Chapter 33 - Kids on Bikes
At 10:30 on Thursday morning we left, rode very carefully down the steep driveway—and quickly stopped at a signal from Dan. "That light Papa made me take is rubbing the wheel," he announced. "I need to adjust it." Adjustments proved futile, so Daniel removed it. A few minutes later, we turned onto the highway toward Bozeman and stopped again, as Kaya and Ken came up behind us in the car.
"Daniel, you forgot your sandals." Ken's face was a study, tight and tense and trying to smile.
"Hey dad, thanks!" Daniel said cheerily. "That would have been bad!" Ken didn't smile.
"Well, now's the time for final good-byes, I guess," said Jesse. There was a general round of hugging, and once again I thanked the family for hosting me. Then we were riding again, Ken leaning out the back of the car with a camera, snapping furiously.
"Goodbye!" we yelled.
"Goodbye!" they yelled back. "Have a safe trip!" Kaya was crying. "God bless you all!" And we were alone, me riding behind the green and blue recumbents, their orange flags waving merrily above the owl feather that each had attached to a fishing-pole on the back of his bike.
"This is just the life!" Daniel yelled over to me. "It's like I'm on an easy chair that's coasting down the street!" His grin was plastered ear-to-ear, and Jesse and I couldn't help smiling.
"They are pretty comfortable, aren't they, Dan?" Jesse said. I pulled up behind Daniel to say something, and a merrily-waving orange flag smacked me in the face.
"OW!" I said. "This is just great. You guys will be riding your easy chairs for the next three weeks, and I'll be riding behind, getting my eyes poked out." We were all laughing now, pedaling into a breeze and a gorgeous Montana morning. Hay fields stretched out on either side of us in the narrow valley, and soon we reached Bozeman.
Then it was urban chaos, four lanes of traffic and stoplights, and we were very small. Once, Dan lost control of his bike at a red light and it fell over, top-heavy because all his stuff was carried on the rear rack.
We were supposed to meet a newspaper reporter in front of K-Mart so the local paper could do a piece about Jesse and Daniel and their recumbents. The reporter didn't show, however, and all we did was serve as a distraction for shoppers entering the store. Curious people immediately surrounded us, and Daniel and Jesse fielded questions about their bikes.
"Don't you fall over?"
"How do you ride them things?"
"What—you built them? *Yourself?* Hey John, c'mere—this kid built these crazy bikes…"
While a crowd surrounded the guys, two women rode up on mountain bikes. "Hello!" one of them said to me, as she locked her bicycle to the nearby rack. "You look pretty loaded-down! Where are y'all going—where'd you ride from?"
"Well, we're heading to Oregon, but we're coming from different places. Jesse and Daniel live here—it's their first day on the road—and I'm coming from Virginia." *Virginia.* Suddenly that sounded very far away.
"Wow—all the way across the country… What an amazing trip! Do you mind me asking—what's the hardest part been? I mean, I've thought of doing things like that, but I don't know… I'm scared, I guess."
I thought for a minute. The hardest part… "You know, the hardest part is that I've never gone for such a long time with so few hugs. Really and truly, that's hard!"
The woman looked at me with instant understanding. "Geez, That must be hard, meeting strangers every day…" She trailed off. Then she smiled. And then, there in the K-Mart parking lot, this stranger and I embraced each other as the shopping rush whirled around us.
After we ate lunch, the roads were noticeably less crowded and we were back in the land of two-lane roads with minimal traffic. "It's just so beautiful!" I kept saying, over and over. The landscape was big. Sagebrush ruled the countryside, but it was still greener than Wyoming.
"Yeah," said Jesse. "But wait till we get up north. Isn't Montana fantastic?"
The last hour of the ride was hot, and I rode behind with Daniel. Jesse was fast on the hills; Daniel and I were not. Also, it had been a lot of miles for the guys' first day, and Dan was hot and slightly sunburned. He heroically held onto his grin, but it was getting pretty strained as we rode up the last few hills. We didn't pull into Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park until after 7:00.
"I don't think I can move another muscle, Jesse," said Daniel. "I know we gotta put up the tent, but I don't think I can do it." His grin was still there, but it was a very tired Daniel who lay prone on the picnic bench.
