When I was trying to find cycling companions for my trip across America, all my friends came out of the woodwork: “I’ll definitely come,” they'd each said blithely, “count me in!”
*Cool!* I thought, *there’ll be a whole group of us riding our bikes next year and I won’t be by myself.*
I soon found out that almost everyone *sai*d she or he wanted to go on a trip like mine—and that generally, no one ended up going. I did my best to convince myself that there were good reasons to ride alone. I discovered that many of my friends and family weren't convinced.
In November 1996 I wrote in my journal:
...lately I’ve started recognizing a difficult aspect of planning this trip: the fact that other people are so doubting, skeptical, fearful, and admonishing about it.
“We don’t understand it,” they seem to be saying, “so it must be fraught with danger.” Then there's the inevitable question, “You’re going alone?!” usually spoken in a tone that tries to conceal displeasure, disapproval and fear but seldom succeeds. All of those concerns—plus many others—come out of friends' and strangers' mouths every day, and little by little it’s chipping away bits of my confidence. I don’t want to smile and try to soothe everyone’s worries without recognizing that Yes, of course there are dangers—probably more than I can imagine. But if I acknowledge, in these conversations, that I’m aware of the dangers, then it’s “So why go?”
After all, I'll be leaving behind some dangers that I’ve lived with for nearly 17 years—like pollution, and the high risk of getting cancer or getting killed in an automobile accident that one faces just by living in NJ. I have to examine a new set of unknowns, circumstances, and challenges.
In late fall, I developed tendonitis in my wrists. I was told to rest them and that “...no, it’s probably not a good idea to ride a bicycle...” and I wondered a hundred times a day if this crazy scheme was going to work out after all. But I kept doing everything else I could do to prepare, I celebrated my 17th birthday, and I continued trying to answer other people’s questions and some new ones of my own. I also wrote a notice in Growing Without Schooling magazine, asking if there were other teens interested in embarking on this adventure with me. I received 15 responses.
But soon, 14 of those people decided the trip wasn't for them, and the "group" dwindled down to one person—Nate Baker, age 20. We decided it was best to plan our trips separately. Much as I wanted to ride with someone, there still remained the fact that Nate was male and I was female; there was too much potential for awkwardness, especially since he lived in western Pennsylvania and we wouldn’t be able to meet before I left. Instead, we decided to meet up for a day or two at the end of April, when we both planned to arrive in Roanoke, VA.
At the end of April, I'd reached Roanoke but mainly forgotten about Nate. I was just excited to be someplace familiar, and for a week at the O'Dells I made half-hearted attempts to figure out what to do about Dogs. Pet stores said pepper spray was the answer, but I knew it wasn't. I couldn't steer my bike and aim an unpredictable stream of chemicals at the same time. Roger said, "Hit 'em with your pump—that'll show 'em!" Joanne said to squirt my water bottle. Nothing seemed very practical, and I wasn't encouraged to start riding again. I pretended to myself that I was taking a well-deserved "break."
Really, I was grasping at straws for any excuse not to mount my bike again.
Then on April 23, Nate Baker became a real live excuse to stay in Roanoke for a few more days. He called from Afton, and as per our tentative plan back in January, he said he'd meet me at the O'Dells' on Friday, and maybe we could ride together for a couple days—if I was willing to wait around.
Willing to wait? "Of course!" I told him. "See you then."
Nate would know how to handle dogs, I was sure of it. He'd said something like, "I like animals—dogs haven't been a big deal." For the moment, I forgot about my goals to travel alone. I forgot about the good parts of riding by myself, like going at my own pace, choosing where to camp, and eating lunch whenever I wanted. I waited eagerly for Friday.
Nate leaned his bike against the O'Dells' garage at 6:00 p.m. Friday evening. Tall, deep-voiced, wearing a wide grin and beat-up old cycling shorts and a sweatshirt, he seemed nice enough. He'd left eastern Pennsylvania on April 13, and had ridden 1000 miles in the last two weeks.
The problem was, Nate and I were not a match made in heaven.
