23: Sweat, Blood and Solitude

23: Sweat, Blood and Solitude

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive

Sweat, Blood and Solitude

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

~T. S. Eliot

“You know, there are better ways to go about this,” the hotel receptionist said as she cast a doubtful glance over my fully loaded bike. I had just told her of my plans to ride across the country by myself.

“Why don’t you take a car?” she asked, helpfully.

“I can’t. I sold mine yesterday,” I answered. I felt the panic swirl in my gut as I thought back to handing over the keys at the dealership. I had no choice but to go forward with this crazy plan now.

She trailed behind me as I pushed the heavy bike outside. As Yorktown, Virginia is one of the official trailheads for the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, I hadn’t expected to draw any attention. But I was surprised when no fewer than three people remarked on how unusual it was for a woman to attempt this alone, something I heard often throughout my trip.

A few people strolling by paused to watch as I finished my preparations. I smiled and waved at them, pushed down on my pedal… and didn’t move an inch. This was my first time riding with the extra weight of my panniers, the bags slung over my wheel. I gritted my teeth and tried again, breathing a sigh of relief when I inched forward.

I moved slowly down the road, houses and buildings gradually transitioning into woods, though the trees lining the road offered little relief against the sweltering heat. The unaccustomed weight of the panniers on the front wheels created a pronounced wobble when I went uphill, throwing me off balance. I didn’t even complete two miles before I tipped over, falling like a little kid riding a bike for the first time.

That first day, I fell three times, lost a bag in the middle of a busy intersection, and made it a whole fifteen miles into the 4,241.5-mile journey. When I sat down in my hotel room that night, all I wanted to do was call my parents and beg them to come get me.

Pushing my doubts aside, I continued the next day, and every day after that, progressing at a snail’s pace. Once or twice a day, I crossed paths with other cyclists and exchanged a few friendly words, but otherwise I was left to my own thoughts. With little else to do, I reflected on how I ended up here in the first place.

If I had to pinpoint where this idea first took root, I would say it was in Afghanistan. During my first deployment, I discovered a blog written by a man who rode his bike from Japan to London. I was fascinated by the stories he told of the people he met and the obstacles he overcame. His adventures reminded me of the vast world that existed beyond the narrow confines of the camp we lived in.

When I left the military, I found myself with a few months before school started. I was unhappy with the marked changes I had undergone in the past few years. I had become more cautious, and looked to others for confirmation before stating my opinions. Frustrated with a system that rewarded personal relationships over merit, I began doing only the bare minimum required of me. I wanted to shed this negativity, to relearn how to think for myself, and to once more rely on myself to solve my problems. And above all, I craved solitude. This seemed like the perfect solution.

This trip, however, was definitely not what I had expected. I became hopelessly lost early on, making it unlikely that I would finish in the few short months I had. To make up for lost time, I switched to a more direct route. The catch, of course, was that I had to go through West Virginia. I could have kicked myself for not paying more attention in geography class when I belatedly discovered that West Virginia is the only state located entirely in a mountain range. Coming from South Florida, where the only elevation you can train on is the speed bumps in the parking lot, mountains really suck.

As I approached that first mountain, I pulled over and looked up. I took a deep breath and began pedaling furiously up the steep incline. I made it around the first bend before I lost all momentum and came to an abrupt halt, forcing me to get off and push the bike. I trudged up the mountain, the pebbles flung by the passing vehicles stinging the raw and blistered skin on my legs. The 100-degree heat sapped my strength, and the sweat running into my eyes made it difficult to see. The duct tape I had wrapped around my feet quickly slid off, unable to stick to my damp skin, and the straps of my sandals sliced into my bloody skin.

Working from dawn to dusk, I made it up and over nine mountains in two days. Though I spent more time walking than riding, by focusing on a spot just ahead of me I could ignore my exhaustion and force my feet to keep moving. And with each new mountain, I could ride a little further before I had to get off and push. More importantly, something clicked in my head, and I was able to look at the bigger picture of my journey rather than getting swept up in the minute-to-minute misery of it.

One of the most meaningful encounters I had occurred after I had emerged from the mountains. The flat, paved roads of Ohio were a welcome relief after the pounding I took in West Virginia. The cyclists on their road bikes still zoomed past me, but I had stopped caring. One of the cyclists pulled over briefly to say, “You know, I’ve completed three Ironmans, but I could never do what you’re doing.” I looked over at him, startled, then smiled.

I don’t mean to make this sound like a fairy tale where everything worked out in the end. My journey abruptly ended in South Dakota when I quite literally got stuck in the flooded dirt roads. It was lonely, it was exhausting, and in terms of finishing what I set out to do, I failed miserably.

Despite this, I felt like I finally regained that sense of self that I had lost in the military. I found a balance between relying on myself and knowing when to ask others for help. And most importantly, I learned that no matter how tired you are, you can always ride fast up a steep hill when a dog is chasing you.

~Krystal Klumpp

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