From Sea to Shining Sea

12 Oct

After 4,262 miles and 71 days and 10 states, we’ve changed gears.

Our calorie intake is back to normal.  The handmade “Mazel Tov – David and Elliot – TransAmers” congratulatory posters have been rolled up and tucked away.  The heavy aroma of cigar smoke has been erased with laundry detergent. The champagne bubbles have long since gone flat.  The grandiose celebratory steak dinner(s!) have come and gone.

Elliot and I have balanced our checkbooks, signed up for the TransAm Register, hugged, and parted ways.

All of a sudden, we aren’t the same studly heroes blazing our way across the continent, receiving presents and praise at every turn.  We have crash-landed back to regular old home life.  On the surface, we now look like two average guys, fending off postpartum depression and coping with the reality that the coolest thing we’ve ever done in our lives is officially over.

Yet while we may no longer be living as vagabond exercise fiends, this tour of duty across America has changed us forever.  Memories of our unforgettable journey have already solidified into lifelong lessons.  More, our recent life off the road has further endowed us with a new, hard-earned perspective on What Is Important and What Isn’t.

The following is a list of teachings we collected while on two wheels:

USA All The Way

What Washington says and does is one thing.  How the everyday American behaves is another.  From Main streets to national parks to grocery stores to gas stations, we were very pleased to find that the people of this country are incredibly decent, humble, and hospitable.  Negative stereotypes about rural Midwesterners are laughably unjustified — ironically, urban coast-dwellers (myself included) can be more myopic than the very middle Americans they often ridicule.

This country is truly an open book, welcoming each citizen to contribute a story, read their neighbor’s chapter, and share the living tale with friends and family. We are proud of America and feel fortunate to have seen a new side of our country.  Here’s to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in our land of the free and home of the brave.

Keep At It

We’ve proven to ourselves that we are brave, patient, and optimistic warriors. We learned that with a mission to accomplish and an objective ahead of us, head winds, hills, and rainstorms weren’t abysmal impediments — they were manageable hiccups.  The raw psychological power of determination and perseverance kept us going through our lowest points.  Little by little, even after bad days and hard rides, our daily mileage accumulated and we ultimately produced a major achievement.  We were committed to steadily chipping away at the road ahead until, finally, we puffed victory clouds of cigar smoke across the finish line.

After his fall, Elliot was forced to contend with severe mechanical damage, in the absence of proper bike tools or spare parts.  I pedaled across the country while powering through occasional discomfort caused by an intramedullary rod in my right femur (part of a larger Vespa story dating back to 2008).  We are living proof that “no pain, no gain” really means something.  We’ve got the guts to stick to our plans.  We are willing to take chances and unwilling to give up.

It Takes Two (Or More)

After everything we’ve experienced together, it goes without saying that our friendship will last a lifetime.  What is worth mentioning is the collective strength we experienced as partners on the road.  When the two of us combined our efforts, we could do more, and could do better, than when we acted independently as lone individuals.  As if each of our innate talents and predispositions were funneled and blended to create a hybrid vigor, our ability to perform certain tasks as a pair was off the charts: cooking, getting directions, shopping, relaxing, and — of course — pedaling.  We made more informed decisions by bouncing energy and ideas off of one another.  We were more resilient because we pushed each other.

This sort of resonance needn’t stop with a best friend.  So long as intentions are aligned, two or more people have the potential to create something far greater than themselves.  Whether it’s a spouse, family member, coworker, or community organization, there’s something magical and gratifying in impacting each other and your environment.

So Much With So Little

Ten weeks of the simple life have given us a new understanding of the rich life.

We have endured pain and we have survived unpredictable and inclement weather.  We have slept in questionable places and eaten very austere meals.  We have traveled for more than two months with a tiny wardrobe in tow.  We have been dirty, sore, and tired.  We have experienced a life stripped down to its most basic elements, carrying remarkably few possessions and left to our own devices to contend with the outside world.  And we made it just fine with only the bare essentials.

Especially now that we’ve assimilated into the plush comforts of domestic life (i.e. waking up in the same place each morning), we are appreciating everything around us.  We are in awe of the fully stocked refrigerator, sheets with a thread count, and wheels that quickly accelerate with the step of a pedal.  Exemplified by the generosity we regularly received, many Americans are already living this way. Either they are very smart or very stupid: they don’t have much, yet they are so happy with what they do have that they are eager to share or give it away for free. I say it takes an enlightened mind to behave this way and see the extraordinary where everyone else sees the ordinary.

In a society that defines everything by the presence of something, it is an eye-opening exercise to place value in nothing — to seek out absence and adopt an upside down, less-is-more attitude in a more, more, more world.  We have arrived at the precious realization that you do not need to have a lot to have a lot.

