After I reached the coast in August 1997, I spent a month visiting friends and going to camp. On September 15, I took Dale and Alice up on their offer and visited them in their home in Portland, Oregon. The next morning Alice drove me to the airport and I flew back to New Jersey.
“So I’m home,” I wrote in my journal when I’d been back for a week, “and I’m happy to see everyone—but I’m so overwhelmed! All of my emotions and feelings have been stirred up, mixed around, thrown up in the air, dragged across the country, and haven't even begun to settle into any kind of order. I thought I’d be different when I got home, somehow—not so confused. But what now? What next? Why did I do the trip anyway? What did I learn? What are my goals?
“Any normal person," I scolded myself, "would have come back a Changed Woman—she would be inspirational and a true role model, just like they are in the books. She would get along well with her family, she would know how to help all her friends with their problems and celebrate their joys—and of course, this elusive person-who-I’m-not would have a goal all set in her mind into which she would channel her newly gained strength and courage. This trip should’ve caused my self-esteem grow as high-as-the-sky, and instead I want to dry up.
“Maybe someday I’ll look back at myself and I’ll laugh. ‘Oh, the trials of being 17,’ perhaps I’ll say, ‘Oh, you were a silly goose!’ Maybe all this confusion is one more mountain to climb before I reach the end of my trip."
There's a Yiddish word that transliterates roughly as "fershtumalt." It means confused, mixed up, flustered, and altogether overwhelmed. I had never been so fershtumalt in my life.
A week after camp, partly because I was so nervous about The Future, I accepted a job at our local food co-op. At the time it seemed like a good idea—I’d have something to focus on and a way to earn money while I somehow figured out my “real” goals. I was scared that if I had no plans at home, I'd fall into old routines without moving ahead.
But the job wasn't very fulfilling—the work was the same work I had been doing before I left, and as the Autumn wore on, the familiarity became less and less fun and exciting. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” So the saying goes, and for the three months after my trip ended, I was doing what I’d always done.
On November 12, 1997, I turned 18. I went for a walk in the woods with my friend Erica, and as we tramped out of the forest, crunching on leaves into the autumn sunset, my dark cloud of depression disappeared as mysteriously as it had come.
I began smiling more and snapping at my little brothers and sister less. I gave notice at the food co-op, and instead began giving piano lessons and tutoring. I started to plan a trip to Europe with my friend Emily for the fall of ’98. And I began to write about my cross-country journey.
Nothing changed except my attitude. I didn’t have any more long-term goals than I'd had before, but I had lost my fear of not having them. “I like being eighteen,” I wrote in my journal in late November. “And not once since my birthday has that despairing, awful, helpless depression seized hold of my soul. Three months after reaching the coast, I feel like I've finally finished.”
But I hadn’t really finished. Not yet. “There is one more important point to think about,” I wrote in my journal that autumn. “In all those travel-adventure books the hero or heroine finds romance: where do I find mine?”
Back in October, a letter had arrived from Jeff Amaral.
Greetings from Connecticut! Sadly, the bicycle adventure is finally over, and I’m spending some time with my family here before I have to go back to Virginia to find an apartment and get back to my job.
I can’t believe the trip is over. So many months on the road, and I wish I was still out there. As I busy myself re-registering my car, closing out my bank account, and sorting through the amazing amounts of crap I cleared out of my old apartment in Virginia, I daydream of throwing a few things in my panniers and just riding away.
Wyeth and I had plenty of excitement during our ride to the coast. Our ride to Florence was nice, and fairly standard by that point—a little headwind, two flats for Wyeth (it’s true! Just like the first day we rode with you out of Carbondale, Illinois), and plenty of blackberries to munch on whenever we stopped to use the roadside facilities…
From Florence, we tried to find the quickest way to the water, but before we got to the north jetty, in a display of uncanny timing, my back derailleur cable broke. It was getting dark by the time I fixed it, so we retreated to a motel and went back the next day. We hit the coast at around 4,700 miles and turned south to head down toward San Francisco.
We camped that night at Honeyman State Park, and amazingly, we were joined by Ron Johnson, who we met along with his wife, Karen, in Grand Teton. Karen went back home to San Francisco from Jackson, and Ron—after we parted ways with him at Madison Junction campground in Yellowstone—went up through Missoula to Glacier National Park and to Vancouver, and then down the Pacific Coast. I was flabbergasted to see him roll up with his bike at Honeyman.
So we ended up riding with him for a couple of days. (One of them “our style” –rise at 8, ride by 9:30, go 50 miles or so; one of them “Ron style” –rise at 5:30, ride by 7, go 80 miles or so. I prefer our style.) Our joking and singing made the hills, the steepest since the Ozarks, easier to climb, and the headwinds, which were supposed to be tailwinds, more bearable. We had 4 or 5 days of such headwinds, after everybody on the planet told us that the wind always blows north to south on the Pacific Coast. We proved them wrong.
