Coming home–4,024 miles down the road.

I woke before dawn. I was a day ahead of schedule but what with New Jersey having been smacked around by Hurricane Sandy, I thought it would be worth my time to make the push into New York City on a weekend. Less traffic, less angry commuters, more happy me. If I was going to do battle with Jersey traffic, I wanted to give myself as many advantages as I could.

 

I was going to miss this: Not the getting up in the dark, cold, tired and hungry, no: the pace. I woke every day with a goal, and there was no procrastinating, no avoiding it. I had miles to ride, and if I didn’t do it, it was just that many more tomorrow. It may not have been the most high-minded purpose, to go ride my bike, but it was purpose, and I was focused. I didn’t wake up dreading to have to go into work, or trying to steal an extra ten minutes in bed to avoid facing the day. I woke, I rode. Single-minded, yes, but it was a single-mindedness I hadn’t felt in years and few people are lucky to ever feel. It’s a powerful feeling.

 

I was out and on the road with daybreak. Though cold, it was warmer than the day before. There was little traffic through these Philadelphia exurbs, an encouraging sign that my bet on Sunday traffic was worthwhile.

 

I was making good time, 35 miles in and it wasn’t yet 10am. Then I got into Jersey. Navigating Jersey was like playing a game of chutes and ladders, except all the chutes were fallen trees and all the ladders were downed power line. I managed to find the two mountains in the entire state, and climbed each, twice, because of roads that were closed off. I was constantly re-navigating, turning around, dodging tree limbs, riding carefully through messy jungles of wires, hoping that they weren’t live and careful to only touch the rubber parts of my bike. I rode on closed roads when I got desperate, and trespassed through golf courses and industrial areas.

 

I lost major time, and by the time I hit Newark, dusk was coming soon. I decided to change my plan: Instead of riding all the way up to the George Washington Bridge, I’d take the ferry across and ride up the bike path. I knew Manhattan better, it had bike paths, and lights. As I was looking at the best route on my phone, the damn thing unexpectedly died. I was in an area of Newark where it is less than good to be white, wearing spandex, and without a phone.

I grew up in enough of a hood to know the difference between an “I’m going to rob you” look, and a “this white boy better get his ass outta here before he gets robbed” look. It was a relief to get a lot of the second stare as I stood charging my phone at a bodega’s outdoor outlet.

 

My route took me through the deep industrial wastelands of Newark, desolate roads guarded by the barks of junkyward dogs hidden behind barbed wire fences. By the time I got near Hoboken, it was dark. Really dark. Darker than metropolitan NYC ever is–Hoboken was still largely without power, and it was creepy. Though it wasn’t the inky blackness of the desert, it was a far more eerie scene. Whole blocks were blacked out, people moved in the shadows. I couldn’t see the road. At some intersections the National Guard had set up generators, and I rode, blinded by the lights into these oases where people huddled, looking for food, a charging station, a respite from the darkness of their apartment. Being from New York, natural disasters were always something that happened elsewhere, and one didn’t see the details of the destruction. With climate change only to make things worse and less predictable, seeing this was only a haunting vision of the future.

Far beyond climate change was the fact that many of the stoplights didn’t work. Taking traffic lights away from New Jersey drivers is like taking all the guards out of a Supermax prison and opening the cells: You take an already lawless bunch and remove the scant few rules that keep them from killing themselves.

It was a nightmare to get through these intersections, and usually involved me riding alongside a car, figuring a two-ton shield would be a step in the right direction.

 

The ferry terminal at Hoboken was blacked out. So much for their website proudly announcing the return to ferry service. It was fully night at this point and there was no choice but to ride up the palisades to the bridge.

 

It turned out to be a nice way to go, and I got my first glimpses of a mostly whole NYC skyline. I didn’t expect any major emotional response, and I didn’t get one. There it was, the city, my home for the past two years, the place that so roughed me up that I felt compelled to spend two months on a bicycle to work through it. I wanted to be back. I was happy to be back. Ready to try again, but it wasn’t an overwhelming feeling. For two months, I’d slowly clawed my way back here, making incremental easterly progress towards this city, my memories here both the homecoming and the impetus to take this tri evaluate and change myself. When the skyline finally appeared, bristling in the night, looming, solidly anchored, so big that the perspective of distance was totally distorted, it wasn’t a major change, it wasn’t a triumphant return. It was just home, and I was back.

