Albany to Seattle Aug 29th – Oct 23rd
The road south of Albany, NY was easy, beautiful, and filled with human connectedness. I bounced through conversations at coffee shops, had meals bought for me in delightful eclectic eateries, and was smiled at on the streets.
I arrived at my New York house, a place I had been dreaming of for over a year. It was the home of two artisans that I had never met in person, but the mother and I had written about the deaths of our sons together in an online group, and our bonds were already strong. She had invited me to stay as long as I wanted. If the house had had arms, it would have been the arms of a mother reaching out to fold her child deep into her bosom. I was given a room of my own, off the main part of the house, with a cozy bed, bathroom, couch and writing space. The father, a blacksmith who was large and gentle and filled with unquenchable loss for his only son, was delightful to talk to. Like having a conversation with an old, slumbering volcano. The mother, was no-nonsense with hair straight out of a witches coven. We gathered nearly every morning and evening in the open kitchen and talked about anything and everything. The contrast between the depth of their loss that they both struggled with every day and warmth of the house was strange and beautiful to witness.
During the day, I wrote. I wrote until my ass went sore from sitting the long hours and my eyes blurred from gazing into the tiny screen of my phone. I wrote about the quest, about my past, about the people I met. I wrote about my future and was surprised that I could not find a path beyond Georgia. Up to this point I had always had at least a tentative plan for the distant road ahead, but somehow I could not see beyond the right turn at the top of Florida. Instead, my thoughts turned to My Love, and what our relationship might become after my quest had come to an end.
When I couldn’t stand another day of writing, I cycled around the small town made up of ancient mansions, and spent a few hours sitting beside the grave of my friend’s son. I introduced myself to him, into the silent air that always accompanies the dead. Sitting within the stoney solitude I found within myself a core, personal truth. An awareness of who I was, like discovery, except that it was also a choice; to commit to being one thing and discard everything else that gets in the way.
It was time to discard everything that distracted me from being a writer.
Though I stayed less than a week, I felt the insecurity of the road again as I cycled away from the New York house. I felt the sharp sting of missing home. Perhaps these long miles across the country had been too free of roots. Human connectedness may be everywhere, but by moving constantly from one beautiful stranger to the next I was not allowing myself the comfort that comes from years of living with another person in the same place, contentedness grown from familiarity. On this quest I was both filled with hope and love, and yet also depleted of the love that only family, blood or chosen, can fulfill.
I was two days from New York City where I would meet up with My Love once again. I cycled lazily over the Hudson River on a pedestrian-only bridge that arched high into the cool fall air. A cyclist rode up on my left and paced me. The older gentleman delighted in telling me the history of the bridge and how its purpose was to stimulate the community of the town of Poughkeepsie on the east bank. When we reached land we traded business cards and shook hands, and he wished me well on my long road ahead. Had I wanted to live here, I have no doubt he would have invited me into his community warmly. It was such a contrast to the rhetoric that the political air was building up to. Media, politics, power hungry business, all thrived on conflict, but the reality of most people living their lives was much different, much more inclusive and connected.
My hosts that night were from Warm Showers, and owned a small winery on a hilltop overlooking The Hudson. Normally they offered tent space among the grapes, that dangled this time of year in heavy clusters. But the hostess and I connected instantly, and after an hour of chatting she offered to put me up in one of the guest beds. She also offered me dinner, which I declined. I ate so often throughout the day now that I rarely had much appetite for dinner, and although I no longer felt the fatigue from my electrolyte imbalance, I had yet to experience regular grumble hunger of any kind. She fussed and fretted that I wasn’t eating enough, but soon left me to relax in my room. I sat on the porch and watched the sun set. I heard a knock at the door. She didn’t say a word when I opened it, just handed me a bowl of vanilla ice cream, turned, and left.
