!
“Well anyway, they was here in the store and the gal was cryin’ in the aisles, and the guy was sayin', ‘Well, if you cain’t finish something like this bike trip, how do I know you’ll be able to stick with something like a marriage??”’ I was boilin’ by that time—what kind of thing is that to say to someone you want to marry? The gal jest needed a break! She was sayin’ to him, 'I'm gonna rent a car and just go home, then!' But the closest rental place was in Redmond, sixty miles away.
“So I says to her, ‘You just stay with me and I’ll take you to get the car day after tomorrow,’ –when I was goin’ into the city anyway.
“They ended up leaving town together on Friday—she said she was gonna try to make it. I never did find out if they finished the trip or not though…”
I pedaled out of town glad to be alone.
When I'd written in my journal for an hour or so, and Jamie was still sleeping, I went to find someone official who could unlock the bathrooms. I found the campground hosts, an older couple who lived in their American-flag-draped RV with their poodle.
"Just a sec," the man said. "Lemme get my keys. I didn't know you were up there!" The poodle accompanied us back to the bathrooms, and the man talked.
First, he asked, Did I know the reason the bathrooms were locked? He didn't wait for an answer.
"It's 'cause for years people've been coming in here to use the bathrooms ‘stead of using the ones down the road—at the rest stop, ya' know. See, the bathrooms here are cleaned regularly—that's why you pay a fee when ya come here, see. Folks just don't seem to understand that. The rest stop don't get much funding for cleaning, so they're not so nice—so, folks figure they can traipse on in and use ours. ‘It’s our National Forest, it’s Public Land, and we should be able to use them!’ they say.
"But I’ll tell you something—“ the host was getting worked up—“it’s not that way anymore! The National Forest campgrounds, most of ‘em, have been privatized, and they're not free cause we need money to take care of 'em. People say how clean they are, now that the concessions run 'em. And the reason they're nicer is 'cause we don’t let anyone come in unless they pay, and we use that money to keep it nice.” He was self-righteously vehement.
I made sympathetic noises when it seemed appropriate.
The host changed the subject. "Have you heard about them Hippies we had in here last month?” He said “hippies" as if he were talking about cockroaches.
No, I said, Which Hippies?
“Well, have ya heard about that ‘Rainbow Family’ deal? They have these gathering things and last month, thousands of those Hippies were down there in the National Forest a few miles away. They’d all come in here and ask for directions and we’d tell ‘em a left here and a right there…
"And whoo-weee were they dirty! They was harassing the folks in Prineville, and the store manager at the grocery said that he had $100,000 worth of things stolen while they was in town. The owner of the Laundromat said they—them hippies—would put their clothes in the washers with no soap. Then they’d put 'em in the dryer. Four or five times a day, the owner said, she’d have to go in with a garbage can and empty those lint filters. But there wasn’t just lint in there, oh no—there was sticks and stones and bugs! Filthy, those people were, I tell you.” He grimaced, and behind him, the poodle peed on the still-locked bathroom door.
“And you know what? Some of 'em, after puttin' their clothes in the washer, would take off everything else they had on and put those clothes in too! The owner would call the police then, and say ‘Take these nudists out of here!’…”
As the host continued his diatribe, I glanced up the hill. I hoped that Jamie wouldn't show himself in the next few minutes. I had a sneaking suspicion that the host would not be happy to discover that he had a real live “Hippie” camping out for the night on one of the picnic tables—especially since I suspected that the hippie hadn't paid his camping fee.
Everything was perfect—I smiled at the sunny skies as I pedaled through the John Day River Valley the next day, and 72 miles seemed to fly like the wind. I rode thirty miles to Prineville, “Central Oregon’s Oldest City,” and stopped to get an early lunch at the supermarket.
As I walked through the automatic door, I happened to glance at a notice taped to the glass. It was a memo, from the town and Forest Service officials, addressed to the Pacific Northwest Rainbow Family. The subject of the memo was the recent Rainbow Gathering.
We want to express our appreciation, the memo said, for your cooperation with USFS and city ordinances. After the Gathering, participants cleaned up the land completely and left no garbage or trash lying around… Thanks for collaboration that exceeded our expectations.
I guessed the campground host hadn't been speaking for everyone when he voiced his opinion about those Dirty Hippies.
After lunch, the air was already hot. But I didn’t care—I was enjoying every bit of the ride, and I had a pound of grapes in my handlebar bag. Thriftway had been having a .69/pound sale on grapes, and I'd eaten at least fifteen pounds since the sale went into effect. I met some cyclists as I was coming into Redmond, and I shared some grapes with them. I sang to the scrub pines, I said hello to the horses in their pastures, and I tried to see everything. I wanted to remember every bit of this last week, every little creek I passed, every person I talked to. On Friday I would reach the ocean, and I couldn't quite believe it.
