Day 39: Nightmare on NM 40

I could not bear the thought of another day of headwinds so I got in the van. Of course, everyone had tailwinds all day. The day was pretty weird, though, because despite a nearly all day downhill, we still gained total elevation. What this meant was a final 15 miles of pure climb. I don’t like making decisions and I especially don’t like making them based on specious headwinds and hills, so it was frustrating to see the route turn out to be the opposite of what I had hidden myself from (especially when the next day turned out to be exactly what I had feared, and I rode that one…). I sat in the van with Kelly (saddle sores), Jenna (saddle sores), Roy (broken gears), Rob (driver), and Sarah W (safety navigator), again the only person with an undefinable ailment– fear mixed with precautionary principle mixed with “to get through yesterday I promised myself I wouldn’t have to do it again today.” I read almost to the end of Me Before You. I did not feel like writing, but I wrote two days’ posts, I believe (I’m currently on my phone while those are in my computer). We stayed at lunch for 3 hours, baking and swarmed by flies. “This is my nightmare,” said Kelly. “Flies, heat, saddle sores, Jack lost one of the lenses in his glasses…” I said. “Yes,” she agreed. “Everything else I can deal with, but Jack losing his lens is my absolute nightmare.”
We stayed at Mosquero (population: 93) high school, which had graduating classes of anywhere from one to ten students and had painted their walls with pop culture references. Why a desert-locked town named its school team the Pirates (and Lady Pirates; ladies be pirates too go and brush your shoulders off) I will not know. Perhaps it is in reference to the ancient sea that used to cover New Mexico along with dinosaurs. 

I need to know how I can finish this trip in a way that’s functional for both me and everyone else, who I either slow down or make worry that I’m about to keel over at any minute, apparently. Just trying to keep up in heat and exhaustion, ladies! Since I had a problem I could not see a solution to with my in house team, I brought in a consultant, Robert Dunn of the Boston branch of Deloitte, also known as one of the leaders on SUS16. He suggested leaving alone before everyone else, then joining biking groups for five miles each as they passed me; communicating when I felt the first inkling of a problem coming on rather than trying to stick it out until I am about to fall apart and freaking people out; and taking days off in a methodical way i.e. no calling the van from miles behind it to come get me, but stopping when the van is already stopped too and hopping in. 

The mayor had us over for a bonfire and I went for what was apparently the defining five minutes, as he lit a candle against a white paper backdrop, then shone a flashlight on it to demonstrate that if you’re the brightest light, you don’t cast a shadow. Somehow we are supposed to be this light. We could also all become vampires to the same effect. 

   
    
    
    
    
    
    
   

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Day 38: Everything was not estoy bien

The title comes from a story Jack told about throwing up on the Madrid bus, but also refers to how I felt for the first half of the day. Tensions were high thanks to a run in with the interstate, I felt like I was sitting on a radiator, a headwind pushed against us for miles, and my riding group dropped me behind as soon as we got a tailwind, twice. I was angry. I gained speed in the tailwind and downhills (which were beautiful; I made a note to look back on them in my memory when my eyes weren’t clouded by rage) and left them all behind until enough uphill climbs piled up and they caught up. 
Jack discovered my anger at being left behind and waited for me. I was able to finish the day chatting and biking with the rest of my group, which made me feel a lot better. I understand how and why people drop others riding more slowly than themselves, possibly unintentionally, but when you’re consistently a few yards away from the people you’re supposedly riding with and they don’t give you a chance to catch up, you’re just staring at their just far enough backs for miles, knowing they either didn’t notice or didn’t care that you have fallen back, it’s infuriating. Other people can choose to slow down; with rare exceptions, I cannot choose to speed up. And even if I could sprint to get back to people, should I tire myself out like that on an 89 mile day? As soon as I reach them I’d just need a break, or to slow down, and I’d lose them once again. 
That night we had an incomprehensible speaker of affordable housing and a family meeting at which I suggested we stop biking across the country leaving a mound of disposed disposable plates, cups, and utensils in our wake, which also cost our hosts the money to replace them. To my surprise, people were on board to start using and washing our own bin of plates and utensils that we have been carrying in the trailer to use for meals without alternatives. 
We got a double bonus of extra sleep from both a short day 6 am wake up and the time zone transition. Thanks to the decreased pressure to get the hell to sleep, I had a veritable slumber party in the parlor with Kevin, David, and Roy. David slept on a queen sized arrangement of red velvet cushions pulled from the pews, Kevin started out on two pushed together chairs and quickly moved to one of David’s cushions, and Roy and I each had a couch. Hanging out in a parlor with a bunch of characters and their distinctive stuff makes life feel like a game of Clue. 