Actually, I think the strange winds were caused by El Nino, the climatic phenomenon that also warmed the Northern California ocean waters enough so that they were catching sorta-tropical fish like Mahi-Mahi off the coast of San Francisco.
The Oregon and Northern California coastline is stunning. I hope you got a chance to see some of it before you came back east. Hell, for all I know, you’re riding down to Mexico.
The day we parted ways with Ron, Christophe, a Frenchman we met in Yellowstone and then bumped into outside Yellowstone and then again in Missoula, caught up to us. He led us on a merry chase. His cross-country trek had already taken him all over the northern US and parts of Canada, and well over 5,200 miles. He was riding 90 mile days, pulling a B.O.B. trailer overloaded with 76 pounds of stuff (that’s 6 pounds over the limit), including 10 t-shirts, a broken rim, and an aluminum baseball bat! He stood going up hills, and pedaled going down them. He passed us while we were finishing lunch, and we chased him for 6 miles, as fast as we could go, and couldn’t close the gap. We gave up at the California border, because we wanted to take pictures at the sign. When some folks in a car pulled up to do the same, we sent them ahead to tell Christophe to stop. Lucky for us, they even spoke French!
We rode with him the rest of the way to Crescent City, CA, and when we woke to rain the next day, Christophe proclaimed, “Today, no bike!” and we spent a day there.
Christophe departed the next day for parts south—San Diego was his destination—and Wyeth and I headed out a little bit later (of course), and rode up a big hill smack dab into giant Redwood trees. We spent several days riding through these incredibly indescribable trees, and pictures and words still fail to convey the amazing sensation of being in their presence. If you’ve never seen them, you must, and I can’t think of a better way than by bicycle.
While we were “ooo-ing” and “ahhh-ing” at the big trees along the Avenue of the Giants, we were playing campground tag with bicycle tourists from all over the world. At one campground, there was: Marc and Norman, from Germany; Jesus, from Mexico; Russ, from England; and three Americans, whose names I forget, except for “The Green Man,” who dressed in green and rode a green bike. I don’t know why, and I was afraid to ask.
We all ended up camping and sometimes riding together for several days, and had a blast. We went swimming at Manchester State Park, and, thanks to the water-warming effects of El Nino, ran out of the water screaming and shivering, instead of washing up on the shore dead of hypothermia. We rode up a hill steep enough to make me stand in my granny gear (and you know how low my granny gear is), shouting, “I can’t do it, Captain! Any more and she’ll blow!” Incidentally, we were imitating Scotty from Star Trek. Please tell me you’ve heard of Star Trek.
Our international crew split just outside San Francisco, and Wyeth and I ended up riding over the Golden Gate bridge with Joseph, from Switzerland, and a guy named Greg, who rode into camp from who knows where the day before.
We stayed with Ron and Karen, our friends from the Tetons, at their apartment in Redwood City. They could not have been more gracious, considering we’d met them only a month or so before.
The great bicycling team of Wyeth and Jeff parted ways in Redwood City. We boxed up and shipped Wyeth’s bike from Karen and Ron’s, and Wyeth went north with a friend to do some camping.
I soloed it the last two days down to Carmel, home of my cousin, Marty, and his wife, Annabelle. My solo ride was actually quite nice. It was good to be back on the shoreline again, and on my first day alone I actually ended up going right through Santa Fe (I made it there by 2pm) and stopping after 80 miles in Aptos. It’s amazing how far you can ride when you leave early in the morning! I even had enough time left in the day to hang out at the beach, and go for a swim (thanks, El Nino!) in waters teeming with dolphins and sea lions. Since Wyeth had the tent, I stayed at the Rio Sands Motel, where I hot-tubbed with a very nice young woman.
The next day was an easy ride into Carmel, and on the way I caught up to a couple of guys (one on a recumbent) who steered me down the right roads. I climbed one bastard of a hill leaving the Monterey Bay waterfront and heading to my cousin’s house, but it was all downhill from there. To my cousin’s doorstep, I logged 5,504.3 miles from Yorktown, VA. Plus or minus.
And now, the answer to the question everybody asked Wyeth and me all across the country: I got home by airplane. I took a bus to L.A., and flew to JFK in New York, where my family tearfully met me.
