Editor’s note: The following is part of the Active Life special section.
Catherine Grigor was afraid that she had made a terrible mistake.
Sitting at a campsite last summer somewhere in the middle of the more than 4,000-mile stretch between Yorktown, Va., and Astoria, Ore., she had just arrived at the bracing — if not somewhat belated — conclusion that her plan to bike across America was not turning out to be the rollicking good time that she had hoped.
Nearly a month before, the Boalsburg resident retired from her job at Penn State with bicycle wheels spinning in her eyes, the same pair that had been perpetually in motion since the third grade.
After nearly a lifetime of building endurance, a cross-country bike ride seemed like the perfect template for an adventure — and one that was heart healthy and relatively inexpensive to boot.
Armed with 60 pounds worth of supplies and a friend, Janice Dauber, of Tyrone, 67-year-old Grigor set out to see America, a country that as it turns out, has many more hills than advertised.
I thought I had grown up and then I realized what fun it was.
After approximately 25 days of pedaling the steep Virginia landscapes, nights spent in swampy campsites and scavenging the sparse shelves of local grocery stores for the luxury that is milk, Grigor began having second thoughts.
She spoke with Dauber about her concerns.
“You know, I’m not having fun. This isn’t what I expected,” Grigor said.
Up until then, bike riding had always been a source of extreme pleasure, from the moment she got her training wheels off to a weeklong excursion she took with friends decades later during which she sometimes averaged upward of 100 miles per day.
Grigor had quit exactly once, a brief lapse when she was 16 years old, when a combination of teenage intuition and basic math told her that four wheels and an engine equaled more than two wheels and a bike pump.
“I thought I had grown up and then I realized what fun it was,” Grigor said.
That was the spirit that she was looking to recapture on this trip, and it had so far been woefully M.I.A. She was barely a third of the way through what was originally planned as a 100-day trip, and the prospect of continuing onward seemed murky at best.
And so here, at the fork in the road between the blustery winds of Kansas and the western frontier, Grigor was faced with a choice. She, of course, did what anybody on the cusp of a major decision should do and put it out of her mind.
The bikes sat idle for a few days while Grigor explored the University of Kentucky and toured a local arboretum and museum. She availed herself of the heaping helpings of produce, meats and dairy items found in the local grocery palaces.
It felt good.
With a solid two months into the trip, a restored and reinvigorated Grigor decided that she was in it for the long haul. It helped that the distance between Kentucky and Oregon seemed to be shrinking much faster than she was pedaling.
They had fallen into a steady routine, covering as many as 80 miles per day before making camp at a church, fire hall or public park. It was a simple, stripped-down existence. Grigor awoke in the morning, packed up her half of the campsite, ate breakfast and then hit the road.
Scenery that normally would have been a blur outside of the car window was now standing still just long enough for her to get a look — and she liked what she saw.
“You got to see every inch of the land, and it was beautiful,” Grigor said.
There were other benefits, too.
Away from television, the Internet or even the news from home, a daily trek that bore a very close resemblance to long, arduous hours of punishing exercise was instead revealed as elaborate physical camouflage for a very Zen state of mind.
“I guess it almost became meditative,” Grigor said.
As unlikely as it sounds, Grigor and Dauber were also beginning to build a network among their fellow cyclists, faces they would bump into again and again on their path west.
You got to see every inch of the land and it was beautiful.
There was the father and daughter team squeezing a cross-country ride in between semesters at college, a traveling musician from Montana, even a couple from the Netherlands touring America on their bikes.
“It was really neat seeing all those different people, and everyone had a different story,” Grigor said.
It was the same wherever they went. They beauty of the American landscape was matched, or in some cases enhanced, by the people they met along the way.
In Kansas, a retired sheriff and his wife — complete strangers — lent Grigor and Dauber a car so that they could make a beeline for the grocery store and stop at a restaurant to savor the taste of food prepared by hands other than their own.
“We ran into absolute kindness,” Grigor said.
She had set out to see the country and found it again and again over the course of more than 4,000 miles. It was the difference between a destination and a point on a map, between seeing an eclectic collection of geographical landmarks and seeing America.
None of which subtracted from the experience of finally crossing the finish line in Astoria.
“When it finally ended, you get the feeling, ‘yeah, I can do anything,’ ” Grigor said.