We were told later that when we hit the ground, it only made one sound—a single, dense thud representing two bodies being taking down simultaneously. I didn’t hear a noise when it happened. I was too shocked to find myself no longer upright. Only a second before, I had been straddling my bike, squinting through the rain as I look forward down the road ahead of me. Now I was laying on a set of railroad tracks in an industrial area of downtown Baltimore, wearing a black trash bag like an oversized, awkward, and useless raincoat. I was soaking wet and miserable.
Before I tried to get up, first by rolling my back and then trying to get my left leg out from under my bike, I looked over to see that my twin sister, Erin, was also on the ground, in the same predicament. Instead of having pushed off from our standing positions, leading a group of twenty-five other riders, all exhausted and drenched, she too was horizontal, her shoes still in the cages attached to her pedals, her hands still on her handlebars, as though she was in motion. We were three days into a twelve-day charity ride up the East Coast, and I was ready to give up.
It wasn’t the first time that getting my bike tire stuck in tracks had caused me to go down suddenly—I lived in New Orleans for six months right after college, and it happened frequently on my commutes to and from work. I waited tables at restaurant in French Quarter and lived in Mid-City, so I crossed the streetcar tracks in the middle of Canal Street on my bike at least twice a day, once on the way to work, and then again on my way home when my shift ended. Crossing the tracks always made my heart race. No matter how often I did it, it made me nervous every time, as though the sight of the tracks tricked my brain into forgetting how to control my bike. I would look down so I could be sure I had my front tire turned at the right angle to avoid getting caught in the track, but often I would still come crashing down, my palms and knees scrapping the concrete, my skin and blood left behind, my body sprawled out. During one particularly bad wreck, my bike kept going after I hit the ground, ghost-riding down Canal without me. I looked up, the wind knocked out of my chest, my bloody palms too soft to push my body up, my legs unable to chase my rusty old mountain bike through traffic. I watched it longingly as it slowly began to wobble, destined to fall without me there to pedal it, a danger to itself and to oncoming cars. I felt worse for my bike than own body as I watched it come to a stop, and fall over, defeated, longer able to carry on without me.
Even though I was used to crashing, on that particularly gloomy day in Maryland, I felt more discouraged than ever that my mode of transportation was failing me. Moments earlier, Erin and I had stopped to look at the soggy map she carried in her hip pack so we could figure out how to navigate our fellow riders to the warehouse where we were staying that night. They were all depending on Erin—she had been the one to organize the trip. I tried to be helpful (even though Erin was usually the one to rescue me), but I couldn’t focus enough to offer anything useful. I was tired. It hadn’t stopped raining since we left northern Virginia that morning. It had been a long, exhausting day of dodging potholes filled with dirty rain water only to get splashed moments later by passing cars which never seemed to give any of us enough room on the road, no matter how big the shoulder. I desperately wanted was to get out of my spandex shorts and to no longer feel my bike seat rubbing sore spots around my crotch. I didn’t want to feel the grip tape on my handlebars that I had clenched all day, white knuckled, while I grinded my teeth and ducked my eyes from the rain and the wind. We were less than half a mile away from a roof, and a dry floor where I could change my clothes and take off my wet shoes and throw away my trash bag outfit. Only half a mile from putting our bikes away for the evening and forgetting about how hard the day had been. Instead of pedaling towards our refuge, I was laying in gravel wondering what the hell I was doing on this bike ride in the first place.
Just as soon as Erin and I hit the ground, some of the other riders hopped off their bikes and came over to help us get up. I don’t remember whom exactly. It’s not because I was embarrassed that I didn’t pay attention to who slide my bike out from under me and who grabbed by arms to pull me to my feet. My hip and shoulder were more bruised than my ego from the fall, but I don’t recall who assisted me because I was too busy thinking about how pissed I was. Only a few days into our two-week trip, it didn’t make sense to me anymore why I was doing it. I had no money—I should have been working instead bike riding and camping and sleeping on the floors of stranger’s homes along the East Coast. I wasn’t a necessary part of the trip. I didn’t have a special role or responsibility. I wasn’t in charge, and I didn’t help with planning. The only difference between me and the other riders was that I was more connected to the reason for the ride than anyone else other than my sister. We were riding our bikes from Richmond, Virginia to Brooklyn, New York because our mother had breast cancer.
When my mom told my sister and I that she had cancer, I was a little drunk. Actually, I was a lot drunk. It was July, and we were in a hotel room in Boston, Massachusetts. My mom, my dad, and my sister and I had just gotten back from a family friend’s wedding not far from the city. The wedding was held the backyard of a classic New England home, surrounded by woods, and we spent most of the day sitting at a table, underneath a huge white tent, chatting together, not interacting much with the other guests. We didn’t know anyone else other than the bride and her family, neighbors of ours growing up that my parents were close to, who had moved away when Erin and I, and our older brother, Justin, were still in elementary school.
It was a perfect summer day for an outdoor wedding – not overly hot, a light breeze moving the air. The sun made the whites of the tent and the tablecloths and the porcelain dishes sparkle; the glassware shimmered as guest’s hands moved up and down. As we sat eating and drinking, we talked about what Erin and I would be doing with our summer. We didn’t have much to tell my parents that was new—we saw them often enough to keep them up to date with what was going on in our lives. Erin and I lived in Richmond, Virginia, where we had both just graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in May. Our mom and dad lived just two hours away in Virginia Beach, in a home that we had moved into when Erin and I were in middle school. A popular destination for summer beach goers, when our family moved from a small interstate stop of a town in North Carolina, Virginia Beach felt like a big change for us. We had moved around quite a bit growing up, but my parents settled in Virginia Beach, enjoying how close they were to the ocean, and finally escaping the small towns monotony.
