The Bike Trip
Peggy Newland Goetz
My mother nearly gave her friends, her fiancÚ, Charley the Chest, and her boss heart attacks during the summer of 1956. She decided to quit her job as a school teacher, leave her friends, and cancel her wedding plans so that she could ride a three speed Schwinn across the country. She was bored and poor and not in the mood to get married and settle down. No more talk about wedding gowns, lesson plans, and midnight kisses with Charley, the man who wanted to own a gas station and pave America. She was going to see the country, get to California and surf-or at least find the surfers. She convinced an old Girl Scouting friend to come along. They trained by riding around the streets of Brooklyn, NY exactly twice. Life was an adventure. What more would she need than to go, following the sun to the Pacific?
She packed a bathing suit, a camping shirt, Bermuda shorts, saddle shoes, a cocktail dress, pearls, stiletto heels, lipstick, and a bible. She wanted to leave room for treasures she might find-cowboy hats from the cowboys she skinny dipped with, keys to the cities she rode through, tire patch kits, a bell for her bike, camera, journal, cigarettes, etchings, and autographs from mayors, store owners, family friends, and strangers who'd watch her ride through town. She was an alien creature, this girl of the '50s, thumbing her nose at life's supposed expectations, and the country opened itself wide to get a taste of her. She was one who wasn't afraid.
When she finally arrived in California, she went on a blind date on a whim and a dare and fell in love with and married the man who looked great in tan pants who later became my father. For reasons unknown, he became a minister soon after they married. Maybe it was the hallelujah of finally meeting the woman bicyclist of his dreams or maybe he was just scared as hell and needed the help of the Big Guy once Mom got ahold of him. No one but the two of them will never know, least of all me.
Looking at their lives, I grew up as a confused kid. In one corner was Dad, the conservative Episcopal minister who quietly grew gardens in our backyard, in the other my mother, inviting beach hippies home to climb trees, to swing with the wind after reincarnation meetings at the Edgar Cayce Institute. Mom and Dad got along as Yin and Yang, Mutt and Jeff, Yoko and John, and I wanted part of that magic somehow. I'd contemplate the possibilities of being like one of them underneath the porch, me being this rather chubby girl with an out of style Pixie haircut. The problem was, I was not exactly raring to lead a congregation in choral selections or be in charge of the Altar Guild with all the polishing that entailed. Nor was I ready to swing or climb, or learn through regression therapy that I was an Egyptian cat from Mesopotamia in one of my past lives.
It wasn't until Mom began telling and retelling, and yes, retelling again her bicycle story to scores of church folks, neighbors, strangers, and people in lines at the grocery store, that I really began listening to her stories and could imagine myself on that trip, smiling so hard at the cameras that always seemed to follow her and swimming bare naked with hooting cowboys. I realized that my mother was a celebrity and here I was living in the shadow of adventure, of overwhelming excitement. These thoughts of following in my mother's pedal steps festered and stewed inside my head as I grew up. They kept me company as I pressed my feet into saddle oxfords in Junior High School, plastered my Farrah Fawcett winged hair up and out with Aquanet in High School, and tried every major available to me in college.
To some I seemed directionless, a n'er do well, the girl who picked and chewed upon her life instead of devouring it. But I knew my fate was sealed, I knew the direction I had to go, and in 1996, after many jobs, many ruined relationships, many wrong turns past the exit ramps of life, I met and married Brian, who thought I wasn't a bit crazy for wanting to ride my bike across the country. He didn't care if we maxed out our credit cards or if we didn't have jobs when we returned from the trip. He went with it, and we rode.
Mom was at home in Virginia Beach when Brian and I followed her route forty years later. And it drove her crazy because she wanted to be with us. She wanted to know every crack in road, every meal we'd eaten, every skinny dipping hole we'd found when we talked every night on the phone. It got to be somewhat of a nightmare as her questions, concerns and suggestions focused on why we were taking the easy way out.
My mother camped in farmers' backyards, we stayed in Motel 6's; she rode a 50 pound three-speed, we rode 24 speeds with shocks; she ate Rib Eye steaks and drank Manhattans, we did Taco Bell and bought six packs; she wore saddle shoes and Bermuda shorts, we looked like space aliens in our polypropylene. I'm not proud to say it in the age of Power Bar, good HDL/bad HDL, Neanderthal marathons up the Himalayas and such (just read any Outside or Muscle Magazine) but we were the loser yuppies to her Ma Kettle.
"Why aren't you camping?" she'd ask.
"Because we like beds," I'd say.
"Are people letting you sleep in their barns?"
"We don't want to sleep in barns."
"Why are you wearing all that fancy gear? You look like scuba divers," she'd comment. "I didn't need all that crap."
"It's the way of world now, Ma," I'd answer from some motel room. "I'm not as tough as you were."
"Like hell you aren't." And she'd cackle and I'd see her sitting in the backyard, holding a Marlboro between her fingers, letting the smoke rise to the pines. "You're just like me."
A scary thought. Am I following in her footsteps, becoming her by riding this bike or just taking her adventure as a blueprint for my own? Will I become this Marlboro smoking, wood chopping wonder who thumbs her nose at society but opens her eyes to the world? I'd smile, feeling the metal armor of her tough pride in me, then wonder, is this something to aspire to or run away from?
But then she'd add, "Twenty-four speeds? I only had three."
"I'm not riding for three months, like you had," I'd maneuver. "Just 55 days."
"Well, I stopped and smelled the flowers. Didn't rush around." Her words were quick and filled with pepper.
"I have a job to get back to," I pushed on.
"Why didn't you quit?" A jab. "I did." An upper cut.
"I need the money."
"So get a job in the Grand Canyon like I did. Be a chamber maid and get some tips."
We were jostling for position, cutting each other off, throwing the punches of mother at daughter, and daughter right back at a mother, her words like salve to my ears, the subtle layers of love soaking into me each night on the phone.
"I could come along for some of the way," she'd always say at the end of the conversation. "Rent a Winnebago and find you out on the road."
"No," I'd say and she'd stay quiet for uncomfortable moments. I'd listen to her breath on the phone and see her eyes, steely, staring out past the window into the distance. It would be so easy to say yes, come on out, find me, lead me to the destination, ease it all for me Mom-but I didn't. This was a place I wanted to hold for myself.
"I'm just so proud of you," she finally said one night, and I remember holding the phone tightly between my hands. She repeated it again, and it was like all the words, all the pressure was gone. I wanted to see her face, hold it ever so gently in my hands.
The days seemed to shorten as we went west, and I wanted to make time stand still, stay long moments, soak in the movement of Brian and me on bicycles going forward. To finish the journey meant going back, returning, and this sense of transition, of riding forward was more tranquil. But the day came and as we stopped at a lookout above the mountains of Oakland, California, I closed my eyes and saw the moment, held it there. That moment had a taste of cornfields, of sea salt, of hot sun on asphalt and Colorado snow. I swallowed it whole as we rode down to the ocean, where my mother and father, brother, and friends had formed a welcoming party, for mom had flown out a week before we arrived.
I guess you never get over being bested by your mother. But when I hit that Pacific Beach with Mom trailing me as she loves to do with her old 110 camera minus a battery, I felt a dynasty falling, a long history of occupation, a forceful movement between daughter and mother transitioning to something shared. It was no longer her life and my life, but a shared story telling of our lives together. Of something done well or in my case, simply done. The insistent voices of my childhood, this dream of discovering something found through her, were all now golden.
© Peggy Newland Goetz
Peggy Newland Goetz has written a book about this trip, The Adventure of Two Lifetimes, available on Anacus Press, Inc. More information at www.TheAdventureBook.com.
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