Why a Hilton Head teen cyclist set out to bike across America ... alone

Nicole Arnold poses with her Trek 520 bicycle on June 6, 2016, near Sisters, Ore., at the top of the Mackenzie Pass.
Nicole Arnold poses with her Trek 520 bicycle on June 6, 2016, near Sisters, Ore., at the top of the Mackenzie Pass. Submitted

She was in the desert when she neared the mountain and, as the heat radiated from the asphalt to her bicycle, she wished she’d packed more water.

It was a dry heat on June 6, maybe 110 degrees on the surface of the road that led to Mitchell, Ore.

No trees. A lot of clay-like rock. About 10 miles before she’d reach town.

Nicole Arnold hunched on the brown saddle of her black Trek 520 and started to climb.

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It was just her fourth day on the TransAmerica Trail, which takes cyclists more than 4,200 miles from the Oregon coast to Virginia. Arnold, 17, began the trek in Florence, Ore. She’d set out alone.

She’d lost her gloves on the ride to Mitchell. Along with an American flag, which sported a sticker from Hilton Head Island, her hometown.

She ran out of water.

I kind of went through the water quick.

Nicole Arnold

“I kind of went through the water quick,” she said Tuesday. She’d thought three water bottles would be enough. She’d thought she would find a spigot farther up the road. She’d had to rely on the kindness of strangers to rehydrate before she, all 100 or so pounds of her, could propel the road bike — which, with four gear-stuffed panniers, nearly equaled her weight — up the mountain.

She made it to the top and started down. “Yes!” she screamed as she hit 40 miles per hour. Still, she had a few miles between her and town.

She was thirsty, didn’t think she could handle another climb.

Up ahead, a storm.

She pedaled faster.

Falling down

Arnold learned to ride a bike when she was 5 or 6, she said.

She remembers sitting on the saddle in the driveway and her dad pushing her toward the lawn. She’d try to pedal through the grass, but she would eventually topple over. Still, a softer fall.

When she found her balance, she biked everywhere on the island. It was nothing for her to carry a case of water on one shoulder while pedaling through rain-soaked streets. She’d once managed to haul a 12-foot kayak from Spanish Wells to Indigo Run.

“People on the island tend to think I’m weird,” she said. “For lots of reasons.”

She doesn’t have a car. She only washes her hair once a week. She’s thought about living in a tiny home. Or a bus.

“No one would ever think of that on Hilton Head,” she said, referencing the big homes in the gated communities on the island — “the norm.”

People on the island tend to think I’m weird. For lots of reasons.

Nicole Arnold

She graduated from Hilton Head Island High School early and, as a graduation present, her parents bought her the black Trek 520. But when they realized she was serious about biking across the country — two-plus months on the road — they began to worry.

“We thought eventually she would drop it,” her mom, Lily Arnold, said. “At the same time she’s 17, and we’re responsible for her. ... My whole thing — I just felt like she was too young, she has no experience. ... Yeah, there were tense moments, no doubt about it.”

Nicole Arnold and a friend had come up with the idea in the fall, in class. She would bike, her friend would follow along in a car. But her friend’s parents said no. She tried to recruit another friend — again, no. She searched the internet, found a couple of potential riding mates. Those, too, fell through.

She shipped her bicycle to Oregon in May and, a month later, she flew west.

“Two days before she left I was so heartbroken,” her mom said, “because she was by herself. ... I took her to the airport and we said goodbye.”

Peanut butter and walks in the rain

Near Mitchell, she and the storm converged, and it began to rain.

She was trying for a church, where she’d stay the night, before getting up and riding another 80 miles or so. Her days started around 6 a.m. and ended around 6 p.m. She fueled her body with fruit and peanut butter.

“I go through a jar of peanut butter every other day,” she said.

As she picked up her pace to try to beat the storm, rain wet her clothes. So did sweat. Then, she blew a tire.

She changed it, but was “too lazy” to patch the tube. Instead, she inserted a new tube. But it wouldn’t inflate past 40 pounds per square inch.

An under-inflated tire isn’t much better than a flat tire when a bike is weighted down by so much gear. The panniers — or saddlebags — that hung on each side of both wheels held food, clothing, camping gear and bike repair equipment. The tire eventually went flat again.

Around her, the storm intensified. Lightning. “Super loud thunder.”

She started walking her bike toward town.

‘She’s the engine’

“There were just a lot of unknowns before this trip,” Nicole Arnold said.

College. Paying for college. Whether to go to college.

“The saddle gives me a lot of time to think,” she said.

When she was ordering gear and preparing for her trek, people thought she was crazy. There was “a lot of negativity” coming from her parents, she said. She turned the bad vibes into fuel — this was a test of character, a chance to find herself.

“She’s seeing every mile — the miles just don’t tick by,” said D.G. Veitch, who fit Arnold for her Trek 520 at Road Fish Bike Shop, his business on the island.

Half of her experience is trying to figure out where she’s going. ... She has to provide for herself every day. Every single day.

D.G. Veitch

“She’s packing for each day,” he said. “She’s done for the day, riding, and has to prepare herself for the following day. ... She’s the engine. ... Half of her experience is trying to figure out where she’s going. ... She has to provide for herself every day. Every single day.”

On her ride, she’s biked through snow and has been chased by dogs. Dump trucks have whizzed by her as she’s clung to the edge of shoulder-less roads. One night, in Leoti, Kan., she camped in a public park with a friend she’d met on the trail. He was from Athens, Ga., and he had a gun, so she and her friends felt safer.

Her trip’s been slowed by flooding in Kentucky, and she said she had to evade a tornado.

And she’s been caught in storms, like the one that greeted her as she walked her bike to Mitchell.


She arrived at the church soaking wet.

She hadn’t seen many female riders during her first few days on the trail. So it was nice to see some women, she said, when she ran into a pair of cyclists from California. They all started talking and decided to ride together the following day.

“ ‘I can really click with them,’ ” Arnold said Monday as she recalled her first impression of her new friends. “We never really talked about doing the whole thing together,” she continued. “It just kind of happened.”

She and the Californians were in McKee, Ky., on Monday. They lunched at Opal’s Restaurant. A Tennessean — a frequent visitor to Hilton Head — bought Arnold a glass of sweet tea. It reminded her of home.

She expects to return to the island on Aug. 14, the day after she’s supposed to finish her ride in Yorktown, Va. She will have been on the road 71 days — with only three rest days, if that number holds.

They realize that I am old enough and capable enough of doing big things like this.

Nicole Arnold

In the fall she plans to attend Loyola University in Chicago. She’ll get around the city using public transportation. She has no plans to get her driver’s license.

She’s been in touch with her parents along her journey. The negativity has decreased, she said. Her mother said she’s proud of her daughter.

“They realize that I am old enough and capable enough of doing big things like this,” she said. “(Our relationship) really has changed. ... I think a lot has changed for the better.”

When she gets home, she’ll eat at Fiesta Fresh and get a massage.

And wherever she goes, she’ll take with her the memory of a stormy walk to a small Oregon town.

She’ll remember what happiness was on that night.

The shelter of a church.

And a tall glass of ice water.

Wade Livingston: 843-706-8153, @WadeGLivingston