We'd made the plans in May, solidified them in June, and finalized them in July. I was really looking forward to the visit. Then Betsy's car engine failed, fifty miles outside of Gillette, Wyoming, and visiting prospects looked grim. "I'll make it, though!" said Betsy, from a crackly payphone in some town I forgot right after she said the name. "I promise. Tomorrow night, I'll get to Missoula, no matter what."
I watched for her all evening on July 31, anxious and brimming with impatience. I wanted to see Betsy so badly. I needed talk with someone older, wiser, who knew me. I wanted to vent my confusion about Jesse, and my private fears of being alone if I left the guys. Betsy would understand.
I'd met Betsy when I was thirteen or fourteen, when she was a counselor at the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Vermont, and I was a camper there during Homeschooler's Week. Just like all the staff at Hulbert, Betsy was approachable, funny, boundlessly energetic, fun. She always listened thoughtfully, and I thought she was beautiful, with her strong muscles and thick blond braid. We'd written letters after camp, and visited once or twice outside of Hulbert. Tonight, waiting under the blanket of warm evening air in Missoula, Montana, I wanted to be back in Vermont. Or rather, I wanted the Hulbert feeling, like everything was taken care of. At Hulbert our days were planned out so the kids had fun, and the adults were there to make sure there was stability, a warm hug whenever necessary, and a perfectly ordered small universe—or as near to a perfectly ordered universe as you could get. On July 31, 1997, I was sick of feeling like an adult and a kid at the same time.
And so I waited. Never had clock hands moved so incredibly slowly. Jesse and Dan and I went shopping, and we sent ahead a box of provisions to Baker City, Oregon. I packed my panniers, then lined them up in a neat row next to my sleeping bag. We were staying with Jesse's friend Casey on a quiet side street, and for two days we'd had the comforts of a real home. I ate dinner on the porch swing.
Eight o'clock rolled around and the telephone didn't ring. I was fidgeting with impatience. Soon eight-thirty ticked by, and then nine. By the time ten o'clock came, I was a little desperate. Jesse and Dan and the rest of the household were watching some spooky horror movie in the living room, and I tried not to hear the gruesome noises emanating from the television set. "Ring, phone, please ring." I mouthed the words in desperation. And then, at twenty after ten when I was about to explode, the phone rang. I leaped up.
"Hey Sarabeth, we made it! We're at the edge of town, right off the Interstate…" Within seventeen seconds, I was off the phone, out the door, and waiting on the dark sidewalk. It seemed like three more hours went by before the green VW van finally pulled up under the street lamp, and I saw Betsy's face in the window. A second later we ran towards each other, and then we were hugging, laughing and talking at the same time.
"Hey, you crazy girl!" said Betsy, as we glowed in the yellow light of the street lamp. "Stand still for a minute. Lemme look at you!" I stood still for a moment before I threw my arms around her again. "Well, you've got some big muscles now, but basically you're the same. I can't believe you rode your bike here!"
"Me neither," I said. "And I can't believe that you are here. Different scenery than last Hulbert, that's for sure!"
"Do I get to be introduced?" Betsy's boyfriend, Mark, was standing beside us.
"Oh yeah—I figured you two talked on the phone enough these last two days, making plans," Betsy said. "But here you go: Sarabeth, Mark; Mark; Sarabeth. Now, could I possibly use the bathroom in your friend's house? Then let's go somewhere, although I have no idea where: what's gonna be open here on a Thursday night??"
Jesse decided to come with us in our search for a hangout spot, and the four of us piled into the van and cruised the streets of Missoula. We had to conclude that for a town with a hip reputation, the pickings were slim for nightspots. We had to settle on Denny's, but we figured the company was more important than the ambiance, anyway.
Compared to the way the time seemed to slink by interminably that afternoon, the hours fairly flew that night. It seemed like no time before it was half past midnight and we were back in front of Casey’s house on the darkened street. And although I knew that Jesse and Dan and I had a 60-mile day and a big pass to climb in the morning, I hated to go to sleep.
But Betsy was firm. "You need your rest," she said. "We'll still be here tomorrow morning when you wake up."
"Oh, but wait—let's sing one song first!" The last time Betsy had visited, we'd sung all evening.
"One song. Then you have to go to sleep!"
I laughed. "Okay." We stood under the streetlights, arms around each other, and sang softly in the sleeping neighborhood.
Under normal conditions, five hours of sleep was not enough for me to function. But this morning I was running on adrenaline. Dan and Jesse and I got up at six, packed up, and ate breakfast on the porch with Betsy and Mark.
"It's way too soon to leave! Why don't you come with us?" I asked them, only half joking. Betsy and I hadn't even had any time to talk alone. Stupid car engine failure. "Why don't you meet up with us, I mean. You could join us for lunch or something…" The idea was taking shape. "You said you were gonna stay in the area for a day or so, so couldn't you..?"
In another few minutes, Mark and Betsy had decided to drive up Lolo Pass in the afternoon, and since there was only one road, we’d be sure to see each other.
"…So no crying or goodbyes yet!" said Betsy. "Here's a 'see-you-later' hug—now have a good ride, guys!"
Lolo-the-pass was long: after Lolo-the-town, we began to climb uphill as we would for the next thirty miles. But the grade was gentle, the air was warm and clear, and we rode along Lolo-the-Creek for most of the way. Now we were in another historic area—the former haunt of several Native American tribes and Lewis and Clark. U.S. Highway 12, which we’d stick to for the next hundred miles, paralleled the Lolo-the-Trail, formerly used by the Nez Perce Indians as a buffalo trail and by the Lewis and Clark expedition on their way to the sea.
