Circling the U.S. Chapter 81: Our End Date That Wasn't the End Date

June 1, 2020

Today was the day we should have finished our bicycle ride circumnavigating the continental United States. We were on track to do it, too, arriving in New Hampshire the way we left, by bicycle.

For months, then weeks, then days up until our departure date, even though we talked about it, and planned for it, we still didn’t believe it would happen. Bicycle for an entire year? No way. Something will go wrong. Rob has lung disease and heart disease. In January, 2019, his knee starting hurting and the orthopedist said he needed a knee replacement, but go ahead on your trip, bicycling is the best thing for it. 

If some health problem didn’t do us in, something else would We didn’t know what; we just both had a sense of disbelief that we were actually going to make our dream happen.

Then, on June 7, 2019, we got on our bikes and one day followed another.  When we were in New York, on the Erie Canal, the west coast seemed so far away, San Diego even farther.  Rob said, “I still can’t believe we’re doing this.” I felt the same way. After several months, Rob said, “I still can’t believe we’re doing this.” But by then we were on the west coast, thousands of miles behind us. We were doing it.

There were times when I thought about quitting but Rob never did. And there was always the next unknown adventure to look forward to. 

Two days after leaving San Diego in early December, Rob had an episode of atrial fibrillation. He checked into a hospital, his heart rate returned to normal, a cardiologist prescribed some medication to keep his heart rate in check, and the next day he was back on his bike After Austin, Rob’s knee started hurting when he was riding. He kept going. 

Of all the things that could have forced us off our bikes, we thought it would be something that would happen to us – an injury, an accident, a stolen bicycle, some tragedy. But a pandemic? In the middle of March we arrived in Florida as the Covid-19 crisis hit full force. We rented a mini-van and drove home to New Hampshire.

But I’m a planner. I have to have hope. As we drove home, through Georgia, South Carolina, North Caroline, Virgina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, I thought, if this is resolved by May 1, we’ll take a train to somewhere in New Jersey and we’ll finish our trip, then do the missing piece in a couple years. I didn’t want to believe the news that we were heading for a new normal, that this wouldn’t be over in a couple weeks, or a couple months.

But here we are. After over two months we’ve settled back into our house, unpacked everything we stored away, cleaned up our yard, tried to find some routine with an uncertain future. We’ve revisited our favorite local bike rides along the coasts of Maine and New Hampshire and around nearby lakes. Instead of celebrating our anniversary on Nantucket which we'd hoped to do, we bicycled to Ogunquit, walked on the beach (the Maine beaches were open, not New Hampshire, and going into Maine we were supposed to self-quarantine for 14 days, so we probably broke the law), and cooked lobsters for dinner. Rob made chocolate chip cookies for the first time.

Today we drove north into the White Mountains and hiked along the Pemigewasset River to Franconia Falls for a picnic lunch. Rob ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I had cheese and crackers and dried fruit and peanuts and chocolate, all reminiscent of our lunches on the road. It was a beautiful drive and a peaceful hike; we passed few people, a young couple out backpacking, a family. three older women wearing masks. The trail is an old logging railroad bed; the ties are still there. It was wide enough to pass people safely..

We are making do, grateful to have our health and, for now, financial stability.

On Easter we rode into Maine. The beaches were closed; being on a bicycle we had unobstructed views.

Several times we rode down the New Hampshire coastline. We stopped for lunch on one of these benches overlooking Wallis Sands State Park. The beaches were clearly closed and all parking was blocked off. But there wasn't a sign in front of these benches saying no trespassing.
On one of our rides we stopped at Prescott Park in Portsmouth. The bridge connects Maine and New Hampshire, over the Piscataqua River. At night it's lit with colored lights.

During the summer we enjoy musicals and concerts here, with the only cost a recommended donation. In 2017 they performed the new Mary Poppins musical. In was so good I saw it three times.  All performances are cancelled this year.

We've done a few jigsaw puzzles. In the past I'd always done them alone, The pandemic has given us something new that we share. I only tackle ones that are 500 pieces; this one is not as hard as it looks. I gave Rob another one for our anniversary, one of a lighthouse. It's turning out to be a challenge.

