A call to the open road

Someone stole my bike last weekend. I was too traumatized to write about it until now — Jordan can attest to that, as he had to stop me from going all Christian Bale on everyone in the West Village.

New York City, if you see a pink 1980s Univega bike, take it, harshly admonish the person you grab it from with a slap to the face and a reminder to visit plasticsblog.wordpress.com,  and email us at plasticseditors@gmail.com.

If anything, my new immobility has imbued in me a new sense of restlessness, a longing to travel with the wind blowing at my back.

Jeff Garretson, a good friend of the Milkman household ever since he and my sister dated  in the 12th grade, knows all about how to deal with restlessness. After he finished school he felt the need to see more of the U.S., so he rode over 1,000 miles across the country on his bike. He usually didn’t know where he would be sleeping that night, let alone what he would find in the next town, but that didn’t matter.

As an undergraduate Jeff studied abroad in Argentina and had the chance to see quite a bit of that country — enough to realize he wanted to travel more. But after his graduation buying a plane ticket to some far away place was just too expensive.

“I had this notion that traveling meant that you had to go to another country,” Jeff told me when we talked on the phone for this interview a few weeks ago.

He quickly realized, though, that he hadn’t seen much of his own country. He also had quite a few friends living on the East Coast and some speckled in between, so “I decided to use my bike to make all that happen,” Jeff said.

A friend’s dad drove him from Colorado to Decatur, Illinois, and it was finally time to hit the open road. He had over 1,000 miles to go to reach Washington, D.C.

Jeff is very laid back as he tells the story, but I think I would be terrified of being alone for so long. As it turns out, his thoughts weren’t far from mine.

“I was scared out of my mind. I had absolutely no idea if I could do it,” he said. “I basically knew that my body would be able to do it, but I was mostly concerned about going into the unknown; how I was going to sleep, how I was going to cook, and being lonely.”

The latter actually wasn’t a problem. Jeff met quite a few interesting characters on the road, and he even developed strategies to meet people who would let him crash on their couches for the night. Loitering in supermarkets turned out to be a particularly effective way to make friends.

Not worried about time, Jeff usually rode about 60 to 80 miles a day. He took his time and chose edgy roads instead of main highways, to make his journey more enjoyable. He did the ride from Chicago to D.C. in 17 days.

But the trip wasn’t without its complications. One day, as he was riding through Amish country, Jeff felt a weird jerk on the back of his wheel, and all of sudden he couldn’t peddle any more. Upon closer inspection, he realized he couldn’t fix the problem alone — he would need some help.

And just when he thought he was cooked, a young guy came out of his driveway.

“You done run into some problems?” he called over, accentuating every syllable in a slow drawl.

“Well I reckon I did,” Jeff called back.

“Well I reckon I could help you out.”

Turns out Jeff’s guardian Amish angel was named Chrissy, and he offered to give Jeff a ride into town in his utility buggy.

As they talked with Chrissy’s cousin, the manager of the local bike shop, Jeff got the sense that Chrissy hadn’t traveled so much. He and his cousin were speaking a language that Jeff couldn’t place [but later recognized as Dutch], but when he asked the young man about it, Chrissy said, “I don’t rightly know what that is; it’s just something we Amish people speak.”

Jeff got into another tight spot near the Pennsylvania border. He had downed a five-hour energy shot in a town called Acrin, hoping to peddle through to Pittsburg and stay ahead of a fast-approaching storm. But once he hit hills in PA he knew he wouldn’t make it that day, so he headed to the nearest supermarket, trying to look innocently bewildered in hopes that someone would ask him over to stay the night.

No one did.

He got lost and wandered into a butcher shop where two brothers were closing up shop. One of the brothers told Jeff he could stay the night, on the condition that his wife was OK with the idea.

She was. Soon Jeff was in the garden, helping his hostess pull out weeds, and listening to the story of her arrival in this country — as a mail order bride from Belarus.

In order to plan your own adventure, you’ll need a bike, at least 10 to 20 dollars a day for food (Jeff estimates $10, bike mechanic Hal Ruzal estimates $20), and a basic understanding of bike mechanics, in case you have trouble on the road. Jeff got lucky, because he usually found places to stay the night. Ruzal didn’t try so hard to meet people, but he usually avoided hotel costs by sleeping in cemeteries.

— Arielle


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