September 24, 1997
To my dear friends and family,
In this letter I'm going to try to give a general picture of my adventures these last 6 months, and since I'm writing to so many people, unfortunately I'm making this a form letter. I'm sorry for the impersonal-ness if it, but I couldn't think of a better idea.
As I wrote I kept realizing more and more how impossible it is to summarize 6 months' worth of travels (or anything) onto a piece of paper, so please understand that this is not at all comprehensive. For instance, one major part of the trip for me was visiting international communities along the way, but to focus on them would require (at least) a whole new letter. Also, it is hard to describe or even adequately acknowledge the overwhelming generosity and kindness of people along the way. So many wonderful people opened their hearts (and sometimes their homes and refrigerators...) to me, and to those people I will be forever grateful; they made the trip as wonderful as it was.
Also, I've made a nice little list with "most frequently asked questions" and answers on it, so I hope you enjoy it! Anyway, here goes...
It all began on August 31, 1996, at precisely 10:01 p.m. That's when I made up my mind to ride my bicycle across the United States. I was sitting in the Seattle Airport and anticipating my red-eye flight to the East Coast with very little joy. I had just spent a week at a camp for unschooled (homeschooled) teenagers, and it had been an incredibly inspiring week; what a bummer to end all that with a trip on an airplane. So as I sat there, I said to myself, "There's got to be a better way to do this!" And then, the next moment, I said out loud, "I'm going to ride my bicycle to camp next year." I rather surprised myself for a minute, but that was that. No matter that I'd barely ridden more than 15 miles at a time on a bike; no matter that I knew next to nothing about bike mechanics and even less about bicycle touring; I just knew in a flash that I was going to ride my bike across the country next summer.
The next morning, when my mother picked me up at the airport, I announced my plans as we got into the car. She listened and then inquired, "Aren't you supposed to ask me these things, not tell them to me??"
In the months that followed, I became obsessed with my trip. Preparations took almost every ounce of my energy, as I spent my time working to make money, poring over huge books about touring and mechanics, apprenticing at my local bike store to expand my (very) rudimentary knowledge of bicycles, buying gear, contacting homeschooling families and intentional communities with Whom I wished to stay along the way--and beginning to feel pangs of self doubt as the enormity of my plans began to hit me and people made negative comments and observations about my trip. In all fairness, lots of folks' responses to my plans were positive, but there were quite a few people who seemed to feel it was their duty to warn me of all the dangers Out There. In my journal I wrote,
...lately I've started recognizing a difficult aspect of planning this trip: the fact that other people are so doubting, skeptical, fearful, admonishing about it. "We don't understand it," they seem to be saying, "so it must be fraught with danger." "Why do you want to do it, exactly?" "Aren't you afraid?" "Isn't that... dangerous?" "You could get raped." And the inevitable, "You're going alone?!?!" usually spoken in a tone that tries to conceal displeasure, disapproval and fear but seldom succeeds. All of that and much more comes out of peoples' mouths every day, and little by little it's chipping away bits of my confidence. It's doubly hard because some dear friends are the doubting ones. And I don't want to smile and try to sooth everyone's worries without recognizing (especially to myself) 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?"
"But right now, I feel like I must face new dangers. After all I will be leaving behind some dangers that I've lived with for 17 years. Like pollution, and the very 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 mid-October, I developed tendonitits in my wrists. I was told to rest them and that "...no, it's probably not a good idea to ride a bicycle..." So until February I didn't ride my bike, 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...
As soon as I could ride again, I set a date to leave. I decided that I would rather spend lots of time at the beginning doing few miles than spend that time at home, training. I couldn't wait any more.
March 7, 1997
In the last few weeks, especially, I've felt like there is a rope tied around me, pulling me inexorably toward the crevasse that lies between myself now and Something Else (adulthood??). Lately that rope has been tugging so hard at times, making me scramble over and around all sorts of physical and mental Obstacles. I have to go.
