It’s hard not to giggle when a shirtless sunburned man is chugging beer from a lawn-ornament flamingo whose head has been chopped off while his friends call him “dickhead” in support, while overhearing voices from the front of the bus saying the GPS is wrong, we’re lost, and while trying, from behind sunglasses, to pretend to be asleep. But so it was, as two friends and I hitched a ride to Rock Valley, Iowa, the starting line for the week-long bike ride across the state that would begin the next day.
See? Even the angry one thinks it’s funny, one of them said.
I tried not to flinch. The problem was bigger than the uneasy rapport we’d struck with these strangers — the problem was that the leaving wasn’t going according to plan, and if the plan was already fucked, then the rest of the trip surely would be because for a trip to go well, it has to begin well.
A man called Dr. Dan was supposed to pick us up at 10 that morning, outside the local hardware store. We’d load our bikes, head towards Des Moines, and be on our way to the northwest corner of the state, ready to start riding back across after a good night’s sleep. The day before leaving, the two friends and I wondered what kind of bus it would be — one guessed a yellow school bus, another a Greyhound-style coach. Both possibilities were nauseating, the names alone evoking the sticky vinyl funk (yellow) and chemically cleaned bathroom sweetness (Greyhound) that would make reading impossible. The word, for either choice, was lurching.
Then Dr. Dan was supposed to pick us up at noon, then 2, then 4, then finally 7, when he showed up. I’d spent the day eating the snacks I was supposed to be eating on the bus, taking food-induced naps, and waking to an alarm that made me jump awake every time into a bedroom bright with sunlight from the west windows. Outside the hardware store, men tied our bikes to the ceiling of an enclosed trailer, which would be pulled behind the bus, and we drove off into the already-setting sun. Rick, our first backseat companion, introduced himself. I should clarify: These weren’t seats; these were mattresses perched on some sort of ledge that was about a third the width of each mattress, so the front was always folding and pulling the whole thing toward the center of the bus. Rick apologized. But it’s fun back here! he said, and explained that the bus had two kegs and we could pay for cups if we wanted and he’d been drinking since he got on, just west of Chicago, and boy, that bathroom was already a mess. Rick wore a Hawaiian shirt and black wraparound sunglasses, had a handshake that took too long to get rid of, legs shaved according to that odd bike-riding convention. Rick had done this all before, he said. Ask me anything, he said.
At least I’d left my apartment in good condition. I made sure to clean everything before I left, as I always do, and put everything away where it belongs — the plates in their metal cabinets, the clothes in their fiberboard drawers — thereby guaranteeing that there would be something tangible and exactly in order to return to. A bit of continuity, a ritual, a joyful habit.