Today I woke up around 7 and read for a bit while I charged my phone. I set out for Charlottesville at around 9 and met up with a nice couple (George and Genie) on Prince William Highway. I told them about my trip across country to Seattle, Washington. They admired what I was doing and invited me out to lunch. I asked if there were any bike shops around so I could buy a spare chain and brake pads and we rode down the road to Village Skis and Bikes where they had to replace my chain and cassette. The cassette wasn’t in stock so George drove me over to Old Town Bicycles where we picked up an 8 speed cassette for my bike. I really appreciated the kindness of these people, but it doesn’t end there. After eating a delicious meal at Panera Bread we came back to their house where I had pulled pork for dinner, a warm shower, a nice cold beer, laundry and a comfy bed to sleep in, along with directions to Charlottesville. George introduced me to his neighbor Tom who was also very supportive of my trip across country. It sounded like both of them wanted to do it, but at 24 they were in the Navy. All in all it’s been a great day. I only covered about 25 miles, but I met great people and this will give me time to rest up my knee before I head out to start on the TransAmerica Trail.
I awoke early that morning, sleep-deprived, raunchy, and engorged in a putrid film of sweat. Despite the stealth qualities of my sleeping apparatus, sleeping comfortably in a breathable bag did not happen often on humid summer nights.
I pedaled on the shoulder of the highway, slowly putting up the hilly countryside and bolting down it as I reached each peak of road. The whirring sound of traffic whizzed by me as I groaned and complained at each steep grade on route 29. A dark gray layer of clouds mottled the light blue sky, slowly choking away the sunlight, behind the wall of an oncoming storm. My revolutions became more choppy and quicker as I strained muscles in my quads to gain further ground towards Charlottesville.
Once the aching pain in my joints subsided, I shaved the mileage off quickly, but my legs began to spasm, pulsating from dehydration. I slowed my pace as I neared more industry, hearing the faint ping of approaching bicycles coast behind me, clicking and clacking with each revolution. I motioned with my hand waving them onward as I blocked their path, but instead the old couple pedaled up alongside of me.
“Hello there…my wife and I saw ya up there and bin tryin’ to catch up…wonderin’ where ya comin’ from with all that gear strapped to ya bike…I’m George and my wife’s name is Genie…” said the man with a shortness of breath.
His face winced between loud breaths as sweat zigzagged in the crags beneath his eyes. He hunched over his handlebars with his gray hairy forearms flailing like rubber as he pedaled onward to keep up. He looked lean and in-shape for his age. I put him at late 50’s to early 60’s judging from his slightly wrinkled skin, short whitish-gray hair and squinty eyes behind his acrylic spectacles. His wife lollygagged behind, slouching with her head down, looking at her pedals. It looked like he drug her along into one of his hobbies, but I never asked.
“Nice ta meet ya…I’m Brian…comin’ from Wilmington, DE…left a few days ago.”
“Ohhh wow…Delawareeee? Always wanted to do that back when I was younger…too old now…hard enough fer me to get the wife to get on the bicycle for even a mile ha…Most me and my buds ever did all had a vehicle trailin’ behind us. We’d go out as far as we could and have one of the boys pick us up when we got tired…then continue on in our trucks, doin’ bits and pieces in between. How long ya think it will take to get to where yer goin’,” he said in a chipper voice.
“Dunno. Haven’t thought that far ahead really…lost my job and kinda just left…I figure 3 or 4 months at the most if I go slow…wanna hit the Rockies before winter and continue on to Seattle?”
“What ya gonna do if you end up in snow?”
“Haven’t thought that far ahead to be honest…prob just change my route or try to find work…probably somethin’ in the mountains during ski season I’d assume…”
We reached a corner on Prince William Highway and all of our bicycles squelched to a halt. He gazed at me, blinking his eyes whimsically as if preparing a question.
“Hey…uhh…I guess we’re headin’ different ways…do you know exactly where yer goin’?”
“Nah…not really…headin’ to Charlottesville…but that’s a ways out…always somewhere to camp,” I said cheerfully.
“Well…the old lady and I were gonna put the bikes away and grab a bite to eat in town. Sure you could use some food for your journey…would you wanna join us fer lunch Brian,” he said happily.