Circling the U.S. Chapter 80: The End (But Hopefully Not)

Sunday, March 15 - Thursday, March 19, 2020

First thing Sunday morning we rode ten miles into Cedar Key to see the town, find a coffee shop with wifi, and make a decision, whether or not to end our adventure. If we were going to quit riding, we had to have a plan for where to go. Our home in New Hampshire was rented until June 1, and our daughter was living in our Boulder condo.

Cedar Key is a charming historic town filled with tourists. We easily found a coffee shop with internet.

Our last shared breakfast on the road. The owner had a limited menu, even more limited on this Sunday morning because the day before had been so busy he'd run out of many key ingredients. (Pandemic, what pandemic? People in Florida were in full vacation mode as folks elsewhere around the country were hunkering down.) But he was able to put together a delicious omelette with a potato side dish for us. No one seemed concerned about socially distancing in line where we waited to put in our order. 

While Rob read the article Kylee had sent us the night before, I checked my email. I had one from our tenant in New Hampshire saying she could move out if we wanted to return home early.

Rob and I both realized we'd been putting off the inevitable. I said, "I think we have to go home," fighting back tears.

Rob said, "I agree."

We decided to go back to New Hampshire, where we could spend the extra time moving back into our house.

Two or, more likely, three days of riding would get us to Orlando. I looked up Amtrak schedules and sent an email to friends in Orlando letting them know we were on our way, hoping they'd be home. I called our kids to let them know our change of plan. Tim sounded relieved. "Mom, I know how much this trip means to you, but you've done so much, and it's better that you're safe."

We headed to Dunellon, 50 miles of hot, boring riding, nothing to see except Florida forests and the highway, with only an occasional convenience store along the way. It was beginning to feel like Texas with long stretches of nothing.

We had a pleasant dinner at the restaurant next to our motel where we overheard the coronavirus talked about as something in the news, something annoying, but not a worry. The server complained about having her kids home from school.

Then back at the motel we made plans for our return to New Hampshire. Amtrak, without a direct connection, wasn't going to work. Southwest Airlines had $54 one-way tickets from Orlando to Boston. That worked. We'd have to get our bikes boxed. And we'd have to stay healthy on the plane and in the airports. Up until now we had mostly not been in crowds (except for Mardi Gras, but that was over two weeks ago.)

On Monday, March 16, our plan was to get as close to Orlando as possible, about 90 miles away. With many towns dotting the map along our route we figured we'd have no trouble finding a cheap motel when we were ready to stop.

The day started out fine with 20 miles on the Withlacoochee State Trail. We passed waterways and birds and elderly cyclists on trikes. I thought it funny that cyclists are now ending their riding careers the way they started, on tricycles.

We saw dozens of recumbent three-wheelers on this bike path, but this one was the best. It reminded me of the children's book Mrs. Armitage and the Big Wave, by Quentin Blake, where this old lady (Mrs. Armitage) is on her surf board with her dog and while she's waiting for the big wave she makes one trip after another back to shore for an inflatable island for the dog, an umbrella, a drink, something to eat, etc, until she's surrounded by an entire flotilla of paraphernalia. Then the big wave comes.
The riding deteriorated after we got off the bike path. It was hot and boring with nothing other than desolate convenience stores. At one stop, we sat and ate lunch, sharing a table in the shade with a scruffy middle-aged man eating takeout. He said he worked the carnival circuit and they were hanging out in a nearby parking lot waiting to see what was going on with the coronavirus.
We had long stretches of not much except that we did see some patches of brilliant wildflowers.

As we got closer to the Orlando area we stopped at a McDonalds to look online for a motel. After 60 miles riding in the heat we were ready to stop. But the only thing that came up was a Rodeway Inn five miles out of our way. We had no choice but to go for it.

Some time earlier I had mentioned to Rob that I wondered where all the orange groves were. We found them on our way to the motel. When we arrived, it turned out that there was not a single restaurant or grocery store nearby. Fortunately, next to the television in our room, we saw a menu for a pizza place that delivered. We didn't have great expectations so we were pleasantly surprised when both the pizza and salad were delicious.

We firmed up our plans for our return to New Hampshire. Our friends in Orlando were out of town. Calls to Warm Showers people for help getting our bikes boxed and to the airport were fruitless, so I booked a rental van for one day. We figured we'd find a motel near the airport once we got there.

