Emily and Hilda draped their tents over a railing while they ate their muesli and yoghurt. The sun had climbed above the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and was creating ground fog as it warmed the wetlands around the campground.
“This could be the easiest or the worst day so far,” said Hilda.
“Because we can’t plan where we will be tonight. It won’t take long to cross the Bridge-Tunnel, but when the pickup truck will take us depends on who else needs a ride, and when the truck shows up.”
“How does that work?”
“The state provides transportation for bicyclists and pedestrians in a pair of king-cab pickup trucks. The bikes and any luggage go in the back, of course. If the truck is sitting there and there isn’t anyone else expected, great. We pay our thirteen dollars (same as if we were in a car) and the truck gives us a lift to Cape Charles. If the truck just left or is sitting on the other end, we have to wait.”
They finished breakfast, washed up their bowls and spoons, and packed up the tents and their panniers. It was still cool when they rolled onto US 60 and went the short distance to the ramp for US 13 North and the Bridge-Tunnel. At the Administration Building, Hilda walked into the lobby while Emily watched the bikes.
“Sorry, ma’am, the truck just left. But the other one is on its way here, and the driver has had his break, so it won’t be long.”
“Can we wait in here?”
“Of course. You can lock you bikes out back where the truck loads, if you like.”
“We’ll do that.”
She went out and showed Emily the loading dock at the back of the building. They locked the bikes to each other around a signpost, then went into the lobby. They plugged in their phones to charge while they waited.
A half-hour later, the agent told them that the truck was ready. A half-hour after that they stood on the pavement by US 13.
“That was not bad. We should make it to Chincoteague in plenty of time for a little self-defense training tonight.”
“Cool! Let’s go!”
They stopped at Wendy’s in Onley, Virginia. The highway was monotonous after a while, in the way that the beauty of a landscape fades if it doesn’t change after an hour or so. The wind had come around to the south, warm and steady behind them. The push was welcome, but they were going through their water bottles faster than they planned. Vegetable farms stretched out to the pines on the coast, and cigarette stands proliferated as they got closer to the Maryland border.
“Now, is that for real?” Emily pointed to the biggest cigarette offer yet.
“I think so,” said Hilda. “There’s the state line.”
They stopped at the convenience store to refill their water bottles, and to split another half-gallon of orange juice.
“You OK?” Hilda asked.
“Sure. The wind makes a difference, doesn’t it?”
“It does. Let’s try for Pokomoke City. That’s where we leave US 13 and there a nice campground at the State Park there.”
They rolled into the Pokomoke River State Park an hour later, having stopped at a grocery store at the intersection of US 113. There was plenty of time to set up camp, fix supper and relax. Hilda made an online reservation for the next night at Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware.
They had the area to themselves, so after they cleaned and oiled their chains, Hilda had Emily take off her shoes and socks. They walked to a grassy area.
“This is more effective with shoes, but we don’t want to hurt each other do we?”
Emily shook her head.
“Let me walk slowly through the sequence. Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality made this famous. It’s called SING”
“SING. It’s a mnemonic for Solar plexus, Instep, Nose, Groin. Stand facing me.”
“Do I come at you?”
“You could, but it would be distracting now. Just watch.”
Hilda slowly pushed her right fist into Emily chest, then stepped on her foot and bent her head down to touch Emily’s face on the nose, almost immediately raising her free knee into Emily’s crotch.
“Can you imagine that at full speed?”
“It’s scary enough in slow motion. What if the guy is too tall for me to reach his nose?”
“Skip it and concentrate on kneeing him while holding down that foot. You try it, slowly.”
Emily went through the sequence. On the second try, she used her head on Hilda’s chin.
“I wouldn’t try that, Em. The chin is hard bone and the nose is soft cartilage. Just skip it if the guy is too tall. Let’s speed it up.”
Emily repeated the sequence until she was getting fast and not having to think about it. Hilda had her react to a man coming on.
“Don’t hold back. I’ll let you know if it hurts.”
Twenty minutes later, Emily was drenched in sweat, and Hilda admitted that she was fast enough to surprise the typical idiot or untrained fighter.
“One more thing. Turn around. How do you react to this?” She squeezed Emily’s butt, close to the crack in her cheeks. Emily squeaked and jumped.
“I don’t know. I’m facing the wrong way.”
“Right. There are a couple of moves you can do behind you but getting into position for a SING is easier to remember. Almost all the time, you can catch the guy off guard.”
She turned around and had Emily make a pass at her rear. Hilda reached back, caught Emily’s wrist and spun around, using Emily’s weight to add speed. She used her other hand to tap Emily’s solar plexus and stopped with her foot on Emily’s.
