Emily and Hilda stood in the sunshine outside the store in White Hall. They finished their Magnum Dove Bars, put the wrappers in the trash, and took swigs from their bike bottles. Hilda swung smoothly onto her bicycle throwing her right leg over the saddle and coasted to a halt to watch Emily put her leg over her top tube and slide to a position straddling her bike. With some wobbling, she got rolling and picked up speed. Hilda waved her on and rode up alongside as they headed back toward Charlottesville on the TransAmerica Trail.
“Wow, I’ve never felt so clumsy in my life,” said Emily. “Will I get used to it?”
“Sure, Em. You’re already doing better than this morning at home. You didn’t fall this time.”
“I thought my book panniers were heavy, but this is worse. And the bike handles more sluggishly with 25-mm tires.”
“Your load’s also spread out wider. That changes the handling, too.”
They slowly picked up speed. With her new panniers packed for the trip, Emily no longer blew away from Hilda as they made their way down Garth Road at a respectable 25 km/hr. Emily adjusted quickly to the heavier handling of her bicycle in motion, so the occasional debris or pothole did not pose a problem.
“Agent Sprouse is cooler than I expected an FBI Agent to be,” Emily said after a mile of silence. “My parents absolutely howled when he described the search for you and Jack.”
“I like him. And I’m glad he convinced them that you would be as safe with me as anywhere else. I don’t know if I rate that kind of endorsement.”
“Anything less would not have convinced them, especially Mom. I think that they’re happy now.”
They flew into the ravine to cross the Meechums River, then pulled up the steep grade on the other side.
“I’m going to be sore tomorrow, Hilda. I can feel the strain of pulling this weight through all these ravines.”
“That’s why we’re doing this today. You should be fine by Friday, and there’re nothing this steep east of Charlottesville.”
“If you say so.”
Six miles from White Hall, they spied the Hunt Country Store.
“Hilda! I have to stop. Omigod!”
Hilda slowed and stopped. She looked back at Emily. Blood was running down her right leg. Emily looked up with a mix of surprise, anguish, and embarrassment.
“Period?” asked Hilda.
Emily nodded. “This is scary. My pad is useless.”
“Let’s ride over to the store.” Hilda gestured to the Hunt Country Store. “They have a bathroom. We can get you cleaned up and a fresh pad.”
“Probably nothing, Em, but we’ll take a look.”
They rode the two hundred meters to the store and parked their bikes.
“Since we’re packed, we have everything we need, don’t we?” Hilda began to open her right pannier. Emily looked helpless. “Let me guess. You don’t have pads or tampons.” Emily shook her head. “Don’t worry. I was going to suggest switching to mine, since whatever you’re using is not going to be enough. Grab a clean pair of shorts.”
Emily got her shorts from her pannier. Hilda knew where the bathroom was. Inside, Emily cleaned up, and put Hilda’s pad in her shorts. She rinsed out her bloody shorts, rung them out, and got them partly dry using the hand dryer.
“Feel better?” Hilda asked as they buried the bloody hand towels in the trash can.
“Much. I only started having periods last year, and they have never been like this.”
“That’s because you’ve been a top-level athlete since puberty. You know what athletic amenorrhea is?”
“Lack of a period. It’s common with athletes.”
“True. And not a problem for someone who eats well and sleeps regularly, like you. But you are looking at the other side: you stopped exercising that hard when you had your crash, and now your body is catching up. With normal periods you’re going to need the larger pads, or tampons.”
“Just what I need. Something else to pack.”
Hilda laughed. “It’s not that bad. You can get what you need anywhere. You just need to pack enough for one period. If my size works for you, we can each carry half a pack. Anything extra, we leave behind.”
They went out into the store and bought a carton of orange juice, which they split before continuing back to Charlottesville.
“How was your first mini-tour?” Katharine asked as they trooped into the kitchen. Hilda carried Emily’s tent.
“Oh, Mom” Emily dropped her panniers and hugged her mother. Katharine looked at Hilda with a questioning look.
“Her athletic amenorrhea ceased with a vengeance. She’ll be OK. I had a bigger size pad in my pannier.”
