RIDE ACROSS AMERICA DESTINATION NOWHERE
by Randy Ford
Over 3,000 miles in saddle. She and I. On bicycles. She always behind. I stay ahead. I always wait. Always wait for her. Waiting. Make notes while waiting I wait and then take off. Wait and then take off. Married. Married ten years. No children. No children yet. Loving relationship. Two people in constant motion. One person constantly playing catchup. Never sleep in same place. Never in motel or tent. Rarely under tarp. Always in open. One person always cooks. She cooks. Eat out of stores. Eat out of cans. Eat sardines every other day. Cross country. My idea. She tags along. Scarcely could afford it. Quit jobs and on shoestring.
She a social worker. Never wanted to go. Never wanted to leave East. Says she didn’t lose anything out West. Gave up home, family, friends. Gave up home, family, friends to go out West. Gave up home, family friends to go nowhere. Doesn’t know where we will end up. Doesn’t know how to tell me. Doesn’t know how to tell me “no.” Doesn’t know how to set her foot down. Drags feet. Hees and haws. Can she ever say” no” to me? Days long for her. Days in saddle exhaust her. Still she cooks. I set up camp. Set duties. Set routine. She a social worker. She should know better. I am locomotive. She is caboose.
I a sawmill worker. Worked on green chain. Night shift. Tossing lumber. Forty below. Didn’t matter. She a social worker. Should know better.
Put off having children. On pill. Obviously in agreement here. Population problem. Big problem. Biggest problem. Too many mouths to feed. Problem finding right bicycles. Right size. Right fit. Right saddle for her. Where to start? When to start? Where to go? Whether to go at all? Consider future. Leaving home, family, friends. Unless we love each other as a couple stay together as a couple because we love each other and show reciprocal affection we won’t make it. May kill each other. Only thing to say with confidence…it takes balls. Not something she would say. Male and female.
Tips. Start slow. Stay Safe. Follow rules. Remain hydrated. Ride with traffic, not against it. Equipment. Helmets. Water bottles. Pump. Tire repair kit. Spare inner tubes. Gloves. So thinking of taking a long ride? Buy saddles especially made for women. Buy right saddle for her because I have to keep her happy. Don’t be a fool.
American. Country? United States. From Maine to Nowhere Arizona. On bicycles. Heavily loaded. Too heavy! What to pitch to lighten the load? A heated debate. Been through it before. Yesterday. Day before. I set example. Gave away tent.
Everything same, same o same o, yet different. After long, tiring day different town to explore. Every town. A ritual now. New Portland, Strong, Mt. Blue State Park. Mt. Blue State Park battling mosquitos. Need tent. Tent too heavy. Conway, Lebanan, Rutland, Whitehall, Glen Falls and Saratoga Springs. Saratoga. Wasn’t there a famous battle fought here? Fort. Replica. Down to Albany. Loves me, hates, hates me for racing ahead. Leaves her behind all time. Wait on her all time. Gives time to write notes. Takes off as soon as she caches up. Exhaust her. Never catches up. And at end of day, I want to explore towns. She wants to collapse.
Evidence of male dominance. I’m the engine. She’s the caboose. On ride, definitely. After ride, also likely. Peddle day in and day out. Rain or shine. Without clear destination and without eye on future, me in front she behind…though most likely she enjoys some of it: downs, not so steep downs, one might argue up and down. For sure some days were for her. Then rain. Sun. Sweat. Wind, especially wind. May wind be always at your back. Wind, wind can be a threat. Wind also can be a threat. Burning sun. Long days and hot sun. All summer long. I lead. She follows. Sometimes hot. Sometimes cold…and thus at mercy of weather and terrain…I lead. She follows.
Drinking from dirty water bottles, or at least half-clean ones. A store, surely they have Sprite. Sprite in days before energy drinks or some such refreshment. A country store. Mom and pop. Retirement income. Pleasant. Nice break. I watch our loaded bikes. She goes insides. Looks for something nutritious. Have to eat. Have to drink. No junk. Sometimes not much. No pep pills. No pep. Always sardines. Grown to hate sardines. Never enough carbs. I love Dr. Pepper. No diet. Can use all calories I can get. Never enough carbs. Losing weight.
