Making a Home after 20 years

"Why did you decide to go on this trip in the first place?" Bianca asked after I told her that I was leaving the trip.

"I wanted to do it for a while. Maybe just to see if I could do it." I stood next to Bianca and Rich as she tried to  convince me not to abandon the tour.

"You know now is where the hard emotional stuff starts."

"Yes, but I am not sure if I need to prove anything to myself. I have done and accomplished a fair amount of things. I am not sure what would change if I say 'I cycled across the USA.' "

"When I did the 2,000-mile ride I grew so much stronger.  Learned so much more about me.  Grew as a human."

"That was Alaska for me.  I just don't know what else there is for me here on this trip."

 

At that moment it hit me that I had nothing to run from anymore: not from work, from myself or from my relationship.

 

There is the cathartic process of touring, exploring one's mind each day in the solitude of the passing landscape, feeling the limitation and pain of the muscles, and the daily victory celebrating the hard labor and the inner strength it took to push through the emotional and physical pain.  After my separation, touring helped me over the pain of the loss of my marriage, and my grief for having discontinued my art career.

 

The random people I would encounter were the friendly local bartenders of my soul.  Passing through and freely sharing the war stories of life, knowing they would never reach the shores of New York and impact my work and personal life.

 

What was I trying to process? 

 

I was thinking of shifting in my career a little, yet this was not an existential crisis. I did realize that I have missed building projects ever since I was assigned to more strategic work in the last couple of years.  But, that is hardly an existential crisis deserving of a three-month cycling trip.

 

Another feeling, though, has been emerging.  A feeling I remember vaguely from my teenage years when I lived in Germany.  Being homesick. I missed being at home with my boyfriend, my two cats, my friends who cheer me on even for the silliest idea, ordering a midnight sorbet because I am too lazy to go out and pick it up. I even missed the aggressive New Yorker who curses me out for no apparent reason.

 

A sneaky sentiment occurred to me: I have never felt home after I left Germany.  I have never wanted to build a home again, not even after I got married, thought of buying an apartment or tried to build my home. Until now, I never felt I belonged to a city, a country or even to a person. The violence in how I lost my home triggered a defense in me that told me not ever let a city or person be my home so I won't ever have to endure the pain of losing it again.

 

I realized I was homesick for the first time in 20 years.

 

I was looking to go home. Nothing to chase me up the hills. I finally have come to a resting point in my life.

Changing of Directions

When is a journey over? When I arrive at the destination?  Or when I found what I was looking for when I set out on a journey.


It was very hot yesterday 87 degree Fahrenheit with 80% humitidity. Only 47 unshaded miles with a mere elevation gain of 1,941 feet.One of the mildest gains throughout the entire trip so far.  We have been averaging 50 miles on  of 3,800ft gain what is a lot with even an unloaded bike. 


I ran out of water at mile 30 without a water source insight: no gas station, the random houses that appeared each other mile looked deserted for Memorial Day. The few times when I stopped, hoping to approach the front door to ask for water, a dog came running around the corner, stopped and waited for my next action. Ready to charge at me if I dared to come closer to the house door.


Slight panic spread over me knowing that heat exhaustion and collapse might become a reality if I would not secure water fast.  There sun was buring, my back blistered from the heat. I saw the heavy equipment of a coal mine in the distant.  A big wheel towering over piles of different colored coal looking like small little skyscrapers against the bright horizon. There were 4 trucks parked against the long metal offices.  The *DO NOT ENTER SIGN* was at the driveway leading down to where the trucks where parked.  I ignored, and cycled down and parked my bicycle.  Climbed into the office area and saw an open door.  I yelled: "Hello." No response.  I peeked into the door, and saw a computer turned on. Someone must be here.  There seemed to be a bathroom.  Should I sneak in and get water without permission? There was a water bowl for the dog. I stopped, looked at the water bowl, and then my bottle.


I finally sat down on the stairs leading to the office, and hoped that the unknown person was at the plant.  At one point he or she would return.  I would have just to wait in the shade and not expend more of my energy.


A few minutes passed when to coal workers came driving down from the plant throwing the loose gravel into the air and smiled at me. They asked me if I also wanted ice for my water. 


