My Mother on a Bike

My mother is disabled. She has been paralyzed since she was 42 when her light-blue VW bus was struck by another vehicle while stopped at an intersection. Her body flew through the front windshield, and she was declared dead at the scene. She wasn’t. She had seven children all under 14 and we needed her. I was three.

I don’t remember much from that time, just a string of well-meaning neighbors and relatives and a lot of frozen lasagna. I do remember visiting her in the hospital on her birthday later that summer. My father had to sneak me in because no children were allowed in the ICU, and I hid under his trench coat so that no one would see me. When I saw her, she was immobilized in a hospital bed and was dressed from head to toe in pale green hospital apparel. She looked shockingly weak. I remember her smiling at me. I was afraid that she would never come home.

After months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, she did come home. The accident caused her to permanently lose the use of her right arm, left leg, diaphragm and neck mobility. Breathing was difficult, and she often became out of breath just from trying to read out loud to me. She couldn’t walk. She couldn’t cough. She couldn’t write. She couldn’t kneel. She couldn’t carry things. She couldn’t do many of the many activities that had comprised her life. And she had seven children, did I mention that?

Against all odds, as time passed, she started walking. I am not sure how it was possible, but my understanding is that she retrained different muscles in her body to compensate for those that could no longer work. At first, the walks were short, but they got progressively longer until eventually, she could poke along for several blocks. She learned to write left-handed. She learned to knit with one hand and has created countless beautiful pieces. She relearned to drive with a special knob on the steering wheel. She relearned to swim by holding on to little floaties. She is a fantastic cook and learned to utilize all manner of cool, one-handed contraptions to help her navigate her way in the kitchen. She seemed to refuse to give anything up. But all this was lost on me because I couldn’t remember her any different.

By the time I was six, I had become well-versed in pushing her wheelchair, and I would torment her by pushing her over grates that opened to the subway far below and laugh and laugh as she would shriek in fear. Sounds mean, right? But, to me, there was nothing wrong with her. I was just teasing, and she seemed to be playing along. Her disability was as normal as any mother’s slightly annoying, but endearing habit. As I got older I would push that wheelchair down bumpy, forested paths up and over all manner of tree roots and gravel. She would groan good naturedly and hold on tight with her good hand. She has been launched from that thing several times and is always trying to find a wheelchair more suitable for all-terrain travel. Just last year I pushed her through a jungle in Mexico so that we could see Mayan ruins. It can’t be comfortable, all that jostling and jarring, but she always wants to go.

I cut her no slack. She cuts herself no slack. Today she is 87.

I only have one memory of my mother before her accident. I am sitting on a metal folding seat, attached to the back of my mother’s black, clunky Schwinn. The seat is covered with a blue-plaid vinyl. It has little metal armrests and a small backrest. Not at all safe by today’s standards. My legs dangle freely below. I kick them forward and back. My mother’s legs are pedaling up and down, and her butt is in my face. It swishes a little, side to side. I don’t mind. Her efforts are creating a nice breeze, and the landscape whizzes by. Green grass, suburban lawns, huge maple trees. She is talking and laughing with my father who is on a matching bike.

I know there must be some connection between my mother’s internal drive and my quest to remain physical and engaged with life. She could have given up so many times, but she didn’t. She still doesn’t. She is hauling herself up to an island in Maine from Philadelphia for a visit again this summer. The trip involves a lot of logistics and not everything is handicapped-accessible in the little cottages she rents. Her mobility is decreasing and little tasks are getting more difficult, but she’ll be damned if she is going to stay home and sit around. She doesn’t want to miss out!

My determination pales in comparison.

Oakley’s Perspective​: First Training Ride

Half -way across the Casco Bay Bridge

My bike, the bike that I am riding across the country on, is a purple KHS Cross Sport and is a little too big for me, but I’ll grow into it. It is the smoothest bike I have ever ridden. I don’t know why.

A few days ago, my mom and I went on what she called our first “Training ride” with one of her friends and two of my friends. The bike ride wasn’t too far and it was a nice day, so I said “Yes.”

We took a ferry from Peaks Island to Portland and started riding from there. We biked through downtown Portland to a bridge that crosses the Fore River and goes over tankers and container ships. It connects Portland to South Portland. We stopped by my friend’s house for a brief second to pick them up. While we were there we watched some ducks mate. There were two male mallards fighting over the female. It was really rough. Anyway…

When we got back on the road, we went all the way out to this place called The Black Point Inn on Prout’s Neck. To get there you bike by beaches and a boatyard, still quiet from the winter. Prout’s Neck is a point of land that sticks out in the ocean. We passed many marshes with beautiful views. When we arrived at the end of the tip we took a short break. I was not tired, just a little sweaty.

After some water, we turned to head back towards my friend’s house. We took off ahead of our parents and beat them by at least a half an hour because we took a short cut on the way back. I didn’t tell my mother.

The ride ended up being around 20 miles. Before the bike ride, my mom told me to be prepared to be incredibly sore the next day. Guess what? I’m not sore at all.

On Being 50.

©2003 Joel Day ©2003 Joel Day

I lied. I am not 50. I am 49 and 11/12ths. I thought I could dodge the reality of it by claiming the age before it actually happened. You know, like own it. It didn’t work.

