"One reason for making such a journey is to experience the mystery of unknown places, but another, perhaps more important, reason is to take yourself out of your 'context' -- home, job, and friends. Travel is its own reward, but traveling among strangers can show you as much about yourself as it does about them."
Neil Peart from The Masked Rider
"The grass and our bikes were white with frost. Our aluminum pots had frozen to the board they were resting on, and the water in each of our bottles was a solid chunk, as was our carton of milk. Larry tapped the rain fly of the tent with his hand, and the sheet of ice that encased it shattered and slid off onto the ground. We worked for fifteen minutes coaxing our stove to life. Since my fingers refused to flex in the cold, I wore my mittens while I cooked and ate breakfast. Afterward, Larry filled one of our pots with the chunks of ice from our water bottles and warmed it on the stove to wash the dishes in. As the frost began to evaporate in the sunshine, a fog rose off the ground and obscured the grass and trees around us.
When we started cycling we had a tough time grasping our handlebars, shifting the levers, and pushing the pedals. We cycled for two hours before the stiffness finally went away. For the next month and a half, until we got to Georgia, a frost would greet us almost every morning, and at times the walls of our tent would be frozen stiff by seven o'clock in the evening."
Barbara Savage from Miles from Nowhere
There were many unknowns when I signed on with America by Bicycle for this journey.
And, there were many things about the trip that I chose not to investigate in advance because I feared it would lessen my determination to participate.
Throughout the trip, many, many hours were spent discussing our journey's operation among the participants -- customer relations, procedures, routes, cost, etc.
When these discussions would surface, each rider's review had its own color, but overall, the themes aired were similar.
From the get go it was apparent that ABB was old school in its approach to customer relations, and perhaps, cautious in the wording in their materials. In the ABB rider kit, the opening paragraph says, "We are certain you will find this to be one of the most memorable experiences of your lifetime." This is the closest thing to any mention of their responsibility for customer satisfaction contained within the entire kit. If you read the sentence again, this actually makes no statement of their commitment to our satisfaction. If need be, the sentence could be interpreted that they were certain that our experience would be one of the most memorable due to its horrendousness.
The rest of the kit is almost entirely devoted to restrictions.
In its What To Expect section, we are given a get-real admonishment, "The fantasy of crossing the country on a bicycle and the reality of doing it are two different things. But you can be sure of one thing; it will be something you remember for the rest of your life. It's not all fun and games and some days can be real work. Don't think the whole ride will be sunshine on tree lined rural roads with no traffic and birds singing as you pedal along and let your mind wander."
Further, this sentence in that section, that I'll expound on later, is very important, "You should also expect to ride in places that you might not normally ride like highways and busy city streets."
And, this language says it all about what ABB sees as their roll in the experience; they need no improvement, it's the participant's responsibility to tweak their lenses in order for it to be satisfactory, "The attitude you bring to the ride will go a long way in helping you reach your goals and getting along with fellow riders and staff. It's all about choice... if you choose to have a good time, then nothing can spoil your adventure. What you make of the trip is up to you. [...] Cases in point, we've seen people who embraced the philosophy, 'Your worst day on a bicycle is better than your best day at the office.' Whether it's raining, sleeting, sunny, got a flat or whatever; nothing seemed to keep them from smiling and being pleasant around everyone. Their attitude was, 'What a great day we have to ride, I'm free to do what I want.' [...] If you are the type of person who has trouble getting along with others and tend to be upset at the little things that come along, you should seriously reconsider this adventure. But if you like and adventure, a challenge, meeting great people, making great friends, and can be flexible when things get a little wacky, then you're the kind of person who will cherish an adventure like this."
Then, the paragraph here that follows the above is what I held on to when I committed myself to the trip:
"Now that you have something to contemplate, here's some of the great stuff you'll get to experience. You'll have days like you've never imagined. You'll have days when you get to the destination and you feel like you need to go back and do it all again just because you are elated from the day. The victory of climbing an 11,000 foot pass and the screaming descent down the other side, the thrill of riding all day in a 20 MPH tailwind, a personal best on a century day, the feeling you get when all your senses are overloaded with the beauty of the day and scenery, the awe you experience when you imagine your forefathers doing this in a covered wagon just a short century ago are all wonderful experiences you'll take from a ride like this. Even the tough days of riding into a headwind all day or dodging thunderstorms will make the group come together as the stories start to fly about everyone's day. That's the benefit of riding with a group. You will get energy, inspiration, and motivation from the group on days when you feel you are just too tired to go on. We've experienced so many great days, and great people while riding cross-country no matter what adverse conditions seem to come along, it's always been well worth the effort to be there."
I am thankful to state that a reasonable percentage of my experiences with ABB agree with the above paragraph.
Yet, I would be really hard pressed to recommend ABB to anyone I know that would be interested in bicycling across country.
First of all, the kit's efforts to greatly lower one's expectations is rather clear cut, yet no realistic expectation is set for bicycling on Interstate highways. This is very important because from what I can gather, 95% of the country doesn't allow bicyclists on its Interstates. Why would I, someone who has never seen a bicyclist on an Interstate in my entire life, think that when they said we'd be on 'highways' that it included Interstates? I estimate that we were on Interstates for 800 miles! That's nearly 1/4 of the entire mileage traveled!
I'm certainly no expert on designing cross-country routes, however, I spoke with two bicyclists in Colorado who had crossed Nevada as part of their personal cross-country journeys that said they were never on Interstates.
Yet, I can see why ABB put us through that. It's to their advantage, and I suppose ours to a small degree, because staying on an Interstate for 100 miles in a day makes their jobs that much easier. Riders can't get lost. Incidents are apt to be witnessed. They have moderate grades. It's cheaper on gas. Although, it couldn't have been easier from a puncture standpoint. Also, it's clear that it was probably one of the quickest ways across.
