Chapter 24 - The Turtle Squad Scatters

When I woke up on June 24, my head was a whirlwind. *Last day last day last day.* Tonight I would stay with a homeschooling host family, and tomorrow Jeff and Wyeth and Abbey and Bill would head to Denver.

Terri Blessman had contacted me in January. "We drive to Pueblo all the time," she'd assured me. "We'll pick you up and drop you off again—we really want you to come!" Back then I'd been excited about the visit. Now, all I could think about was how much I'd miss everybody. Last night we'd eaten dinner at a restaurant near the Pueblo city park, and I must’ve looked sad, because Bill said, “No crying yet. Save that till tomorrow! I’m sure you’ll meet lots of wonderful people on the rest of your journey.”

*He's right,* I assured myself. I knew I would. But a few tears slipped out anyway as I ate my ravioli.

And now it was 4:30, and Terri had come to the city park to pick me up. *Visiting the Blessmans will be fun,* I told myself. But somehow, the last thing I wanted to do was climb into Terri's mini-van. Too quickly, my bike and panniers were packed up and I stood facing Jeff and Wyeth and Abbey and Bill.

“I think I’m gonna cry,” I said, and I promptly did.

“I think I’m gonna, too,” said Abbey, hugging me hard.

“Goodbye,” I said to Wyeth and Jeff, “thanks for everything.” We all hugged then, in the parking lot under the scorching Colorado sun, and I couldn’t stop crying.

“Have a safe trip,” we said to each other. Then I got into the air-conditioned van next to Terri and we zoomed away, south into the mountains. I apologized to Terri for being so distracted. But I felt more empty and alone with every mile we drove.

That night I called home. “I miss Jeff and Wyeth already!” I told my mother sadly.

Mom sighed. “Believe me, I miss them too!

“I cried when we said goodbye.”

“Maybe I’ll cry too! It's times like this I have more anxiety about your trip than I let myself think about." She was quiet for a minute. "I have to say, I really enjoyed knowing you were with those boys and then Wyeth’s family. Loneliness is what I would fear the most in traveling alone…”

After an incredible sunset, I read bedtime stories to Alison and Elliot Blessman. It reminded me of being at home. Everything seemed to remind me of home, lately.

Later at night, Terri and I sat outside together watching the stars. I saw a meteor shoot between the pinon trees, and coyotes howled from out on the plains. And far in the distance, a mountain peak rose above everything, reaching for the heavens.

The next day I felt better, and I organized my stuff and wrote letters. Alison and Elliot took me on a tour of their property, and showed me “fire ants." I was informed that “They’re called that ‘cause they hurt like fire when they bite!"

In the afternoon there was a thunderstorm followed by a rainbow. We all watched it from the front porch, an arc of color over the gray landscape. I decided later that I had fallen in love with yet another mountain range.

Terri brought me back to the Pueblo city park encampment on Thursday, but not before she insisted on driving me to the food co-op and the post office. "You ride your bike plenty," she said. "The least I can do is take you shopping!"

I told her she didn't have to do anything. "But thanks," I said. "It is nice to not ride every now and then!" Terri had been so nice to me in the last few days, and I didn't know how to thank her. She'd put up with my moodiness about leaving the Turtle Squad, and I marveled that she still wanted to take me shopping.

"Thanks for everything!" I said as she drove away. "Goodbye!"

I was sick of saying goodbye.

There was someone else camped in the cyclists' tenting area that evening, though, and my hopes jumped quickly. Maybe it would be a person who was riding west and wanted company! Maybe they'd be like Jeff and Wyeth. But I knew the odds of meeting just the right person were pretty slim.

The other cyclist turned out to be a fifty-ish man named Charles, riding from Norfolk, Virginia. We chatted as we ate dinner together and he was nice enough, but—no offense to Charles—I sure wished that a Wyeth or a Jeff would show up right about then. Charles, I learned, had ridden from Virginia to Pueblo in one month, and had taken only one rest day the whole time.

