To start, these past three weeks have been a blur of happiness, fatigue, defeat, conquest, and self-reflection. I write to you from the incredible and much-needed comfort of Al’s Cycle Hostel in Farmington, MO. Several days of battling 101 degree heat and horseflies the size of dollar coins got us to this oasis, where we are enjoying the soft breeze of the air conditioner while sinking into black leather couches, turning pages, and watching the hours slip away.
This place is a dream world for a cyclist.
The hostel was created in memory of a man named Al, a local restaurateur and legend in these parts. Like my father, Al was an avid biker and offered warm smiles to every soul he encountered. Sadly, Al also saw his journey come to end too soon. He passed in 2005 at the age of 49 after living two years with a cancer diagnosis. The city of Farmington and Al’s family created this sanctuary to give back to the community and the bike-packing nomads who wander the rural roads south of St. Louis. There is no doubt that they have had a massive impact on the experience of those trekking the Trans Am.
As for the stories and the riding… I have so much to share and have struggled to put pen to paper. The days aren’t extraordinarily long (6-8 hours on the bike) or overly taxing, but I know that I am not a great writer. When I read my reflections I still see the college student who always attempted to add as many “filler” words as necessary to meet the minimum word count. This leads to producing 800 words with only 10% of them being of real substance. I am still trying to figure out what my ideal output method is, whether that be expressing myself through art, vlogging, voice recording, bullet point lists or something I haven’t quite put my finger on yet. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my friend Derek highly recommended keeping a journal. Regretfully, I wasn’t able to stay on top of it as well as I would have liked. As a result, the farther I reach back into my journey, the shorter the stories become. The benefit of that is I am able to identify what it was about each of these experiences that meant so much to me. The brain can only harbor so much at a time (around 2,000 bits per second) despite the fact that it can simultaneously process close to 400 billion bits of information per second (according to today’s journey into the black hole that is Wikipedia). This made me reflect even more on the Maya Angelou saying – “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”
As I think back to my time in Montana with a New Yorker named Drew, I think of the warmth of our conversations. Drew kindly cooked us vegetarian curry and adamantly refused our help simply because he enjoys giving the gift of food to others. He offered nutritional advice, discussed his experience managing a natural food store in NYC, and reflected on the purpose of his cycling trip. He is incredibly passionate about the mission of these natural grocer locations as exhibited through the food/fuel that they sell and how they become integral to a community. I recall the feeling of being in awe of someone who seemed to have it figured out, living each waking day with purpose and intent. He didn’t seem to have any specific “life status” benchmarks that he felt required to meet – it seemed as if his purpose went much deeper. Many people, myself included, spend a lifetime trying to answer the age-old and seemingly unanswerable question: What should I do with my life? It seems like at least in Drew’s case, the man has found a compass and is pedaling in the right direction. I am not sure if I will ever have a moment of enlightenment where every day thereafter I wake up knowing exactly what I am to do, but if anything, this trip has given me plentiful perspective and time to think on that notion. In short, I often feel like my life is a Lego model with no instructions and an unlimited number of pieces that I can use to build into something greater than the individual parts. Each piece is a trip, a memory, or an experience that I lay down as the foundation for a quickly growing structure built in pursuit of happiness, intellectual growth, and meaning. The only thing is that in this metaphor I don’t get the handy grey Lego tool that helps you pull pieces apart to rebuild it in a different way… instead, there are just more additions. If you look long enough into the pile colorful bricks (painfully stepping on a few along the way), you eventually find the right one to help you make your next build.
As you can see, biking 50 to 100 hot, rainy, or bug-filled miles a day and experiencing a ton of time to yourself can lead to some interesting mental places. Stay with me though – I will attempt to expand on some occurrences over the past few weeks in the next few paragraphs.