The day after he arrived, the sky opened up and it didn't stop pouring for twenty-four hours. Instead of riding, we climbed into the O'Dells' van and went grocery shopping.
We were on the way home when Nate cracked a joke about God and women and how the latter was responsible for the downfall of humankind. The ensuing discussion involved me talking loudly from the back seat to be heard, and listening to my soon-to-be travel buddy say, "Society doesn't need feminism—women have come too far already." My heart sank as I realized that my Savior-From-Dogs was undeniably sexist and a hard-core, somewhat evangelical Christian.
*What do I do??* I wondered frantically that night. *It's the dogs or Nate.*
I was too scared of dogs. I chose Nate.
Our first day of riding took us closer to the Kentucky border, over Catawba pass on county road 723. The previous day's outburst had mellowed in my mind a little, and it turned out that Nate and I got along okay when we steered toward non-controversial subjects such as Bike Repair and The View. We rode easily over rolling hills, and shared stories about our trips.
It was really spring now, the redbud trees were in bloom, and the fields were gorgeous, stretched out on either side. Little crooked streams ran through them, sometimes doubling back on themselves, forming snaking bands of water that flowed through the fields and under obliviously wading cows. It was hard to be mad at anyone, riding through all that.
Pedaling over gentle roller coaster hills, I discovered how much easier it was to ride when I had someone to talk with. I hardly thought about my odometer at all, because I didn’t need it to be my assurance that I was getting somewhere.
Mostly, though, I was relaxed because Nate was so confident about dogs. At one point a barking black dog ran across a field toward us, and Nate said, “Okay—when he comes through the fence, stop your bike.”
“No,” I said, already agitated, “I just can’t.”
Nate humored me. “Well, then I’ll stop my bike and try to distract it while you keep going.”
Of course, the dog ended up chasing me as I went on ahead, and that happened for the rest of the day when I'd try to run away from a canine confrontation. Nate kept assuring me that if I would only stop my bike, the dog would stop, too. They didn't like something about the spinning wheels, he theorized.
Although I intellectually believed him, my reflex was to pedal faster.
*I'll try the stopping technique tomorrow,*, I vowed that night. As long as Nate was nearby, I *knew" I would be much more confident. I had formed my perception of him, and now when I looked at Nate I could only see what he represented in my mind: Protection from Dogs.
The day we rode through Whitesville, Kentucky was the day I finally made headway in the dog department. In fact, I actually made friends with a black Labrador on Highway 764.
We'd ridden out of town separately, because Nate needed to go to the post office and I was going slowly anyway. The road went straight for a while, and as I rode I ate gingersnaps from a paper sack in my handlebar bag.
Soon the sky began to cloud over, the all-too-familiar sign of a thunderstorm. But then the black Lab in front of a farmhouse took my mind of the impending bad weather. For once I decided that the dog looked friendly, and as he ran toward me, I tried a new tactic.
“Go home!” I said. Then I stopped my bike. A miracle! Nate was right—the dog stopped chasing me. As a reward, I threw him (the dog, not Nate) a gingersnap. With what almost seemed like a look of understanding, Dog ate the cookie. He didn’t go home. I thought maybe he hadn’t heard me, so I threw another snap and said, a little louder, “Go home!”
The second cookie was a big mistake. Dog gobbled it up in an instant, and as I rode away he easily loped next to me as I pedaled into the wind at eight m.p.h. I realized that now, Dog was ready to follow me to Oregon for another gingersnap. After a half mile, I surveyed the situation. Dog seemed friendly enough, but it was time for him to go home.
“Go home now!” I yelled this time. Dog didn’t bat an eyelash. I stopped my bike. “GO HOME!” I yelled, trying to make my voice deeper. Dog ran happy circles around me, and nosed my panniers. It started to rain. Just then, Nate rode up.
“Hey, what’s happening here?” he wanted to know. “You found a friend?”
“No,” I said. “He won’t go away!”
Nate thought a moment. “Hey—why don’t you throw him a gingersnap?” he suggested, as if he’d just come up with a brilliant idea.
“I’ve tried that already,” I said dryly, “that’s what got me into this mess. Now GO HOME!” I directed the last comment at Dog. Dog panted pleadingly for a cookie.