I was washing dinner dishes at the utility sink in Sisters when I met Ron. A tall man of 50, with eyes that never faltered once he'd focused on something, Ron was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. He said this was his third time—he'd hiked it first when he was thirty, once when he was forty, and now he was doing it again, alone except for his dog.
“C'mon over to my campsite later,” he invited. After I’d finished cleaning up my dinner, I walked through the tall pines to his site.
“Wow—that’s an amazing backpack!” I exclaimed when I reached Ron's picnic table. His pack stood on the bench, a massive construction of black canvas and nylon and aluminum, maybe five feet long. “How much do you carry?”
“About a hundred pounds,” he replied. “But don’t forget, I have to carry my food for longer than you, and I also have to take care of my dog. He's Cooper, by the way—named after Peter Jenkins’ dog in A Walk Across America.”
“I just can’t believe you carry all that on your back,” I said at last.
“Well honestly, you seemed to have quite a load yourself this afternoon! I can’t imagine pedaling all that stuff…”
“But that’s so much easier than carrying it!”
“Personally, I think that riding is torturous. My bike and I have a disagreeable relationship, and the farthest I ride is down the street. My bicycle lives, amid cobwebs, in the corner of my garage.” We laughed, and I asked him about hiking the PCT.
Standing next to the picnic table, he towered over me as we watched the sun set. Cooper lay lazily at our feet, and Ron’s deep voice became that of an expert storyteller as he wove his tales of the trail.
“The second time I hiked the PCT, I was determined to go alone. The first time I’d started alone with my dog—same as this time—but I ended up walking most of the way with two fellows I met. We had wonderful times together, but this next time, I wanted to be solo.
"There’s quite a community on the Trail, though, so it's actually kind of hard to be alone. Maybe it's like that on the bike route you're riding, but I think we have a closer community than you do.”
“Because you’re traveling a shorter distance, more slowly?”
“Yeah, something like that. There's only one path, so we're all constantly overlapping with each other and camping together. Like I said, it's just hard to hike alone—though that’s truer on the Appalachian Trail than on the Pacific Crest. The PCT isn’t as crowded.
"Anyway, as I hiked, I started to see a lot of two people: a mother and her sixteen-year-old son, who were hiking together. They walked slower than I did, but I’d come back to the trail from a couple days in town and I’d meet up with them again. This happened for a couple weeks. Neither of them were good hikers—and in fact, they’d done hardly any training and the son was especially overweight, white and puffy and always out of breath. He'd been doing badly in school, evidently, and his mother thought it would be good for his self-image to hike the PCT. They didn’t know much about backpacking at all. Anyhow, at one point I camped with them for a few nights, and then I went ahead into a town for several days.
“When I’d hitched back to the trailhead, I was surprised to see the two of them standing there—and even more surprised when the woman told me she was going home. ‘I twisted my ankle yesterday,’ she told me, ‘and there’s no way I can hike on it for a while. I think I sprained it…’
"I helped her and the boy back into town so she could see a doctor. You do stuff like that for people you've met on the trail. But that's when the woman turned to me with a most unusual request. ‘Will you take my son with you when you go back onto the trail?’ I thought she was joking. ‘Really. I so want Brian to finish out the hike—I think it will be good for him, and I’ve watched you for the last two weeks. I trust you.’
“I couldn’t bend my mind around it at first. But she was pleading, and I said, ‘Well, does Brian want to do it?’ Brian said he did, nodding his head quickly.
“ ‘What the hell?’ I thought to myself. It took me only that moment to make up my mind that I would do it, though to this day I’m surprised that I did. To Brian, I said, ‘You've got to realize that I’ll be in charge of you for the next several months…’ He said he understood. ‘You have to want to do this hike more than you’ve ever wanted to do anything. You know that I’m a fast hiker—Brian, I will not slow down. You will have to keep up with me—or go home. I will not wait. I will not coddle you. I will not tolerate complaining.’ I looked him squarely in the eyes and he looked back steadily.
“ ‘I want to do it,’ he said quietly. The next day, we left after helping his mother onto a bus home.
“For the next three months we hiked together. Brian had an incredibly hard time at first, and I called him my Pillsbury Doughboy because he looked like one. It made him angry that he couldn’t keep up with me, and little by little his determination to beat me turned him into an excellent hiker. Over the next three months he kept to his word, too—there was no complaining. At first, when he was mad about my faster pace, he would slip into silence for a day or two at a time. But gradually, there was a transformation. At the end of the hike he was not my Pillsbury Doughboy any more. He was self-assured. He had lost at least sixty pounds, and he was tan and slim and strong and could hike almost as fast as I could.
“His mother met us at the end, and she had tears in her eyes. ‘How can I ever thank you?’ she said. There was no way she could.
