Remember the Goal

Years from now, I’ll remember today with quiet and heartfelt thanks. I learned something I never expected in starkly beautiful Kansas.

Yesterday

Yesterday was a perfect day. At about 10am, I crossed into Kansas, which more than any other milestone before, truly blew my mind. This is faaaar, and somewhere herein lay the journey’s halfway point, though exactly where depends on how I count and how far I ultimately go. The temperature was high, 101°F with a heat index that says it felt like 121°F, which I don’t contest. Towns were spaced perfectly for me to stop and drink something big and cold every 1-2 hours. I spent the supposedly hottest part of the day in a local library and eating lunch, but even when I emerged from that at 3:30pm, it was still over 100°F. By the time I was in the next town over at 6:45pm, it was still 95°F, and I still had 20 miles to go to camp, with an 8:45pm sunset to race. I crushed it, and after an 87-mile day in that heat, I arrived in plenty of time to set up camp and enjoy the lake view before dark. The stars were vividly clear and the air was full of fireflies. I left the rain fly off my tent so that it was simply a bug net, and I fell asleep looking up at the Milky Way, seeing it clearly for perhaps only the 5th time in my life. It was a perfect day because it was hard and I did well, but most importantly, everything lined up.

I’ve spent months dreading this state for its emptiness and its famous winds. Even historic issues of the famed Providence Scrabble Club Newsletter will attest that months ago I was most concerned about Kansas. Now just shy of 2,000 miles peddled since Boston, I’m here and the moment is now.

Today

This morning at first light, I woke up on the wooden bench in the shower house. At 3am, I was damn-near convinced that there was a bear trapsing around in the woods next to my tent, and though I knew that wasn’t probable, I really didn’t care about statistics at the time. It turns out there are no bears or mountain lions in Kansas, and later evidence suggests that the squirrels in the treetops can be large, slow, and noisey. So, ha!, you got me good.

Today’s ride was supposed to be a given: 75-mile bike path, probably rough, but shaded and protected from the wind, protected from trucks, headed directly west, and with well-spaced towns for food and water. But at just seven miles in, I got a flat tire. The bike path was a lot rougher than I had expected, and the cause of the flat was immediately obvious. My 3-day-old new tires were studded with thorns.
Just as I had picked out the first few thorns with tweezers, a golf-cart-type vehicle drove up and stopped. That’s rare, I later found out—the remote path just opened last year, and maybe only a handful of people use it per week, and these guys were there to investigate reports that someone was digging holes in the path. The exchange was fast, something like:

“Having trouble?”

“Yeah flat tire.”

“Thorns? That just happened to a guy last week. The trail is rough here. I’ll tell you what, Dan here will drive me to my truck, and I’ll come back and take you into town. Is that okay?” [Note, esp. regarding my last post: Dale drives a pick-up truck, as do many many good people, so of course they’re not all bad!]

Now recall my last flat tire incident where I said no to help four times, and I ended up having to ride that flat tire 26 miles. And it wasn’t 100°+ then. So I said yes very quickly. GG in Illinois will recall that I really didn’t want to be driven anywhere if I could help it because it was “against the rules.” Saying that today seemed even stupider, so I said thank you very much, and Dale took a break in his day to drive me the ten-or-so miles into Osage City. Even at the time I wrestled a bit with the idea that this would be my first caveat to the whole coast-to-coast-only-by-bike claim. But of course that was the right thing to do. This was a life safety issue, and I had no way to know whether I could fix so much damage on my own.

Dale had me choose my destination. There were no bike shops, so I chose the hardware store. He walked in, told them I was there, and left me with the assurance that his wife also worked next door, so I could contact him through her if I needed anything else.

I met Mary Sue, who with her husband Willie, owns and runs Osage Hardware in Osage City. I spent more than an hour there picking out thorns from both tires, while using their covered outdoor area for shade. Mary Sue gave me a bottle of Gatorade and tried to convince me more than once to come inside to cool off to do my work, but I really didn’t want to intrude further, and I knew she could tell that. I picked out all the thorns I could find—many dozens—then reinstalled both tires. Though they seemed to hold air, it would still be a gamble to get to the nearest bike shop 35 miles away.