You Gotta Have Faith

Our brake pads were totally useless when we were careening down mountains at speeds of 40+ miles per hour.  Our maps were also useless when we were wading through the sludge of a closed road.  Our smooth negotiation skills were also useless when the only place to sleep was a soaking wet road median.  Throughout our most trying experiences, we had faith that things would work themselves out. We found solace in believing that events would unravel in our favor.  There was a palpable sense of spirituality on the open road; we were often hypnotized by the steady whirring of the chain and read into signs which indicated that things around us were happening for a reason.  This certainly does not mean one should forgo total control and leave everything to chance, nor does it mean one must believe in a deity, but our faith frequently stitched together the unknown and unrelated fragments of daily life into a fabric we could interpret and navigate.

Spirituality is not only an internal motivator that allows us to reach higher and go farther, but it provides us with a healthy dose of certainty in an uncertain world. Translated into the everyday workweek, it is an emboldening and empowering force that encourages us to take risks and reminds us that we will always land on our feet.  We now understand that anything we want is within reach.  We may get caught in a storm, we may break down and get sidetracked, and we may even fly over the handlebars, but, one way or another, we will climb that mountain and reach that destination.  Rain or shine, we’ll get to where we need to go.

Know Thyself

After pursuing something we’ve wanted to do for years, we are staunch supporters of acting out your internal desires.  We have learned the pleasure and satisfaction of transforming ambitions into accomplishments.

Spend the time to learn what makes your heart and mind tick and, as selfish as it sounds, do what’s best for yourself.  Know your limitations, understand your strengths and shortcomings, and recognize that dreams are an expression of your personality, not some unattainable pie in the sky.  Following an internal compass doesn’t mean turning your back on everyone else’s well-being — it is a way to stay upright and focused in a vast space of choice and opportunity.  It is the key to feeling fulfilled and making an impact in the world.  It is only once you are fueled by a true passion that your character explodes outwards and you are driven to do a job well done.

All Good Things Never End

Our tan lines aren’t the only remnant of this game-changing voyage.  We don’t see this end point as an unfortunate event, but rather as a beginning to a more enlightened, appreciative, committed, and adventurous life ahead.  There are many more cool things to do in the future.  There are still untapped reservoirs of curiosity and discovery on the horizon.

Certainly, several aspects of our lifestyle will change now that we’ve got a roof over our heads.  Armed with our first-hand collection of truths, though, we intend to keep up this aggressive pace of doing and thinking.  The world’s largest firecracker has just been lit.  The wick has only begun to melt.  Slowly, after years of fanning the flame with our lust for life, it will intensify from the steady heat of boundless spirit.  Until one culminating day when it finally erupts, sending color and sound in every conceivable direction, casting a spell of joy all around and replacing darkness with light.

Superlatives

6 Oct

[Just like the high school yearbook]

Best State: Idaho — Gorgeous scenery, unspoiled for thousands of acres, incredible climbs and descents, beautiful camping, cool riding

Worst State: Kansas — friendly people but insane cross and headwinds, tortuous scenery, incredible heat

Most Underrated State: Missouri — Ozark National Scenic Riverways, friendly people, great city parks, rollercoaster riding

Most Overrated State: Montana — The Last Best Place? Why so many strip malls, trucks, unfriendly cops, run-down cities, and overcast weather then?

Most Hospitable State: Kentucky — We didn’t pay for food or camping a single night.

State With Strongest Bicycle Presence: Virginia — Bike Route 76 marked at every intersection. Cyclist sign-in books at cafes and restaurants. Tons of cyclists out on the weekends and in the evenings.

Most Memorable Climb: (Tie) Hayter’s Gap (VA) and McKenzie Pass (OR)

Most Memorable Descent: Unnamed pass between Richland, OR and Halfway, OR

Most Challenging Day: McKenzie Pass (22-mile, 4500-foot climb complete with dehydration)

Least Challenging Day: (Tie) Dillon, CO –> Breckenridge, Co and Williamsburg, VA –> Yorktown, VA — only 12-15 each day, on bikepaths or unpopulated roads

Most Memorable Scenery: (3-way tie) )Land-locked sand dunes, Oregon, Pacific Coastline, Oregon, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Most Memorable Overnight: Philips-Thurman House, Sonora, KY

Least Memorable Overnight: Intersection of CR 56 and Blue Ridge Parkway, Vesuvius, VA — in the frigid, pouring rain

Best Camping: Dillon Lake Reservoir, Dillon, CO

Worst Camping: CENEX Gas Station, Muddy Gap Junction, WY

Most Memorable Meal: (Tie) Rosh HaShana Dinner, Eureka, KS, Fajitas, Mineral, VA

Longest Day: 126 miles — Mineral, VA –> Williamsburg, VA

Shorteset Day: 13 miles — Dillon, CO –> Breckenridge, CO

Most Frustrating Day: 19 miles into other-worldly headwinds, south of Four Corners, KS

Wisest Decision: Perfecting cooking on a camping stove

Dumbest Decision: Eating tortillas covered in leaked propane fuel

More to come …!

