Monday, August 9, 2010

Day 50: Manchester, NH, to Portsmouth, NH

Today's Mileage: 61
Average Speed: 13.5 mph
Maximum Speed: 32.6 mph
Moving Time: 4:29

I thought this blog was going to be more about what I saw along the way, but it ended up being more about the people who saw with me along the way. Fifty days ago, there were 50 people whose existence was irrelevant to my life. Now I can't imagine not knowing them.

When I awoke on day 50, sixty-one miles from the Atlantic Ocean,  a montage of memories began running through my head as I performed my morning hotel rituals for the last time. Dressing in cycling attire. Applying sun block. Filling water bottles. Loading luggage. Checking tire pressure. Securing my route sheet to my handlebars.

Maddy and I glided leisurely through the hotel parking lot and joined our fellow cyclists for the last 61 miles of our 3,690-mile journey. There was no urgency. No stampede for luggage load. A longer break at the SAG stop and an even longer one at a bakery another 15 miles up the road. There was no rush since we had plenty of time to cycle 50 miles to the "staging area" in a high school parking lot, where we'd wait for everyone to convene before storming the beach.

But even beyond that, we were savoring our pedal strokes, our conversations, our laughter. Mike Munk had said something at the banquet the night before that had resonated with all of us: "This entire group will never be together in the same room - or on the same road - ever again."

I simultaneously felt present and absent. The only way I can hope it makes sense is to describe it as an out-of-body experience. I was there, cycling alongside Andrew and Sandy between Manchester and Portsmouth, but I was also on all of the other roads and miles between Oregon and New Hampshire.

I was timidly pedaling out of Astoria on a cool, foggy morning, trying to keep the 3,690 miles ahead from psyching me out of my saddle. I was wobbling over my first suspension bridge, my heart pounding in my chest, chills tickling the bottoms of my feet. Sandy and Leo were passing me on an Oregon road, and Sandy was chanting, "Gears for Katie! Gears for Katie!" I was making a left at the top of a mountain ridge, marveling at the terrain's immediate transition from pine forest to high-altitude dessert. I was gripping my brakes, feeling my braid whip my back on the twisting descent into Kah-nee-ta. I was balanced on my bicycle, mouth half-open, staring at 62-year old Ellen as she rocketed past me on a screaming decent from Ochoco Pass in The Cascades. I was pausing at the top of Keyes Summit, looking back at how far I had climbed and letting myself cry. I was ascending roughly 2000 feet to Oregon summits at over 5000 feet ... three times. I was watching other cyclists slow down so that Carl could finally have a chance to yell "on your left"; if there was one memory along this trip that should be set to enchanting music that tugs at your heartstrings, that was it. I was looking up at an enormous Idaho sky. I was cycling back to Shoshone Falls with Andrew. My teeth were chattering behind a UHaul truck during a chilly morning luggage load. I was exploring Register Rock. I was cycling in my first paceline with The Thoroughbreds. I was standing along a fence with Alex and Helen, watching a mare give birth to a dead foal in a pasture. I was laughing through swollen eyes at Jay and Billy Bob Nana after my Achilles Tendon became too inflamed to finish Day 15. I was staring up at a road sign for Hot Springs: Population 1. I was nearly falling off my saddle with hysterical laughter over the tale of Featherlegs and Dangerous Dick. I was looking up into the stone faces of our former presidents at Mount Rushmore. I was ducking for cover from a hailstorm with Andrew. I was dodging grasshoppers and shivering with disgust as a South Dakota road began to sound like a bowl of Rice Krispies. I was braving 20- to 30-mph headwinds along a 20-mile stretch of highway with Toronto Mark, Canada Jeff and Joe. Alison and I were singing on a rolling back road half way between the Pacific and the Atlantic: "Oh! We're half way there! Oh! Living on a prayer!"

I was chatting with Margot and Margo about life on mile after mile of a golden prairie. I was struggling in sweltering heat, praying for my rear end and my saddle to come to a comfortable understanding. I was dressed like an employee in a meatpacking plant, braving miles of torrential downpours in my rain gear. I was achieving a personal best as we cycled into Mankato - 100 miles in five hours. My muscles were straining and my bones were creaking after back-to-back centuries. I was trying to get creative with my handlebar positioning when the craggy roads in Minnesota felt like they were chipping away my bones. I was crossing over the Mississippi River, awed that we had cycled there ... from Oregon. I was coasting through small towns and exploring old train tunnels. Maddy and I were boarding a ferry at Lake Michigan. I was giggling as Alex rapped 'Slow Motion' at a SAG stop. I was rolling along a back road, chasing the shadows of clouds, watching the ribbons of sunlight and shadow pass over me and slide up the road, enveloping the adjacent fields and the other cyclists ahead. I was cycling over the bridge to Canada. I was crossing the 3000-mile mark with The Bad Pennies. I was listening to Canadian crickets start their day. I was laughing hysterically with Beth and watching fireworks with Joe and Gerard at Niagara Falls. I was remembering Rickey. I was cycling along the Erie Canal and hugging my parents in Liverpool. I was shooting photos in the rain with my new waterproof camera. I was pedaling through Latham, NY, already missing my fellow travelers. I was ascending picturesque summits in Vermont and laughing at "FM" with Texas Tom. I was standing on the side of the road, watching ABB Jeff, Canada Jeff and Joe fix my first flat. I was listening to Andrew tell the Shakespearean tale of the day during empty segments of lonely roads.