Since we had moved out of their home after high school, when we were 17 and started to become more independent, both Erin and I enjoyed our parents’ company more and more. We were 21 years old and finally had begun to see our parents a little more like equals, and started seeing ourselves as less of children.
I’d ended up at VCU because I hadn’t been accepted to any other colleges that I applied to, even though I had not been a bad student. Out-of-state tuition costs were not an option for our family, and so the few public universities that I did apply to probably saw that I didn’t participate in activities in school—I didn’t play sports, or join clubs—and that made it seem as though I wasn’t particularly ambitious, which wasn’t far from the truth. I wasn’t lazy, but I certainly didn’t stand out on paper.
I didn’t think about what I was going to do after high school while I was in high school—it was just getting out and being on my own that mattered to me. All through high school I worked odd jobs around Virginia Beach, each offering its own brand of humiliation. One summer I set up beach chairs and umbrellas for tourists at the oceanfront. Naturally pale, I would often get sun poisoning, and once even threw up on the boardwalk, right in front of a family trying to enjoy their vacation. I worked at a pizza restaurant as a hostess, a non-stop embarrassment of a position, because I was required to give each customer who entered a lei, draping it around their neck and welcoming them to the disgusting dining experience they were about to have. Easily 50 times a shift, after each mandatory greeting, an adult man would say the exact same comment to me: “I just got leied,” fully aware of how young I was in my ill-fitting Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. The summer I turned 16, I worked at Marina pumping gas for boats. I spent most mornings sleeping in a closet in a shack next to the dock where no one could find me. For three years after school let out for the day, I worked as a barista in a café where, if a customer was rude to me, I would intentionally make their drinks wrong. I always felt vindicated watching their anger escalate, even though the end result was having to remake the drink, which meant double work for me and nothing more than confirmation for them that all teenagers are in fact idiots.
Erin and I had great friends growing up, but most were at least a year or two older than us, so by the time our junior and senior year came around, we didn’t have many people left to hang out with. This sense of being left behind made us long for the world outside of ours even more. By the time I was accepted to college, the only decision I had made was to major in Political Science, because nothing else sounding interesting. I hadn’t bothered to talk to anyone—my parents or a guidance counselor or friends or other family—about what I might want to do in my life. All the mattered was that Erin and I were going to a new place, and I couldn’t wait to be on my own.
My dad dropped the two of us off at our first apartment in Richmond, in early August, just a week before school started. He only stayed long enough to unload the car. As he left, he said, “I am never moving your stuff again,” and he walked out the door. He meant it. He and my mom were in their mid-forties, our brother had moved out three years prior, and they were looking forward to being empty nesters now that Erin and I were out of the house. I didn’t blame them. My worked hard his whole life to give us what we needed, scrimping to afford to live in neighborhoods with the best public schools. Now it was time for us to figure it out for ourselves. It was a push into the deep end from our dad, and Erin and I were already good swimmers.
When we met our parents in Boston that summer, I had no plans for what I would do now that college had ended. For four years I had been educated by excellent professors. I’d spent a summer abroad in Mexico, traveled the United States with friends, and I still didn’t have any clue what I wanted to do. It wasn’t much different than when I had finished high school, except this time, it was more intentional. I had actually planned on doing nothing. I had made up my mind before I graduated that I would continue to wait tables or bartend, or deliver greasy food, jobs that I already had while in college. I made the decision to not pursue a job in my field, or try to volunteer, or get an internship to gain work experience. Instead, I would just get a third or fourth job working in restaurants, and wait and see what happened next. In my underdeveloped, 21-year-old brain, this was a good plan. I really thought that is what you did when you finished college—you just waited for what the world put in front of you, very casually, because of course someone wanted to hire you eventually.
I also thought that I needed a break after years of working mediocrely hard to receive one single undergraduate degree, while not participating in any other school activities—just as I had done in high school. My big accomplishment deserved some time off from thinking or having a schedule to follow.
Erin was on break from pharmacy school, and since it was easy to take time off from my restaurant jobs, we’d decided to do some traveling over the summer. When our parents invited us to join them for the wedding, we planned on driving to meet them, and make a longer vacation out of it. On our way up, we had stopped to visit friends in Philadelphia, as well as in New York.
The wedding ended in late afternoon before the sun set and dusk swept in. When we got back to our hotel, my mom invited us into her room before we went to bed for the night. I didn’t think anything of it. Maybe she wanted to have one more glass of wine before the night was over, or just spend a little more time with us before we would all be leaving to go back home the next morning.
Erin and I sat down on the couch while our mom paced in front of us. My Our dad was seated in a chair in the corner. I didn’t even have a chance to think that something felt off with them, that they were about to tell us bad news, before my mom blurted out forcefully, and fast, “I have breast cancer.” I started bawling, before having even given her a chance to explain her diagnosis or ask what treatment would be like, or to even find out how she was feeling. I couldn’t believe that my mind and my body could react so quickly to anything—she had barely finished her sentence and I was a sobbing mess of snot and hot tears, like a panicky infant. This reaction was exactly what my mom was afraid of. She wasn’t worried about herself or what would happen to her, or scared that her life would be taken from her. Since she had found out her diagnosis, she said she couldn’t stop thinking about how she was going to tell her adult children that she had cancer.