“Yeah sure…I was actually tryin’ to find a bike shop though nearby…maybe I could meet up with you guys after if that’s alright…I need ta grab a spare chain and extra brake pads. Chain feels like she’s skippin’ when I pedal hard. Need to have her looked at…”
“Most definitely…there’s one right down the road…follow me thisa way.”
Once the crew installed a new chain and cassette on my bicycle George invited me back to his house.
I remember entering a quaint neighborhood of middle-sized two-story homes, mostly decorated with white aluminum siding and black shudders, the same sequenced black-shingled roofs. Some of the lawns shimmered in a bright green as sprinklers drenched every blade of sod. Their lawn in particular looked ordinary, with a small garden along the perimeter dipping into each color of the rainbow. Their petals exploded a sweet aroma about the air giving it a homey feel.
George pointed towards the end of the driveway at pearly white doors with gold brass handles.
“Put yer bike in the garage there and come on inside Brian. I gotta grab a few things before we head out…”
I rolled her to the end of the driveway and placed her up against the door. My head swiveled side-to-side looking for this so-called garage door, but I only saw a brick pathway to the front door and a gazebo. I stood there scratching my head and blurted out, “Hey there…George…uhhh…where’s the garage at, exactly…is it around back…I don’t wanna just walk through yer grass.”
George smirked filling out the wrinkles of his shiny white face.
“Yer leanin’ up against it…just pull up on the handle…the doors are just fer decoration…it’s still a garage. See once we retired a few years back well instead of ridin’ my bicycle across the country…we decided to fix up the house…do mini projects…that was one of em…”
“Ahah…I see…pretty cool,” I said!
“Yeah just stash yer bike in the corner there…I’ll go grab a few things and you can wait inside…Panera sound good fer lunch…bet yer hungry after all those damn miles?”
“Yeah…thanks,” I said with a slight stutter to my voice.
A bout of skepticism hit me suddenly and as the devil danced on my shoulder I only heard the words of my own conscious whisper to me, “Just leave it there man…what’s the worst that could happen…He’s old as shit…he’s not gonna steal your bike…you don’t own shit to steal…”
I barely knew them, but they seemed like decent people, almost like my grandparents, very friendly, caring, and always trying to stuff my face with food until I felt sick. That point where I needed to unbutton my pants and let that roll of fat dangle over the brim of my jeans. At least that is the impression he gave me.
I leaned her up against a stack of filing cabinet racks, the kind you see in an office, and reaching in my rear pannier I grabbed my wallet, loose cash, and my phone, just in case I never saw her again. I felt sick. Suddenly, I no longer wanted to eat lunch. I rewound my thoughts back to the worst possible scenario. Why did I agree to this? I stood there, pale-skinned, slightly sweating, fretting in the corner of his garage.
George stepped out into the garage through the back door of his house.
“Ya alright Brian? Lookin’ fer somethin’…don’t worry…your stuff will be safe here…no one’s gonna steal it…gonna lock the garage before we head out…Ya ready?”
I watched the pearly white garage door creak shut and slowly regained my nerves, hopping into the front seat of his Subaru.
“Get whateva ya want Brian…it’s on me. You must be hungry…”
“Thanks George…I really needed this…been living off peanut butter and fluff sandwiches for the most part these past few days.”
As I bit into my last morsel of the bacon turkey bravo sandwich I wiped the cream from the broccoli cheddar soup from my lips. My stomach drooped over my shorts expanding the elastic band and I felt plump and satisfied.
George gazed over at me again with solemn eyes as in a deep thought. He turned and scratched his head, rubbing his fore finger against his chin, drawing his lower lip between his teeth.
“Ya know Brian…it’s kinda late out there to get to Charlottesville now…still pretty far away. Would ya wanna stay fer dinner…a nice home-cooked meal? We got an extra guest bedroom fer you to sleep tonight and one of my daughter’s around yer age should be back later…maybe she can take ya out and show ya around town?”
“Umm…I mean I don’t wanna impede on any plans ya may have, but yeah…it’s too late to keep truckin’ along and looks like rain tonight anyway so I’d appreciate bein’ indoors. So yeah…as long as it’s not an inconvenience.”
“Not at all. This’ll be great…”
Their house reminded me of my grandparents, except much cleaner, putting all their clutter in the garage. I remember politely taking off my shoes and sliding across Cherrywood flooring all throughout the downstairs. White cabinets with dark speckled marble countertops braced the walls of the kitchen with stools lined up by the counter.