"Now Brian’s in college, I hear, and engaged to be married. He did wonderfully in school after our hike, his mother wrote, and he still sends me cards at Christmas…” Ron trailed off, slipping into a reverie. Presently, he sat down on the bench opposite me.
“What is your philosophy of life?” he asked abruptly, leaning over the table towards me. “What guides you to make decisions? What makes your life meaningful—what is important to you?” His eyes were gray-green, focused intently on me, and our conversation began a new tack.
"What do you mean, 'philosophy'?" I asked.
"Here—I'll start by telling you mine. It covers everything: 'Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.' It is simple, but it's enough for one lifetime. My friend John's philosophy is, 'Be nice to people.' I've told him that I don't agree with it.
" 'But Ron,' he says, 'it's the same as yours!' I tell him no, it isn't. You can't always be nice to people when you're doing unto them what you would have them do unto you!" Ron laughed, and moonlight glinted in his eyes. "Does that make sense?" His eyes were on me now, so strong I almost had to look away.
"Yeah, I guess so—I mean, I agree that you can't always be nice. But I've never really thought about a 'philosophy of life' before. Why do you think it's important?"
"I don't just think it's important, Sarabeth—I know it's important. If you don't have a philosophy, then you just spend your whole life searching for one. It's what guides your decisions. You, I think, probably have a philosophy but don't know what it is yet.
"Your philosophy should always hold true. If you're in a difficult situation, your philosophy will guide you—if it's a good one. If it doesn't stand up to the test, then you know you have to refine it. I know people who just believe in God and the Bible—and they think that's philosophy enough. But the Bible is full of contradictions! Have you ever read it?"
No, I said, not all of it.
"Well, you can get whatever philosophy you want out of that book. That's where I got mine, actually, but I don't believe in God. I believe in taking charge of my destiny." Ron changed the subject again. "What's it going to be like to end your trip?"
"Uh—what do you mean? That’s another thing I don't know!"
"Haven't you thought about it, at least? You said you're going to a camp—have you thought about how you're going to deal with your friends who haven't seen you since before your left? There are going to be folks who treat you like a hero, and some people who will be jealous…"
"Jealous?" I interrupted. "I don't think anyone would be—what's there to be jealous of?"
"Plenty." Ron looked at me. "You don't know…" He trailed off for a minute. "Do you know what some people would give to have what you have? Most people never even come close. I've met very few young ladies like you—some man will be very lucky someday! Make sure you think about it, Sarabeth—think about the end. Figure out what you've learned from your trip. Find your philosophy of life. Don't let go of your journey when it's done. Don't slip backward, ever, and accept mediocrity.
“Most of all," Ron said. He said it like it was a sentence all by itself. "Most of all, treasure this journey. It's your First Trip. Oh sure, I know you've traveled before—but this is different. Any trip you take after this might be very wonderful, but it will never be the same. Enjoy it while you can, 'cause you never get another First Journey…”
Ron's words were like pinpricks into an unexplored balloon. Suddenly I had more to think about than I ever could in the three days before I reached the ocean.
We talked until past midnight, the darkness settling around like a velvet curtain, so softly that I barely even noticed it.
I reached the top of McKenzie Pass at nine o'clock the next morning—the last real pass of my trip. I enjoyed every minute of the climb, every rustle in the trees, every scurry of the chipmunks in the suddenly lush undergrowth. The lava at the top of McKenzie pass surprised me, since I hadn't read the "field guide" section of my map lately. The tiny road wound through a black, rocky landscape where nothing had been able to grow for thousands of years. In the distance I could see Mount Washington and Mount Jefferson. Last summer I'd seen them from an airplane—this summer, I rode my bike here.
Coming down the pass was truly awe-inspiring. Emerging from the blackened lava flows, the steep, amazingly windy road descended almost 4,000 feet in twenty miles. As I sped around sharp corners, stopping every few minutes to cool my brakes, the landscape morphed several times. I rode from just below the alpine zone—the timberline—to the sub-alpine meadow zone, and then down into a mountain forest of silver firs, western hemlocks and western red cedar. Then came the rainforest, where ferns lent their special fragrance to the air as I continued my lesson on, so said my maps, “the geographical distribution of vegetation." The air was quiet and cool and even the road seemed to fit right into the landscape. Life was beautiful.
Later, I wrote in my journal, and tried to answer some of Ron's questions from the night before. But I couldn't really—not now. My philosophy of life—its articulation in words, anyhow—would have to wait until after my trip. For now, I was absorbing my world and my journey, and I was almost at the ocean.
The next morning, I left the campground as soon as it was light. I fairly flew the 55 miles to Eugene, which, with a population of 120,000, was the largest city on the TransAm.
With the help of a Federal Express truck driver, I found Grace Llewellyn's address on the map. Grace's Not Back To School Camp had been the catalyst for my trip back in 1996, and today I wanted to ride up to her house on my bike. I hoped she liked surprises.