When I was ready to go, Mary Sue insisted on feeding me lunch, I think to help give me energy just as much as to give me time to rethink my plans. Willie offered to drive me the 35 miles himself, and probably just plain knowing how stubborn I must be to get even that far, he followed up with the offer: okay, go ahead and try yourself, and here is my card, call me at anytime if you have trouble and I’ll come get you myself. “I really don’t mind.” He gave me plenty of local advice on which routes to take going west after. Then, finally, after acknowledging that my adventure is hugely respectable, he offered: “Though really I’d prefer if you just took a plane to San Francisco.” I hugged them both good bye and I headed off.

That 35 miles, though, was simply brutal. The tires made it, and I made it, but it felt like only barely. The actual temperature today was 109°F, and I had 20-30mph headwinds the entire way. My left knee, which until now was doing splendidly, was strained with the wind. I nearly ran out of water, and I was already rationing it at 15 miles out. Even that would have been worse had not Mary Sue given me that Gatorade bottle, my fifth bottle, that I refilled and kept. And once again on a nearly-empty road, an angry pick-up truck driver decided to express his thoughts about my existence, this time by “coal rolling” me, or clouding me with black soot from his illegally-modidied exhaust pipe as he passed.

Last week and this week are supposed to be the hottest of the year here, and the only break, down to the high 80’s, will come on Sunday with days of thunder storms. There are no trees, few towns, the heat hurts, and quite frankly this part isn’t remotely fun. It’s clearly dangerous here too. No one should be riding a bike across Kansas right now, and hubris is what gets people hurt.

So this is perhaps my greatest lesson from my journey so far: I should seek peace in failure. (Thank you, Dustin, especially, for your comments on my last post.) It is the unambiguously wise thing for me to do to skip Western Kansas. It means I’m going to “break the rules,” so to speak, but seriously only I ever imposed that, and it’s purpose is to motivate me not endanger my life. So “failure” more properly needs a reference frame.

As a designer and educator, I know that any design project should be judged chiefly by the project’s own goals. My project, I said, is to have a “challenging and hopefully inspiring” journey. And on that, already, just halfway through, check. And here I was used to thinking of days like yesterday as “perfect” days because I achieved a lot of miles in good conditions. Wrong again. Based on my premise, today was the best day so far at just 45 miles. It was certainly challenging, and the true kindness of strangers is awe-inspiring. Thank you Dale, Mary Sue, and Willie.

Thanks also for those thorns. Were it not for the flat tire, I would have lost any good option to stop after today.

“Make Plan B Better Than Plan A”

Tomorrow I’ll take a Greyhound to Wichita to rent a car, come back to Emporia, KS to pick up my bike, then head off in some indeterminate direction to explore this part of the world for a week, mostly off the grid, partly on bike. I’ve been to 43 states, but that list doesn’t yet include Oklahoma or New Mexico, and I’ll fix that.

I’ll head to Denver next weekend to visit friends and family, then leave my bike there for a few-days’ round trip to Toronto for a professional conference where I’ll co-teach a lab with my friend Daniel. He was very insistent that I figure out how to get there in the midst of my trip, and I realy didn’t know how I could until recently. (That, and Daniel has a way of moving mountains to make the right thing happen too, so thank you.) Besides the fact that I’m very much looking forward to seeing friends in Toronto, it’s both a nice way to honor my former work with Safdie Architects while dipping my toes back in the waters of the professional world before I’ll be a fulltime member again soon enough.

Back to Denver by the second week of August, I’ll get back on my bike, with four weeks to play wherever I want, free now from the shackles of “the rules.” So I saved the best for last: the Rockies!

Endurance Test

lastWeek

In the days since I’ve written, I’ve made it from Bloomington, Indiana to near the Missouri/Kansas line, a day more than the map above shows. My average daily mileage has gone up considerably, with two days in the 90’s and one full century (100 miles) last week. This isn’t because it’s getting flatter—that hasn’t happened just yet—it’s because my schedule demands it, and I’m getting stronger.

