Emily Kimball

True Companions

Apr 21, 2020
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This story originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. 

On May 12, 1993, five strangers gathered at my home in Virginia to begin a cross-country bicycle tour. My four fellow cyclists had answered an ad I’d placed in the Companions Wanted column of Adventure Cyclist magazine. They were Corrine, 54; John, 41; Phil, 52; and Sheila, 35. I was 61.

I had become enamored with cycling in my 40s, riding with the Richmond Area Bicycling Association. Gaining confidence, I signed up for my first loaded tour with what was then Bikecentennial for a journey from Maine to Pennsylvania. It wasn’t easy — I suffered the steep hills with my steel bike. I had never heard of a granny gear! I was always the last one in, but I loved every minute of it. Once home, I bought a Fuji touring bicycle with a true granny gear. Properly outfitted, I toured 1,500 miles each in Great Britain and New Zealand. In anticipation of retiring at 61, I set about finding others to join me on the biggest challenge I’d ever faced: a ride across the U.S. 

The Cookie Lady and Camping in Caves

Our journey got off to a rocky start. On our second day, we faced a detour because of a damaged bridge. Rather than add miles, we decided to wheel our bikes over the half-repaired span, throw our panniers across a small strip of open water, and walk our bikes through it. The clay soil on the other side claimed one shoe and nearly took a few derailers too.

The next day, I caught a squirrel gnawing a huge hole in my front pannier and had to find a pay phone to order a new one. 

As we struggled up Virginia’s Afton Mountain with our loaded bikes — it seemed almost vertical — we quickly became thankful for the famed “cookie lady,” June Curry. We sprayed down our sweaty bodies and filled our bottles with a hose, then ventured inside for cookies. A wall covered in postcards from cross-country cyclists faced us. They had written June by the hundreds to say, “We made it to the coast.” She encouraged us to spend the night, but we were headed to Sherando Lake for a rest day.

A thick fog, pounding rain, and lightning forced us to camp in a cave along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We hid our bikes in the tall grass and carried sleeping bags, food, and cooking gear up the hill to the cave. We crossed into Kentucky at the “Grand Canyon of the South,” Breaks Interstate Park, and John bid farewell, complaining that our pace was too slow. The glory of our trip was that we had no deadline and could explore what interested us along the way. To my delight, my new pannier arrived.

A twister and coal trucks

We pedaled 65 miles into Kentucky to reach the Pissa Pass Home Hostel. I walked my bike over several steep hills and was wiped out when I arrived, planning to eat a peanut butter sandwich and go straight to bed. The hostess, however, had been expecting us. She cooked an incredible meal, so I partook in chicken and dumplings, green beans and corn from her garden, homemade bread, jam, and apple pie — a wonderful welcome to Kentucky. 

As we hit the road the next morning, we met the state’s coal trucks speeding by, spilling lumps of coal on narrow roads with no shoulders. We talked with the drivers at truck stops (good places to have a hearty meal) and they told us they drove fast in order to carry more loads and earn more money. The streets of these small towns were lined with old washing machines, stained bathtubs, and rusty throwaways. As we rode further into Kentucky, the scenery changed: deep purple vetch, white ox-eye daisies, yellow clover, and the sweet smell of honeysuckle permeated the air. Yes, there were rolling hills that required hard pedaling, but the black barns, yellow goldfinches, and stone walls were beautiful and comforting.

We encountered some of our worst weather of the ride in Kentucky. I was riding behind the others when a torrential rain struck. I ran to take shelter on a backyard swing with an attached cover. Suddenly the cover blew off and bird baths, lawn furniture, and tree branches were flying through the air. Frightened, I ran to the porch and plastered myself against the wall, arms raised to protect my head. Porch chimes clanged as the fierce wind whipped them back and forth. Eventually the weather calmed down and, as I rode on, trees and downed power lines lay across the road. A mobile home sat in ruins. What I had experienced was a tornado with 100 mph winds! My buddies were safely hiding out in a garage. The next day we pedaled to a symphony of buzzing chain saws and the smell of sawdust.

During another storm, we retreated under the canopy at Dixon’s Hardware and mingled with farmers visiting the store. They even introduced us to the ex-mayor. These “good old boys” were quite interested in our journey and offered us lots of advice (it seemed clear that they had never ridden a bike!).

Crossing the tip of Illinois, we stopped for breakfast in Chester. The restaurant was filled with Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy figures for sale. We were mystified by the abundance of these 1940s souvenirs. Later, as we prepared to cross the Mississippi River on a small ferry ($1 for bikes) to enter Missouri, we passed a six-foot bronze statue of Popeye. Turns out the creator of Popeye, Elzie Crisler Segar, was a local hero! 

And then there were three

Missouri, with its beautiful, hilly Ozark Mountain roads that follow the Current and Jacks Fork rivers, offered many adventures: a tubing trip down the spring-fed rivers, delicious meals cooked by Sheila’s mother and cousin who were visiting, camping in a county amusement park with the sounds of bumper cars echoing in the distance, a float through chutes carved by the Black River in Shut-Ins State Park, and a post office that delivered mail to our campsite (15 letters!). As planned, Phil, our fourth rider, left to tend to his farm. Now we were three women, and we intended to finish!

