The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

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JUNE 2010 Issue

Iris Rides Away

Iris begins her cross-country journey.
Iris begins her cross-country journey.

Anna Howard leaned out from the kitchen window overlooking the driveway and spoke softly to her daughter Iris, “Leave Tuesday. It’s not going to rain Tuesday.” Iris turned and looked up, for an instant a little girl basking in her mother’s voice. But the smile turned to tears of frustration when she and her father bickered over bungee cords and a sleeping bag.

All kids leave home in their own way.

Leaving her home, a three-story white brick house in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx, was not easy for 19-year-old Iris Howard, but staying put was not an option. It was past time and she’d been ready. Her home was comfortable, with her mother’s cellos taking up a corner of the living room. But at some point childhood ends, and Iris had had her share of teenage trauma: two friends’ gruesome deaths, the ongoing incarceration of her brother and the constant fighting around the house.

Last winter, when the idea of bicycling across the country was proposed—as a joke—by her mother, Iris snatched it and held fast. She had been on bikes since four years old when she “took off like a shot.” It was long a favorite sport for the Howards, and the garage contained at least a dozen bikes. Besides, Iris hated to fly and she needed to get to college. It wasn’t that farfetched an idea.

“The reasons I’m doing this are big and small,” she said. “Mostly I’m doing this because if I don’t I’ll go crazy.”

Iris applied to a single college: Evergreen in Olympia, Washington. When Alex Berger, a friend since middle school, upgraded to boyfriend and, not coincidentally, already attended Evergreen, Iris had a riding partner.

Iris and her mother Anna Howard.  Photos by Nikki O'Donoghue.
Iris and her mother Anna Howard. Photos by Nikki O'Donoghue.

Before they get to their first class they will need to pedal through New York City into New Jersey then Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington.

That’s south, then west, then north, then west again.
Long distance adventure cycling is a niche; different from, say, long distance bike racing. While Alex and Iris will take about three and half months to cross, the first-place finishers in the Race Across America (RAAM) this June will make it in about a week.

In 1976, 4,000 riders were organized into a cross-country trip dubbed the bikecentennial; that trip morphed into an eponymous nonprofit which was renamed Adventure Cycling. Although they sell thousands of maps each year, Adventure Cycling does not keep track of how many bikers ride cross country each year.

While not quantifying how many make the trek, they do ask why.

“People ride cross country at retirement, after life changes—the loss of a spouse, partner, job, or to get away from it all,” said Adventure Cycling spokesperson Winona Bateman. “There are those who do it for fun, to see the beauty and grandeur of America, to say, ‘Wow, I rediscovered America.’ It’s a spiritual and emotional thing.”

As for danger, Bateman allowed there are accidents, even bicycle deaths, but riders are far more likely to encounter “bummer days, too windy, rainy, or cold” than serious mishaps. “Cross-country biking is human-powered travel in real time,” she said. “Most riders talk of the generosity and graciousness of the people they meet.”

There is a physical toll in biking 50 miles a day in all kinds of weather and, typically, neither Alex, who recently quit smoking, nor Iris trained much before leaving.

“We’ll get in shape along the way,” said Iris.

Iris and her boyfriend have much in common. They are both of mixed descent made less improbable by New York City. Although her mother is Puerto Rican, Iris resembles her British-born father. And while Alex looks like his Japanese mother, his father is mostly Irish with a bit of Hungarian. At 18, Alex has cultivated a laid back style, complimented by wire-rimmed glasses and a long scraggly ponytail. Iris is dark-haired and brown-eyed, preferring a wardrobe of faded T-shirts of sentimental value; both are conspicuously earthy. Iris described herself as shy.

“I can’t even ask for directions,” she said, adding an afterthought, “I hope I learn how to.”  She believes, at a minimum, this trip will make her “a better person or at least like the old me before I started being unhappy.”