Day 37: Get Enchanted

Our mileage is rarely an exact, rounded off number, but we round up or down and let the decimal points slide. Not today. We had 46.5 miles and as I watched them tick away, I was ever-conscious of that last .5 miles, as every .5 before it had been a struggle to extract from my thighs. 
I had the responsibility of town facts today, which means I stood up and gave some facts about the town we were biking to. These are typically pretty boring, probably because most people glean some stats from Wikipedia and call it a day. I usually just remember if I hear a particularly low average income. I prepped mine just before, and was told be several people that I had done the best job. Looks like school was good for something! We also played a game that JoHo might have played on his previous trip or might have made up that second. You sit in a circle with one blindfolded person in the middle who crawls to sit on someone’s lap and guesses who they are. Christina guessed I was Luke, which is flattering. 

I was sweep today, with Katie S, but Kayla joined as well. The trip started in Texas and in Central Time, and ended in New Mexico and Mountain Time. 

The road could have been a beautiful ride, not in terms of scenery but in pavement quality, which is the real beauty. Looking ahead, we saw the pitch black that usually signals a freshly paved road. But the entire shoulder, save not even a line thin enough to roll a 25 road bike tire through, was blanketed in gravel. I wished we had a zamboni or that earlier riders had realized we didn’t all have to go through this if the people at the front just played broom polo. I reflected on the ridiculousness of our usual habit of pointing out debris, sticks, and rocks to the riders behind us in normal road conditions and then getting to a minefield like this and letting that all go, helplessly. The same convention goes for biking on quiet versus busy streets: on a highway, you stop calling out “car back” because of course there’s one. 

I also started suffering in some places that are not on the approved pains list: my knees and my left hip. I was able to get my hip back by just flexing a bit, but in the world of aches and pains I am firmly in the No New Friends camp. 

The gravel eventually ended, but not before lodging a weirdly twisted nail through my brand new tire, though evidentially and miraculously angling itself in a way that just bypassed my tube. But our next gauntlet would be no less Herculean: the elemental equivalent of gravel, a headwind. Biking into a headwind is like biking into nature telling you you shouldn’t be. It’s like biking into a thousand punches, pushing a boulder up a hill, walking through a hallway punctured by a series of leaden doors, besting your way into an invisible castle with only your legs for a battering ram. The only thing to do is to count down the miles, which go slower than ever as your pace falls. Sometimes winds are not pushing directly into you, but blow sideways: crosswinds. These are hard too. Hilary taught me to watch the direction of the grass to assess which way the wind is blowing, so I’m a wilderness survival expert now. After all, everyone knows that the thing that takes the most people out in the wilderness is not knowing the direction of the wind. 

I pushed myself into the wind for those miles, knowing that this being a short day was the only thing that was going to let me complete it. The wind blew hot, as winds shouldn’t be allowed to do, and I drained my bottles of water and water with Nuun tablets dissolved into it, tri-berry flavor. Somehow everyone who brought Nuun tablets seems to have synced up, because I’ve been seeing a lot of tri-berry bottles out this week (Though Bike & Build supplies Gatorade powder [which I didn’t know going in]), Nuun has fewer calories and sugar). We stopped for photos with the time zone sign (Kayla’s favorite time zone; it also means I’m now 2 hours earlier than my parents and 1 later than Joe, which is hard for me to fully work out sometimes when I want to call someone and need to sort out who’s awake/not at work) and the New Mexico State sign. Then I got into zombie cyclist mode and eked out the last few miles point 5, promising myself I didn’t have to do this again tomorrow. 

We got to the church (Baptist) and I found a room with a couch and lay on it, unable to sleep, for three hours. Staring at the room, it was clear it could have been in any state, any country, and frankly, any decade of the last half century. No college, I went on a study abroad program with the theme of globalization, and I saw firsthand, with some exceptions (you can’t buy a decent pen in Tanzania, New Zealand has great laws like allowing you to walk barefoot and having a Green Party presence in parliament), how the world is mashing itself into a new cultural Pangea, with the same corporate ads, the same mores, the same clothing. It’s probably less surprising but no less sad that this trend is intensified within the boarders of a single country, the one that’s driving the homogenization of the rest of the world at that. Every Vacation Bible School, which is a thing I only just learned existed this summer, has the same theme of The Beach. In Lawton, OK I found the script for the last VBS’s sketch. It was photocopied from a book, so that children at churches across the US could all learn that God does the same four largely asinine verbs (saves, helps, gives, another thing?) and hear the same lame jokes delivered with a knowing wink rather than a rewrite. 