My mom had always been like this. At times growing up, I thought she was intentionally withheld important information about family with us. In reality, she only shared what she had to, because she didn’t want to worry us. She kept things from us until she had all the information, and then only told us what we needed to know—just the facts. When one of our cats died, having fallen off the back porch and not landing on its feet, we only found out after my mom discovered it and my dad had time to bury it. I still don’t know where in the yard he put that cat, because my mom didn’t tell me until hours later that it was gone. She came to my room to tell me before Erin, and as she walked down the hallway to my sister’s room, I heard her swearing under her breath, because she hated how much it hurt us to hear that an animal that we never helped her take care of had passed. Later, after I had moved away, when my great-grandmother past away, when my aunt died, when both of my grandfathers passed, it was a phone call, very matter-of-fact, explaining what had happened and what the plan of action would be. There was always a touch of sympathy in my mom’s voice, but only for me, not for herself. She saw her job as a mother to take away any concern in the world from her children, and she took it very seriously.
When she told me and Erin about the cancer, she cried too, but I think it was only because Erin and I were crying so intensely, like blubbering babies. When we finally calmed down enough for her to have a chance to explain more about her situation, the first thing she said—so thought out and intentional--was that she was lucky. Her doctor had caught the cancer early, and she had options, which, she reminded us, many women did not. Through her many doctors’ appointments over the last several months, which we had known nothing about, she sat next to women in waiting rooms that were not going to survive. In her matter-of-fact manner she made the statement that was intended on making us feel better, to protect us as adults, as she had done so often when we were children. She didn’t feel upset – and it was comforting. She wasn’t going show weakness, and we stopped crying. Her telling us that, such a selfless thing to say in the moment – which was expected of her because everything that she was doing was selfless. She was schedule for surgery in just a few short weeks, and then chemotherapy treatments would start immediately and last for a few months. She told us she wasn’t even going to lose her hair.
After that night, none of us talked about her cancer again. The next morning, we ate breakfast together breakfast, and then Erin and I left, as though the conversation the night before had not happened. We returned home, making the drive from Massachusetts to Virginia in one day. As we drove our seemingly endless course down interstate 95, not once did not talk about our parents, or our fears, or what our lives might be like without our mom, or what our dad would do if he was alone without his wife of 30 years.
My mother’s surgery date came quickly. I drove from Richmond to her house the day she went to the hospital. My dad had taken her in, and by the time I arrived, they were both home, my mom sitting on the couch, looking exactly the same as when I had seen her last, except she had a small square of gauze on her chest where an incision had been made. Other than that, I couldn’t tell that anything had even happened to her. Her surgery had been successful, and now the hardest part for her was taking it easy while she recovered. As the day went on, I could tell she couldn’t stand sitting still. She wanted to get up and move around, answer the phone, and get back to work. She was a realtor, and the job never stopped. She hated having to take any time off from her clients.
I stayed with her and my dad for three days. I wasn’t helpful in any real way other than keeping my mom company around the house. Looking back on it, it seems my feelings in those first days after my mother’s surgery should have been extreme relief. I should have felt relieved that her surgery went well, that she was OK and that she didn’t look sick or even tired. I should have been grateful for the fact that I didn’t need to worry about her any longer and that it had only been a few weeks of concern between knowing about her cancer and her having the lump in her breast removed. I should have felt lucky, like my mom had told us we should feel, that we didn’t have to worry a moment longer, that we could all get back to our before-cancer lives.
But I didn’t feel those things. At least not then. Because then, I hadn’t lost anyone to cancer, or even known anyone that had had cancer. I hadn’t yet watched anyone get really sick from it, and I hadn’t felt that anger, frustration, and fear that would come with every new diagnosis I heard about after that first one. I hadn’t yet gotten a phone call from a friend to tell me they had cancer, I hadn’t yet been to a funeral of someone my own age who died from cancer, or that of parents of my friends, or spouses of co-workers. Lung cancer, colon cancer, esophageal cancer, skin cancer, tumors in your brain, tumors on your spine. I have been to so many funerals now. Back then, I didn’t know just how fortunate our family was, because there would be no funeral for my mom. She would survive. I didn’t feel grateful because then this was the only type of cancer I knew—the one that comes and goes quickly and doesn’t seem to leave a trace. The one that rarely exists. The one that hasn’t come into my life again since.
Several months later, in early winter, I moved to New Orleans. It was before Hurricane Katrina. I went to a coffee shop by my house one day, and the barista, a girl named Stevie Ray, who I knew only a little, told me she was heading to New Orleans to get out of town for a while, or maybe forever. On impulse, I told her I would go with her. More than just accompanying her to Louisiana, I also told her I would take us, in my car, and find us a place to stay. My close friend Anna was from Louisiana, and she could put me in touch with people she knew that would hopefully lead to a room for us in someone’s house.
Leaving so suddenly seemed strange to my family, but it wasn’t for me. After the excitement and freedom of the summer, I’d passed a calm, mild fall in Richmond. My wait-and-see lifestyle didn’t seem as much fun anymore. The weather had turned cold, and daily bike rides through the city and weekend games of pick-up basketball were over for now. My friends were busy, my sister was still in school. The days were short, and I didn’t have anything to fill them other than working my monotonous jobs. I was bored and growing more depressed by the day. It had only been six months, and already I needed an escape.
Stevie Ray and I made a plan to leave before Christmas to drive to New Orleans and find a place to live, and then return to Virginia to for the holidays. Anna gave the number of a friend who lived in a warehouse with eight other people, and he agreed to meet me. If we got along well, then there was the possibility of being asked to move into an open room. Erin and I lived together at the time—I gave her only a few weeks’ notice, promising I would pay the rent if she didn’t find someone to move into my room, taking full advantage of her generosity, knowing I had no money to actually keep that promise. She was patient with me, and my lack of consideration for her in my decision making. She understood that I was antsy to get out and do something new, and she bared the burden of my poor planning with no complaint. It would be one of dozens of times in the months and years to come when Erin would bail me out, and help me when I needed help the most.
