Strong as an Oaks

Jul 21st, 2020

This story originally appeared in the August/September 2020 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. 

Week 2: The  sun was up, but its light barely penetrated the thick, moss-covered spruce trees surrounding our tent. “Oaks, wake up, buddy,” I said. “It’s showtime.” Without hesitation, he sloughed off his sleeping bag and began to break camp.

Oakley, my 16-year-old son, was in charge of packing up the tent while I rustled us up some breakfast. Today was a big day, and we both knew we had no time to waste. We needed to get up and over the 5,325-foot McKenzie Pass before noon because severe thunderstorms were expected in the afternoon.

By 6:45 am we had begun our ascent. Oaks began chattering on about all manner of middle-school drama. His talk actually helped, and rather than tune him out, I asked him one-word questions to try to keep us both distracted from the burning in our thighs.

We climbed out of the dark forest at about Mile 14 and entered an area that had experienced many forest fires, making it look alpine in nature. Blankets of beautiful purple, pink, and blue flowers covered the ground, and the trees were all stubby. We had risen into the clouds, and the result made the landscape ethereal.

Oakley was beginning to run out of chat. I worried we were losing his good cheer. He had already eaten three monster-sized protein bars so I didn’t think food would help his energy level. This seemed to be a pattern to approaching exhaustion: chatter, quiet, irritation, fury.

When the occasional car passed us now, I worried about visibility. “Car,” I reported to Oaks when I heard one approaching from behind.

“What do you think I am, deaf?!” he said.

“Just trying to keep us alive, Oaks.”

“I am not a baby!”

“Nope, you are tough as hell.”

“My knee hurts!”

“So does mine.”

“Don’t say that! You don’t know how it feels!”

Thus we passed our next five miles. And then, just as we were sure to come to blows, we came around a switchback and rising before us were the Three Sisters. These three mountains were astounding. They had jagged, craggy peaks and wore skirts of glaciers. They towered off to one side of the pass. On the other side was a vast lava field. Who knew?

Oaks stopped on the side of the road. He clambered up the sharp, porous lava boulders and surveyed the land. He had never seen anything like this, nor had I. “This is amazing,” he declared. We were truly awestruck.

“No more bad mood?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“No way!”

As we hopped back on our bikes, the last four miles of the climb to the pass seemed effortless. We oohed and ahhed and exclaimed at everything we saw.

Then we were there. There was a tower constructed of volcanic rock with steps leading to the top. Oaks ditched his bike and ran up the stairs. I hobbled after him. And there, with a 360-degree view of the volcanic core of Mount Washington, Mount Hood, the Three Sisters, and the Belknap Crater, Oakley did a backflip.

Oakley takes flight from a shipwreck on the coast of Oregon at Fort Stevens State Park on the first night of the adventure.
Leah Day

Week 5

I cried three times. Once when Oakley and I were finishing up a 68-mile day in the hot desert sun and my spokes broke. It was the second time this had happened, and my frustration got the best of me. We were 20 miles from the nearest town, and I was out of ideas and felt short on gumption. “What are we going to do, Oakley?” I asked, sitting on a guardrail, my head in my hands, sweat running down my chin.

“Send me home?” he responded, equally worn out. And the tears came. I swallowed hard and decided to ignore him and stick out my thumb.

A logger picked us up. He drove us to a bike store in Hamilton, Montana, and reminded us, apropos of nothing, that we choose the life we live every day. That we were lucky and made a good team. “You could catch a flight home today if you wanted,” he said. “But you’re here because you want to be here.” We both acknowledged the truth in this, and Oakley later apologized. It was the first time he was able to say he was choosing this. It wasn’t because I was making him, but rather a challenge of his choosing.

The second time I cried was because I got two flat tires in one afternoon. (There seemed to be a pattern here.) The first we changed, and then due to an unseen malfunction (a metal burr chafing against the valve stem), it popped again. We were out of spares. This time an elderly rancher picked us up. We told him about our misfortune, and he responded that his dog had just been hit and killed by a truck that very morning.

The third time I cried was because I was homesick for the rest of my family. I was longing to give a hug, and I was tired. I’m only human.