And so I went. Six months ago today, I boarded Greyhound with my bicycle and we headed towards Yorktown, VA to begin our cross-country journey. I remember thoughts flitting rapidly through my head on that chilly gray day in March, feelings of excitement, trepidation, wonder, fear, and so many other emotions. I spent a month and a half in Virginia, riding 500 miles and spending time (often several days or a week) with wonderful homeschooling families and communities. The Appalachians were a tough mountain range, and often so frustrating. But I discovered an unexpected thing: I liked riding up the mountains! (Although I think often the fun was a combination of riding up a pass (groaning inwardly all the way), and then feeling the exhilaration at the top to have done it.)
April 18, '97
As I turned onto Rt. 43 towards the Blue Ridge Parkway, I shifted into my lowest gear, and climbed. And climbed and climbed and climbed. But oddly enough, I felt myself smiling as I pedaled, and realized that I was actually enjoying the climbing It's hard and it's slow, but that's part of its attraction. It's quieter, going slowly, and sometimes it's a chance to sort of go into autopilot and become very introspective. I can think about all sorts of things. There are also times when the difficulty and the very, physicalness of it makes me concentrate solely on my body: one pedal stroke at a time, push pull push pull, breathe, look at the road, watch for cars, steer the bike. At those times I'm simply riding, and life is all condensed into a single goal: make it up the mountain.
And those mountains! When I made it up onto the Parkway, I promptly forgot about stray dogs and potholes and everything else and pulled over to the side of the road. I leaned my bike up, sat on a broad rock, ate peanut butter on crackers, and sank into the blissful blueness of these gorgeous mountains. And after that, all day in fact, I was utterly and totally enchanted by the ethereal, mist-like intensity of these mountains. I watched them rise and fall ahead of me as I pedaled, and drank in great, deep mouthfuls of their magical blueness. Even as I struggled up their frustrating ascents, even as I was chilled by the winds, I gasped with the majesty of them ... and it's so alluring not to know what's on the other side...
During my trip, I used maps that are made for cyclists' use by the Adventure Cycling Association. The "TransAmerica Bike Trail," from Yorktown, VA to Florence, OR, was started by ACA in '76 and called "BikeCentennial." In that first summer, thousands of cyclists rode the TransAm --now, although the ACA has mapped out several other cross-country routes, 200-300 cyclists a year still cross the country using this route. (Because I started early (most riders start from the coast in May or June), I didn't meet any other TransAm riders till Illinois.) Since the TransAm has been around for so many years now, the folks in all the towns have become accustomed to seeing cyclists every year. And in many places, there are individuals and churches who offer hostel-style accommodations to trail riders, often for free. Each hostel has a logbook, and it's great fun to read what others have written! During the last three months of my trip, there were so many people who pulled up on their bikes and said to me, "Oh, you must be Sarabeth!" "You must be the infamous 17-year-old" and once, "You must be the girl who's riding to camp..." I heard about the people and places ahead of me from the eastbounders, and I could tell eastbounders which camping places to avoid and where one could find especially good strawberry shortcake.
Kentucky was a hard state, and it wasn't only the steep ascents.
Monday, May 5
.... Litter, much of it several years old from its looks, lines the roads here, and there are trash heaps at the bends in the road. It's been several days of striking contrasts--in some places there's the barren and desolate coal-mined land; in others there are gorgeous, many-colored hillsides simply bursting with springtime; there's the depressed state of the economy, the gorgeous flowers, the people who are sometimes suspicious or rude but most often kind, the deserted, gloomy junkyards and run-down mobile homes. It all intermingles and saddens me. This morning I began to ride as the mist rose with the sun. I shared the road with ungainly coal trucks who lumbered purposefully to the mines. They pulled out loaded with several tons of coal, freshly and carelessly taken from the earth, and loomed out of the smog and mist of the valley like determined turtles. The sun glinted on my bike and my breath hung frostily in the air. The exhaust fumes hung in the air too, and when cars and trucks went by they spewed me with sooty blackness. The whole landscape was surreal, the richness and poorness and beauty and ugliness of this land all rolled into one...