“Let me try.”
Emily ran through the full sequence a dozen more times.
“That’s good. You notice what’s different?”
“Well, I was expecting the pass on my butt.”
“That’s the difference. You didn’t squeak and jump. You just reacted, because you were expecting it.”
“What if someone surprises me?”
“Attitude, girl. You have had your last surprise already.”
“Always expect a pass in a room with even one stranger in it. Restaurant, bar, workplace – even a church social.”
Hilda nodded solemnly. “When you walk into a room, pause just a second, not enough to draw attention, but to check out who is where, especially any men you don’t know.”
“On this trip, that’s going to be everyone.”
“Now you’re getting the idea.”
Emily looked disheartened. “But—”
“You can still have fun, Em. Most men are just fine, but if you know where they all are in the room, you can be aware instead of surprised. You just develop a habit of checking out any room you enter. We’re not expecting trouble, just trying to be ready for it.”
Emily was silent for a while. “Is that it for today?”
“I think it’s enough. Let’s shower and turn in.”
On the way back from the showers, Emily caught up with the taller woman. “Hilda?”
“What you said, about entering a room. It made me feel sad somehow.”
Hilda put her arm around the teenager’s shoulder. “I can understand that. I’m sorry, but not as an apology. You left home a bubbly teenager, surrounded by parents and friends. When you get back, you will be a young woman, strong, confident, and pleased with herself. Travel like this does that to a person.”
“I don’t know – “
“Don’t worry, Em. I’ll be with you almost all the time. Watch me. Learn to be in charge when you enter a room. That keeps most of the would-be Lotharios at bay. You will never be a timid teenager pausing uncertainly at the door, will you?” She smiled and arched her eyebrows.
“No. Thanks.” Emily passed her arm around Hilda’s waist and gave her a hug. “I’ll need more practice.”
“Every day, and we’ll try new moves.”
As they settled into their respective tents, Emily noticed the strong smell of salt air and the noise of the various creatures waking up on the river bank. It felt new and exciting. She fell asleep with the image of Hilda’s gaze upon entering a room. She had seen it often enough, and now she understood.
Hilda sent a short message updating Jack on their progress. As she curled into her sleeping bag, her phone dinged with a reply. She fell asleep with a smile and dreamed dreams she would not share with Emily.
“You gonna sleep all day?”
“I’m awake, Hilda. Just getting dressed. Ouch!”
“What was that?”
“Just a little tender in the solar plexus. That was more drill than I realized last night.”
“Me, too, but I’m tender in the saddle area.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll work it off with some exercise.”
Emily turned out to be a natural at pannier organization. Their tents were not even damp, so in less than 45 minutes, they were rolling north on US 113. The landscape in Maryland was as flat as Virginia, but with more trees, so there were not as many wide open vistas. The highway itself was mostly four-lanes with a generous shoulder. It might be boring to some, but they delighted in the warm tailwind again.
“We only have to ride about 100 km today. We’ll be at Cape Henlopen by mid-afternoon.”
They turned east on US 50 in Berlin, Maryland, and travelled to Ocean City. Tourist traffic was heavy, but not moving fast past them.
“This feels weird,” said Emily. “This time last year, I was riding this highway through Newtown.”
“And I started on it in California. Here’s the end of it.”
They picked up a pair of packaged salads and a panino at the OC Food Market and ate them on the Boardwalk. The surfers were not having a good day, but families and couples were enjoying the sun and the sand. It felt good to catch some rays and relax.
By one pm they were riding north on the series of barrier islands that protected the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Delaware from the Atlantic Ocean. Water lapped the low-lying sand beaches on either side of them, with only some sparse sea grass on either side of the road.
By 4 pm, they had passed Dewey Beach and Rehoboth, and were riding into Cape Henlopen State Park. Hilda sent a text message to Jack when they had their campsite assignment. They pitched their tents, showered and did their laundry. They practiced the SING maneuver front and back, and Emily learned to do the Instep and Groin combination behind her.
About six, they were relaxing at the picnic table when Emily noticed a tall man on a loaded touring bicycle rolling slowly over the crest of the hill. When Hilda jumped up, Emily knew exactly who this had to be. Now Hilda looks like the bubbly teenager, she thought. He dismounted as Hilda ran into his arms. He let the bike lean heavily against them as they embraced and kissed.
Disengaging, Jack grabbed his handlebars and led the bicycle to the campsite. He took off his helmet, revealing close-cropped sandy hair. Emily stood her ground, unsure how to greet him.
“You must be Emily.”
“Major Rathburn, I presume,” she said with a theatrical lilt. Jack’s hearty laugh both surprised her and made her feel at ease.