I’ve finally seen all but the last roll of slides from our trip. They came out quite nice, but Wyeth and I have some serious sorting to do, as well as some serious cash to lay down to have them duplicated. Four hundred slides at 60 cents a slide is…well…a frighteningly large amount of dough…
I have a feeling I won’t stay in Virginia for a very long time. Anyone up for a European Tour in 1999? Was it really just a couple of months ago that we saw you? Time and distance have taken on some strangely elastic proportions for me. I hope that you made it home safely, and that your life’s journey continues to be filled with excitement. You are an inspiration, and I have this feeling that someday people will exclaim, “You know Sarabeth Matilsky!?”
“Oh yes,” I’ll say. “I joined her for a quarter of her cross-country bicycle trip. She mentioned me in her first book.”
So long for now. Be well,
I read the letter, tucked the pages back into their envelope, wrote back promptly, and didn’t hear from Jeff for four months.
Meanwhile, Emily and I continued our plans for our European adventure. I got Spanish language tapes, we each bought guidebooks, and we decided to fly into London in September. We had some vague ideas of where we wanted to go, but mostly, we thought, it would just be fun to take an open-ended trip.
On February 2, another letter arrived from Jeff, who was now living in Alexandria, Virginia.
Greetings and salutations. Happy New Year! Although, like you (I think) I don’t really feel like it’s a new year until spring. However, that last two digits did change, and it boggles my mind to think that in less than two years all four will roll over.
…So life hasn’t returned to normal for you, eh? Join the club. Wyeth and I have been feeling the same way. Here’s how I explained it to him:
For most of my waking hours lately I’ve been walking around in sort of a detached, semi-euphoric state. I hum a lot, and sing loudly in the shower and car. I feel sort of separate from the events around me, like I’m watching from a distance. People run around frantically at work, fooled into believing that what they’re doing is really important, when I can see that it is not. I could be wrong about that, but that’s how I feel.
There are bigger and better things in life than the little things most of us dwell over everyday. There are very few things that we really need. Family and friends are all that really matter. Life is short, enjoy it while you can. Those are some of the clichéd secrets of life that I only really learned last summer. I hope I don’t forget them, as I am already forgetting the details of the rest of the trip.
I didn’t get your last letter until after the new year, because I had moved out of my cousin’s house and into a new apartment. I finally got over there a few weeks ago to visit and get some mail. Now I’m the procrastinator. I started this letter last weekend and am now finishing it a week later. (Too many people have stopped writing to me because I was late writing back to them and by the time I did, they’d moved. I gotta stop doing that. Hope you didn’t move in the last couple of months.)
I understand what you mean about having flashbacks of Kansas supermarkets. My particular post-trip manifestation, aside from feeling like a visiting space alien at work, happens when I’m brushing my teeth or taking a shower. I’m actually getting sick of doing those things in the same place every day. When I think of all the different places I took a shower, or sinks (assuming there was one) that I brushed my teeth over, I get nostalgic for the open road.
Since I’ve been back, I’ve had a few “cycling” dreams. They are always very pleasant. In one, I was just pedaling along through the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho. Just last night (I swear) I dreamt I was zooming down a hill on my bike, passing some unidentified other cyclists. I was in the “Supertuck” position. Remember that? I’d almost forgotten, which is surprising, since I almost crashed while doing it.
How’s work at the co-op? Are you saving up for the next adventure? I am. My company let me take six months off once, so I think they’ll let me do something like that again. They’re pretty cool. When I got back from the trip, another company offered me a job for a lot more money, and my current employer matched it, so I stayed. Aside from repairing my lame car, that money is going in the bank for another bike tour.
So here’s my tentative plan:
- Spring or fall 1999: Cross the U.S. once again, this time West to East. I’d like to start from where I left off last time, near San Francisco, and see Utah, Arizona, etc.
- 2001: EUROPE. France! Germany! The Netherlands!
After that, I don’t know. Whadya say? I’m trying to talk Wyeth into the Southern ride in ’99, but he’s been pretty non-committal. Interested? I’ve never ridden solo for such a long trip, and based on the accounts of others we met on the road (including you and Roel), my preference is to ride with as many people as possible. But I’d consider going solo—I can see some attraction to that…
So that’s about it. Nothing much is really happening. I miss the dizzying rush of new experiences from last summer. My new apartment is all right. No roommates, which is good and bad at the same time. It’s only about 10 miles by bike to D.C., so if you’re ever in the area, give me a call.
I think I’m gonna go to Northeast Recumbents in New Jersey in the spring, and I’ll be driving to Connecticut sometime soon, so I’ll let you know when so we can visit and see each other’s photos. I hope you are happy and healthy. Give my best to your family.
The day I got Jeff’s letter, I called him. The phone rang a few times. Then, “Hello?” said the deep, pleasant voice at the other end of the line. Suddenly, my stomach did a few strange flip-flops.