And why? Why argue with me? “What does Zen have anything to do with it?” she asks. Zazen. Sutras, Koans. Books don’t help. Bicycle Zen equals motorcycle Zen but definitely distinct from it because of effort involved. And what about bicycle maintenance? Like flat tires, funny noises, broken spokes, brake pad wear, drivetrain problems, chain slippage, and fingers all greasy and black…as though our first priority is to ignore symptoms until impending disaster occurs, as if safety were an afterthought. One almost imagines we plan these events.
“Hey, where you headed?”
“Hey, where you from?
“Up one hill and down another.”
“Never try to outrun a dog. Yell, ‘Go home!’”
Bicycling Zen. Can’t go too slow down a mountain, or too fast up one. Anticipating a hill defeats you before you get there. An attentive rider notes scenery instead of road ahead. We learned not to fret hills or fight wind, and fly on good days when wind is at our back. Search for right gear. Praise short climb, gentle grade, curse false summits, and pause at top. Enjoy balanced hills.
Simply put miles behind you. Let it happen.
An experience that should deepen our bond, baring mishap. God help! If one of us is involved in an accident! Say a car hits one of us. Or one of us takes a tumble. Or slips on a railroad track. A cattle guard. Oil slick. White stripe. Never hit a rooster. Avoid turtles. Avoid geese. Don’t brake too hard. And keep her in mind. So up or down walk when it gets really steep. And carefully choose route.
Look! A hawk! An eagle! Not an eagle. A turkey vulture! No, an airplane, a big, big bird. Not uncommon to catch attention of a horse, curious compared to a cow, singing to get your mind off all work. “Tie a yellow ribbon on the old oak tree,’ which neither one of us knows all words to. “I’m coming home/I’ve done my time/Now I’ve got to know what is or isn’t/if you receive my letter telling you I’d soon be…” A home all she ever wanted. Perfectly satisfied back in Maine.
Our ascent difficult. Our descent steep. Fear. Walk. Without a doubt, walk! Vermont certainly long and hard. Push up mountain. Up they go. “We’ll have to push our bikes up.” Down other side. Too steep to ride. “I can’t hold it.” “Yes, you can.” Resolute. She less so. In some ways steep downs are harder. Definitely scarier. New York certainly easier. Gentler. Along with green fields, flow of long reservoirs suggests relief. Skirt the Catskills. Almost all the way a gentle down. Even for her a breeze. She must be in better shape. I told her it would be, after she losses faith. No further urging on my part, no need for it. Fancy me letting her race ahead, enjoying it for the first time, yelling, “See yaw!” and me riding behind her. “See! What did I tell you?” before she’s put off by my attitude and tries to leave me behind. Payback time!
This masterful attempt finally has finally come to an end when she runs out of juice. Again the caboose, without which I feel bad. Reservoirs are for New York City. Water for New York City. As such, they never end, or seem not to. Whether or not it’s intended, water cools us, water and a gentle breeze: It makes our day, and pace increases and in fact rules out need for stops. Would follow us all the way except … but as a rule avoid big cities …or hitch a ride in and hitch a ride out…dangerous and a waste of time except where there are bike paths.
Which ones have them? What about glass, broken bottles and such? Some more crowded than roads are. Best ones go somewhere. Whatever conditions avoid New York City.
Our choice, of course. Back roads are better, whereas The City conjures up bright lights and Lady Liberty…by mutual agreement, note consent, after some small initial misgivings about Pennsylvania on the part of someone. A slight turn west, route 171 seems flat enough. As before it’s two lanes, 1) dairy farming, 2) cows, 3) poultry, and 4) hay. Rolls of hay left in field! Her accident. Her accident’s consequences. Road rash. Luckily, no more than that. Luckily, no more than road rash. Nothing broken. No broken bones. Don’t ask what happened. More embarrassing than anything.
Central question, route? Take easiest one. Not necessarily most direct. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense or does it? Do I misrepresent it, or not? Another false summit, or what? Can’t always tell on a map.
Though directly west, a series of mountains. Bald Eagle Mountain, North Mountain, South Mountain, Appalachian Mountains. Best way through Appalachian Mountains Old National Road in Maryland. Then we can only surmise …get to Maryland, south of Mason Dixon Line, but there’s first Pennsylvania. And who chooses route? Who has primary responsibility? I lead, she follows, of course, however now willingly. I take her to Scranton, then Wilks Barre. Wilks Barre on Fourth of July. Then followed Susquehana. Smart move. Takes her along … winding river. Bless me. Then, Harrisburg. And as long as we stay on west bank, we avoid big city.