Forty-nine and 11/12ths feels a little frightening. I can remember 20 years ago easily and see 20 years into the future just as well. I want to get the most out of every day, but at the same time, I am so tired that it is hard to find the motivation to do much sometimes. I like to be comfortable, eat good food and sleep in a cozy bed. I want and need adventure but I have come to love a tidy bed and breakfast.

Forty-nine and 11/12ths is sore. It hurts in the ankles and the hips. It makes it a bit harder to defy gravity, a bit harder to keep up with my children and it makes it take a bit longer to recover from exercise. No, actually not a bit, a lot. Often, I am nursing an injury from some form of physical exercise. Oh my back, oh my feet, oh my knees… not doing too much isn’t about being a wimp anymore; it is about being prudent so that I don’t become physically incapacitated.

Forty-nine and 11/12ths is pudgy, for me anyway. It requires eating less than is fair if I want to stay fit. It means daily advertisements on my computer about the “Ketogenic diet”, “Unwanted belly fat” and “The Noom Diet Plan: A Whole New Approach”. Shut up, for God’s sake. Forty-nine and 11/12ths makes me have to work physically harder for less payback. It is watching my skin lose its elasticity and noticing that the bags under my eyes don’t go away after a good night’s rest. Forty-nine and 11/12ths feels moody.

I guess reality is setting in. It has been a fantastic winter diversion to write about this great adventure I am planning. I feel so accomplished, and I so full of braggart and swagger that I can almost imagine that I have already completed our cross-country ride! But I haven’t. The truth is, I have so much to do before I leave and then so many miles to cover and I am a bit overwhelmed and frightened.

I will be closing my private practice counseling business when I leave and hopefully embarking on a whole new career when I return. I don’t know what it will be, but I know I want to try something different because, why not? One life doesn’t need to equal one career. This is exciting, but adds to my anxiety about this adventure and all the change it brings getting ever closer.

But, here is the good news about 49 and 11/12ths. I have learned a lot. Even if I might long to opt for Netflix and the couch and a steady predictable routine, I realize that that is not enough for me. There is this world that I want to experience, and even if this life change and bike trip creates what seems like an unnecessary struggle , it is necessary for me to feel fully engaged in life.

Forty-nine and 11/12ths has also taught me that for all my moaning, being uncomfortable physically and emotionally is not a thing to be avoided. In fact, it is usually a good indicator that I am not giving up too soon. I suppose it could mean that I am injured or in danger, but more often it is just a sort of growing pain. I do still want to grow.

So, I need to get serious. Time to start training and acquiring all the necessary gear. We need sleeping bags and pads, panniers and racks, headlights and stoves, battery packs and raingear, a home schooling plan for Oakley and I am sure a whole lot more.

I guess it seems fairly obvious that this trip is really not just for Oakley. It is for both of us so that we can stay energized about life and wake ourselves up from the routine of suburban living and some of the less healthy patterns and habits have developed. I need to remember some things, and he needs to learn them.

Letting Oakley Lead

Don’t let that charm fool you
“Oakley, you need to behave!” Twain says.
“I am BEING have!” shouts Oaks.

Writing about Oakley is complicated. I am choosing to share these stories because I believe that sharing the messy parts of our lives is important. We tend not to talk about money, or mental health or our big fears, and I think this can lead to confusion, lost opportunities for understanding, and isolation. So I tend to be a blabber mouth.

When Oakley was young there were times that I felt alone in our experience. We often couldn’t participate in activities with other families. No story hour, no children’s museum, no zoos (he once literally climbed in the cage of a huge elk stag and I couldn’t coax him out) and no dinners at friends’ houses. He would create mayhem wherever we went and it was too exhausting. I remember walking down the parenting aisle in the library looking for books that might help normalize what we were going through, but I was never terribly successful.

This blog isn’t a “tell all” account of our lives. I am trying to respect Oakley’s privacy and will always run these stories by him. But I am hoping that by exposing our challenges and triumphs, someone reading this might feel like they have kindred spirits and that might make their journey a little easier.

Oakley’s Story

“What makes you think there is a problem?“asks the pediatric developmental specialist.

“He just doesn’t stop,” I respond. “Ever.” Oakley is 1 and a 1/2. He is as cute as they come, with white-blond hair hanging in ringlets down to his shoulders and blue-green, orb-like eyes. He is sitting on my lap straddling my legs and facing me, playing with the zipper on my fleece jacket as I speak with the doctor. He zips it up. He zips it down. Again. And again. And again — 50 times, 100 times.

“I see,” says the doctor. Oakley laughs and continues. Up and down. Up and down. “We should run some tests.”

Oakley was an exuberant puzzle of a child, and he still is. He is my fourth child, and I thought that I had a handle on the parenting thing until he came along. He seemed plucked from outerspace and put in my arms with a wink from fate, as if Oakley was the punch line in a wonderful joke. That was the look that he had on his face from the day he came to us. “Watch me! I will make you laugh and cry at the same time! It is a special trick.” And then he would devilishly grin.

He was terribly naughty. He had Pika a disorder, in which you are driven to eat non-food items, and would eat everything he found. Toothpaste, shaving cream, dog food, sand, flowers, and mud. He would lock himself in the bathroom and feast on whatever he could find. We had poison control on speed dial, and I remember asking them shakily after what seemed like the 30th call if they kept a record of the calls. The answer is yes.