“Hi…um, Jeff? It’s Sarabeth Matilsky…”
We talked for three hours. Afterwards, I bounded up the stairs to my parents’ room, where they were reading in bed.
“Hey, Mom and Dad! Guess what?! I just talked to Jeff Amaral—from the trip, remember?—and he’s gonna come visit us in April, if that’s okay with you! We’re gonna do Bike New York together, that big ride in New York City!”
“Hear that, Ruth?” my dad said teasingly to my mom. “A boy is coming to visit our daughter? I don’t know…”
“Oh dad, it’s not like that,” I protested. “We’re just friends!”
But when I went to bed that night, my stomach was still strangely full of butterflies.
The next morning, I went for a frigidly cold bike ride down to the park, and I thought about Jeff the whole time. He was so much fun, and he’d been so nice to me on the trip. Memories came flooding back, of riding through the Ozarks, camping in city parks, staying up, laughing, late into the night. It was going to be fun to see him again. Idly, I wondered if Jeff would want to homeschool his kids if he ever had any. I couldn’t have kids with someone who didn’t want to homeschool them, I thought. But I bet I could explain it to him...
“What are you talking about?” I said out loud, a moment later. “Who’s talking about having kids with anybody?!”
I wasn’t really serious about the having kids part. But after thinking about Jeff for a few minutes more, as I pedaled down the bike path in a somewhat zombie-like state, I realized something. For the first time in my life, I had a serious crush on someone.
He arrived on a Saturday in April, and it was like two disparate parts of my life came together for the first time. The bike trip had been, up till now, so separate from and different than my life at home with my family. Yet here Jeff was, not at some picnic table in a city park in Missouri, but sitting on the couch, chatting with my mom, joking with my brothers. It wasn’t unpleasant to have him around at all, though I did wish that my stomach would stop that annoying flip-flopping.
Bike New York is the largest bike touring event in the country. Every spring, between thirty and forty thousand cyclists converge in Battery Park in Manhattan and ride 40 miles through the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and into Staten Island via the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Major roads are closed until early in the afternoon, so if you get to the starting line early enough you have the rare chance to pedal on car-free highways.
The problem was that the operative word is “early.” I remembered all too well how Jeff hated to get up in the morning, so I had Sunday’s schedule planned out carefully. We’d get up around four, leave around five, and that way we’d be able to park in Staten Island, take the ferry over to Manhattan, and get into the massive queue of cyclists by six a.m.
Somehow, we did it. I staggered downstairs at four o’clock, woke up Jeff who was sleeping on the couch, and we ate breakfast quickly. We loaded our bikes onto Jeff’s car, and drove out into the still-pitch-black morning.
My dad had given us directions, but since I knew the first part of the route by heart I didn’t bother checking the map. We chatted until we got on the New Jersey Turnpike. Then Jeff asked, “Okay, now what? When do I get off?”
“Um, Jeff?” I said, after one last check to make sure I really didn’t have it. “I think I, um, forgot the map.” Great. Now he’ll think I’m a total ditz.
“Oh…okay. Does the New York map have any detail?”
“Just a sec. I’m checking” I rummaged in my bag. The state map wasn’t in there either. And then I had a horrible realization. My helmet was back at home too. “Um, Jeff? You’re going to think I’m a total ditz, and I’m not always like this, but I left my helmet at home…” Oh my God, how stupid could I be?! He must be thinking that I’m one of the least intelligent women he’s ever met. This is one of the worst weekends ever. I’m so stupid. Oh my God I can’t believe I left my stupid helmet at home!
We might have made it without the map, but I wasn’t about to ride for forty miles on pot-holed roads with thousands of potentially-maniacal cyclists without a helmet. Thankfully, Jeff was nice about it. “I’ll take the first exit and we can go back for it. We’ve got plenty of time.”
The problem was that, when we exited onto the silent streets of some town at the edge of NJ, called something like Humperdink, we couldn’t figure out how to get back on the highway. “Maybe that way,” I suggested, “or over there.” As we drove around in ever-widening circles and zig-zags, we started to get more and more confused about which way we were heading. Then finally, “Back that way!” I said, pointing around the corner. “That must be the highway.” Jeff swung a U-turn as the traffic light turned red. That’s when the silence of the morning was broken by sirens.
Jeff pulled over to the curb and the blinking lights of no fewer than three police cars spilled out into the blackness. Their headlights shone in and reflected off the rearview mirror, lighting up Jeff’s face as he rolled down his window. A pudgy, red man in uniform looked down at us.
“Excuse me, Officer,” Jeff said, very polite, “but we were wondering if you can tell us how to…ah…get back onto the highway?”
The officer looked down his nose sternly. “License and registration.” Jeff reached into the glove box. “First, sir, I’m wondering if you can tell me why you drove through two red lights back there.”
