We stopped riding on Thursday afternoon around three. Since then I’ve cried some, laughed some, remembered so much and tried to decipher how I could have cursed myself, my load and the road so many times along the way–not to mention my seat–yet loved the road so much that I’m longing for it now.
Monday evening, the day before Halloween, my friend Charlotte and her husband Paul stopped by the house to pick me up. Paul came to the porch to get my packed up bike and I still remember how his eyebrows shot up when he tried to lift it. It gave me a chill. I’d already questioned my decision so many times and in so many ways. I’d originally told Charlotte when she asked that I’d try to go. Then I decided not to. Then I said yes again and I put in a request for the time off of work. And then about a hundred times at the last minute I’d tried to figure a way to back out. As always when I need to do something big, getting myself out the door is the most difficult part. Past all the “but what if’s.” Paul’s eyebrows jerking up at the weight of my bike let me know I was right to be as nervous as I was. This was something I’d never done before, as well as something I’ve always dreamed of doing. But I was scared, and suddenly regretting that I hadn’t at least practiced riding with weight before starting on a journey across North Carolina.
The three of us piled into the truck , Charlotte and I with our bikes and gear, and took the hour drive out to Ywharrie, getting there at dark. Paul dropped us off with all our shit and left. We walked out into the trees at the campsite to put up tents in the cold, dark wilderness. That first night sleeping was probably the best night I had. Paul had lent me his super serious sleeping bag and I couldn’t have been warmer, but we woke in the morning to 38 degrees. We packed up our stuff in the early morning, wolfed down a breakfast of hot oatmeal, and headed out on the gravel road towards the highway just as dawn began to break.
That was our beginning. Charlotte had planned the route, along with campsites and stops so I just had to show up and go. I just had to ride the miles. That first morning we rode through Mount Gilliad (yes, here mount means what you think it means) and lots of other small towns. I was stunned by the old town squares of the towns we passed through along the way that first morning, each looking like it jumped right from screen of a fifties era movie. I really struggled to keep pace with Charlotte on the hills. On some of them I’d lose site of her completely, but then at the top of some long stretch, there she’d be, waiting for me to catch up. On one of those hills, I remember asking myself if I was going to be able to ride the whole way, and not being sure. My feet were blocks of ice in the cold morning, my hair was soaked in sweat and my mind was telling me a million reasons to turn around and go home.
I cried a few times through those foothills. But I mainly tried to remember to keep pedaling. It helped that in the first hour of our ride I spotted a heron spreading it’s wings to take off from the ground. Have you ever seen that? How small a heron looks while sitting on the ground? They’re no larger than chickens really, or not much. But then they spread out and fly, and you see how much power comes from spreading your wings.
So while I huffed it up each hill and dreamed of flatter land while cursing all the things I’d brought, I tried to keep that in mind. But I did begin to dread each hill we went down, each bottom we reached. Bottoms meant climbing out. At one point I apologized to Charlotte for being slower than she was and she just said that even though we’re doing this together, we each have to take our own journey to get there. I thought, “Easy words for the fast climber.” But she was right.
I think the best part of that day was that we were actually done with riding before two o’clock. We made it all the way to Aberdeen with plenty of afternoon left to just relax. We semi-stealth camped next to a lake in the park, though Charlotte had called ahead and asked if we could, made dinner and headed to bed by dusk. That night it was warm enough so that for the first time in my life, I camped without putting my rain flap on the tent. Instead I spent my last awake hour looking up at the sky and watching the track of the nearly full moon. Somewhere along the way I fell asleep to the sound of crickets, the occasional sound of a goose honking on the lake, and the skittering of creatures in the dense pine forest. Not a bad way to spend Halloween evening when you think about it.