I almost didn’t get out of town at all that winter. One night, a few weeks before Stevie Ray and I were supposed to drive south, my car was stolen while I was delivering Chinese food to an apartment complex across from one of the most expensive hotels in downtown Richmond. I’d just left the building and was walking back to my car, when I saw it moving away from me an out of the parking lot. I stood for a minute and watched in disbelief, pondering over how my car could be moving without me in it. An hour later, I was getting a ride home from a city police officer. He told me that although the car was being reported stolen, it wouldn’t be a priority, and therefore not be on the “hot sheet,” since it wasn’t related to another crime. Stealing my car was too innocent a crime to matter, and it wasn’t likely it would be found. I appreciated his honesty, but still went home crushed and humiliated to have to tell my friends I might not be leaving town anymore.
The next afternoon, I received a call from my bank. A man had tried to cash a check he had supposedly received from me, and the teller thought it seemed suspicious. She informed me she had gone ahead and cashed the check for the “paint job” this man did for me, but then decided to call me to let me know she thought something about it was weird. The phone call upset me for two reasons. The first was that I had already called the bank the night before to tell them my car, my purse, my wallet, and my checkbook had all been stolen; she should have never given him money out of my account in the first place. But what I was more furious about was the fact that the bank where the guy cashed the check was only two blocks away from where he stole my car. He never left the crime scene!
As soon as I hung up the phone, I got on my bike and rode toward the hotel where I had last seen my car as it was driven away without me in it. Before I even got to the parking lot, I spotted my car, parallel parked on the street, neatly and legally, only five blocks away from where it had been the night before. I slammed on my brakes, and jumped off my bike, throwing it down on the sidewalk. From the outside, the car looked fine, with no signs of damage. I tried the driver’s side door - unlocked. I sat down inside and looked around, my eyes shifting for clues that the thief had left. Everything looked normal. Down on the ground, near my feet, my keys sat on the floorboard. I picked them up and tried to start the car. Only the clicking noise of a dead battery came out of the ignition. I reached for the switch for the headlights, finding it on, the reason for the drained battery. Before I got out, I looked around a little closer. My bag was gone along with my CD books, but the car was fine, and I wondered if I really had seen a stranger driving away from me the night before, a shadow in the driver’s seat.
I got out of the car and walked into a hair salon, the closest business and asked if I could use the phone. I called my friend Ward. He was the only person I knew that owned his own business—a local independent bookstore—and could possibly leave for a minute in the middle of the day to help me. He answered, and within ten minutes he was there to jump-start my car. From Ward’s phone, I called the officer that had given me a ride home less than 24 hours earlier, and told him I had found my car. He was stunned. I jokingly told him he could stop looking for it now that I found it, knowing full well there was no search underway. Less than an hour after I had gotten the call from my bank, it was over. I put my bike in my car, and drove home. It all felt like a sign that I was making the right decision to get out of town. One week later, I left.
New Orleans was magical from the moment we arrived. We got along with everyone at the warehouse and were invited to stay for as long as we liked. I felt like we had scored so big. For 85 dollars a month, Stevie Ray and I shared room, making my rent only a little more than $40. I would be able to work less in Louisiana than I had been working in Virginia, giving me more free time to enjoy getting to know my new, insane, gorgeous home. My energy was renewed. Though it was January, it was not cold enough to keep us indoors, and there were so many new territories to explore – Uptown, Audubon, the Garden District, Tulane, the Bayou, and the West Bank.
The warehouse was a three-story a former paper factory that had been converted into a living space many years before. Bedrooms had been created on the second floor with old wooden doors and scrap wood, salvaged from other old buildings or found discarded throughout the city. All of my roommates were lively, wildly different people who were incredibly welcoming and funny and willing to show me the tricks for living cheap and getting things for free in New Orleans. They showed me where live music was happening away from the tourists who wandered on and off Bourbon St. We played basketball together, all eight girls and boys, at two in the morning, rode bikes to the river to drink whiskey, and had potlucks with our neighbors. From time to time bands would play at the warehouse, and there was an endless rotating group of travelers coming in and out. The warehouse had a free library and a communal kitchen, and our roommate, Bryce, DJed at local clubs and would get us in on nights when ladies drank for free. We would go out dancing until 4 a.m., spilling out into the street, still full of energy for our bike ride home. One night during Mardi Gras, I came into the kitchen to find my roommates filling water balloons with paint in preparation for delivering them to a certain pop-country stereotype who was leading a parade that was to end at the Superdome. I went with them to the parade a few hours later, and from a distance, watched as the balloons hit the backboard of the float and the small awning above the singer, splashing down red, white, and blue paint on him while thousands of parade goers looked on, probably assuming it was part of his act. The next day I heard he left town, canceling a concert, aware that it was not fans of his that sprayed him with our national colors.
It was in New Orleans that I learned to work on my bike for the first time. I had always been too intimidated to try it. I didn’t know any women who worked on bikes, and I never felt comfortable asking anyone, especially men, to teach me. But at the warehouse there were always plenty of tools laying around in our large communal workspace. Essentially a long, enclosed driveway, with two large sliding doors on either side, the space was mainly used for bike storage and collecting treasures—used Mardi Gras costumes, and scrap metal. Old metal signs lined the walls. Stashed in among the other bikes, a two-seater decorated in blue felt waited patiently for its next trip around town. Attached to the front of it was attached a huge blue cat head. I would pick up friends from the bus station on that cat bike, its ears flopping in the breeze, the reaction to my mode of transportation always different – sometimes the cat and I were met with looks of excitement, but more often looks of exhaustion, the idea of having peddled after already taking a long bike ride being exhausting.
