Month: February 2021

The Trip before the Trip

I rent a car and my ride share arrives -fit and athletic and definitely a spandex kind of guy. We secure the bikes and gear and the journey begins. We share some details about our lives: he is married with kids and his family is on vacation at the beach while he pedals across NY; and our biking experience: he drives from NJ to NY City each day, picks up a bike from the bike share systems, and rides through congested streets with crazy honking drivers for his daily commute to work. Yes, we have lots in common. The chatter soon wears thin and we both seem content with silence.               

As the hours pass on the Thruway at 65+ miles an hour, I find it difficult to imagine traveling this same distance using only my two legs to propel me forward. If I were alone in the car, I would surely turn around – entrance fee be damned! Then a massive field of sunflowers appears along the highway. My heart leaps. Hundreds of huge yellow flowers wave at me in the breeze. It is a wonder. And I begin to wonder how much beauty in the world I have missed because I was afraid to step outside the familiar, to take the risk of being judged or laughed at? 

  Late afternoon we arrive in Buffalo. Groups of people are unloading, chatting and laughing. Everyone seems so jolly! I am not. I am surprised at the array of shapes, sizes and ages of my fellow 500 riders. That pressing need to know where I fit and how I measure up places me midrange in the ranks. I relax just a little. We unload our bikes and head to registration, where I meet my tent mate – another stranger found online. I chose to rent a tent with an inflatable mattress that will be set up and taken down for me each day. It was a last-minute luxury. I could not afford to rent a private tent, but couldn’t imagine setting up and taking down my own each day after riding 60-70 miles. I learn my tent mate is from Washington DC and rides her bike to work through the streets of that city each day – yep, another one. She leads me to our tent in the middle of neat rows of identical domed dwellings, surrounded by a ragged rainbow of individual tents inhabited by the heartier participants. Each day will begin and end at this traveling tent city, set up on football fields or park grounds.

The most immediate need is to return the rental car. My ride share guy offers to accompany me, but true to my deeply ingrained lessons: never expect or ask for help, and do not inconvenience anyone else, I say I am OK on my own. I regret this decision as soon as I drive into rush hour traffic in the large unfamiliar city. My new portable GPS system helps me find my way to the rental office at the airport. That is not the major problem. Now I have to find my way back. I ask for directions and there seems to be a fairly direct city bus route. I decide not to waste what feels like a lot of money on a cab and go for the bus. Midway there we travel through city blocks populated with boarded-up buildings and empty storefronts. The driver kindly lets me know I need to get off here and wait for my next connection. Dusk thickens as I wait, unsure that a bus will ever arrive. I ask a woman with a shopping cart full of laundry if this is the right stop, and she graciously assures me the bus will be along soon. I have no idea where I am or how to get to where I am going. There are no cabs in sight. I regret not spending the money on one at the airport. My thumping heart seems to suck my breath away as I continue to wait.

 Finally, a bus stops, but the driver says it is not my bus, that another will come by soon. Tears threaten to give away my near panic as I step back and wait some more. Another bus arrives and I could kiss the driver when he says it is the right one. My body sits erect and stiff, but my eyes dart around relentlessly, looking for some kind of landmark-even though I have no clue what I’m looking for. Nichols Academy, the school where we are staying, comes into sight and the driver gestures for me to get off. I am ready to head back home right now, but that is not an option. I missed dinner, but my ride share and my tent mate saved me a plate. I am surprised at their thoughtfulness, these total strangers. They ask how returning the car went and I say “just fine” and don’t elaborate on the bus trip back. I keep it all inside, push it down, deny the reality of the fear I felt. I am here now.

  An evening orientation describes what awaits us over the next week. Everyone seems so excited and happy. Am I the only one filled with doubts about my ability to do this? Do they each have a friend or mate to help them along the way? Bits of information drift by, then suddenly I snap to attention- what did he just say? If I have a flat tire, I need to repair it myself? I thought that was what the sag wagon (the van that follows along in case there is a problem) was for. It was the promise of back-up that made me even consider this trip! I have a spare inner tube and a small pump, but I have never changed a tire! Is he kidding? Apparently not. They will hold an early morning clinic for those of us that need to learn. My tent mate and I head to our tent to turn in early. We chat briefly and then I become quiet, filled with thoughts of the day’s challenges and of those that still wait on the other side of nightfall.

The Long Trip Home

The path beneath my two thin tires alternated between asphalt, dirt, and the dreaded loose gravel. My pale knuckles seized the handlebars for hours on end, relaxing only when the pedals came to a halt and my feet touched solid ground. Fear of the gravity devil’s fingers toppling me towards scrapes or broken bones turned me into a timid rider-who erupted into a terrified one on downhill slopes or uneven terrain. Yet here I was, riding over 350 miles on the Erie Canalway Trail from Buffalo to Albany. Dreams of joining this annual event had teased me for over ten years. Its first name, “The Big Fat Fanny Ride”, had placed it within the realm of possibilities; a ride for ‘normal’ people, not just athletes dressed in spandex! But a convenient excuse arrived each year as it approached: kids, work, elderly parents, the floor needed mopping….. The kids were grown, care for elderly parents had ended and the only excuse left was… well, there was no valid excuse! It was time to get in the saddle or take this one off the bucket list.     

