to train your body to ride a bicycle across the country. No magic workout that will rip your wimpy thighs into Yohann Gène or Kevin Reza super quads able to levitate over the Rockies in a matter of minutes. Especially on a bike loaded down with 65 pounds of extra weight, gear and baggage professional cyclists load into sag wagons—support vehicles that follow along a few miles behind ready to swap out a wheel in the event of a flat tire, or in the extreme, bandage your wounds and rush you to the hospital should you crash and crack your head open on a particularly treacherous downhill. But you have no support vehicle; all you have is you: you, your bicycle and 65 pounds of all that matters to you in life—photos of your cat, your girlfriend and your mom, vitamins, an espresso maker, Gabo’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Morrison’s Sula, bandanas to protect your tattoos from the sun, a cook stove, fuel, and, of course, extra spokes and other essential components, culled and stuffed into 2 pannier bags and a tool kit, with a sleeping bag, tent and Thermarest air mattress bungeed to the top of your bike rack. There is no pill you can take, no supplement or herbal tincture that will lower your heart rate, or increase your lung capacity, prevent lactic acid build-up from incinerating the willpower in your muscles.
Nor is there a salve you can buy, or poultice you can make to stave off the condition of raw hamburger meat your ass is about to become after months of sitting day-in and day-out in a puddle of your own sweat because as soon as you cross the Mississippi that trick you thought was so ingenious—the one where you wash your only other pair of cycling shorts at night then tie them to your rack to dry the next day as you ride—is useless in 100% humidity, and Laundromats, boasting real live washers and dryers, are an incredulous rumor from the future on the winding back roads and sleepy hollow towns through which your legs will soon propel you.
And even though you’ve read Roger M. Knutson’s Flattened Fauna: A Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Streets and Highways (Ten speed Press), and carry it with you to refer to on the ride, you cannot prepare for the onslaught of stench that awaits you, eye-watering and rancid, from the mangled and contorted bodies of dead nocturnal animals littering the road. A scrunch-up-the-face kind of funk that takes up residence in your mouth and nostrils a full mile before you roll upon it and squats there a mile after you’ve passed. Nor can you prepare for the thoughts, lingering long after the smell, as logging truck after logging truck threatens to body-slam you into the mountainside, that it could have been you sprawled unrecognizably on the shoulder of the road back there. Before this journey is over, any of those carcasses might easily be you.
With all that weight, at your fastest you will travel 15 miles per hour, and that’s only on flats. Over hills and mountains, drop it down to eight, an easy target for anything that wants to fuck with you—logging trucks, drunken white boys in spit-shined muscle cars, gas station/deli/Post Office owners (yes, all under one roof) who decide to poison your water and starving emaciated feral dogs, packs of them, huddled at the bottom of every downhill through the Ozarks, waiting for you to lose your momentum and nearly come to a standstill on the next climb before they give chase, forcing you to ride with one hand on your handlebars and one hand gripping your pepper spray, all the while crying because even though you were born on this soil, raised here by parents also born and raised here, you are fully aware that you are still viewed as foreign in these hills in the middle of nowhere and even though you love dogs, it’s either them or you and the thoughts and images of those beyond-all-recognition roadside carcasses remain ever present.
There is no way to predict how you will be treated on this odyssey you have undertaken, a modern day Tolkien style quest historically reserved for old white wizards and Hobbits, not a black, light-skinned, blue-eyed, gender nonconforming queer boi. You expect the N-word to fly (and it does, though not as often as you think), anticipate the long and silent what-the-fuck-is-it? hater-stares from shop clerks and servers in small town Tea Party diners that say “fine, we will take your money, so long as we know you’re just passing through…” You will be called “Sir” by some, and “Ma’am” by others, while black farmers in Virginia will offer marriage proposals alongside requests that you birth their young.
By the time you wade, spent and exhausted into the bath-like waters of the Atlantic off the outer banks of North Carolina, you will have narrowly escaped bears in Colorado, rattlesnakes in Western Kansas, and survived something called the Great Dismal Swamp in which you will discover that dryer sheets—a la Downy®, Bounce® and Snuggle®—stuffed everywhee on your person you can find, the waistband of your shorts, socks, your helmet, the collar on your jersey, are the only repellent against horseflies. And though it will be a while before you fully grasp the enormity of all you have just accomplished, of one thing you are clear: Everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, beliefs, or station in life should experience the world at fifteen miles per hour.
In 1995 I rode my Specialized Rock Hopper Sport mountain bike (tricked out with road cranks and tires) 4200 miles from San Francisco to the outer banks of North Carolina. In all, the trip took twelve weeks, and, second only to writing novels, stands as the most rewarding challenge of my life. Although I continue to explore the world on two wheels, these days I do so mostly in New York City, a different kind of odyssey, though no less challenging or gratifying. This blog is dedicated to my life in the bike lane.