36 Busted Spokes, part 2

See the first installment in the series: 36 Busted Spokes, part 1

Beginnings

When does a journey begin? The logical answer is when you turn your nose toward your destination and start moving. Yet a journey is not a commute. It is more than the traveling through space from point A to point B. It’s a wandering of the imagination, the maturing of an idea. An awakening of the spirit. It’s a concept you bring to life.

A journey truly begins when the notion enters your head and you give voice to it.

I consider our bicycle trip to have started years earlier, during another ride, a four-day jaunt from Connecticut to Vermont. We were camped at a roadside rest in Sheffield, Massachusetts, sitting around the picnic table, our tents pitched about us like a patch of colorful mushrooms. I was between my freshman and sophomore years at Paul Smith’s College. Chris had just graduated high school. Don would be a senior come the fall semester. Scott was a freshly minted college graduate.

Already I was wondering what I’d be doing after I earned my degree. I was certain of one thing: I was not eager to enter the work force. The idea of bicycling around the United States attracted me, both for the adventure it promised and the excuse it would give me for postponing the start of my responsible adulthood. When I talked about this idea that evening in Sheffield it didn’t really surprise me when Scott said he’d had a similar notion. That conversation launched the four of us on a crusade to manage the next several years of our lives around making the dream of bicycling around the United States a reality.

Now, for the first time since that short trip five years earlier, the four of us were once again together in camp, the first day and about 60 miles behind us.

After Scott’s chain began behaving properly, we enjoyed some nice country roads, especially once we crossed the Potomac River and entered Virginia. After buying supplies for dinner and some apples in Round Hill, we joined the Harry Flood Byrd Highway, on which we encountered our first challenging hill. I laughed at the ridiculous-sounding name of that road at the time, but I’ve since learned that Byrd, a U.S. Senator from the 1930s, was one of the sponsors of the bill that lead to the National Historic Landmark Program. Our ability to visit historic sites owes much to the man. On that day his namesake roadway brought our first challenging climb of a mile and a half that was, thankfully, not too steep. We tried to view the climb as a good warm up for the hills of the Blue Ridge country we had ahead of us.

After the welcome downhill on the other side of that ridge, we turned left onto a small country road following the Shenandoah River for about four miles. This pleasant stretch evolved into a very difficult five miles of steep roller-coaster ups and downs, inspiring us to add “ball-buster” to our bicycling lexicon. We walked our bikes on the longer hills, and learned it is no easy task pushing a fully loaded, wobbly bike up a steep incline. Finally we reached the private campground, exhausted. My right knee, which began to hurt around lunch time, became painful when I cranked over those past few miles, a souvenir of our first day that I would carry with me the next month.

To save weight and space, we had decided to bring just one four-person tent to shelter the group of us. This would prove a mistake, as the cramped quarters would not help the tension among us. That wasn’t a problem our first night out. But an unexpected visitor did make things interesting. Don and Chris decided to sleep under the stars, while Scott and I stretched out in the roomy tent. A couple hours after we turned in, we were awakened by an unfamiliar, half-barking noise. I shined my flashlight out the back window of the tent, in the direction of the tree line, about 30 feet away. Two incandescent eyes glowed back at me. A bobcat.

The creature only needed a moment to decide to retreat to the safety of the forest. We took a bit longer to settle on our next move. Chris and Don wondered if they should seek shelter in the tent, away from such critters. Then the rain started and made the choice an easy one. The spacious four-man tent suddenly became quite cramped, but we made do and heard no more from the bobcat.

The rain fell heavily for a short period, and the temperature dropped. When we crawled out of the tent in the morning, the sky had cleared, but a layer of ice clung to the cooking gear we’d left on the picnic table.

We packed up wet gear and got on the road, heading toward Shenandoah National Park and our first mountains.

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Stephen Zeoli

Stephen Zeoli

Carl Sagan and Edward Abbey are among my heroes.