Even so, my grotesque experience on many of those Interstate days had nothing to do with my attitude. 12-mile stretches on rumble strips? Unacceptable.
Meanwhile, it was difficult not to assume that because our rider participation was modest that we were branded a trip needing the lowest amount of overhead possible.
In reading the Barbara Savage excerpt above, it's clear that our tour was completely luxurious compared to the rigors of camping outdoors every night.
So, ABB might feel comforted making that comparison for the tour they delivered, but I bit my tongue most of the time. The rider kit states, "We stay only at AAA rated motels." This isn't saying much at all when you're staying next to the Interstate in Battle Mountain, NV, or Pueblo, CO. The standards are so low there that the rating is on a sliding scale. The ABB profit model (and I'm sure many other tour companies) appears based on staying in locations where most people wouldn't. Salt Lake City was a decent destination, but not when you're on your bike staying by the airport. I didn't want to ride my bike on my rest day -- my saddle sores demanded that. Taking the bus downtown was a major expenditure of time. The staff recommended that riders hire a car. These are examples of off-loading expenses back on to the customer.
It was difficult to hear stories of other tour companies who purportedly charged less and that offered elevated services: bike sawhorses, cooked-to-order sag meals, laminated cue sheets with legible maps, shuttle service, luggage delivered to your room, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Cumulatively, these wait a minute observations grate on you. For instance, telling us that we could do what we want is somewhat a half truth. They have all the power.
By the end of the tour I was loathe to give the all-OK signal to the sag vans. No biggie, right? Biggie or not, it's one of many regiments that lead to my contempt. You live by their schedule for everything. Sure, you can go off schedule anytime you'd like, but it's likely to be at your expense. It's an arrangement of authority that felt very institutional.
At one point I had clipped one foot in on Otis to roll on my bike 15 feet to where the floor pumps were, without wearing a helmet. Mike Munk saws this and fired off a, "Upp upp upp upp upp!!" On the one hand you can respect the apparent concern for safety, but not when ABB has put you on roads prohibited for bicycles in 95% of the country, and not when it's in the form of a public, seemingly (mildly) sadistic form of humiliation.
All of this flies in the face of a freewill mindset...
Which leads me to the Yin of the ABB Yang.
There's no denying that ABB got us across the country, after all. Maybe its because they approach it so much like a regulatory body.
They exemplified control, consistency, and reliability -- all wholly virtuous.
Barbara coordinated hotels and meals with the main office almost 100% snag-free -- impressive.
Mike Munk presented the best mechanical service I think he had in him.
He also was rather good about giving pertinent pointers about each route - fortunately this was something I largely didn't require because of my GPS.
Karen and Deb were professional about their roles in the mix.
So, while other companies might be organizationally sub par (for shame), ABB is straightforward and successful in their delivery mechanism.
The other Yin I experienced comes standard with any group venture. I became close with people I didn't expect to. It's funny, Darrell and I were the last ones to check in on the first day, so maybe we were destined to connect. However, I thought Darrell was a bit standoffish that day, so whaddaya know?! The same was true of Jen and Monica. I thought for sure that Monica really didn't like me, and I just thought Jen was quiet. I didn't know what to make of Clarence or Johnny, the Alabamans. I came to care very strongly for both.
One segment rider, Dan, told me that he thought I was a snob - that one day when I was passing him he said hello to me and I ignored him, which I had absolutely no recollection of.
By the end, pretty much all of us that started in Burlingame, CA formed a loyal affection for one another. Not that there weren't avoidance efforts between some of us, but it was definitely minimal.
I suppose it goes without saying that I sorely missed Laura for the duration of her absence. Like a little kid, I hoped she would find a way to show up in Manchester to ride with us to the finish...
Since I've had a lot of group experiences in the past, I know that the urge to consider these relationships as forever is very unlikely. If it happens, it will be a rich bonus.
I hope Darrell will have me out to Lake Tahoe sometime!! =)
I'm going to pester Laura to ride together sometime. We're almost next-door neighbors.
Really, it would be grand to ride with any of them again in the future. The experiential bond is a powerful one, even if it is inevitably overpowered by the return to everyday life.
So, there it is. I've realized a chief want in my life. I'm having a ticker tape parade in my own Private Idaho. =)
While I expect to post some reintegration entries in the coming weeks, I'd still like to express my deep appreciation for everyone who figuratively came along for the ride. You showed me love in a way that I cannot repay. George and Gary, Deane and Teddy, Nanci and Family, Jane, Lynne and Family, Tracey and Michael, Lauren Evans and Family, Jaime and Deb, Txomin, Bonnie, Joyce, Kerry, Neil, Amy, Haley, Lauren Hartley and Family, Mom -- you were such an enormous help and cheering section to me -- and contributors to Doctors Without Borders. (Please forgive me for anyone I didn't include!!)
My management at EMC needs a big mention. I know Bill had to survive pretty much solo for two months which is somewhat insane. Not that he can't handle it, but it's so not preferable. None of this would have been possible if it weren't for his remarkable enabling efforts, and for that matter, his management's sanction. Also, Bonnie Bryce for working with me on my aerobics classes (mucho thanks to Lauren Evans, Holly, and Tina on that front too).
And, extra special thanks go to MJ whose June and July became unhitched from our lives' regular trailer. He had to endure the "I could never be without my partner for that long" discourse, as well as a continuous barrage of questions about my trip. I love you MJ.
Each of us
A cell of awareness
Imperfect and incomplete
With uncertain ends
On a fortune hunt that's far too fleet
You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose freewill