In a way, it was probably fortunate that he had Pika because of another issue. Oakley was severely asthmatic. He was given the nickname Huffle-Puff early on because you could hear his steam-engine-like breathing from 50 feet away. We set up his nebulizer next to a tiny rocking chair, and he would inhale his vaporized asthma medication through an oxygen mask while rocking maniacally back and forth, like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. He would be grinning and drooling as he huffed away, completely unfazed, but others who heard him were always aghast. Twice one of his lungs collapsed. In the process of attempting to find out whether his allergies were the cause of his asthma, he was put on a combination of goat milk, fish oil, and several supplements that are normally given in gel capsules, but which we would painstakingly slice open and pour into his potion. You have never tasted anything so vile. He loved it.

In an effort to reign in his hyperactivity and impulsivity, we turned to intensive occupational therapy. He was prescribed several sensory diets from various professionals. Treatments included wrapping him in a sheet and swinging him in what looked like a cocoon hammock, wearing a weighted vest, sleeping with a weighted blanket, listening with huge globular headphones to deep-bass, rhythmic beats as he went about his day, having him wear a sombrero and sunglasses to reduce stimulation, smushing him under couch cushions, encouraging him to drink oatmeal like substances through a straw to stimulate certain pressure points in his jaw, massage with and without brushing, jumping on trampolines and hugging him, a lot.

He continued to run away constantly. Not little, cute running away, but serious, “where-the-hell-is-he?” running away. We kept our doors locked from the inside and spring loaded. We locked his bedroom door at night from the outside, but still, the clever rascal would see every opportunity and take it. He wore a medical ID bracelet with his name and address in case he was found by someone else. He wore an alarmed harness that we could activate if he wandered off. But still, despite our best efforts and because a girl has to go to the bathroom or has to pay attention to another child, he would get away.

On his walkabouts, as we came to call them, he would get into many dangerous situations. I found him one day methodically visiting every garage in the neighborhood and pouring cans of gasoline all over lawnmowers and the floors. ( I never told anybody because I was so embarrassed. I simply grabbed him and ran home. I still feel guilty about this.) I caught him chest deep in a pond in South Carolina that was inhabited by alligators, while chaperoning my other son’s field trip. (I was asked to no longer sign up for this responsibility.) I found him sitting in strangers’ cars and pretending to drive with the doors locked, grinning wildly. We found him locked inside a porta-potty, unrolling all the toilet paper to make a big white nest, his belly laughter echoing off the inner walls. We begged and pleaded with him to come out while a line of people wanting to use it formed outside, none of them very impressed by our parenting. He ran away from his nursery school and into a swarm of bees. His teacher reported to me that she was secretly glad it happened, as she thought it might make him think twice before he ran away again. It was the lesser of potentially bad consequences. I found him on the roof, having climbed up and out of our fenced-in yard. It never ended.

He also lied. Told stretchers. He told his nursery school teacher that he had found a dead body in his room (“blood all over”), but that his mother had cleaned up the mess. He blamed every naughty thing on his imaginary friend “Somebody”. Somebody covered the inside of the car in permanent marker. Somebody set the mice free. Somebody emptied all the spices on the floor. He told his friends it was his birthday when it wasn’t and reaped the benefits with delight.

Not only was Oakley a danger to himself, he had rage. That was not fun. He would not let us change his diaper unless we pinned him to the floor with our knees. He wouldn’t let us get him dressed, and when we did he would just tear off his clothes, so he spent much of his time naked. He would tantrum in public on a level comparable to the Tasmanian Devil.

There were many days that Twain and I were overwhelmed and would declare that our lifestyle was not sustainable. But we were in love with him. So we kept chasing him when he ran away and today he still loves adventure. We kept those headphones with the rhythmic beats on him and today he loves drumming. We bought him a full-size trampoline at three-years-old despite potential risks and today, he still jumps and twists and flips and has an incredible kinesthetic ability. I think the hugging helped, but that is not as measurable.

I am not saying we were award-winning parents. I became a yeller and one could literally watch Twain recede into his own world when it all became too much. Today, we still can’t leave Oakley home alone because he is still overly impulsive and has a tendency towards the naughty. He still tells stretchers. Life with him is like playing a never-ending game of “Two Truths and a Lie”. He still has the need for constant stimulation and loves risky activities. He still has rage, but only towards his parents when we try to set limits. Some things haven’t changed.

His story isn’t over, and we are constantly having to troubleshoot how to navigate life with a guy like him, so that all his traits can be strengths, not liabilities. That is part of the impulse behind this bike ride. That and, conveniently, it is something that I have always wanted to do. Lucky me. Lucky him? Lucky us.

What is not to love?
Trying to meet Little Houdini where he is at.

Good People.

“They are gone.” Jonah and Finn look at me incredulously. I feel my cheeks redden and a familiar heat creeps up my back and wraps around my neck. The keys were in my back pocket, now they are not.

“Oh my God,” says Jonah, my 16-year-old son, “not again.” He whirls away from me in disbelief and stares across the desert at the distant horizon.

“It’s not my fault,” I stammer, “they were right here a second ago.” Finn, my 18-year-old son, runs his fingers through his hair.

“You are kidding me,” he says.

