I am thrilled to have had a story published in Chicken Soup for the Soul – Age is Just a Number! This edition of CSS has 101 stories selected from over 5000 submissions. My story is titled ‘ Bears in the Woods’ (how appropriate!) and is about spending a night on the Appalachian Trail with my son for my 60th birthday. If you have read my blog you know about my intense fear of bears and of the woods! I wanted to face the fear of the woods in the darkness and was ‘lucky’ enough to meet a giant black bear along the way to challenge that fear also! The book hit the stores on November third. There are many wonderful stories about life and discoveries after 60!
Today’s ride of 39 miles will end in Syracuse, just 30 miles south of the small rural town I grew up in. I rarely traveled there as a child and only became familiar with the area near the hospitals as my aging parents required their services. I do not know my way around downtown and never visited any of the venues for entertainment or shopping there. But then again I moved away from the area at 18 and returned only for brief visits with family.
The buzz of the day is the long, steep, legendary hill on the way to our campsite at Burnet Park, next to the zoo. I plan to pedal as far as I can then join the pedestrians, ignoring the “stay in the saddle” philosophy of more hard core riders, having accepted that my two feet function on pavement as well as on pedals. I begin to talk myself upward, around the next corner, just to the end of the block, maybe to the blue house ahead, and unexpectedly find myself in view of the familiar tent skyline. Engulfed in the thrill of accomplishment I dwell briefly in the awe of me.
I gather my gear, find my tent, spread wet items out across rope lines, on my bike – anywhere they might dry. Then I walk with my bathroom supplies and clean clothes to the tractor trailer with the long white container attached. There are lines outside waiting to enter the doors of the container. This is my first experience with the shower truck. Inside, stalls line two walls. Benches stand in the open middle space where other women undress, wrap themselves in the supplied towels-or not-and wait for the next stall to open up. My thoughts zoom back in time to the dreaded high school locker room. I want to turn around and leave. But my sticky, smelly body stops my feet, despite the desperate urgings of my brain. I notice the vast array of bodies surrounding me: tall, short, heavy, slim, wrinkled, smooth, droopy, toned. Some cringe and try to hide what they feel is unacceptable (even if young and thin and envied by those that recognize their beauty). Some laugh and chat as they freely display what we each possess in some form or another. I fall in the cringing/hiding group, and envy those so comfortable in their own skin that their size, shape or condition is of less focus than what lives within those boundaries of flesh. I wonder why I am so concerned about how others see and judge me, and why I judge myself so harshly. Never feeling good enough on the outside, no matter how much caring and kindness I possess on the inside.
After showering I meet my tent mate and we head to the zoo, but it is closed. It is later than I thought. I contemplate calling a taxi to go pick up a suitable outfit for my uncle’s funeral. I discuss the situation with her and we both realize it is too late on a weekday to find a store nearby in time to purchase something to wear. Fatigue is also quickly setting in. I realize my desire to see my uncle for one last time is not realistic. I feel like I am letting my mother down. She would have wanted me to be there. But I think she would also have wanted me to do this bike trip. Not because of the challenge of the distance, but to fulfil a more personal need. The need to discover my own strengths, and to leave no “I always wished I’d….” lists behind when my time arrives. My uncle is in my thoughts and I know he has a place in my heart that will remain forever. I believe she knows too.
There are warnings of huge thunderstorms through the night. The rain starts to fall soon after dinner ends. Many move from their tents, on the top of this open hill, into an enclosed hockey rink in the park for additional protection. My tent mate and I are tired and just want to go to bed and decide to stay in our tent. We’ve slept through rain before.
The morning dawns without clouds or rain. My usual routine—up, pack, bathroom, drag gear to truck, eat, listen to brief talk about what lies ahead, get the map for the day, check tires, gear up and head out—changes. I collect all my damp gear first so only one trip will get everything across the field of mud that has not disappeared with the rain. I am thankful the sodden tent is not my responsibility. It’s time for ‘serious Sue’ to settle onto her seat.