I arrived in Chester later that day with a huge headache.  Rich and Bianca where at the bar. I joined for a gin&tonic. The others were pitching tents, or reading in the *Pavillion* that was our overnight quarters and convieniently located behind the bar.


After dinner I went to shower in a moldy stall with rusty faucets. Too tired to care, yet, awake enough to realize how disgusting the shower was I carefully hanged everything hoping not to collect more disgustingness on my body.


It will always be hard for me what was the final straw: Whitney who again gave me a hard time for being the weakest rider, the heat exhaustion and knowing Missouri and Kansas will be even hotter, the shower that was disgusting or the prospect of another "fried catfish dinner" and "instant rice" as only food sources.  It might also the constant lack of quality sleep, enough rest days or rest days where I could actually rest than running nonstop errunds.

Why was I torturing myself each day? Would I have a richer life experience when I arrive in Oregon? Why did I set out on this journey? And what would it mean if I called it quits?

At the Church

A classic movie moment.  Wide angle camera pan of a white oldish looking church in a mountaineous area, church gets into focus, woman sitting in front on the stairs in cycling clothes at dusk.  A puppy comes up to her sniffing the bike and trying to jump on her. She is in tears, pedding and cuddling the puppy. He leaps on her, expecting, and she cannot help it than to hold his head in her hands and rubbing his ears.  He is licking her hands.


Leaning against the church frame in sheer exhaustion I felt like giving up. Get a taxi, flagging down a truck and just going home. Get any flight I can find and be back in my bed with my boyfriend and my cats. My legs were jello, my mind was exhausted.


I cycled the day before at dusk as well along narrow winding streets in Kentucky with a whimpsical front-light that was city but not country road appropriate. Some dogs were barking in the dark. I could not see them but they were close. Would they attack me? The evening before I was climbing a hill alone in a mountain range when it was getting dark. Once in a while a SUV would fly by me not expecting to see a cyclist at that time. 


It was again 8pm, 40 minutes before sunset. 12 miles to go.  There was no way for me to avoid again darkish roads. I called Matt if there was a hotel or motel or cab since my cell service was weak.  The data took too long to load.


"No, there is nothing." His voice sounded distant repressing his worries about me.

The puppy owner called his dog.  He had a truck, yet, I did not had the courage to ask him for a lift.

"You should probably get going." Matt gently nudged me.

Holding my phone, standing up on my wobbly legs, I looked at the hill that I had to climb before leaving the town where the church was.

My mind wandered. Could I sleep in front of the church?  Would or could I be arrested for that?  I could catch up in the morning with the group. It sounded so tempting.  They had grass.  I could just throw my sleeping bag down.


"Nathalie? How many more miles?" Matt brought me back.  I knew he would not be ok with me sleeping in front of the church and be worried all night.


I pulled myself together.

"I am gonne get going."

"Yup"

"Love you!"

"Me,too."


After the hill, the road winded down slowly over the next 12 miles until I arrived at the camp. A beautiful spot at a lake. Almost everyone was about to go to bed. Rich and Terri were still up and welcomed me to the camp showing me where they left some food for me.


I was home and safe for the night.

Jawbreakers

"The van-supported tour is a week behind us!  I can imagine a short trip being van supported, but three months! No way! Lightweight road bikes? Racing ahead?" Bianca shook her head in disdain, pivoting away from the exhilarating view of the Break Park mountains from our lodge balcony, seeking the warm shelter of the room.

The night before, my co-cyclists were sleeping outside in a city park in 30-degree temperatures with a continuous rain making it cold and clammy.  That same night I was overheating in my king-sized lodge bed, waking up with a heat-infused headache, after arriving the evening before with my malfunctioning bike.  The chain and spokes were jammed into the bike's cassette and weren't able to be turned.

Sitting outside, soaking in the misty view over the mountains, where the night rain changed to a mist and random downpours, I watched Bianca and thought quietly that a van-supported ride sounded amazing. Nothing to carry while just flying down the roads? I wondered how much more the van-supported tour would cost.

Bianca turned around and sat down next to me on a chair while I was squatting on the floor.

"So, what's the plan?" 

"I found a car in Pikeville with Enterprise Rent-A-Car.  Still sorting out how to get there.  I think my options are to hitch hike or try to fix my bike and make it a fixie.  Also, it's embarrassing to have a fixie. I would be a hipster."