As the gray sky was fading into a dull sunset, a car drove up to our encampment in the park. I was suspicious at first, but then a short, dark-haired woman jumped out and introduced herself as Chriss. “…And this is my husband, Tony," she added, briskly opening car doors and tossing bags onto the ground. "We’re riding our bikes cross-country and just took a side-trip—by car, obviously!—to the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon and all that, which was so incredible! Day after tomorrow we’re gonna get back in the saddle again, but tonight we need to stay here, if you two don't mind sharing this spot. See, we are really cyclists!" Chriss opened the trunk to display two disassembled bikes. "Tony, you wanna get the bikes? I'll get the tent."

She laughed, and started talking again before either Tony or I could get a word in edgewise. “We had to take them completely apart to get them in," she told me, "the bikes, I mean. And it’s such a chore to put them together; I almost didn't want to go to the canyons! I hope Tony remembers how to do it. We wanted a bigger car, but this was the only one available and we really wanted to leave right away that day so we could see the max amount of the canyons. I thought we might not be able to fit the bikes in at all, but we got ‘em in by taking off the handlebars and just about everything else. And my goodness, it looks like it’s going to rain! By the way, what’s your name?” Chriss asked me. I'd been wondering when she was going to take a breath. “I'm sorry, I totally forgot to ask!”

“I’m Sara,” I said, laughing by this time, “Nice to meet you!”

“Nice to meet you, too. We’re from New Zealand and we’re taking a ten-month tour through lots of countries. The USA sure is big, though, and these mountains are just about killing me! Oh, Tony—I’ll see what I can scrape up for diner after I do the tent. I hope we have some food left!” Giggling, she began rummaging in the backseat. "I think the tent's in here somewhere! By the way, is your name Sarabeth?”

“Actually, yeah,” I said. “How'd you know?”

“Wow!" Chriss poked her head back out of the car to look at me before she resumed her rummaging. "Well, we ran into this couple in Wyoming, Lili and Jack, and Lili was telling everyone about you. She said to look out for a young woman on a bike, riding to some summer camp in Oregon. I thought you might be her, but I wasn’t quite sure. Are you really seventeen? Lili told me you were, but I didn't believe it! You don’t look that young, anyway. Oh, nice, here's the tent!”

“Yup, I’m really seventeen,” I told her. "And I am riding to a summer camp, of sorts. Hey, can I help with that?"

We dragged an assortment of stuff-sacks onto the lawn, and Chriss un-stuffed the tent. "It never goes up the same way twice," she told me. "The tent, I mean. You'd think I'd have the routine down by this time, but I don't. It's this stupid fly. Anyway, that's neat!" Chriss was now determinedly banging on a tent stake with her shoe. “I’ve never biked solo, and I wish I had the guts to go it alone.”

“So, how are the mountains back east?” asked Chriss. We were sitting inside their roomy dome tent to avoid the drizzling rain and mosquitoes outside. Charles had retreated to his tent soon after they arrived—he seemed pretty shy. “I’ve heard the Ozarks and Appalachians are even steeper than the Rockies, and I don’t honestly know how I’m going to get up them.”

“Well, they are pretty steep—but they’re shorter," I assured her. "And they're very nice. I’m sure you’ll like them.”

“I don’t think I’ll like them,” Chriss said firmly. “They are mountains. I don’t like riding uphill and I never will. But it’ll be fun, anyway.”

“How much longer is your trip?” I asked.

“Well, we need to be home in Auckland at the end of January, next year. We don’t know how much more we’re going to ride by then, since we like to ride slow—don’t we Tony?" Chriss didn't wait for an answer. "Well actually, he could ride faster, but I get miserable so we don’t. We've been doing about forty miles a day. We meet these people who are doing seventy mile days! I think that’s a little crazy, 'cause then you don’t get to see things. When are you planning to get to the coast?”

“Well, I’d like to get to Eugene on August fifteenth or so.”

“You’re trying to get there by the fifteenth? You’re definitely brave. But then again, you’re probably in better shape than me. All this riding, and still—just look at my legs! Not exactly masses of muscle.”