It has been a long day. We have flown out to Prescott, Arizona, to visit Prescott College and Embry Riddle, an aeronautical university. I went to Prescott College, and I can honestly say that it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It is where I began to understand that I could have the life I wanted. That it was possible. I had been so excited to share this place with the boys. Finn was interested in going there. Jonah was interested in becoming a pilot, so we were visiting Embry Riddle for him.

When we arrived in Prescott I had immediately wanted to take them to the Granite Dells, one of my favorite places. It is a formation of huge, pink granite boulders strewn about over the desert landscape for miles that look like voluptuous naked women lying about in various states of repose…to me anyway. When I had pulled the rental car into the lot, we had quickly hustled out of the car and tramped off into the rocky landscape. The rocks form a huge playground, and we soon became absorbed in climbing, jumping, and shimmying from boulder to boulder. There was no path, and we quickly lost ourselves in exploring every little rise and crevice that was created by this endless jumble. We were so happy.

That is, until I reached my hand into my back pocket. And there was no key. And I thought, “Shit.” Not for me, for them. Not because we were in any real danger, but because I had proved them right, again. This was my pattern. I was irresponsible. I was supposed to be the grown up, and here I was screwing it up. I just get over-excited and disregard the details. Like putting the keys in a safe place. I saw the weekend unraveling.

The parking lot of the Granite Dells was several miles outside of town, and it would soon be getting dark and cold, and we were hungry. I had wanted them to get swept away in the beauty of the desert, but I realized that I might have blown it. “It’ll be okay,” I said. They glared at me. “Maybe I left them in the car.” I knew I hadn’t; they knew I hadn’t. Still, we went back and rattled all the handles and peered in the windows. No keys, just my cell phone and wallet lying on the seat. So much for calling a locksmith.”No worries; we will hitchhike into town.”

“I can’t believe you,” fumed Jonah. “I should have taken the keys.”

“It was an accident.” I stammered.

“You always have accidents.”

There began our weekend of really getting to know Prescott and the good people there. We walked out to the highway and stuck out our thumbs. It took about an hour, but then we got a ride from a sympathetic man. He happened to be a pilot and told us all about his experiences at Embry Riddle flight school as he drove us back into town. He told us how the process of becoming a pilot worked and the challenges he faced and how to cut the costs of school. A perfect happenstance.

When we got to our hotel we informed the receptionist at the front desk that we needed a room, but that we had no ID and no money because my wallet was locked in our car. She took pity on us and let us have a room with a promise that we would pay when we were able to get into the car. Jonah happened to have a $10 bill, so we walked to the local supermarket, and he brought a frozen pizza. The folks at the motel office let us cook it in their oven. In the morning we called a locksmith. He picked us up in town in his personal vehicle and took us out to our car. He opened the doors and retrieved my wallet and cell phone but proclaimed that he could not hotwire this car because of some fancy computer chip issue. It would have to be towed to the shop. He drove us back to Prescott. We hitchhiked to tours at both colleges. We hitchhiked to Thumb Butte, a volcanic plug, and hiked to the top. We hitchhiked to restaurants and the garage. Everybody who gave us rides was engaging, and when we asked questions about the local colleges and the culture of the town they gave us their insights.

On the day we were to leave, the car was still in the shop. Nobody seemed to be available to crack the code to enable the car to accept a new key. Our plane was leaving from Phoenix, which is a two-hour drive, and we had no way of getting there. Our car issue became a community issue. It seemed that everyone in the dealership rose-to and scurried about trying to beg and borrow the computer reprogrammer from another dealership to reset our car and unlock the engine. Our mechanic stayed over an hour late. When the car was finally able to be driven, there was a celebratory feel throughout the shop. In the end, we made it to Phoenix with minutes to spare. We ran through the airport to make our flight. The boys, although annoyed as hell, made the best of it and commiserated with each other about what a mess their mother was. True bonding for sure.

We never got to see some of the sites that I had planned, but we did experience something remarkable. My sons and I witnessed the kindness of the people of Prescott, Arizona. If everything had worked out, we would have stayed in our insular little car and never met any of those interesting and helpful locals. The three of us are actually quite shy, and it would have been so easy to keep our interactions to a minimum, but, instead, we left with an irrefutable reminder that people are good to each other. That it is the norm, not the exception.

The process of preparing for this bike trip reminds me of this time in Prescott. People are responding to our coming adventure with warmth, interest, and generosity. My friends, family, and neighbors have been incredibly supportive and encouraging as I bash my way through this writing and learning-to-bike-tour process. I have had many encouraging comments in-person and through social media and, as exposing as it feels to write down all my thoughts, stories and feelings, all this support really does help. It fuels me and keep pushing me forward. It also prevents me from chickening out.

I truly believe that the world is full of good people. That is why I am not too afraid traveling alone with Oakley on this coming adventure. Throughout my life, people have always come through.

The Bikes are Home!

The bikes inaugural ferry ride home
I think he likes it….!

Yesterday, the morning dawned with a gray drizzle. We set our clocks ahead for daylight savings last week and ever since the mornings have seemed slow to brighten. Today’s dark clouds just made it worse. As I begrudgingly rolled out of bed, I was struck by how difficult it can be to will my feet to the floor some days. I felt so tired. Then, I remembered. Today was the day. Oakley and I were getting our bikes. It filled the day with promise. As soon as I finished work and Oaks finished school we could pick them up.