Dodging tree limbs, Hurricane aftermath

I sat it out for two days, though the worst of the storm and an extra day to allow for clean up and dodge the rain. From north of DC, I only have roughly 300 miles to New York, so I had some time to play with. I read a book. I napped. I shouted at the news with my uncle.

I left Wednesday. All I needed to ride was some 50 miles and change a day and I’d be back in NYC by Monday. I left a bit later in the day, figuring it would be worth it to dodge some of the DC traffic. Besides, I figured the first miles would be quick: It was all bike path until I got well north of the city.

Within half a mile of the bike trail, I realized riding was going to be slower than I thought: A tree three feet in diameter lay across the path. With some adult dressed in a lion costume and–disturbingly–walking alone watching, I lifted my bike over and picked my way through the branches. The next 15 miles were like a cyclocross race: deep mud, washed out paths, jogging through thorn bushes to get around fallen trees. I got to the end of the bike path muddy, wet and scratched up, but happy to be done with that section.

It was at this moment that I realized I’d dropped my map, “Fuck!” I shouted.

The guy blowing leaves shout me a wounded look.

“No, sorry, not you.”

He glared.

I went back up the trail in search of the map–I’d be out of luck for the next four days if I didn’t find it.

After two miles of riding, looking, asking people on the path if they’d seen it and enduring their advice on how I should find it, I got lucky enough to find it. By the time I got back to where I was it was 12:30 and I’d only ridden 20 miles.

I was still in the DC area, and the route took me sharply east into the exurbs of Baltimore. Those roads were busy, and people were driving like assholes. For the third time this trip, I was run off a two-lane road by an oncoming car passing traffic in my lane. By now I’ve had the practice, and was able to get off the road with more than enough time to proudly brandish my middle finger.

The rest of the ride was uneventful, though I did realize oncee serious problem with riding in one of the most populous regions of the U.S. For two months now I’ve been peeing with gleeful abandon, hell, on roads so quiet that I wouldn’t even pull of the road before letting lose. It’s been a glorious few weeks of shitting in the woods and answering even nature’s quietest whisper.

This is no longer possible, and the more people there are the less inclined I am to leave my bicycle outside while I run into to relieve myself. Twice on this ride I found myself making desperation pees on the sides of busy roads, hoping I wasn’t giving too many people a free show.

Although, to be fair, camping sites are also becoming scarcer and being arrested for public indecency might be a nice way to get a cheap place to stay for the night.

Racing the Hurricane

I hate to jinx myself, but for you, my dearest fans I will: I’ve made a habit this trip of racing in a storm, and have been mostly successful. I’ve tucked into shops ahead of brewing storms, just gotten lucky and taken a day off when it was racing, and even, as dark and angry storm clouds knotted themselves above monarch pass in Colorado, managed to outrace that booming front some twenty miles into a warm café.

Jurricane Sandy was a different story, and though I am, unlike my compatriot Mr. Armstrong, one who is dedicated to fair play, I didn’t mind giving myself a head start on Sunday..

The last weather report had left it moving North between 10 and 15 miles an hour and schedued to start hitting the DC area by the afternoon.

I rode out early, figuring that I could at least keep pace with the big bad lady, and thus stay a bit ahead of her.

I rode up route one, a nasty four-lane highway that was less trafficked early on a Sunday morning. One driver missed me by inches, rolling further on to the shoulder before swerving and heading back out to the center line. Not everyone was used to being up as early as I was.

The skies grew darker, and the winds picked up, and not in my favor. I was hoping that the one benefit of riding in pre-hurricane conditions was a nice tailwind. Instead the wind fought me. I may have played dirty by getting a head start in the Hurricane race, but the hurricane had it’s own tricks.

I turned east, towards the Atlantic. The wind was picking up. For the second time in two days, my directions tried to send me through a military base. I wanted ahead of the storm, and rolled up to the security guard. Suprisingly, he politely waved me through.

I put all thoughts of upgrading to a tank out of my mind, and headed for the Mt. Vernon bike path. The rest of the ride was easy, even as the wind picked up. Mostly bike trail, quiet and peaceful, except for one guy who insisted on trying to race me down the path. He passed me, laboring mightily on the pedals. I slowly caught him, passed him, and then he spent the next two miles drafting off of me, enjoying the considerable blocking my big-hipped bike did, and then, as the wind picked up again, passing me. I assumed he was a Republican.