But I woke up at four o'clock Tuesday morning, March 17, stressing about our flight home. What if travel within the United States were shut down? What about keeping social distance on the plane? Would Southwest cancel flights because of too few passengers? As I lay in bed, not able to sleep, worrying, I had an idea. How about when we got to the Orlando airport, we just picked up a van, threw our bikes in, and drove to New Hampshire? We could maybe stop for the night at Rob's cousin's house just south of the Georgia border and then on Wednesday put the pedal to the metal.

I got up, took my tablet into the bathroom, looked up car rentals, and found a mini-van with Alamo that didn't have a drop-off fee, just charged $60 a day. It would cost us significantly more than flying, but the peace of mind would be priceless. I booked it and went back to bed. Rob was awake and I tried talking to him about my idea, but he didn't want to hear it. I was too wired to go back to sleep.

When Rob finally got up and listened to my idea, he agreed with me. He contacted his cousin, Larry, to see if we could spend the night. Larry and his wife Sue were totally fine with our change in plans, happy to have us. I give them a lot of credit for their flexibility. First we were going to visit at the end of the month, then not at all, then that evening. I'd only met Larry and Sue once many years ago, so it felt like we were having the opportunity to continue our adventure just a little longer, making yet two more new friends.

Starting out we had ten miles of pleasant riding on a bike path, then busy roads with lots of traffic as we got into the Orlando metro area.

We'd heard that Florida has the most bicycle fatalities of any state. People joke and say it's because of all the old people. I don't think so. I came very close to being hit by a young woman in a pickup truck. She started pulling out of a parking lot just as I was heading in front of her. I yelled. Had her window not been open, I would likely be dead.

Back roads with little traffic took us to the airport, past parking lots that weren't half full. After 44 miles we arrived around two o'clock, picked up a mini-van, and a couple hours later pulled into Larry and Sue's driveway in Fernandino Beach.

The first thing Larry said to us was, "The mayor just issued an order prohibiting out of town guests."

Yes, he was joking. Then he said, "You're allotted three squares of toilet paper."

Staying with this hospitable couple in their brand-new Florida home took a little of the sting out of having to end out trip early. Now we can look forward to seeing them again when we return in a few years to finish what we began last June.
Sue and Larry had only recently moved to Florida, choosing Fernandino Beach over other areas because of its northern location and three seasons of weather changes. Wednesday morning they took us on a tour of the community and we were able to walk on the beach that hadn't yet been closed.

We hit the road after lunch. The radio station was set to a Christian talk show. Rob wanted to change it, but I was intrigued and insisted we keep it on. The show was Let's Face the Issues hosted by Dr. Gene Youngblood. People were calling in saying how grateful they were for the coronavirus because it shows God is at work and if we turn our wicked ways he will heal our land. They said that this was God's way of punishing Democrats for trying to stand in the way of the work of Donald Trump. Nobody expressed any concern for the pandemic but rather had these things to say:

"This is time to praise God."

"We need to call upon the Lord in faith not fear."

"We're seeing the hand of the Lord at work."

"He's fully aware of all our needs in the midst of this coronavirus calamity."

[I doubt the families of the over one hundred thousand Americans who have died, or those who can't pay their or buy food, believe that God is doing a great job. But as I write this, on May 29, 64% of Republicans believe the threat of the coronavirus has been exaggerated.

Not expecting much traffic, we were surprised to hit one logjam after another. (That was after I took over the wheel.) Whenever we stopped, all food was takeout only. We were able to use a bathroom at a McDonalds but not at a Subway (where we picked up sandwiches for dinner). Exhaustion determined our stop in Weldon, North Carolina, just south of the Virginia border, where we saw that we would have a healthy selection of cheap motels. But the first one we stopped at had a long line in the lobby. At the next one, a Days Inn, I asked the young man at the desk why it was so busy. 

"Everyone from Canada is going home," he said. "Usually they go home through March and April, but now they're all going home in one week." The U.S. Canadian border was shutting down Friday at midnight.

In the morning we went to a Waffle House for breakfast. The day before, when we'd stopped for a cup of tea at one in Florida, they had every other table and stool closed off. At this one it was takeout only.

In Maryland, the flashing highway sign said, "Save Lives Now...Stay Home." That's exactly where we were headed.

Not the ending we had planned, but still, 9500 miles around three-quarters of the United States was a journey we'll hold onto for the rest of our lives. 

We'll return to complete our journey, someday.