"Dan, you want dinner, right? Well, then get up and put up the tent." Jesse wasn't smiling. "This is gonna be a hard trip, and you're going to have to get used to it at some point."
"I know, I know." Dan sighed. "Whose idea was it, anyway? This trip, I mean?” He looked at his brother’s face. “All right, all right, I'm setting up the tent…!" Jesse did smile then, and the three of us set up camp in the nearly empty campground.
When our respective dinners were prepared, we sat in the deepening twilight and ate quietly. The setting sun cast amazingly long shadows on the ground, and the mountain across the highway was lit with an unearthly glow. For a moment I looked at our little group and thought, *This is so cool! There's no adult in charge of us—we're just kids on bikes.*
Yet a strange tension hung over the table between Jesse and me. He seemed upset about something, and I was trying to figure out if I was being paranoid (a definite possibility), or if I had offended him in some way. While riding today, we'd had several conversations when, although we didn't exactly argue, we didn't exactly agree. And it always seemed like our exchanges were tinged with competition. I must just be paranoid.
After dinner there was a flaming red sunset over the mountains, and as it set the sage-scented winds blew in a storm. The sun lit up the immense thunderhead and I could see the fingers of rain, fiery red in the light.
Then there was a violent flash of lightning, followed immediately by a powerful crack of thunder, and we scurried for our tents. *It's good to be inside,* I thought, as rain pelted my tent, *but sometimes it's lonely in here…*
The next morning, the sun rose over the mountains, casting a delicate light over the landscape, and we got up early. We rode deeper into a gray granite canyon, and we made it about fifteen miles with no problems. In Cardwell, though, we got onto the Interstate. It was deafeningly loud, and although the shoulder was wide, cars and enormous tractor-trailers screamed by at high speeds. There was broken glass everywhere, and it was a miracle that we didn’t get any flats. Plenty of other events made up for that piece of luck, however. We were headed over Homestake Pass, and a half-mile up, Jesse's first breakdown occurred: his chain popped apart.
In a moment, all of the trepidation I’d had about the recumbents last week flooded back. *Oh my gosh,* I thought. *Now those bikes are gonna fall apart all the way to Oregon. I can’t believe that Jesse and Dan didn’t make sure to finish them in time to test ride them! Didn’t we discuss departure dates back in* March?
*Oh, stop it,* another part of me said. *It’s only a popped chain. There’s no reason for it to happen again. You’ve just got something against Jesse, and you’re mad at him for no reason. What if* you *got a flat tire or something happened to* your *bike? Wouldn’t you want them to be patient with you?*
But all of that was in my head, and we stopped on the shoulder for Jesse to put his chain together again. The sun beat down solidly. A half-hour later, he finally got the link back on.
Scarcely had we gone two miles, however, then something happened to Dan’s top chain roller. I wasn't sure what went wrong—maybe it stripped. After that, Jesse’s chain popped again. Then, Dan’s bottom chain roller failed. By some stroke of luck we made it up the pass, traffic and heat and breakdowns notwithstanding—and then it was my turn.
With storm clouds looming on the horizon, I wiggled my right foot in my pedal. But something didn't feel right—it was too loose. “Hey guys!” I yelled, embarrassed. “Now it’s my turn to stop!” They turned back.
“Well, no offense, but I’m glad that something happened to you, too—I was beginning to think that Dan and I were cursed or something, but maybe it’s the moon!” Our smiles were strained as I set to work tightening the cam on the bottom of my shoe, which had worked itself loose after 3,700 miles. It took only five minutes, for which I was thankful, and then we were on the road again, the wind pushing me along the behind the orange flags of the recumbents. I tried to think about topics other than breakdowns and potential disasters.
On Sunday the wind was good, the grades weren't steep, and aside from dismal piles of mine tailings in the town of Anaconda, it was all scenic mountain views. But there were more problems with Jesse's chain, causing a couple of hours' worth of delays. By the time we'd reached the campground, I was tired and not enjoying Jesse's company. My journal entry that afternoon was full of self-analytical wordiness, as I pondered that curtain of tension that hung between us.