“Take a load off Brian…my bar’s there at that there stool…ya wanna beer?”
“Uhh…yeah sure…whatever ya got…”
I swiveled on the stool directing my view to the dining room table with its view of the backyard through the glass picture window, seeing only green trees blowing in the wind and the freshly cut lawn.
“Yeah my favorite…”
“There’s more where that came from…feel free to help yerself. Tonight’s on me…”
“Oh and the pulled pork and mashed potatoes are ready in those chafing dishes. We’re just waitin’ on Kathleen…one of my three daughters’…she’s a few years older than you. She’ll be here in a few…”
I sipped on my beer, its crisp cool taste drying my lips, and flushing my face caused me to wander through the house. Expensive rugs covered the living room floor, with Cherrywood furniture in an antique style setting. Everything looked prim and proper.
Right as I twisted off the top to my next beer, the front door creaked open. I cast my eyes on the beautiful young brunette as she made her way into the kitchen. Her quirky smile, thin glasses surrounding her pale white face and shoulder length hair gave me the librarian vibe.
“Hey guys…I’m home…uhhh…whose your friend,” she said confusedly.
“This is Brian…picked him up off the street,” boasted George.
“Ummm…off the street…whaddaya mean…off the street?”
“He’s ridin’ his bike across the country…from Delaware to Seattle, Washinton. Thought we’d give him some food, a comfy bed to sleep in, and such…he’s a nice kid round yer age.”
I smiled, bashfully curling my lower lip over my teeth. I felt like her father was trying to set us up for some reason as an open invitation to fuck his daughter. I found it quite odd.
She reached out her hand, “I’m Kathleen…nice to meet ya…and you are the man who rides his bicycle across the country…but what do they call you?”
She smiled with a cute tilt of her head.
“Ha…I’m Brian…nice to meet ya as well.”
“Well…help yourself to the food…they’re grabbin’ plates now…eat as much as you’d like,” she said with a slight twinkle in her eye.
I walked over to the countertop, the steam from the chafing dish moistened my brow, as I clamped onto a few pieces of tender pork with a pair of tongs. Juice dripped off each piece of meat, drowning my sandwich roll in a puddle of deliciousness. The pork crumbled to pieces falling onto my plate, as I smooshed the mashed potatoes onto it, leaving enough room for a scoop of macaroni.
That night I devoured three platters of food, feeling guilty, but enticed by their pressuring words.
“Ya didn’t eat enough Brian…grab another one…it’s just gonna go to waste,” said George.
Genie spoke up for the first time. “Yeah Brian…George has had my cookin’ fer 40 years…don’t’ think he’ll mind if ya finish it off…just gonna go to waste anyway…”
“I mean…ok…if you insist…thanks guys…”
“So…Brian…my dad here…good ole Digger as his friends call em…he says you quit your job as an engineer…to ride your bike across the country…uhhh…why,” said Kathleen?
“Well, that’s not completely accurate…I lost my job…I didn’t quit. But yeah, I couldn’t find work where I lived and I always wanted to do it…so I figured why not now? Ya know…there isn’t a reason other than adventure, I guess…”
“So…uhh…what kinda engineer were you before you chose to get rid of all your stuff and ride your bike into the unknown, ending up at our house…not knowin’ if were axe murderers…haha.”
“Geotechnical Engineer. I specialized in sub-surface soil investigation as a third-party inspector on construction sites. Basically I made sure the practices on-site for soil compaction were achieved to the clients’ discretion.”
“Hmm…ok…I think I know what you’re talkin’ about. I was askin’ because I have a similar degree. I’m gettin’ my Master’s in Architectural Engineering…I’m gettin’ a portfolio together to submit it to the University of Minnesota. That’s where my boyfriend is at…”
I paused and looked down at the floor, “Ohhhhhh…ok.”
“Well, my parents are goin’ to bed soon…Digger is getting’ old. That’s probly the most ridin’ he’s done in month’s…you made his day. You wanna come out with me tonight?”
“My friends are meetin’ up in Washington, DC at World of Beer if ya wanna go…it’s kinda far, but it beats goin’ to bed early. But I dunno…you could be old like Digger…maybe it’s past your bedtime…if so I understand?”