Since I last checked in we passed through Yellowstone and battled the post-Eclipse crowds. The rangers say that park attendance swelled to the largest numbers they have seen in years. Being passed by 116 cars in two miles (the route section through Yellowstone is a total of 70 miles), I quickly became familiar with the sometimes two-inch shoulder of the park road and the various RV rental company logos wrapped around the bodies of the tourist-driven trucks. Before making it to the Grand Tetons I came upon a cyclist named Andreas from Austria who was battling a flat tire and had been walking his injured bike for four miles. I pulled over to help, during which I uncovered the mechanical problem along with the motivation for his trip. Andreas was a primary school teacher who took his summer vacation to explore America, because as he said, “I’ve just always felt the need to see the great plains and Rocky Mountains.” I was taken aback when asking about his preparation for his trip, of which I learned that there was basically none. He bought a plane ticket and took his “fly by the seat of your pants” attitude stateside, figuring it out one step at the time after landing on the west coast. He rented a car, slept in various parks, bought a beat-up Huffy mountain bike and a few bungee cords, and set out on the open road. To paint an even clearer picture, Andreas didn’t even have the correctly-sized tubes for his bike tires… meaning he had to fold them in half, shove them into the wheel, inflate them, and hope for the best for the next 15 miles. What he lacked in experience and adequate gear, he made up for in optimism. He thanked me countless times for stopping and declared that whether or not we fix it, “there is still daylight!” and that is all he needs. “If the sun is up,” he said, “I have little fear of not making it to my destination.” I protested and asked if he too was fed up with the endless traffic (it even took Libby and Red Ned 4 hours to travel 35 miles through the park) and the almost dangerous lack of a shoulder on the trip. I told him that I loved the scenery but couldn’t enjoy it because I was too focused on just getting to our campsite in one piece. He looked at me with a smile and nodded reassuringly as I spewed about the rough day I was having. At the end of my minute-long ramble he held up one finger and said joyfully, “hold on one second” as he tore apart bag after plastic bag stacked on his handlebars. “I have something for you” he said, claiming that it was a gift of sorts that would make my day. When the rustling stopped, he turned back to me holding a white chocolate chip cookie like a 19th-century miner who just discovered a golden nugget. He broke it in half, extended one piece to me, and excitedly encouraged me to bite in to what he considered the greatest baked confection of all time.
The cookie was delicious but for me what was more revitalizing was Andreas himself. Here is guy who was going to have to walk the rest of the way to his destination – five miles or so – and had the ability to change his perspective with something as simple as a cookie. Needless to say, I now try to emulate his attitude as often as I can, appreciating everything that I am given no matter how inconsequential it may have appeared in the moment. His approach makes me feel in control and will be a gift that I will be forever grateful for.
After Yellowstone, we enjoyed one of the most amazing rock beaches in the Grand Tetons (See Libby’s beautiful posts on our Instagram feed). This was one of the many features of Colter Bay, a campground that had literally everything with the exception of a reliable internet connection (sad) and grizzly bears (good). The next few days included meeting Drew (mentioned above) at church hostel and enjoying the most fearsome and powerful tailwind that I have ever experienced. There was a point where I was averaging 40 mph for a 3 mile stretch and I knocked out 45 miles in around 1.5 hours. To give you perspective, my average pace is between 13-15 mph for a day so this was like riding a rocket dropped from a jet launched off an air craft carrier. Needless to say, I felt superhuman and hoped that the wind and the day would never end. Unsurprisingly, they both did. After that amazing morning I headed south, where my tailwind became a sidewind that had me all over the road like a 5-year old’s first experience at a go-cart track. (Again, even Libby and Red Ned felt my pain as they were repeatedly blown into oncoming traffic on the interstates.)
All of this led to meeting up with our friends Cindy and Derek in Colorado. Derek and I were college roommates and have our fair share of stories and shenanigans to revel in. Hanging out with Derek is like watching my favorite movie over and over again. It is a feeling of comfort, total un-guarded relaxation and sheer joy. When you find people like that, family and friends alike, you bottle up those moments and use them as a source of strength when you need them most. Derek is one to push me over the mountain, tell me he is proud of me for taking it on, and challenge me to do it faster the next time. He is the king of persuasion and affirmation and a leader who makes you squeeze every ounce of enrichment and experience out of whatever situation you find yourself in. Although we were only together for 60 hours, Cindy and Derek made Libby and I feel like we took a week’s vacation. We paddled through a thunderstorm on Derek’s raft, enjoyed the endless culinary creativity of Cindy, and got our doggie fix through their fur babies Booker and Mika.