I used my free time to teach myself as much as I could about working on my own bike. I would loosen the bolts on my front and back wheels, pull them out of the dropouts, and use a tire wrench to remove the tire, pull the tube out, deflate the tube, and then inflate it just enough to put it back in the tube before returning the tire to the wheel. Sometimes I’d patch old tubes that were lying around just to make sure I knew exactly how to use the rubber patch and the glue properly, blowing gently on the tube so the glue would dry a little before placing the patch on top and then pressing it together with my palms for two or three minutes to ensure it was secure. It made me feel so confident, so empowered to be able to work on my own bike, like I was capable, like I didn’t look to someone else for help or guidance, something I didn’t feel very often. I felt useful.
New Orleans was perfect for six months. Then that spring, Erin called me and told me she had been organizing a bike ride to New York City to raise money for Virginia Breast Cancer Foundation to honor our mother nearly a year after she had announced her cancer diagnosis to us. I knew it was time to go back home. I wasn’t surprised that Erin had been working on something big. She was good at organizing events. The fall before she and Anna had built a haunted house in our basement and hundreds of people showed up to walk though the maze of black trash bags and neon strob lights. Strangers showed up from outside of Richmond, somehow hearing about it, and people would talk about it for years after as being an inspiration for their own projects.
Erin explained to me that the ride would take place that summer, and I told her I would be back in plenty of time. Once again, I prepared to leave on short notice. My roommates were kind about me leaving and not at all concerned about making up the loss in rent they wouldn’t be getting from me each month. A few weeks after I got the call from Erin, I packed my belongings into the back seat of my Nissan Sentra and left New Orleans for good.
Before I returned to Richmond, I drove to Austin to meet a friend, a boy that I cared about then but never again after, so we could spend some time in Mexico, somewhere he had never visited before. From Texas we drove to the border, crossing over by bus and spending three weeks traveling around, sometimes hitchhiking in the back of pick-up trucks with families more than willing to pick us up with no questions. We stayed on couches of people we had only just met, and I never felt unsafe. The opposite actually—everyone we met took care of us intensely, offering their homes, and food, and beer, and company. Mostly it was young kids like us that we met, in their early 20s, who would bring us back to their parents’ homes. We were ragged and unkempt, dressed in black with worn sneakers on our feet, but we were never judged by anyone we encountered. Mexico was blissful, but also the last time I traveled like that, with so little worry that came with being young and it being a different time. The world is not the same anymore, and neither am I. When we returned to the United States, I drove 24 hours from Austin to Richmond, and arrived on a bright April afternoon, homeless, with only the clothes in my car.
Erin had found me a room to rent only three blocks away from where she lived in one of the many older neighborhoods in Richmond called Oregon Hill, close to the James River. By the time I got back from New Orleans and Mexico, Erin had the better part of her plan for the bike trip in place, and it was impressive. I was in awe of how much she had done in the six months I was gone. She had done more than just plan a bike trip – she had started a non-profit organization while I was away, and she had already begun raising money. Instead of relying on the riders to raise funds individually, she would do the fundraising herself and let the bike trip be more of a reward at the end. Her method to collect donations was simple and effective. She printed t-shirts that said SPOKES, the name of her new non-profit, a biking related endeavor that’s purpose would be to raise money for other foundations. She set up a folding table at the medical college campus where she attended school, and wearing a SPOKES shirt herself, she talked She set up a folding table and sold bright pink shirts at the hospital next to the medical college campus where she attended school. Naturally outgoing, Erin drew the attention of anyone that walked by – it’s hard to miss her. Her smile is radiant, and her kind eyes and laugh always drew people in.
In just a few short months, Erin had sold hundreds of t-shirts - no one she spoke to about the bike trip hesitated to buy one when they were told where the proceeds were going, and what the end goal was. Many people donated to her without even taking a shirt. Her pitch was straight forward, and being naturally persuasive largerly in part to abundance of energy and enthusiam– she quickly explained to passing medical students, doctors, and nurses that once the spring semester was over, she and a group of dedicated, athletic, professional, and focused athletes would ride their bikes from Virginia to New York, with stops in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia.
Most of this was true. All of the money was going to support breast cancer research, of course. What was not exactly true was the part about the experiences riders. Although Erin did have people signed up for the trip, she didn’t really know if anyone that agreed to ride would be particularly athletic, or even the least bit trained for long distance bike riding. Some of the people that Erin spoke with that were interested in riding didn’t even own a bicycle when they agreed to join her. Others admitted to having not been on a bike for many years, or, like myself, mentioned that they had never ridden more than a few miles at a time. It felt safe to assume that everyone Erin spoke with had at least been on a bicycle in their life. But so have most 6-year-olds, and they shouldn’t be riding across five states.
A few months before the trip, Erin and Anna, who had been helping with planning, drove the distance from Richmond to New York on the back roads that would make up the route. Erin wanted to make sure she felt confident leading such a big group—this was before smart phones and GPS could tell you where to go. After driving the route, she made a booklet for each rider with hand-drawn maps, showing them the route distance and where we would be stopping for breaks along the way. Her diligence and persicous, her attention to detail was amazing, but not suprising. Erin was always focused, and rarely seemed tired, or complained about much. It was why she was good in school and able to focus on chemistry, and why she had the time an energy to go to school full-time and still plan a huge trip. I was so proud of her and felt so lucky to call her my sister, to be associate with her, to share the same last name, and looks because she worked so hard and I wanted to have something that I loved that much to work that hard for too.
Erin used her student-loan money to purchase a support van for the trip. It was old, but in good shape. Its previous owners used it as a construction vehicle, which came in handy. The seats were gutted and metal shelving had been installed, which worked perfectly for holding supplies—canned beans, boxes of pasta, granola bars, pots and pans for cooking at campsites, spare bike tires and tubes, and tools all fit well on the shelves and were secured with bungee cords to make sure they remained in place. Sleeping bags were to be piled into a carrier on top of the roof of the van. A few days before our departure, Anna and I bought cans of with neon orange and black spray-paint from the hardware store and painted the carrier to look like a turtle shell.