The morning’s ride traverses more rolling hills, but then eases into the flatter trail along this part of the canal. So far, every morning I wake wondering if I can accomplish the task of the day—so far, I have. Today’s ride crosses 39 miles to our next stop in Syracuse. My usual morning ‘fret’ seems to still be snoozing. A lightness fills its place, accompanied by a small sense of peace. More murals depicting historic scenes of the canal greet us in the next town. The July sun bears down on the rain soaked surroundings. The air feels more like slush as my lungs seem to resist taking it in. I gaze at the clear sky and pray for clouds to block the same rays I had wished for yesterday.
Following a break for lunch, the ring of my cell phone startles me—the first call aimed my way since I started the trip. It is my aunt who has no idea where I am or what I am doing. My mother’s younger brother has passed away. It has been six months since my mother’s passing, one factor that pushed me to take this trip, to look at my life and decide to live more fully, take more risks, do things now so I am not filled with regrets like those she expressed during her final months. My uncle had struggled with severe heart disease for many years. This news should not be a surprise, but I am stunned. Another story over. I tell my aunt I am in the area and will somehow find my way to the funeral this evening. I don’t know how with no car or appropriate clothes, but I know I can figure it out. She insists I continue on, that her children will be there to care for her. I still tell her I will try-and mean it.
I start back along the bike path and start whispering to my uncle: “Are you here with me on this path? Is your spirit beside me? Can you see me smiling at your memory? Are you with mom, who always worried about you and loved you so much?” I know a part of him is, the part I carry within me. I didn’t believe in an ‘afterlife’ throughout most of my life. But as I age and experience deaths of family and friends, I sense their presence surrounding me. I stopped questioning what I’m feeling or what it means and instead accept and take pleasure in knowing I am not alone.
As I bike into the town of Camillus, someone is holding a sign that says ‘Half Way!’ I smile and wave. I feel accomplished! Mid afternoon we arrive at Sims Store—a replica of an original canal store containing items that were sold for use on the canal boats. There are also photos, drawings and artifacts from a time when the canal was the major route for travel west. Accounts of the history of the canal and actual tools used to build it add depth to the flavor of canal life. We take a boat ride over the Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct—a water filled bridge that carried canal boats over unnavigable areas. This restored example is one of only a few left. The captain of our boat spins a vivid rendition of life on the canal, bringing us on board as part of a family living on a boat. He describes the animals that also lived in this limited space-including goats, chickens, a cow and-most importantly-the mule required to pull it along the towpath. He verbally paints a picture of laundry strung across the roof, barrels of goods being carried for sale, young children working or playing on deck, the threat of being robbed with no place to run, the camaraderie of those traveling in close proximity, and the availability of vices not restricted to dry land. It was a life filled with hard work, adventures, and the hope for at least a small bit of prosperity. I begin to wonder if my family history contains chapters related to the early years of the canal.
Last night’s rain and more today, have turned the athletic field into a mud bath. No matter how big or gentle our steps, mud covers our shoes and flips up onto the back of our legs. Also, our gear was unloaded prior to the last shower so everything is wet, including my sheet and blanket. My tent mate and I ask for any extra towels and they become our bedding.
Tonight’s dinner is on our own. Buses are available to take us into town. I indulge in a massage at the area set up at the edge of the tents. It is not enclosed, but careful maneuvering of sheets and towels allows for disrobing. My physical body is screaming for some kind of release, and finds it here through the skillful hands that manipulate muscles to soften the hard work of the day. I thought my legs would be the primary focus, but my back and shoulders require extensive work to relax towards their ‘normal’ state—which is a state of tension even within regular day-to-day activities. My hour ends before I am ready to say goodbye to the relief the kneading is just beginning to offer, but there are others waiting. Redressing within sheets held for privacy is harder than undressing. A quick shower in the gym and I am ready to join my tent mate and car mate for the trip into town. I am not sure but I think they waited for me. Really?? We are some of the last to head out.