"It's hard to imagine them traveling here," I said to Jesse, as we pedaled next to the rushing creek. "I guess I shouldn't complain about riding uphill. At least I have roads!"
After forty-one miles, the grade increased to five percent. And in the few miles before the top of the pass, the landscape metamorphosed from dry sagebrush to thick, lush forest. The wind was cool, and instead of sage we smelled pine needles and moving water.
Then, around a bend in the road, we were at the top of the 5,235-foot pass. This was where the Lewis and Clark party camped on September 13, 1805; in a couple of hours we'd ridden a distance that had taken their expedition an entire day to traverse. And now we were in Idaho.
"But hey—where's the sign?" Daniel asked. After thoroughly examining the roadside, we still couldn’t find the state sign. We took our photos in front of "Welcome to Montana" on the other side of the road, but evidently Idaho's sign had been forgotten.
"What a bad deal!" Daniel complained. "We pedal up all this way, and we don't even get a sign to prove we made it. I think we should file a complaint!"
"Look at *that* sign though," I said as we began to ride downhill. "That one deserves a picture."
A yellow metal sign read, "Winding Road Next 77 Miles: Trucks Use Lower Gear."
" 'Lower Gear' means downhill—for *seventy-seven miles!*" I said. Just then, all three of us hit the brakes as a young cow moose rustled out through the bushes and grasses next to the road. Her ungainly form lumbered across the highway in front of us, and when she noticed us, she hurried up the near-vertical dirt cliff on the opposite side of the highway.
Idaho, besides having no state sign, welcomed us with non-existent shoulders and thunderclouds. But as we began the steep descent (I couldn't get over the fact that it would be downhill for 77 miles), there was no time to think of anything but the road.
Our bikes sped up nearly instantaneously, and soon we were coasting madly down the road. For the first time all day, my "joyful girl" quote came unbidden to my lips. I was headed downhill for the next 77 miles—well, 75 now—and Idaho was so green! I whizzed past huge trees, and the spicy smell of ferns mixed with that of the pines. Down in the canyon to my left were rivers—first Haskell Creek, and then Crooked Fork; and then the smaller creeks finally converged into the larger Lochsa River. So much water thundered deep in the valley. Small streams seemed to materialize out of the woods on our right, trickling and gurgling and chattering down the mountainside. Soon, as we kept descending, the mosses and ferns became visible, lushly carpeting the forests of spruce and pine. The air was thick with moisture—with every mile we coasted, we were deeper and deeper into the woods. At one point, we stopped at a small grove of gigantic Cedars. Small wooden paths wove among the giants, and the mosses and ferns muffled every sound.
Several miles after the cedar grove, Betsy and Mark met us at a pull-out. "Mark and Betsy's traveling bicyclists' refreshment service!" said Betsy, with a flourish. Inside the van was a little table with three bottles of orange juice and a little bouquet of wildflowers in an Evian bottle. "Sorry it's taken us so long—we were caught up in Missoula for longer than we thought."
"Wow--*thanks!*" I said. "Idaho is incredible that I can't believe I'm here."
The guys rode up then. "Wow, is that orange juice for us?" Dan asked. "That's so nice of you…I *like* orange juice!"
And finally, Betsy and I left the three guys talking and went behind the van, alone. We sat on a log overlooking the Lochsa River, where we could see down, down, down into the valley of trees to the mountains beyond. We talked about Betsy's job for awhile and then she said, "…So now, what's happening with you?" She put her arms around me. "How's it going, biker-woman?"
It all poured out then, my tears and confusion about the whole stupid thing with Jesse. My words tumbled over each other, and Betsy listened. The wind blew our hair gently, the river thundered below, and two women held each other, tiny figures on a log in this vast Idaho wilderness. We sat there for an hour, not noticing the time or the discomfort of the log. When I had finished talking and had cried until I didn't have any tears left, I was quiet—peaceful.
Then Betsy said quietly, "It seems to me like you need to figure out what's best for you in the next two weeks. You're nearing the end of this journey of yours, and you need to end the trip in a way that feels special and right for you."
*You need to end the trip in a way that feels special and right for you.* The rain pounded my tent that night, and Betsy's words pounded in my head, louder than the storm.
The rain stopped in the morning, and the sun dappled my tent when I woke up. *I need to end this trip in a way that feels special and right for me.* I watched the sun dance on the roof of my tent. How could I make the end special?
And then I knew: I needed to end the trip alone. All through the trip, I'd feared being alone, and the fear shadowed me even when I was riding with other people. Now I needed to prove something to myself, though I didn't know what it was. I'd ride with Jesse and Dan until next Saturday, since we had to pick up the food package that we'd sent ahead to the Baker City post office. Then I'd ride by myself to the coast. And I doubted that Ken and Kaya would make Dan come home, then—not after he'd already made it Oregon.
I jumped out of my tent feeling lighter than I had for days. I knew what I needed to do, and now I was ready to enjoy the next week of riding. But Jesse didn't seem too happy. He still didn't understand why I wanted to go ahead.
"It's not only because of you, though," I tried to explain. "It's because I've figured out why I've been not-so-easy to live with this past week, too. I need to be alone for my last week—it wouldn't matter who I was riding with."