In Carbondale, IL I stayed with a Sufi Community, wonderful people who welcomed me in and allowed me several days of much-needed rest. But not only that, it felt so good to be with people who I could actually get to know a little, and with whom I could really talk. Staying with them gave me renewed energy and strength. And then, the day before I left Carbondale, I met Wyeth and Jeff, the first TransAm cyclists I'd seen. We talked for two hours and then went out for pizza that rainy May evening, and decided to ride together the next day... The "next day" stretched into "several days," and I ended up riding with them till the end of June. Although I'd been having fun up till then, it was really great to be traveling with them. I'd had some pretty lonely ìgray daysî in VA and KY, and it was such fun to ride with Jeff and Wyeth. They were just all-around neat people, and although I probably could have gotten through the Ozarks alone, I sure was glad for their company (and I certainly appreciated their patience, as I was definitely the slower rider!). And then, in Summersville, MO, our trio became a foursome for a week.
Saturday May 30
As we were packing up our groceries in the supermarket parking lot, up rode a man on a loaded touring bicycle. "You must be Sarabeth," he said to me; then to the guys, "and one of you must be Wyethl" Poel Mazure is from the Netherlands. He smokes cigarettes, defies all the cycling rules in the book, drinks beer for lunch, dislikes wearing a helmet, makes broad hand gestures to passing motorists as he swerves into the middle of the road, muscles up the hills faster than everyone (and especially me), and makes disparaging (and unfortunately mostly true) and fascinating observations about American people.
He was a really cool guy, and we had so much fun riding together. Such conversations we had as we pedaled up those near-vertical mountains! We were "The Turtle Squad": saving turtles destined to be roadkill was our mission... We were all sad to say goodbye the next week, but his schedule was tighter than ours and it was time to go. We asked eastbounders about him for the rest of the way.
The Ozarks were definitely a demanding set of hills, and most of the time the joy that the downhills brought was immediately squelched by the sight of yet another dozen steep grades ahead. But one day there was a descent that left me flying high.
... On Wednesday I experienced the most amazing downhill ever. We had climbed up a series of hills, and as we reached the final summit, the road appeared to drop off. And for the next two miles, the Ozarks proved themselves to be the 'giant, self-propelled roller coaster' that ACA promised they'd be. I went shooting down one hill, only to pop up on top of the next one without pedaling. This happened several more times, a huge smile plastered on my face. I went 44 mph. I felt the exhilaration of the speed and the wind and the realization that I better not mess up or else...
Kansas was a notable state for many reasons, one of which was that we started meeting lots of other cyclists. In Toronto State Park we met Elizabeth and Rob, riding from San Diego on recumbants with their dog in a bike trailer behind them. Elizabeth was the first female cyclist I'd met. During the whole trip I only met two other women traveling alone.
Kansas was also notable for the heat. In Wichita, Wyeth's father Bill and his younger sister Abbey joined up to ride the next several hundred miles to Denver, CO. And they arrived just in time for a heat wave. Melting draining, searing, extremely uncomfortable and mid-blurring heat. It was hard to drink enough, and in western KS and eastern CO I was again very grateful to have company.
In Pueblo, CO, I had to say goodbye to Jeff and Wyeth and Bill and Abbey; they were going to visit relatives off-route and I needed to keep going towards the coast so that I'd arrive in time for camp. It was so sad to say goodbye, and for the rest of the trip I asked eastbounders to send them my hellos.
And then came central CO and the Rocky Mountains. Just before Breckinridge, I climbed Hoosier Pass, the summit of which is the highest point on the TransAm. I reached the top at about 9:00am, and gazed almost unbelievingly at the sign that read, "Hoosier Pass--Continental Divide-- 1 1,542 feet." "As Jeff would say at times like these," I whispered to myself as I looked out over the snow-covered peaks, "I rode my bike here."
