My friend Dee would tell you that I’ve been planning to ride my bike up the East Coast for 30 years. I guess she’s right. It feels less like planning, though, and more like an idea that’s been hanging out in the back of my brain’s overstuffed closet, a favorite sweater ignored for a few seasons while I was waiting for the weather to change. I’ve been busy raising kids, moving homes, changing jobs. Even as an empty-nester, the idea of taking two months off from work and leaving my husband and dogs to go ride my bike seemed, well, selfish.
And yet, as bucket-list items go, this one has had legs. There’s the chance to connect the dots of my life: growing up in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Boston; summer jobs on the Chesapeake Bay, Cape Cod, and in Maine; now living in North Carolina. In the second half of my 50s, my right knee won’t let me run any more marathons like I did in my 40s, but I’d like to accomplish one more substantial athletic feat; I’m not quite ready to be a has-been. I’ve only experienced the blissful simplicity of bike-trip life -- stripped down to the few belongings you can carry, few electronic distractions, few responsibilities beyond getting to the next stop -- for a week at a time. I want to see how it feels to live this way for many weeks. By whittling down my roles of wife, mother, colleague, and neighbor, I can take some to time check in with who I am as I approach life’s Act III: the senior years.
I know my body will be happy. I love my work — writing, editing, designing communications — but it’s as sedentary as you can get, planted in front of my computer for hours on end. On a bike trip, riding for hours day after day, the training happens as you go. Your legs grow stronger, your body gets leaner as it adapts to far more activity than just a morning’s run before work. And you have to love the refueling. You follow a hearty breakfast with a mid-morning snack, a decent lunch, a mid-afternoon snack, healthy dinner, and evening snack. It’s required: If you want to keep up decent distances, you have to eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty.
Bicycle touring is a far more satisfying way to travel than by car. You notice the subtlest signs of local culture. You see where the dirt, dry under corn stalks, is sandy and where it’s more like red clay. You find cafes in the middle of a small towns where they serve decent meals, keep your coffee cup and water glass full, and seem tickled to have your business. Curious locals help with directions and wish you luck, telling you to stay safe. A child of the suburbs and sub-developments, I’m thrilled to ride for hours and see nothing but fields and trees. I love the relief of stopping under a tall, broad tree by the side of the road for shade in the middle of a steamy day somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Or the smell of a headwind as it cools into a sea breeze in the last few miles before we hit the coast.
I say “we” because this ride is also about celebrating a long, deep friendship. On our first outing together, Dee and I rode one Saturday from our Boston apartments, about a mile apart, west to Concord and back, a 40-mile ride. That was 1984. Since then, even though I keep moving farther and farther from New England, she and I have ridden thousands of miles together. We rode across Ohio for a week, across New York State for a week, through Vermont a number of times, and more. After running the Boston Marathon together as unofficial “bandits” in 1985, Dee helped me properly qualify for Boston at the 1999 Cleveland marathon and celebrated with me as we ran Boston in 2000. By chance we turned to yoga at the same time as an antidote to our years of running. We’ve since enjoyed a yoga retreat in Costa Rica together and classes whenever we visit each other.
Everyone should meet someone like Dee to remind you of life’s possibilities. I’ve tried to model how she approaches wherever she lives and the people she meets with the genuine curiosity of a tourist, always learning and connecting. She has been my navigator, far more adept at reading maps and assessing routes than I am. She has been my chronicler, saving snapshots of our adventures in dozens of photo albums neatly labeled and dated, helping her remember details of places, meals, and sights that have long left my brain. She’s inspired me. She announced to me one snowy evening in Boston, after we had cross-country skied along the Charles River, that we were going to train and run the marathon that spring — leaving me no room to doubt myself, which is my usual self-narrative. In short, there’s no one else I could imagine taking this trip with.
And so our plans are taking shape. We’ll leave in early May, when Dee’s wife, Sally, drops us off in Key West. We’ll ride the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile route that will take us through 15 states and Washington, D.C. We hope to reach the Canadian border in Maine by mid-July. We’re not camping. Done that, don’t want to carry the gear. Instead we’ll contact friends near the route, stay with some kind-hearted hosts, and book some motel rooms. We hope to see Sally at a few points, including when we reach their home in Rhode Island. We’ll see Bob and stay at our house when we pass through North Carolina. Maybe he’ll join us in Boston, the city where he and I met (and where he met with Dee’s approval). We’re riding right through Boston and a handful of other big cities — New York, Philadelphia, Miami — and through rural stretches, especially in North Carolina.
Why ride the East Coast and not go coast to coast, Atlantic to Pacific? Call me a tame adventuress, but the idea of riding through the desert for days on end and up and over the Rockies sounds kind of how a marathon sounds these days — not fun, just a test of will and grit. The East Coast will surely offer its share of challenges: headwinds, busy roads with trashy shoulders, bleak stretches of strip malls. But as much as I embrace the beauty of remote settings, this child of the suburbs also admits to finding comfort in never being too far from civilization. I value convenience stores for their bathrooms and coffee machines. I welcome roadside motels for their showers and beds at the end of a long day’s ride. I’m hugging the shore: venturing out on the water but not heading for open sea; I’d prefer to keep the coast in sight.
Why now? The road signs got clearer in the last year or so. In December 2016, Dee retired from teaching at Providence College, freeing her schedule beyond just summer and Christmas breaks. A month earlier, in November 2016, I joined the staff of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, the nonprofit organization working to develop this biking and walking path. Lucky for me, the Alliance is based in my recent home of Durham, N.C., and they had a job opening that fit my experience in nonprofit communications. My work is to share news of the organization’s work and to tell stories of the people who use the Greenway and who champion its growth. My boss has kindly granted me a few months leave to go ride. Call it participatory journalism, George Plimpton-style — I know that my first-hand experiences on the Greenway will enhance my work.
Lastly, time’s a wastin’. I’m hot on the heels of 60, Dee is a few years shy of turning 70. We aren’t the spry spring chickens we once were, running a 10K in the morning from Boston Common, then hopping on our bikes to ride all afternoon. We do fine, with accommodations. I’ve got a compression sleeve for my right knee; Dee’s got vitamins and pills to fight bone loss. We’ll need more room than ever in our pannier bags for eyeglasses and contact solution, sunscreen and anti-inflammatories. But we’ll do fine. A few cups of coffee, a few yoga stretches, and we’ll be on our way.
Lisa Watts is a writer, editor, wife, mom. Ask my dogs, they'll tell all.
Bicycle touring, bike trips, aging well, bicycle tourism, bicycling with friends, East Coast Greenway, adventure