Seven days ago I woke up 300 miles from where I now sit to my alarm buzzing in my ear. I rolled over and groaned, slapping the alarm for a few extra minutes of sleep. After a few moments, however, I opened my eyes with a jolt. Today I was leaving for South America on my bicycle.
This is a journey that I have been dreaming of for years, planning for months, and which tipped into a stark reality as I pedaled from my father's driveway with my two companions. My family's poorly concealed tears created a lump in my throat that balanced the excitement welling inside of me as I struggled to grasp the adventures that lay ahead. This excitement, a cool breeze, and a blue sky carried me 60 miles through the gentle green hills of eastern Kansas until I pedaled into Lawrence.
In Lawrence, I strummed my guitar while we relaxed in a park and brainstormed where we would sleep that night. Before long a man approached me. He smiled as he offered me a cigarette, revealing a mouth half full of yellowed teeth. His face was kind, but his hard eyes spoke of many cold nights sleeping on benches with an empty stomach. We began conversing, and before long this man was offering advice on safe places where we could pitch our tents to avoid both the police and the vagrants.
As the man walked away into the approaching evening, I was struck by the reality of my undertaking. It seemed incredible. By the simple act of rolling from my driveway on a bicycle packed with my belongings, I had been instantly transformed from a successful university student into a character capable of eliciting sympathy from the homeless. The perspectives that I will be able to obtain on this adventure seem as limitless as the adventure itself.
Luckily, we did not need to rely on the homeless man's advice. With the help of a local friend, we were able to find a commune of mostly college students who graciously allowed us to lay our sleeping bags on their patio for night. We awoke in the middle of the night choking on smoke as the house across the alley burned down, but other than that the night passed uneventfully.
The next three days challenged us with 20 to 30 mph headwinds which quickly conditioned the stamina of both our muscles and our will. Biking into such a headwind takes almost twice the energy to cover half the distance, and we found ourselves struggling solidly for seven hours to complete a mere 50 or 60 miles.
Luckily, we stumbled upon a bicycle path which was mostly shielded by trees and which carried us a good portion of the distance through Kansas.
One evening, camping beside this path during a tranquil crimson twilight, a rusty old truck rumbled through the cornfields towards our tents. A farmer hailed us over, warning us that we should find shelter, for a severe storm with hail and 60 mph winds was predicted to blow through in the night. We thanked him, but as he drove off we decided that this would be a perfect opportunity to test our tents, which will have to endure many storms.
The next morning, observing the storm front retreating to the west was like observing the departure of a god.
The rest of the journey to Tulsa was characterized by wonderful people and strong winds. My brother, stranded far from any bicycle shop with a broken spoke, was rescued by a kind cyclist who picked him up in a truck and repaired the wheel without accepting payment of any kind. That night, we were housed by an inspiring couple who offered us soft beds, warm showers, and much needed food. This couple takes in cyclists from all over the world who pass through their town as they explore the United States, and the kindness and calories fueled our muscles as we continued South the next day.
A few days later my brother's spoke broke beyond repair, and I came across him lounging at a gas station holding a cardboard sign reading "Bike Broke. Need Ride To Tulsa". He waved his thumb at me and laughed as I approached, him lounging on a corner with his brown hair past his shoulders and me dripping in sweat with my bicycle loaded like a pack mule. On a journey like this, such problems are most easily solved with a light heart and a good laugh. Becoming emotionally tied to issues simply makes life hectic, so we do what we can and accept what can't be helped. Hours later I saw him zooming by in a truck with a bearded man in a star-spangled bandana on his way to Tulsa. Problem solved.
Vasili and I pedaled on. We met a mechanic who has over two dozens guns buried in different locations and is collecting body armor in preparation for an imminent civil war. We met an old man who told us of his grandfather who lived in a hole in a hill when Oklahoma was being settled. We were cheered by the cashiers at a grocery store in a tiny town. Vasili prepared a feast of rice, beans, and lentils as I swam in a cool lake, and we stealthily camped in an abandoned lot in a residential neighborhood.
Entering Tulsa, we were reunited with my brother at a city park. His bicycle was fixed, so we leisurely cycled towards our couch surfing host. We rolled through the wide downtown avenues. Imposing stone skyscrapers built by 20th century oil tycoons cast shadows that broke the afternoon heat. That evening we were treated to excellent live jazz at a hole-in-the-wall bar.
Today is a rest day. I've been perusing the city, losing myself as I explore cavernous stone churches and unique cafes. Again, I was touched by a the kindness of a stranger as a bistra treated me to free coffee and a large bag of cookies for the road.
Tonight we are accepting the hospitality of a Warmshowers host. Tomorrow, with our muscles rebuilt stronger than ever, we bicycle on towards Texas. Soon we will be camping in the desert. Soon we will be terrorizing my cousins in Dallas. Soon we will be entering Mexico. Life remains rich, exciting, and ambiguous.
See you in Dallas.
Jay: for going far out of his way to help my brother
Sharon and Bill: for the meal, shower, and bed
Doug and Susan: for shelter, jazz, and breakfast in Tulsa
The Bistra: for much needed caffeine and cookies
And every other kind person we have encountered