So Far as the Road May Take Me: An Odyssey
Tires pounding against the road, ripples of force rocketed through my calves as my pedaling grew labored. I glanced upward to find James well ahead of me, his runner’s legs the pumping pistons of a well-oiled engine. A bead of sweat rested on the edge of my eyebrow, and just as I reached the top of the Ponquogue Bridge it slid down the side of my face, a glittering distillate of human spirit.
I gazed out over Shinnecock Bay and the heavy, brooding clouds seemed to dissipate for that brief moment. Through the veneer came a thin sliver of sunlight that landed right at my feet, a guide’s lamplight in the wilderness. I turned and followed its path down the opposite side of the bridge, not touching the pedals once.
The call of the open road has rung out for many like-minded wanderers, offering adventure and intrigue just over the horizon. I, too, heard this call, but, being only sixteen, I had hardly any means of answering it.
This was a saddening truth. As a teenager, I felt as young and free-spirited as one should, yet the looming burden of adult life was slowly casting a shadow over my adolescence. The timeframe in which I had the luxury of simply “checking out” was growing smaller, and I was growing desperate.
Lacking a driver’s license (or car, for that matter), I took to the road the only way I knew how: by bicycle. Many days I spent pedaling furiously up Chapman Boulevard in Manorville or bounding around sand-scattered turns and tree trunks in the Terrell River County Park.
Yet my desire remained unfulfilled; it seemed that no matter which way I went, my destination was always calculated and familiar. There was no sense of the unknown, that mysterious variable that makes the ordinary extraordinary. So I set out to find it.
My good friend James, who ran track in those days, felt the same yearning. He, too, was a cyclist; his tall, angular frame provided him with long, powerful legs. With these he cut through the air swiftly, skimming along the asphalt like a damsel fly. It was no surprise then that it was he who first pitched the idea of an odyssey out east.
The plan was to simply get on our bikes and go, without any intent other than to return home before nightfall. We would take Montauk Highway for the majority of the trip unless fate drew us elsewhere; as long as we were moving, we were moving in the right direction.
The morning we set out was plagued by a thick brume that had settled in overnight. We stood at the end of my driveway gazing dubiously up at the sky. The dark, rumbling underbellies of the floating mountains of vapor above us threatened rain, casting ominous shadows over the suburban landscape. But the call of the road blew in on the rising wind, and, like diligent observers of a faith, we answered.
After we had stopped for a quick breakfast, the skies opened up. It was not a gentle, soothing rain that began as a mizzle; it was an abrupt downpour. At first, we resisted, looking frantically for shelter and pedaling with a manic frenzy. But as the rain seeped through our clothes, onto our skin, and into our bones, we slowly caved. A thin, constant stream of water spurted up from my back tire and made a sooty line down my shirt, branding me as property of the storm.
There’s something liberating about submitting to the rain. It’s a sweet surrender after a long, tiresome struggle to remain dry. Finally the fight is over, and it is lost – but it never felt so victorious. Your whole body relaxes and your head dips back, letting the drops crash into your cheeks and forehead, running rivulets through your hair and down your back. It quenches a different kind of thirst, that which parches the soul. Our hearts swelled and our legs pumped forward, bodies bent in arcs over the handlebars.
By then we were traveling aimlessly, as we had intended, with no destination in mind. It was difficult to tell at that point whether we were chasing down our fading youth or running from our adulthood.
While it was known quite well to both of us that the highway would eventually reach “The End” at Montauk Point, we weren’t going there, per se. If we ended up at the lighthouse, so be it. But if we wavered from the main road and took a detour elsewhere, it didn’t matter in the slightest. That was the point, after all.
As it turned out, the latter prediction fulfilled itself. We reached Hampton Bays by the early afternoon and realized that we had to turn back in order to get home in time. My heart sank a little; we now had somewhere to be, giving the road a foreseeable end. The feeling of pure, almost reckless freedom was fading and we still had miles to go before we slept.
There was, however, an alternate route home: if we crossed the Ponquogue Bridge to Dune Road, we could, further down, ride the Cupsogue Bridge back over into Westhampton. Though the journey was ending, the setting was altered, giving the road home an equally mysterious sheen as the road we began on.
On the south side of the Ponquogue Bridge, I stopped to catch my breath. Coming up from a heaving gulp of air, I peered at the gently sloping expanse of girders and cables. After having gone roughly twenty miles, I came to the realization that only then did I feel tired. My legs ached. My lungs begged for mercy. And there was James, sitting effortlessly on his bike, pedaling casual, listless circles in the street. Not to be outdone, I trudged on.
For several miles there were only great expanses of sand that rose and fell like the waves crashing ashore just beyond them. Thin, wispy grasses danced in the ocean breeze, licking at the hints of salt in the air. There lay the true beauty of the island, the houses and restaurants having parted to reveal an austerely elegant landscape.
Gradually the man-made grandeur of Dune Road appeared, rising up to flank the ribbon of asphalt. Glass-enclosed mansions towered over us like a canyon’s walls, its cliffs pockmarked with dormers and terraces. We soon came to Cupsogue Bridge and passed into Westhampton, our journey nearly at a close.
As I drifted up my driveway, I recalled that I began my odyssey with the intent of being guided solely by the road. I desired no association with my destination – I just wanted to ride. But my travels were not so thoughtless and carefree, with enough occurring along the way to deter any wanderer. The highway had, in retrospect, been rather unforgiving and not as “open” as I initially imagined. Did I manage to experience the liberating walkabout I had envisioned? Or had my journey fallen short of my expectations?
The ideal of running with the wind is a romantic one, but in truth, the journey is only what you put into it. Adventure and intrigue will not seek you out; you must endeavor to find them yourself. All the characteristics of a gripping story sit patiently under the brush along the side of the highway, waiting to be uncovered. You just need to get your hands dirty.
Having left intent to experience the freedom of the road, I was rewarded such in return. And as for my youth, I had not necessarily captured it, but instead followed its footprints, discovering a reverence for the world I could carry into my adult life. With that also came a desire never to lose that wisdom, nor the vigor for life of my younger days.
And thus I found my true destination.