All day, it seemed, whether our conversation turned to religion, politics, or anything in general, we always ended up debating. I got the feeling that Jesse thrived on debate; I, however, did not. Anyone would admit that he was good at it, while I was more likely to try to prove my point by saying, “Well, I just know that because—uh—I read it in a book somewhere…I think…or maybe in a magazine.” Not only do I dislike arguing, I dislike the feeling I get when I'm defensive and can't articulate my point of view.
We talked about Judaism in the afternoon, and even though we are both Jewish, I discovered that we had plenty to disagree about. Jesse said that every person should pick one religion and stick to it. I said I needed to find my own way of expressing my ideas of spirituality and "god," and that I'd never seen a religion that really made sense. He said that you had to accept your religion's flaws—discipline was part of it. If you only accepted the things you liked, you'd get lazy. I disagreed. And on and on it went, until I wished that we could shut off the conversation already and not act like this was a boxing match. I wished we could have a regular conversation, where there was natural give-and-take and not so much dissection of the other person's point of view.
When dinner was over that night, Jesse and I sat at the picnic table thinking our own thoughts. Moonlight flickered vaguely through the trees, and Daniel went into his tent. After a few minutes, Jesse turned to me and said, "I've been wanting to talk about something for a couple days, and now seems like as good a time as any. Have you noticed that there's like—that it's like there's some kind of tension between me and you…?"
"Yeah!" I said, relieved that he'd brought it up first. "Definitely. I've been thinking it's in my head or something, but I guess not."
"No... I was thinking we shouldn't let it get any worse."
We talked for two hours, and didn't come up with much.
Finally Jesse said, "…I think that before this trip, we—or at least I—had some kind of vague idea that…you know…like, somehow we'd have mutual crushes on each other and we'd sort of meet and click and everything. You know."
"Yeah, I guess maybe I did too," I admitted. "But now it's obvious that that isn't going to happen, and that we don't want it to happen." No, Jesse agreed, it wasn't and we didn't.
"And see, that's another thing though," he added. "It sounds silly to say this, but I really don't know how to relate to women if I'm not romantically involved with them…"
The night sounds rustled comfortably in the dark woods. "Maybe Dan has some ideas," I said after awhile. I didn't have any at that moment. “Hey Dan!"
"Don't you get me involved now!" Daniel warned from the depths of the tent.
"No, don't get involved—we just want some ideas from someone who's on the 'outside.' "
"Well, okay," he said, "I just don't want to get in the middle. Promise you won’t put me in the middle!" He slithered out of the tent. "But as you know, I always like to say what I think, and I *have* been thinking about how you guys argue all the time." He grinned. Dan wasn't one to mince words, but somehow you never minded. "You're both the same in lots of ways—your personalities, I mean. You're both the oldest of big families, and you're both used to being The Boss—at least, I know Jesse is and I can guess already that Sarabeth is, too. So I think it's hard for both of you to be in a situation where neither of you is the boss. Jesse always likes to have friends who let him be in charge, I've noticed."
"Well, I'm not so sure about that, Dan…" said Jesse stiffly.
I still wasn't sure where that left us. Did Jesse and I just have incompatible personalities? The one good thing that came from the talk was that I saw glimmers of who Jesse was, behind the reserved façade that he usually showed.
Unfortunately, just getting a glimpse behind Jesse's façade wasn't enough—the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach was there again when we rode out of camp the next morning, and on top of that, I had major PMS. During the course of the day’s ride, Jesse and I managed to debate some more about religion, gun control, and the importance of being educated on popular culture.
And again, talking about the tension (in between Jesse's chain breaking again and an episode with Dan's chain roller) didn't resolve anything. Jesse told me that he felt threatened—a statement that confused me more than ever. "You're special," he said, "in ways that I always thought made me unique."
Perception is everything, I guess. But what was I supposed to do about this latest revelation? *Have my interpersonal relationship skills have gone totally to pot?* But this was too weird to be all my fault. It takes two to tango...
The next day, we rode into Missoula on more of the interstate highway's glass-littered shoulder. I was nauseous from my period and the last thing I wanted to do was sit on my bicycle. Jesse brought up the subject of music theory, one more thing to argue about. “I just can’t discuss it right now,” I said tiredly, though it took awhile before we were both able to stop talking. I was finding that it was hard to agree to disagree.