The Grand Finale

3 Oct

DAY 70 — Mineral, VA (Volunteer Fire Station, Multi purpose room stage) to Williamsburg, VA (College of William and Mary, Kappa Alpha Fraternity, Basement floor).

Total mileage: 127.0
(Additional vitals are unavailable due to bike computer meltdown).

Cue the celebratory ballads. Roll out the red carpet and position the fireworks. Today is our last day on the TransAmerica Trail.

Yesterday’s ride was our most epic on record. We biked 127 miles, or 2.9% of our entire route, in a single day. We did this because we had to make it to Yorktown, VA by today; but more importantly, we did this because we felt compelled to give one final push towards the finish line. We wanted our penultimate riding day to be a memorable and tremendous culmination of our efforts.

With only three pit stops for coffee, bagels and lox, ice cream, chips, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we churned out our second 100+ mile ride in a row. We flew by church signs that read “fight truth decay, study your bible daily” and “life is fragile, handle with prayer.” We pedaled past historical plantations and battlefield sites. We didn’t stop to interact with the scenery, though, so my memory of eastern Virginia’s landscape is blurred.

At that level of physical intensity, for that amount of time, we couldn’t help but enter an altered state of consciousness. If there is such a thing as biker’s high, we were well on our way to an overdose.

Somewhere between the rushes of adrenaline and the complete depletion of energy, we occupied a meditative, nearly hallucinogenic space for hours. It was fun to see what our bodies are capable of, and how our brains respond to a draining endurance battle. Through brute determination, we showed our minds who’s boss.

After staking our claim to a sticky corner of linoleum floor in a fraternity basement at the College of William and Mary, we walked to the nearest all-you-can-eat restaurant. We feasted at a Chinese buffet and, although we wanted to party all night long, collapsed into our sleeping bags and went straight to sleep.

Today, 71 days after our start on the other end of this nation, we will pedal the remaining 13 miles to Yorktown, VA with smiles wider than this continent. The Yorktown Victory Monument is waiting to award us with hard-fought splendor and glory.

This illustrious level of achievement doesn’t come around very often, so we intend to celebrate in high fashion. In the meantime, we are off to the colonial streets to do some fine champagne and cigar shopping.

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Legs of Steel

3 Oct

DAY 69 — Intersection of SR 56 and Blue Ridge Parkway, VA (Road median) to Mineral, VA (Multi purpose room stage, Volunteer Fire Station).

Total mileage: 106.5
Total cycling time: 8:24
Average speed: 12.7
Maximum speed: 39.4

With our gear still soaked from a rainy night on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we woke up well before sunrise and pedaled our way out of Appalachia. To navigate yesterday’s thick fog and drizzle, we made sure to consume high-calorie fuel for the road: in addition to gas station snacks, we finished a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of multi-grain bread.

History is all around us in Virginia. People here seem to take an earnest and reverent interest in the relics of America’s past, such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello or James Monroe’s Ash Lawn. Unlike some scenes in the comparatively-young West, these places date back to the founding of our nation. It seems that the culture here is much more about preservation and remembrance, rather than a race for progress in a dynamic, tech-driven world.

We struck gold in the mining town of Mineral, VA. To celebrate another century ride, as well as the first day of October, we shopped for Friday night fajita dinner ingredients. The Volunteer Fire Station allowed us to sleep indoors and dry all of our clothing in their multi purpose room, cook our feast in a full service kitchen, and watch all the big screen television we could handle.

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It’s All Downhill From Here

1 Oct

DAY 68 — Troutville, VA (Food pantry floor, Troutville Baptist Church) to Intersection of SR 56 and Blue Ridge Parkway, VA (Road median).

Total mileage: 62.6
Total cycling time: 5:40
Average speed: 11.0
Maximum speed: 35.3

The last uphill battle of the trip is over. And we won.

First, though, we had to contend with two setbacks. The morning downpour kept us indoors until noon, and less than two hours later, Elliot’s rear treads were worn all the way through the kevlar lining. Luckily, an Australian cyclist stopped to give us a dollar bill to patch the tire until we procured a replacement at the next bike shop.

As we finally started to make progress, even though darkness was quickly setting in, we chose to ascend the notorious Mt. Vesuvius. As if our arrival secretly triggered a change in weather, the evening mist immediately intensified into a heavy rain. Due to Elliot’s damaged derailleur, he was only able to bike one-third of the way before grinding his pedals to a halt. In solidarity, I walked the remaining two-thirds of the winding road with him in total darkness and 100% humidity.

Just as we thought the worst was behind us, we couldn’t find a sheltered campsite area at the summit. So, we braved the cold, wet mess and set up our tents on a road median.

