Cycling with God
Scripture: Psalm 104: 1-30
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When I decided to bike 3,200 miles across the United States last summer, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The furthest I had ever biked, before pressing the transcendent ‘submit application’ button, was a slow, 12 miles, with my dad, on a quiet bike bath. And yet, be it the challenge, the unknown, or something much greater, I felt drawn to the trip. It was as if I was meant to be biking from Tybee Island, Georgia— which is about 20 miles east of Savannah—to Santa Monica, California.
So, I learned some cyclist lingo, got my gear together, and trained as much as I could before the trip began.
The first night, thirteen strangers, two leaders and eleven students, sat in a circle in the middle of a campground, with mirrored faces of anxious excitement. We answered five questions, one of which would stick with me throughout the whole 6 weeks: why were you doing the American Challenge?—as the trip was called.
That night, my ‘why’ echoed pretty much everyone else’s: We were here for the final, satisfactory moment of having ridden a bicycle, unsupported—meaning that everything we had with us was carried on our bikes—across the United States of America. For most of my groupmates, that ‘why’ would remain as they mentally suffer through days, wishing the mileage was over, but with grit and determination that I continue to admire, would hang on for the moment when we would all sprint into the Pacific Ocean, our front tires in hand, signifying that we had made it Coast to Coast. But, as I fell in love with cycling, the long days of riding, the beauty of the Southern States, and the people I was riding with, my whole perspective about why I was doing the trip changed.
I began riding for the little moments—and for the slightly bigger ones. For the delirious conversation about how sandwiches came to be. For screaming at the top of our lungs as we rode through an echo-y tunnel in the Ozarks. For the somehow successfully conducted conversation entirely in unestablished code words like ice cream, cookie, lacrosse, and paint brush. For the unfortunately high amount of people who expressed shock that I, and the few other girls on my trip, were not only riding across America, but were somehow managing to keep up with the guys. For the strangers who opened their hearts to us.
In Double Springs, Alabama, after completing our ride for the day, the mayor drove us to the local swimming pool to cool off, along with sharing the history of his town with us. In Independence, Kansas we were welcomed into a church whose community cooked us the best spaghetti and meatballs I have ever had the luxury of eating, pre-packed breakfast and lunch for our ride the next day, shuttled us across town in their own cars so that we could shower in the local high school’s locker rooms, and set up cots so that we didn’t have to sleep on the floor. In Cortez, Arizona, the day before our second longest ride of 121 miles, a bike savvy member of a neighboring town came by our campsite to help with some of our bike issues, bring us popsicles, and hype us up before our daunting ride the next day.
For when seven of us hid in the tiny bathroom as a skunk wandered into our divey motel room. For the moments where I felt small among the vast wonders of nature. For the moments where I felt the Holy Spirit dancing around me. Those moments came when the repetitive Kansas scenery led us up a small hill and in front of me I saw the tips of the Rocky Mountains trying to push past the horizon. Again, when a little girl wandered over to me in the bathroom in Durango, Colorado and asked, her voice full of hope, if I thought that she too could ride her bike across the country, even though she was a girl, and I got to tell her that she could do anything she wanted to as long as she worked hard. And, when we summitted our highest elevation of the trip in the Colorado Rockies, passing lush trees, winding rivers, and commanding waterfalls. For when I got a concussion right before the two most difficult days of the trip, and the love from my group mates pushed me to keep cycling a total of 225 miles in 121 degree heat through the Mojave Desert. I was riding for the times when I felt my whole heart expand with endless love for everything I was experiencing. To me, every small moment became as important as the final moment. Each pedal stroke carried me closer to the Pacific, but more importantly, it carried me closer to the next experience that I would get to share with the twelve strangers who had become not only some of my closest friends, but my second family.
Out of all of these so-important-to-me moments, the Desert Days—which is what we called our two days in the Mojave—stand out to me as the most powerful days of my life. This was when my mental strength was put to the test. Due to some of the concussion symptoms I was experiencing such as dizziness, headaches, nausea, my leaders were understandably concerned and urged me to ride in the support van—the van being a luxury we got during the Desert Days due to the remoteness of the Mojave and lack of available water. I declined, but thoughts of their concerns teased me throughout the ride, making me doubt the safety of continuing to ride, along with my own physical capability to complete it. On top of that, near the end of the second day, one of my group mates started feeling extremely dehydrated and made the smart and strong decision to ride in the support van instead. I have so much respect for her choice, and, as I am sure many of you have experienced, once someone breaks the stigma of doing something, it becomes a lot more tempting for you to give into it too.
I don’t know who else has experienced this, but it felt a little bit like it does when you try to see if you can swim the entire length of a pool without coming up for air. But, the ending wall I needed to propel me to the surface kept moving further away, every single time I was about to reach out and grab it and I was stuck underwater, not knowing if I would be able to continue the relentless chase to the end or, if I should just come up for air.
These doubts and inclinations—and honestly a little fear—were swirling around, mocking me, making me use every ounce of strength I could call forward to keep pedaling. And yet, I kept pedaling. My mantra became: “I am powerful. I am strong. I can do this.” And, so, I did.
Looking back, and even in the moment itself, I firmly believe that I needed the mental struggle. I needed to feel the pride and the accomplishment rinse some of my self-doubt down the drain, leaving behind a more self-assured me. It feels as though God gave me that challenge so that I could grow into the person I am now and the person who I will continue to become.
This applies to more than riding through the Mojave Desert. There have been many times where I felt as though the path I was following was somehow longer and windier and bumpier than the one that I’d been on before. It feels so unfair and it makes you so angry and then, I think back to how grateful I am for the Desert Days. How they taught me to endure because eventually you’ll reach the end and maybe it won’t be gratitude you feel for the experience, but you’ll definitely feel something and that will help propel you into the next stage of whatever you are meant to do.
Now, as the youth service trip begins this afternoon, I remind everyone that every single moment, despite how challenging, exciting, insert adjective here it is, is important to the whole experience. Just like reaching the grand goal of having packed 36 backpacks for Project More or having put together 400 Hygiene Kits for the local soup kitchen is something to celebrate. As are the small moments where something new is learned, a new friend is made, or a laugh is shared, for “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
Life is about the bigger, impressive goals that you set out to accomplish, but it’s also about the moments that make up the journey, and how the smooth ones and challenging ones alike have changed your perspectives.