by Jill Homer
Today we hit the first 100 miles of our cross-country bike trip – 107, to be exact. We’re taking it slow the first week of this trip – a good idea when you consider we spent the entire summer in a van rather than training for this trip. So here I am, day three and ache-free, though thunderstorms have caused us a fair amount of headaches. The trip began late in the morning of August 20, my 24th birthday. Perhaps I should have tried to talk Geoff into leaving the next day - plugging up Parley’s Canyon along I-80 in 95-degree temperatures isn’t exactly an ideal way to spend a birthday.
We were feeling good and happy to be on the road, though, and nearly made it an entire day without getting a flat. Just below Parley’s summit I discovered that the sidewall of my back tire was almost completely worn through, and spent the rest of the evening and the next morning trying to buy a new one in Park City. We spent the night with Geoff’s parents and aunt and uncle in their hotel room. It turned out to be a tight squeeze when our friend Bryan came up to visit us from Salt Lake. The next morning we changed our route at the last minute (to avoid the excruciating thought of more interstate) and now we’re on U.S. 40. This route is full of mountain passes, but it’s scenic, and the extra time on the saddle has given me time to reflect on exactly how it feels to be setting out on a long-distance bike trip. It’s a lot like mourning, in that there are definite steps that one must climb before reaching the state of final acceptance and relief.
The first step, unfortunately, is sheer terror. I experienced this pang about 20 minutes into the trip, while Geoff and I climbed an insanely steep section of 800 South on our way out of Salt Lake City. I could already feel the weight of my saddlebags pulling me backwards. I dropped into my granny gear and pumped the crank with everything I had. The hill climbed heavenward, and my legs moved slower and slower until they could move no more. I dismounted and stared at the tremendous hill in front. There’s 3,000 miles left of this? I thought, and the fear set in.
This leads to the second stage – denial. This is a way of dealing with the terror, and it dominated my state of mind as a pumped up the country’s steepest section of Interstate. I’m not really going to cross the entire country like this, I thought. This is just a day ride like all the other rides I do. This feeling subsided by mile 20, my first flat tire. The fact that I was in dire need of getting a new tire that day helped reality set in – I’m in it for the long haul.
The third stage is regret. This feeling may come many times over the course of a long trip, but hopefully it leaves as quickly as it comes. I experienced this stage on the first day of my trip as well, thanks to a continuous uphill climb into town and approaching thunderstorms. When the weather gets bad and the roads get rough, it’s hard not to wonder why you’d put yourself so far away from regular shelter and mechanized travel. But if you put the situation into the lighthearted context it deserves, this leads to the fourth stage –
Independence. This is a necessary state of mind for cycle tourists. To believe you are above such modern necessities as shelter and refrigeration will get you through the thunderstorms and meal after meal of dried beans and rice. This step is a hard one for me to reach, because I so enjoy warm places to sleep and a good variety in my daily meals. The last two days have been punctuated by afternoon thunderstorms, and quite a bit of rain considering we’re in the desert. We’ve been lucky both nights to get into camp early before the brunt of the weather hit, but today we were racing against time as a storm approached us from behind at roughly the same speed we were moving. (On the plus side, this caused a nice tailwind for the last 15 miles of our ride.) We got into a rest area just minutes before the storm hit, and decided to camp even though it was only 3 p.m. (Which turned out to be a wise choice, as it has rained intermittently ever since.) Still, there’s so much to be grateful for, even out here in the lightning and storm.
This leads to the final stage, the stage that all cycle tourists strive for. Call it what you will - happiness, or contentedness, or peace, or relaxation. I call it freedom, the gentle cycle of movement, the contour of the land, the soft wind at your back. Before this stage and between all the other stages are, of course, all the pain, exhaustion, discomfort, fear, hope, energy and exhilaration that punctuate each moment on a bicycle. Once you get to this point, there’s no turning back. You could stay on the road forever if given the chance. Call it “bicycle enlightenment” if you’re not against using corny catch phrases. I can’t say whether or not I’ll ever reach this stage, but I can enjoy the journey.