When we made it into the city, we found a park, wheeled our bikes over the footbridge, and sat down in the shade. Then we had a meeting.
"Okay." I didn't know how to begin. "We've been talking for way too long about What's Up With Me and Jesse, and I don't want to do it anymore. I'm frustrated. You—Jesse—haven't been able to tell me anything that I can do to make you feel better, and I can't stand feeling uncomfortable with you all the time. I guess what I'm saying is that I need to ride alone if we can't resolve things before we leave Missoula." I sat hugging my knees and watching the guys' faces.
Jesse was silent for a minute, and then he said, "Well, I'm a little confused, quite frankly. I mean, we've talked about it a lot, and I'm actually feeling better. I mean, I don't understand why you’re still feeling bad."
"Yeah, but we argue all the time! I don't know—I don't know what the problem is, maybe it was PMS, but just talking about stuff isn't working for me."
"I guess that since we did talk about it, I'm feeling fine."
"…but I'm not." We had reached a dead-end.
Then Dan said, "Um… well, I don't know how to say this—but Sarabeth, if you decided to go on alone, I think my parents would want me to come home. I mean, I'd totally understand if you want to, but—well, I hope you don't! Not only 'cause I want to keep going."
I looked at him. "You mean they'd make you end right here and go back to Bozeman?" I asked flatly.
"Yeah, I think so. They kinda decided to let me go because you were coming."
I sat in stunned silence. Now, either I messed things up for Dan or I messed things up for myself, and I couldn't think which was worse. *But geez,* I thought a moment later, *This isn't fair! How could Ken and Kaya have expected me to be responsible for Dan? They'd never met me! They'd never asked if I wanted to be responsible! And anyway, Dan doesn’t need a babysitter.* I unhappily plucked some grass from the dirt and twisted it around my fingers. "Great. So now what??"
"I guess I don't know," Jesse said. "I really want this to work out, but I can't do what you're asking me. I don't have anything specific to tell you like you want me to do, and so—well—now what?"
"I guess…let's play it by ear," I said. "We're gonna stay at your friend's house for two days, right? So let's just enjoy Missoula—and spend the afternoon separately! We haven't had any time alone since we left Bozeman, and I need it." Jesse agreed, and I headed into town to explore.
"Hey Sarabeth!" Jesse said, when I rode back to the park, smiling and happy again from my afternoon spent eating Greek food and exploring the city. "We met Greg Siple coming over the bridge about an hour ago, and he wants us to come to the Adventure Cycling Association headquarters so he can take pictures of us." Greg Siple was the production manager of the TransAm maps, and he was also the ACA photographer. In the archives at Adventure Cycling there were hundreds of photos that he had taken of touring cyclists passing through.
"Wow—that's cool! He must have loved your bikes."
"Yeah, and he really liked that we built them ourselves. So what do you say we go over there in a few minutes?"
The ACA headquarters were another milestone on the TransAm Trail, and it was with quiet excitement that I walked up the front steps and into the air-conditioned building. Jack and Lili had left me a note, and I left one for Jeff and Wyeth. It was like playing post office for real. In the logbook I saw Roel, way ahead. He'd signed in weeks ago. There were Alice and Dale, and Chriss and Tony, and way at the beginning were some of the east-bounders we'd met back in Kansas. I signed my name, followed by "TransAm, Yorktown, VA—>Florence, OR" and closed the book.
Greg took photos of Dan and Jesse individually, and then together, and then he wanted to take my photo, too. I didn't know it then, but three months later the picture would be published in Adventure Cyclist magazine. The photo of me grinning in front of my bike was circulated to 40,000 readers, my smile saying more about my newfound attraction to cycletouring than I could possibly fit on the "bio sheet" Greg gave me to fill out.
Greg said that I was the youngest woman ever to come through riding alone—technically, anyway. *That was cool too,* I thought. And Jesse's claim to fame was that he designed and built his and Dan's bikes, something that was impressive to everyone we met.
We still hadn't ironed out our plans, though, and the three of us rode away from ACA feeling vaguely discomforted.