In every state, each city and small town, we pass the same chain restaurants, the same chain drugstores and dollar stores. Sometimes they’re regional chains, at least. But in the small towns, we pass something else as well: shuttered storefronts of local, independent shops, fossils of a regional economy that sold goods according to what that individual place produced and needed, colored the houses and memories of the town, made the human landscape unique and interesting to look at, and allowed a few to rise to the ranks of the owning class. Not that this would guarantee they paid workers with an understanding of the actual cost of living or were any good to them, but perhaps the ability to negotiate with a real human instead of a board tied to the bogeyman concept of shareholders and wear stupid vests and stand all day under fluorescent beams and sell things that are overpriced and undervalued. Mosquero, NM, population of 93, had one row of shops, all with depictions of their purpose hand painted on their edifice. Some had closed, so that Frank’s Place was perhaps now just a guy named Frank’s place, and some had inscrutable wares, like Lala’s, but they made the town instantly interesting, memorable and enjoyable. 

Wichita Falls, TX had a downtown of small shops that turned out to be carcasses, though apparently the town has since moved onto a new downtown, leaving this one to rot or be gentrified, depending on demand. I’ve biked past Dollars General, Winn Dixies, Piggly Wiggly, Waffle Houses, and other chains either unfamiliar to me or familiar only from words, not experiences, and it’s odd that we live in such a multinational time that these should be markers of the southeast for being slightly smaller chains than the ones we’re used to. Starbucks and Chipotle, as thick on the ground in Manhattan as rats used to be, are scarce here. Too expensive, I assume, though granola bars in gas stations are often of $2. 

Seeing a Taco Bell in New Mexico and KFC in Alabama smacks of a particular sadness, of replacing even food, the last touristy vestige of specificity, with its corporate imitation. You can go into a gas station in Texas and buy any of 15 varieties of Chex Mix, and you can get a bag of chips that’ll imitate for you whatever real food you want– biscuits and gravy, jalapeño, macaroni and cheese with bacon– all catering to our regional memory palates, courtesy a flavor factory in New Jersey. The food we eat is similarly what it is in name only. You can dye corn syrup purple, but that doesn’t make it jelly. Each church that gives us bread places a tub of plant-based butter alongside it. Desserts come in plastic bags. I know my microflora has suffered a mass extinction, but I don’t think the pickles in a bag or the Trix yogurt I’ve seen would pump many more reserve forces into their ranks. 

The distinct, the unique, it’s all been shellacked and packaged for tourism– New Orleans’ French Quarter– or made far away and sold back home, a simulacrum of a tradition– biscuit mix, cowboy hats made in China. I seek out differences the way I do water– New Mexico’s road signs encircle the route number in the Zia sun symbol while Texas’s say Farm to Market and hoisted on curved white metal posts, New Orleans homes are shotgun while Florida’s are on stilts, some vestigial accents remain, gas in rural Louisiana dipped below $2 while everywhere else hovers between $2.10-$2.50, the ditches lining the roads in Louisiana are filled with water, Texans served us brisket.  

I keep wondering what it would have been like to make this trip 20, 50, 100 years ago. How crossing state lines would feel like crossing between countries, how the houses, stores, people, clothing would look and smell and sound different. But if I came to search for America, I came too late. 

The land stubbornly holds onto its individuality, even as humans have worked tirelessly to demise and dehill and make it a New England or New Spain or New Nova Scotia. But of course the land had no interest or input in the lines drawn over it anyway: though some state borders occurred more organically than a line drawn on a map, Texas and Alabama and Oklahoma are just inventions, even if we’ve convinced ourselves. Biking reveals the true differences of the land more than even living in a place ever would. You drag yourself up every change in slope, memorizing its angles through the minutes you must put into a hill that would take seconds in a car. You bear the full brunt of heat and rainstorms, bear the bites of local flora and fauna, and hold full awareness of your presence in the desert or a muggy swamp the way air conditioning and concrete and other tools of denial allow you to pretend otherwise. But for the most part, the country has been a bit like that room in Clayton, NM: you could be anywhere.   

