Chapter 1 - The First Ride

Secretly, I had high hopes. I thought that maybe my ride across the country would be fodder for an emotionally riveting, epic memoir. Reality struck on day one.

"I can't believe I'm doing this I can't believe I'm doing this I can't believe I'm doing this…" My voice trailed off and my front wheel wobbled crazily as I pedaled. "You're nuts, Sara, you're nuts, you're nuts, you're nuts."

I tried to pull myself together. "Okay," I told myself, "I'm in Williamsburg, Virginia. I wanted a challenge. I'm about to start riding my bike across the country, and today is going to be a nice, short, warm-up ride."

"Yeah right!" I said aloud. "Don't you remember the one time this year I rode more than fifteen miles? Remember what happened? I thought I'd drop dead, that's what happened. This plan is dumb, stupid, and impossible. Just look at me! It's my first ride and I can't even pedal in a straight line!"

I braked and stood in the middle of the road, straddling my top tube under the cheery Virginia sky. Exactly .4 miles ago, I had begun a 20-mile "test ride." So far, I had stopped every few yards to try to calm my front wheel, which was shimmying like mad. I reached mile 3.2 before I gave up and wobbled back to camp.

Later, I poked and prodded, pumped up the tires, unloaded everything from the front rack except my handlebar bag, tightened and loosened various screws, felt frustrated and incapable, and considered catching the next bus home. Then I discovered the simple cause of the shimmy: too much weight in my handlebar bag.

*I'm nuts*, I thought, staring somewhat unbelievingly at my bicycle. It stood shiny and innocent against a tree. My odometer said 6.5. I had this feeling it was going to be a really big country.

In the evening, I sat by the James River and watched the sun sink down. Waves lapped the sand, the chilly wind toyed with my hair, and my thoughts were less hysterical—mainly because I was exhausted.

*What if I can't meet the challenges this summer?* Yeah—then what?

A few months before I left on the trip, I wrote in my journal:

"…I want to push myself more than I can at home. I want to meet people who haven’t known me since the day I was born, and who don't know that I'm homeschooled. I want to figure out who I am, separate from everyone else in my family. I want to see if I can take care of myself, by myself.

"Lately, I’ve felt like there's a rope tied around me, pulling me toward the crevasse that lies between myself now and Something Else. That rope is tugging so hard now, making me scramble over and around all sorts of physical and mental obstacles. It's not that I want to go so much as I have to. I want to see what happens when all I need to do is live up to my own expectations."

But so far, being alone wasn't supplying any earth-shattering revelations. Camping without my family was mostly just strange. Tonight there had been no one to talk to, no one to laugh with, and no one to gape at the sunset with me. When my stove sent five-foot flames into the air and acted like it was going to explode, there was no one to take care of it except me. And I was the one who had to figure out that camp meals better be quick-cooking if I didn’t want to use a gallon of Coleman fuel per week.
What if my stove really does explode? Comet Hyakutake started to come over the tops of the trees, and as I sat on a piece of driftwood, gazing at the stars, I was that infinitesimal dot in the universe—so incredibly tiny. How do my challenges fit into the immensity of what’s up there? It made me shiver. I wasn’t lonely, exactly, but I missed the security of other people to keep me on track.

Then the light was gone, and I watched the river for a long time, alone on a pinpoint of beach in Virginia with nothing except my thoughts.

The following Sunday, I camped in an RV park in Ashland, Virginia. Americamps was a typical, just-off-the-Interstate "campground," with rows and rows of parking spaces and a few token pine trees guarding the entrance. Next door was a strip mall that advertised *Lodging Food and Gas*.

*What a rip-off*, I thought as I paid my $20 fee to the unsmiling receptionist.

I sat at my picnic table and wrote all evening. I’d left my family’s home in New Jersey exactly a week ago, and I had to admit that my journal entries still weren’t filled with incredible tales of daring adventure. The gist of my days was pretty much, “I rode my bike today, and sometimes the roads went uphill and sometimes they went down.”

“I wonder when it’ll get…harder?” I wondered. A couple of hours later, as I tucked into my sleeping bag, rain drops began to pound on my tiny tent.

My campsite turned into a sandpit with no drainage that night, and because of that and the dull roar of the highway, I didn't sleep much. I could feel water sloshing under my nylon floor and I worried that my bike would get wet. I even got up to check on it, and then was immediately sheepish. It wasn’t like my Panasonic bicycle would melt if a few raindrops touched it.

As soon as the sun rose, I pedaled into the hazy Virginia morning. Then the wind began to blow, hard and fast, right in my face. Every time I changed direction, the wind turned too, trying to push me back to the coast, back home to NJ, back to the time before I’d ever decided to go on this stupid bike trip in the first place. *I guess I got what I wished for!* I thought glumly. *Who ever said that harder is better, anyway!?*

To top it all off, in the tiny town of Scotchtown I discovered that I'd gotten my period. I groaned at the thought of four more hours on my bike seat, but I pedaled on anyway, while dogs chased me, thunder boomed not too far away, and the road went on for what seemed like eternity. I have to get to the town of Mineral. That much was clear in my mind as I pedaled through the deserted and brown, not-yet-springtime of the rural south.

"Winds're supposed to get to 60 miles an hour this afternoon," the clerk warned me, at the post office in the singularly-named town of Bumpass. “You’ll wanna get off the road pretty soon.” As I rode up the next hill out of town, a sudden gust shoved me into the center of the lane where I narrowly missed colliding with a passing station wagon.

"Aahgh!" I yelled in surprise, and my voice came out as a strangled sound that I didn't recognize. Next minute I turned onto Indian Creek Road, and the road surface was no longer paved; I almost fell off my bike as the wheels slid wildly on the gravel. I got off and began to walk. The landscape was surreal and suddenly unfriendly, and I felt like I was walking and moving nowhere at all. It was me and the wind and the trees, still sharp silhouettes against the sky. Their bare branches rattled, and gravel crunched under my feet and the wheels of my bike. The speedometer read 2 mph.

“I wonder how slow I can make the bike go and still have the computer register!?” I said out loud, exasperated. “1.8…...1.7…...”

Then the screen flashed zero mph, and I looked away from the cycle-computer in disgust. I covered it up for the rest of the day. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. *Will the road ever end?* Crunch. Crunch. *I wonder.* Crunch…

Disheveled and muttering disagreeable things to myself, I arrived at camp in the afternoon after walking for the last 2 miles. And then I began to understand why people, down through the ages, have pushed themselves to physical and emotional extremes while in search of adventure. As I stood over my handlebars on that April afternoon, an indescribable warmth came from somewhere inside and completely de-chilled my body. It was an addicting sort of feeling.