The end - Between the Ends of America - CycleBlaze

October 16, 2011

The end

The greatest adventure of my life ended two months ago today.

Since then I've moved to Bellingham, a city of 80,000 people tucked into the far northwest corner of Washington State, only 20 miles from the Canadian border. I'm back to building websites and sitting in meetings. I wear pants and sleep indoors again. I've watched two of my best friends get married and I'm helping plan a wedding of my own. Most of my exercise comes from ice hockey, not bike riding. I don't write about my life anymore. I've taken exactly two pictures.

I spot reminders of the trip everywhere. There's the two-millimeter-long brown bug that squeezed itself through a gap between the outer shell of my laptop and its screen back in Sterling, Kansas, crawled around for a few hours, and then died, leaving behind a permanent dust-like speck along the bottom of the screen. When I face the mirror at certain angles, I see on the side of my left shoulder the light pink patch of skin that slowly grew back after I crashed along the highway in Haysi, Virginia. Every time I look toward the far corner my apartment's living room my eyes lock on the bike, still covered with a fine layer of dirt and dust and sand, its tires dirty and worn out, its chain sagging, its odometer showing the ridiculous number of miles it took me to ride from one end of America to the other.

Every day, without any prompting, my mind wanders to very specific moments from the most wonderful four months of my life. I remember riding through the back roads of Georgia on a beautiful spring day, my head filled with happiness. I think about climbing steeply out of Cherokee, North Carolina for ten straight miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I flash back to sitting under a picnic shelter in Ness City, Kansas, with the thermometer reading 110 degrees and a 30 mile-per-hour wind blowing dust across the town park in giant clouds, wondering how anyone could live in such a place and enjoy it. I remember laying on an air mattress during the late evening in Eddyville, Illinois, staying completely motionless but still sweating uncontrollably under the crush of impossible heat and humidity. I picture very clearly the early mornings in Wyoming and Montana, where the soft light and long shadows and distant mountains revealed scenes more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.

I think about how I ended nearly every day feeling happy. By the time I was ready to head to sleep, the frustrations about hills or weather or mechanical problems had faded away, leaving me with positive memories, feelings of accomplishment, and optimism about the day ahead. I remember the people I met in Eastern Kentucky—people who turned out to be the most helpful and generous of all, even though they had the least to spare. I think about spending nights in the churches and town parks of Virginia and Kentucky with Chris, laughing across Kansas with the Adventure Cycling Association group, and sharing stories about long-distance bike travel with strangers who passed into my life and then back out of it in the span of only a few hours. I feel grateful for the people who welcomed me into their homes and treated me like family.

Riding across America challenged me physically every day. I'm still impressed by the climbs I conquered in the Appalachians and the Rockies, the days I traveled more than a hundred miles, the kinds of extreme weather I pushed through, and the ridiculous amount of unhealthy food I forced my body to process. But that's not the effort I'm most proud of.

Instead I think about how the trip challenged me to create something amazing. I've written for years, but only as a journalist or technical writer—both of which value the clear, concise, accurate statement of facts above everything else. I had to consciously force myself to avoid all of that—to instead stop and reflect, to try and capture the beauty and details and comedy of the world around me, and to make sense of the feelings and opinions and rapidly forming memories swirling inside my head. I'd never done anything like it before, and as a normally private person it was a constant struggle to channel my emotions and then reveal them online to a bunch of strangers. It also took time—so, so, so much time—to create the short notes on my phone throughout the day, to pull them together into something coherent at night, to draft each entry on the laptop a few days later, to make edits to the draft, and then to upload and format the final copy online. And even when all of that was done I still had to sort through each day's pictures, pick my favorites, and then edit and post them as well. It felt like a full-time job. I was constantly behind. The effort to produce quality writing and photography every single day for four months ended up being nearly as great as the effort needed to pedal coast-to-coast.

That hard work was driven by one goal: to make something that people I didn't know would want to read. I figured that, if nothing else, I'd always have a great story about my long-ass ride through rural America. That would have been enough. But as it turned out, a few thousand people decided that my trip was interesting and something they wanted to follow along with. Every day I received words of support and encouragement and praise—some from friends and family, but most from people I'll never have the chance to meet. I've never felt anything like it. The comments and the ratings that surrounded my writing and photos helped make the experience even more rewarding than I thought possible. My journey wouldn't have been the same without them.

Unexpectedly, the response that the journal created has made the transition back into life at home even more difficult. There's no longer anyone who writes to tell me that what I'm doing is amazing or wonderful, or even worth spending a few minutes each day to read about. I don't feel like an explorer or storyteller anymore. I'm not remarkable. I'm just a normal guy living a normal life. Where I used to have focus and passion and something worth talking about, today there's a void.

Right now it's a bummer, but even if I had the chance to get rid of that feeling I wouldn't. It fuels my desire to create something great again. It drives me to push myself beyond what I think I'm capable of. It reminds me that I have the ability to envision the life I want and then turn it into reality.

I also know that my bike touring life didn't come to a sudden end on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. As long as I stay healthy, and the people around me do the same, I'll be back on the road next fall for another extended bike trip, venturing even farther off the beaten path and into the heart of an America I've fallen completely in love with. I can't wait.

Until then.

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Bob DeegNice Journal, Jeff. Great photos and enjoyable commentary.
Bob.
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