But we’re forgetting about Gettysburg. I have to see Gettysburg. And Harpers Ferry. Curse me! Curse Harpers Ferry. Anyone who’s been to Harpers Ferry knows her frustration. Harpers Ferry totally unnecessary. Lets me know it. Lets me know it. She finally tells me “no.” She finally puts her foot down. So we skip Harpers Ferry. So let’s just skip it.
A good way to go and avoid West Virginia, follow old US 40. Scenic but not too difficult. I content myself over choosing right route. But by then she’s somewhat in shape, leaving problem of how to avoid Interstate, and those who know her knows she remains a skeptic. Whatever, I still lead. Another instance of thick-headedness. And to top it off her frustration, and as everyone knows, West Virginia can’t be totally avoided, but almost near end of mountains. And from there nothing but blues skies and clear sailing. Almost. Not quite. That’s clear.
And she still follows me, at a quicker pace, as she increases stamina. Still twice effort for her than for me, but doesn’t complain. No. However someday…yes someday… yes someday she will let me know. I know because she told me “no” once.
Justice. Call it a Spade. Still I’m in lead. Back into Pennsylvania, across a little sliver of West Virginia, and into Ohio. For now: Ohio…
And following National Pike, a historical route, over old arch bridges and a suspension bridge across the Ohio. There’s Fort Duquesue. Through Allegheny Mountains. Up and down, but manageable. No longer pure drudgery for Pat; somewhat reversing order of things (I almost fall, Pat brakes in time, all’s well…) close to parity for once. Both of us enjoy road, first in America to use macadam road surfacing, but I am still in front. Distance between us is to me inconsequential but to her is real. I remain in front.
Justice unrealized, I don’t see it since I still race ahead, but she’ll have her day, so let me have mine. Punishment. Punishment enough for now when I almost take a tumble: a close call. Catch myself in time. She almost runs into me. Avoid losing skin, road rash, and embarrassment, so I haven’t earned a badge yet. Assuming she can keep up with me will Pat ever assume lead, I wonder, or will she stay behind? And if indeed she assumes lead and takes responsibility, will she give it back or try to race me?
We cross Suspension Bridge over Ohio without stopping or enjoying river. Without a flat tire, or lunch fixings, having just eaten in Wheeling, cross into Ohio, and climb into another town without enjoying view, without enjoying river. We could’ve picnicked on a bank of Ohio, but instead I peddle on and Pat doesn’t cry foul. Yes, we missed something. No, we can’t see everything, which has become clear…and, I’m never willing to backtrack, never take responsibility for missing something, which reinforces observation that it doesn’t pay to hurry.
To give a day to day account of our ride across America is not within scope of my given text, however it’s not an excuse for skipping highlights. So what happens in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois? Not resting on Sundays, we coast past many churches, thinking maybe we should stop, but never do…because we’re too dirty and smelly and didn’t bring clothes for it, but no one takes time to invite us in either. Where did Hopewell Indians build their mounds (near Athens)? And we’re never quite sure, not sure of much, and miss world’s largest horseshoe crab (which may disprove evolution), miss Biblewalk and The Living Bible Museum and miss Cincinnati Police Museum (instead of going into city, we camp in a meadow in front of a huge dam). I agree that it’s better to push on than to stop and see these attractions, so then on to Indiana.
Insomuch as Indiana (and Kansas for that matter) is supposed to be flat and when this assertion about southern part is false, only topic they like to talk about when they think of the state of Indiana is basketball. (But how can we forget last night sleeping on the ground with friendly skunks? Or losing Pat’s glasses down inside the cinder-block wall of a shower?) We are basketball fans, so I insist that we ride through French Lick. French Lick. Yes, French Lick. So that I can say we rode down Larry Bird Street, but otherwise French Lick is a disappointment (have it my way, and it’s disappointing). Then cross the Wabass and into Illinois at Mt. Carmel and together ride across Illinois separately. Well. We just crossed the Mississippi, mighty Mississippi at Chester. Scary bridge. There’s no way we can miss the Mighty Mississippi, not this time. But too much traffic for comfort. Across three states, what we miss we miss, what we see we see, and have to write off rest. But I still lead, have no badges for taking a tumble, and once again it’s time for us to do laundry. Time in a Laundromat is always catch-up time, time for writing and restoring our strength. Necessary, everyday tasks seem to take up so much time, but why rush? On tour when we don’t know where we’ll end up each night. When we’re out of something to wear, we have to stop. Pat takes care of dirty, smelly laundry, while I write and relax, in hot Laundromats, a stop we have to make once or twice a week. As we were taught early on, we feel better when we’re clean, and both of us try our best but like so many things on a tour it’s not always possible.
