It’s 6am on a rainy June morning in 2017, and the air is full of whiskey.
I’m riding my bike into the small town of Bardstown, in the western part of Kentucky. I’m 3,350 miles into the Trans America Bike Race, day 16 in a row of pedaling over 220 miles per day of back roads through middle America.
There are still 800 miles left, but the end is coming into sight. In Bardstown, the bourbon distilleries on the outskirts of town rise up like a drunken empire.
I feel a little drunk myself, though not from the bourbon. I slept in a rural ditch last night, scared out of my hovel in the pre-dawn by some creepers in a car rolling by at slow speeds and stopping to walk around just above my head. I’ve already been riding for more than three hours.
I roll my bike into the McDonalds, hungry, and set about my regular routine – I order a passel of Egg McMuffins, then plug electronics into every available outlet, all the while wondering vaguely what the other customers think of me but not having the energy to care.
I visit the black-tiled bathroom to check on saddle sores and cold sores. I briefly consider a nap on the cold floor.
As I eat, I check my phone – typically a welcome and soothing distraction from the relentless pedaling, mental fatigue and constant problem solving. This morning, there’s a message from Nathan Jones, the race director.
“We’ve just confirmed that rider Eric Fishbein was struck and killed last night on Highway 96 in West Kansas. We are terribly saddened and our thoughts are with his family at this time…”
My Egg McMuffin freezes in the air.
There’s more, but I quit reading. Time has just stopped, I’m sure of it. I look outside. The rain still falls outside the window.
I call my husband Jimmy. I tell him maybe I should come home. After a moment of quiet, he tells me to hang up, get on my bike, and keep riding. “It’s the only thing you can do,” he says.
Something about what he says feels true, but I don’t know whether to believe it. I suddenly just don’t know, period. Geographically, I know I’m somewhere in rural Kentucky, but the sense of free-fall is outside of time and place.
I get back on my bike, numb as I turn the pedals out of town. I feel irresponsible and ashamed to be riding. I feel irresponsible and ashamed to feel irresponsible and ashamed. This isn’t about me. Or is it?
Either way, here I am. Some things are the same. I’m following the route. My Garmin beeps before each turn. The occasional car rolls by. The rain falls and stops, falls and stops.
A few hours go by. In Harrodsburg, I break at a convenience store and stare blankly at the same dusty apple pies and Saltine crackers I’ve been looking at every day for over two weeks. I sit at a table, covered by a plastic tablecloth decorated with cherries. Then I go outside to my bike.
I’m stuffing Hostess cupcakes into my bike bags when a car speeds in next to the gas tanks and an enthusiastic dot watcher bounds out.
He tells me he lives in town and has been tracking the race. He has two young daughters and they have been following me online every day. He says they are excited I’m beating almost all of the boys. He says they made poster board signs for me and hung them up in town.
He hasn’t heard about Eric yet, and I don’t have the heart to tell him. I also don’t tell him that I’ve decided that all of this – this bike-riding game, this inspiring of youngsters, this petty finish line – doesn’t mean anything anymore.
As he leaves, he says, “Thank you for what you’re doing. I want my girls to see what they can be someday, too.”
I keep pedaling, because I have to get out, and this bike is what I have. It pours rain all afternoon. Later, next to a big field ringed in with a split-rail wood fence, I throw myself on the ground and cry. I don’t even bother taking my helmet off. My whole heart spills out, in grief and exhaustion and the terror of not knowing anything for sure.
It’s a frivolous and dangerous game we have been playing. I won, and Eric lost.
I keep riding, still. The next day I get bitten by a stray Pit Bull outside a mobile home and then am doted over by a stranger who takes me to get a rabies shot at an emergency clinic over the next hill. I go in with no shoes, covered in dirt and some blood. The nurses treat me gently, masking their disgust at my smell and appearance, and bring me juice.
While I’m waiting in the exam room, Lael Wilcox calls from Alaska. She is calling to say she knows I was trying to break her record and that I am so close. She wants to tell me I can still do it.
You’re doing so great, she says. I want you to beat the record.
I laugh a little and say at this point I don’t care.
Just get some ice cream and ride, she says. You’ve got this.
The stranger drives me back to the course, tells me to get a Red Bull and sends me on my way again.
Life shifts a little again, then. My heart is still raw, and my legs – the right one heavily bandaged now – are still only moving out of inertia. But kindness has reminded me that I inhabit the land of the living – at least for now. And that tenderness emerges in the strangest of places.
In the next two days, through eastern Kentucky and the mountains of Virginia, I see beautiful, wild things. My emotions stay so close to the surface; it’s scary how easily I cry, but also freeing how readily I feel. It’s like my heart has no skin to protect it. I break into tears at a sunrise near the border with Tennessee. I howl out loud with maniacal laughter at my own jokes.
The grief is still there but mingled with joy. None of it is permanent, but all of it is real.
I reach the finish in Yorktown 800 miles later. Even arriving there, to a crowd of friends and strangers with coolers and lawn chairs – with a memorial to Eric on the steps of the finish-line monument – I don’t know whether carrying on was the right thing to do. But I do know that it has changed me as a person.
And maybe this journey wasn’t less important than I thought. Maybe it was more.
It’s nearly three years later, and the coronavirus pandemic is here. I’m at home, like many others, and getting a bike ride in when I can.
The things that felt so important three weeks ago have changed. They have shifted and settled into the background, fading into a dusky light. Maybe they will come to visit me again, maybe not. Perhaps they are less important, perhaps more.
And while the circumstances are different, this feeling of raw emotions and the impermanence of free fall feels familiar, like those last few days of the 2017 Trans America Bike Race.
When I wake up in the morning, my heart feels like it did in Bardstown – grief-stricken, afraid, a little drunk. There is anger too, at our collective failure as human beings to protect one another. And the lurking terror of not knowing what is to come or how to go on.
But amid despair and what feels like a reordering of the universe, kindness comes these days too. This time it’s in a wave from the neighbor across the street standing alone in his garden, people buying toilet paper for strangers who can’t risk going outside.
Laughing feels so good, even better than usual. People don’t hug, but they say I love you more easily.
There’s beauty too, as the sun still sets throwing little tails of light out around the clouds.
The sun comes up and goes down, just like the pedals do, and the earth continues to turn.