Training – a first for my sixty-year-old, petite, curvy physique never destined to morph into long, lean or athletic – began in April for this early July adventure. Across three months, I pumped past my starting five mile limit to forty-mile excursions. Growing definition of my calves and thighs, less gasping for breath on hills, and the fortification of the area where the bike seat met my seat, testified to the hours spent preparing. On good days, a voice from a place I usually ignored coaxed me past doubt and resistance. But more familiar refrains often grew louder by the mile: “You’ll never be able to finish.” “You’ll be laughed at for even trying.” “Who do you think you are?” The swinging door between belief and uncertainty threatened to close before I allowed myself to commit to the entrance fee. 

Another uninvited but familiar companion followed at my heels. Fear. Fear of falling, of being hit by a car, of losing my way, of losing my nerve.  Fear squeezed my gut, accelerated my heartbeat, restrained my breath and crunched my shoulders towards my ears. And that was before I mounted the bike!

 Despite hesitancies, preparation moved forward in all areas except one. This trip was a choice, but not an easy one. The little girl that had literally clutched her mother’s sturdy leg, with averted eyes and words locked behind closed lips around strangers, often surfaced and slowed or stopped my progress. My natural tendency towards shyness had been fortified by the confinement inherent in being raised in an isolated rural setting. Parental constraints that limited social activities further hindered the development of self-confidence. But discontent had grown as I grew, and an inherited stubborn streak had refused to accept limitations set by others. I had left home despite efforts to keep me there and became the first in my family to attend college. I soon realized that the social skills others had already acquired would require as much effort to understand as the course curriculums. Lessons learned through developing friendships became as important as those taught in the classrooms.

 A network of friends became the support system I depended on during tough times, both as a naïve college student and throughout the years beyond. But although well wishes and verbal support were abundant, no one was available to accompany me on this trip. My husband promised to rescue me anywhere along the way, but also declined participation. I would be on my own.                    

My dependence on the comfort of a close companion in social situations was challenged. I felt as vulnerable as the girl sitting at the rear of the classroom praying not to be called on fifty years ago. I worried that my solo self would not be able to weather exposure to the judgments of strangers. Training could not prepare me for this piece of the trip. But I was ready to let go of this worn out dance between fear and desire, control and faith, wanting and doing. I hoped to learn a few new steps to the tune of possibility

 I submitted the entrance fee at the last minute. No turning back now-I never took a monetary commitment lightly! The next step was reserving a place on the bus to transport me one way to my destination. But the bus was full! How could that be, are that many people crazy enough to do this? Are they all those athletes I thought would find a big skinny fanny ride somewhere else?  Then again, the name had changed to the Erie Canalway Ride – no fanny’s mentioned anywhere anymore!  Panic lead to a phone call to try to get on that bus. A long wait list was my answer. My mind sped backwards to another bus missed a very long time ago, in High School. I had been the only student left behind due to what appeared to be my failure to measure up. In reality, it had been another one of my parent’s rigid restrictions that had limited my participation in activities for my entire seventeen years. But that disappointment had been the final straw, had set me in motion to change the direction of my life. The motivation for this bike trip remained unclear, but it felt as linked to a change in direction as the trip I had missed so long ago. I would not let missing this bus stop me. I checked online to see if I could arrange a ride share with some others that still needed transportation.  I pushed past my resistance to contacting strangers online and posted a request to share a ride. I quickly received a response from a younger man.  We decided I would rent a car one way, he would travel to me and we would make the trip together. A total stranger and I, five hours in a car with nothing to say to each other – a personal nightmare. But that fresh voice inside that believed in me, whispered: “You can do this, it’s OK to be afraid, you’ve been there before and succeeded, you’ll be OK.” 

Three weeks before the ride my well loved ten speed Peugeot bike, an extravagant purchase from my first professional paycheck at the start of a career that spanned over thirty-five years, gave out. I considered yet another repair of the bike with a frame that fit my body like no other ever had. I had replaced brakes and tires and wires in the past, but I didn’t believe I could bring it up to speed for a trip so far beyond any challenge I had ever placed before it. Another old friend unable to accompany me. After a few days exploring and test riding, I replaced it with a modified lighter model with more gears than I would ever conquer!  I rode the new bike as far and often as I could to gain confidence in our ability to work together to make the long trip home from Buffalo.

Continuing the journey:

My last piece was the conclusion to what will turn into the memoir I am working on (with lots of changes!)

I am grateful to all that offered their input and suggestions. I will continue with other stories that occurred after that time.

The next few months will focus on a 360 mile bike trip along the Erie Canalway from Buffalo to Albany. In some ways I feel it was a synopsis of my life that came before it. You may recognize some of the information included for background, but the trip itself is not included in my prior writings. I am also going to change to posting every other week and see how that goes for a bit. As always, I appreciate all input and suggestions. May our journeys continue…..