ALEXANDRIA, Va.—It’s a pretty day in Virginia. My wife and I just packed up our mud-covered cycles and loaded them into our van’s cargo hold. We are officially done riding the trail.
We’ve been cycling trails for a long time this last month. We’ve been on the Great Allegheny Passage, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal trail, and the Mount Vernon Trail. Our entire lives have been crammed into saddlebags. We’ve lived on basic foods, without access to good mayonnaise. We’ve used horrifying public restrooms. And now it’s all over.
The first thing I’ve learned from this long-distance trip is that I’m very out of shape.
My legs are aching, our hindparts are bruised, and one of my wife’s hands is still numb. But we’re both slimmer than before. And we’re consuming more anti-inflammatory meds, too.
Without a doubt, the hardest part about being on the trail is all the young people. They’re everywhere. You grow to dislike young people because they are in better shape than you and they aren’t bashful about it.
Imagine, you’re pedaling through the heart of a veritable wilderness. Struggling. A slender kid whizzes up from behind and weaves around you like he’s annoyed, like he’s stuck in traffic behind some codger who left his blinker on.
This happened to me a lot. And no matter how fast I would pedal, the kid would always speed past me in a fury.
And those were just the kids on foot.
Sometimes young people would be friendly. They’d cruise their bikes beside you and say, “So, where’re you from?”
Between labored breaths, you’d answer, “Fl… Flor… Florida.”
Then the kid would say something, like: “Wow. You know, I really admire people your age.”
And you’d want to kill him.
Things like this wreck your trail confidence. After a while you become envious of young people. You start to feel like you are the only idiot suffering. Everyone else is relaxed, cheerful, wearing big smiles, and has humongous vascular calves. But you’re sucking pond water.
It’s even worse when old folks blitz past you. This makes you feel like a real floater. I can’t tell you how many elderly people with white hair and arthritic joints pedaled by like Chuck Yeager on caffeine.
I’m not going to lie. Sometimes this became depressing. Sometimes I would wonder why I was on the stupid trail. What was I thinking? What was I trying to prove?
But then the end came.
You’re never prepared for the end. All the emotions that get stored over several weeks come out. These emotions lie beneath the surface.
Every hill you scaled. Every mile you covered. The time your wife fell from her bike in the middle of Pittsburgh and nearly broke her leg. The time you took a left turn and almost flipped.
The outdoor pub, somewhere in Maryland, where you ate three burgers because you were famished after 50 miles.
The way you listened to Atlanta Braves games on a radio each evening, from the warmth of your camp, hostel, or cabin. And how grateful you were for the simple pleasure of a radio.
The way you slept. Oh, you slept hard. You haven’t slept like that since you were a four-year-old who could fall asleep in the middle of a NASCAR Cup Series.
Or how about that day in the jagged wilderness when you realized your tires were destroyed? That was a bad day.
You inspected the tires and found the rubber looked like shredded wheat. Your cycle’s frame was bent. You were a billion miles from the middle of nowhere. You were low on food and water. And there were snakes. Lots of snakes. Your cycle didn’t look like it could limp another mile.
All you could do was make a silent plea to the West Virginia evening sky. It was an emergency flare kind of prayer.
Then, somehow, even though your cycle was falling apart; even though your back tire looked like a tattered mess of yarn; even though your chain was grinding; even though you still had 32 miles left, you made it.
You arrived in a tiny town. And this town had a bike shop. And even though this shop was closed, a bike tech happened to be working late. What are the odds?
You almost cried. In fact, you did cry. But not when anyone was looking.
The tech took one look at your cycle, covered in mud and grit, and he remarked, “Oh my God. How in the [obscenity] did you ride on THIS? ”
But you had no answer. You still don’t.
All you know is that after all this, you found yourselves at the end of a long path. You and your wife. You finished in the nation’s Capital City, with Arlington National Cemetery beside you, the Lincoln Memorial before you. And you were still alive.
You didn’t finish the way everyone else did. Other riders finished stronger, faster, and more efficiently than you. But this doesn’t matter now. Because you’re here. You and your wife. The trail is behind you. The worst is over. There are no more miles left climb.
You begin to feel pretty good about yourself. You’re thinking, hey, even though the world is full of handsome, athletic, youthful people who can all run circles around my slow, flabby body, I’m not ashamed.
And you’re not, either. You’re proud. Proud because you know something about yourself. Something that you did not know before. Something real. You know that no matter what anyone in this world says about you, the fact remains.
You are extremely out of shape.