“Why do you think it’ll take so long?” I asked her. “Now you’re making me nervous!”

“Oh no, really, we just took a long time because of our shorter days. You sound like you’ve been doing more than we've been doing. We left the coast in April.”

*Wait a minute,* I thought a second later. *I left the coast in March!*

Chriss' chatter cheered me up, and an hour later I fell asleep in my tent, comforted by these new members of my rolling community.

Charles and I were up at the same time the next morning, and we decided to ride together for the day. Charles Wagner was a man of few words, so we packed up in the misty morning in a companionable silence. We rolled out of the park at 7:30.

It was good to be out early, and my body felt strong. Three months of riding had made me in control of my muscles. It was hard to remember the Sarabeth who, back in Virginia, could barely make it up the hills.

My one complaint all day was that, even though the landscape was gorgeous, there was no one to share that beauty with. Charles wasn't one to laugh and talk up the hills like Jeff and Wyeth had—and I'd gotten used to enjoying things with other people. *Things are so much prettier when you can show them to someone!* I thought, pedaling past some cool rocks that I knew the guys would like.

But even without other people to gape at the mountains with me, I enjoyed the ride. The roads curved through the foothills of the Rockies now, and were very different from the unvaryingly straight highways in Kansas and eastern Colorado. I appreciated the switchbacks, which made the grades much gentler than they'd been in the Appalachians and Ozarks (where road builders seemed to think that switchbacks were for wimps).

After lunch, we pedaled past red granite outcroppings near Canon City, and plants grew sparsely from the red sand on top of them. The red was the only colorful thing in the landscape and it added a spark to the dark background of gray sky, green trees, and the towering, hazy mountains. It’s amazing how the terrain can change so much in a few days! I thought. Back in Ordway, these mountains were like a figment in my imagination as I pedaled through the heat. Tonight as I lay in my tent, writing in my journal, I was grateful for the warmth of my sleeping bag.

I was lonely, though, and even the sleeping bag couldn't keep me from shivering.

The next day, Charles and I informally decided to travel together for awhile. Or rather, we realized that we had the same schedule planned for the next week or two and we might as well ride together some of the time. Knowing that Charles was there, even if he were a couple miles ahead, was a comforting fact to keep in the back of my mind. *If I can't be with the Turtle Squad, then at least it helps to know there's somebody friendly around!* I decided.

On Saturday, I pedaled into the sunny morning, happy to ride.

As soon as I turned off the main highway, I stopped my bike in amazement. Before me was a dish-shaped valley, miles and miles long and covered with wildflowers and sagebrush. The road wound gently through the basin until it disappeared over the top of a distant ridge. And the sun, just risen over the top of the eastern mountain, cast long, gleaming rays of light over the fairyland. I had rolled into an enchanted paradise, and knowing that the day’s twenty-five miles would all be uphill didn’t even make me flinch.

As the sun rapidly warmed the landscape, I shed layers until I was sweating in my jersey and shorts. And still, the magic of the landscape held me close. Crickets sang, and that was the only sound. A prong-horn antelope leaped out suddenly, and stopped still at the roadside to look at me. We stared quizzically at one another for a few moments, and then it galloped alongside me before it outdistanced my slow bicycle and disappeared.

The sky was getting bluer. The colors were getting sharper. I was in the mountains now for real. Being in the mountains, I discovered, also meant that I got headaches and some nosebleeds from the altitude. That evening, the folks at the Schecter Hostel said I should drink twice as much water as normal. It did seem to help.

Despite having the option of sleeping inside the rodent-inhabited hostel, I decided to camp on the front lawn. It was the more hygienic choice, and I couldn't have asked for a more amazing view. I could see down the hill and far away to the mountains that scooped up the valley. And behind them I could see even higher mountains, their peaks capped with white. When the sun set, the clouds glowed pinkish-gold and the sky flamed with color. The beauty made my heart ache. I wished that the Turtle Squad could have been there to see it.