Jeff handed him the papers. “Two red lights, Officer? I thought they were yellow…”
As a fourth police car pulled up (Humperdink’s police force evidently didn’t get much business on Sunday mornings), the officer handed Jeff a ticket and sent us on our way. The highway entrance was two blocks ahead, and as the sun started to come up, we headed back toward my house with the dreadful ticket on the dashboard.
I sat in the passenger seat, severely embarrassed. It’s all my fault. If I hadn’t forgotten both the helmet and the map, we wouldn’t have been so confused and Jeff wouldn’t have driven through that red light. I better forget about having a crush on Jeff—he’s probably not going to want to even see me again after this weekend, let alone like me in that way!
But despite all the odds, we made it to the Bike New York starting line—a little late, but who cared, at that point? I didn’t. It turned out to be a gorgeous day, and as Jeff and I pedaled down the center lane of the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway, along with 40,000 other bicyclists, I could almost forget the horrible morning.
“It’s just like we’re back in Kansas, riding down Highway 96,” I said. “Remember? Can you believe it’s almost a year since then?”
“Yeah, exactly like Kansas except that it’s New York City, and there aren’t any wheat fields, and there are a few more people,” said Jeff, as we looked out over the teeming mass of cyclists that stretched as far as we could see.
Later that afternoon, pleasantly tired from the longest ride either of us had taken in months, Jeff and I went out to dinner. I was still embarrassed about forgetting the map and my helmet, and I figured the odds of Jeff liking me “that way” were now close to nil, but my stomach was still doing all those flip-flops. I thought they must nearly be audible. We talked and talked, about Wyeth and friends and how some relationships seemed like they’d changed after the trip.
Then, “Have you seen ‘When Harry Met Sally’?” Jeff asked.
Of course I hadn’t—my knowledge of pop-culture (my “pop-culture impairment,” as Jeff called it) was no better now than it had been on the cross-country trip.
“Well, there’s one part of the movie where this guy says that men and women can’t be just friends—after they get to a certain point, one or the other will get romantically attracted to the other, you know?” He sounded like he expected an answer or a comment or something.
For the first time in my life, I thought that such a generalization might have some basis in fact, after all. But I can’t exactly say so! I thought. If I say “Yeah, I think that’s true,” then I’ll have to admit that currently I have a huge crush on Jeff. But if I say that I don’t think it’s true, then that would be saying that I don’t have a huge crush on him, which I do… It certainly was a conundrum.
I sort of blushed and stuttered out, “Well, maybe yeah, in some cases. I dunno…” And then the subject evaporated, for another few months.
After the Bike New York weekend, I tried to stop thinking about Jeff so much. “It’s not like something could happen between us,” I kept telling myself. “He’s ten years older than I am, and I’m sure he thinks I’m just a kid. I’m just glad that he still wants to be my friend after that embarrassing weekend…”
In May, I wrote Jeff a letter and sent it to him along with the seat pack he’d left at my house in New Jersey after Bike New York. I sent him a money order for $50, too, to cover my half of the traffic ticket. Also, I enclosed some excerpts from my trip journal, along with a copy of “The Teenage Liberation Handbook.” (If it turned out that Jeff did want to have kids some day, at least I could try to make sure that he knew about the benefits of homeschooling. Not that Jeff’s future kids concerned me. Of course they didn’t. Those hypothetical children concerned me not in the least.)
A few weeks later, a letter arrived in Prattsburgh, NY where I was staying with my family for the summer.
I received all of your pieces of mail, and I appreciate them all…Thanks also for returning my saddlebag and assorted stuff. Somewhere in the chaos I call my apartment are your Trek tire levers. If I can find them, they will accompany this letter. If not, I’ll find you some new ones.
I enjoyed your riveting expanded journal. You made me laugh—most often with your descriptions of dogs; cry, at your description of Lou and Rose; and basically relive parts of my journey.
I’m looking forward to Part II, since I really liked observing our common experiences from your perspective. Most people don’t like to admit it, but few of us can resist looking at our reflections when we pass something reflective. Likewise, it’s a guilty pleasure for me to read your descriptions of Wyeth and me and events we all shared.
I mean, I had no idea you were so exhausted when we reached Centerville, or that my jokes and Wyeth’s and my presence made such a difference. Thanks. Now I’ll never utter a serious word again!
Another interesting thing is seeing where our memories differ. I recorded a slightly different series of events in my journal regarding our day at Jam-Up cave in Missouri. We should compare notes with Wyeth to see if we can get a third version.
It’s this very volatility of memory that bothers me the most. Every day a little more of the trip gets jumbled up or disappears completely… I guess that’s not such a cheery thought. But it shows me how much more incredible experience itself is than the memory or thought of an experience.