The town of Seneca Falls is basically closed. Supposedly this town served as the model for the infamous Bedford Falls from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life starring James Stewart. There is even a museum related to the movie in town, but it is closed by now. The favored restaurant is packed and we need to wait over an hour to be seated. But the bar is accommodating with rapid responses to drink orders. The boisterous, cheerful crowd almost makes me feel celebratory! We talk with another acquaintance of my two companions, a face I have seen but never exchanged words with. I am introduced, and he announces: “So, this is serious Sue I’ve heard about.” My immediate response is to take offense inwardly, wishing my image was one of a more carefree and fun nature, feeling betrayed by the only two people I have had any significant contact with on the trip. But I quickly realize that this trip is serious business for me, and that is exactly how I have responded every step of the way. What initially felt like an insult shifts to become more of a reminder, a confirmation, that this trip is much more than an exercise in my physical ability to complete the miles. I try hard through the rest of the evening to present a more relaxed response to everything, letting down my guard just a little. But I feel like an imposter and am sure they can see the effort it requires to move away from my serious focus. Play has never been a valued pastime in my life. Goals and hard work are solid players in the arena of getting ahead and making ends meet. Maybe this is why Ron’s ability to make me laugh has always been so attractive. Sometimes I resist the urge to laugh at one of his playful responses. I wonder, do I resist because I don’t want to give him the satisfaction or because I don’t think I deserve the break from the more serious side of life?
Seneca Falls is most well known as the birthplace of Woman’s Rights. The small museum on its history is closed, but a tourist focused shop filled with all kinds of memorabilia is open. We go there after we eat. It is already dark and late, and we quickly look at all the merchandise, from socks to signs to shirts-both serious and humorous. I am attracted to the humorous cards and purchase a couple with the excuse that some friends will appreciate them, but also buy duplicates for myself.
We need to rush to catch what someone just informed us is the last bus back to our campsite, as it starts to rain once again. We make our way through the sucking mud, barefoot to keep our shoes clean, taking huge steps and wiping our feet on one of the towels before we enter the tent. It is damp and uncomfortable and my dry bed at home reaches a new level of appreciation. But we are exhausted and crawl under our towels/blankets, thankful for their dry caress.
It rained last night, and this morning fits of showers pepper the ride. I no sooner stop to don my rain gear than it stops and I begin to sweat. Then I stop again to remove my new ‘breathable’ Gore-Tex raincoat, only to have the rain return and force another stop. Thankfully, the fits die down to hovering clouds. We bike into a town with gigantic murals painted on the concrete support wall of a bridge. There are scenes of men with shovels working on the canal and scenes of women and children busy with daily tasks. The people are plain and the colors are muted, but the energy and determination of hard work intertwined in a full life radiates from the stone. I can’t stop staring at the paintings. Were my ancestors part of this creation that passes only a few dozen miles from the home where I grew up? No one ever mentioned it. No one ever talked much about anything from the past. But hard physical work and determination are part of the energy of my heritage that pulls me into these scenes.
One of the rest stops today is in Palmyra, the home of Joseph Smith—founder of the Mormon religion. I had no idea something that seemed far away in Salt Lake City started so close to home. According to information received somewhere (literature? sign? lecture? word of mouth?) over 200 historic buildings exist in just one square mile of this town. Opportunities for lessons in history and camaraderie are abundant. I take advantage of some and let others slip by. The physical activity- tuned to the rhythmic movement of my pedals, scenery, open space, fresh air, and the quiet despite the large number of riders on this trip-contribute to softening the buzz of the never-ending demands at home. Out here on the trail I am constantly watching for ruts, other riders and markers that indicate where to turn. But that intense external focus seems to facilitate intense internal focus. I wonder where I am headed in life, am amazed that I am here doing this ride, and notice my growing desire to be back home—the place I have been running away from for years. Within the challenge of each day’s ride, moments of contentment hint at inner peace.
The small town of Lyons greets us with a set of temporary signs stating that the Peppermint Museum is open. The crowd of bikers signal the small building that I could have easily missed. Apparently peppermint was widely grown in this area, creating an oversupply of peppermint oil used in medicines and teas. The opening of the canal created an opportunity to export the oil to Europe, where it won multiple medals. This town became the peppermint capital of the world for many years! They also used the oil in the making of gum and candy at the Beechnut factory located further along the trail. I buy a small bottle to add to my tea and realize it is the first memento of the trip I have acquired (except for the impending pebbly scars on my arm from my fall)!