A few hours later, I was sitting in my counseling office, listening to my first client who was struggling with depression. “Look at this,” she said gesturing out the window. ” How could anybody be happy when this is what greets you when you go outside.” It was raining heavily now. The sky was dark, and on the ground below we could see puddles, ice flows cascading from water spouts and mounds of exhaust-covered snow that was stubbornly refusing to melt. In Portland, Maine, there are often mountains of snow where plows have piled it until well into May. They are ugly things, mixed with sand, salt, and litter.

We discussed the impact of a lack of vitamin D, which most people from Maine suffer from, as well as seasonal affective disorder, and helpful “behavioral activation” strategies, but the whole time I sat with her I felt a fluttering in my chest like I had a little sparrow in my pocket. I wanted to say, “I know just what you are feeling, and that is why I am getting out of here! I am getting a bike today and soon will be cycling across America with my son!” But, it wasn’t time yet, and this wasn’t about me, and I kept quiet.

After several more counseling sessions and an hour or two of paperwork, 3:00 o’clock finally came. I grabbed my coat, locked my door and hustled out to pick up my son and head to the Portland Gear Hub. The clouds were beginning to loosen their hold on the sky and a warmth was filling the air. I realized that if Oakley and I walked to the shop we could ride the bikes to his after school activity and then home. No dirty, salt-encrusted, trash-filled car for us to fight commuter traffic in-we would travel free and easy. I jauntily strode through town greeting passerby’s, smiling and feeling magnanimous with my joy. That was until I got to where Oakley was waiting.

His hoody was drawn up over his head, his skin was pale and his eyes dark. I could tell he was looking for somebody to blame a bad mood on. Lucky me. “Hey, Oaks, let’s get them!” I exclaimed a bit too happily when I saw him, trying to ignore his foul demeanor.

“You are kidding me. We are not walking,” he scowled when he noticed there was no car in sight.

“Sure are” I chirped.

“No way. I am not. You can’t make me. I am going home. I am not biking.”

“Come on, Oaks,” I said. He thrust his hands into his sweatshirt pocket and pushed them down with clenched fists. He muttered something under his breath that we are probably both lucky I didn’t hear.

When Oakley is feeling unhappy he can sound and act incredibly selfish and entitled. He lashes out, utters statements that he only means in the moment, but are soon forgotten. Intense storms build inside him that are comprised of equal parts hormones, exhaustion, too many mundane tasks, and unsettled social drama. I take solace in the fact that these irrational outbursts happen to all teenagers. They always pass.

He did indeed walk, but he made me pay for it by using the time to tell me everything that I do wrong, from how I cross the street, how I don’t walk fast enough, how I don’t let him quit various after-school activities, to how annoying I was in general.

As Oakley and I walked, the sky continued to brighten. Twice I had to make him stop and take deep breaths to quiet his rage. Twice I had to make him apologize for crossing the line of disrespect. And once I became flustered when I realized that as Oakley mouthed off angrily at me, one of my clients was walking behind us. Finally, just as we made it to the Gear Hub the sun burst through the clouds. The parking lot in front of the store had been gathering heat from the brightening sky and the puddles on it began steaming. I had to take off my jacket before I even made it to the door. Brian was working, and as we arrived he threw open the large garage bay doors and let the growing warmth of outside fill the store.

And there they were. Waiting. All of Oakley’s bad mood vanished as he set his eyes on his new bike. “Can I test drive it?” he asked “Absolutely,” replied Brian, and Oaks was gone. He pedaled around and around the parking lot testing gears and breaks and stability. I grabbed hold of mine and studied the components.

V-brakes, easy to fix and capable of fitting fenders under. Bar end friction shifters, again easy to fix and hard to break. Sealed bottom brackets and a sealed head set to keep things smooth and grit free. All the bearings systems had been freshly overhauled and replaced and both hubs were adjustable. The wheels are double-walled and the tires are super puncture resistant. They are Schwalbe Marathon Plus “Flatless” tires which I am sure we will safe us many a dispirited afternoon. Both bikes have wide drop-down handlebars. In fact, all the components on our two bikes are identical to each other to enable us to bring one set of replacement parts and use one repair kit and learn one system. My bike has a lovely purple steel/cromoly Specialized touring frame, long and low with a Surly fork. Oakley’s is a KHS Sport with steel tubing as well. Our guru, Ainsley, at the Gear Hub had worked hard to keep the price of these beauts down by using recycled parts whenever available, but making sure the components were durable and touring appropriate.

I paid as quickly as I could, thanked Brian profusely and took off after Oaks. He flew down the road, and I chased him. The storm inside Oakley and over Portland was over. We biked to his drum lesson at Mid-Coast Music and he proudly told his instructor all about his new bike and our trip. The instructor commented that Oaks seemed really amped. Good to know. After the lesson Oaks asked if we could go the long way home. This was music to my ears. “Meet me at the ferry!” he called over his shoulder as he took off, far faster than I will ever manage, becoming one with his bike.

The sun shone down. Golden light filled the air. Spring had come. My nifty little bicycle and I toddled along, getting to know each other, sloshing through puddles and spraying ourselves with mud and grime. I was dreaming of what to name her. Bellisimo? Tiger? I hadn’t a care in the world.