I got in to my aunt’s house, my shelter from the storm. Soon it started raining. Like Jonah, I retreated to the basement and took a nap.

Staying ahead of the hurricane, riding onto military bases.

After eating near constantly the night before, having a few beers, and flirting mildly with a few girls (as I mentioned, by cousins were there), I woke feeling recharged.

Well, I felt like a cellphone after an hour on the wall: Not quite 100% but enough charge to get what I needed, which is to say, four instagram photos of my breakfast and a status update saying something snarky about the election.

Hurricane Sandy was becoming enough of a threat that I wanted to be inside for her, and I figured hunkering down in DC with my Aunt would be far preferable to lounging in some seedy motel for two days. I had two days to get there, but wanted to leave Sunday’s ride as short as possible as the storm was predicted to start making it’s entrance sometime Sunday afternoon.

I left a bit late, riding on mostly quiet roads. I felt good. I called my cousin’s fiancé and asked me to send me directions to Dumfries, about ten miles north of where I was planning on going.

The quiet roads abruptly ended and threw me into the roiling strip mall traffic surrounding Fredericksburg. It nasty riding, and I pulled off: My cellphone was dying and I needed a loop around this shit ride. This many miles in traffic and I figured I’d used up my nine lives. Most of them in LA.

Re-routing took forever and my phone died. I was losing time. I charged it outside a gas station, and then got on my loop.

As I cruised down one hill a car pulled up next to me, a fat woman with red hair sat in the passenger seat:

“Excuse me, you dropped a jacket back there.”

“Oh! Thank you!” I turned around. It wasn’t a jacket, it was my only other pair of bicycle shorts, drying after I washed them the night before.

“Just back up at that stop light.”

I turned around and rode quickly back up the hill, past the woman who’d given me a dirty look the time before. At the first stoplight, I looked around. No sight of my short. I rode up to the second light: No sign.

I was pissed. I was already frustrated with having to ride through all this traffic and now I was wasting more time, and my shorts might be gone. It sounds mild, but little things like that can be near devastating in the middle of a ride.

I started to backtrack up to the next stoplight, when the same car drove by, my shorts being brandished out the passenger side window. I laughed aloud. All across this country, people have lamented the end of society, how dangerous the world has become, but to them I say: There are still people in this world. Good people, honorable people, who will see a smelly man drop his tight-fitting shorts on the road, drive around the block, and pick them up off the street to give back to you. Without this, terrorists would win.

With my phone charged, I checked back in on my directions, and noticed something odd: A greyed-out area on the map. It was quantico military base, and my directions thought it would be a really good idea for me to cut straight across it.

This had happened before, when I wandered fuirther than I should have onto a military base in the Mojave desert, before being repelled by an agitated Military Policeman with braces.

I decided to skip this adventure, but this meant I wasn’t making it to Dumfries. WIth all the re-routing and chasing down escape-minded bicycle shorts I’d be lucky to make it to Stafford before nightfall.

I wasn’t lucky. With an overcast sky, night came dark and quick. After the attempt at the military base practical joke, my map tried again, this time sending me through a prison. The map was more successful in tricking me this time, and I didn’t figure it out until a scandalized security guard shooed me away like I was the biggest idiot he’d seen in awhile, which is a very low opinion to have of someone when you work at a prison.

I got in at dark, and after spending half an hour listening to the talkative motel attendant tell me all about her life as a med school student and her boyfriend, I happily crashed into bed, rising only to let a pizza in the door.

Falling apart on the Blue Ridge Parkway

I’ve been so exhausted that I’ve drooled on myself, pissed on my shoes, dozed off on the bicycle, napped heavily in the shade of a desert outhouse. I’ve mumbled at road signs, talked to myself, cursed my stove out.

I’ve never been so exhausted that I bonked getting out of my sleeping bag, not until Friday. The day before had ended with a cruel three-mile climb up to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway. It was getting dark and I was still way too far from where I wanted to land that night. Instead I rolled into a resort, paid way too much for a campsite, and slept on their stage–another step forward in my planned career re-invention in NYC as a bicycle-themed performance artist.

I was so exhausted that I didn’t bother to cook: I ate a pack of graham crackers, peanut butter, crawled into my sleeping bag and fell heavily asleep. I woke, twice, to my stomach rumbling, but the air was cold and I stayed in my bag, ignored my stomach’s pleading and went back to sleep.

