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.