“Please, call me Jack.” He reached out and shook hands, with a firm grip. “You’re every bit as impressive in person as in the videos,” he said as he leaned his bike against the picnic table. Emily blushed and looked at Hilda. The nurse shrugged and smiled.
“Not as impressive as Hilda. She’s my guardian angel.”
“Granted. We share the same angel, I think. But in addition to the race footage, I am impressed with your travel. I didn’t expect you to be here before tomorrow.”
“Smooth roads and tailwinds,” said Hilda.
“You haven’t had supper already, have you?”
“No. I knew you’d be here before that.”
“Good. Let’s ride to Lewes for a proper sit-down seafood dinner to celebrate.”
“Sounds good to me. Emily?”
“Great! I could eat a horse, but fish will do.”
Jack laughed again, which pleased Emily.
“Hilda, would you make reservations at Striper Bites or Gilligans while I shower?” Hilda gave him a thumbs-up, taking her phone from her pocket. Jack pulled his toilet kit, towel and clean clothes from his panniers and headed for the bath house.
“Wash your kit while you’re there,” Hilda shouted. “There’s space on our line here.” Jack gave her a thumbs-up and waved without turning around. Hilda made a call to the restaurant.
Emily looked at the man dance-skipping down the path to the bath house.
“He’s a cheery type,” she said. “I like him.”
“I’m glad you do. I’d hate to have you practicing your SING moves on him.” They shared a laugh.
“You’re in love, Hilda. I never saw you look the way you did when he showed up.”
“Well, you can’t camp with a friend for as many months as we have without becoming close. And we have the shared nightmares, too.”
Hilda nodded. “We were helping each other a lot in the first year after we got back. I was just retiring in Washington when he was being discharged from Walter Reed. In fact, I ran into him at the discharge office where we were both being processed. He was going on medical leave pending re-evaluation for retirement in a year. I told him about my plan to ride to the West Coast, and he asked to come along. The rest is history.”
“But you were alone in Kansas when I met you.”
“Yes. In Chicago, he turned north to go visit his college roommate and some friends in Canada. I went to work at the Puget Sound Naval Hospital for three months, then started riding to Charlottesville. You know the rest of the story.”
“It’s kind of romantic.”
“I guess it is, isn’t it?” Hilda smiled and looked toward the bath house. “Anyway, I’m also glad he is with us now, for your sake as much as mine.”
“Why? You’re awesome.”
“Oh, we can take care of ourselves, Em, but Jack is like having a nuclear warhead going into a fistfight. And he has so many connections everywhere. Almost every ex-military policeman in the country knows him either personally or by reputation.”
They sat there for a minute. Hilda suddenly stirred.
“Let’s get his gear in my tent, so we can go to dinner right away.” She pulled his sleeping bag from the open pannier, closed it, then unsnapped them both. The two women put the bags inside the tent. Hilda spread out the sleeping bag.
Jack came back wearing a trekking shirt and shorts. He still had on his bicycle shoes and was carrying his damp bicycle kit. He hung it on the line while the women zipped up their tents and gathered their bicycles.
Dinner was as good as Jack and Hilda expected. Emily enjoyed being included, in spite of the frequent silences when the two of them paused to stare at each other.
“You two are googly-eyed, again,” she said at one point, which brought out more pleasant laughter. “How far are we going tomorrow?”
Jack answered, “If you two would like it, I was thinking of going as far as Atlantic City. It’s only 66 km, but have you ever been to a casino?”
Emily shook her head.
“Let’s get a place in the City and visit a casino, just to check that off your bucket list. I think we can walk through the gambling areas just looking. The rest of the places are like shopping malls on steroids. What do you think?”
“I’d like that!” Emily said.
“Works for me,” said Hilda. “I know a motel half-way between the Tropicana and Caesars – they won’t give us a hard time about the bikes in the room.”
“Good thought,” said Jack. “Let’s do it, then.”
Emily finished her dessert as Hilda booked the motel, and Jack got tickets on the 10 am ferry, then notified Pete Sayfield where they would be the next day. Jack signalled for the bill.
“Pete Sayfield is the FBI Agent in Baltimore, isn’t he?” Emily asked as they rode back.
“Right. She is checked out, isn’t she, Hilda?”
“Fully briefed, Jack. She has Greg Sprouse on speed-dial, I think.” Another one of Jack’s warm laughs.
Emily tried to stay up listening for sounds from Hilda’s tent, but the riding, the exercises and the full dinner forced her eyes shut. She slept the deep dreamless sleep of the truly tired.
For their part, Hilda and Jack were in fact very quiet. After all, they knew how to move without letting the enemy know they were there…
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,