When I arrived at the ferry Oaks was waiting for me. “There you are,” he said, “I am going to hate this bicycle sometimes, a lot, but I like it now. It is awesome.” And he was grinning.

Oakley’s slick cruiser
My little Hatchling ready to roll

Something Scary

Lightning flashes and thunder booms in the distance as we pull into our campsite in inland Flordia. The park where we have chosen to spend the night is beautiful. It features a freshwater spring that bubbles up from an underground river into a limestone pool. Perfect for cooling off after a long drive. Finn, Jonah, Thistle, Oakley and I all tumble out of the car excited to stretch our legs and explore this new fascinating natural wonder.

Overhead it is still sunny. Immediately, Finn and Jonah grab a large bucket and begin trying to collect the little green Anole lizards that scurry across the crunchy live oak leaves covering the ground. They have been collecting them everywhere we go. Sometimes they race them, sometimes they have contests to see who can catch more, and sometimes they let the lizards bite their earlobes. The lizard’s tiny toothless mouths clamp on tightly and look like beautiful jade earrings.

Thistle is on tent detail with me. She knows the drill and even at just seven years old, she can expertly set up our tent in no time at all. Together we lay it out on the ground and begin hammering in the stakes, all the while keeping an eye on Oakley, who at four, is entertaining himself by munching on a box of Honey Nut Cheerios. We have been camping and driving through the south for a month on a homeschooling expedition. We have spent time in the Great Smokey National Forest, in Alabama at the “Riveria of the South” and throughout the panhandle of Florida. Before we left home the kids planned the itinerary, the food and organized chore charts for our adventure, all in the name of homeschooling lessons. Now a month in, we are working as a well-oiled machine.

Except for one problem. There has been a string of violent thunderstorms that had been chasing us across the South. Every day, I call home to get weather forecasts from Twain (this was in the days before iPhones), and he helplessly reports again and again that we are going to get slammed by yet another horrendous weather system. Just about every night we have had to camp in torrents of rain that have soaked us through. A few nights ago we had literally been floating on our air mattresses in our tent as three inches of puddle formed below. I am trying to keep a good attitude, but I am tired, and now with the lightning and booming thunder in the distance, I know we are in for it again.

When Thistle and I finish setting up the tent we grab our suits and head for the spring to try to get a swim in before the approaching storm. The air is thick and humid, and the water in the spring is a constant 72 degrees and tropically clear (like all the springs throughout central Florida). It feels incredible after a day of driving in a cramped car full of wiggly kids. The spring is full of other swimming campers. I bob about with Oakley while Finn, Jonah, and Thistle entertain themselves, diving to the bottom with a snorkel mask, bringing up cool rocks. I take solace in the fact that tonight, even if it is a bit wet, we will have the company of other campers so the forecast can’t be too bad.

However, soon I notice that other swimmers are beginning to clear out. The sky is darkening and, as I look around, I find that the numbers of would-be campers have dwindled considerably. This makes me a little anxious. I call the kids back to the campsite where we rustle up a quick dinner of spaghetti just as the first fat raindrops begin to fall. While we inhale our spaghetti we watch one family after another roll up their tents and drive away, and by the time we finish cleaning up, I realize with a sickening feeling that we are all alone. Except for one lone monster pick-up truck.

The rain forces us into our tent and thunder and lightning fills the air. I try to ease the building tension the storm brings by reading out loud to everybody, but we are all distracted by the increasingly violent weather. Then we hear a revving engine. At first, I think that it is just that last remaining pick-up truck leaving, but then I realize that it isn’t leaving. In fact, it begins to do donuts around the campsite, skidding through the mud and boon-dogging its way through the woods. It is getting darker and darker. My headlamp is now providing the only light, making our tent glow, perhaps drawing attention that I don’t want.

I announce that we should all go to sleep and hopefully, when we wake up, it will be a beautiful day again filled with swimming and catching lizards. I turn out my headlamp. Everyone tries to settle in their bags, but between the thunder, and the sound of the revving truck engine, we are all a bit tense. The truck comes closer and its headlights begin lighting up our tent, again and again, making visible the fear on all our faces. It seems to be circling us like a shark. Finn is old enough, at 12, to be truly worried. He knows that his mama can’t protect him from everything. “What are they doing out there?” he asks nervously.

“Just goofing off ” I reply as the truck seems to circle us for the 20th time. “Go to sleep.” I am trying to be reassuring, but the kids can feel my anxiety like static in the air. Suddenly the truck stops, right next to the tent. The headlights illuminate everybody for an instant and then turn off.

“Mom?” questions Jonah.

“Sshhh” I lie completely still. I am willing them to leave us and our tent alone. I hear nothing. It is pitch black in the tent the thunder booms overhead. I hold my tiny flip phone on my chest. I press 911. My finger is on the dial button. Should I push it? Still nothing. What are they doing out there? Whose idea was this anyway? I have no defense. My children lie beside me. Thankfully, Oakley is asleep, but everyone else is taut with fear.

“I am just going to sneak out there and see what they are doing.” I whisper to Finn. He is the closest thing to a co-leader that I have.

“What?” he silently hisses. “That is what you don’t do! That is what they do in movies, and you are not doing that!” He grabs my arm.

