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Day 5: Reflecting on People, Part 1

One thing worth mentioning before we move on: from the moment we pushed our bikes up the stretch of sand from the Atlantic, strangers have been cheering us on, wishing us luck, and have generally been pretty great.

Instant understanding. Later the bear's father came out and talked with us and was also cool.

Literally, there were people laid out in their folding chairs in Virginia Beach, sipping probably-cocktails under oversized umbrellas, calling out "Good luck!" as we passed. Who knows what they thought we were doing. But they wished us well, and we wish them well too. Go you.

And there's a sense of energy around the beginning of a journey which is attractive (thinks Beau, the author of this here entry). There's a unique combination of anticipation as well as fruition — the thing is still only beginning, but it's finally begun! Nothing's gone wrong yet, and the first few things that do go wrong are already fond memories. When you're wet on day one, you can see yourself dry on day three, and sunburned on day ten, and freezing your ass off on day thirty-seven, and there's a bit of appeal to all of it. (Knee issues are only a vague potentiality then.)

And you're hauling these big ole bags around — it's evident to even the least attentive passerby that you're up to something a little bigger than the everyday: you're on an adventure. And I'm no fan of nationalism, but I do believe in national character, and I believe that Americans particularly love an epic-tending endeavor.

Sarah & Robin's ride

At least they have this week: nearly every time we've stopped we've been engaged by someone. At lunch on our first day we met Robin and Sarah, who were on their way back from Oklahoma, where they'd spent a week kayaking (if I remember right). They'd just driven over 5,000 miles, but they were enthusiastic about our bike trip and wished us luck.

When we hid from the rain in Portsmouth, a woman in a nearby law office came out and told us we could use the restrooms if we needed (and in one of those moments where you think someone's coming out to tell you you can't loiter there). Later we paused to check our map at the intersection of two corn fields and a forest — a guy pulling his pickup out of one of the corn fields went out of his way to come and make sure we were okay. When we stopped for water later, and were getting a little rained on, a guy in the passenger seat of a very over-sized white pickup leaned out and talked with us for a few minutes, told us about a road closure we would probably run into and how to get through/around it — he probably saved us ten minutes of biking when we were especially ready to get off the road.

That was just the first day, and I've probably forgotten someone. Day two we met another Robin, as well as a man called John, who were both part of the group that maintains the Capital Trail — they gave us free chips and John took the below photo for us. Then he told us where to get good barbecue, where we also made friends and talked for ten or fifteen minutes with the owner, Ronnie (it was Ronnie's BBQ, and Ronnie can actually make brisket, which I've found to be a rare skill outside of Texas).

Which is all to say… I guess we had a lot of anxiety about humans leading into this trip. And so have the people around us — nearly every one of the interactions I've mentioned also included someone telling us to be careful, telling us that there's crazies out there. And of course there are crazies, and surely we'll run into a few of them, and of course we are looking out and maintaining caution. But I guess the point in bringing up all these folks is to say that it's not all just crazies out there, and even some of the crazies have kind and generous impulses. I think part of the appeal of this trip has been the personal knowledge that I've been too long in one kind of place — long enough that I've begun to fear other kinds of places. And as politicized as things have become, us wearing masks into a store is a declaration of values (I feel like biking is too). But the fact that people don't share those values hasn't yet served as the kind of insurmountable barrier that I more-than-half-expected it to be. Which isn't everything, but it's not nothing.

Anyways — and then we met Bob. And we met five other people that I haven't mentioned and that I can think of off-hand, but we met Bob twice. First time: as we're heading north on a two-lane country road out of Richmond, just past Patrick Henry's Scotchtown, this pickup truck pulls full into the left lane to pass us, then slows down and starts pacing me. The guy rolls down his window and calls out to me — instead of asking what we're doing or where we're going, he asks if we're doing the whole thing. So Bob knows what we're doing. I say yeah, and he says he did Pittsburg to D.C. once, and another trail nearby.

This whole time he's driving on the wrong side of this two-lane road, and I'm trying to keep biking and also look at him sometimes and hold a conversation, and I'll admit I'm a little unnerved. Then a car comes around the near bend, so Bob waves and drives off. Sara pulls even and I tell her about the interaction. Then we look up and Bob has pulled over in a near church parking lot.

not relevant — it was just time for a picture

Well, we can all read people — Bob's not a scary or intimidating dude, he's just excited to talk about biking. So we pull over and talk with him for ten, maybe fifteen minutes. He's funny, he's interested. He's never crossed the country on a bicycle, but he has on a motorcycle, and he's done plenty on bikes — we talk about bikes for a while. He tells us what to expect on the next stretch, gives a few anecdotes about people he's met biking nearby, and even mentions the fire station where we'll be camping that night — it's all known to Bob, though he hasn't stayed there personally. He even recommends the Mexican restaurant where we ended up eating dinner.

It turns out to be a long afternoon for me and my knee (read about Day 3), but we eventually get to where we're going, head over and order our margs and our entrees. And then we're literally talking about Bob when I look up and there he is.

He's gotten a new motorcycle that he took out for a spin, and he first meant to eat at some other restaurant in Louisa, and then at a second place near us, but they were both closed and now he's here. So many excuses, you get a sense that he's kind of embarrassed to be there, but we're happy to see him and he gets over it quickly — he sits at the far end of the big outdoor table where we're eating, and Sara and I have dinner with Bob.

I guess it's mostly funny because I am not the kind of person to encourage these kinds of interactions, and I cannot remember the last time before this trip that I suffered a stranger to hold my attention for more than a minute or two. I am very protective of my time. But we talked with Bob about our trip and our wedding, and he told us about his quadruple bypass and his own trips. He was a physical therapist before retiring (he turns 69 soon, though you couldn't tell to look at him), and we talked about my knee a little. And then the food was gone, and it was time to pay and to leave, and Bob bought our dinner for us. Then he drove off on his new motorcycle (sadly, in the opposite direction as the sunset).

This morning Sara and I sat down and each wrote for a while about what we'd learned on our first little leg of the trip. There was a lot of logistics stuff, like how we now realized that we were never going to arrive after a day of biking and have the energy to want to use the camp stove — it's either uncooked food (sandwiches, apples, trail mix, etc.) or food cooked for us (restaurants). We talked about my knee, and about the overall tempo of the trip. But we also touched on the kind of strange awe that we'd felt in the company of all these strangers, especially in this moment. I think I just wanted to record a little of that while it's still fresh and surprising. But I've called this "Part 1" because I bet it'll end up being a theme we return to. Until then—

All for now.

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