“Oh, that.” She patted Emily’s back. “Hilda’s right. It happened to me, too. Scared the hell out of me the first time.” She held her daughter out by the shoulders. “You feel better now?”
Emily nodded, then picked up her panniers with a slight grunt. “It was a good idea to do this on Wednesday, because I am going to be sore tomorrow. It’s a whole different ride with big tires and loaded bags.”
Emily and Hilda took the gear to Emily’s room. Emily put her shorts in the laundry hamper.
“I plan to have no laundry left over when we go Friday, she said.
Emily hugged the nurse. “I’m so glad you’re around. You’re my best friend. Ever.”
“I’m glad, too, Em.” Hilda disengaged. “See you tonight.”
That night, the Dempsey’s turned dinner into an early birthday party for Emily. Mark and Katharine had already bought her panniers, tent, and everything on the shopping list, but there were still presents on the table. Hilda gave her a Road ID bracelet. Katharine had mail-ordered a Shebeest sleeveless bicycle jersey in bright orange, red and black.
“No fair,” said Mark. “Why are all the best-looking bicycle kits only for women?”
They toasted Emily with a 2015 Chardonnay and made jokes about her being a bargain. “Other kids are getting cars,” Mark said.
“Dad, I don’t want a car. You’ve always gotten me the best of everything I’ve ever wanted.”
“What did you call me?”
Emily put her hand to her mouth in shock. Then she laughed. “That came naturally. May I?”
Mark rose and went to her place to hug his step-daughter. “Of course, and I will always try to earn it.” Hilda saw that tears suddenly ran down Katharine’s cheeks. She felt a welling in her own eyes.
“Eighteen is too late to adopt you, but I would have at any point.” Mark looked at his wife. “I think you both know that.”
Hilda slipped into the kitchen while the three of them had a group hug. She knew that Katharine and Emily had walked a long road with Mark’s help since Emily’s father was killed. This was a special moment for them. She found the cake and the gas lighter and lit the bonfire of candles. She waited until the family disengaged before intoning “Happy birthday” as she came back into the room.
Thursday, Hilda got emails from several Warmshowers hosts in the Richmond area and called a family that lived in the Fan District to confirm. Then she booked a tent site at the campground at the Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story. She emptied her refrigerator and carried what she could not eat in the next 24 hours to the graduate student couple next door. She had almost sublet her apartment for the summer, then thought better of it. What if the Forebears or unknown crazies figured out where she lived while she was gone? Better to have the place empty. She checked the air in her tires and oiled the chain again. Emily and she had both their bikes overhauled and tuned on Monday and Tuesday.
She made a big salad with baked cod and vegetables, clearing out the rest of the refrigerator, and took it to the westward-facing window of the main room. The sky over the Blue Ridge was a blaze of brilliant reds and oranges, and she remembered the adage a Navy friend had taught her, “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”
Indeed, Friday dawned clear and sunny. Hilda rose at dawn, dressed and finished the rest of the milk on the last bowl of cereal. Nothing would be left behind for mice or ants or people. An hour after rising, she was riding down the John Warner Parkway to Rio Road and on to Brandywine Drive. By eight, the hugging and fretting was over. Emily and Hilda were riding down US 250, almost the last segment of the TransAmerica trail. The land here rolled gently downhill toward the sea. On either side in Fluvanna and Goochland Counties, they passed farms with horses, livestock, or crops maturing in the sun. The corn was already high enough to block the view in many places. The highway paralleled Interstate 64, which was carrying all the high-speed, long-haul traffic. For that reason, most of the traffic passing them was local, with very few large rigs, and no one speeding. They stopped at Zion Crossroads to drink some water and stretch.
“You’ve been quiet, Em.”
“I’m so excited, I want to burst, but I don’t know what these first few days will be like, so I am trying to conserve my energy. It does not sound like much to ride 121 km, but I worry about doing it with the bags.
“You’ll be fine. As long as you remember your sunblock everyday.”
Emily gave a little gasp and turned to her left pannier. “Thanks for reminding me. Lucky you don’t need this stuff.”
“Oh, but I do, Em. I blister as bad as anyone else. It just doesn’t show until it’s too late. I use SPF 50 same as you.”