Illinois

The last day in Indiana and the two days it took to cross Illinois (I’m really proud of that!) were three of the hardest days so far, unfortunately all in a row. I’m clearly now in the endurance part of the journey, and honestly a lot of it, or maybe just Illinois, really bites. This is not the Saturday fun rides in the Marin Headlands kind of riding; it’s sun-baked, middle-of-nowhere kind of stuff where back roads that can suddenly become impassable and the slightly-less-back roads have angry drivers that get their jollies out of scaring cyclists. 

One of those images below shows how a road I was on in Illinois became a steep hill of sand… with an unusually aggressive dog at the top. That day turned from a planned 80 miles to 100 miles just from re-routes and on-the-ground problem solving. I think that’s the real stuff of bicycle touring, but it’s especially hard when it’s relentless.

Can I say it again? Illinois was simply the worst, but really it’s because I had so many problems with drivers in just two days. Early on, a semi truck probably purposefully blew by me at 60 mph, less than 18 inches from me, even when the trucks immediately before and after him moved safely over. I didn’t have the chance to understand what had happened until it was over, but it’s still frightening to remember. There was also a close call with a probably oblivious minivan driver. I’ve had some other close calls as an urban cyclist before but never that close or at those speeds.

On the second Illinois day I was introduced to a whole new level of driver aggression. Just after lunch, on a lightly-traveled road (should be ideal for me) when there were no other cars in sight, I was startled by a horn, blown directly behind me. Then a pick-up truck accelerated past me, nearly making contact. As the driver passed, I saw his head jerk to look in the rear-view mirror to collect his reward: my reaction. I don’t react by policy, or at least not with anger.

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A few miles down the road, I got an unrelated flat tire. I pulled off onto a side road, found the puncture in the tube, and patched it. But the patch didn’t hold air pressure. I broke the valve on my first spare tube and pinched the second installing it, puncturing it too. Both re-patching the original tube and patching the third tube didn’t work either, and I managed to snap two of my three tire levers in the process. During that hour-long fiasco, four drivers pulled up to ask if I needed help, but since I wasn’t yet out of options, I said no thanks. (Let’s not forget that there are still more good people in the world than wackos!) But then I really was out of good options, so I had to ride 26 miles to the nearest bike shop on the outskirts of St. Louis on my back rim plus a flat tire for negligible padding. Twenty-one of those miles were on a gravel bike path (ouch). The other five were on a road, where somehow I managed to attract yet another wacko pick-up, again alone on the road save for me, who tried to scare me with his horn. He did give me proper space but he made some sort of threatening gesture with his arm out the window to go with the horn. We were both just passing one of many “Share the Road” signs.

Just before I got to the bike shop, I had to go down a short road that was torn up wth larger chunks of gravel. I was still trying not to damage my rim too badly, so I got off and walked my bike through it. I walked right past a woman who was getting something out of her car. She said something about me picking a terrible road to ride my bike on, and pretty quickly my whole story came out. She had me come inside the house, offered to have me stay there, and she and her friends checked to make sure the bike shop was still there or open. I already had hotel reservations in St. Louis, so I couldn’t stay, but she, Angeline, or GG, had me promise to come back if I had any trouble with the bike ship, and she would drive me and my bike to Wal-Mart. The picture is with GG 🙂

It all worked out at the bike shop, with new tires, tubes, spares, etc. And somehow, no damage to my rim! The guy there stayed late just for me. And for what it’s worth, he said I was the second person with that story (cross-country ride, 20+ miles on a flat tire,…) to come in that day! Regarding my homemade back rack, he said “Well, you aren’t kidding around.” Later he also volunteered that he’s seen enough cross-country riders over the years that he can practically diagnose their mental and physical health on sight. He said I was easily in the top 3%, so of course I’d make it all the way. And after that day!

After that, it was full speed out of Illinois and into St. Louis, through some dodgier areas that I wished I had traversed when the sun was higher in the sky. I earned seeing that arch!

Now What?

Please don’t think I’ve forgotten, among all the goings-on that several drivers intentionally put my life in danger. It haunts me. Part of why I felt the need to explain a single day in such detail, above, is to show you how confusing this is for me. I’ve met many dozens of truly kind people along the way, but a few monsters too, and I’m not sure what that means for me yet.