As usual, I’m finishing this letter some days after I started…I went on a canoe trip down the Rhappahanoc (I just mutilated the spelling there) today, which was great fun. We were out somewhere near Fredricksburg, and the rolling hills, farmland, Baptist Churches and quiet roads reminded me (like seemingly everything does) of last summer. And our swim in the water made me think of Jacks Fork River in Missouri.
One think I learned (or relearned): canoeing is fun! I started to really get the hang of steering my way around the rocks in the Class I rapids. (“Class I Rapids” = Current Swift Enough To Actually Move the Vessel Without Paddling.) I can’t wait to go back to brave the Class II’s!
I’m gonna mail this out before another week passes. Just realized I meant to write about “The Teenage Liberation Handbook.” I’ll have to save it for another letter.
I’ll say this, though—I get it! I cannot argue with the logic of most of this book. I wish I never went to school. It almost makes me want to have kids so I can not send them to school.
I’m returning your 50 bucks because your driving instructor should have told you that the driver alone is responsible for driving…well…responsibly. Plus, the ticket was only 77 dollars, which is a small price to pay for a fun weekend.
Please don’t try to send me $38.50, as I’ll only send it right back.
So long for now.
At least he wasn’t mad at me. I promptly called and invited him to visit me and my family in Prattsburgh in July.
In June, my family somehow got head lice. I panicked. I know that many people all over the world get lice and then subsequently get rid of them, but that was a difficult concept for me to grasp at the time. My situation was way more serious than most people’s: if my family did not get rid of their lice, and soon, I would be forced to tell Jeff that he probably shouldn’t visit us on July 15.
Telling him not to come was not an option. So far, the bugs had spread from my dad to my mom, and then on to my two younger brothers and my sister. I hadn’t gotten them, and I didn’t plan to.
“I’m sorry, but for the next four weeks, you can’t hug me,” I announced to my family around the third week of June. “Also, my personal towel is hidden away in the bathroom; please don’t use it. I’m not going to lean back on the couch or in the car, either. I am not going to get lice.” I never did get them, either.
But for the next month, my family continued to harbor the disgusting bugs. My dad combed them out of my mom’s hair, my mom combed them out of my brothers’ hair, I combed them out of my sister’s hair, and the unfortunate lice all met their doom in small bowls of alcohol that we emptied down the toilet. My mom and dad didn’t want to use the chemical de-lousing shampoo, so for three weeks we combed. After a while, we started finding fewer and fewer bugs, but still there were some every day.
It takes six days for a louse eggs to hatch and turn into a fully-grown lice, which meant that for a full six days before Jeff’s visit, we had to be lice-free—otherwise, the quarantine would still be in effect. On July sixth, we found five lice. On July seventh, we found two. And then on July eighth, we found none, and there were no more lice after that. Jeff arrived on the fifteenth of July, as planned, and not until many months afterward did he learn one of the reasons why I was so relieved to see him.
Jeff stayed for five days, and we had a great time. We took bike rides, he skipped stones in the pond with my brothers, we went swimming and dived off the raft, and we took an overnight camping trip to Ithaca, where Jeff had gone to college. But even on the fourth day of his visit, I couldn’t tell how he felt about me. For six months I’d had a crush on him, and it hadn’t gone away at all. I kept telling myself, “He’s way older than me,” because after a while that seemed to be the only obstacle in the way of us having a romantic relationship, unless, of course, he didn’t like me back.
“But also,” I told myself, “you’re going away to Europe. If you decide to ride cross-country with him in ’99, then you can tell him. For now, just keep it inside.” So I did, and I managed to have a lot of fun anyway.
On the last night of Jeff’s visit, we took a walk up our mountain to Block School Road, which is part of the vast network of unpaved roads that connect the tiny communities in the Finger Lakes region of New York. That night, July 18, we walked down the road in the twilight after the sun set behind the cornfields. I did cartwheels and tried to get Jeff to do them too. He laughed and refused, and tried to get me to swagger like some character in a movie I’d never heard of. We looked for blackberries and peeked inside the old Block Schoolhouse, which closed its doors in the 1800’s. I’ve always wanted a best friend, I thought. Someone like Jeff…
Finally, we walked quietly back to the top of our mountain and sat there in the darkness, in the grass that was beginning to get soaked with dew. The stars were out, and it was a warm night. “See the lights over there?” one of us asked, just to fill the silence. We could see the houses twinkling dimly on the next ridge, but mostly it was just the sky—huge and amazingly full of emptiness. Then there was a shooting star.
“Did you see that?” Jeff asked, but before I could answer, there was another. We watched for awhile longer. A dog barked, and I shivered a little.