Haying on the Plains

The flat roads and fields of sunflowers welcomed us to Kansas. The wind was challenging — it mainly slowed us down but sometimes sped us up to 16 mph. The other peril was heat. Exhausted from riding in 102°F, we stopped at the Sunshine Café in Nickerson, population 1,187. Entering the café, the cold air revived us. Local farmers June and Jim Gladden joined us. “How would you like to help us bring in the hay?” they asked. We looked at each other in amazement and answered, “Yes!”

Kansas was the halfway point of our journey, and we were delighted to rest and experience farm life. We helped with the hay, slept in real beds, and were fed great meals. Two days later, we returned to the Sunshine Café and were treated to breakfast and presented with Sunshine Café caps. We soon found ourselves sharing the road with “itinerate harvesters,” people with the equipment needed to cut farmers’ wheat and barley. These huge trucks towed combines and other machinery on long platforms as well as a series of bunkhouses for their workers. To pedal beside the lengthy trains of weaving monstrosities was downright intimidating.

High Points

After ascending Colorado’s 11,542-foot Hoosier Pass, we turned north toward Wyoming and Montana. After passing through Wyoming’s wide-open spaces, large ranches, and stunning red hills, we tackled the 9,568-foot climb up the Tetons (in a light snow) and camped in the park for several days. At the School House Hostel in Lamont, population 10, we ran into our second Bikecentennial group of the trip and had another wild night sharing our adventures. 

A Skinny Dip at 62

We rode up the 24-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road to Logan Pass in steady rain. Bikes had to be off the road by 11:00 am so we got an early start. We hoped for a cup of hot coffee at the top, but the building just housed books and souvenirs. It was raining hard enough to make the descent dangerous so we reluctantly took the shuttle back. We were soaked to the skin and shivering. Because it was my 62nd birthday, we splurged and had dinner at the lodge. I discovered that the only dry item I had was my sleeping outfit — I put that on and placed the least-wet items on next. We brought our clothes to the lodge, hanging them in hopes they would dry during dinner. Before leaving Glacier, I celebrated the first skinny dip at age 62 in frigid Lake McDonald. What a refreshing bolt of reality that provided — I came totally alive! 

The Home Stretch

Leaving Montana, we had a short ride through the Idaho Panhandle following the Pend Oreille River on a lovely backroad viewing farms, cows, and summer homes. Soon we crossed into Washington. Pedaling through the Cascades was so different from Wyoming’s Tetons with their jagged peaks rising sharply to the sky, footed in glacial lakes. The Cascades were rounder, worn down, and older — more mysterious and remote. I felt their closeness as I rode among them. We were on our way to the North Star Farm Hostel near Coleville. It was highly recommended though five miles off-route. Conversations with the women who ran the hostel revealed one led bike tours for Backroads, and the other had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.

Feeling well fed and rested the next day, we left to tackle our first climb. The pass was steep and challenging, and my journal read, “Boy am I tired of being on my bicycle.”

After struggling over three more mountain passes, we reached the hardest one, 5,477-foot Washington Pass. It was a long, winding climb, becoming impossibly steep in the final mile. I stopped twice to rest, have a snack, and catch my breath. This helped. Then, gritting my teeth, I threw my leg over the bike and continued. A view from the overlook showed narrow glacial valleys, waterfalls, and rugged rock formations. I gazed out at this scene in awe. Viewing America’s natural wonders from the seat of my bicycle allows for such intimacy with the environment. 

Joy, Celebration, Wonder

Our trip was almost over. My legs ached. It had been three and a half months since we left Virginia, and I was ready to meet up with the Pacific Ocean. With smiles on our faces, we shouted, “We made it, we made it!” and dipped our wheels in the water. A stranger took our picture. That night we celebrated with champagne and an expensive dinner. Our 4,663-mile bike trip across America was over.

Finishing brought a range of emotions: relief, sadness, and amazement that I made it all the way. I waited for my niece to arrive in her boat to take me to the San Juan Islands for a visit with my brother, feeling happy to rest before heading home — on an airplane! 

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Comments

Hope Woodard May 11, 2020, 11:25 AM

Thank you for sharing this story! It was so interesting and exciting to hear about the kindness people can find on the trail. Really a great story!

Pamela Fischer April 23, 2020, 7:14 AM

I had the great good fortune to meet and ride with Emily 14 years ago on a week long, C&O Canal GAP tour. It was my first organized bike tour, and her enthusiasm was a highlight that I've never forgotten. I left our newfound acquaintance with a promise to myself to be like her and always be open to the next adventure. Like many of us who join ACA tours, we were in contact a few times after that tour, but lost touch over the years. I was thrilled to read her story and know that she is still out there inspiring others to get on their bikes and live that dream. Thank you, Emily! You are a force of nature.

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