A storm had blown in from the Pacific and settled on western Oregon. On the slopes of Mt. Hood, fog shrouded the forest and rain pattered our jackets. I climbed the pavement slowly, watching as my fiancée, Kelly, steadily pulled away and then stopped to wait for me. Even with 150 pounds spread between four waterproof panniers and a bulging trailer, I couldn’t keep pace with her. I was in the lowest gear of my handcycle, barely going 4 mph while cranking, and still I had to stop and rest every two-tenths of a mile. Two days in, and Kelly and I were already exhausted.
Too little sleep and too much stress as we’d prepared for departure had left my body feeling like a hollow shell, and Kelly was fighting to keep her eyes open as she waited for my sluggish approach. As I crept up towards her, the driving rain and unending slope pestered me, as did my questions. Are you sure you want to do this? Do you have any idea what you’ve gotten yourselves into?
Truth be told, I didn’t really know exactly what we’d gotten ourselves into. I couldn’t have. That’s one of the problems with doing something that hasn’t been tried before. Do all the research you want, you’re never going to know the grimy details until you go out and do it. But even with water dripping from my helmet, snaking in icy rivulets down my neck, and my arms feeling like they’d been crisped by a blowtorch, I was sure about the first question. I’d wanted adventure, and adventure is rarely comfortable.
Presently the fog thickened, wrapping the road in an opaque cloak. Kelly pulled onto the shoulder and I parked behind her. “Nice day for a bike ride,” I said, as she leaned her bike up against the guardrail.
“Yeah, it’s a beaut.” She cracked a soggy grin.
The plan looked something like this: We’d leave Portland and ride over Mt. Hood before heading south to central Oregon, then cut over to the coast at San Francisco and go south through Mexico and Central America. From there we would take a boat to Colombia, climb into the Andes and ride down the mountains along the west coast of South America, eventually reaching the bottom of the continent in Argentine Patagonia. We thought we could cover roughly 10,000 miles over the course of the year. Averaging 35 miles a day, we’d be able to take a day of rest after every five days of riding. Apart from the few times that friends and family would visit us en route, we’d be on our own.
We wanted to be self-supported for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the biggest was that we wanted to show that a grand adventure didn’t have to be a grand production, even when one of us was a quadriplegic. We felt that an epic journey needn’t have foundational backing and an able-bodied crew making sure that (insert disabled athlete here) had the support needed to do something inspirational. It could be as simple as two people who wanted to spend every day of the next year together getting on their bikes and riding south. And that if they kept going, eventually they’d run out of road somewhere on the other side of the earth.
Of course, a simple idea isn’t always so simple in its execution. Once we’d made the decision to do it, our life turned into an all-consuming, neverending to-do list. Pouring over maps and climate charts, researching, designing, testing, buying and modifying equipment, strengthening our bodies, packing up our lives, budgeting, saving, penny-pinching, seeking sponsors, self-promotion, and begging for donations. All of this, not even to attain some far-reaching goal, but simply to arrive at the point where we could begin our journey.
Of course, friends and family were thinking about the big picture, wondering how far we were going to make it before calling it quits, where we’d get robbed first, how long before we got run off the road by an angry pickup driver. But Kelly and I were just trying to get through a few more items on the list: air up the tires, strap down the bags, fill up the Camelbaks. In the madness of leaving, it had hardly even sunk in that once we’d ticked those off, there wouldn’t be anything else to do but get on our bikes and start riding.
Now, two days in and no longer riding high on the adrenalin of departure, neither of us was feeling like we’d prepared at all. Not that how you feel matters much when you’re on a narrow, busy highway being pounded by a fall storm. You keep moving because your only other option is turning around, which isn’t really an option at all. You turn the cranks until you can’t turn them anymore. And then you do it again. Eventually you make it to the top of the pass and start flying downhill, and as you descend, you realize you’ve crossed your first mountain range. Here on the leeward side of the Cascades the rain stops, and the smell of pine forests gets blown into your nostrils at 38 mph.
Everything is right with the world while gravity is with you. But when you reach the bottom, the road rears back up steeper than before, and doubt and dread starts to creep back in. You’re able to beat them back, for the moment, because you already know that on a trip like this, pleasure and pain go hand in hand. If you have already made it over one mountain, you can get over another.