NOTES FROM THE UNDERGRAD

Blazing Saddles
In which three friends take a bike trip
for which failure is an option.

 

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By Tyler Russell | When your friend is biking downhill at 35 miles an hour and his panniers suddenly break loose, scattering his fluffernutter sandwiches and boxer shorts for 30 yards alongside the road, it’s hard not to laugh, no matter how mature you imagine yourself to be. You aren’t laughing at him, you explain, (snorting), and you’re relieved that he’s okay, it’s just … his boxer shorts were so red, and the fluffernutter—isn’t there an age limit on fluffernutter?

It started out as an idea between three friends to do something new and unexpected. It was the week after high school graduation: time to revel in (we imagined) the liberation of adulthood. Most of our classmates were headed to “Senior Week” in Ocean City. But we wanted something a little less predictable than seven days of sun and alcohol poisoning.

The problem was, central Pennsylvania is even more predictable than that. The closest city was 200 miles away, and none of us owned a car or could borrow one for more than a day or two. The options for teenage adventure were scarce. So we pondered our prospects.

“We could bike to the beach,” Aaron, our class’s valedictorian, suggested.

I pointed out that it was 300 miles.

“Ah yes,” he responded, “but we are above sea level. If we point ourselves east, it’ll all be downhill. We won’t even have to pedal.”

I ignored him. Bennett laughed.

Before I go any further, let me tell you all you need to know about me in four sentences. I am a planner. I take myself too seriously. I drive the speed limit. And I have never broken a bone. Bennett, on the other hand, has voluntarily leapt off something called “Rattlesnake Rock.”

For a normal 18-year-old, a spontaneous bike trip is not a big deal. But I took some convincing. For one thing, we didn’t have enough time to plan it. Trips like this required preparation, safety measures, an agenda. For another, we were only amateurs. We would probably be run down and killed by passing cars, only to gasp our last in a ditch alongside the road.

My friends just shrugged. The uncertainty, they said, was part of the adventure.

Bennett’s parents owned a cottage on Lake Oenida in New York. If we biked there we could stay the rest of the week, with food as our only expense. A fourth friend, Joey, volunteered to drive three days behind us with extra clothing and supplies. That way he could enjoy the vacation without, as he put it, the “ridiculous” biking. Plus, we could toss our bikes into his pickup truck for the journey home. At least that’s how Aaron and Bennett pictured it. I figured that if we died on the way, Joey would be able to identify our bodies.

Now all that stood between us and our adulthood liberation was 171 miles of asphalt. Never mind that the farthest any of us had ever biked in a day was 30.

Everything in my conservative nature balked at the whole idea, but the more I resisted, the more my friends pushed back. To them, the absurdity was the charm. It was unpredictable, ridiculous. After all, they laughed, even we didn’t think we could make it.

“Every time you have a chance to prove yourself wrong,” Aaron reasoned, “you should take it.”

So somehow they convinced me to saddle up and set off the Saturday after graduation. We planned to keep a steady pace and break for food every other hour. Secretly, I planned to be home for dinner that night. I saw the first few hours, 20 miles or so, going well. Then, as we approached our physical limits, fatigue would set in and ultimately overwhelm us. By the time we hit the 45-mile mark I knew we’d have had enough biking for the next year, much less the coming week. Nevertheless, it would make for a fun afternoon.

In our heads, I think, we imagined ourselves to be explorers, survivalists, or at least this century’s version of them. No cellphones, no bank cards—just like our forefathers, if our forefathers had had access to Google Maps.

It was at the end of the second hour that we found ourselves picking up Bennett’s boxer shorts and fluffernutter sandwiches.

It was at the end of the third that Aaron, trying to impress a group of girls, hit a telephone pole and flipped over his handlebars.

It was at the end of the fourth that I, determined not to let a particularly steep hill defeat me, actually stopped moving, balancing motionless for at least five seconds before I fell sideways, too tired to even catch myself.

Falling on a touring bike is much more involved than falling on, say, your Schwinn. First off, there’s the 10 pounds of clothing, a sleeping bag, and tent pieces strapped around the back wheel. All of this, as we’ve already seen, comes loose when you fall, so there’s the time spent cleaning up and repacking. Second, your feet are clipped to the pedals, which does allow you to go faster, but also guarantees humiliation in the case of the inevitable accident. You fall, and the bike falls with you. Or on you, in my case.

But you know what? I was enjoying myself. Hours five through seven were filled with chuckling about the disastrous nature of hours one through four. Our ride through rural Pennsylvania was a bungling, ill-conceived, and poorly executed plan that would, in all probability, fall apart in front of our eyes by sundown, but we were embracing our failure because it was, at least, ours.

Well before nightfall we collapsed upon a camping site, too exhausted to move. Bennett checked his odometer, which we had refused to monitor all day, to keep from discouraging ourselves.

“Uh, guys?” he called. “We made it 87 miles today. We’re halfway there.”

Aaron disintegrated into a fit of hilarity, bounding around the campsite clapping and literally slapping his knees, suddenly reenergized.

I laughed, shaking my head. “I complain after driving that far.”

Suddenly, there arose at least a small possibility that we would actually make it, if for no other reason than we were too stubborn to call for a ride back home—at least not until we had made it across the New York border. The determination my friends had shown from the beginning was starting to rub off on me.

That night we slept 13 hours, settling into our tent while the sun was still in the sky. Our legs were sore, our bicycle seats had wedged themselves into places they were never meant to wedge, and I, despite rigorous reapplication of sunscreen, had developed perfect red rings around the middle of each thigh where my elastic shorts had ridden up, which for the next six months left me with tan lines that looked like garters.

The next day went off almost without a hitch. We crossed the New York border by noon and, after a grueling three-mile climb around Corning, were home free. We arrived at the cottage in time to make dinner. I sheepishly apologized for my (at times extremely vocal) doubts, which my friends brushed off in appropriate man-fashion with much laughter and slapping of backs.

I spent the week with no agenda, sitting by the waterfront reading paperbacks with ice bags on my knees. Ultimately, we decided not to bike back, opting instead for Joey’s pick-up in order to enjoy two extra days at the lake. We rode home mostly in silence, occasionally dozing off with our foreheads against the window, our bikes tied down in the bed of the truck.

For all the pain my extreme caution has probably saved me, I’ve realized that sometimes, even when the proposal seems absurd, you just have to say yes and let it work out for itself.  Plans backfire. Things fall apart. But for all the ways our trip could have gone wrong, it didn’t. My friends were right. Sometimes the best plans aren’t plans at all.


Tyler Russell is a College junior from Montoursville, Pennsylvania.






 
     
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