   
 

An Interlude: Daily Life. Or, Why This Blog Has Been Sparse As Of Late

Haven’t been writing much on here because I haven’t had the energy. We wake up at 5 am, have to get our bags out to the trailer by 5:30 (which means using anything you need in your bag before then), eat breakfast by 6:15, then route meeting. In between these milestone times there are rotating chore group tasks such as packing the trailer, filling the food and water coolers and packing into the van, cleaning the host site, and setting and packing up breakfast. You also have to get your bike out and pump up its tires, check its gears and brakes, and wipe off and lube the chain. 
Then you bike forever and that’s the only thing that matters. Then you reach the host from anytime from early afternoon on a short day (that feels like vacation) to 7:30 on a long one. Technically we are supposed to arrive at 4:30 on days with mileage below 90 and around 5:30 on days over 90. Arriving at the host is all I usually plan for for the entire day. I don’t go anywhere after that. Sometimes I reason I can do one thing, and that can be writing this or honestly I don’t remember what else I have ever done at night. On some nights people go out, and I try to go along because that’s experiencing the summer rather than just enduring it, but I keep an eye on the clock and say things to myself like, “if it’s a 7 minute walk there and another 7 back, I will stay for 7 minutes.” I always get to bed later than I intend to, because when you wake up at 5, every 15 minute conversation or 7 minute shower or 10 minutes repacking for tomorrow matters. 

Some days in the van I plug in and spit these out, but others I can just sit silently or talk or read. The other day I looked out the window, chatted, and read the PDF of Me Before You I found online and saved to my phone. 

Day 36: Our Only Day Off Ever, Part 2

Day off! No biking! Well, some insane people biked to the Palo Duro canyon, but I am the sane eye in a storm of crazy. Besides, it wasn’t that many people. 

I took my bike to the bike shop, where I found that I had a flat. I asked them to check up on it when they looked at my brakes and derailleur. I bought a Camelbak brand hydraulic reservoir to miscenegate my day bag: Osprey bag, Camelbak water pack. Walked over to a coffee shop and read Me Before You, then had hella inauthentic Thai food with a group before returning to the bike shop to find that they had decided to replace and sell me a new rear tire. So now I’m mixing up my tire brands as well as my bags: Armadillo business in the front, Gatorskin party in the back. Headed back to the church to lay about before heading over to an alum’s family’s house for melted cheese dinner (enchiladas) and ice cream. Did laundry at the church, then went to sleep.

What a raucous day off, y’all! 

   

 

Day 35: 107 miles to prom

In case centuries had started to impress you, our schedule today called for 107 miles. 106.6 to be precise, but when you’re biking that long, what’s another .4 miles? Actually, on the very worst days, it means the world, but on this day it did not.

Everyone was trying to strategically get into riding groups with people who fit their riding style so they could be comfortable throughout the long day, but no one has my riding style so I just went with my prom date so we could plan matching outfits together for our couples outfit themed prom that night, and the other people she was already riding with: Alessandra, Sarah W, and Roy. 

The ride was beautiful, overcast and looking over Texas’s hill country. However, looking at hills all around you usually means you have to ride over hills. I was going much slower than my group, so I let them take off from me and enjoyed my own private sometimes 6 miles an hour ride. Then a tailwind set in and I revved up past 16, up through the early 20s. Between the tailwind burst and not stopping for anything beyond my own pee whims, I caught up to everyone else at Lunch 1. I made myself a brisket, hummus, and kale salad and had half a Reese’s pieces cookie to motivate myself to get to Lunch 2 and have more of those. 

The town in which Jack had set up first lunch was the most Christian place we have been all summer, despite the stiff competition. The welcome sign said, “Claredon believes in Christ and the Crucifixion” (’No dissenters,” said Roy), and people ha strung up PVC crosses along the road in what I had to assume was a religious rather than KKK gesture. 

After lunch, my group wanted to stop at a gas station to pee, as apparently they hadn’t accepted my method of simply walking behind the random building lunch was set up at and popping a squat. I figured they’d pass me anyway, so I took off again on Stretch 2 of the day solo. “Please don’t let me get a flat in this creepy Christian town alone,” I prayed to Jesus, or whoever protects people from his followers. 

The highway was long and boring, but peaceful enough. I chugged along in the shoulder, at one point stopping by Nick and Kelp, two crushdogs who ride solo but join with other speed demons when they happen to run into another. They were stopped for a nap. I stopped to pee. I know I can’t nap, and besides, 107 miles doesn’t leave time for slow people to attempt such extravagant stops. Right after the turn off the highway, I saw a bunch of bikes outside a gas station and took my major break of the day, reading Facebook posts about Orlando in a handicapped stall. I figured it was the most shade I’d see all day, anyway. I rejoined up with my group and made it to Lunch 2. I was surprised it had ever come, all the way at mile 80. 

