As with any story, a degree of background is necessary to contextualize the events that I share in the following pages. This is a story of redemption and healing. In order to rise, I had to first sink. It is my hope that you feel inspired by my journey – that you can take my experience as one that lends hope to your own circumstances, whatever they may be. I also hope this book inspires you to go on your own adventures, to chase after your dreams, and to take on life with childlike wonder and excitement. I urge you to take on things that scare you. The ideas and dreams that really scare the shit out of you – those are the things you must do.
My journey begins in June of 2009 as I cruised north on I-75 with my road bike strapped to the back of my little Hyundai Tiburon. Two suitcases of clothes and a duffel bag of bike gear were crammed in the hatch. My cocker spaniel, Chloe, was falling asleep in the passenger seat beside me. I’d opted to ditch the oppressive Florida heat for the crisp, cool air of the Colorado Rockies. I’d spent the previous three years trying to convince myself of things I knew weren’t right for me. I was with the wrong guy, at the wrong job, in the wrong city. Life was off.
So I ran.
I quit my job as a high school teacher, gained acceptance into graduate school, and drove to Colorado for the summer.
Just a month earlier, my intention had been to get into a university in D.C. and move in with my boyfriend, Blake (the guy I knew was wrong for me). Blake was a military officer who worked in the White House. We’d been together for four rocky years. My relationship with him was largely a reflection of things that were wrong with me, as many toxic relationships are. I think we’ve all had a Blake in our lives at some point – that guy or girl that just sort of intoxicates you, who sucks you in so deeply you can no longer tell up from down. I knew Blake was bad for me, but I was also enchanted by him in this warped sort of way. He was a textbook narcissist and the longer I stayed with him, the smaller and more insignificant I felt. Over time, I began to believe he was all I deserved, that he was as good as it got. I also stayed with him because he resembled what I thought I was supposed to have secured by my mid-twenties: a handsome, successful, good-on-paper man to marry, settle down with, and father the kids I didn’t even want.
Truly, I’d never had a desire to get married or have babies, but I was rounding the corner in life where that norm sat, expectantly. I was 26 and feared that if I didn’t act soon, my fate as an old maid would be sealed. At 26, I’d not yet learned how to wave my middle finger at social norms and blaze my own trail. And so, after Blake asked me to move in (which truly shocked the hell out of me), I agreed. I gained acceptance into multiple grad schools in the D.C. area and planned to move after I finished my last semester of teaching.
However, Blake had other plans.
We were driving back to Salt Lake City to fly home after a week of mountain biking and camping in Moab, Utah. I think another thing that kept me from leaving Blake was his sense of adventure. I’d never been with someone imbued with such a wild, free spirit. He excited me. He woke the sleepy adventurer in myself and I was afraid that if I lost him, I’d lose the adventure, as well.
Soon enough, I would realize I could create adventure without him.
I stared out the window of our rental car as we drove back to Salt Lake City. Something about the Utah red rocks are spiritual and magical to me. Leaning my head against the icy passenger window, I soaked up the silence – a rare occasion when Blake was around. As everyone back home was enjoying spring break in their swimsuits, a light snow dusted the Utah landscape. Snowflakes intermittently hit the windshield and melted, morphing at once from tiny fragments of perfect beauty into droplets of water, never to be the same again. They made me think about how fast change could happen. How unpredictable life could be.
I knew there was something on Blake’s mind – he was never quiet for this long. His whist told me a storm was coming. Any minute now, I thought.
He broke the silence with a quick, sharp breath, as if he were about to say something, but stopped himself, deciding to plan his words more carefully. He repeated this a couple minutes later, drawing in a deep breath and then holding his tongue again. I looked at him from the corner of my eyes, not moving my head. He stared ahead at the road with his brow furrowed, avoiding my gaze. “Just get it out,” I mumbled. “I know there’s something.” Experience taught me that whatever he had to say was going to sting. I also knew he was trying to choose his words carefully, not for fear of hurting me, but as a practice of damage control.
Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore. “You should get your own place in D.C.,” he said, coolly. It was one week before my grad school admission decisions were due. “That way, we can visit each other and just date.”
His tone was matter-of-fact and harsh— Quintessential Blake. He had the ability to be unemotional in a way that I never understood. We had many fights over his complete lack of sensitivity. One time, he admitted to me that he didn’t know how to be empathetic. “It just doesn’t register to me,” he tried to explain. I had a bad habit of turning a blind eye to red flags in relationships. My insistence on giving everyone the benefit of the doubt was quickly cementing me into a pattern of dysfunctional romances, and Blake was no exception.
I continued to stare out the window in unreactive silence. This was so typical of Blake and his epic fear of anything that resembled commitment, despite his recent, short-lived conviction about living together. Throughout our relationship, he vacillated between the part of him that wanted to be in a relationship and the part that wanted to be a globetrotting bachelor for the rest of his life. Countless arguments and temporary breakups had resulted. He wanted what he wanted, on whatever whim he happened to experience it. This was the Blake Show. And despite fully recognizing this, I always came back for more. I always bought front row tickets, and he knew this.
And just date? What did that even mean?
Just date, I thought again. We’d been discussing moving in together over the last several months, and now he wanted to just date? Never mind the financial disaster that getting my own place in one of the most expensive cities in the country would have meant for a graduate student living on a stipend. I sat there, holding back tears, not wanting him to see he had successfully hurt me, yet again. Blake enjoyed the emotional control over me, knowing how to push my buttons and kick me to the ground more swiftly than anyone else in my life had ever been able to. I wasn’t mad. I wasn’t even surprised. I was hurt and defeated – left now to figure out a new plan for myself in a few short days. This of course, didn’t matter to Blake. Nothing in his world would change, and he was quite convinced I would give in to his whims, come out to D.C, and rent some roach-infested basement apartment in a bad side of town while living on ramen noodles just so I could be within a 10-mile vicinity of His Greatness.
But he was wrong. We argued for a few minutes after he shared his new plan for us, and then we both sat in silence for the final three hours of the ride. We went our separate ways at the airport, not even saying goodbye as we walked to our opposite terminals. Just like that, I flew home to Orlando, and Blake returned to D.C.
On the flight home that night, I took advantage of the darkened cabin and my window seat, and cried quietly to myself. I felt overwhelmed, having worked so hard to make my vision of moving to D.C. happen. I’d lived paycheck to paycheck as a teacher and had spent the previous months scraping together money I’d need to move and get situated with Blake. I’d put myself through the GRE, the normed graduate school acceptance exam, twice, to get the best possible scores I could in the shortest amount of time. Those scores, my undergrad GPA, and the entrance essays I labored over, earned me a full scholarship and teaching assistantship at a prestigious, private university in D.C.
I could have still gone to D.C., rented a place of my own, and continued with my plan, sans Blake. It would have been hard, but I could have done it. But as I flew home that night, something in me changed. Maybe I decided I was over being Blake’s doormat. A great degree of my self-worth had been lost in that relationship and I was finally beginning to see it. If I gave in and complied with his new vision for us, for me, I’d be disgusted with myself. I’d also set a new, even lower, precedent for what I expected of him – of any man – in a relationship with me. I realized I would always take the backseat with Blake, and that no longer worked for me. I dried my eyes and decided to trade in those feelings of hurt for, well, anger. I didn’t want to be angry, but I needed to be pissed, to spend a little time stewing a big pot of fuck you Blake, so I could reclaim myself.
That process of reclamation ended up taking years. But it began that night.
When I got home from the airport, I decided to go back out West for the summer, which was just a month away. I was no longer going to D.C. and realized that opened up an opportunity for me to try adventuring on my own. I had also saved up $5,000 to cover moving expenses I would no longer have. I got on my computer and accepted admission to the University of Florida, which had been my back-up school just in case something like this happened. I decided I would just rent a furnished room somewhere and put my stuff in storage. I didn’t know it at the time, but fate was at work. Leaving Florida that fall would have been disastrous for reasons I’d never anticipate.