“haha…nah…I’ll go. After all, it’s not every day you end up in a random house with potential axe murderers…I at least wanna have a few beers before you guys tie me up in the basement.”
“Ha…ok…well, I’m gonna get ready. I’ll come downstairs when I’m about to leave.”
She strolled away with a swagger to her step, and despite her nerdy librarian look, she turned me on, probably a bit too much.
Like all women, she took a few hours to do her hair, makeup and pick the proper outfit for going out. In the meantime I took my first hot shower in five days and I forgot the luxurious feeling of dirt melting off my skin. A pool of black puddles splotched the tub by my feet as the grime slowly trickled down my skin descending into the drainage system. I felt clean. I felt alive. And most of all, I felt adventurous.
I slipped into my other set of clean clothes and in that time-frame she hollered down the steps at me.
“I’M REAAAADY BRIAN!”
I smiled, my hair dripping water droplets across my shirt as I dried my scalp, I’m right here.
She looked at me, pausing with a sudden brain fart…”Oh…uhh…well…yeah…I’m ready…and it looks like you are too?”
“Yeah, let’s go…by the way…thanks for inviting me.”
On the drive there she asked the usual questions, feeling me out with her curiosity purring subtly. My way with women was what you’d call awkward and disparaging. So I tried to keep quiet for most of the ride to World of Beer.
I did not know what to think about going out to the bar. The whole reason I packed up what little possessions I now owned reflected self-loathing in alcohol around the same friends, at the same bars, year-after-year, slowly wasting away my youth, which no amount of money could ever buy back.
But, maybe this was different, new people, new city, new bar, new adventure…so I gave it a whirl, despite not being much of a drinker.
As soon as we arrived my eyes focused on the bright signs gleaning through the window panes chanting 300+ selections of beer. I guess we picked the right bar for my first night out with new strangers. I always hated too much of a selection…what would I choose?
I pointed at the menu, “Uhhh…Blueberry Pale Ale.”
Her friends sat around the table in a circle, with me sitting nearest Kathleen.
“This is Brian, guys…my parents picked him up off the side of the road…literally…he’s ridin’ his bike across the country…”
I shook hands, forgot everyone’s name, and never saw them again, but that slow pleasurable high from pounding down beer after beer slowly came back to me, and towards the end I finished it off with a Redbull Vodka.
I felt awkward around new people, especially trying to explain what I was doing. I didn’t fuckin’ know. I just wanted to experience something different, something outside of the societal norm, if life really did not start until retirement how could people live so miserably all those other years beforehand, slaving away at a job they hated?
I kept quiet, laughed when I deemed necessary and maintained my shy demeanor as Kathleen continued to order me drinks I did not want.
After a few hours everyone slurred their words, sloshed about, spoke loudly and giggled like little children. The stories started to surface and I remember thinking how in the hell would I ever recover from this massive hangover tomorrow to ride to Charlottesville.
“Fuck it…I’ll worry about it in the mornin’…”
I tipped my glass as we cheers the table and slowly one-by-one people left. As I reached for my bill, Kathleen grabbed my hand and pushed it away.
“It’s on me…after all it’s not every day your parents bring home a complete stranger…besides…this is your last drink remember…axe murderers…duh?”
I laughed and smiled wanting to hold her hand a second longer.
“Thanks,” I giggled in a drunken tone.
I stumbled over to her vehicle, slightly tipsy, and full of excitement.
“Thanks for takin’ me out Kathleen…I had a great time…are you alright to drive?”
“Yeah, I only had a few…don’t worry…you still have a few hours left…” she grinned at me as she unlocked the door.
I leaned back pressed up against the headrest; a smile filled the corners of my lips firmly across my face, as I reclined in the front passenger’s seat. I shut my eyes and felt content with sleeping the whole drive back to Woodbridge.
A silence echoed in the car and I felt her presence staring at me as we jerked around in stop-and-go traffic.
I opened my eyes briefly and everything looked fuzzy in the darkness. She gazed over at me methodically shifting her head, checking up on me.
“You alright there?”
“Yeah, just tired…haven’t drank that much in quite a while actually…it was fun…your friends are cool.”
“Hmmm…well…Did you know a study showed that a small percentage of women are actually happy; most just settle for where they are in life?”