This was a mistake. I awoke starving, a bit wobbly. I ate all the oatmeal I could, drank a full bottle of water, and got on the bike. It was going to be a short day: My cousins were in Charlottesville for a wedding, and their offer of the spare bed in their hotel room was too tempting.

The short day turned out to be a necessity, not a luxury.

My legs started burning immediately, aching. It felt like I’d been riding for 70 miles. The road didn’t help me. The ride was covered in deep fog, and as it went steadily, slowly up, the fog got deeper, visibility dropping from 100 to 50 to 20 feet.

A long hill is a mental game, and I lacked the patience I needed to sit back and just pedal. I ached. “Go the fuck down!” I finally shouted in frustration.

The hill eventually obliged, and I coasted heavily, wobbling along at only a few miles an hour, glad only that I didn’t have to pedal. The fog deepened, and I got little notice that after only a few hundred feet I was going back up again. I cursed again, but tried to accept it. My eyes felt heavy. I wished I’d slept longer.

Eventually I turned off of the ridge, a coiled hill of switchbacks kept me from letting go of my brakes. That was fine, the downhill could have lasted the rest of the day for all I cared.

It didn’t, but it remained flat, mercifully. I’d only gone 15 miles, and I’d been on the road close to two hours. The other great mercy was an apple orchard that was selling cider donuts. Still warm, I ate 12 in the presence of 2 screaming classrooms of pre-school children.

One child came up to me, followed by his beaming mother, proud that the child could talk.

“Those donuts are delicious!”

I eyed him warily, trying to think of what I was going to say if he asked for one.

“They are.”

“They’re sooo good.”

Child, I’m not falling for your hints. My donuts.

“They are. What did you like best about them?” His mom was so proud, and the kid was admittedly cute.

“The sugar!”

“That IS good.”

“I ate like four.”

I became less concerned that the creature was trying to steal my donuts. We went on in this vein for awhile, with the child telling a rambling anecdote that centered around the already established fact that he’d eaten four donuts with lots of sugar and enjoyed them immensely.

The mom, too, got bored, and called him along. I was left to my donuts.

Another mom came up, younger, with a voice that had a heaviness to it, like she was talking from deep inside a clothes closet.

“Look like you’re on a long trip.”

“LA to NY,” I said, smiling. She wasn’t going to steal my donuts.

“Wow! That’s amazing! That’s really cool!” She had the enthusiasm of someone who spends part of her day being amazed at poorly conceptualized finger paintings.

“Thanks.”

“Well, good luck. Be safe.”

“‘Ppreciate it.”

Later she came up to me again as I sat, avoiding looking at my bicycle and the miles still left in it for the day.

“Do you need anything?”

“No, I’m great, thank you,” I said, wiping donut sugar from my mouth. There was a lot of sugar on it.

Feeling bolstered by her kindness, and more to the point, driven out by the shrieks of children, I got back on the bike.

I chose a busier road over the roundabout backroads route and cut my ride even shorter, wobbling in, happy to see cousins, family, people I didn’t have to explain my trip to and from whom I could accept a meal. And a beer. And a warm bed. And cider donuts if they had any.

What not to say to cyclists.

Listen. I know I look weird, and I know my bike looks like a big-hipped alien, and the two of us together makes us really noticeable and interesting, and I know that means that I’m going to get unwanted attention, but there are rules.

To be honest, I need a rest day. I haven’t had one since St. Louis, and I’ve put some serious hills behind me, but DC is in theory within reach in three days, and there’s word of a huge storm that could put me out of riding for a few days. I need to make that my rest day or I won’t be back by the fifth. And I want to be back by the fifth.

The thing about not having a rest day is it probably makes me a little bit crankier, or at least in a more delicate mood, so when you walk into a café, and you see me engaged in conversation with someone, don’t come up, stand between the two of us and interrupt, “Asking, where are you coming from?”

This is in it of itself a fine question, though a reeptitive one, and I don’t mind answering. I DO get annoyed when you interrupt to ask it, and when you so clearly just asked so you could talk about yourself that you don’t even wait for me to answer to tell me about how you bicycled across country with your wife.

This is a fine fact, and one that could be nicely worked into a conversation between the two of us, appropriately begun when I finished my other conversation, but don’t just throw it out there. THat goes for the people who call me over to tell me long-winded stories about their own bicycling adventures, how their son-in-law likes bicycling, or the fact that you once slept outside or in a van when you were 25.

Again, fine information if you take the time to steer the conversation that way, but don’t assume I’m interested in your poorly remembered adventures.