The afternoon rest stop is in Clyde. There is a small fair on the greens. I wander a bit and get ice cream before continuing on. The afternoon’s trip takes us past the lush green fields of Amish farmlands. We travel on a country road, with little traffic and an occasional horse-drawn carriage. Rolling hills stretch as far as my eye can see. I effort my way up each hill, passing my tent mate several times because she passes me on each downhill, where gravity increases speed and distance with ease. But fear of the speed and another fall force me to apply my brakes as I try to gain control over the bike that wants to follow the pull of nature. Along the way, a group of bikers are gathered at a farm. I stop to find children, well prepared for our passing, selling home-baked goods. I can’t resist a huge chocolate chip cookie and wonder if after riding 400 miles on my bike I will actually gain weight! ‘Keeping my energy up’ seems like a good excuse to indulge. By the time we reach our evening tent site at Mynderse Academy in Seneca Falls, I have ventured across enough rolling hills to last me a lifetime.
Just outside of Medina is a giant culvert, the only place cars travel under the Erie Canal along its entire expanse. Farmlands sprawl to my right, left, ahead and behind. I learn the canal provides irrigation and flood control along with the transportation it was initially designed for. The next small town boasts a sign that states “affectionately called Podunk”, where many are stopping to have a picture taken and I decide to ask someone to take mine as well. This is a town where many Italian immigrants came to work in the Medina sandstone quarry. Yet another, bigger town is where a factory to manufacture grain reapers was established so it could ship them via the canal to large Midwest farms. It becomes increasingly clear why and how factories and businesses sprouted along this busy thoroughfare, literally watered by the needs—both expected and newly invented—of a culture on the move from agricultural to increasingly industrial. Access from the port of NY City to the west by way of the canal cut the cost of transportation of goods to a fraction of what it had been by way of land—once a three-week journey cut to only days.
It is difficult to imagine the canal as it was at the peak of its use. Most factories are gone or remain only in pieces. Remnants of stone and brick walls now curtained in moss and vines line the trail. Towns once robust now struggle. This trip is part of the reinvention of the canal, highlighting recreational opportunities; gaining support and funding to expand the bike trail into a completely off-road route across the state from East to West and connect to a North South route from the Canadian border to NYC. The contrast between old neighborhoods in poor repair and new housing developments along the route is striking. I stop along the water to rest briefly and am surprised at the unexpected clarity of the water. The canal was known for its polluted waters, from factories, businesses and occupants as much as it was for its transport opportunities. The1972 clean water act was responsible for the prohibition of dumping and the requirement for treatment plants that have now opened the canal for recreational opportunities – which is its predominant use. Some factories have been turned into condos, offices or new manufacturing businesses.
We end the day in Fairport and camp at a school there. Buses are available to travel into town but I want to rest, have my arm attended to, and think about the day as it has progressed from a moment of pure defeat past fields and towns to where my tent now waits for me. I am grateful to find my tent empty. I need some time alone to absorb all the sights and information the outside world has offered, along with all that my inside world has pumped through my thoughts. The canal was created through innovation and invention, and is now being reinvented after the ebb of its use. I feel a sense of my own initial push to reinvent my world as I moved from a poor rural setting and parental restrictions into the bigger realm of college and life in a small city. Then into a marriage, family and home in suburbia as I tried to fit into middle class America. A feeling of not being ‘good enough’ grew despite my hard work and advancement in career. I closed the doors to my house, and to my true self, afraid others would see the shadows that lived in the dark corners. The time for another transformation seems at hand, time to ride beyond beliefs that have limited my view of possibilities. Eventually I find my way to the gym showers to rinse off and head to bed. I am worried I will wake with the same trepidations that tore through my heart this morning, but also know I am in a different place–physically and emotionally–than I was just hours ago.
The second morning I wake with a severe ache. It is not muscle or bone. It is an ache for safety and security, for knowing where I am and how to proceed through the day. I am still 350 miles from home. I want nothing more than to be home, in the place I have spent years running away from. My throat tightens in an attempt to choke back the rumbling of fears and doubts that rise with the sun, and loses.