The third biking stretch of the day was the hardest. The sky had cleared, the winds had turned against us, and the asphalt was so hot it oozed sticky when you stepped on it. I rode packed tightly between RTK, Roy, and Sarah W, who pulled us for most of the route. At a certain point I could feel my body give way. Roy noticed that my rear wheel was a bit flat, so we pulled over and he pumped it up, though when he asked me my brain was addled enough that I couldn’t comprehend doing anything to slow us down, even if it meant going faster in the longterm. Sarah W pulled us, RTK made us take a break and helped encourage me, and Roy tried to break the wind for me by riding directly in front of me

The last 7 miles were in the city of Amarillo, which had experienced a hostage situation at a Walmart in town. The specter of gun violence loomed over us. Biking in town showed me that my brakes did not, in fact, work all that well. But by the end, I felt as if I had been biking forever, this is just what I do now, it might not be pleasant but I have never not been biking. “I have never not been in this Korean work camp,” suggested my mom. 

But then we actually did get to the church. RTK had the brilliant idea that we should join with Meegan and Younbul for a double date costume of the leaders, which meant not only did we not have to go to a store, but we were guaranteed to have the best costumes ever. It was decided that I was to go as Jack, so personally I was also guaranteed an exceptionally comfortable evening. The four of us scavenged through the leaders’ stuff and changed clandestinely, waiting for all the leaders to leave so we could make a grand entrance. Before we left, we drew Melissa’s Bike and Build tattoo on RTK and Alex suggested I slather calamine lotion all over to mimic Jack’s poison ivy treatment. 

In our Uber over to the bowling alley, we brainstormed signature moves we should each do to act in character. We determined that Younbul/Rob should do pushups and say GTFO a bunch, Meegan/Sarah should go lie down on the floor somewhere, RTK/Melissa should say softly, “if you can hear me say ‘cinnamon,’ and I/Jack should say stuff like “you tryina watch the game?” and stare blankly. I had not previously been aware that that was a defining trait of Jack. 

We walked into the Amarillo bowling alley like the cast of Entourage. Everyone else’s costumes were on point too. Rob and Kevin had dressed like WASPy women, with visors, sleeveless polos, belts, and scarves. katie H, Oli, and Jenna were warm and fuzzier, with fuzzy robes that people wrote nice notes on and slippers, while Lucas had Rainbow Dash socks in honor of our equestrian safety talisman. Kayla, JoHo, and Alessandra dressed in denim, patterns, straw hats, and blacked out teeth, Alex and Luke were Chippendale dancers, at least before we left the church and they put on clothing, Jack and Katie S were Texan/American, while Kelly and Nick were Mr. and Mrs. America. Yunbul as Rob wore the Bike & Build cycling cap and tank top and flip flops, Meegan as Sarah wore her floppy colorful hat, glaucoma sunglasses, hair in low Ewok buns, harem pants, and Jazzercise mug, RTK as Melissa wore her tank top dress and Younbul’s New Orleans hat, and I as Jack wore his Panama Beach snapback, Hawaiian shirt, Hawaiian print swim trunks, and Tevas. I walked with a swagger that only comes from wearing the pajamas boys call clothes and also being a man everyday. I put on a sleeve of temporary tattoos, not because Jack has any, but because I wanted them. 

After bowling, some of us walked over to karaoke. Younbul started the night by singing Captain Jack. Jack followed him with Why by Jason Aldean. I had never heard this song, but everyone assured me it was a terrible karaoke choice and he did an equally horrendous job at it. The night continued like that, “Let’s bring Will up.’ “And next we have Jack.” “Now here’s Will.” “Up now is Jack.” Will seemed incapable of picking a song under 8 minutes, though they cut off his rendition of Freebird before the long guitar solo. Roy asked me to request a Celine song as Christina so she would sing it, which she did, at first apprehensively and then with an extreme level of commitment. I tried to request Ridin’ Solo by Jason Derulo to surprise duet Jack with, but when they didn’t have that, I just went with talk Dirty to Me. And that is how I found out that Jack knows none of the words or the rhythm to that song. Christina asked to sing remix to Ignition, but left before it came on so Alex and I took on Ignition by Kelly, as the screen said. Lucas had promised donors of a certain amount to sing a karaoke song and do a dance move of their choice, so a bunch of us got on stage and joined him in running in place to Maniac from Dirty Dancing. I cannot run in place; it’s just too much like running and too boring, so I did running-like dance moves all over the place. 