Next, I found an ad on Craigslist for a rental in a tiny Colorado town called Granby. It was nestled at about 9,000 feet elevation and located just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. I knew nothing about the town, but for $1,000 a month and the opportunity to ride my bike through the mountains every day, it fit the bill. I immediately contacted the owner and made arrangements to spend two months there.
After I finished my last day of teaching, I left for Colorado. Blake and I hadn’t officially broke up, but we weren’t really together either. We were at an impasse and neither of us was ready to put the relationship out of its misery. Struck with the desire to go off and explore on my own, I thought that time alone in Colorado might help me figure things out.
The weeks I spent in Granby were incredible. They provided me with the much needed fresh air and time to think. I was working hard, really hard, to try to get Blake out of my system. I’d told him of my decision to stay in Florida and head to Colorado for the summer, and I think that was a relief to him.
I didn’t know what Blake and I were doing, but I tried my best not to think about it while I was in Colorado. Instead, I spent my time biking, hiking, and watching the sun fade behind the mountaintops in the evenings. I savored the adventure I was creating for myself, by myself. Periodically, when I was out cycling, I’d spot what looked like tiny human bodies perched atop rolling tanks in the distance. As these monstrosities got closer, I’d realize they were cyclists on fully-loaded touring bikes. When outfitted with racks, panniers, and random, bungee-corded gear, a bicycle no longer looks like a bicycle, but a mountain of junk atop two wheels. The operators, who often resembled homeless transients, piqued my curiosity. Every time I saw one of these cyclists, I wondered where their rides had started and how far they were going. Pedaling a 19-pound carbon road bike through the Rockies was tough enough; doing it on a loaded touring bike seemed superhuman.
I was out for a ride one day when I spotted one of these mobile junk mountains coming toward me. The rider and I waved as we passed each other, but I immediately turned around and rode back to him, curiosity finally getting the best of me. After a short exchange, I discovered he had started his ride in Virginia and was heading across the United States on a route called the Transamerica trail. His destination was Florence, Oregon.
A solo, self-supported bicycle ride across a continent. To me, that seemed nothing short of insane — and it was exactly the type of thing I knew I’d loved to do one day. High on my newfound ability to create my own adventure, I got on my computer that evening and began researching the Transamerica trail, often referred to as simply “the transam.” I discovered that the first ride was completed in 1976 by a bunch of idealist American hippies on dime-store bikes. It was a celebration of the Bicentennial, aptly coined the “Bikecentennial,” or “route 76.” The total distance of the transam is about 4,400 miles and spans 10 states: Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon. The trail takes riders through the heartbeat of small-town America, on a series of idyllic back-country roads, wandering over the Appalachians and the Ozarks, across the central plains, up the Rockies, and eventually crossing into the Sierra Nevadas. Granby happened to be right off the transam, so the roads I biked regularly were, unbeknownst to me, part of the route. Had I never stayed in Granby that summer, I may have never gotten this crazy idea to bicycle across the United States someday.
Someday just happened to be a lot sooner than I imagined.
I’ll never forget the day I left Granby, in August of 2009, a week before my rental was up. I woke up with a pressing urge to go back home to Florida. It was a drive, a compulsion, and I was distraught over it. It made no sense because I was having such a wonderful time in Colorado – why would I choose to leave a week early? Just the previous evening, I had been sitting on the balcony, reflecting on my stay, and feeling sad that I only had one week left. Yet there I was, just a few hours later, packing up my car. At the time, I felt like I was losing my mind. Logically, there was no reason for me to leave, and I wanted to stay. If I could have stayed in Colorado forever and not gone back to Florida, I would have. Until that morning. The push I felt came from something much bigger than me. I was powerless against it. Within two hours of waking up that morning, I began the three-day journey back to Florida. I cried as I drove east, watching the mountains fade into the distance in my rearview mirror.
I had no idea how my life was about to change.