Emily finished applying her sunblock. They mounted up and rode on. Emily went thoughtful again for about ten miles.
“Have you ever been attacked on the road?”
“Kind of late to back out now, isn’t it?”
“I don’t mean it that way. I just wonder about all the stories I hear about women being assaulted. Have you have been harassed?”
“Yes. But the only man to walk away from it was the very first one – my drill sergeant in boot camp.”
“What happened? – I ‘m sorry. You probably don’t want to talk about it.”
“You brought it up, and the problem is real, so we might as well talk about it. He fancied himself some kind of stud. He was also tall, about six-seven, so he could look down at me, unlike most of the others. He ordered me into his quarters one night and ordered me to strip for some R&R.”
“Rest and relaxation. He wanted to have fun. I told him no and started to leave. He grabbed me and started to force himself on me. I screamed, which brought the other drill sergeants to the scene. He tried to BS his way out of it, and they told me to go on back to the barracks and make like nothing happened.”
“Was he punished?”
“No. The whole thing was ignored. I kept my head down and graduated the following week.”
“But that sounds like attempted rape.”
“That’s what it was. Overall, more than one-third of women in this country have been sexually assaulted and in some places over half. It’s not pretty.”
“What did you do after that?”
“As soon as I got to my first duty station, I signed up for a martial arts and self-defense class. The rest was a matter of attitude.”
“Yes. I don’t act shy, and I don’t take any guff.”
‘Uh – I think I noticed that about you. I like it.”
“I also follow that time-honored motto, ‘the best defense is a well-directed offense’.”
“You strike first?”
“Not exactly, but I do strike at the slightest touch, if a man is not behaving properly.”
“Wow. I don’t know what I would do if someone attacked me.”
“I can show you some moves that might make the difference. The rest is in your head. You have to be ready to do damage.”
“Gosh. That sounds scary.”
“We’re not looking for trouble, Em. But if it comes looking for us, it’s better to be ready for it.”
“OK. Teach me something, would you?”
“We’ll start after Richmond. I would not want to put off the nice family hosting us tonight.”
Hilda had told the family in Richmond that they would eat an early supper, so that they would not need to be fed, but that they would be there before sundown. They stopped at Short Pump and bulked up on rigatoni all’arrabbiata and lots of garlic bread. After supper, they each downed a protein shake from the GNC store. Hilda bought a box of fancy chocolates for their hosts. Then they rode into the city against rush hour. There was plenty of bicycle traffic, and the drivers seemed used to it. It was not quite six o’clock when they found the place. The family lived in a spacious home on Hanover Avenue. The bikes were locked in the little yard behind the building.
After introductions and showers, Hilda and Emily joined the family, who had just finished supper. Jane and Robert MacAlester were Scottish, both working in Richmond for an engineering company. Their three little ones played with the two strangers for an hour, then were trundled off to bed.
“Now for some grown-up time,” Robert said when they returned from the children’s room. “You have no idea how special it is to have you two here.”
“How so?” asked Hilda.
“Well, look,” Jane said, pointing at Emily, “we had no idea you were bringing Emily Hampstead with you. She’s a legend!”
Emily blushed while Hilda grinned. “She is that, isn’t she?”
“Did you have to retire after your crash?” Robert asked.
“No. But I can’t race until next fall. So, I’m going on tour with Hilda. She’s the legend now.”
“We did some touring before we came to the States, but nothing as ambitious as you are doing.”
“Where did you ride?” asked Hilda.
“Our long one was Hadrian’s Wall, only 200 km. But it was great.”
“I’ve always wanted to ride that. It’s so beautiful – and varied from what I could see.”
“Yes. It’s that. Would you like an after-dinner drink? Some port, perhaps?”
“That would be nice. Emily?”
“I’ve never had port.”
“I’ll give you a taste. What are you pouring, Robert?”
“Sandeman. It’s what we could find here.”
“That would be good.”
Robert got up while Katharine set out cordials glasses from the sideboard. Hilda let Emily take a sip.
“It tastes like the communion wine at church.”
“See? You have had port, after all.”
They chatted for another hour while the sun finished setting. By ten, they were all ready for bed. The guest room had two twin beds in it.
“There a nightlight in the hall, in case you need to find the loo.”