I had been awestruck many more times. A couple stood out. The first was the day we rode through Big Hole into Wisdom, Montana. As we descended into the town, miles and miles of sagebrush a color that can only be described as greenish purplish blue spread out before us under the biggest sky I have ever seen. And there, 50 miles from any other town, was Wisdom.

It was comprised of maybe 10 buildings with a population of 91. We sidled up to a little café to see about some dinner, and as we ate, we were joined by half the town congregating to talk about the day. A little dog walked in through the café’s open door and peed on the floor. Everyone just laughed about the establishment’s open-door policy. Later, walking back at twilight to the town park where we could camp for free, we listened to coyotes yodeling and cows lowing as they bedded down under the star-filled night. I could live in Wisdom.

The second moment came when we descended out of Yellowstone into the Grand Tetons. The Teton mountains rose up majestically. They still wore skirts of snow, and their jagged peaks held court over beautiful Jackson Lake. Oakley commented that the scene reminded him of a screen saver. High praise from a teenager.

Climbing toward dawn on White Bird Pass, Idaho. The only sounds were chortling coyotes and birds waking up.
Leah Day

Week 6

It was twilight, and I was walking through the Wyoming desert alone. Oakley had chosen to stay behind and read his book. He was exhausted after another 65-mile day. That day we had traveled through the Wind River Reservation to Jeffrey City in southwest Wyoming. I just felt the need to stretch my legs before calling it a night.

Through the encroaching darkness, a few miles away from this small cluster of buildings deep in the vast desert dusk, I could see the distant glow from the light in a lone trailer nestled under a rocky outcropping. “What were they doing out there?” I wondered. It was incredibly isolated. It must be lonely.

The wind seemed to blow continually in this area, and riding in it was a huge nuisance. Tonight though, as my hair whipped around my face, I welcomed it. It felt cool and soothing. I strolled down a sandy road that seemed to lead nowhere. The sand under my flip-flops pillowed my feet.

After Oakley’s constant chatter, I embraced this moment of solitude. The quiet was a balm to a day that had been filled with intensity: sweat, sun, wind, Oakley’s many moods, trucks whizzing by. I breathed in the silence.

Along the side of the road, there was a herd of antelope. The males stood proudly with their tall, black, pronged antlers, looking at me quizzically and sizing up whether or not I was a threat. The females stood close by their young, some springing away as I approached, showing me their fluffy white behinds that seemed to glow in the darkening night.

A fox ran across the road 10 feet in front of me. His eyes caught mine for an instant, and then he was gone.

It had become truly dark, and I knew I should head back. Oakley would worry. Before I turned around, I peered once more out at the trailer set against the rocks so far from this little town. Someone was in there. They lived here and could experience this every night. I think then I did understood what they were doing out here.

Week 8

Since Oakley and I had descended from the Rocky Mountains, we were drowning in wind. It was in the mid-90s every day, and the wind was blowing a sustained 20 mph with gusts up to 50.

It was hard to catch our breath as we slogged across the plains. Dirt and dust blew up from the overcultivated fields and feedlots, and a haze of yellow grit formed over the land, reducing visibility. This grit burned our eyes, got in our ears, parched our throats, and covered our skin with a coat of grime. I had a sneaking suspicion that it was heavily laden with pesticides.

We had taken to retreating to town libraries every afternoon and reading for hours. We fantasized about iced tea constantly. We sought out mom-and-pop movie theaters, and we went for walks when the evenings cooled. And at least once a day we forgave each other for our snappish behavior and acknowledged that we were in this together.

The wind was supposed to quiet the next day, and I hoped to be able to look out upon these beautiful plains without squinting. To absorb the incredibly wide expanse of land that was far larger and flatter than I had ever comprehended before.

The day before, I had overheard a local woman in Scott City, Kansas, say as she blew into the library, “If there is one woman in Kansas who doesn’t use hair spray, I don’t know her! It’s the only way to survive!” Maybe if the wind didn’t die down, we would try that next. Couldn’t hurt.  

