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


Tales of Adventure: Hitch-hiking in New Zealand

Sometimes we’re so bogged down with negative energy that we forget there are people every day having fun and enjoying the world. We want to bring you these stories and hear yours.

This story comes from Cynthia Stewart, a senior at SUNY Purchase in New York, and a good friend:

During Easter holiday of my semester abroad at Waikato University in New Zealand, my friend and I went on a hitch-hiking adventure. Our goal was to reach the Coromandel Peninsula where we’d visit Cathedral Cove, a marine reserve, and the nearby Hot Water Beach. When the tide is right, visitors at this beach can build sand castle hot tubs from the water that bubbles up from an underground hot spring.

We adopted drifter mode for this trip and embodied all the clichés of the road. Our mantra was, “It’s not the destination, but the journey,” and we referred to the road lovingly as “old dusty.” We learned the rules of hitch-hiking: don’t take rides after dark, listen to your driver’s stories, entertain them with your own, and don’t contradict anything they say. Walk while you hitch-hike and drivers will think you are more deserving of a ride. If no one picks you up, sit down with your face in your hands and people will feel sorry for you, especially if you are a girl.

We met colorful characters on the road, which we learned is a portal for narrative; everyone is going somewhere and has a story. It took us about fourteen different rides to complete the 206 mile round trip.We met a young man who owned his own dairy farm and a girl who had just had her heart broken, but the most interesting person was an outgoing truck driver, who gave us a three hour ride on our way home. We helped him haul propane at various stops and in turn he amused us with stories, some probably imagined. He told us about seducing married women and working as a male gigolo. He gave us politically incorrect advice, like “It’s important to have a little respect for women” and “Every country’s got their brown people.” Of course we nodded and thanked him for the ride.

At night we camped illegally off the road, or squatted at camp sites and left by sunrise. One night we pitched our tent in a rain forest. A fire brigade came to our tent after a hiker had reported our fire. We thought we were in serious trouble, but one of the firemen gently said, “Can’t start fire in the bush, Mate,” and they left.

We arrived at the Hot Water Beach after traveling about two days. We weren’t able to make a successful hot tub out of sand, but we felt the boiling water under our feet and bathed in the ocean. We hiked the trail to Cathedral cove. Along it were sheep and green hills that over-look the ocean. There were several islands nearby and one was shaped like a whale. I wore “the one ring” from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings around my neck on the journey, but didn’t have to pretend I was in a magical country.