Final Mile: Help in a Headwind

By Zeke Gerwein

I was lost.

I have found that this is quite a common occurrence on bike trips, and, surprisingly enough, more likely to happen when one is attempting to travel down the back roads of Eastern Maryland using a AAA map of the Mid-Atlantic states. Which I was. My iPhone’s assistant, Siri, was my main guide but she was flummoxed — the little blue dot representing me and my travel companion, Margaret, was drifting approximately 20 miles to the northeast in the middle of the Pocamoke River. The ever-present headwind of the Eastern Shore had been plaguing us all day, it was already late afternoon, and we were still 30 miles from our destination, Jane’s Island State Park.

“I think this is the dead end road that’s supposed to be before Coulborne Mill,” I told Margaret decisively. “Let’s keep going. I think we’re only about half a mile from our turn.”

The road curved through the dense Maryland woods, and, by some miracle, we were pushed along through the deep sand by a tailwind. That was strange, but we weren’t going to protest. About half an hour later, we were still cycling down Bear Swamp Road. Even stranger.

“This is a long half mile,” said Margaret, a 54-year-old woman who had volunteered to join me on the ride (adults were needed for each stage of the trip, since I’m 14).

I pulled out Siri and consulted her. She was no longer quite as confused, the blue dot was right on Bear Swamp Road. I zoomed out and, lo and behold, we had missed our turn, and had gone several miles in the wrong direction — the “miraculous” tailwind suddenly made sense. I cursed Siri and resigned myself to the fact that there was absolutely no way we would make it to Jane’s Island State Park that night. We rolled off the sandy surface and onto the smooth tarmac of Johnson Road. Siri showed me a circuitous path southward, and we diligently followed it, teeth gritted against the headwind that tried to push us back along the one-lane roads. The sun made its way ever lower in the sky, casting the wheat fields that lined the road in a swath of gold. It would be dark soon and we were nowhere near a campground. But that was no problem, we could just ask permission to camp on someone’s property. As we neared the outskirts of Princess Anne, I slowed to a stop just outside a stately Victorian house where a tall, muscular man was furiously working a nail into a long piece of wood.

“Hi,” I said to him. He looked up from his nailing. “My friend Margaret and I are just starting a cross-country bike trip. We started in Bethany Beach this morning, going to San Francisco, and we were trying to get to Jane’s Island State Park today, but I don’t think we can make it. Would it be possible to camp on your property?”

“This isn’t my property,” the man told us. “I’m a carpenter. This here’s the Reverend’s house. I can go get him if you like.”

I thanked the man, and he disappeared inside the house. About two minutes later he emerged, followed by a huge, fleshy man who looked to be in his 50s, presumably the Reverend.

“So you’re looking for a place to camp,” he stated, “I have to go check with my wife before I can let you do that.” He rushed into the house, closing the door behind him. After five seconds, he walked back out. “My wife says no. You might be able to camp on the University campus if you want.”

Camp on campus? That sounded promising. We pedaled away and quickly came upon a sign reading “University of Eastern Maryland, Princess Anne.” The campus was completely deserted, and looked as if it had been hit by a zombie apocalypse. Nearing the end of it, we finally found someone, a student in his 20s, walking toward the dorms. We asked him who we should ask to camp.

He led us back the way we had come until we reached the domed Student Services Building, with a sign noting that it was open 24 hours a day. We thanked him, and once he had walked away tried the doors. They were locked. 

We were both exhausted from battling headwinds all day, and just wanted to find a place to sleep. We could resort to a motel for tonight. We rode into Princess Anne, which we soon discovered was motel-less. But all was not lost! Outside a liquor store was a car marked, CAMPUS POLICE — maybe we’d be able to camp on campus after all! We eagerly walked inside the liquor store, where a sinewy cop was chatting with the desk clerk.

“Excuse me,” I said. He looked down curiously at the dirt-crusted, long-haired teenager who was addressing him in what was definitely not a Maryland accent. I explained the situation.

“Well, you two can’t camp on campus,” he asserted. “But I’ll call the Maryland State Police Department. Maybe they’ll know what to do with you.” He dug out his walkie-talkie. “Hello. Yes, this is Sergeant Rolie from the Campus Police, in Princess Anne. I got two women (I decided not to correct him on my gender), who are attempting to bicycle cross country. They’ve made it as far as Princess Anne, and they are too tired to keep going. Could they stay at the police department? Uh huh. I’ll ask ‘em.” He turned to us. “The police station’s about eight miles away. They say you can’t sleep there, but you’re welcome to sit in their lobby.”

“Thanks, but we’ll try and find somewhere else,” I told Sergeant Rolie.

“You can camp on my concrete lot if you’re quiet and gone early in the morning,” offered the store owner, who was beginning to close down his liquor store. Seeing no other options, we accepted. Margaret’s freestanding tent was fine, but my non-freestanding tent would not be able to sit on a concrete lot. Resigning myself to a tentless night with the mosquitoes, I looked around the concrete for the place with the least amount of bird droppings These not auspicious accommodations for the first night of such a long journey.

Unbeknownst to me, Margaret had walked around the area, and came back with a grin on her face.

“I found someone who will let us camp!” she exclaimed excitedly. “He was mowing his lawn and when I explained the situation he was very happy to host us. I think it’ll be significantly better than this concrete lot.”

We happily relocated to a nearby lawn, where Margaret introduced me to Jon. He was smiling so widely that his face seemed to be taken up almost entirely with his grin.

“That’s fantastic what you two are doing!” he exclaimed. “Do you want to shower? Do you need any food? Anything else I can do for you?”

We thanked Jon profusely and slept soundly on his soft green lawn. The next morning, Jon was up early inviting us to cook using his stove and use whatever food we needed. As we were preparing to leave, I was talking to Jon about our planned route, the Sierra Club (I was raising money for them through my trip), and his life. He was an amateur wildlife photographer and had been to all the places where we were planning to go around Chesapeake Bay. He hadn’t travelled much west of Yorktown, but he wanted to.

“Do you want me to send you photos and stories along the way?” I asked. He agreed in an instant.

Almost two and a half months and 4,300 miles later, I arrived at Rodeo Beach on the Pacific Ocean, just north of San Francisco. My journey was full of characters like Jon, people who showed incredible kindness despite being complete strangers, but Jon somehow stood out in my mind. After all of his wishes to explore west of Yorktown, I know that eventually he will. And if he ever arrives in my hometown of Berkeley, California, after a long day battling headwinds, getting lost, and being offered lobbies to sit in, I would happily let him camp in my backyard.

Zeke Gerwein is a 14-year-old adventurer who has crossed the United States by bicycle three times (twice North-South and once East-West). He lives in Berkely, California, where he attends the 9th grade.