This was our worst campsite to date. The setting was miserable. Water had soaked its way through the lining as we were setting up the tents. Wind had blown the walls of our tents like delicate tissue paper. Dinner was the only part of the evening that wasn’t absolute hell: we each changed our clothing and did our best to stay dry, while gnawing on half of a poultry carcass and hunched over two chocolate chip muffins.

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Ask and You Shall Receive

30 Sep

DAY 67 — Radford, VA (Front lawn, Dr. Thaddius Lee’s home) to Troutville, VA (Food pantry floor, Troutville Baptist Church).

Total mileage: 60.7
Total cycling time: 5:10
Average speed: 11.7
Maximum speed: 33.7

Yesterday, we officially started to close in on our final destination. We unpacked the last map in our envelope, meaning that we’ve pedaled nearly 3,900 miles to date.

My sister was sure to give map twelve the ceremony it deserved. We waited in the Christiansburg, VA post office for two stomach-grumbling hours until a UPS truck appeared out of nowhere, with twelve (!) minutes to spare before the guaranteed delivery deadline. I bolted out to the street and chased the driver down to collect our deluxe deli shipment. Zabar’s, one of our favorite New York City food stores, did not disappoint: we immediately swallowed more than half of the 13 pounds of bagels, cream cheese, nova lox, rye bread, pastrami, mustard, and rugelach.

We then rode with bloated bellies through cold, foggy foothill weather to Catawba, VA, where Elliot picked up a spare tire and tube shipment.

As we began looking for a place to bed down last night, we thought about checking in at a motel to escape the inclement weather. Elliot remembered that Wednesday is bible study night in this part of the bible belt, though, so we decided to try our luck on church row.

First, we stopped in at a church and asked someone in the parking lot about a place to stay. Apparently, even as newcomers to a town, our reputation precedes us: she had actually heard about us at a nearby coffee shop where we sipped on some hot chocolate half an hour earlier. She said the church couldn’t take us in, but she did offer her home, five miles off route. We thanked her for the invitation and put it on hold as we continued to search for shelter on our route.

After hearing our story and plea, the pastor at the Troutville Baptist Church offered us hot coffee and a space in an annex house adjacent to the main church building. As it turns out, our bedroom is about to be converted into a local food pantry. Our charitable cause of hunger-relief makes this pit stop all the more fitting.

We ordered a pizza, turned the gas heater on full blast, and rested up for a big day of riding.

We’ve managed to avoid four inches of rain falling from the sky. Fortunately, we talked our way into securing a roof over our heads, just as torrential flash floods threatened to wash us off our path. Now, we are patiently waiting for this rainstorm to die down before we hit the road.

There is a lesson in all this solicitation. Time and time again, we have learned that it is always worthwhile to muster up the courage to ask for what we need. Granted, we do not have a 100% success rate, but most strangers have seemed willing to accommodate any reasonable request.
Call it brazen audacity, gall and gumption, raw guts, or just plain chutzpah — there is a reward for being bold and sticking your neck out. Through 67 days of trial and error, this journey has helped us uncover an unstoppable combination: knowing what you want and knowing why you want it is the golden key to opening doors and getting you places.

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The End is in Sight

29 Sep

DAY 66 — Damascus, VA (Bunk bed, “The Place” at the United Methodist Church) to Radford, VA (Front lawn, Dr. Thaddius Lee’s home)

Total mileage: 101.4
Total cycling time: 8:04
Average speed: 12.6
Maximum speed: 37.3

We haven’t yet left Appalachia, but the finish line is closer than ever. We can see it on our maps, we can feel it in the pavement, and we can smell it in the air.

More than once, we have recently admitted to each other that we are a little tired of being tired. We are looking forward to the day when our muscles can rest and completely recuperate, and when we can sleep for just a few more hours on a weekend. After our second 100+ mile day, we are feeling strong and proud of our accomplishments, but also growing weary of wet weather and gas station egg biscuit breakfast sandwiches.

Yesterday, morning fog soaked the outside of our rain jackets, and sweat saturated the inside of our rain jackets. Moist, overcast weather may be great for dairy cows, but as we climbed three steep hills in cold, wet conditions, we found ourselves peeling layers off and pulling layers on nearly every half hour.

Fortunately, as Elliot was repairing a flat tire on a road shoulder, two cyclists stopped to tell us about a place to spend the night in Radford, VA. Dr. Thaddius Lee rode the TransAmerica Trail with his two sons several years ago; ever since he was inundated with warm hospitality, he’s been dishing it out to needy cyclists.

We pitched our tents near the flagpole on his front lawn, and cooked a tasty pasta dinner with our camping stove in the Lee family’s warm, well-lit kitchen. We showered and helped ourselves to cereal in the morning.

Today, we’ll be moving on to our final map. After traversing an entire continent on two wheels, 367.5 miles is sure to go by in the blink of an eye.

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