The next day was going to be long. A friend waited for me in New Jersey at the end of the ride, along with an offer to pick me up if I found the road to be too hard. The roads were not bicycle friendly, and I was lucky to have six inches of shoulder on the two-lane highway with twists and turns and careless drivers in work trucks. The shoulder was in disrepair and where it crumbled I was forced to swerve dangerously into traffic to avoid a sudden flip over my handlebars. I had only made it a dozen miles when I stopped for a break just to clear the frustration from my head. I called My Love and explained the road. I had not experienced a road this dangerous since the 14 miles of death trap in Idaho just below Lolo Pass. He reminded me that I had promised not to get killed, that I had promised I would return to him at the end of this quest so that we could be a family. My need to push forward, push through, be independent and powerful and head strong, softened at his words. Between my bullheaded need to charge through life, and his levelheaded need to keep all options open, we made a pretty amazing team … as long as we listened to each other. I checked the maps on my phone and searched for the possibility of a less traveled road nearby. The hills and the river confined this area to one through-road, passing neighborhoods and country roads that went nowhere a cyclist on quest would desire. But one narrow, inconspicuous road seemed to branch out and follow the contours of The Hudson. I found a connecting road that wound through woodlands of oak, and imagined the colonials venturing through here looking for places to homestead, and before that Natives living in harmony among the wild things. The tiny road that clung to the steep hillside above The Hudson reminded me of the highway I’d cycled above the Columbia Gorge so many months before. A smooth, weaving two-lane road guarded by a stone wall on the river’s side. It climbed gently to a beautiful vista, and then plunged back down to the river’s bank on the other side. I hummed my delight in the peaceful afternoon sun as I cycled passed a modest sign pointing to West Point Academy on the left. It was much smaller than its fame led me to believe.
Time was passing much faster than my mileage. I called my friend and requested a pick-up almost 20 miles north of my destination. Then I unpacked my bike in a small park beside the river and slowly changed into street clothes, in full view of picnickers, the way I had in the parking lot in Syracuse. Clean T-shirt on first, then remove the sweaty tank top from beneath.
My Love flew into the city that night, and we spent nearly a week exploring New York City. We had only spent two entire weeks together since we began dating in February, and had seen each other only on the weekends he could meet up with me along my route. Though we had known each other 27 years, our relationship as lovers, engaged to be married, desiring to start a family, had to be pushed out to the end of my quest. I had told him, when we realized we were falling in love, that I would not cancel my plans to go on this year-long, country-wide, adventure. I had rearranged my life around the purposes of others for too long in my life. This quest was going to be my time, to explore who I am, and to invest in my future. I had half believed he would not accept my decision, or that he would walk away. Long-distance relationships are difficult on the best of us. Instead, the first words out of his mouth were “I think that’s an amazing thing to do. You should do it. And if you don’t mind, I would love to meet up with you along the way.”
As I walked the streets of the immense city on the arm of My Love, I looked for human connection and found it everywhere. On street signs, in polite drivers, and happy pedestrians. It was in the smiles of the wait staff at restaurants and bakeries and the brusk guidance from the ferry staff when we crossed The Hudson from New Jersey every day. Connectedness was friendly, decisive, hopeful, whimsical, and grumpy. Humanity working together to exist. Connectedness littered the streets of Little Italy in construction equipment as they prepared for their annual food festival, and connectedness kept the streets of Little China next door immaculately clean. Connectedness had planned for city-wide transportation that only took us a few dazed spins in place to figure out where to go. Connectedness was in the dark eyeliner and blue hair at the industrial music show in East Village the night before we were to leave the city.
I felt so connected to my life, to my world, that it seemed as if anything were possible. As we walked the night-lit streets I told My Love that I no longer needed the arbitrary goal of circumnavigating the US to write my story. I told him that I had already found what I had been seeking. I told him I would continue to cycle until the road ahead of me was no longer open, and would trust serendipity to be my guide.
The next day we drove to his aunt and uncle’s in Virginia. We received a few strange texts from family the next day, saying they were glad we were ok and out of the city. I googled recent events and discovered that a bomb had gone off just a dozen blocks from where we had partied the night before. I wondered if it were the consequence of when human connectedness fails.