It was also the first time in the trip that I had someone to ride with for the entire day. Derek picked a route that included a mountain climb, and like the champion he is, he powered right over it with a borrowed set of wheels and more caffeinated Goo and Shot Blocks (triathlete treats) than I have ever seen consumed in one session. It was nice to have someone to chat with, another set of eyes to point out things that I otherwise would have missed, and someone to commiserate with about the body aches and leg stiffness that you experience the day after a long ride.
When Libby and I left the mountains we immediately hit the flat lands of southeastern Colorado and Kansas. The next five days or so included corn fields, dirt fields, and some more corn fields. It wasn’t completely flat, however, it was flat enough that your view was only limited by the abilities of the human eye. (You see a grain tower and you think you are close to the next town when in reality that structure is 10 miles away.) The humbling grind from one 30-person city to the next and little protection from the sun and wind made me dependent on distractions. I think I ate more walnuts and almonds (Costco bag size) in that span to keep my mind occupied than most humans consume in a lifetime. I also had an opportunity to polish off my first audio book, “Dunkirk” by Joshua Levine, which after three hours of British narration became background noise just like the sounds of crickets and chain grind that have been my companions for over 2,000 miles.
Although the Kansas countryside didn’t offer a ton to look at, the people were absolutely unbelievable. Libby and I were so fortunate to be in the right place at the right time not once but TWICE. As you may have seen in Libby’s Instagram post, the patron saint of Buick LaSabres sent us unexpected and unbelievably generous Kansas people. The first was a quiet woman, who after only sharing a smile and friendly hello while exiting the McDonalds parking lot returned 15 minutes later, eagerly waving me over to her car. She said that she was “so inspired by people who do this kind of thing” that she bought us two $50 gift cards to choose from: one to the grocery store across street and one to the McDonalds we were currently at. Speechless and in shock, I thanked her repeatedly. She brushed off the compliments, saying that this is the right thing to do and that she was happy to give a gift to someone who was in need of a treat. My faith in others and their generosity was already at an all-time high but this woman sky-rocketed it to a new level. As Libby and I picked out our first fresh vegetables in days, I made note that she is the kind of person I need to continue to strive to be. A random gift, although small in your eyes, may mean the world to the person that receives it. So three days later when another LaSabre rolled up next to me while I rested at a Sonic drive through, the last thing I expected were for it to happen again.
A woman named Pat rolled down her window to ask me where I was headed and why. When I shared our Pedal Mash story with her, she told me to write down my name on a piece of paper. I said of course but asked why, to which Pat replied, “I’m going to drive down the street to the Super 8 to reserve a hotel for you and your girlfriend. It looks like you would appreciate the break!” Riding shotgun with Pat was her friend Ms. Beth. We later learned when checking in at the Super 8 that Ms. Beth had left us $20 for dinner along with the kindest note. It was like having my grandma Sally tuck me in for the night after feeding me turkey sandwiches and making me feel like I was the most important person on the planet. In short, this moment made me speechless.
Maybe it is the growing grizzled beard, the constant chain grease caked onto my calves, or the distinct white glow of my zinc sunscreen that says to people, “Wow, this guy needs some help” … or maybe it is just the fact that some people are generous and willing to give back to strangers without a second thought. Whatever it is, I always get the same response when thanking them, which is “I’d hope that someone would do the same for me and my family.” In that moment my enthusiasm about our trip and our desire to help others is revitalized.
Whelp, that gets us to Missouri and where I began this blog post, sitting at Al’s Place and reveling in a temporary sense of normalcy. I am currently being cocooned by air conditioning rather than the humidity that is suffocating the world outside these walls. It is a welcome reprieve for a body that has carried me halfway across this country. A few episodes of Mr. Robot, some time to dive into Red Rising: Golden Son, a few local brews and a bacon jam burger with parmesan fries later, it will be extremely hard to leave this haven. Despite that, I am ready to press on and welcome whatever unexpected experiences wait around the corner. Also… my trip researcher Libby just told me that our next town in Illinois has 76 teams entered into a yearly BBQ festival happening this weekend… so yeah, that may get me off this couch. *drools*
Until next time. As always, thank you for your love and support.