“It’s getting cold,” I observed unnecessarily. I stood up to look down into the dark valley. Mist was rising in soft billows. Then I sat down again, and as I did, Jeff’s arm went around my shoulders—awkwardly, gently, naturally. We looked out over the world, into the sky, out to the stars and the Milky Way, and I leaned against him and felt little prickles of happiness inside.
Right then, I knew (and knew that he knew) that something was different between us. Nothing had happened—and yet everything had. The air changed somehow. It was still scented with cornfields and clover and dew, but suddenly it was also alive and electric. We sat for a long time, talking and laughing as usual although we both knew that it wasn’t usual. The stars got brighter, and it was like that night in Virginia at the very beginning of my bike trip when I had stared up at the comet Hyakutake and contemplated my smallness in the universe. It was funny, though. Somehow, with Jeff’s arm around my shoulder, it was as if I were bigger than anything I had ever imagined before.
Eventually we started down toward the house, but first we had to go through the pine forest, a dense, deep mini-forest that allowed no light to penetrate its canopy. Laughing, I reached for Jeff’s hand as he reached for mine, and our fingers intertwined perfectly as we stumbled into the trees. “Watch out!” I said, as a branch whipped back. Jeff ducked in time, and we kept going down.
Halfway through the pines, we stumbled into a tiny clearing and paused in the pool of moonlight. I looked back at Jeff’s face. He was looking at me, his eyes so gentle. No one had ever looked at me in that way before.
I had to look away. Suddenly I was nervous. What if he tries to kiss me? I thought frantically. I’ve never kissed anyone before, and I don’t know how. Sometime soon I would try it, but not now. Giggling, I pulled him out of the clearing, through the rest of the pines, and out and down through the upper field to the house.
That night I slept in the same bed I always slept in, and my sister breathed regular breaths next to me just like she always did. But something was different. That electricity I had felt on the top of the mountain was not going away.
The next morning, as Jeff and I ate breakfast with my family, I wondered if the previous night had been a dream. When it came time for Jeff to go, I knew it hadn’t been. I’d forgotten that he would have to leave, and now it was harder than I had expected, as we stood hugging in the living room. All I wanted to do was hug him all day, or maybe forever. How different this was from the bike trip, when we’d chatted and joked and I’d never felt such an irresistible wanting for this man! And yet, I couldn’t imagine ever going back to how it had been before.
Neither of us spoke. We’d barely talked at all since last night, maybe because neither of us knew what to say. After a while, we walked out to Jeff’s car and hugged again.
“I don’t want you to go!” I finally blurted out.
“I don’t want to, either,” he said, brushing my face lightly with his fingers. “I wish I didn’t have to.” I thought I might melt right there. Maybe those storybook descriptions of love weren’t exaggerations after all. Jeff brushed my hair away. The wind blew it back, and he stroked my face again. I couldn’t look at him, and I buried my head in his chest. Suddenly I knew that he wanted to kiss me. I realized, also, that this time I didn’t object. I lifted my face to look at him, and then gently, ever so lightly, he kissed my lips, which promptly began tingling incredibly. And then he was in his car, and then he was gone, leaving me with tingling lips and a dizzyness in my head that seemed to cloud every thought but one: I’m in love!
“I’m in love!” I’d never been in love before, had not even the vaguest concept of what it would feel like, but now I knew that I was, without a doubt, in love.
I had to tell my parents, and I wondered if they would mind the age gap between us. “Of course I don’t mind!” my mother said. “I’ve been waiting for you to realize this for a year now!”
“Of course I like him!” rumbled my dad. “There’s nothing not to like!”
“I’m in love,” I kept telling my friends, who were really very nice about the fact that I could suddenly converse about only one topic: Jeff. “I finally understand what all the songs on the radio are talking about.”
Jeff and I started up a brisk e-mail conversation, since we wouldn’t see each other till late August: my parents were going on a two-week trip together (and I’d be baby-sitting for my younger brothers and sister), and then Jeff was going to Cape Cod for a week with his family.
My dad kept saying, “Sara’s not jet lagged, she’s Jeff Lagged!” I laughed along with everyone else, but I wished that Jeff and I could just be together already.
The problem with that was the small matter of my upcoming four- to six-month trip through Europe, that I’d been planning for a year and for which I’d already purchased plane tickets. “And anyway,” people kept saying, “You’re still young. You shouldn’t cancel your travel plans because of a Man. You’re too young to go in so deep.”
I knew what these well-meaning friends meant: I shouldn’t act impulsively in the throes of passion and make a decision that I would regret later. So I kept my plane tickets, and visited Jeff in Virginia once before I left. Then he came up to New Jersey to see me off, and I flew away over the Atlantic, toward London, thinking of nothing except for how awful it felt to be heading farther and farther away from my true love. “I’ll wait for you,” he’d told me. But I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to be with him now.