It was cool the next morning, and I left around seven. I was alone once again with the flowers, the mountains, and the antelope. The sun rose over the mountains as I rode the almost traffic-free roads to Current Creek Pass. At the top of the pass, the Rockies stretched out to the horizon, as if they were beckoning.

The scenery got lovelier as the day went on, though sometimes I would catch myself not looking at anything, just thinking. Now that I was riding mostly alone, I had so much time to think. My thoughts didn't copy well into my journal, as they jumped randomly from childhood memories to pondering where the antelope spent the winter. I sometimes wondered if I was wasting my time, but mostly I thought I wasn't. *It's important to think about things!* I told myself firmly. *That's what the trip is all about.*

After riding forty-two miles and climbing to 10,000 feet, I caught up with Charles and rode into the touristy but beautiful town of Fairplay. It was a surprisingly hot day, and we were looking forward to getting off our bikes.

The cyclists' guidebook I'd ordered back in Missouri—"The Book," as Dennis Garrett had called it—said that a woman named Bonnie Edmondson welcomed cyclists to camp in her yard. "Make a right on Fourth street to reach her house,” said the directions.

Charles and I pedaled up Fourth Street, and finally approached number 467.

“Hers is supposed to be 468,” I said, “but it looks like this house is the last on the street.” We pedaled a few feet farther. And we both realized that 468 wasn’t there.

More accurately, the mailbox was there, but inside the front gate there was a huge mass of charred wood, presumably the remains of Bonnie Edmondson’s home. The fire looked like it had happened recently, and the house was completely burned to the ground. “Oh...” I said uncertainly.

We rode back into town and over to the RV Park at the far end of Fairplay. Not exactly a choice campsite, but it had to do. Although I asked in town, no one seemed to be aware of any fire on Fourth Street, and no one knew of a Bonnie Edmondson.

Charles planned to stay in a hotel in Silverthorne, so we didn’t ride together up Hoosier Pass the next day. We wished each other luck after eating breakfast, and I set off alone up Hoosier, the 11,542-foot summit of which is infamous among TransAm riders as the highest point on the Trail.

It was a golden morning, and the sun came over the mountain and warmed me as I pedaled north towards the pass. For five miles it was relatively flat, and I coasted through the sleeping town of Alma, barely even aware that I was going uphill. After that, when the grade grew steeper, I was pumping on adrenaline.

My muscles flexed and relaxed, my eyes gazed at the larger-than-life mountains surrounding me, and I fell into a rhythm. “I’m doing it, I’m doing it,” I fairly sang as I rode. “I’m climbing it, I’m climbing it.” The road unfolded before me, undeniably uphill but inviting nonetheless. My whole body moved with ease, strong and fluid, ready for anything. Tall pines lined the road, piercing the deep blue sky. Laughing with pleasure, out of breath, I finally stopped for a short break after two miles.
"Hey," I said, staring at the shoulder.

"California" was written in paint on the pavement. When I resumed riding, another word appeared after twenty yards: “Cyclists.” I kept pedaling, and sure enough, words kept coming. When I’d covered a quarter of a mile, I’d decoded the sentence: “California—cyclists—make it—to Oregon—with—their legs—and—their heads.”

Unnoticed by people in cars, this was a message written for bikers, and I smiled.

For the next mile I wouldn’t stop, couldn’t stop, had to keep pedaling closer and closer to the top. My now well-trained body moved like an oiled machine, and I barely even felt any pain in my knees. Then, there it was: The Summit.

With an extra burst of speed, I reached the sign that read: “Hoosier Pass, elev. 11,542. Continental Divide.” Laughing and crying, I was on the top of the world. “I rode my bike here,” I whispered to myself. "I rode my bike here!"

I flew downhill in the "SuperTuck" position, Jeff's technique of leaning as far forward over the handlebars as possible in order to maximize aerodynamic advantage. The trees and flowers zipped by at upwards of forty m.p.h.

WHIZ! A pothole went by, my bike and I curving smoothly to avoid it.