My call wakes my husband at 6:30 AM. He stays true to his promise and prepares for the five-hour trip to retrieve me. I hang up as sobs of defeat release within the thin nylon walls, my pillow my only friend to help hide my embarrassment. Gradually, my breathing slows and muscles soften and the hard edge of willpower that has fueled me across the past months dissolves. But a different strength starts to unfold. I realize I have trained for this journey for far longer than the few months leading up to it. I have endured thirty hours of labor giving birth to my son, have held the hands of loved ones as the warmth of life faded, have worked three jobs to gain the education that has led to a successful career, have stuck out the crashing waves of my husband’s struggle with drugs and alcohol after Viet Nam. Faith in my ability to endure and move forward on my own mounts. The tears I thought had washed away the fragile scaffolding of success instead uncovered the foundation of the spirit where my real support lived. I redial and cancel the rescue.
I head to the cafeteria for a quick breakfast, knowing I will need this nourishment to get through the morning even though I would rather avoid showing my red eyes and blotchy face. I meet the women I met yesterday at lunch and they ask if I am OK. I assure them I am and hurry on, knowing there is no way they believe me. The cafeteria is crowded with the usual jolly occupants–why do I not share this cheery attitude? What is wrong with me? The crowd is actually good for getting lost in. and I grab some oatmeal and fruit and gulp it down in a corner. Then I race back to my tent to prepare for the day. My tent mate meets me with a questioning look. I just tell her it has been a rough morning and leave as quickly as I can, hoping to put distance between desire and doubt. I ease onto wet roads under heavy skies and merge into the grayness. It feels strangely comforting and safe.
Lunch is on our own in a small town. I realize how important this event must be to the businesses in the many small towns along the trail. Towns that grew and thrived, first during construction of the canal, and then when it was the primary mode of transporting goods, are now either struggling or don’t exist at all. Most of the eateries are packed when I arrive. I hear there is another place further down a side street. Along the way I find two women around my age also looking for a place to eat. We talk briefly and determine one of them lives only a few miles from me. The other is her friend from another state who joined her for this trip. Must be nice. We continue searching together and find a small place to get a sandwich. The two are very talkative but easily include me in their conversation. I surprise myself by joining the chatter without hesitation. After a nice break we ride together a short distance, then they pull ahead and we wave goodbye. I am content to be alone again.
My tent mate catches up to me and we ride together for a bit before stopping to explore the town of Lockport-the home of the original ‘flight of five’ locks, constructed before steel and electric motors were available. The locks were constructed of wooden gates, each only capable of holding a 12 foot depth of water. Five consecutive locks were required to scale the 60 foot gain in elevation presented by the Niagara escarpment-the same mass of stone over which Niagara Falls flows between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. A double lock–the only one on the present canal-now takes the place of the flight of five.
We join a free hour long cruise through the two locks and listen to the history of just this one location. The magnitude of the history that will be revealed as we travel along this man made wonder begins to dawn. Initially scorned as a waste of money and labeled ‘Clinton’s ditch’, the canal invented its way across NY State, creating new methods and machinery to meet new needs. The canal opened the east to the west and began the industrialization of the miles it passed through, ultimately turning NY City into the busiest port in America
Now more than halfway through the first day’s trip, confidence in my ability to keep up the pace and stay upright in my seat is building, slowly. My tent mate and I take a welcomed break at an afternoon rest stop. I lie down briefly on a grassy slope in the sun and feel the muscles in my shoulders and neck release. I grab a snack and water and notice all the smiling faces–bikers and rest stop volunteers alike. My fears quiet and I feel a small sense of well being.
We head back to the trail together and I make an awkward turn to avoid another biker – and down I go. The fear I’ve carried since I began training months ago becomes reality. I jump up as fast as I can as others race towards me to see if I am all right. I insist I am fine, my face hot with embarrassment – until I see the blood gushing down my arm. Someone finds a first aid kit and washes off the dirt and gravel, then applies antiseptic cream and a gauze bandage from my elbow to my wrist. I make light of it all and chuckle as I quip: “Well that’s over, I’ve been afraid of falling all day and now I don’t have to worry about it anymore!” And I sort of believe myself!