Erin was recruiting riders right up until the week we left. Of the 25 people who had signed up, maybe two or three had ever done any long- distance bike riding, and I was not one of them. The first time I saw the whole group together was three days before we were scheduled to leave Richmond. We all met at Erin’s house to go over the route and the details of the ride. The riders consisted of mostly our friends and Erin’s classmates. The majority of us were in our early 20s. Erin and I were 22. We were just kids. Most of the group had yet to bother purchasing or borrowing bike helmets, a requirement to participate in the ride. Few had bothered training in any capacity for the trip, myself included, even though some of us had known about this ride for months. But the enthusiasm was palpable as we sat around Erin’s living room, patiently listening as she explained the route and made recommendations about what to pack for the trip.
Erin only requested that each rider pitch in $50 cash each for twelve days of riding. The money would cover food for the two weeks, as well as gas for the van and expenses for spare tubes and tires. Anna would drive the van, leading the group at the beginning of each day. She would stop to buy our groceries along the way, beating us to our break spots to set up food and drinks and wait for riders to arrive. If anyone needed a break from riding for a day, there would be a small amount of room in the van for them and their bike.
It wasn’t until the morning we left, a Saturday in early June, that I looked around and realized just what a motely crew we had. We met in a local park in the middle of the VCU campus, a large, a good central location for all the riders, for our official send off. For most of us, knowing Erin was the only thing we had in common. Some of the team members didn’t even know Erin that well—friends of friends or girlfriends or boyfriends of friends who we had never met before that week. We had riders show up in full spandex with clip-in shoes, and others in cut-off jean shorts and tennis shoes or slip-ons. Riders came on mountain bikes, and road bikes, and fixed geared bikes. Boom boxes were duct taped to rear racks or placed in baskets on the front of bikes, blasting music from cassette tapes in all directions at 8 a.m. We looked as young and inexperienced and insane as we were to be doing what we were doing. It was awesome.
My parents met us in the park for the sendoff. We ate bagels and downed black coffee as we threw our sleeping bags, tents, and book bags into the van, stopping to double check that we all had full water bottles in our water bottle cages attached to our bikes. My parents snapped a group photo and the first turn of 25 cranks set us out onto the road, heading north on Route 1, out of town.
It didn’t take us long to find out that the first day of biking was going to be rough. The road conditions were bad, forcing us to ride slowly and pay extra attention to our movements. Gravel shifted under our bike tires, and broken glass and loose rocks meant worrying about popping a tire, or sliding. The shoulder was narrow, and one wrong move meant losing balance and falling into traffic. I had to concentrate on looking down at the road as much as I could, while at the same time needing to look forward to see what was coming ahead, which was not easy. Vehicles were not exactly nice to us either. A couple of the riders had glass bottles thrown at them, or were yelled at by passengers to get off the road. Traffic was thick, as a steady stream of cars and trucks whizzed by. I could hear each individual vehicle coming, and I tensed up a bit with each gust of wind that hit me as they passed, my grip on my handlebars tightening. The hills that took us through central Virginia seemed endless – how was it possible that they always seemed to go up, but at the top, they never went back down? For hours, we passed gas stations after gas station, endless shopping malls and empty concrete parking lots, the scenery bland and gray. Red lights broke up the group slowly until we were miles and miles apart from one another.
Ahead of us in the van, Anna was also having a rough go of it. She found out quickly that her job was going to be much more difficult than she had anticipated. The separation of the group mean that many hours passed between the first rider coming through the pit stops and the last, making her late for not only the next stop, but leaving her no time for shopping. She had thought she would have hours to leisurely go about her day. Instead, she was being rushed along, leaving her feeling ill prepared to take care of the team.
By the time we had arrived at our first campsite, a little more than half way between Richmond and Washington D.C., everyone had mixed feelings about the day’s ride. Two people made phone calls home to be picked up that very night—we had made it 60 miles, and they’d had enough. I couldn’t blame them. When everything aches—your neck, your back, your toes, your legs—the last thing you want to contemplate is getting back on your bike again the next day. My fingers and butt had gone numb from riding all day. It was hard to imagine doing it again in twelve hours—and then ten days straight after that. I was somewhere in the middle of feeling defeated and exhilarated. I wasn’t going to quit, but I was in a lot of pain. As I set up my tent, I looked around and saw other riders already sitting by the campfire, relaxing as though they had had the easiest of days on their bikes. After changing out of my spandex and tennis shoes, I joined the group for dinner, and I was presently surprised how much I was able to eat, a welcomed realization after how much I had biked that day. I ate everything I could and started to forget about how much my body ached. I downed multiple veggie dogs with ease, chips, and potato salad. I chugged two beers and still felt like I could consume more. It was glorious to eat and drink so recklessly, knowing I was going to go to bed and then burn a ton of calories again with the next day’s ride. Full and sleepy, I unzipped my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag, falling asleep just as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Our second day of bike riding took us through Alexandria, Virginia, on the serene bike paths and nature trails that lead into the capital. It was Sunday morning, and there was much less traffic than had been on the roads the day before. The smooth black concrete of the path curved only slightly, staying completely flat for the miles we biked into the city, and it easy for the whole group to bike fast through the wood area of the park. We passed over wooden bridges and small streams. The sun shown, and the temperature was cool for June. We had all worked hard the day before, and those of us that were still riding were now getting to enjoy the ride, gliding through the day with no cars protesting our presence, our only obstacles the occasional runner or walker on the trail. It seemed like no time had passed when we made it to the other side of the city, ending our day in the backyard of a gracious old friend from Richmond who agreed to let us consume the entirety of her lawn for the night. We laughed and talked well past dark, taking turns telling bad scary stories with a flashlight under our chins, trying to spook one another as though we were little kids. Once again, I slept hard, pleased about how lovely the day had been, thinking little about my aching muscles, numb toes, and sunburnt cheeks.