I stayed at the Virginia house for two weekends, writing, and then continued towards the Atlantic Coast. My Love drove me to the bike route on a Sunday night, dropping me off at a campground in the dark. We made love in the car before saying goodbye, and our goodbye was more bittersweet than any of the others had been.
I cycled whimsically the next day, taking time to explore and take pictures, and experience the road without judgement. Water was everywhere. In the stagnant cypress swamps, and sluggish rivers. It breached banks and sank houses, and everywhere was the chirp and rattle of birds and insects. I crossed into North Carolina and accents changed, slowed, thoughts moving as unhurried as the water. I wondered what the land would say here. When I cycled the Pacific Coast in 2009, the ocean was my conscience, always driving me to find reason to live after Vasu died. But here in this world of stasis and calm, I heard only the silence of expectation.
And then the sky fell. Heavy rain that sat within misty clouds that sagged to the ground, and water drifted from the tires of semi-trucks that passed within inches of me on the narrow shoulders. I watched traffic closely, knowing they would not see me well through the moisture, and took time to pull off the road whenever two trucks passed each other at my location. My 6 hour day stretched into 7 without my destination being anywhere near, then 8. On a dirty stretch of flat, straight, boring highway, I stopped at an abandoned gas station for a snack. The world seemed both clear and entirely illusive all at once, and I gazed around me as if I could not quite figure out how I got there. And every cell in my body was crying out, “Please. Please. End this.”
It took me until half an hour after sunset to get into camp. The first time in almost 4,000 miles that I got caught in the dark. The campground was so infested with mosquitoes that they struck my face like the rain that had stopped two hours before. I pitched my tent and dove into its netted safety. Then I called My Love and told him the bicycling part of my quest was done.
I could hear the relief in his silence, and in his words were the ending of his fear that I would get killed. I told him I would stay with a friend for a few days on the North Carolina beach, cycle the last few hundred miles south, and then meet him in Atlanta for a celebration before flying home with him to Seattle.
The Atlantic Coast was magical, and seemed to celebrate my triumph with me, although I often worried if I were making the right choice. Would I still find human connectedness if I weren’t a solo female on a bike? Cycling lazily down the Atlantic Coast, serendipity brought me to photo ops of spectacular natural beauty, and meetings with humans that confirmed to me that the world desires to connect. And as if to curtail any doubt I might have in ending the quest early, nature brought a hurricane right into my road. I would barely have enough time to get to the next city where I could rent a car to Atlanta. I pushed hard, which was not difficult in that flat land. The miles flew by, and vehicles actually stopped me in the road to offer me rides out of the hurricane’s path. My last night camping with my bike was in a little town called Sea Level, and I pitched my tent six inches above the water’s edge with Hurricane Matthew only two days away. I was supposed to cycle 60 miles to my rental car the next day, but a kind man and his teenage son offered me a ride, well out of their way. They were delightful, and I was amazed at how easily I accepted their offer. Somewhere on these long miles I had learned to trust others with my life, and learned to trust my judgement of their quality based on just a few minutes conversation. The consequence was a strange confidence in myself that I don’t think I had ever felt before.
I spent the week in Atlanta, mostly sleeping the days away in a friend’s guest room. I felt strangely fatigued, and food tasted wrong. I shushed the instant worries of disease away. They always show up whenever I feel off. It is merely the consequence of knowing too many people who died, so I rarely take my own thoughts seriously. My Love joined me for the weekend, and then I flew to California with My Love for his cousin’s wedding. My feelings of being ill were getting worse, and had a sneaking suspicion why. At 5 in the morning on the last day before flying home I peed on a stick and watched the blue plus sign appear instantly. My Love was already awake, expectant of results he had been waiting most of his life to hear. We were going to be parents.
So the quest had not ended. It had merely transformed, and the next road ahead of me was now in the hands of serendipity.