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Gone to Look For America: Bicycling Coast to Coast

Gone to Look For America

Barely a month after striding across a CUA stage to receive their bachelor’s degrees, three young women hit the road less traveled — one that included high deserts, glacial rivers, endless cornfields, Ohio suburbs and scenic but steep Allegheny byroads.

While their friends took jobs and internships, newly minted graduates Rachel Bailey, Catie Picou and Letty Williams biked from Seattle to Washington, D.C., in 48 days, pedaling across 12 states in the heat of summer. Along the way, the three discovered new aspects of the United States and something about themselves.

The three members of the Class of 2008 who embarked on a cross-country journey after graduation. From left: Letty Williams, Rachel Bailey and Catie Picou.
Bailey, Picou and Williams took part in the American Lung Association of Washington state’s Big Ride Across America. Every year the ALA organizes a bicycle ride across the United States, one of the association’s fundraising outings known as Clean Air Adventures. For the Big Ride Across America, each participant contributes $5,500 toward the association’s charitable work; in exchange the ALA organizes the trip and hauls the bikers’ camping equipment by truck to each night’s campground.

“The first day we rode 92 miles over the Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascade Mountains,” Williams says. “To my surprise, I felt great.”

“We quickly found our rhythm,” agrees Bailey. “And we were given tips from other riders on technique and how to be properly efficient while pedaling.”

In addition to their surprise at acclimating so quickly to their bikes, they made some unexpected discoveries.

“I didn’t realize how beautiful the northwest United States and eastern Washington are,” says Bailey, who is from Napa, Calif.

“I believed the only thing in Idaho were sacks of potatoes, but apparently my misconceptions have come back to haunt me once again,” Picou, originally from Louisiana, wrote in the blog she maintained during the trip. “Idaho was marvelous. We spent most of our time riding on the Pend Orielle River, a river made from glaciers,” she wrote, describing clear water and snow-covered mountains.

Williams encountered a man from Alaska who was bicycling to Colorado with his sled dog. “The dog would alternate between riding on a cart behind the bike, and helping this guy pull the bike,” she wrote on her blog. The man mocked Williams for having a “support staff” and regular showers, as he proudly said he hadn’t showered in more than a week.

For Bailey, Picou and Williams, the seeds of this trip were planted last December as a whim.

“What about biking across the country?” Williams asked Bailey while the two discussed post-graduation plans. Both laughed at the thought. They weren’t bikers and dropped the subject.

Two days later Bailey ran into Williams again and confessed she couldn’t stop thinking about riding across the country.

“Thank goodness,” said Williams, “because I have already found a program that will allow us to do it.”

Eight months, 96,000 feet of climbing and 3,300 miles of pedaling later, that whim had become a road-tested reality, one that between the three of them raised more than $16,000 for American Lung Association programs. According to the ALA, the bikers’ money goes toward research to find cures for lung diseases such as cancer, emphysema and asthma, and also helps provide educational programs for children with asthma.

Williams and Bailey, joined by classmate Picou, registered for the trip during the Christmas break last year — they had all been friends since freshman year, drawn to each other, says Bailey, by their common morals and values. “The greatest thing we hold in common is a sincere love for the Catholic faith, and we each have a deep commitment to chastity, service and the protection of human life,” she says.

First on their “to do” list for the trip was raising the funds required to participate, a significant challenge given the tough
economic climate. In addition to raising the money, the trio had to acquire bikes and biking gear, and get to Seattle by June 23 for the start of the journey.

Williams, Picou and Bailey organized happy hours with donation buckets for their friends, wrote appeal letters to family members and called businesses for contributions. They also discussed the trip with strangers and casual acquaintances, and eventually scraped together the required amount. Bike shops donated gear to them. At the same time, the three kept busy with school work, preparing for exams, running track (in Williams’ case), serving as student body president (in Picou’s case), and helping design the altar that Pope Benedict XVI used in celebrating a Mass in Washington, D.C. (in Bailey’s case). All of which left little time for … biking.

The trio didn’t start seriously training for their cross-country trip until April.

“I didn’t even have a bike and hadn’t ridden much since I was 10,” says Williams.

“We were nervous that we would be the youngest and least prepared,” adds Picou.

Even so, they arrived in Seattle in June, a bit harried from graduation, preparations for their bicycling adventure, and, in Bailey’s case, a CUA mission trip to Belize, but ready for the new challenge.

As part of a group of 37 riders, ages 19 to 69, Bailey, Picou and Williams held their own despite their late start with training.

Riding between 50 and 121 miles a day, the group followed a route planned by the ALA that took them mostly on back roads. While they pedaled, the ALA support team set up water stations every 20 miles. At night the bikers pitched tents at campgrounds, state parks or on high school football fields.

The schedule allowed time for the riders to make stops and take in such sites as Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and the largest six-pack of beer in the world at a brewery in La Crosse, Wis.

“I hadn’t explored the northwest part of the country much, but was amazed by how empty it was,” says Williams, who is from Sturbridge, Mass.

All three particularly enjoyed South Dakota’s Badlands, which Bailey likened to something out of a Dr. Seuss book because of the odd-looking trees and rock formations.

“We had about a 20-mile descent through Custer State Park [in the Black Hills of South Dakota] — it was absolutely beautiful and so much fun to duck down and take the twists and turns of the road,” Picou wrote on her blog. “The weather, scenery, terrain and experience were just awesome.”

Less fun for each were the daily routine of rising at dawn; extreme heat in Missoula, Mont.; lots of roadkill littering the highway in Wyoming; a bike crash in Rochester, Minn., that left Picou with a sprained shoulder (“it drove me crazy to not be on the bike for two days,” she says); and the surprisingly steep roads in the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania.

Even so, all three have fond memories of their six-week trip and are still amazed that a random idea became an eight-month odyssey that left them stronger and wiser.

“There were very few negatives, though I won’t miss getting hit in the face by bugs and eating peanut butter sandwiches,” says Bailey. “The best part was the people — we made a lot of friends and there is talk of a reunion ride in Montana next summer.”

“You definitely learn a lot about yourself and what you can do,” Williams says of the experience.

“I used the trip as a chance for reflection,” Picou recalls, adding that she aided this process by riding the first 20 miles each day by herself. “It helped me so much in figuring out what I wanted to do.

“I was struggling with what I should be doing with the two years before going to law school,” she explains. “My friends were moving to places all around the world, and I worried that I was possibly selling myself short by wanting to stay in D.C. I prayed a rosary every day of the trip, asking God for clarity on my life, and by the end of the trip I knew working at a law firm in D.C. was the right thing for me at this time.”

Gone to Look For America

An update as of October 2008: Williams, who earned her B.A. in Spanish, is serving a one-year term as an Assumptionist missionary in Ecuador. Bailey, who earned a B.S.Arch. degree, is hoping to start working as a design associate with a nonprofit D.C. architectural firm that designs affordable housing. Picou, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, is an executive legal assistant in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Steptoe & Johnson LLP.

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Revised: November 2008

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