Pedaling the Transamerica

September 21, 2016

I am currently teaching a Creative Writing class through Emory's Extended Education program, and for the next 6-8 weeks I have committed to doing every homework assignment I assign to my students, as a way to actively participate in the class, and be accountable to creating at least ONE piece of new material every week. This week their assignment was to write about a journey. Any journey they had been on. I wrote about my odyssey cycling the Transamerica almost 10 years ago.



Pedaling the Transamerica

A journey by Gabriela Garcia Medina


In 2008, Girl wanted to do something thrilling and adventurous. She thought “I could go skydiving!” but she was afraid of heights; she thought “I could run a marathon!” Boring. Everybody does that (and then posts pictures of themselves on Facebook). “I could backpack through to Europe” Yup, everybody does that too (and then posts pictures of themselves on Facebook).

One cold night, while walking around Culver City with Boyfriend it came to them “Let’s bicycle across the country!” Nope. They did not live in the tiny country of San Marino, or Monaco; they lived in the United States of America. 3806 million miles squared. This would certainly be a challenge (since neither of them were cyclists). A few months later they had read every book about long distance cycling, joined forums, researched blogs, purchased maps, and ordered matching Surly Long Haul Truckers. “We should buy some rain gear, for when it rains,” said Boyfriend. “Nah, it won’t rain!” responded Girl.


It was May when they took off on an Amtrak train from Los Angeles to Florence (not to be confused with Florence, Italy—Girl went there too, but years later, with a different Boyfriend). Florence, Oregon would be starting point of their two-wheeled odyssey. Neither of them had ridden long distance before, let alone long distance with panniers  “How hard can this really be?” Girl thought. It turns out, riding with loaded panniers is much harder than one would imagine. They rode around the Bed and Breakfast parking lot for about 10 minutes before setting off---into the mountains towards Eugene, in the rain.


The first few days were a rush of adrenaline, riding at 5-15 miles per hour really makes you see everything. The up-hills were 5mph (sometimes 3mph depending on the elevation, the weather, the wind speed), and the flat lands were 10-15mph. Each mountain climb was a struggle, especially in the cold weather, wearing 30 items of clothing each (yes they counted—two pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves, arm warmers, leg warmers, under shirt, bike shirt, fleece, beanie, helmet…), the sweat from the climb stuck to their bodies, damping their clothes; while the unforgiving hail smacked against their faces “Take that!” Nature said.


In Mitchell, OR (a tiny town of pop. 150 that likely served as the inspiration for the horror movie “The Hills Have Eyes”), they slept in a park next to a caged bear and dined on findings at the local hardware store. From Oregon they rode into Idaho, where they ate soothing baked potatoes, and slept in a bedbug ridden room with a stench of old ale, upstairs of the local bar. “We should never tell our parents we stayed here” Boyfriend said fearing they may need a Tetanus or penicillin shot come morning. “Best if we just put this behind us” they agreed, as they uncomfortably rested their heads on the brown stained pillows and closed their eyes.


They rode on. Some days they covered more miles than others. Hard elevation days they rode 30-60 miles, easier days they rode 70-90. They slept in city parks, and church lawns. They showered in town pools, and gas stations. They made their way through Montana’s big skies, drank micro-brewed beers and scoffed down authentic Thai treats in Missoula (How do Thai people end up in the middle of Montana?). They rode down through Wyoming, nearing Rawlins they learned that they could avoid mosquitos, if they rode at a minimum speed of 13mph. Google says mosquitoes can’t fly faster than 1.5 miles per hour, but Google is wrong. If Girl and Boyfriend ever fell below 13 mph, their sweaty flesh became a feast for the bloodsucking insect. They peddled fast. Their carbon dioxide functioning like a sweet scent of attraction for those little prickly beasts.