Setting out on fully loaded bikes for the first time, full of excitement and trepidation at Mile 1 in Astoria, Oregon.
Leah Day

Week 9

When I thought about this bicycling adventure across the U.S., I felt as though I had been on three different epic quests: a quest to see and understand the world better, an internal quest to see what I am made of, and a parenting quest.

The first was the most enjoyable: experiencing the deserts, the small towns, the magnificent rivers, the wildlife, and the people, all strikingly different and yet so much the same.

I learned how the land across North America was shaped and how this land held different ecosystems that all encompassed their own worlds, pressing up against each other and mixing together along the edges. There were little connections between them of migrating animals and flowing waterways, but for the most part they were separate and distinct and changed from one hour to the next as we pedaled through. There’s a startling variety of life and landscape in this country.

I found that most everyone is kind if given the opportunity, no matter what their ideologies or lifestyles. When we needed help, it was always there. We had lunch paid for by strangers, rides to bike shops when our bikes broke down, ice-cold bottles of water and snacks handed to us as we cycled by, offers of lodging, money given, and countless cheers, thumbs up, and friendly honks. It was incredible to experience this support and generosity, both at home from friends and from perfect strangers. It really, truly fueled us.

Then there was my personal quest. This trip was incredibly demanding physically and emotionally. The hills were huge, the winds fierce, the dogs scary, and feeling as though I didn’t know what the next day would hold was exhausting. I had to push myself further than I ever have. I had to fling myself into the unknown over and over. I know a lot of people have successfully completed a bike tour across America with panache, but for me it was deeply challenging. I was homesick and longed for my husband, my other children, my dog, and the safety and security of my own bed. I was interested to see how it would shape me. I couldn’t tell you then because the challenges were still coming.

The third quest was a motherhood quest. Spending 12 weeks with my 16-year-old son in such an intense way was a psychological trip unto itself. What he was accomplishing was nothing short of incredible.

For 70 days, he woke up beside his mother (hard enough in itself), packed up our tent on his own, and then hit the road for six to eight hours of cycling, averaging 60 miles a day and carrying more weight than his dear old ma. He climbed all the hills, ate all the nasty food, traversed all the windy deserts, slept on all the concrete and sodden ground, all without bailing out on me or outright refusing to go farther. He told me endless stories (specifically, every single superhero movie in detail) to entertain us both. He encouraged me when I despaired after getting lost again and again, once even taking us 20 miles out of our way.

Sometimes he lost his good humor and lapsed into blaming me for all wrongs, but it was always short lived, and he always came around quickly. He even apologized. On top of all this, he did schoolwork — math, writing, and reading — and he ended every single day by putting up our tent. That was a tremendous gift.

It was a great challenge to spend this much time with any one person, and he did drive me crazy. I knew that I drove him crazy, too, but in this moment of clarity, I just couldn’t believe that he was doing this. That we were doing this. That we found a way.

Oakley surveying the Snake River at Hells Canyon, Idaho.
Leah Day

Week 11

On the last evening of our adventure, Oakley and I camped on the side of the James River, 30 miles from the finish line at Yorktown. We made a fire and sat up talking about our highs and lows and appreciating each other’s strengths on the trip. We slept under the stars next to the dying embers. In the morning, the sun rose over the river, turning the early fog pink. “Come on, Mom. Get up, let’s go!” called Oaks.

I sat up slowly and gazed about, feeling quieted by the magnitude of this day. Suddenly we both heard a roaring clatter coming toward us. Was it a military jet? A huge powerboat? We froze and peered in the direction of the sound. “What the hell?” said Oakley, a little on edge.

All at once, the sky filled with birds. Thousands of grackles descended on our campsite. Truly thousands. More than I had ever seen. The cacophony they made was so loud that we had to shout over them, which we did, sharing our disbelief at their numbers and noise.

The grackles ousted a couple of hawks and a handful of turkey vultures that began circling overhead. A young raccoon went scurrying across our campsite and dove into a hole halfway up an oak tree right next to our picnic table. The grackle party went on and on. It was a madhouse. We packed up while this symphony was underway. It was like fireworks; it was like a party. It was the perfect send-off, and I shed tears again.

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