“Okay, okay. I won’t I promise.” We lie there, hearts thumping, sweating, skin prickling for what seems like hours. The storm passes. Still, the truck doesn’t move. Finally, we drift off to sleep with my phone still open and on my chest and my finger on the dial button

In the morning I come into a foggy consciousness rather than really wake up. My head is aching. Rain is pouring down. The tent is soaked through as well as our sleeping bags. I unzip the tent and peer out. The campsite is deserted and the truck is gone. I send Thistle and Oaks to sit in the car and Jonah, Finn, and I quickly load the sleeping bags and tent into the trunk of the car without even stuffing the soggy mess. The gear is heavy and sodden. Nobody speaks. We get in the car and drive off just as fast as we can. “The people in the truck were probably just having a make-out session!” I joke to Finn. That kind of humor is usually right up his alley. He blinks slowly at me and leans his head against the car door. He isn’t ready to laugh yet.

The first sign of civilization we pass is the state penitentiary. A towering 12-foot tall chain link covered with rolls of barbed wire encircle the prison. It is complete with watchtowers and armed guards and looks like a scene from the jail break sequence in O Brother, Where Out Thou? Who knew? Jonah, Finn, and Thistle groan.

At the first town we get to, I try to win them over with breakfast in a real restaurant while we dry all of our belongings in a laundromat. It sort of works. Safe, with another story to tell, we travel on wondering what adventures Georgia will hold for us next.

Now 11 years later they seem to have forgiven me, and that five-week camping expedition has become one of the many things that created a bond and identity for our children. Just the other day when I asked Jonah, who is now 21, what I should write about, he said, “Write more Forced Family Fun Adventures. I think those are what make our family interesting.” Maybe that isn’t forgiveness, but if I am not mistaken, I do hear a little bit of pride.

This bike trip is sure to have some scary times. I hope luck and the inherent goodness of people are on our side.

The Joy in Irresponsibility

I am feeling self conscious about this trip. It is such a luxury and privilege to be able to just take off and step out of the rat race like this that I am a bit embarrassed. It is not lost on me that I am a middle-income, white woman who has grown up with a lot of support and opportunity. I feel guilty doing something as self-serving as this bike adventure. Where do I get off thinking that I can get away with something so fun?

Perhaps, these thoughts come from the mid-westerner in me. My family hails from Minnesota, and I fight a chemical in my blood that demands that we should all be a little bit miserable in order to earn our keep in this world. We are also supposed to praise frugality, hard work and keep a low profile so as not to draw attention to ourselves. This trip does not match these sentiments.

To add to these feelings of guilt, my husband Twain and I have fallen into all the financial traps that our society has set for us and I am choosing to ignore them. We have taken on tremendous school loans which we may never pay off fully, maxed out a home equity line and done the credit card dance throughout our adult lives. We live paycheck to paycheck and rarely buy new clothing or gear. We have three kids in college and often need to bail them out by helping them with rent and other expenses. We don’t have health insurance. We decided to take a gamble this year because it felt like throwing money away and our coverage was terrible anyway. We drive a 2008 mini-van that has sliding doors on either side that get stuck open routinely. It is a big joke to watch our children and their friends struggle to slam the door closed only to have it spring back open again and again. We grocery shop at Trader Joe’s because it is the cheapest thing going. I don’t have a retirement account. Money is a constant stress. It causes a lot of conflict.

Yet, when we do get money do we save it? Do we pay down our debt? No. We impulsively spend it on travel. It seems that every time we get a little windfall we impulsively spend it on adventure. They are low budget adventures to be sure, but they are still frivolous and seemingly irresponsible given the state of our finances. But this impulsivity has allowed us to do amazing things. We have followed the Oregon Trail, and ridden in covered wagons. We have walked on Glaciers in Iceland. We have explored Mammoth Cave and hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We have snorkled in tropical waters and hung out with Capuchian monkeys. We have camped on beaches and forests and canoed down remote rivers. These trips define our family and the way in which we engage with the world around us. I wouldn’t take away a second of them no matter the cost.

So this bike trip? Totally financially irresponsible. Our money would be better spent paying off loans, saving for retirment or buying health insurance. But how insufferably boring! When Oakley and I leave, it will be necessary for me to close my private practice counseling business. My income will come to a crashing halt. We will defer our student loans and Twain (bless his heart) will keep working, but the trip will cost a lot in terms of gear, camping fees and other necessities. It is completely reckless and will add to our financial stress considerably.

But to not go would be worse. We hear about tragedies on a global scale every day, and I also hear them on a personal scale through my counseling work. I am often overwhelmed by the state of the world and by the sadness that many people I know carry, such as depression and suicidal ideation, the crushing cycle of poverty, drug addiction, and failing families. When I become overwhelmed everything seems gray. I get tired and worn and lose my spark. At these times I feel I have nothing left to offer. Then I feel badly about myself and become unmotivated. It is a sad state of affiars. I know it happens to everybody.

If I don’t have a spark, and if Oakley loses his spark, what good are we? I want to be a positive force in the world, and I want him to be one, too. The only way I know how to keep our sparks bright, is to get out of the gray of the city. To get out off our screens and into the outdoors. To engage with others and nature. To stop worrying about ferry schedules and shopping lists. To stop rushing and getting lost in the lists of my life. Adventuring in the outdoors is how I remember where I fit and what I am a part of. This is why, no matter how selfish it seems, this trip is a good thing. Yes, it is totally self serving but, I am hoping, it will allow us to have more to give by filling us up.

