Key West to Big Pine Key (miles 0-30)
Sixty feet to go.
Sixty feet to go.
There's still time to slink away and forget this crazy notion.
The land-locked buoy sits at a bend in the sidewalk, at the end of a line of photo-opting tourists, and I turn and ask the woman behind me if she would take my picture when it's my turn to mug for the camera. I hand her my Nikon and push my bike closer to the beginning of my journey.
Forty feet to go.
A man and a woman end their photo session, and the line shuffles forward.
A family of four excitedly arranges themselves just so around the buoy, and I turn and smile at the woman who holds my camera. We are collaborators, two people who look at the commotion with amused expressions. She has dark hair and bright eyes, is dressed in a blouse and shorts, and she wants to know about my trip.
Ten feet to the buoy.
"My trip?" I say.
If I answer her truthfully—if I speak the words out loud—this is the moment my dream becomes a reality. Spider-legs tap my spine, crawling upward, a tingle that goes all the way to my scalp. I unfurl my banner and lay it across my bike.
"Ride between the Stars is an attempt to raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association," I say. "This buoy is the beginning of a two year ride."
Such a simple question and yet so complicated to answer. I condense my response to one word, a symmetrical exchange.
The buoy stands bright and blunt in the Key West sunlight, a sturdy beacon that will serve as both the beginning and end of my journey. I roll my bike into position, stand behind it, and try to smile for the camera. I've gone on long adventures—completed the Hiking Triple Crown in consecutive years—and I've never felt this type of nervousness. Will there be danger? Moments of indecision? Regrets? Missed opportunities and wrong turns? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes . . . all that and more. This is life on two wheels and things go wrong more often than not.
I roll my bike away from the buoy and realize a number of cameras point my direction, hear several requests to hold the banner up. I oblige and answer a few more questions.
"Can I make a donation?" a young woman says.
Though raising money for MDA is the purpose for Ride between the Stars, her question surprises me. I had expected to raise awareness via newspaper articles, radio interviews, and social media, and had not considered the importance of one on one interactions. Perhaps my tunnel vision was a sign of our wired times? I've forgotten it's possible to connect on a personal level.
I turn toward the young woman—gaze at the upturned expectancy of her face—feel a tug at my heartstrings. She is one of the magical people, a giver whose efforts will one day eradicate this disease. I hand her a card and direct her to this website, say there's a link that will take her to the MDA site, where she can contribute directly to the association.
I thank her and mount my bike, pedal down the street trying not to think about what's in front of me. Except for my ride out of the Keys, my route between the stars is unknown, a necklace of future logistics that will reveal itself out of both necessity and whimsy.
A few miles outside Key West, as cars and trucks hurtle past my left shoulder, I ride past a ghost bike someone put on the side of the road to honor a dead cyclist. Wondering who killed him, I suspect it was a texter, shudder at the thought of someone coming up behind me with his gaze on his phone.
My first day is a short one—thirty miles into headwinds—and I call it quits when I pull into Big Pine Key. Big Pine is famous for its endangered Key Deer, and there are signs on the roadways telling drivers to slow down. I ride out to the woods to stealth camp for the night.
My mind is on the next section out of here, specifically Seven Mile Bridge, or, as I like to call it, The Horror Ride with the Big Hump in the Middle.