“This is lovely. Thank you so much,” said Hilda.
“Good night, then. We’ll see you in the morning.”
After setting out their bicycle kits for the next morning, brushing and flossing, they packed their panniers as much as they could and turned in.
“This is really very nice, Hilda. I thought we would be roughing it.”
“Don’t worry, we will. Warmshowers ranges from this to camping in the back yard, where the dog left his fleas, and everything in between. We may have to share a bed sometimes.”
“I think that would be OK. I don’t know if I snore or toss about.”
“We’ll find out, won’t we?”
“Yes.” Emily yawned.
“Good night, Em.”
Lying in the dark, Hilda tried to map out a loose lesson plan to teach Emily some self-defense moves. She also tried to picture ambush locations along the route. There were not very many of them. Much of their route would be open spaces until Connecticut.
She heard Emily’s soft breathing almost immediately and smiled to herself. Such innocence, but what courage. She relaxed and drifted off.
The next day, the family was up at the same time as their guests. They had to drop the children at day care before work. By eight, Emily and Hilda were making their way to 14th Street, where they picked up the Virginia Capital Trail along the left bank of the James River. They had lunch in Colonial Williamsburg, which both had visited before. The sun was especially pleasant eating outdoors on Duke of Gloucester Street.
In the afternoon, they rode past a sign for Langley Air Force Base.
“Too bad Dad had to go to DC today. He could have given us a tour.”
“Have you been there?”
“Oh, yes. There was a father-daughter day back in January. His office was a mess, because they had just changed contracts and assignments, and everything was being rearranged.”
“Maybe we can go down there after we get back.”
An hour later, they were loading their bikes on the front of a city bus in Newport News, which took them through the Hampton Roads Tunnel under the Elizabeth River, and left them in Norfolk at Ocean View. They rode along the coast on US 60 to the Amphibious Base at Little Creek. Beyond the base, they could see US 13, the Military Highway, stretching out over the water, where it became the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. US 60 was flat, and where the traffic seemed heavier, there were bike lanes and bike paths. Soon they were checking in at the campground, which was outside the base perimeter. This meant that Emily did not need a visitor’s pass. Their site overlooked some wetlands and woods. It was hard to believe that they were in a city, except when the occasional siren wailed down Amphibious Drive between the campground and the base.
Practicing in the back yard paid off. Emily had her tent up just before Hilda. They left their panniers in the tents and rode to the Commissary less than a mile away. It was also outside the perimeter. They approached the ID check station at the entrance, where Hilda presented her ID card.
“Can she get a pass to stay with me,” she asked, indicated Emily, “or is there somewhere she could wait?”
The gray-haired man at the counter looked at Emily.
“She less than 18 years old?”
“No problem. She just has to stay with you, and she can’t buy anything herself.”
“That’s a relief. Thank you.”
Emily was amazed at the size and scope of the place.
“This is bigger than Walmart or Costco,” she said.
“It might be. It serves thousands of military families in the cities around here. Not the greatest selection for natural or organic foods, but the prices are unbeatable on name-brand items.”
“How do they do that?”
“It’s part of the Defense Logistics Agency, so the merchandise is shipped with the stuff for the mess halls and canteens of the troops. The markup only has to cover the operating costs of the stores themselves. You can still find something cheaper at Food Lion or Kroger, especially if it’s a loss leader.”
They picked up some fruit and trail mix for the road, some muesli and two small yoghurt cups for breakfast, and a roast chicken with potatoes for supper, with another carton of orange juice. They strapped two bags to their rear racks, while Hilda hooked the bag of chicken and potatoes over her handlebars. Back at the campsite, they made a small fire, and sat at the picnic table to enjoy dinner.
“Let’s shower tonight. You’ll find that there is always a crowd for the showers in the morning.”
Emily speared a roast potato wedge. “OK.”
By sundown, they were fed, washed and ready for bed. With their air mattresses inflated, they put all their gear inside and crawled into their respective homes.
“This is fun. Thanks for bringing me along.”
“You’re quite welcome. Good night, Emily.”
They listened to the frogs and insects singing in the wetlands as they drifted off into the happy sleep of those who have pedaled well.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,