"Would it be a fixie or would you have a single speed?"

"I don't know. I will have one gear." I shrugged my shoulders.  The correct term seemed benign. "As long as I can cycle the 20-30 miles with my bike to get a car."

"Won't they pick you up?"

"Nope. I called them, begged them, explained the situation.  The answer was 'they will check.' " 

She looked at me.  Her deep blue eyes searching for more details.

I shrugged my shoulders.

" I did not hear back from the thousands of calls I made! The front desk woman told me that the park rangers might be able to drive me.  But she never got back to me."

I spent most of my day on the tablet and phone trying to find a way to get from Breaks to Pikeville, Kentucky to pick up the rental. I talked to the representatives at the Pikeville Enterprise, who sent me to Norton because that office is closer than Pikeville. 

The Norton representative was like one of those Jawbreaker candies: the outside is real sweet, but it breaks your jaws. He would pick me up from anywhere even with his own car, but Pikeville was closer.  I asked him if he would be so kind as to call the Pikeville representatives to explain that to them.  After 5 minutes he called me back and was very apologetic. He said Norton was about a 1.5-hour drive away and as much as he would love to pick me up he really couldn't. Pikeville never called.  In the end, the 1-800 USA Enterprise made the reservation in Pikeville.

I asked the front desk clerk at the Break Interstate Park Cabins if she knew of any way I could make it to Pikeville or Justiceville, where Enterprise was willing to pick me up from. 

"Oh that is just terrible! Did you ask the car rental place to pick you up?" the elderly front desk woman said with a saddened and concerned expression.

"Yeah, no, they are not willing to go that far."

"Well, dont you worry about the other rooms.  You can stay where you are and I will call you when the rooms for your group are ready.  I can also ask the park rangers if any of them go in that direction.  You know, at times they need to get out there to pick up stuff."

"That would be great if you could ask. I would appreciate it. Could you let me know either way?"

"Sure!"

"Can I give you my cell number?"

Six hours later I still had not heard from her.

At 3 p.m., I stopped by the front desk where another younger receptionist welcomed me. 

"Would you know the status regarding the park rangers?"

She looked at me with a smile but seemed slightly confused.

"I talked to the previous receptionist about my situation...." 

Her smile seemed to be glued to her face as well as her confused expression.  I retold her my story and situation. That's when her smile turned into a concerned expression.

"She told me a lot, and I wished she would have told me about that! Let me text her and ask her! She might be driving and it will be a while before she will get back to me."

I stopped by at 4 p.m. only to learn that no, none of the park rangers could drive me. And yes, the rooms were ready a few hours ago.

"So far the plan is to bike with my fixie to Justiceville, which is about 20 miles away. The route seems pretty flat with an elevation gain of just 1,200 feet. I'll get them to pick me up from there, come back here, pick up the rest of my stuff and then head to Lexington," I explained to Bianca after a while.

"Isn't Paul coming with you to Lexington? Couldn't he pick up the car? His bike is functional!"

"I have not asked him yet.  He has different options to get there.  I wanted to discuss it with him after dinner."

Paul heard his name while he was cooking our group dinner over the small camp stoves on one of our balconies.

"Yes, I am going with you to Lexington. I can pick up the car."

Bonk

I sat at the side of a winding country road. My bike, Jamie, was standing beside me loaded with 50-pound panniers. Tears were welling up.  I was just 24 miles in and had 20 more to go. Sweat was forming on my skin and slowly rolling down on my neck from the humidity. Thunder was rolling in the back.

I was texting with Matt, my boyfriend, trying to find a way out of my misery. My legs just gave out and I had no energy left. My patience ran out with the hills, the heat, the bicycle, the broken spokes, the chain falling off the gear and the bee that was buzzing next to me.

I felt like nothing could have saved the situation and made it better in this moment. I hated being here.  Why did I decide to go on this tour? Maybe I have become too much of a city person! I could be sitting at home in a nice, cold air conditioned office dealing with Goldman Sachs and the strategy for the one of their products. I could just lose myself with finding better and more flexible ways to optimize the consumer experience. Instead, I am here - smelly, dirty and with legs that weren't worth a shit.

