One fated morning in 1974, I rolled out of bed in the tiny apartment that my mother and I shared in Auburn, Maine. She was up early and was outside tinkering on our bikes, an ancient red Schwinn with three speeds and a pink girl’s bike with a banana seat.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Getting ready for vacation. We’re going to the beach!” Mother said excitedly.
My eyes widened with surprise. Living in inland Maine, we yearned to get to the ocean but rarely did. We couldn’t afford a car so we either walked, rode bikes, or took a bus wherever we needed to go. Now it seemed that we were going to ride the 40 miles of hilly, two-lane highways to Popham Beach. As a nine-year-old used to my mother’s eccentric, sometimes foolhardy, flights of fancy, I didn’t even question this. And if it meant eating lobster and fried clams and playing on the beach, I was all in.
Once our bike chains had been liberally doused with 3-in-1 oil, we took off. We carried little with us, just backpacks with rain jackets, beach towels, snacks, and water. Overweight and with a newly repaired heart valve, Mom led the way very slowly. We snaked our way through the harrowing traffic until we found Route 196 or the Old Lisbon Road that would connect us with the ocean. There were no bike lanes, just a narrow breakdown lane often filled with broken glass and debris.
Like all roads in Maine, Route 196 undulated over continuous rolling hills, ensuring there was little actual pedaling involved. We pushed our heavy bikes up each hill, clambering on again to speed down the other side. My pigtails flew and whacked me in the face as the wind curled around my bare head. My mother’s house dress billowed and waved behind her like a bridal train.
Every 18-wheeler that passed us created a frightening wall of wind that pushed us sideways and forward. Cars honked their horns at us, making us jump, and sometimes passed so closely that we pulled quickly off into the dirt to avoid them. It was nerve-wracking and loud and certainly not a relaxing vacation. The banana seat chafed my thighs, and my short legs grew sore. My mother began to stop more frequently to catch her breath, leaning over her handlebars, her sides heaving.
After 10 miles, numerous breaks, one stop to get help with a flat, and several hours later, I whined, “I’m hungry!” and we stopped at a corner store. Mom took out the wad of cash she’d been carefully saving for our vacation and we ordered our favorite treat: Italian salami sandwiches, ice-cold cokes, a bag of chips, Needham candies, and whoopie pies. We sat on the stoop of the store and devoured our meal, letting our sore legs rest. I was tired but happy, enjoying the respite from our usual lives. As the afternoon wore on, our crawling pace turned glacial. I filled the time by peering into yards, watching birds, and singing songs to myself. By late afternoon, we’d ridden more than 20 miles. All I wanted to do was crawl into the grass to sleep, but I worried about where we were going to eat dinner and stay for the night. We had already passed through the town of Brunswick and were heading deeper into the country with only a few houses visible from the road.
“Are we almost there? I want to stop now!” I began to cry.
“Come on, we’ll stay here tonight!” My mother turned her bike into the driveway of the first house we saw. I followed her up the steps of the old farmhouse, she knocked on the door, and we waited. We’d never been to this house before, and when a woman came to the door, I knew we’d never met.
“Yes?” the woman said. “Can I help you?”
“Yes, you can,” Mother said with confidence. “My daughter and I are biking from Auburn to the coast.” She motioned to our bikes lying tangled in the grass as proof. “We are tired and need a place to stay for the night. Can we stay here?”
The woman looked startled for a moment, then smiled warily and asked us to wait a moment. She disappeared into the house, talking quietly to someone. When she returned, her husband was with her. He looked us up and down — my mom in her flowered muumuu, weary face, and grease-stained hands, and me in my road-grimy high-water pants and tired eyes — and nodded.
We followed them into the house where they showed us a spare room and invited us to join the family for dinner. We sat at their table like guests of honor, inhaled a home-cooked meal, and then retired to our room to sleep until dawn.
The next day brought more pedaling and pushing, but I could smell the ocean and it invigorated me. Finally, Popham Beach stretched out before us. The joy and relief of making it to our destination were overwhelming.
As I think back on these memories, I realize that the trip that took us days to complete would take only hours today on my sleek, light road bike.
We abandoned our bikes near some driftwood and dug our tired feet into the sun-warmed sand. We walked the beach, picking up enticing shells. Mom stretched out on a towel and took a nap in the sun, while I splashed in the frigid water and made sandcastles. We ate a pile of fried clams, lobster rolls, French fries, and soda — a feast by our usual standards. I chased seagulls and frolicked until I was sunburned and had sand in every crevice. It felt like I was a million miles from home in some far and exotic land. Every pedal stroke to get there and back home again seemed worth it.
As I think back on these memories, I realize that the trip that took us days to complete would take only hours today on my sleek, light road bike. For my mother and me, though, it was the equivalent of today’s self-contained, multiday adventure cycling trip.
I tasted the feeling of freedom and accomplishment from getting somewhere under my own power, and the love of adventure was instilled. As I plan my next bike adventure, I give thanks to my mom for being my first adventure cycling tour leader.
Thank you Olivia! I love the characterization of my mom as a badass! The funny thing is, it wasn't that she knew that she was attempting something difficult for an overweight woman with a bad heart and her 9 year old - she just didn't even consider that it wasn't something that people did, or that the people whose doors we knocked on would ever say no! (By the way we did similar trips several times and people never turned us down!). Thanks for your comments!
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Lin, I just love this story so much! You're mama was a total badass: way ahead of her time (and bicycle technology). Forty miles on those heavy bikes would be one heck of a bike tour, and I agree: it's not the miles that count, it's that feeling of freedom and accomplishment. Thanks so much for sharing this memory with us!