Now in Missouri, or Misery depending on her mood. As was the case in every state…to look where we’ve been and where we’re going…she’s never quite sure or if we’re on same page…isn’t quite sure when she’ll run out of oomph and will push herself until she says she’s had enough.
Likewise, in Missouri
I have always wanted to leave my mark in the Ozarks (as well as the Rockies), and set some sort of record and prove myself in a big way, an obsession that actually stems from…I don’t want to be honest. So I don’t go there, or maybe I don’t know why I often choose impossible routes, bite off more than I can chew, and sometimes have to turn back…though it’s the last thing I ever want to do.
That’s it! Conqueror of the Ozarks. Pat is less than enthusiastic. I wouldn’t know because I am all charged up and ready to go (together with my legs) but unlike Pat who has clearly become an accessory. Hurt of this is coupled with exhaustion and the fact that we’ve been on the road for more than thirty days. I still don’t look back, and it rubs her wrong. Hence her fury is understandable when I’m full of octane.
“You go ahead, Honey. But wait for me on the top.” When she makes it to the top, I’m sitting resting beside the road, so I’m ready to go.
Lean, muscular, and confident. Another down and another up, and she catches up each time on summit. Each time fully rested by the time she appears. Off I go each time before she recovers. It’s as if we climb different mountains, the same road but different mountains- also, in my case because of ease with which I climb each mountain, a gulf between us widens. Widens and widens, she’s no longer on speaking terms with me, but I don’t know it yet. Don’t sense it even.
As my pre-adult urges kick in, I fly down winding mountains, feeling invincible and mindless of danger. On other hand, she tells herself she has to ride at her own pace, ride her brakes, and it frustrates her that she can’t do better. She thinks about how easily I could pummel off a drop-off and plunge to my death. Or hit a guardrail. But I feel invincible. Now my adrenaline is really flowing. I fly sans helmet. Down sans helmet. Mindless sans helmet. Stupid sans helmet. Stupid rush sans helmet. Could kill me when she catches up with me. She thinks they must have a face-to-face talk.
On we go, me in front, she outraged, enraged, still grappling with hurt. Weather threatening. Lighting. Get inside. Stop at a corner store. Put on rain capes. Ride rest of day in rain. Okay. Rain. More rain. Okay. Actually enjoyable. No dogs. Few cars. We can’t believe our luck. Hills and hills and hills. Some are balanced. Some are not. High speed. Almost equal. That’s better. Flooded road. Wind at our back, saving grace. Hail, wind, and rain. Wind and hills be damned. Continue west. Fights over without settling score. She swallows her pride or lets it go. Stops looking for a way to get even. Her mother warned her that it wouldn’t always be easy and always said never go to bed angry. Clear skies at last. No need for a tarp. Ground cloth, air pad, sleeping bag enough. Stretches out looking at stars and extends her hand to me. Thinks she might read her novel but gives up. I grin at her. She can barely hold her eyes open. Tomorrow another long day, tomorrow. I feel satisfied. I sleep on my side with my back to her. I’ll sleep well. She’ll have to steel herself again.
She won’t recall much of Oklahoma (only that there are more hills and that she gets to meet for first time real Indians. Chickasaw Indians.), except she feels stronger, much stronger, and feels she can make it, but does she want to? But where were we going? She doesn’t remember speaking about it with me, although she can’t imagine not doing so. Kind of gets into a rhythm. Became kind of an expert at reading my thoughts. My moods. Very sensitive to my moods. Kind of sees through me. And I want to be her closest friend…in fact I am her only friend because she’s left all of her other friends behind, though she never wanted to and could feel bad about it, if she would let herself.