We continue on to Medina—famous for its sandstone, which forms the base of both the Brooklyn Bridge and Buckingham Palace. Who knew? Then tent city welcomes us into the athletic field at Clifford H. Wise School. The day’s miles are behind me with no need for the Sag Wagon, and I am not even the last person to arrive-imagine that. There is an indoor pool. I hesitate to use it. I can’t really swim and visions from my high school locker room days are not inviting-but the thought of cool water on my overheated body is, so in I go. After a shower, I visit the medic to have my arm looked at. He says I will need the bandage changed daily. Guilt wells up as I realize I should not have gone into the pool with an open wound.
Dinner is a step above school cafeteria fare-a green salad and several forms of pasta with something sweet for desert. I sit with the women I met at lunch and a few others and listen to the tales of the day-adding my own in response to questions about the gauze covering half my arm. I am off to bed early, tired, almost in one piece, and wondering if I can really do this again tomorrow.
I wake early after little sleep, attend the tire changing clinic, eat a quick breakfast amongst chattering fellow bikers, and lug my heavy bag across the field to the truck that will carry it to our next tent site. Why didn’t invest in a wheeled bag? I return to my tent and gather my gear for the first day of riding–map, water, helmet, rain gear, repair kit, determination… I have never ridden in a large group. Ho w do I keep from running into someone else or keep someone else from running into me? What if I fall and break something? What if I fall and embarrass myself? What if I can’t make it to the next stop? The sag wagon is there to help us out, but what if I am the only loser that needs it? I search for the internal pull that has transported me to this starting line and find a slim thread remaining to tug me there.
There is a formal start off ceremony on this first day, but I decide to leave early to avoid riding in the sizeable crowd and give myself extra time to make the day’s miles. I am not a ‘group’ person, and I am not here to celebrate and have fun. My tent mate starts with me and I am grateful to have company as we learn to discern the hot pink trail markers, painted on the road, that will direct us for the next seven days. We find our way through five miles of city streets to the off-road trail. My tent mate stays with me and I feel certain I am hindering her speedier cleat clad feet from moving ahead. My eyes relentlessly scan the trail for hidden roots and rocks waiting to steal my stability. Fear of the gravity devil’s fingers threatening to topple me, turn me into a timid rider, erupting into a terrified one on downhill slopes or uneven terrain. An erratic cadence and clumsy shifting broadcast my rookie status as a distance rider. My pale knuckles seize the handlebars, relaxing only when the pedals came to a halt and my feet touch solid ground.
We reach the first rest stop 17 miles from the start. Water, snacks and rest rooms await our arrival. Only a few of us are here, but the number increases rapidly as those from the initial pack arrive. I fall back on my practiced non-committal smiling as a primary way to interact. There are some friendly brief exchanges with other riders, but most seem to be traveling in familiar groups. I overhear stories of past trips similar to this one. Apparently this type of thing is a vacation destination. There is an older couple on a tandem bike, others on reclining bikes, a bike with a third wheel and extra seat for a young child, families with children on their own bikes and large adult tricycles. I had not imagined so many possibilities for participation.
So far-even with 500 riders-there has not been a crowd on the trail. This will be true throughout most of the trip, as I often find myself beyond eyesight of any other biker. I relax a bit in the ease of these periods of isolation, beyond judging eyes, alone but not lonely. I enjoy alone time, time to think without the need to carefully put words together to meet other’s expectations and needs. My ride share guy comes over to join my tent mate and I as he arrives close behind us. The two of them seem to have a lot in common and converse easily. I excuse myself and get back on the trail, knowing I will need all the time I can grab to get to today’s goal. They will either easily catch up or meet me there.
The trail is peaceful as it passes by fields and farmland. Overhanging limbs provide a shield from the hot sun. Parts are paved and parts are covered with crushed limestone that seems to want to direct my tires without my consent. Some of the trail follows the towpath used to drive mules as they pulled barges filled with people and/or goods along the original Erie Canal – started in 1817 and completed in 1825. Piles of large jagged rocks, called rip-rap, line sections of the shore to preserve it from erosion. At times the path runs so close to the sharp drop off I feel as if the rocks are magnetically pulling me towards them. One startle -an animal running in front of me or a speed biker racing by unexpectedly could lead to an abrupt swing of the handlebars, and I picture myself broken and bleeding on the rocks. Not a pretty thought. I move closer to the middle of the path. Others will just have to go around me if I’m going too slow!
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 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.