“Nah…wasn’t much into women studies. I’d imagine that’s what most people do…isn’t it…following society’s predictable sequence…college…job…house…marriage…retirement? Correct?
She glanced over at me and the corners of her lips began to curl upwards in a slight smile. The rest of the trip we sat there in silence and I nodded out.
I awoke as the car jerked up the edge of the driveway, slowly coming to a halt before the garage.
She whispered over at me, “We’re heeeereee…”
She fumbled for her house key in the darkness, jiggling it around in the keyhole. The door cracked slightly open just enough for us to squeeze in to the foyer.
“Don’t make too much noise…they’re both fast asleep…leave your shoes by the door…”
We kicked off our shoes and I followed her up the stairwell, my hand snagged ahold of the Cherrywood banister, guiding me up in the pitch black. She turned around and whispered at me.
“I had fun tonight Brian…goodnight…”
“Night,” I said softly.
I stood there in a drunken stupor for a few minutes contemplating. I leaned towards her door, motioning a light knock of my fist, but I refrained. As much as I wanted to slide into bed with her, touching her warm soft skin against my body, my sobriety started to kick in and I tiptoed back to the guest bedroom, piling the sheets over my throbbing head.
I cringed and held my aching head as I rolled around in bed early morning. All that beer and vodka crushed my motivation to get back in the saddle for Charlottesville. But, the thought of Kathleen crossed my mind. I wondered if she left for work or if I would ever see her again. With that thought, I stumbled out of bed nearly tripping over my two feet as I rummaged around for my shoes and clothes.
Downstairs everyone sat around the table in the dining room munching on breakfast. Kathleen slurped milk from a bowl of blueberry cereal. Digger sipped his black coffee while he perused the newspaper, scowling and cowering as he touched the bridge of his glasses, questioning the print. Genie walked around in a bathrobe, cleaning the countertops between chomping on bits of granola in her yogurt.
I stood there with squinty, sensitive, eyes scratching my head as I reached for an empty glass of water, gulping it down as it dribbled out of the corners of my mouth onto my shirt.
Digger looked over at me and smirked with an approving grin.
“Had too much fun last night? Ya know…we have bottled water in the fridge…ya don’t have to use the spigot. There’s cereal, yogurt and granola bars too if you wanna grab a quick breakfast…I thought maybe we could sit down and plan your route this mornin’ if that’s alright with you?”
All his words jumbled together as I tried to wrap my brain around what he said, feeling the aftermath of too much alcohol and not enough sleep. I simply nodded and said, “Ok…”
Kathleen looked up at me and chuckled.
“Ya know Digger’s really into this whole trip you’re doin’…ridin’ cross-country and everything…you better plan your route with him or ya might get stuck stayin’ here another night.”
“haha…nah I really gotta get goin’…I appreciate everything.”
I nibbled on a granola bar as my gut curdled. Digger finagled with the map on his laptop, zooming in and out, slightly cursing under his breath, while he tried indignantly to plan my route. His index fingers jammed each letter on the keyboard, as he typed in, “nearest campground,” but it put that as the starting point. He shrugged his shoulders and grunted, starting his methodical process of striking each individual key all over again.
“Old people and technology,” I thought, as I held back a snicker of laughter.
“If I could get this damn thin to work…it looks like the nearest campground is Cedar Mountain…says it’s in Culpeper, Virginia…reckon ya can make it there before night. Lemme print these out for ya Brian…”
As he placed the rolled-up paper in my hand a look of sadness swirled in his teary eyes.
“Well, guess this is goodbye…or see ya later. KATHLEEN! KATHLEEN…come downstairs, say bye to our guest.”
Moments later I heard feet thumping down the stairwell. Nestled in a baggy hoody with a cute smile on her face, she lifted up her head and gazed at me from across the foyer.
“It just so happens we weren’t axe murderers after all…We’ll miss you Brian…stay safe out there you crazy bike guy.”
I reached out to shake her hand and she gave me a hug.
Once I set my foot on the pedal I thrust it hard with a few fast revolutions, not looking back, not even once. My anxiety overwhelmed me in those moments as I waded in tears of happiness. In time, each person, each encounter and experience became a memory of my past only preserved by photographs or words.
But, something about constant motion, about the unknown, set me free, and with that notion I kept pedaling down the long, barren, backroads towards Charlottesville.