I have so many questions. If I have a sign on my back that only the wackos see, what does it say? “I think I’m better than you?” “I’m a coastal liberal elitist?” “I’m vulnerable so please mess with me?” Do more people see that sign too and not act? I have no idea, but whatever it is, it’s a snap judgement on their part, and surely wrong. I also admit that part of why this has been so hard to work through for me is that I have some snap judgements about them (the wackos) too.

Then, at what point do I call this? When is the risk to my life unacceptably high? I’ve worked harder for this than almost anything else ever. It’s man against nature, survival, and all manner of strength-building. But what does it mean if my most dangerous enemy is from my own team: other people. Other Americans, other Midwesterners even. I don’t have any answers here, but I will say that whatever threshhold I have for “this is too dangerous” is closer than I ever imagined it would be.

Everyone I’ve met who has ridden cross-country says they’ve come back with newfound hope in human nature. I don’t think I can reach that same conclusion, or at least not without just as much nuance as I’ve ever known there to be.

Missouri

After a night to recover in St. Louis, I decided to be pokey for a day and I only went 65 miles to Washington, MO. I was feeling particularly vulnerable somewhat demoralized about bad people. Along the way I was honked at, not nicely, three times by pick-up trucks, twice when I was all the way to the outside of a generous ten-foot margin, so apparently even the sight of a bicycle is enough to make some people freak out just as much as dogs do when they see bikes.

The majority of the rest of the state would be one big bike path, which offered me safety while I processed what I should do: to stop or to keep going.

I took a much-needed rest day in Jefferson City, the capital, halfway-ish through the state. At 43K people, it’s the last city of any size I plan to see for the next 800 miles before Denver. “Jeff City”, as they call it, was great. I got my bike fixed again… remember those brand new tires? They each had a flat spot, and neither I nor the mechanic there could “seat” them properly on the wheel, or perhaps they were just defective, so I had to buy a third set of tires that, hooray!, are finally both round. (It’s been fewer than half of my total riding days that I’ve had two round tires.) It makes a big difference! I also toured the capitol building, and I toured the now decommissioned Missouri State Penitentiary, where stories of how prisoners have been treated in our own country made me revisit that whole human nature problem. They actually had dungeons where they used to lock people up for sometimes years with no light. Eleven continuous years and the blindness it caused went to the man who tried to start a union in the prison workshop.

The rest of my time in this state has been really great. The Katy Trail follows the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas (a.k.a. “MKT”, a.k.a. “KT”, a.k.a. “Katy”) Railroad line mostly up the Missouri River. It’s the first and still the longest rails-to-trails project in the U.S. and they did a great job posting signs everywhere Lewis and Clark camped and what they did that day. It was easy to imagine following them.

Next up, Kansas, where I hear the drivers aren’t as crazy?

Beginning of the Middle

In the last five days, I rode from Oberlin, OH to Bloomington, IN, and on the way I spent time with some truly wonderful people, passed the 1K mile mark, left the Ohio nest, and now suddenly I’m 25% of the way to San Francisco. The trip itself seems to have changed too. I’m more relaxed and, dare I say, edging on comfortable with this lifestyle. And this is a lifestyle—of course I’d love to spend a summer sitting by a pool and eating bonbons, but this journey is bigger than I am, and I have to keep moving.

Pain is part of the journey

Really everything hurts some kind of way. People ask me sometimes how my butt is doing. Yeah that definitely hurts right under my “sit bones,” as a yoga instructor once called them, but even that wouldn’t make the medal podium. Number one would be my knees, or more properly the high shins right under the knees that I’ve overused. Second would be my wrists, for which 8-10 hours per day of vibrating handlebars is reviving my architecture school carpal tunnel syndrome. Third would be the collective entry from every cubic inch of my quads. Then, yes, my butt hurts too.

To address most of these, I knew what to do. Butt: stand up every now and then, and short breaks go a long way. Quads: they’ll get stronger with time; stretch, and take some rest days to allow them to rebuild themselves. Wrists: use padded riding gloves and move your hands around the grips as frequently as needed. Knees: …stop riding right now before you do permanent damage!?

I started having trouble with my knees (more properly the high shins, as I later found out) on the training ride to Montreal. Imagine shin splints but way up high, just under the knee caps. It was hard to walk up stairs for a few days after that first appeared, but my shins mostly healed in the week after Montreal. Then as soon as 3-4 days into the big journey, the pain was back, and it was sharp enough and scary enough to affect my routing decisions—gone were my plans to ride through the hilly Finger Lakes to Ithaca in favor of the flat-ish Erie Canal corridor.