Of greater importance is the questions you ask. Before you ask me something, think, “Is this something that he’s probably answered before?” Challenge yourself, be creative. Come up with something I’ve heard.

NEVER. And I mean NEVER ask:
How many flats I’ve had. If I’ve had any close calls/accidents. If I’ve had any mechanical issues.

No matter how I answer this immediately curses me in the eyes of the cycling gods. If you do ask, the touring cyclist will be compelled to enter into a horrible ritual that involves marking the forehead with bicycle grease, throwing gatorade powder over the shoulder, and drinking a concoction made from the sweat of wrung-out bicycling gloves. Do not jinx us. I don’t want to answer these questions.

Finally, unless there is a dire warning, don’t tell me that the next part is going to suck. This is a favorite thing. people love to deliver bad news, it feeds some dark feeling of power and superior knowledge. In California people warned me about the desert heat. In the desert about the mountains, in the mountains about how boring the flats were, and when all else fails, the weather.

I am inspired to say all this because of one such encounter with a man today, who had the silvery fox look of Virginia blue blood. You could just tell that at least one of his ancestors owned slaves or at least dabbled in indentured servitude.

After interrupting me, dominating a conversation, and telling me all about his trip with his wife, he then proceeded to warn me about an upcoming climb.

“It’ll be the worst on your whole trip.”

I’d been polite, but I allowed myself to be a bit snotty: “I sincerely doubt that.”

“Trust me.”

“I road through Colorado.”

“So did we. It’s five miles long, really steep.”

“Thanks.”

I suppose I should thank him. While the hill was three miles long instead of five miles, it was vindictively steep, twisting, and banked. But I was so focused on hating this guy that I spent the entire time convincing myself that the hill wasn’t that bad, and certainly wasn’t the worst climb I’d experienced. It was certainly in the top ten, and by the time I got to the part, I was blown apart, but not the worst, the jerk.

It did mean that I had to cut my day short, and instead of camping out in Greenwood, Virginia, I’m sleeping on a holiday resort’s stage on the Blue Ridge, hoping the higher elevation doesn’t mean it’ll get too freezing.

Nobody warned me about the weather tonight.

The sheriff doesn’t answer.

I ate my three breakfast donuts, munched on what other things I had, and headed out. I needed to hit Radford Virginia and get to me to a bike shop, not for repairs, but to see if they had an elusive Virginia bicycling map. I was going based off of photos of a map, which was a less than ideal situation.

FIrst bike shop was closed, and I consoled myself with a “buy five get one free” deal at the local cookie shop. On the way out of town, saw a little shop and rolled in.

I asked the counter guy for the map in question and he said he’d never heard of it. We pulled it up online, and the PDF was so big it froze out his computer. I thanked him, and was about to get back on the road, but he took me next door to a print shop. The file was so big that to get it to print right took a number of steps. I was stuck: They were helping me out, so I couldn’t impatiently bail on them, as much as I wanted to be back on the road. They were nice guys, anyway, so I didn’t mind sitting through the fussing.

By the time I was back on the road it was past one, and I’d only ridden 30 or so miles. With the days so short, this could really screw me over. I rode quick, though I tried to pass myself over the rolling hills, which had cruelly taken their sneaky toll last week.

I paused to check my new map, already folded wrong and stained with sweat, and heard an “on your left” shout from behind.

Two women rolled past. An older woman, and a tanned and toned younger woman. I wasn’t sure if she was attractive, but after my experience with the naked Airstream trailer lady, she was close enough. I pedaled after them, caught them quickly, found them to be rather boring conversationalist, and rolled on. I’ll admit it feels good to be passing people easily with this much gear on my bike. Given that a touring cyclist’s days are filled with smelly encounters, peeing on the side of busy roads, and dribbling gatorade as you gasp up a hill, the odd ego boost is a nice touch.

I planned to camp in the Town of Troutville, but when I stopped to call over to the town office (my picture of a map informed be that one had to do so), I discovered I didn’t have service.

I kept riding, but by the time I got service, the offices were closed. I called the sheriff’s office, which, while I suppose I should have been worried instead of amused, just rang and rang and rang.

I camped out anyway, and did my best to present myself as a friendly harmless individual as I set up camp in the midst of children in the playground.

I slept heavily, despite the freight trains rolling by so close that the ground vibrated, and was up feeling more rested than I had in days.