I woke up the next morning feeling ready for the day. But when I unzipped my tent, I saw that the sky had turned gray and overcast, and it looked as though it was going to rain any second. Just like that, our sunny day biking through the nation’s capital had evaporated. It now felt as though the weight of the world was on us, the form of dark clouds over our heads. I felt glued to my tent. I had been excited before bed the night before to ride, but now the thought of biking for the third day in a row didn’t feel like all that much fun. I struggled to put on my spandex shorts, and the dampness of two days’ worth of sweat made me cringe, my positive attitude shifting drastically.
The rest of the team must have been feeling the same way, because by the time I was dressed, no one else had emerged from their tents, and it seemed we were headed toward a late start. I knew we had a longer day of biking today—we had to make it all the way to Baltimore which was still another 60 miles—so we needed 9 or 10 hours for the whole group to make it.
I went inside the house to find Erin and Anna in the second-floor kitchen, cooking eggs and beans and making toast for the team. I told Erin I thought we should make an announcement to get everyone moving. Erin seemed to agree, but when I returned to the kitchen with the megaphone we had brought with us, she brushed it away and turned back to the stove. I had figured since she in charge, she would be the one to tell the group to get moving, but it seemed she didn’t want responsibility for being the bad guy who interrupted everyone’s slumber. Irritated with her lack of authority, I opened the kitchen window, put the megaphone to my lips, and said in a stern and serious voice, “Riders, it’s time to get up. Pack up your tents and your stuff and get it all in the van immediately. We are leaving in 30 minutes. This is your leader, Erin, signing off.” I knew Erin and I didn’t sound different enough through a megaphone for anyone to think it wasn’t actually her. When I turned around, so please with myself, Erin’s face showed a mix of shock and anger. Anna was laughing. I left the kitchen with the megaphone, heading downstairs to put my things in the van.
It did start raining soon after that, just as we got on our bikes, and it didn’t stop raining all day, until we got to Baltimore more than eight hours later. At one point, we stopped to eat in a public park in a small town square, and I attempted to make rain gear from black trash bags we had in the van. I tore a few open fitted them around my shoulders and torso, taping the openings around my arms with duct tape. It seemed secure, but within a few minutes of getting back on my bike, the bags started catching in the wind and making a terrible plastic rattling noise that kept me from being able to hear other riders or the cars that were approaching me from behind. And instead of blocking the rain from my body, water still came in through the neck hole. The tape was just trapping rain in instead of allowing it to reflect off of me.
Riding in the rain was relentlessly annoying. The water pounded down on my face, and I couldn’t see where I was going if I looked up, so the only option was to look at the ground, which made the bike ride slow, dangerous, and seemingly endless. At points it felt like I was going backwards because the ground beneath me never seemed to change. My map was soaking wet, ink running down the pages until it was impossible to see the route any longer. I couldn’t listen to music because the water would ruin my boom box, so I had had to leave it in the van for the day. I couldn’t talk to anyone because I would have to shout, and shouting would distract me from riding safely. When we finally reached the city, we paused, soaking and exhausted, at the railroad tracks for the whole team to catch up. All of us assembled, we got ready to move again, and that’s when we fell, the sound so precise riders in the back didn’t realize two people had fallen.
The whole thing only lasted a few seconds, and then it was over, and we were back on our bikes. But my outlook had shifted, not just about the day, but about the whole trip. Right then and there, I wanted to give up, but I felt that giving up would have been more of an embarrassment that anything else for me. I hadn’t helped with the trip, I had only shown up with nothing to offer, no money, no gear. I had borrowed the bike I was one. If I gave up, I would have disspointed my sister, in not that she would have been upset that I couldn’t make it, in that she couldn’t have done a good enough job planning the trip for me to feel like I could finish it. If all I had to do was finish and nothing else, then I was going to finish the ride. I was going to get to where we were going, get some rest again, and get up and do it all over again.
The remainder of the trip went on without much incident. After we left Baltimore, we biked through Pennsylvania, through Amish country, where we saw horse drawn carriages and rolling green hills, the roads so open we wouldn’t see cars for hours. One night while in Pennsylvania, a bad storm swept through while we were finishing up our ride. We barely made it off the road away from the lightning and thunder to a nearby hotel. The woman behind the desk was kind, letting us bring the bikes we couldn’t fit in the van inside with us and allowing us to sleep five and six people into each room. The next day, we went to bicycle museum that had bikes from the early 1900s, toy bikes, trick bikes and bikes made out of wood. We rode along gravel trails that followed railroad tracks. I got a flat tire for the first and only time as I was biking past the Welcome to New Jersey sign.
The night before our last day of biking, we stayed at a campsite in Long Island. The next morning we would cross into New York City over a drawbridge with a bike lane. When everyone got up in the morning, Erin told the group that she had planned this to be a short day of biking. It would only take a few hours to get into the city. She also said she needed one person to ride with Anna in the van. She wasn’t comfortable driving into New York alone—the van had minimal visibility and was full of supplies, and she was worried about changing lanes and making it under low overpasses with the carrier on the roof.
