Outdoors

What a Hilton Head teen learned from ‘trail angels’ on her 4,200-mile bicycle journey

17-year-old spent summer biking from Oregon to Virginia

Nicole Arnold, 17, of Hilton Head Island, reflects Aug. 16, 2016, on the time she spent biking from Oregon to Virgina this past summer along the TransAmerica Trail.
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Nicole Arnold, 17, of Hilton Head Island, reflects Aug. 16, 2016, on the time she spent biking from Oregon to Virgina this past summer along the TransAmerica Trail.

Nicole Arnold sits on a white couch that clashes with her tan skin and gestures to her right, toward some silver vases and a nautical painting in the living room of her Hilton Head Island home.

“It’s all so unnecessary, when you think about it,” she said of the decor.

On Tuesday, just three days after her roughly 4,200-mile bicycle journey, the 17-year-old tells how she began the trip with too much stuff.

Too many shirts.

Pajamas.

A sleeping bag.

“And when I really thought about it, all of those things were really unnecessary,” she said. “And all those extra things don’t really help me achieve my goal of getting across the country.”

She did make it across the country. She bicycled into Yorktown, Va., on Aug. 13 to finish the TransAmerica Trail, which she’d picked up in Florence, Ore., on June 3.

The last 10 miles of her trip seemed the longest.

As she pedaled through Williamsburg, Va., toward Yorktown, she passed tourists and re-enactors. She’d smiled the whole time, and folks stared at her through car windows. In the distance, above the trees, she spotted the Yorktown Victory Monument.

She reached it and posed for a picture with her new friends from California, fellow riders she’d met on the trail. She’d set out more than 70 days ago. Alone. To find herself.

She walked to the York River. Dipped the tire of her Trek 520 in the water. Got her feet wet.

Her feet are wedged between the couch cushions Tuesday as she talks about her next adventure: college.

She thinks she has that figured out. A double-major in public health and Spanish. Or nursing school. She might be a doctor one day. Something in the health field, to help people live healthier lives.

I feel like I have the power to help people change their lives, whether by exercise or diet. So I think that’s my calling.

Nicole Arnold

“I feel like I have the power to help people change their lives, whether by exercise or diet,” she said. “So I think that’s my calling.”

She didn’t grow up in “much of a health-conscious family,” she said, gesturing behind her, toward the kitchen.

“If you look in the pantry,” she said, “there’s a bunch of junk food.”

A container of blueberries sits on the kitchen bar, a snack following a morning ride — on a hybrid bike, not the Trek — to Hilton Head High School, where she’d graduated a year early. Later, she would use frozen bananas to make “nice cream,” a treat for vegans like herself.

It was tough to be vegan on the TransAmerica Trail. Many of the small-town grocery stores didn’t have what she needed. So she became a temporary vegetarian to ensure she had enough energy for consecutive, 12-hour-long, 70-mile days on the Trek.

The bike — a graduation present from her parents and bought specifically for the trail — became a part of her, so much so that her bones are imprinted on its seat. She misses it.

She had a lot of time to think “on the saddle,” she said. She tells of the “trail angels” that helped her along the way, how random acts of kindness — a bottle of water, a hot meal, a place to stay — restored her faith in people.

She talks about the different parts of the country she has seen, and how each state had its own culture and subcultures. How fortunate she is to have traveled the country during a presidential election year, she said.

Of course she thought about college — but wishes she would have spent more time considering how to pay for it. She just started thinking about that a week ago.

Money does not mean much in life. But at the end of the day, I had to think about it. ... So, it is pretty important.

Nicole Arnold

“I’m glad I didn’t think about that sooner in the trip, because it’s not that important,” she said. “Money does not mean much in life. But at the end of the day, I had to think about it, because I am going to school, and it’s a responsibility of mine to have to pay my tuition. So, it is pretty important.”

She’ll spend the next week babysitting on the island and applying for jobs near Loyola University in Chicago, where she’ll travel to on Aug. 23.

She hasn’t started packing. She’s bothered by some of the decisions she’s facing — bedding for her dorm room. After a few days on the TransAmerica Trail, she’d shipped home some excess gear, including her pajamas and sleeping bag. She slept on a camping mat; her towel doubled as a blanket.

One suitcase — that’s all she’s taking to Chicago, where college and the Trek await.

Before her journey — before she became attached to it — she’d planned to sell the bike when the trip was done. She didn’t need two bikes, after all, and the Trek would have served its purpose.

Now, she said, she’ll keep the Trek and use it. She’ll leave her other bike behind on Hilton Head.

As she sits on the white couch and scrutinizes the home’s decor, she thinks about the start of her journey, when she carried too much stuff.

Unnecessary stuff.

Stuff, she said, that just makes life more comfortable.

But not complete.

Wade Livingston: 843-706-8153, @WadeGLivingston

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