A car stopped; and a woman looked at me with concern. By then, I had enough wits to locate a taxi service to pick me up. The warm voice of the dispatcher told me it would take 45 minutes since the driver was 20 miles away over the big hill.  I told the the woman in the car that.  She handed me a coke, and said I should at least have something to drink.

My phone rings: "Ma'am, your taxi called and told me it should be there in 5 minutes.  Just before the storm, he said."

"Oh, thanks! Good timing," I said.

"Yes, that is what the driver said as well," she replied.

Before he arrived, big quarter-sized hail came down on me.  The rain followed, gushing dow from the sky and soaking me within seconds.  I left my bike, running across the street to hide underneath some tall growing brush. They were not big enough to cover me. I shivered.

Finally, I saw a big car driving slowly. I waved and he stopped. It was my cab. The driver called to me to get inside the cab and wait out the storm. Relieved, I climbed into the warm, soft and cushioned backseat. I looked up at the car roof and watched how small rain drops escaped like coffee of a drip machine.

I arrived at Christanburg around 4 p.m. Everyone else had already arrived. I felt defeated.

Notes from Virgina, the state with never-ending rain

May 11, 2016

The hills seem never to end: sweeping 29-plus miles down only to crawl back up. My quads sting in the first 50 yards.  Little sharp pains attacking my quads like a nest of bees that were just cut off a tree. I bite my lip, knowing this familiar sensation. After 50 yards the quads turn into jello, and I lose control of them.  I try to keep the balance of my heavy handlebar, hoping sensation will return to my quads. After another few wobbly yards, they give in and accept the climb.  With each push up, the sensation becomes a routine, until I am on the top of the hill.  Now, the bee swarm returns and all my leg muscles scream out. I peddle fast in my lowest gear to get rid of the built-up lactic acid that is causing all the pain.

I pass over another bridge, past green pastures where horses and cows are happily grazing. The fields are covered with yellow dandelions. A perfect picture to hang in the hallway of an apartment or house. I keep cycling over train tracks, past a deserted house where the peeling paint has turned from a shade of white to a mud brown.  The door and windows are missing. A broken chair and trash is left on the porch as a reminder of its past life.  Another 4 miles, another set of tracks dividing a small town with maybe 30 houses on both sides of the tracks.  Trailers and small houses fill both sides. The inhabitants of the town try to keep a happy appearance, but the poverty is hard to hide. The small houses tell their own stories with their backyards, proximity to the tracks, and abandoned cars for sale in the front yard. The countless churches may try to lift the spirits.  I wonder about the per capita church ratio.

Food is sparse and full of nothing but sheer processed carbs. Wonderbread, Hershey ice cream, Gatorade and sugar-loaded cereals line the aisles of the supermarket and my dinner plate. We were offered sugary baked beans.  I was hungry and ate it. Missing deep down my pasta from Whole Foods with fresh tomatoes and a little bit of olive oil. Remembering all the food documentaries I realize how hard it must to escape unhealthy eating habits. It becomes clear to me what a luxurious life I am living in my Manhattan bubble. I have the freedom to choose from an endless array of any kind of food at any time.  It is expensive, but available.

I always heard southerners were "real nice" compared to Yankees. I saw plenty of Confederate flags on the doors of many homes, proudly waiving in the wind as they welcomed me in.  It gives me a few cold chills, and I peddle a bit faster.  Many homes are marked with big signs declaring that "This is Private Property" and "Do Not Trespass." The creek next to one such property runs freely and continuously, making turns where it has for years. I wonder what would happen if I cross this border.

The woman in the FedEx authorized store in Lexington gave me a bit of the cold shoulder when I asked for help with my shipment. She refused to sell me a box or give me a ground shipment label unless I used her services.  I am wondering if it would be cheaper for me to send it via FedEx 3-day service than to deal with her attitude.  Is she giving everyone this attitude or just me? The other group members said that everyone was really nice to them. Am I dealing with racism here? Am I this unwanted person here and the only reason she does not shoo me away is because of my money? I go to the store next door to change.  I ask the woman in the beauty parlor if I can use her restroom that is labeled "For customer's only."  I offer her money to use it and she says no, flipping her magazine page.

I guess this is "Welcome to the South."