Meet people along the way. Wonderful people. People who invite us into their homes. Curious people. People want to know where we’re from…where we’re going. I always tell them “we’re heading to Nowhere.” The Kings, the Livingstons, the Jeffcoats. Miz Williams. Going to Nowhere? Yes! Experience has taught us that it’s better not to say too much. It’s fun to stay cool, though not uncivil. And people like to hear about our experiences, roads we’d bicycled, from Memorial Day through Labor Day but hopefully not through Thanksgiving and Christmas, about peddling across mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, through the Adrondacks and over the Appalachians, the Ozarks (and don’t forget the Arbukles and Turner Falls. Ah, Turner Falls and baths!), always mountains. Mountains are my beacons. And everyone agrees that both of us deserve medals.
“Geronimo!” I tell her that we have to see Geronimo’s grave. “Geronimo!” It’s what kids yell when they jump off something. It’s what kids yell when they jump off something and break an arm. I still yell it when I’m about to dive in over my head, and now facing the Wild West… Geronimo! Warrior’s legend lives on. His spirit is certainly around, but as far as his grave is concerned, are Geronimo’s bones still there? Pat doesn’t insist on a route or even suggests that we skip something though it may make more sense to go another way. She doesn’t dare say how she feels or that she hasn’t lost anything in Texas. I set aside a whole day for Texas’ Grand Canyon, and she doesn’t mind because she gets to take a shower. Then before we cross into New Mexico, we finish with stark, plaintiveness of the Panhandle. This part of Texas is flat, really flat so flat that it seems to take hours to get to grain elevators or water towers after they emerge from horizon. Pat concedes that stop in the canyon is well worth it. She passively supposes that she wouldn’t have made it across Texas without a shower. But I have a new destination in mind, and Pat with her usual reluctance falls in line. She doesn’t trust me and hasn’t for a long time. She really doesn’t think that we can see the Trinity Site (where world’s first atomic bomb was exploded on July 16, 1945), nor is interested in someday developing cancer because of a whim of mine.
Only first, as with Geronimo’s grave, I have to see where Billy the Kid is buried (one of two or three graves with his name on it and depending on who you believe). Pat says nothing; she knows better. Mercifully, Ft. Sumner isn’t out of way, but I insist on looking for graves of other outlaws, while she’s bored and hot, and I find graves of Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre, both killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett’s posse. Then I have to go to Lincoln and spend time there reliving the Lincoln County War. That takes us through Roswell, extraterrestrial Roswell, and then when we get to Lincoln I promise not to be too long. So I park her under shade of a tree, while I explore main street or highway, which means I read every historical marker about war…as if I’ll remember it all. Then of course, it’s fool-hearted to think we can get to the Trinity site, but when we pass Smoky the Bear’s birthplace I don’t know it. Indeed, along the highway there’s no marker or turnoff to test site (or we miss it), only a tiny store at Bingham about halfway between Carrizozo and San Antonio, a full day in saddle for us. As a way of compensation, I go into store and buy a “mushroom cloud” T-shirt, which I’m incline to wear all the time. For Pat, an unexpected victory comes in Magdalene when she spies rock formation called Lady on the Mountain before I do, and I can’t help but gorge on pie in Pietown…incidentally Pat scores another one here because I should know better. Yes, of course.
I remain in the dark about these small victories because she doesn’t hit me over the head with them: as well as other victories, such as riding out of Salt River Canyon in Arizona without stopping. I don’t quite understand why she does it. And at the top, she rides on without stopping and leaves me sitting there beside highway thinking she’s pissed. “But why?” I don’t know the answer and don’t know why it’s suddenly important to her. I don’t see or maybe I don’t want to. But it makes as much sense as choosing to go down and up Salt River Canyon on bicycles, or having Nowhere as a destination. Nowhere, Arizona, a tiny village with a bar and a gas station, straddles Highway 93 a few miles south of Burro Creek, a rock hound heaven. And why Nowhere? Ask me. Nowhere, to me, is as good a destination as say Rattlesnake, Rye or Why, (other villages in Arizona). Now having conquered Salt River Canyon, we’re forced to go through Phoenix to get to Nowhere, unless we backtrack (up and down Salt River Canyon again) to Flagstaff and follow a mountainous and round-about way to Nowhere. Pat certainly prefers it to going through or getting killed in Phoenix. Except I have a rule about backtracking and don’t do it if I can help it. So she’s stuck, or is she?
I may someday perhaps learn. Although it’s highly unlikely. I’ll always tell people I enjoyed my ride across America. I don’t know what she’d say. I usually don’t mention Pat.