An absolutely horrible night of sleep, feeling confined in my tiny tent and the rain downpour just made me anxious about the next day’s ride. The ground around my tent was a sandy mud puddle and I didn’t know how I was going to pack without getting everything sloppy. I had developed a smart blister due to the unraveling of my padded bike shorts and I applied more cheap coconut butter on top, considering whether I should try to pop it or let it sort itself out on its own. I get out and set my phone to charge while I eat a cold breakfast and promise myself that today I will finally finish the honey bear and I swear to take a sip every time I stop at the very least. I delicately pack up camp, trying to not spread the sandy mud inside my panniers. I finally roll out around 10 am and notice how incredibly light my bike is, all the groceries I fueled up with back in Canada are almost completely gone, so I’ll need to stock up soon.
Routing my days have been difficult as I never know how long my body will hold up and daylight hours are getting shorter and shorter and I need to make sure that I have food on hand just in case. The miles have started to get terribly boring and although my body is feeling alright, my overall humor is low. I wish I felt hungrier so that I could be motivated to eat better, but I barely want to put down what is in front of me, which is mostly simple carbs and sugar. Trudging through on M-24, I stop in Newberry around lunchtime and spot a family restaurant and nervously lean my bike up outside. I had forgotten that it was Sunday and the place was packed with the after church crowd and there wasn’t any open tables near the window. I’d just have to trust that this town is small enough that no one would be so bold to rob someone in the sunlight on a Sunday afternoon. I order coffee and a chicken finger basket and the coffee is mediocre and while eating the chicken fingers I am reminded that under duress my pallet regresses to that of a three year old child with an attitude. No sauce, no vegetable, just white and beige food, please. When I’m finished I’m relieved to see my bike patiently waiting and I head a few blocks away to the supermarket. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to shop for lightweight, calorie dense and nonperishable food items when you don’t have any desire for food or even a clue about what you want to eat next. More or less, this just leads to a lot of ramen. I started blindly wandering the aisles, poking pita bread and thinking if apple weight too much and examining all the dried soup mixes when I turned a corner and there was a long haired hippie, grey streaked and in well worn plaid carrying a heavy walking stick and when we both become startled at my sudden appearance, he raises it up and shouts YAH YAH before capping it with a goofy smile. I have but the energy to blink and exhale. We end up bumping into each other again in about five minutes, closer to the check out lane and we both just shrug. You can out weird another weirdo, old chap. No game to be played here today. I pay for my groceries and stuff them clumsily into my panniers.
I check my map one more time and realize that there is 54 miles between Newberry and the campground I was hoping to stay at tonight and I don’t have the drive to hustle there in the remaining daylight hours. I scan the map looking for a quick solution and when I see the name “Seney” my brain lights up with an old memory. Of a roadside ice cream stand that sold soft serve cones as big as my forearm. A tote bag printed with a giant loon as a logo SENEY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE. I visited Seney when I was a kid with my family and I remember wandering around their nature center and the orange brown teeth of the taxidermized beaver they had on display. That same day my mother and brother and I rented mountain bikes for a short ride and I was on a terribly uncomfortable bike that caused me sharp pain in my tender parts and the sun was direct and awful. After that ride (and the family consensus that I was too delicate to ride bikes) I completely stopped riding bikes until college and only then with much hesitation, still wincing from that memory. And here I am, coated with dirt and ruddy from hours under the sun and swollen knees, straddling my packed bike and looking to kick the past in the teeth. I pedal down Highway 28 until I make it into Seney, which isn’t that much more than a few stoplights. I stop at a gas station to use the bathroom and I buy a few snacks out of gratitude: a small bag of cashews and a Genesee Cream Ale. Only nine more miles until Fox River Campground, another familiar haunt from those same childhood vacations.
My body is dragging but the sun is quickly dipping so I pedal those miles, feeling every single inch. I finally arrive to the campground, as it is already the end of September and the nights are chilly. The sites are primitive with just pit toilets and an old metal pump for water and I chose a spot that is a bit hidden just in case some nar-do-wells drive thru at night.
I set up camp and the site is damp from the nearby river, with fat flies zooming about as I eat my nightly ramen and drink the cream ale, which I’m unable to finish. My stomach is flopping and can barely keep down the noodles. There is the constant sound of dogs bark snarling in the distance, something I remembered from when I was here before. I always imagined that they were wolves. I crawl into my tent, not even bothering to hang a bear bag with my sweet beer trash, and while resting on top of my sleeping bag, I finally finish the book I had been reading every night, Go Tell It On A Mountain by the unequaled James Baldwin. I had chosen the book because it was an old used copy and lightweight and I knew that Baldwin was a good writer. Every night I would read a few more pages or when I would wake up only a few hours into my sleep, heart pounding from 4 pm coffee or sheer imagined terror and I would dive back into his prose. His writing was a strong companion during those nights.
I pulled on my thickest socks and snug down deep into my sleeping bag while I slipped into sleep, awash in the thickening memories from the past two days. When I was 12 years old, my only aspiration was to hike the Appalachian Trail. I poured over outfitter catalogues and studied nature guides and survivalist manuals and even convinced my dad’s coworker, a young handsome nurse named Dwayne, to come speak to my 5th grade class about his thru hike. In the photo that we took together in the classroom in front of the blackboard, I’m smiling but not swooning, I’m dreaming of my own worn boots and Maine mountain finish line. This bike tour is my childhood dream distorted, my way of satiating my younger, adventure hungry self. I whisper into the dark “can you believe I biked here?” and she rolls her eyes hard. “duuuuuuuuuh.” We lay back in the tent and listen to the wolves bark in the dark.
DISTANCE RIDDEN: 59 miles