It was hell. But it was our hell.
By John Schubert
The ferryboat pitched sickeningly on storm-tossed Pamlico Sound. Rain pelted the boat’s exterior, while we huddled indoors, dry but cold. It was the crack of dawn, and this furious storm was setting the tone for the day. And it had rained every one of the previous three days.
Welcome to Day Four of the tour from hell.
In early May, North Carolina’s Outer Banks are usually delightful, with few tourists and miles of sunny beaches. I had planned four days in Eden for my favorite touring companion and myself.
During the first week of May 1981, Mother Nature had other plans. We got temperatures in the 40s, unending rain, and relentless northerly winds. We slept in a wet tent, shivered as we tried to enjoy the sights, and kept hoping the weather would turn.
On our fourth and last day, the wind and rain were the strongest. We’d woken up in a modest motel in Ocracoke and rushed through the rain to catch the 6:30 a.m. ferry. Two and a half hours later, we landed in Swan Quarter, a one-horse town on the mainland. We headed for breakfast. The restaurant resembled a prison cafeteria, with cinder block walls and long tables. The waffles came out of the toaster.
After we finished breakfast, there was nothing to do but ride. Out into the pelting rain we went.
Route 94 runs on a causeway through the Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge. Think lake. Think bog. Think flat. Think straight as an arrow. The ground slopes down from the causeway to the lake and fields below, on both sides. It’s more exposed to the wind than any road this side of the Pulaski Skyway, and the scenery is about as exciting.
But we didn’t notice any scenery. Anne kept her eyes glued to my rear tire. I rode at rock-steady speed, so I’d be easy to draft. We kept our heads down and listened to the rain smack our helmets.
Route 94 had no curves, no bends, no hills and (did I say this already?) no scenery. But it was precisely aligned into the headwind.
After an hour, I was dog tired. But there was no shelter in which to rest. The only way to avoid hypothermia was to keep riding and keep the muscles churning.
I swung off the front of our two-person peleton, so that Anne could pull through. "I can’t pull through," my exhausted sweetie cried. I grunted, slowed down, and continued riding. We tried to be hopeful. The town of Columbia, big enough to have a restaurant better than Swan Quarter’s, was less than two hours ahead. In the meantime, we just pedaled and suffered.
Many minutes later, I did a double take. “Hey Annie” I shouted. “Lookit the pavement. It’s dry!”
Sure ‘nuff! The rain had stopped, and we were so miserable that we hadn’t even noticed. We were still wet, and the wind was just as strong. But now, we could start drying out.
I ate three or four hot meals at that restaurant in Columbia. Later that day, we finished the tour, after 55 miles for the day and 215 miles for four days. Forty-eight hours later, Anne was off to some far-flung hospital for a clinical affiliation, as part of her graduate schooling, and I drove home to work.
We felt robbed. We had planned a sunny vacation and gotten a death march. Anne had no vacation for the next 12 months. She entered this study-a-thon, and I returned to work, feeling cold, tired and wet. We saw very little of each other for the next year, and we didn’t get to go touring again for 2 1/2 years. We had rolled the dice on the weather, and we got snake eyes.
Twelve years later, I returned to Mattamuskeet.
The “prison cafeteria” was still there. The ferry landing was there. The restaurant in Columbia was there. Columbia was a very attractive little town.
What I didn’t expect was how different Route 93 looked. It was still flat and exposed. But what I hadn’t seen in 1981 was signs of human habitation. There were even one or two small stores. (I think they were all closed on that rain-soaked day.) The lake and fields were gorgeous, and I learned that Mattamuskeet is a birders’ paradise. On a sunny day, we would have loved Mattamuskeet.
Sure, we were “robbed.” But we gained something in the process. We were a team, and we got through a very difficult situation by dint of stubborn pluck. It was our shared hell. Over time, it has become a precious shared memory.
originally appeared in Adventure Cyclist magazine.