I couldn’t help but realize that my shins were the single greatest threat to completing this journey this summer because it wasn’t just some muscle soreness, it was a tendon or ligament that I might be damaging. Would I create a chronic condition for myself out of sheer stupidity? It also felt like an indictment of sorts that despite all the work, I didn’t do a good job training and preparing myself for this (undoubtedly true, but who wants to admit that?).

Somewhere in Upstate New York I discovered that if I peddle with only my quads and I forget that the rest of my legs exist, their only purpose being to connect my knees to the peddles, my shins didn’t hurt with each stroke. Cycling had always been a satisfyingly full-leg kind of experience for me, but if some weird technique is what it took to get to Cleveland, my personal terminus of minimal acceptance, so be it.

I took nearly two weeks off in Cleveland to heal while also tying up as many life loose-ends as possible (I won’t touch my own computer again for another 2 months!!). I learned after plenty of online searches that (1) my bike wasn’t adjusted properly, now fixed, and (2) indeed, you’re supposed to peddle a bike mainly with your quads. Could it be true, then, that after years of cycling somewhat seriously, I wasn’t doing it right? Well, consider that you probably don’t chew your food right either. Do you chew each bite up to 30 times? You should. It’s better for digestion and it helps prevent choking to chew so much. Though it probably doesn’t matter a whole lot if you eat just three times per day, if you suddenly start competing in 8-10-hour-long eating contests, every day, it’ll matter.

Because of those knees and perhaps because the scale of this whole thing is so huge, I think some people quietly wondered if I’d be able to continue past Cleveland. But today I’m in Bloomington, Indiana, and I’m doing well. Achieving this is another kind of personal triumph that, at least for now, I’ve learned how to avoid and manage most of the shin pain.

I’ve re-taught myself how to peddle, I’m taking breaks more regularly during the day, and I’m planing longer day-long breaks about once per week. I still have a burning desire to make progress with every waking moment, but I’m learning to accept that there is a careful balance to strike with rest and enjoying wherever I find myself along the way.

More to that enjoying part, I can say that I was looking forward to this last stretch through Ohio and Indiana for some time, and it’s almost unbelievable that my long-anticipated visits with my friends Michelle, Dustin and Jennifer and their now three(!) beautiful children, Justin and Natalie, and Janice (plus Skype call with Bryan in Ecuador!) are now past. I loved all of it, and I’m weirdly already starting to mourn the impending end of this most-special time in my life.

There are plenty of terrific challenges left, 75% of them technically, but now for the first time in this many-months-long process, the end is starting to feel actually achievable and all-too-near. Last week I accepted a [great] job in SF (details when the time is right), and I have to be there by the beginning of September. For this cross-country business, I’m not a novice anymore, and I’m no longer at the beginning. There’s something incredibly liberating to have achieved the beginning of the middle of the journey, but something sad too.

Tales from the road

I said a final good bye to my parents at Mifflin Dairy Bar near Mansfield, OH. We met the owner that morning who said he sees cross-country cyclists and hikers more often than you’d think. He took our picture and posted it to their Facebook page. Apparently that little place was my good friend Marcie’s first job in middle school, and a childhood favorite of my college friend Ian King. Small world.

I crossed the 1K mile mark somewhere in the town of Somerville, OH. That’s ironic, of course, because I lived for the last year in Somerville, MA, but especially because I had no idea that Ohio town even existed. Later, near Oxford, OH, I ended up in the middle of a parade of old people driving even older cars for at least two miles.

I rode through Columbus, IN, which is semi-famous for its collection of modern architecture. The fire stations and churches are particularly notable. The town deserved more time than I had to give it; it’s worth a stop on any road trip.

Bloomington is also a nice-looking town. I did laundry chez Janice, got a quick haircut, and I stopped at a bike shop here, Bicycle Garage, Inc., to get a problem with my front tire fixed. They did a whole tune-up for me including fixing a problem with my back brakes I wasn’t aware of, and they didn’t charge me a cent.