99: Transferring by Bicycle

99: Transferring by Bicycle

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

Transferring by Bicycle

Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.

~Maria Robinson

The whole college application process made me so nervous that I made it as simple as possible and applied to one place, early decision. By December of my senior year, I was thrilled to be going to a school for smart people in upstate New York. Their winters were cold and long and by the time the sky cleared we’d be packing our bags for summer. I didn’t think weather would be that important. I wasn’t concerned that the town was so small that the main attractions were the Conoco station, Bluebird’s restaurant and Sidney’s Hardware. Without a car or a need for a screwdriver, I figured leaving campus would be a rare event. Besides, I was looking forward to the excitement of fraternity parties, shyly talking to guys who would likely scare me.

My sister and brother had gone to colleges on the West Coast and came home glowing. I chose to stay on the East Coast and by Thanksgiving, I came home groaning. I did make close friends, but even dear friends couldn’t lighten the load of long hours reading French novels and writing uninteresting term papers — taking breaks to run on cold, icy sidewalks.

I had always turned to exercise when things were upsetting me, and a good bike ride often seemed to help. So after surviving one very long year, I decided to take one very long ride and pedal my way across the country. I researched the possibilities and found there was a bike route crossing the U.S. on back roads designed to teach you history as you rode. I signed up to join a group of sixteen strangers who over eighty days would pedal from Lightfoot, Virginia to Reedsport, Oregon. My family thought being a camp counselor might be a better option. I disagreed.

So one hot, sticky morning, at a Virginia campground, I met my group for the first time, all of us ranging in age from sixteen to sixty. We traveled roughly sixty miles a day, carrying a sleeping bag and panniers of light clothing. We always had a roof over our heads in the form of churches, elementary schools, and community centers.

We ate breakfast and dinner at old time cafes with pies under glass covers decorating the counter. We rose early, learning our individual routines as the days passed along with the states. We’d cycle in twos and threes, matching personality and pedaling speed. I chose 26-year-old Robyn, blond and freckled studying to be a horse vet and we adopted 16-year-old Scott from Alabama.

The three of us watched out for each other. Often we were victims of both weather and terrain. The Virginia Ozarks and Kentucky Appalachians greeted us early on. The roads weren’t switchbacks, but often just straight up. Coal trucks chugged up, coming dangerously close, treating us like annoying flies. Thinking about the ride one day at a time helped in the beginning. We just had to make it to the evening meal, which was often grilled cheese and sweet fruit pie with a dollop of whipped cream.

Kansas blew in after Missouri. The headwinds pushed against us as we inched from one corn stalk to the next. I both loved and hated the challenge. But somehow the simplicity of sun and sweat was actually a cool breeze compared to the treacherous first year of college. For ten weeks, I was on one beautiful bike ride.

Windy Kansas flatlands soon rolled into the Colorado mountains and a blue water sky that kept me looking up. My New York childhood sky was lower and heavier. I breathed differently out west. I had more air at a higher altitude. We were empowered as we flew down mountain passes, smiling recklessly.

Cyclists traveling west to east would alert us about life ahead and we’d do the same for them — where to find hot showers, where to find the cookie lady passing out Snickerdoodles, and take a left to swim in a clear lake. Every ten days we had a rest day where we bought little boxes of detergent to wash our sweaty shorts and T-shirts so they felt brand new. We took naps and went bowling.

Wyoming, Montana and Idaho escorted us into Oregon where we started pedaling more slowly. Our last day of pedaling went late into the night. We stopped in a redwood forest, lounging against our bikes, using them like pillows — their comfort and security had taken us so far. We told each other bedtime stories created from our free wheeling journey. It was like we were mourning before dawn. We talked about returning to our lives as engineers, students, teachers and artists. Like seashells picked up on a vacation beach, I wanted to pocket the joy and simplicity of feeling the wind at my back every day.

Although I’d traveled thousands of miles, the distance covered on the inside felt just as far. Finally, I was old enough to realize that sometimes it is more important to do what we want than what we should. I knew I needed to live under a wide-open sky, far enough away from family to feel the freedom of my own personal choices. I wanted a big school, to get lost enough to find my own way, and I wanted to live in a town that was alive. I didn’t want to read stories in French. I wanted to write my own stories in English. And so it was, I transferred colleges by bicycle and graduated from the University of Colorado. The wide-open blue sky is a daily reminder that the “decision” to go the long way took me to a better place. And “deciding” to arrive somewhere “early” is often just too early to know for sure.

~Priscilla Dann-Courtney

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