That wonderful sleeping bag was one of my favorite things from camping. I loved climbing into it and hated climbing out in the mornings. The second morning dawned less cold than the first, so I wore lighter clothing and packed up my cold weather gloves and my hat. We stumbled out of the forest just as dawn hit the lake right next to us and lit the sky and water aflame. In all my life, I’ll never forget the dawn of that morning in Aberdeen. At the corner store we chugged cold starbucks doubleshot cans and headed out for our second day of riding. Down our first street we noticed a city worker hanging Christmas decorations on the street lights and stopped to say good morning. When we told him we were biking to Wilmington he said we were crazy. I told him he was crazy for hanging Christmas decorations the first of November, but I wished him a good day anyway.
80 miles that second day. After climbing out of the bottom that was Aberdeen, we finally began to hit the flat land I’d been hoping for, but 80 miles of flat land is still 80 miles, carrying the weight of one tent, one sleeping bag, one sleeping pad, a pack full of food, a waterproof bag of clothes and a sack of toiletries, all of that making my bike so heavy in back I could barely lift it. Yet even with all that weight, the flats were heavenly.
On our trip I peed outside a lot, including in the brambles at the edge of a field the second day riding. Along the way that second morning a gentleman stopped to talk to us and ask if we needed anything since Charlotte was stopping to double check directions after a turn (she was very thorough that way, so that we never got lost). In Raeford Charlotte hurt her knee and I think we both wondered if we’d have to end trip. It was so interesting to me because for two days I’d been complaining in my brain about having to ride so far, and it would have been easier to just stay home, and maybe this wasn’t the great idea I’d always thought it was (I’d been itching to bike tour since my twenties). But when Charlotte hurt herself I panicked. It struck me how very much I wanted us to finish this ride. How very much I wanted to make it to our next campsite and how much I loved the road I was on. We got back on the road after a while and I was so worried, because I thought we might actually need to stop riding, but Charlotte, when I suggested it, yelled at me that she didn’t want to stop, and that we were going to keep riding. I think it’s one of the most awesome “feats of strength” I’ve ever seen, of someone refusing to yield, of someone just determined to get there. I knew she was hurt, and I worried how much, but at the same time, Charlotte’s determination was pretty spectacular.
That was the day of the never-ending ride. The red clay earth of the Piedmont gave way to grassy sand and tall pines. We rode past a hundred or so cotton fields that day, and more churches than I can remember seeing. Our biggest challenge and upset of that day was trying to make a left turn into a gas station on the rode across 95 and having the driver behind us get an attitude. But on the whole trip, that’s the only real rudeness I remember. That was the day I ate too much lunch and burped peanut butter for two hours. That was the day we lay on the side of the road five hours into the ride in the warm afternoon trying to work ourselves up to making the rest of the trip (we had about 30 miles left at that point). Because of Charlotte’s knee, we took quite a few breaks that day and the next. The first town we saw after that we stopped at an Arbys for a good thirty minutes. It’s so funny the things you’ll crave on a tour. I craved straight up coke at least once a day (which i never drink). I ate a whole bag of cheetoes (three servings) in one evening. Every time I ate something it tasted like the best thing I’d ever eaten. We got into a groove out there. You pedal until you run out of fuel and you stop and refuel. At the end of the day you sleep. It’s weird falling into that, the kind of active our ancestors were where food becomes something necessary and precious, so connected to our movement and survival. We got back on the road after that with 18 miles to go, and I believe those final 18 were the longest of my life. We’d both hit our limit with time in the saddle, so I started pedaling, adjusting, standing for a few seconds. Pedaling, adjusting, standing. All the rest of the way to Jones Lake I did that. We pedaled into the park right before dusk, just as one of the best looking park rangers I’ve ever seen was driving out. He directed us to our campsite and told us who to call if we should need anything and to call the police if there was any trouble. I loved our campsite at Jones Lake State Park. There was a rather rustic bathroom and shower, but it felt like a spa after two days without a shower. I stayed in there a lot longer than my usual five minutes of shower, trying to rub the smell of Desitin off my body and the salt out of my hair. There were several retired couples camped out there in campers or tents. We had another evening of full moon, and when I got back to the campsite which was flat, sandy and shaded with tall pine trees, we shared a dinner of rice and channa massalla from a packet and went to bed pretty fast. If I’d had time, I’d have stayed another day or two at Jones Lake. I loved the solitary beauty of that place, the quiet, flat, sandy earth and the warm humid evening where I again tracked the path of the moon across the sky until I fell asleep.
