Monday, April 30, 2007

Looking back

(Nebraska/Wyoming border, September 2003)

I've been put on alert that my blog has been a bit of a downer. So I'm taking a different direction today. Sometimes when I'm in a rut, I like to dig through pieces of the past as a road map to where I've been and where I'm headed. This is an excerpt from my old blog, dated Sept. 26, 2002. The context is my first bicycle tour, when I took to the lonely desert roads of Southeastern Utah and Southwestern Colorado for a 600-mile trip before I knew how to change a tire or even shift the gears on my $300 touring bike. I still see it as an ongoing journey.

Lucky day thirteen. We leave the jagged sandstone peaks of the San Rafael Swell and merge onto I-70, joining the swift flow of trucks and RVs in the emergency lane, concrete “wake up” grates and all.

Most bicycle tourists dread the stretches where the freeway is unavoidable, but I actually enjoy the large shoulders and gentle slopes of U.S. Interstates. The traffic is heavy but friendly. In fact, we got more honks and waves today that the rest of the trip combined, and, unlike two-lane state highways, didn't have a single “rude driver” incident (as we all know, those drivers who swerve toward you on purpose are merely jealous.)

As we pass through a gray alkaline hill and began to drop into the Green River Valley, the end of our trip becomes real. Tonight we will dine at our favorite veggie burger stop, Ray’s Tavern, and by tomorrow evening we’ll be back in Moab, back to our car and the now inconceivably quick drive to Salt Lake.

How did we get here? The town of Green River draws nearer and I begin to realize how far we’ve come. Less than two weeks ago we passed through here, stopped our car in Moab, mounted loaded-up bikes for the first time in our lives, and now, over 500 miles later, here I am. I’ve seen the thick pines and glacial lakes of the San Juans, the destitute reservation, the rolling redrock of Escalante and the San Rafael Swell, and I did it all with my own body, with my own two legs. Really, how did I get here?

I think back to the way I felt when the trip started - tired and pessimistic. It’s that feeling of physical defeat- when just mounting the cold saddle sends sharp streaks of pain through your pelvis. Knees crack and throb as you rotate the crank. Eyes dry out in the heat and wind. Palms are red and raw. Even feet protest the pressure of pedals, and legs feel weary at the first sight of a steep hill.

As the third or fourth day winds down, all feels lost. You’ll never make it. Your body is shutting down, and you drift to sleep feeling a vague sense of disinterest. Then, the next morning, you wake up. Suddenly, inexplicably, everything becomes easy. Your pelvis is numb. Your hands are calloused. The wind prompts you to action. You mount your bike with the cold morning wind tearing at your nostrils, squint toward the mountains in front of you, and just laugh, because you realize you could go forever. Then, you just go.

This is a phenomenon I couldn’t begin to explain, but I can’t deny it either. Runners would call it “hitting your wall,” to burn until your fuel is nearly exhausted, until you can see your physical threshold blocking the finish line, and through pure mental will, you tear through it. Once you reach that wall, you’re either going to collapse, or you’re going to go forever.

And this is how I’ve felt since I woke up in the San Miguel basin on Day Four and realized that not only would I finish the climb that day, but I’d finish the trip. At that point, I had no more doubts in my mind. This is why I no longer fear the great distance of a cross-country trip. The question I'm asked the most when I tell people about my plans to cross the country on a bicycle is, “How will you ever make it?” I don’t know. I’m relatively inexperienced. I’m out of shape. I’m slow. But my will is strong, and I’ll make it. I just will.