My role model is Frederick the mouse in Leo Lionni’s children’s book, “Frederick”. Frederick spends his days collecting beautiful images and feelings throughout the summer days to have something to share with the other mice during the dark winter months.

“and how about the Colors Frederick?: they asked anxiously.

“Close your eyes again.”Frederick said. And when he told them of the blue periwinkles and the red poppies the yellow wheat and the green leaves of the berry bush, they saw the colors as clearly as if they had been painted on their minds. -Leo Lionni

I may never pay off my loans. I may never make the big changes that I would like to see in the world, but I think I can rationalize this expedition by believing that if we stay compelelty alive and awake we are adding something good to the world. At least believing us helps quell the scolding mid-westerner in me.

Test Drive

Oakley is sleeping upstairs as I write this. He is sick with a bad case of swimmer’s ear. In our life together this is relatively unheard of. This kid’s fire rages so hot that germs seems to get burned to death on contact. This time I actually think we wore him out. It is a parenting technique of mine to keep him so exhausted that he doesn’t have time to get into trouble. Besides, he doesn’t know how to not be busy. He is on a swim team and the indoor track team; he snowboards every Wednesday and cross-country skis whenever I make him. He takes drumming lessons and is in a Queen ensemble group that practices weekly at the Mid-Coast School of Music. It is a great outlet that lets him thrash away while remaining in control. The hope is that it is giving him a rhythm to help organize his scattered self. On days that he doesn’t have a scheduled activity he begs to go to Urban Air, the indoor trampoline park. He doesn’t have an off switch. In fact, this morning he had a fever of 101 degrees and was exclaiming that he could still go to school. I told him he had to stay home and now he is passed out.

That being said, yesterday was the day we finally got to sit upon our bikes. They are terrific. Ainsley at the Gear Hub in Portland has outdone herself. She found us recycled frames and selected components for the bikes that will be able to withstand heavy use and not break our bank. Plus, all the components of the bikes, from the brakes to the shifters to the spokes, all match each other, so we will only have to haul one repair kit and one set of replacement parts with us on our trek.

I was excited and instantly felt a bond to my bike. It has a purple Specialized frame, a drop-down handlebar for lots of different riding positions, and a head set that turns like whipped-cream frosting. The tires are Kevlar to help prevent flats, with double-walled wheels to help bear the weight load. Perfect.

Oakley, on the other hand was unimpressed. I am not sure he truly appreciated the value of a recycled bike and would probably prefer a brand-spanking-new bicycle with all the shiny accoutrements that come with a pricey designer bike. He is 15, after all. What 15-year-old appreciates used stuff? Ainsley enthusiatically asked him what he thought of his bike. “I like it,” Oakley said, unconvinclingly, as he looked around vacantly with rheumy eyes. If you loook at the “bikmum” Instagram account (this is not a misspelling: “bikemum” was already taken on Instagram), you will see that he was busying himself making slow-motion videos of himself, flapping his lips like a rubber duck, that really sum up how he felt.

As we went over the details of the bikes and what still needed to be done, Ainsley mentioned that we might wear out our chains while we are training for this trip and need to replace them. That was when Oakley roused himself and looked at me with horror. I could read his mind. He has no intention of training. Training is boring. The idea of us riding in circles around South Portland when he could be running around with his buddies like a wild child is truly cringe-worthy to him. He intends to just go for it, hop on a plane, hop on his bike and begin that chapter of his life. The adventure appeals to him, not the biking. Not at all. “Are you ready for this?” asked Ainsley excitedly. “Yeah, I guess,” he responded. I wanted him to catch the bike fever, but it wasn’t happening.

Maybe it was just the swimmer’s ear fever he was catching instead.

Oakley’s prespective​: The things I am excited about

So, there are a few things that I am excited about seeing when we bike across the country. One, I am excited to see the world. The places that we are going to pass through and maybe even stop and explore sound cool. I guess this tripis sounding better.

My mother says that we are going to walk through huge tunnels that go on for miles and miles, called Lava Tubes, at a place called Mammoth Cave. There will be other fun things as well, like Mount Rushmore. I hope we visit it because last time I was there I was 3, and I remember screaming my tiny little head off because my mom stuffed me in a stroller and didn’t let me run around and have fun. This time I she won’t be able to catch me!

I am excited about biking across the tall prairie grasses in Kansas. It sounds cool to travel through miles of grass that might be 8 feet tall. I am excited about seeing super tall trees with 6 foot wide trunks as well in Oregon. I am going to try and climb them.

BUT, there are still things that I am not excited about. For instance, I hear that dogs chase you while you bike through farm land on very long and twisty roads. My mom says we can carry pepper spray to keep them away. She says sometimes you have to get off your bike and use it as a shield from the dogs. That is terrifying to me, and I think that I should carry a baseball bat at all times to whack them.

The other thing I am not looking forward to is going over the Rocky Mountains. It will be all uphill and I am going to hate this. I will probably throw my bike off the side of a mountain.

Anyway, now I think that there is a lot to worry about and a lot to look forward to.