That next morning we actually slept until after seven, and got out after first light. We tore down camp in record time, peed, shoved down breakfast bars, chugged water and headed out for our last ride of the journey. Something felt different the last day. I don’t know if it was our proximity to Wilmington (we still had 66 miles of pedaling to do), or knowing we’d be doing it on flat land, or just that my body was so accustomed to the work that I saw it in a whole different way. I wanted to get on the road and I felt something akin to joy–a spark in my step.
We made our way out of Baiden Lake National Forest, and got to our first turn only to spot a gas station. So we took our first break of the day fairly early for the coffee we needed and we knew they had inside. Really, it was a perfect stop. I walked in and smelled biscuit. There were delicious, handmade biscuits in the warmer next to the register, and when i asked if there were any “just egg” biscuits, the clerk looked at me like I had three heads. I considered for just a minute, but I’d woken up three times during the night so hungry. The breakfast bar seemed like I dreampt it, and those biscuits smelled better than anything. So yes, I had bacon on my biscuit, and I haven’t eaten bacon in about twenty years. There was a little sitting area along the windows of the station, so we sat with our biscuits and coffee, and I eavesdropped on the group of old farm men seated next to us. I love old men who gather for breakfast. There’s something so sweet about it. They sat there shooting the shit while we planned our last day on the road and reveled in the deliciousness of bacon/egg biscuits in the South. As they were leaving, the clerk let everyone know that someone’s son had paid for everyone’s coffee.
We got on the road after that and worked hard until lunch. I waited for moments of small farm communities that broke up the sandy green, pine tunnels of monotony. We rested when we needed to until we finally came to a stopping place for lunch at our turn onto Blueberry Road. For the second time in two days we had lunch on the ground next to the garbage cans in a parking lot. We split a cold double shot espresso drink, I slugged down a power aide and tried to remember not to eat too much, and we got back on the road within an hour, over halfway there and itching to finish riding.
At the intersection of 421 I commented on how varied the fauna was, then I looked down and spotted a sprite and water bottle in the grass. We’d shaken our heads about this a lot along the way, how people are so willing to dump trash just anywhere. A refrigerator in a creekbed, plastic bags of trash left along the side of the road. I said, darkly, “Oh, and here we have the very rare sprite bottle plant.” We laughed and headed onto hwy 421 which comically had more than one “Share The Road” sign on it. It was the final push into town and we just did our best. As we got closer to Wilmington traffic picked up and the ride was pretty stressful, and then we had to make the turn onto 74 and hop up onto the bridge over the river. That was the only really dreadful part of the ride, getting onto that bridge, which has metal mesh instead of asphalt right in the middle. When I saw it I was terrified and had to remind myself to breathe, plus probably the only way over it was to hold my handlebars steady and pedal to the other end. Cars were coming fast and we waited for our opening to move over out of the turn lane. Then finally, some guy in an Audi just stopped and let us go. We were finished and off that bridge.
I’ve spent the days since that trip so quiet and overwhelmed. Trying to process something so very amazing, hard, lovely, difficult and wonderful. I’m not sure how that all works together. We were awake from dawn to dusk every day. Awake and alive. Two women riding and camping alone. I’ve missed it every day since I got home. I’ve looked for lessons in it, but I’m not sure I can find greater meaning. It’s really just the most basic, the most simple way of being in the world. Riding out on a gravel road on a cold morning at dawn, watching steam rise off the water, catching a tree frog on your tire, setting up a tent in the dark, watching a monarch land on your friend’s sandwich, tracking the path of the moon at night, drinking when you’re thirsty, eating when you’re hungry and sleeping when you’re tired. It’s the quiet rhythm of life, carrying only what you need with you and nothing more.