England was amazing; I couldn’t deny that. Emily and I traveled around for two weeks, admiring history that we’d never experienced before. We gazed in awe at hedgerows that had been growing in the same places, next to the same houses, since before the American Revolution. But still, I couldn’t fully appreciate what I was seeing because I wanted to be home—with Jeff.
And so, despite this opportunity for amazing travel, barely two weeks went by before I started to think that I couldn’t stay away much longer. I e-mailed Jeff from my friend’s flat in London, and told him how much I wanted to be home, but how badly I would feel about leaving Emily if I did make the choice to come back early.
“What do you think I should do?” I asked him in desperation. The next day, he wrote back.
…My response to that is, come home. I hate missing you and this communication blackout. We are at the beginning of a very wonderful relationship, and we’re just sitting here in suspended animation. I want to see you, to talk to you, to hug you and hold you and kiss you.
I suspect, however, that my response is somewhat selfish. I don’t want you to harm your friendship with Emily. But really, I just don’t know. Selfishness aside, I can try to look at this in as reasonable and objective a manner as possible.
You know how we’re always saying how lucky we are, and how grand life is? Well, sometimes luck runs out. I really believe that if there were a way to quantify and qualify experiences, we would discover that “good” things happen exactly as often as “bad” things. There is always light at the end of the tunnel, but the other shoe always drops, to mix some metaphors. What if something happens to one of us or to someone important to us? What if our blissful romance is disrupted by something out of our control? Shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to take advantage of our unique love to one another? As distant as the day seems now, soon enough we will be pushing up the daisies. A morbid thought, perhaps, but one always worth considering. I believe the Latin version of this sentiment is Carpe Diem.
So if you’re willing to accept the fact that I am being completely selfish, come home. I want us to be together. But not necessarily at the expense of your friendship with Emily. I can’t really help you there, as it is really between the two of you. Just examine your feelings carefully, and talk things through with her.
But all I really want to say is: come home. We’ll go back to Europe together, and enjoy it all the more by sharing the experience together.
You have no idea how much I hope that I’m advising the right thing. I don’t want us to make a mistake here.
I love you,
Four weeks later, I flew home. Jeff was at the gate, waiting for me just like he said he would. I didn’t regret my decision at the time, and I’ve never regretted it since.
For the rest of the fall ’98 and winter ’99, Jeff and I visited each other as often as we could (every two or three weeks), and wished we could be together more. On February 14, ’99, we decided to get engaged, although we had no clear wedding plans yet. All we knew was that we wanted to be together forever.
Jeff was serious about wanting to take another bike trip, and we were both serious about wanting to be together. The logical thing, then, was for me to come on the bike trip too. We couldn’t leave till July, because of various schedule conflicts, and in the meantime our “commute” between New Jersey and Virginia was getting more and more tedious. In March, I asked my mom what she thought about me moving in with Jeff—was it too soon? Was it a mistake to move in with someone when I’d never lived on my own before?
My mom, besides the fact that she wanted me to be happy, was sick of me mooning around the house in between Jeff’s visits. “…No, I don’t think it’s too soon to move in with him,” she said. “The real danger in moving in with someone too soon is that you need to have the knowledge that you could live on your own if you wanted to. It wouldn’t be the right time if you felt like you’d be dependent on Jeff. But you know you can take care of yourself. You’ve traveled across the country on your bike, and you took care of yourself all the way. No, I don’t think it’s too soon.”
On April 5, 1999, I went down to Virginia with a couple of suitcases, and found a job for three months while we figured out our next adventure
The Southwest. When Jeff and I were planning the trip, those two words conjured up images of red rock canyons, barren desert, towering cacti, and the colorful sandstone formations you see on the covers of guidebooks. This time we didn’t have Adventure Cycling maps, just AAA road maps, so we sort of had to squint to see Zion and Bryce National Parks. Also, the distances between populated areas seemed a lot shorter on the map than they turned out to be while riding. But a bicycle journey through America’s southwest promised so much—a desert or two that neither of us had ever seen, scenery beyond words, and of course—like on all bike trips—wonderful people. So practicality be damned (we were seasoned cycletourists, after all), we formed a vague list of destinations that caught our fancy, leaving the itinerary wide open in case we changed our mind about anything.
Four and a half months later, we had ridden down the coast of Oregon and California, pedaled through southern Idaho, and explored the southwestern states of Arizona, Utah and Nevada. The days were getting shorter, and I especially was ready to be home—even though we didn’t know just where “home” would turn out to be. In late December, we flew back to the east coast to spend the holidays with our families.