I could barely contain my impatience at red lights, and the half-hour jaunt through town seemed like hours. 147… 148… There it was! Almost trembling with excitement, I leaned my bike against a tree in the yard and walked up the front path.
No one answered, but through sliding glass door I saw Grace’s husband Skip on the deck in the back yard. I forced myself to walk slowly, and went around the house to the back yard.
“Hello!” I said. Skip turned with a start.
“Sarabeth! Well hello! Let me go and get Grace—come on inside." He went inside and yelled up the steps, “Grace! Sarabeth’s here.” As if I just happened to pop in every day. “Grace?”
“Yeah—you mean she’s on the phone?”
“No, she’s here—in our living room!” Grace was coming down the steps two at a time, and I saw her smile only an instant before we were hugging each other.
“It’s so good to see you!” she was saying, over and over again. “You really made it.”
“I did…” I couldn’t say much.
“Do you need anything? Are you hungry? Do you want some water?”
“No—really, all I'd like are some hugs.”
On August 15, I headed out of Eugene toward the coast.
It was only just starting to hit me. As of that evening, I would have pedaled across the entire country. 4,700 miles. Me. The one who never liked physical exertion. But really, I thought, as I sweated over the coastal mountain range, I never knew what physical exertion was before this trip.
Physical exertion wasn't riding my bike in circles around my hometown. It was facing a headwind and a mountain and twenty-five more miles, when it was getting late and I was in the middle of nowhere. When I had to keep going, because I had set myself this challenge and I was going to go through with it. When I had to make it because I didn't give myself another choice. It wasn't about courage or strength then—it was just one pedal stroke at a time, one more inch up the mountain. When I went on, even when I thought I couldn't, that was physical exertion—I'd learned from experience.
It was with a strange calmness that I pedaled the final 75 miles of my cross-country trip. I was in a daze as I counted down at the end: “12-11-10... 3-2-1...”
Now I could see the sign that said “Florence, Oregon.” I wondered if I had imagined the trip, and that maybe I'd wake up in another minute. But I was most certainly in Florence. Right beyond the dunes on the far side of town was the ocean. The ocean. The other side of America. I wouldn't get to the beach till tomorrow, because it would be dark soon and the campground was six miles south. But this was it. I called my family from a pay phone in Florence at 5:20 p.m.
Really, though, I told myself, I’m not really done. When I get to the ocean tomorrow, that’s when I’ll have finished.
When I emerged from the phone booth, tears were falling unceremoniously off my nose and I couldn't decide what to do next. The sun cast long shadows over town as I rode aimlessly around the block a few times; I finally decided to head straight for the campground. I could live without fresh vegetables tonight. Then, I spied a couple on loaded touring bikes.
“Hey!” I yelled, relieved to have something besides The End to think about. “Hey!” When the light turned green, I crossed the highway.
I assumed that somehow I’d missed seeing them in the last few days. “Did you just come from Virginia?” I asked. My question seemed to confuse them, however, and so I ungrammatically rephrased it. “Where’d you come from?”
That seemed to fluster them still further, until after a moment the man confused me by answering, “…North!”
“What did you mean about Virginia?”
“I mean, have you just ridden cross-country too?”
“Are you riding the TransAmerica Trail?”
After a long, awkward pause, the man suddenly relaxed, laughed and said “OH—no, we’re riding down the coast!” In my excitement at reaching the end of my bike trip, I’d forgotten that not everyone was on the same journey.
I camped in Honeyman State Park, my emotions all confused. “I’ll think about it tomorrow, when I get to the ocean,” I promised myself. Then I slept, in the forest in my last campsite.
The next morning dawned gray and cloudy, and when I woke up I thought it was still night time.
My morning routine was so familiar that I didn’t have to think about it, which was a good thing, since I couldn’t think clearly. It was six miles to the beach access from the campground, and as I rode, I tried imagining that this was any old day. Any old normal-extraordinary day, another day when the unexpected would surely happen, another day of my bike trip across the country.
But it wasn’t. It was the end. In a few minutes I could see the dunes. In another few minutes, as Jeff would have said, I couldn’t pedal any farther west without pontoons. I started smiling as I leaned my bike up, and with measured care, took off my shoes so that I wouldn’t get sand into my cycling cleats. Then there was no excuse, and I began walking towards the dunes, then skipping, and then I was running, running, running up the slippery sand, running because I couldn’t stop. When I scrambled to the top and caught sight of the ocean I was laughing and crying at the same time. I ran to meet the sea, not really believing anything until I felt its shocking coldness on my body.
“I do it for the joy it brings ‘cause I’m a joyful girl…” My voice was still and calm and laughing and dancing over the roar of the surf.
My last journal entry was three words:
“I did it!”