Just Keep Pedaling: A Story Of Biking 5,000 Miles Across America
I woke up before dawn in a baseball dugout in Kentucky. I had a shaved head, a scraggly beard and I was wearing really tight, stank-ass spandex shorts, the kind of shorts that could earn a few sidelong looks in coal country Kentucky. I scooped up some peanut butter from the jar with my hands, shook some Goldbond powder into my shorts, found our small trowel, went a few yards into the woods and got ready to start the day.
About a year before that, I was in my parents’ living room, watching Sex & The City with my mom and sisters when the phone rings. My mom picks up, sings hel-lllo in her always-sunny voice. There’s a pause and then my mom screams, followed by a pained denial, denial, denial and I knew something fucking terrible just happened.
My aunt (my mom’s sister) was killed in a car accident after spending a weekend at my little cousin’s summer camp. She was 41, the mother of 3 beautiful girls and a pillar of her local Jewish community in Minneapolis. Like my mom, she bubbled. She was full of innocent mischief. She called me Michael Snycle Motor-bicycle, was quick to tickle and giggle and call bullshit and her loss cast a pall over what had always been a remarkably cheerful family.
Months went by, a year went by and still the family grieved. We’re not a mopey, sad-trombone kind of family so the contrast was jarring. Ordinary conversation became harder. My mom spoke in a lower octave.
So I finally decided enough of this crap. I would create a scholarship in my aunt’s name in an effort to raise the spirits of the family. Michael Snycle would bicycle from NY to LA and rather than plead for donations, me and my friend Avi, joining me in this adventure, would inspire people to pledge a penny per mile and after 5,000 miles those pennies would add up, putting our mettle to the pedal so to speak.
The fact that neither of us cycled didn’t seem to deter us. We got entry-level road bikes, 40 foldable maps, sleeping bags, spare parts and after three weeks of doing loops a couple times per week around Central Park, our thighs began to swell considerably and we thought “dude, our legs are huge. We got this.” Guided by a general sense of direction, we set off on Houston Street, planning to go down and then make a right at Richmond, VA, left at San Francisco and then [clucking sound] straight into LA.
Maybe it was because I was 25 and at a point where I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life but when we left, I harbored this deep conviction that, due to the epic scale of the journey alone, I was, frankly, entitled to an epiphany. However it happened. We would be on an Appalachian mountaintop and cue Enya, I would realize that I was destined to work with endangered animals or in the blistering plains of Kansas I would know — BAM — that I should marry Lisa Scattareggi from homeroom in junior high. I even brought addresses of girls I may write, thinking this would happen and when it did, they, like me, would be so swept up from receiving a hand-written letter from the road that it would be so on when I got back.
Just because you put on your lucky underwear, doesn’t mean you’re actually going to get lucky. There is no forcing function for enlightenment, it turns out.
What I did learn very quickly is that biking is for masochists and that our initial loopdy-loops around the park didn’t account for the extra 60 pounds of stuff we had to saddle onto the bike Day 1 nor did we expect that drinking from streams as a way to do the trip “Lewis and Clark-style” would lead to massive diarrhea, then hospitalization for dehydration.
By week 2 our bodies began to adapt to the conditions and we upped our mileage to 100 miles a day. We also finally turned right, which made the mental game a bit easier.
Well week 4 rolls around and still no goddamned epiphany. I’m trapped on a bike, stuck with my own thoughts and Capital A America on either side of me, fields of wheat, gaseous cows, barns and churches and all I could think about were base desires like “I’m really hungry” and “once I get to that tree, I’m totally gonna rub this smudge off my glasses” and the recurring thought “I really hope this doesn’t turn into a rash”.
I think about my aunt, I think about every girlfriend I ever had and what the long-term reproductive impact would be of living on a bicycle seat for two months.
By week 5, I start to have weird thoughts. Torturous strings of random images — Grover Cleveland, cocktail sauce, the letter J, it was like there was a monkey slapping around on the keyboard of my mind, thinking he was a real funny monkey. Resisting only made it worse.
By week 6, everything just became aggravating. I’m waking up every night with leg spasms and even as the landscape became enchanting, rolling into the red rocks of Utah, it’s like ooooh another mountain. Hello Mr. Mountain. Mrs. Sunset, so good to see you again.
For the first time I even sniped at my buddy Avi and we never fought. He wanted to see if we could find a sandwich shop better than the gas station that was right in front of us for lunch and I grew furious. We ended up riding further and after lunch, when we get back on the bikes, I meticulously planned Avi’s murder in my own head and suddenly, I look at my watch, and three hours went by, the quickest of the trip, because for the first time, I had an actual train of thoughts. Thankfully the moment passed.
Week 7 we’re in California so we feel like we’re getting close. Time is running out so this epiphany was probably going to have a dramatic reveal in the third act. We’d get to LA and the mayor, a high school band and all of our friends would surprise us along with Lisa Scattariggi, my homeroom crush mouthing the words I love you.
Instead, none of this happens. We get to my friend’s house in the Hollywood Hills, which was up a driveway so steep that for the first time in our entire voyage across America, we had to walk our bikes up. We get to the door, open it and our friends are playing video games, stoned, on the couch. “Whooa, did you just bike here? That’s crazy” before turning back to the TV.
Well the scholarship ended up raising $20K and 4 low-income middle school students get the services and support they need to get into the high school of their choice.
A year later, I link up with some guys and together we build this really awesome company. I meet a girl. She rides bikes and horses! My aunts’ daughters grow up to become insanely talented girls, excelling in school and making the most out of life. Even my mom’s chipperness re-emerges. All of this took a lot of time, none of it came in a thunderclap.
Ten years later I realize that actively searching for an epiphany is like insight instant gratification. The timetable is all wrong. Sometimes just pointing yourself in the right direction and breaking down a seemingly insurmountable task into a series a winnable, incremental battles (whether it’s waiting a mile before removing a smudge from your glasses or following up, following up, following up with potential clients) may be enough, especially — to quote a mantra from the trip — if you just keep pedaling.