The Bike Trip

The Bike Trip

From Chicken Soup for Every Mom's Soul

The Bike Trip

My mother’s life was one huge story, and a major chapter was “the bike trip.” In 1956, my mother, June, rode a three-speed Schwinn from New York City to California, not because she wanted to be a wild girl, not because she wanted to prove anything, but because she wanted to see the Pacific Ocean.

As a child, I’d sit on my mother’s lap and say, “Tell me the stories.”

And she’d start with the beginning: about how she couldn’t afford a plane ticket or a train ticket to see the country, so she decided to ride her bike. About her girlfriends thinking she was crazy; girls didn’t do those things; it was unsafe. About convincing a Girl Scouting friend, Teri Foster, to ride across with her. “We didn’t really think we’d do it, riding bicycles across the country! But then Schwinn sponsored us, and then the Today Show heard about us, and then we had to. It was a lark, really, something to make my friends laugh, and now here we were, two girls on bicycles wanting to ride to California.”

“What did you have to pack?” I said, leaning back into her.

“I didn’t know what I’d need, so I brought along a little of everything.” And she’d describe how she packed a bathing suit, cocktail dress, high heels, pearls, some shorts and shirts, red lipstick and a Bible. “A bathing suit for hot days, an old wool sweater for cold and always my saddle shoes because they were the best. They held up in the heat, stayed warm in the rain and still looked nice at the end of the day.”

She still has them.

“But why’d you bring a cocktail dress and high heels?” I asked, and this would always make her laugh, make her pull out red lipstick from her shirt pocket and smear it on her lips.

“Back then, you couldn’t go out to eat in shorts or sandals. You dressed for dinner, and we were invited out quite often. By cowboys, businessmen, but usually preachers from the local churches. We were celebrities.”

There was no talk about fear or worries about the unknown. She simply got on her bike and rode. She didn’t have an itinerary, no specific route, other than pointing her bike west and riding.

“They didn’t have motel chains back then, so we just asked farmers or preachers, mayors or policemen if we could sleep in city parks, front yards or barns.” The towns they passed through called them “celebrity girl cyclists” and they were given keys to cities, parades and new tires. “Sometimes we got to sleep in an extra bedroom of a kind person, but usually we requested camping under the stars. We had our sleeping bags and always made a campfire. We invited anyone who passed by to sing Girl Scout songs with us.”

She sang in hoedowns in Colorado, and was a chambermaid in the Grand Canyon “when money got low. I didn’t have a credit card, and there were no ATMs back then for money.” And she talked about the West being some place dyed in red and rock, with sunsets that held the sky.

My favorite part was watching her face when she talked about California. “We finally got there; we were set up on blind dates. Guess who my date ended up being?” she’d always ask, and I’d always answer loudly, “Dad!” They were married three months later.

I came along six years after that.

And always, I craved being inside her stories. I wished to run my fingers over the edges of the Rockies, along the glowing yellow fields of Iowa, wished to splash inside the ponds of New England under stars. I wanted to touch her life, know her inside this special place she called her “adventure of a lifetime.”

As I grew older, I stopped sitting on my mother’s lap, listening to the old stories of her three-speed, her bicycle bell, the steak and Manhattan dinners in her cocktail dress, that ride across the country. I had other things on my mind, places to go, people to see and didn’t have time to listen to her past. I moved away from home after college and traveled in my Chevy Malibu, this lime green dream of a car that held six and went fast, always on the highway. I had my life, or so I thought, until trips back home were filled with worries: Dad with another stroke, Mom counting her blood pressure pills, organizing doctor visits and falling asleep in her old rocking chair, the one that held us together when I was a child. I’d go into the garage where her dusty bike leaned and ring its rusty bell, the old flag still hung lopsided from the handlebars.

On one trip, I found her journal, and I sat with the deteriorating pages, closing my eyes after reading her descriptions of sunsets, early morning hill climbs, cowboys wrangling broncos, aspen trees in fall, how she rode each hill with a friend in mind. And I became her journey. I was the celebrity girl cyclist in her words. I held that journal tightly in my hands and decided then that I needed to go. I would ride my bike across the country.