   

    
    
    
    
    
 
  

Day 34: Putting the Brakes on Oklahoma

Was awoken by an acoustic cover of Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” as sung by Hilary accompanied by Kelp on guitar as a promposal for Christina, who loves Celine and was on a couch in my room. That left only me waiting to be asked to prom, and RTK to ask me. Had a panic attack when I saw the number 97 written after the word temperature on the board in the morning. I asked Melissa if B&B had a heat policy. She answered, “don’t be a dummy. Get in the van if you need to.” This did not sound like a policy to me. I kept up the panicking. 

Meegan found me looking upset and talked to me about her strategies: don’t think about all the miles at once and force yourself to choke down at least a water bottle before the ride starts. I felt better and ready to go, but I had asked Kelp to help me with my too-tight brakes, he had loosened them too much then handed them off to JoHo to fix that, and JoHo said that they were too far gone so I shouldn’t ride. So I got in the van after all. 

The 97 turned out to be an exaggeration, or at least not yet. Instead, there was a thunderstorm. Rob, Katie S and I stopped at a gas station to set up lunch, then moved a few yards to a 1950s or so era abandoned gas station to fulfill Nick’s Instagram dreams. Katie and I got “Joe’s Gotta Have It” eggs and hash browns at Mr. Joe’s Diner across the street, and I mixed mine with kale. I mentioned dot Jack that I hand yet been asked to prom. He immediately conferred (secretly, I guess he thought) with RTK, who brought over a box of doughnuts with a card that said Jenna S. in crayon. The inside read, I Do-nut want to go to prom with anyone but you. Will you go with me? and then with checkboxes: yes, no, maybe. Every O was drawn as a doughnut, and the box held a dozen doughnuts. It was so romantic, of course I said yes. RTK said she had been searching for a doughnut place to pull the promposal off for the last few nights.

Memphis, Texas hosted us in its civic center, though we still got a tour of the 100 year old church (Presbyterian) across the lot for good measure. Went to the town pool for a short swim and shower, then JoHo worked on my brakes. Dinner was brisket, beans, corn, and crudite. Then I couldn’t find my yellow hydration backpack anywhere so Rob drove me back to the pool and we got the employees to come open it, but it wasn’t there. Stayed and talked with Rob about the trip for a while. He said we have a very fast group and I’m probably comfortable at a 14 mph pace or so, which makes me a strong biker who just got stuck with a fast group. I wish there were anyone else at my riding speed and style so I wouldn’t be an outlier. I shouldn’t have to be one, but because of the relentlessness of the schedule and the extraordinary abilities of everyone around me, somehow I’m not the average but the exception. I wonder how my summer would be going in a different group, where enough people were of a normal pace so that the faster people either had to ride alone or slow down, or if we had shorter mileage each day so the times when I get exhausted and start to stand out just wound exist. 

In the end, my bag was under someone’s bathing suit at the civic center. 

   

    
    
    
    
    
    
    
    
   

Day 33: We Ride in the Rain?!??!!

Safety Navigator day. What this means is technically this was the first day I needed to be in the van. Let that one sink in. All my van drama, all those unforgettable stories of sitting silently in the back by myself brooding, none of that would have happened if I had just followed the schedule. But the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live in the perpetually dank back row, mad to talk inaudibly over music and two rows of seats, mad to be saved from biking, desirous of everything at the same time- both biking and not biking, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing because they’re already asleep and I can’t hear them anyway, but burn, burn, burn gas like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop of another car’s lights ahead. Yes, the only people for me are van people. 
I put on my shirt for the day, the 2XL cat print tee shirt that is the right and responsibility and talisman of the SafNav aka SpongeBob SafetyPants. I love the cat shirt. I have coveted it everyday since Alex bought it in a WalMart and wondered what the people who buy that shirt in earnest for themselves are like and is there a group and can I sit in on their meetings? 
Then weather happened. As RTK said, “I don’t like weather.” Weather, in this case, was rain and wind so severe it came down sideways, drenching us under an awning. We fire lined the bikes inside, with people shouting, “hold the door!” in what was apparently a reference to an episode of Game of Thrones I haven’t seen yet. When we finished, the entrance to the church was soaked. I found an online PDF of the book Me Before You, as the reviews of the book made that version sound like an emotionally reasonably, funny, valuable read and I was down to go on that ride as well as to get some insight into the adaptation process. 
We sat around, as people checked weather radars offering conflicting predictions on when the best moment to hit the road and sneak past the storm was. “We ride in the rain,” Melissa said like a slogan, as gale force swept said rain into a cyclonic fury. 