They made it to the tourist trap: West Yellowstone, home to overpriced food and souvenirs. They rode next to bison at Yellowstone National Park—where there was no sign of Yogi bear, but a strong smell of rotten egg at every geyser. They watched Old Faithful perform on cue. Slept in the last room available at the Old Faithful Inn, right next to the boiler room, on the hotel laundry floor. Floorboards creaked, a ghostly presence. “Maybe someone died here.” Girl thought. But they got a deal for this room, and it beat the campsite. They saw eagles, and foxes in the Grand Tetons. “We are doing this. We are really doing this!” Girl affirmed. “We are really peddling across this entire country!” Girl affirmed again. They rode on, into Colorado, and admired the steep summits around them at tortoise speed. Slow-mo all the way up. Up, up, almost at the top of Hoosier Pass. They pedaled like they were pulling heavy steel beams behind them. They pushed on like they were sinking in sand. But, no matter how hard they pushed, how much power they exerted, they barely sped ahead. Lightheadedness, nausea setting in. A half mile seemed like it would take the rest of the day. At least there’s a breeze. Breathe, enjoy the top. The world always looks good from the top. The rest would be downhill or flat “Phew. That’s it for mountains” Girl thought as they exited the Continental Divide and waved goodbye to the Rockies. Pueblo, CO was flat, and the middle point of their long journey across. “No point in turning back now” Girl thought, as it would be the exact same distance they had yet to cover.


The couple continued into Kansas where they slept through a tornado, in a tent, and where they learned that there we worse things than crossing steep mountain ranges in hail. “I’ll take a 9% incline over a side wind, any day!” Girl exclaimed. They made a pit-stop to hug Alpacas and Ostriches at an animal farm. In Newton, KS they slept inside the fire-station. They rode through the hilly Ozarks of Missouri, and caressed the tip of Illinois. They were in Carbondale when the accident happened. Girl and Boyfriend discussed matters of the universe on a morning ride. Girl pushed on the topic of marriage and the future “If we can make it through this ride, we could make it through anything” Maybe Boyfriend was deep in thought, or caught of guard, or just plain uncomfortable with matters of the future. “But seriously, how cool would it be to tell our kids---“ Boyfriend rode right into Girl’s back tire. Boyfriend flying in the air, and falling flat on his face “Oh My God! Oh My God!” Girl screamed. “Fuck!” “Shit” “Aaaah” Boyfriend shrieked.


After a moment of panic, they hitched a ride to the nearest hospital. The X-rays showed Boyfriend had a broken shoulder. “You should stop riding” Doctor said “NOOOOOO” they thought. “We’re almost to the other side, we can’t stop now” neither of them was prepared to give up. They checked into a Motel 8 until Boyfriend’s shoulder strengthened. “I have an idea!” one of them said. “What if we ride the rest of the way on a tandem!” Neither of them had ever ridden a tandem, but both were eager to finish. The couple devised a plan, shipped their Surly’s back home, and bought a Tandem bicycle. They waited three days for Boyfriend’s shoulder to heal, and for the bike shop to alter the tandem so Girl could ride the front and carry the weight of both her and Boyfriend. This was unheard of. The bigger rider always rides the front and the little one just pedals in the back. But that wasn’t going to work. Girl was gonna have to carry both their weight if they wanted to continue. All Boyfriend had to do was pedal. “Riding a tandem is the true test of a relationship” the bike shop owner joked “Don’t pay for therapy. Buy a tandem instead. It only works if you communicate, you know.” The couple nodded.


Girl and Boyfriend rode around Carbondale parking lots in their new bike until they felt ready to continue their odyssey. And, off they rode into Kentucky, deep into the Appalachians, passing wild dogs, road-kill, empty soda bottles filled with piss, Harley HOGs (that’s what the motorcycle group calls itself) with long beards, matching leather outfits and smiles, who cruised along the Transamerica and threw up peace signs at cyclists. They rode on, past angry semi truckers and “close calls”. They were in Berea, KY when they decided it was too dangerous to continue, just 800 miles from the finish line of Virginia; after having crossed 3200 miles. This was no easy decision. “Don’t you think we should finish what we’ve started?” Silence. “We’re so close” Girl pleaded. Silence. A heavy sadness weighed them down even more than steel beams, like the head winds of Kansas it swooped in rattled their stomachs into tiny tornados. Their thoughts like the wild dogs of Kentucky, wrestling inside. The night was spent in silence. It was a melancholy day when they flew back to the West Coast. A day filled with grief, and a deafening silence.

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