And suddenly, there was an enormous blue ocean dominating the horizon.

Kim told Beth that he was cycling across North America for the third time because of the incredible high he gets when the Atlantic Ocean appears after pedaling nearly 4,000 miles to see it.

"When you see that ocean," he had said, "It's unlike anything you've ever felt. It's a high ... And it lasts for years."

This was the second time in 50 days that we had all cycled together as a group. Our collective mass of red, white and blue America By Bicycle jerseys, led by a police unit, drew spectators. Many stood at the road's edge, to watch and applaud.

And when I saw it - when I saw that ocean - something that I've never felt before filled my entire being. Just like Kim had said, it was unlike anything I've ever experienced. It simultaneously consumed me and set me free. Imagine heart pounding, goosebumps, chills, calm, serenity, peace, noise, silence - all at once. It was such an overload to all of my senses that I felt everything and nothing. I think I caught a glimpse of true, raw beauty. Can something be so wonderful that it hurts?

Pedaling the final mile to the beach, I was looking out over the shimmering waves, watching my entire journey condense on top of itself. All of the long, hard, intense, spectacular days became a flip book of memories. I tried to process that I was staring at an ocean that I had cycled 3,690 miles to see. That I had cycled here from the Pacific. Through Oregon. Idaho. South Dakota. Minnesota. Wisconsin. Michigan. Canada. New York. Vermont. New Hampshire. It was too much. My breath caught in my chest. I cried silently as we pedaled along the coastline.

My mind thinks in logic. Grasping the enormity of this feat is like trying to believe in an afterlife, which is already a tough notion for me to process. But the moment like the one I experienced when I arrived at the Atlantic Ocean made me wonder ... where do all of these emotions - all of this energy - where does it go?

There has to be a place where you can take it with you.

As we rounded a bend and entered the parking lot to the beach, we began to hear cheers. There they were. Family and friends, many holding signs high over their heads or waving flags excitedly. And there was Terrence, arms poised with his camera, capturing our final pedal strokes to the water.

We removed our cleats, sinking our toes into the warm sand as we carried our bicycles to the water's edge and dipped our front wheels into the surf. Matt, our youngest rider at age 17, was selected to pour the ocean water we brought from the Pacific into the Atlantic. Hooting, hollering, laughter, tears. Euphoria.

Ankle-deep in Atlantic Ocean water, I leaned on my bicycle, watching Beth and Teresa splash and play in the surf, diving under the waves, jumping up and down and hugging each other over and over. I was too far away to hear their screaming, but their mouths were open, an expression that accompanies the sound of blissful, wailing joy. I was unaware that as my mind took its own mental snapshots of their moment, Terrence was capturing my moment capturing theirs.

If I can find a way to hold onto it, it will be one of the moments I take with me.

Along this journey, I had hoped to slow down my mornings, lengthen my afternoons and feel moments while I am in them. I did achieve that. I had long days. Refreshing moments where I looked at the time and it was only 9:30 in the morning. Excruciating moments when I could feel every muscle fiber in my legs. Exhilarating moments when I looked back and saw how far I had come. Peaceful moments, where I was all alone, cycling under a huge sky, letting my thoughts fill the enormous landscape around me.

Yet time does not let you hold onto it.

Even as I attempted in vain to stretch moments by realizing them, those moments still passed. Somehow, 50 days has managed to fit into one, long blink of my eye. And then it's gone. Time is fleeting, no matter what you do to fill it. And that's what ultimately becomes important. How you fill it.

There is a huge world out there. Wide, open and beautiful. Bigger still than what I saw on one route between Oregon and New Hampshire. There's even more to see and so many different ways to see it. It's a shame to spend your life passing it all up. Exploring, marveling, laughing, crying, seeing, hearing, feeling, believing, becoming, living.

Whatever those ways may be, sign me up.

We only get to do this once.


ccocochris said...

Okay so I guess I shouldn't have read this one at work....because i have a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes!! What a story!! Would make a great movie :)

Monique D. said...

I know what you mean "ccocochris".
Katie, i can't tell you enough... congratulations. I'm so proud of you.

Carrie said...

Wow - so I teared up on this one. Really beautiful.

Katie, I'd really love to know what kinds of thoughts and experieneces you're having upon your return to NYC. I hope that you write about those experiences a bit. Re-adjustment is such a valuable yard stick test of seeing how much you've changed, grown.

Thanks for the journey and the inspiration. it's been such a pleasure reading this.

My very best,