In the meantime, the band had arrived for the contemporary service (something I learned this summer is that churches often have both traditional and contemporary services, which are hip ‘n’ fun ‘n’ have things like a rock band. I sat and watched theirs rehearse songs with karaoke style lyrics on a projector over photos of crosses. 
Melissa and I rolled out in the van before the last people biking, who were determined to wait out the water. We didn’t make it far. 3 miles in, the rain was so heavy you could hardly see out the window. It doesn’t matter how safe you’re riding on your bike if drivers are blind.

 We pulled over to a gas station and found 8 of our team already inside, huddled around a table. The owner brought out some more chairs, and we hunkered down for the duration. Kelly bought us a big bag of vinegar and salt chips, Christina got microwaveable Cinnabon chunks, and Sarah W got all dressed chips aka socialized medicine. We played the game in which you all write anything you want on scraps of paper, put them in a helmet, then go around the circle in rounds of describe the word, act out the word, and say one word, all to get your teammates to guess what the scraps of paper you pulled say. Then we started ferrying the riders past the storm so they could ride more than three total miles. The actual church people drove our church people, their bikes in the back of their ubiquitous trucks. 

We didn’t have a lunch stop because of the morning shenanigans, so my van day was unusual, but once we had returned to the gas station refuge to carry the rest to sunny roads, Melissa and I talked about life paths, comparisons with her last trip, and biking. She said our group was less cliquey and everyone seemed to really want the best for everyone else. 
At the church (United Methodist), I found a couch that fit me minus my ankles and took a two hour nap. RTK woke me and Christina up for lasagne. Then Zoe, Kayla, Roy, and I did abs for a hot second before transitioning into a dance party. I showered, redonned the cat shirt as I was eking out every moment of my 24 hours with it as possible, and accompanied Melissa to Walmart so I could apply vegetable-shaped pressure on her purchasing choices. I succeeded in lobbying for a bag of precut kale. We also picked up a replacement sparkly pink hula hoop for Sarah W. Kayla and Roy, meanwhile, apparently tried out hula hoops for the duration of our trip, then settled on mini bottles of burnt brown sugar body wash and apricot face scrub. Back at the church, I ate gluten free pretzels dipped in cookie butter because Christina had them out next to me, then went to bed but couldn’t sleep for a while. Apparently I’m not as sleep deprived as I believe myself to be if a puny nap can throw me off like that?

   
    
    
    
            
 

Day 32: Ooooooklahoma, where the head and tail winds come sweepin’ down the plains 

Rode out with Zoe and discussed meat, coops, and the ethics of dairy. Then it was time for our police escort across the Red River to cross into Oklahoma. We got into two lines and I aligned with Jack. Behind me, Melissa sang Sweet Home Oklahoma and I Believe I Can Fly. It was triumphant, transformative. Goodbye, Texas. We won’t see your stupid chipseal for a few days, at least. 
Oklahoma welcomed us with open plains, smooth roads, and a headwind. I ended up on my own, pushing through the wind until Bridget, Hilary, and Rob scooped me into their line and broke the wind for me. Then we turned a corner and my worst enemy transformed into my best friend: tailwind. 
We took photos on hay bales, Hilary making fun of us for our Connecticut interest in them (accidental CT ride!! Neither Bridget nor Rob have any particular CT pride either; I asked). I discovered that when you take jumping photos you should open your legs wider than I was initially just unafraid enough to do, and also that I might be allergic to hay as my body itched and blotched from sliding down the bale. “You look like you’re trying to be seductive,” Hilary told me as I curved my back around the hay bale Rob had just parkoured all over like a maniac to slide down safely. “Is it working?” For lunch I made the best lunch yet, a paleo friendly sandwich of guacamole and bacon on celery. 
Once in Lawton, OK, I joined a crew to walk to the mall to watch Me Before You. Christina had been plotting a chance to see it for weeks, and I found her passion to see this crappy rom dram infectious and compelling. I want to believe in something as strongly as Christina believed in the need to see this film. I also thought it’d be neat to sit down and get distracted for two hours. 
The film was pretty, and Four from Divergent was very pretty and the type of male protagonist who is handsome AND randomly wealthy AND also randomly not a dick AND interested in you, or in your movie stand in, at least. I find in real life you are probably going to get 2/4 at best, because any more and the first two will start working together to reverse the third. The author of the source novel adapted the screenplay, and you could see where character exposition and emotional buildup had been scrapped for speedy exposition. There were many, short scenes. Obviously I cried at the end. Then I walked into a metal box that was nailed at about 5’4″ up a telephone pole and got a bump on my head. Then I slammed my finger between two tables, and I really started crying. Dinner was taco salad, and Kayla asked JoHo to prom with a group dance to Jai Ho. 

