My body is heavy with tiredness and greedy for sleep.
This tiredness comes from the hours I spend each day in the sun, wind, heat, and cold. From the lack of routine and the newness of each day. From rotating my pedals tens of thousands of times per day so that we can cover distance, get over mountain passes, overpower headwinds, and make it to the next campsite. From keeping up with Sean. From the dull fears about what will come next—with this ride across the American West, with our engagement, with my career, with my life.
Grappling with the open road is not easy. This new life makes me want to hoard all the minutes of sleep I can get.
Where we sleep each night changes, but much is the same. The tent, our shelter for the summer, is 4 feet wide and just over 7 feet long. My bright green inflatable sleeping pad is made of a thin technical fabric that weighs close to nothing—but it takes nearly five minutes to inflate. These are often the hardest minutes of each day. It is like filling a large inflatable pool toy with air each night before bed; it leaves me feeling breathless and dizzy. But, it is also satisfying because it is the final physical challenge of the day. Then I can arrange the firm pad into my side of the tent and slide my increasingly lean body into the soft warmth of my down sleeping bag. With just our headlamps most nights, far away from the florescent glow produced by the urban electricity grid, sleep comes quickly under the black sky.
But now, it is time to break away from sleep.
Light from a bright Wyoming morning fills our tent. It isn’t hot yet, but it will be soon. I resist the physical discomforts ahead: the initial chill when I get out of my sleeping bag, the moisture from yesterday’s sweat that I will feel against my skin when I put on my dirty bike clothes, the cold stream water that will turn my hands a splotchy purple while I clean breakfast dishes, the sharp odor of an outhouse full of flies.
I reach for Sean, roll into the crack between my sleeping pad and his, and rest my head on his chest. My head slowly rises and falls as his lungs expand and contract. I breathe in the smell of his hair, the saltiness from his sweat, and traces of his masculine deodorant. I could identify his scent blindfolded, deprived of all other senses except for smell. Even on this trip, going days without showering, he has never smelled badly to me.
As I lay there still in a sleepy haze, I recall a story my dad once told me about how he knew the smell of each member in his infantry brigade. When his brigade would pack up camp, if someone saw a stray shirt or helmet—they’d just smell it. He demonstrated this identification method for me once, grabbing one of my brother’s shirts, sniffing exaggeratedly, and then saying, after a moment’s pause: “This is Matt’s.” Like all of my dad’s Vietnam stories, that stuck with me. I filed it away, even though I was unsure what to do with it.
Sean senses that I am awake. He stirs, opens his eyes, and I move my head off his chest. As soon as he is awake, he wants to get up, start the day. I am slow in the morning. Unwilling to immediately remove myself from the sanctuary our tent offers. Sean sits up and then there is a tremendous amount of rustling as he maneuvers his spindly 6’3” body out of his sleeping bag and into pants, a shirt, and jacket. He slips his camp shoes on, unzips the tent fly, and stands up. Cold early morning air rushes into the tent. I can feel it on my cheeks, but the rest of my body is still deeply submerged in the warmth of my sleeping bag.
We’re trying to get an early start today. We have an 11,000 foot pass to climb. Sean kneels and begins gathering breakfast supplies from the vestibule of our tent. If I don’t get up soon he will say something. I can tell I’m already two steps behind him. I grab the zipper of my sleeping bag and pull it down in one swift motion, exposing my bare legs to the chill of the air. I have overcome the first physical discomfort of the day.
It is a Tuesday in June. I am 28 years old. My friends are arriving at air conditioned office buildings, beginning tasks that help make businesses, non-profits, and hospitals function. They are responding to emails, checking Facebook, in MBA classes, learning how to be doctors, making spreadsheets, complaining about clients, looking forward to happy hour. They are part of systems, institutions, and teams. More of me than I would like to admit wonders why I left the comfort of that path. I am lonelier than I expected.
Later that day I will bike over the continental divide. We will have views of the Tetons during the first hours of the ride. At the top of Togwotee Pass we will see two Grizzly bears on the side of the road. We will fly past towers of ancient grey volcanic rock as we descend into the sagebrush hills of the Wind River Valley. A dry, hot wind will push us across one of the most desolate and haunted Indian reservations in the United States, past forlorn manufactured homes, and the supposed burial site of Sacagawea. There is a sign that says Sacagawea Grav Site. The “e” in grave is missing. Then our tailwind will die. We will stop at the gas station at Fort Washakie, the Shoshone Tribal Service, and I will sit on the curb thinking that I can’t make it the final 16 miles to Lander. I will feel rooted to that curb, eating an orange that will make my hands and legs sticky, and I will watch a few carloads of Shoshones go in and out of the gas station store. They will watch me back with a dull curiosity. Finally, I will tell Sean—who is patiently waiting for this pit stop to be over—that I can make it to Lander. As I pedal those final miles, exhaustion will give way to some kind of delirious euphoria.
We will bike 121 miles total that day. At around 7:00 PM we will set-up camp at the Lander City Park. The park is a frenzy of activity: Little League games, a food cart with red and white striped boxes of popcorn, parents cautiously eyeing their wobbly toddlers, kids building a dam out of twigs and rocks in the small creek that runs through the park. That evening we will share a picnic table with Lewis, a British mailman also biking across the country. As we prepare pasta on our camp stove, we will offer him a glass of the boxed wine that we purchased as an indulgence. He tells us it was his birthday yesterday. We toast. To his birthday, to the distance we covered that day, and to the discomforts that are the price of entry to experiences that evoke the way travel used to be. To remembering, years later, the events of a day in its entirety.