“Well, we’d better get going,” said Nate, glancing at the sky. “We’ve got a long way to go.” I agreed, and we mounted our bikes. We pedaled silently through the drizzle while Dog ran circles around us and we struggled to keep our bikes upright in the wind.
After another mile, the rain started coming down in earnest and Dog showed no aversion to getting wet. Nate and I did, though, and we stopped to put on our jackets. By now, I wasn’t laughing at Dog’s antics anymore. “How are we going to get him to go away?” I asked Nate.
But Nate was beginning to enjoy our canine companion. “Why should we try?” he asked. “He’s friendly.”
“Yeah, but he’s going to knock one of us down or something—he’s racing all over the road!”
“Don’t worry so much!” Nate said airily. “And besides, dogs are smarter than you seem to think. They’d never let themselves get hit by a bicycle. Here, I’ll ride in front and show you.”
“I dunno,” I grumbled, but I had to admit that I didn’t have much experience in Dog psychology. We donned our jackets and headed into the rain, me behind Nate.
Dog continued to chase us and run all over the road, but since Nate was in front, Dog mostly left me alone. In another mile, the road curved to the left. Just as Nate’s bicycle began leaning into the turn, a black streak of Dog raced from the side of the road.
The next moment was a blur. I heard a muffled curse from Nate, but before I could figure out what was happening, the blue Cannondale appeared to flip horizontally into the air. I slammed on my own brakes. Next second, I heard a thud and I saw Nate on the ground with his bike on top of him. And there was Dog, still running, extricating himself from the front wheel of Nate’s bike.
“Are you okay?!” I asked Nate.
“Yeah,” he said, but his tone held no more patience for Dog. “That stupid animal!!!” He rubbed his elbow where he'd landed on the asphalt, and tested it out. “No broken bones, but man that hurt. Okay dog, it’s time for you to go home!”
Dog grinned and panted at him. “Go home!” Nate yelled, and now we could see that Dog was limping—he’d hurt himself, as well. “Go home!”
After that incident, we supposed that Dog would have had enough. We mounted our bikes after a few minutes—but Dog began to follow. Nate would have none of it this time. “We have to stop,” he said to me. “I’ll hold the dog, and you ride ahead, out of sight. Once I can get him to leave, I’ll follow you.”
The process took about ten minutes, but Dog did go home. Afterwards, though, I thought Nate had a slightly different outlook on dogs. For the rest of the day he didn’t make any comments about how “friendly” any of our barking pursuers were. Kentucky was officially the state of the dog. Boxers, German Shepherds, Pit-bulls, Mutts...you want ‘em? Kentucky’s got ‘em.
One afternoon, we stopped at a church for lunch and had our first conversation about religion. The mist hung low on the trees and we couldn't see the tops of them as we sat on a conveniently-placed bench.
Nate said he was a strict Christian. I told him I was Jewish, but mostly by ancestry. "I don't like the sexism of organized religion," I said. "It's like they're sexist at their core. Like, even God is called He! Where are the women in all those stories, Jewish or Christian?”
"But see," said Nate, "just calling God 'He' doesn't mean people think he—I mean God—is a man. It's just better than saying 'it.' What do you think, we should call God 'She'?" He laughed, like what he'd said was really funny.
*Exactly*, I thought. *You illustrate my point.*
"It's just words," Nate added.
"No it's not!"
"Yeah it is—and it's like that joke the other day. It's your problem if it bothers you. You shouldn't let it. That's what I do."
*I'll remember that*, I thought, but I couldn't think of a comeback.
Despite our ideological differences, I did seem to ride farther and faster with Nate around. We rode 45 miles one day after leaving Roanoke; the day after that, we did 50. It was nice to have company, too. As we entered more rural areas in Kentucky, people’s words came echoing back: “There are so many crazies out there....You could get raped....You’re going alone??”
*Maybe it's better to be with Nate*, I thought. *Safer, anyway*.
*Don't start being afraid of people now!* I thought next moment. *You're getting good with the dogs. Don't start with people.*