Over the preceding 12 days of riding, there had not been one day when multiple riders had not volunteered to take a day off to ride in the van with Anna. It had never been an issue, even when, on most days, Anna would have been happier having the time alone to herself. I had not been one of those people. I had ridden my bike every day since we had left Richmond. I’d biked every single mile of the trip up to that point, and now that it was the last day and I was only a few miles away from completing the entire trip, I was thrilled by the idea of seeing my hard work pay off. I had not quit, I had not given up. I was going to finish the ride.
After Erin finished briefing us, she asked for a volunteer to ride with Anna. No one raised his or her hand. She asked again. Anyone? No response. I looked around and saw people staring off in other directions or looking at the ground. I started to get agitated. Seriously? No one wanted to take the day off? Interesting that the on the last day, on the shortest ride of the whole trip, we had no volunteers for the first time ever that wanted to take a day off from being on their bike.
After ten seconds of silence, I gave in and volunteered. I was devastated to know I wouldn’t technically complete the ride, but I couldn’t let Anna or my sister down like that. Both of them had done so much to make the trip happen. We were so close to the end where they could finally stop worrying about everyone’s safety, where they could relax and leave behind the roles of the “responsible ones.” All they were asking for was for someone to sit in a van for an hour. I went back to my tent to change out of my spandex, and into my jeans. I was devastated, but I held back my tears so no one could see how hurt I was. Once again, I was afraid of hurting my sister’s feelings. I didn’t have anything to offer for the trip, and it wasn’t fair for her to think I was upset. After all the hard work, the intense days of heat and rain and blazing summer sun, I would not come up short of finishing the ride by only 13 miles.
There were no pit stops on the last day since it was such a short ride. The only responsibility Anna and I had was to get into the city and get to the warehouse where we were staying so we could meet the team with their gear. It was important that we were there on time – some of the riders had booked train tickets back to Richmond that afternoon and would need to grab their belongings out of the van and go as quickly as possible.
It seemed simple enough—we had hours to go a short distance. But just as soon as we crossed the bridge into New York City from Long Island we were in horrible bumper-to-bumper traffic. We sat in the van, not moving, surrounded on all sides, listening to the impatient sound of honking car horns, unable to see what was causing the holdup. An alternate route was out of the question. We had printed out directions that offered just one option, and our only map in the van was for Virginia, which served us no purpose.
At one point during the gridlock, both Anna and I needed to relieve ourselves so badly that we had to figure out a way to do so in the van. I scrounged in the back and found one of our cooking pots, no longer needed since our trip was coming to an end, and brought it back up to the front, setting it in the passenger seat. There wasn’t enough room to hide in the back and do our business. With the van stopped on the road and windows on all sides of us, we took turns sitting on the pot. It wasn’t flattering, but it was necessary. After we both had a chance to use the pot, I placed the lid on it, and set it on the floorboard, holding onto it between my feet so it wouldn’t slide and spill.
Finally, traffic started moving again, although slowly. We relaxed for a few minutes, thinking that maybe the whole day was not going to stressful after all, until we came to a round-about, going no more than eight miles an hour, and our turtle top carrier popped open. Every sleeping bag that was inside tumbled out and all over the street, rolling across the road into ditches and bouncing onto the sidewalk. I looked out the side view mirror and saw colorful cotton and vinyl bundles in reds, plaids, blacks, and greens fly through the sky and land on the ground, making no sound as they hit the concrete. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, my mouth gapping open as I pointed out the window.
Anna pulled over as quickly as she could, although there was nowhere to park, so we had to put our harzard lights on, blocking traffic. We both jumped out, and ran around parked cars ran around picking up the bags, people walking down the sidewalks. We could each only hold three bags in our arms at a time and still be able to see over the mass of fluffy, cozy stuffing, and we struggled to gather them all as we yelled at cars to let us pass, screaming at drivers to hold on for just one second while we did a count to make sure we had collected every sleeping bag. We have been justified in saying screw it and forgetting about everyone bags and let them get new ones—it wasn’t our fault the turtle top had not been fastened properly. Neither Anna nor I had been the ones to pack it that morning. But I knew that we also didn’t want to be the ones to have to tell the team that we had lost their belongings, because, frankly, I didn’t think that anyone would understand how difficult our day had been or how dangerous it was to stop in traffic and retrieve their bags.
We got back in the van and slowly made our way to Brooklyn. By the time we got to the warehouse, we only had about 30 minutes before the riders were to show up. I was tired, and mad, and I didn’t care about seeing any one of them. After the day Anna and I had, I didn’t feel like celebrating. I especially didn’t feel like congratulating anyone on finishing a ride that I didn’t get to complete myself. In my exhaustion, both mental and physical, I blamed the other riders for ruining my trip. As the riders started to show up, I found it hard to muster up the enthusiasm to give high fives for their successes, or feel like I was part of a team anymore. I stayed seated in the van even though it was blisteringly hot. I didn’t want to have to talk to everyone as they arrived and set their bikes down on the sidewalk, drinking water and chatting loudly about how fun the last day of riding at been.
As I sat and sulked, my eyes closed and my head leaned back against the headrest of the passenger seat, I only thought about myself. I was broke, and I was far from home. I didn’t really have a job to go back home to, not one that I cared about, at least. I was sick of being around people, the same people I’d had so much fun with at a campsite in Long Island the night before, and each day in the two weeks before that. I didn’t care about being there anymore with anyone, not even Anna, who was just as frustrated as I was for the same reasons. I didn’t even think about thanking Anna for all she did to drive our gear and cook for us. I didn’t think about thanking the other riders for doing something spectacular for a really good cause instead of staying home where life was easier. I didn’t think about congratulating my sister on spending months planning a trip and safely getting us all to New York. I didn’t think about the reason we had done it in the first place. I don’t even remember calling my mom to tell her we made it thanks to Erin’s hard work, and to tell her that we had done it for her.