The day finally came.
It was a day I had been anticipating for so long. Pedaling through your towns and cities, over your mountains and prairies, through wind and rain and under the sun, had been my life.
For two and a half months, it was you, me, and my bike.
I decided to bike across you late one night when I was crying, alone, in my bed. I wanted to leave my life behind, pedal my way from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and then move somewhere unfamiliar and new. Be careful what you wish for, they say, because sometimes you get what you want. And now, here I am, 2647 miles away from that Tennessee bed where I decided to use my legs to get from one side of you to the other.
My journey to bike from coast to coast really began when I learned about Bike & Build from a friend who had completed a trip six years earlier. A non-profit that organizes cycling trips to impact affordable housing, Bike & Build asks its cross-country riders, before they undertake their journey, to fundraise $4500, volunteer at an affordable housing organization in their community, educate themselves on the various aspects of the issue, and train to ride a bike for long miles, day after day.
The program seemed like the perfect combination of community involvement and adventure – I started the application process almost instantly. And on June 14th, 2016, my bike and I arrived in Portsmouth, NH, as ready as we could be for the 81 days ahead of us.
In New Hampshire, I looked at the Atlantic, my ocean, and could not believe I would bike to the Pacific.
In Vermont, I climbed over the Green Mountains, my entire body protesting.
In New York, I biked through tiny, impoverished towns with no sign of recovery from the recession.
In Pennsylvania, I saw Lake Erie and was awed by its vastness.
In Ohio, I biked through Cleveland’s neighborhoods, past boarded-up homes and mansions in the same mile.
In Michigan, I learned about the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and my heart broke for what is happening to you.
In Indiana, I caught a cold, not knowing I wouldn’t feel better until Minnesota.
In Illinois, we learned about the collision that caused Anne’s death and Laura’s injury on another Bike & Build route, and my heart stopped. I watched those around me cry and grieve; I saw my community come together in solidarity and support.
I considered the risks of my choice to bike across you, but never doubted my choice to keep riding.
In Wisconsin, I wrecked my bike and sustained a concussion. The next week of my life was a blur as I struggled to think, process, and simply pack my bin every morning.
In Minnesota, families in St. Paul opened their homes to us. My host mom took me to buy a new helmet and chamois. My friend from college died in a motorcycle accident. And I got back on my bike for the first time since falling.
In North Dakota, I began to feel like myself again. But I also witnessed racial tensions between native and white Americans. I felt incredible shame at the poverty I witnessed on reservations, and felt, perhaps for the first time, what a responsibility my generation and I have to right the wrongs we see in you.
In Montana, I fell in love-with open roads and big skies, the color of the prairie, the endless grasses, miles upon miles on US-2 West.
In Idaho, I got my only flat, on a 96 mile day full of beauty, laughter, and joy.
In Washington, I felt the passage of time through the change from summer to fall. The end began to feel near.
And so, on September 1st, the 29 of us pedaled into Bellingham. Over the course of those last miles, I tried to imagine how I would feel when I reached the water. Did I want to get all the way in? Would it be too cold? Would I feel excited, happy, disbelief, or a mixture of the three?
Katrina, Christina, Julia, and I rode the last miles in together for our final team stop before the ocean. We were the last group to arrive, and everyone else was cheering as we arrived. Music was blaring; Trevor was sprinting around with his Go-Pro on his helmet. We all danced and hugged, then gathered in a circle. Marissa Face Timed Adam so he could be there too, and the leaders gave speeches. Ryan cried and pumped us up in the same breath. We did all our chants one last time. And then we got on our bikes, all together, and rode.
We rode the final few blocks of our journey, past friends and family, and then when we could not bike and further, we dropped our bikes and sprinted into the Pacific, which wasn’t cold at all, but simply perfect. And then it was a mass of hugs and tears and laughter and crying and screaming. And we were present in the reality that we had really done it, really biked across you.
And it was an ending, and a beginning, all in the same moment.
In love and gratitude and hope,
Sarah O’Leary is a creative and explorer originally from Tennessee. She is currently living in Wyoming and interning at NOLS. You can read more of her work at her website.