But no one wanted to go. Friends, coworkers, cousins shook their heads at me, called me loony. “Take a car!” “You’ll be run off the road!” “Why do you want to waste time doing that?” they said. It took me three years to find someone to go with me. I met Brian at my brother’s house, this man with curly hair and green eyes who played a guitar and had a dream to ride across the country on a bicycle. When I found out he knew bike maintenance, we had to get married. We started our life together making plans not for children but for bike routes, bike gears, tires and high-performance Lycra. It was all so very romantic.

In 1996, Brian and I started off on our trip, packed for fifty-five days of riding on 24-speed Schwinns. We’d trained for months up mountains in Utah, up and down elevations that would leave us spent and excited at the same time. We didn’t know if we’d have our jobs when we got back from the trip, we had nothing saved in the bank, we had mortgage and college loans to pay for, but it didn’t matter. We had credit cards. We were ready to go.

Mom was there for the first day of our trip. Of course she had comments.

“Why are you wearing all that rubber stuff?” Mom asked. “I didn’t wear that when I went. ”We were standing in Rockefeller Plaza after our appearance on the Today Show with Bryant Gumbel, for our send-off. People walked past us in suits and heels, staring at us in bike shorts and helmets. Mom was coiffed like I’d never seen her before, her usual green eyeshadow and red lipstick replaced by sculpted pink cheeks and lined eyes, hair blown up and over her forehead.

“I told you before Mom. It wicks the sweat away. It’s Lycra.”

“So wear your bathing suit. I did.”

“I don’t want to wear a bathing suit.”

“You’re going to fall off your bike with those shoes.”

“They click on and off. I’ve practiced.”

“They frighten me.”

“Lots of things frighten you.”

“Like now. This,” she waved her hand around at the bustling city of New York. “The world has changed from when I went.”

“We’ll be careful,” I said. “We’re staying in motels every night.”

“I camped. Why aren’t you camping? Just ask a nice policeman to guard you in a city park.”

We stared at each other, her lined face to my expectant one, and then we laughed with her holding the handlebars. The day was like us, brilliant blue and then blown clouds, and I see how love can be between mother and daughter—this confusing place between rain and sun that often goes unnoticed until it’s there in your face.

“I love you,” I said, hoping she didn’t think that I was canceling out her comments.

“I love you more.”

“I’ll call you.”

“Every night.” Her eyes were hard, and I knew then as I know now that she sits by the phone sometimes waiting for me to call.

“Absolutely.”

And we were off, in a blaze of tears and blessings and thrown rice from a passerby as if it were a honeymoon we were going on instead of a cross-country ride.

As we rode, there were times when I wanted to give up: in the humidity of the East, my eyes covered in sweat; when the wind in Nebraska blew me straight across the road; through food poisoning and 130-mile days; a blizzard in Colorado and men throwing empty beer bottles against our bike frames. But I didn’t. I’d see her face, fragility balanced out with spunk and spice, and keep pedaling on. I couldn’t give up or give in because I was her girl; I’d heard the bike trip stories so many times that they were inside my veins, running in and out of my heart, these stories a heartbeat that pounded me over the Poconos, across the fields and plains, up the Rockies, the Sierra Nevadas to the Pacific Ocean. These stories were whispered urgings, prayers uttered in my mother’s name to finish, keep at it. I could do it, and would do it.

San Francisco Bay was beautiful on our last leg of the trip, sailboats careening past the bridges, the city in the haze of an indigo sky. The fact that my mother was singing “She’ll be comin’ round the mountain” at the top of her lungs did not deter us as we dipped tires into the Pacific Ocean. As Brian went up to the boardwalk to drink celebratory wine, Mom and I stared out past the breakers to the sun dipping toward the sea.

“It’s all just beginning, isn’t it?” she asked. And I didn’t know if she was talking about my life or our lives together, this new shared story of time. I didn’t want to ask because to me, it didn’t matter.

“We did it,” I said.

“We sure did.” And I knew she was talking about us, mother and daughter. I realized that life is not about accomplishing or finishing but experiencing moments like these and holding them close—my mother’s hand in mine, her long gaze over my face as if wanting to memorize me, and the waves rolling over us and up the beach, leaving our feet covered in sand.

I hope my six-year-old daughter finds a road. It might not be along her grandmother’s route of 1956. It could take her away from the back roads Brian and I took in 1996, and in fact, maybe she will want her own path apart from ours. But the important thing is the journey, the adventure, a favorite story you want to repeat aloud at night over and over again until it threads itself, a colorful quilt of love, around her heart.

Peggy Newland

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