WHOOSH! I laughed at the sky, felt the wind on my face, and I was supremely happy. I had no thoughts except the awareness of my body and my bike in space, flying down an incredible mountain. Suddenly, as I rounded a bend, I saw three loaded cyclists on their way up to Hoosier. My brakes needed to cool down anyway, so I stopped to say hi.

“Hello!” I said. They didn’t look as happy pedaling uphill as I was zipping down.

“Hello,” they greeted me. They weren't too talkative. I asked the men if they were riding the TransAm.

“Actually,” one of them said shortly, “we’re riding a modified Adventure Cycling route. A loop of the mountains around here. We left yesterday. Gonna be out for a week—we’re from a local biking club."

Then another man, wearing a blue jersey, looked at me. “Are you riding the TransAm?” he asked doubtfully.

“Yup,” I said. There was silence as three faces stared unbelievingly at me.

“From Virginia?” a red-jerseyed one queried.

“Yup,” I said again.

“And—” he couldn’t quite formulate the words “—are you riding....alone??”

“Yup,” I said, laughing at their solemn faces, “technically. I’ve actually ridden with people I’ve met most of the way.”

“Do you know how to fix bikes and stuff?” Red Jersey asked. I explained about my bike shop apprenticeship.

“…And may I ask,” said Blue Jersey, “how old you are? Pardon me, but you don’t look very old.”

“I’m seventeen,” I said. Three faces stared again, this time with some horror mixed in with the disbelief. I wondered if I should have lied about my age—the truth seemed to upset them. Finally, Red Jersey relaxed his stare.

“Y'know,” he said to his buddies, “think back to when we were seventeen. What were we doing?” There was silence, then a general embarrassed laugh. “Yeah—let’s not talk about it. I think it’s pretty great that you’re doing this.”

After wishing each other luck on our respective trips, I zoomed away down the mountain, happy to be a teenager on a bike heading to Oregon.

Breckenridge was a hustle-and-bustle tourist town, the site of one of the oldest and largest historic districts in Colorado. Besides that, it is the second most popular ski mountain in North America in wintertime, and as The Book said, “it’s the kind of place where you can shop until you drop any time of the year.”

Suddenly overwhelmed by the crowds of people and cars, I dismounted and walked slowly down the sidewalk. I was out of place in my helmet and cleats next to men and women in suits and high-heels.

Then a man in jeans materialized out of the crowd. “Me and my friend drove past you coming over Hoosier a while ago," he said. "I just wanted to come over and say hi.”

“Hi!” I said.

“Are you riding across the country?”

“Yeah—I’m riding the TransAmerica bike route from Virginia to Oregon.”

“That’s so cool,” said the man, who had curling black hair and a wide smile. “I’ve always wanted to do something like that. Anyway, listen—my friends and I just went into the Rasta Pasta, and we were wondering if you wanted to come out to eat with us and tell us some stories about your trip…"

Several minutes later I found myself seated in the Rasta Pasta, a restaurant with Bob Marley-inspired decor and a huge picture of Marley himself on the wall behind me. Mike, the one who had originally invited me, introduced me to his two friends and his wife.

“So,” said Mike, “tell us your story...”

Despite Breckenridge's posh shopping atmosphere that had turned me off at first, I had entered a part of the country where biking was serious business; mountain and road bikers alike treated their sport seriously. From Breckenridge to Frisco and then on to Silverthorne, I rode on the most incredible bike path I’d ever seen. The two-lane, smoothly paved trail connected Breckenridge with Vail, forty miles away. Today, even though it was Monday, the path was a bicyclist’s superhighway. There were mountain bikes of all sizes and descriptions, hundreds of regular road bikes, at least a dozen tandems, and then I watched, open-mouthed, as a 4-seater bicycle scooted past me. A recumbent tandem followed it, and as if that weren’t enough, along zipped a five-seater bike, the father and mother in front and the daughters lined up from tallest to smallest in the rear.

Here, I reflected, I absolutely belong!