I set up my conference table bed but the chairs were shaped such that there was a good amount of space in between each seat, so I had to adjust to get any essential joints and whatnot on a solid surface. Jack told me in the morning he had tried my bed creation style and found it very comfortable. This seat bed was a poor introduction. He hasn’t felt nothin’ yet. 

   
    
    
    
    
   

Day 31: Don’t Slow Down

Today I biked again, for a change. I rode with Kelly, Alessandra, and JoHo, but we were more like Animal Collective: we held a loose affiliation, but did much of our work solo. If we were One Direction, I would have been Zayn: ethnic, and the first to break away. This was spurred by JoHo, who greeted me anytime I slowed or stopped to stay with him on the side of the road or even in our shoulder, with, “don’t slow down!” So I stopped slowing down, and ended up alone for most of the day. 
Lunch 1 was in a parking lot where a biker gang of another sort was camped out as well. 

Tailwinds and actual roads (not chipseal) made for a good ride day, which we needed because we were on a 75 mph highway, which is probably illegal. I enjoyed biking alone, not only because I solitude meant I could sing The Music Man at the middle of my lungs at 40% lyric knowledge. At one point I got picked up by Melissa, Rob, Kelp, and Nick aka Nasty’s train, Rob commenting, “look who’s going 23.” 

Lunch 2 for me was bathroom (the function of one, not a real room) and water reload- I didn’t want any muscle cooling, and I’m not here to make friends. Got back on the road with Nasty, who said, “you could with going fast, Jenna? I like to go fast.” “I’ll try,” was my honest response. 

“I think you can do it. I like to believe that when people push themselves they can get there.”

 “But if you’re starting at different levels, the same amount of effort will get you to different places.” 

“Fair enough,” he said, and we reentered the highway, having each just summed up our political views. 

I was able to keep Nick at least in eyesight for a while there, my turbo flames lit by a desire to prove that softhearted progressives such as myself are not softmuscled. We even stopped at a jerky store, where Rob caught up to us and Nick got to be in his element. He prefers jerky to steak. 

Then the hills started catching up with me and stopped letting me catch up to him. I biked with Rob, self conscious about slowing him down but going how I needed to go. I love going fast; it feels amazing both physically and mentally. But it’s not a decision I get to make so much as it is the right combination of conditions, and I can’t do it forever. Yet. 

Finished off the ride with Rob, Hilary, and Kevin, who we picked up changing a flat. Our host was the YMCA. Not a Christian place for once, I thought, before I ran through that acronym again. A nominally Christian place for once! I ate a bunch of snacks and put on a temporary tattoo of a gold wristwatch whose time always reads as PARTY. Just until I order myself a new watch. 

I did a few laps in the pool but felt winded. I’m starting to seriously doubt cycling’ certification as exercise. How can it hurt so bad and not get me thinner or stronger or increase my stamina? What am I doing with my life? 

The town of Wichita Falls felt like an Americana soundstage. Adorable, rustic downtown with nothing open and no one in it. There are apparently 100,000 people there, but I don’t know where they’re hiding. Perhaps on the Air Force base. 1960s blue skyscrapers, a red brick downtown, and a diner where the founder of the Hotter’n’Hell 100 race bought out the place for us. I soon found that I was the only person to order my burger a size small. Then I headed over to a bar for a quick chat with someone named Blanche Carolyn the fifth, who is clearly the quirky friend despite being mainstream attractive. I’ve been really seeing on this trip how thin the band of acceptable behavior falls on the spectrum before you get labeled weird. If you fall off the tightrope, the difference is whether you are attractive or otherwise charming enough that others form a safety net and make fun of you to your face. If you lack that, they’ll do it behind your back. 

I was ready to leave sooner than others, so I walked myself back, going on an accidental self and google maps guided tour when Google decided to direct me to a different Y. But I made it home to sleep on my bed of two exercise room-borrowed yoga mats.