Wyoming: land of raw beauty, roads with good, wide shoulders,
breathtaking valleys, amazing mountains--and mosquitoes.
Saturday July 5, Jeffrey City
I am safely cocooned in my tent, and outside there are millions upon millions of mosquitoes, Seriously, I have never ever EVER seen so many of them. I set up camp, made dinner, shoved my gear
inside my tent, and got inside myself in an amazingly short period of time. I think I probably set some kind of record ... and if I have to go to the bathroom tonight, I'm holding it in...
Wyoming was also quiet, at least in many of the rural parts I passed through.
July 7, 1997
At one point today I stopped my bike for a moment and just listened. It was totally, completely quiet and still--at that moment there were no birds, no cars, no crickets, no buzzing power lines, no wind. I never heard so much silence.
The Tetons and Yellowstone were gloriously beautiful, though
I arrived at the height of tourist season and they were crowded.
I spend over a week between the two parks, and could have spent
Then in Montana, I went off the route to Bozeman where I stayed
with the O'Haire family for a week. Casey, 17, and Jacob, 14,
were both going to the unschoolers' camp in Eugene, OR and we
planned to ride some of the remaining 1,200 miles together. On
July 24th, our first day on the road together, we stayed at Lewis
& Clark Caverns State Park.
There was a flaming red sunset over the mountains tonight,
and as the sun set, the sagebrush scented winds blew in a storm.
The sun lit up the immense thunderhead, and I could see the fingers
of rain, fiery red in the light.
Idaho was one river after another, and I never knew that there were so many of them in one place and so much of a variety. It's my private opinion that the rivers in that state are magic. I've never felt such an attraction to rivers before! But Idaho's waters beckoned me, pulled me, and I could have spent days more there, exploring all of the creek and streams and waterfalls that trickled and rushed and flowed through the lush green forests. During one layover day in Lowell, Idaho, a kind family took us tubing with them down the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers. I was in heaven.
I loved Idaho.
I spent the last week of my journey, from Baker City, OR to the coast, riding alone. It was a great week, especially the last 5 days. I kept meeting neat people, seeing amazing scenery, feeling stronger than I'd ever felt in my life, and becoming increasingly excited with each mile closer to the coast that I rode. I hardly dared think about The End that was so rapidly approaching--and in a way I just couldn't. I needed to experience that last days fully and completely, and laugh and learn and discover all that there was in those precious dwindling miles. But all too soon, those miles were completed. I was in a daze as I counted down: " 12-11 -10.... 3-2-1!" I called my family from a pay phone in Florence, on August 15th, 1997. When I scrambled up the dunes and caught sight of the ocean I was laughing and crying at the same time. I started to run towards it, and ran and ran to meet the sea, not really believing anything until I felt its shocking coldness on my body.
My last journal entry was three words:
I did it!
I did it. I ended the biking part of my trip over a month ago, went to camp, spent several weeks visiting friends in Oregon, and I still don't quite know what it means when I say those words. I'm crying as I write. Because I guess this wasn't just a bike trip--it was a journey in so many ways--physical, of course, but emotional and spiritual, as well. I know that I will be learning from and understanding certain aspects of this trip all of my life.
Right after camp was over, my food co-op back in NJ offered me a job--and said they'd hold it for me till I came back. So today, six months after my journey began, I started my work at the George St. Co-op, a new facet of my life unfurling even as the cash register clicked and jangled and I stocked the juice fridge.
So I guess I'll end this letter now, but first I want to say
thanks to all of you who made my trip possible. Thanks for your
support, your letters along the way, your hospitality and generosity
and kindness on the trip, your companionship as we shared ourselves
while chatting by the roadside or as we rode our bikes together.
And, now that I've finished, thanks for all the love and understanding
you've given (and continue to give) me as I figure out what's