Two years ago, Iris and her friends were stunned by a pair of deaths that came in quick succession. A handgun suicide was followed a few months later by a second boy’s fatal subway accident. Leaving a party one night, he and another boy climbed onto the subway tracks and entered the tunnel. He was struck and killed by the number 1 train somewhere between 116th and 125th streets. The other boy was unhurt.

Iris’s best friend, Hampshire College freshman Senti Sojwal, has seen the “loneliness and sadness” in Iris. “She is incredibly independent and spontaneous,” she said. “She loves books, music, and art and knows lots of strange facts but she cannot put up with a structured environment.”

“She’s never liked due dates,” said Sojwal.

Not surprisingly, Iris and Alex dawdled throughout the spring; finally fixing their departure date—Sunday, April 25—only 10 days in advance. Alex bought his bike less than a week before departure—more procrastination that would come back to nip at them on their second day out.

“I have to do it how I would do it,” Iris said four days before their trip date. “Yes, unprepared and last minute but doing everything with gusto.”

Left until the last day, a non-negotiable item on Iris’s to-do list was to visit her brother, Juan.

23 years ago, Anna and John Howard spent a fruitless year working with a fertility clinic trying to conceive.  They then registered for an adoption and three months later, a baby was theirs. They named him Juan and marveled at their luck. Two years later, when Anna was sickened over the smell of coffee her doctor confirmed her pregnancy. That would be Iris.

“They were a cool family. They were very open, very funny. Everyone always wanted to be like Iris; she was the trendsetter of fifth grade,” said Lara Russo, 18, a friend since kindergarten. “Then the problem with Juan. That’s when her problems with her parents started, too.”

Anna Howard recalls her son as the “center of attraction” in the family. Indeed, the family celebrated both his birthday and “adoption day.” Conflicted feelings of love and abandonment, Anna believed, caused a rebellious adolescence. The family suffered when 12-year-old Juan stayed out all night for the first time. “That was a knife in my heart,” said Anna.

In 2004, 16-year-old Juan stabbed another boy.

The victim lived but the Howards' lawyer explained that a jury would have little pity on Juan.* He pleaded guilty and received an eight-year sentence. After two years on Rikers Island, Juan was transferred to Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, N.Y.

On Saturday, the Howards drove two and a half hours each way so Iris and Juan could say goodbye.  “They didn’t talk much,” said Anna. “They talk more when John and I aren’t around.”

Iris is guarded when talking about Juan. As far as visiting the prison, all she offered was, “I’m used to it.”

Sunday morning was cold and rainy and the forecast called for two days of the same. Iris got up at 8 a.m.—early for her—showered and dressed in a plain white T-shirt and black leggings. She showed off her new sneakers as she rechecked her supplies. All spring, she had culled a list of provisions from the Internet while also spending countless hours poring over maps and writing out detailed trip directions (which, as it happens, she will quickly abandon once on the road). Also, she had ordered a complete set of bike maps from Adventure Cycling. 

“Iris can look at a map upside down and understand it just as well,” said her father. “Because when you google something you can look at it like you are a satellite—that’s how you look at the world.”

The plan was that Iris and Alex would leave from their respective homes—he from Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn, she from Woodlawn—and meet in Manhattan at 178th Street and Cabrini Blvd., at the bike entrance to the George Washington Bridge. Iris and her father would bike to the bridge and her mother would drive.

At nine o’clock, Iris did a final check of her two panniers—saddlebags for bikes—realized her special sweatshirt was missing, and disappeared upstairs in search of it. Anna paced the rooms while trying not to get in the way. Her voice drifted through the house, “Ai yi yi,” she exhaled a long sigh. “Ai yi yi.” John donned a blue poncho and bike helmet and headed outside to put a bike rack on his car.

Questions flew: Where are your maps? Got ’em.

What about band aids? Check.

Jammies? I don’t need jammies.

Shorts? Yes.

Jeans?  I don’t need jeans.

A flurry of conversation ensued on the merits of jeans.

Iris poked inside the handlebar bag. Where’s my pepper spray?

What’s that for? Dogs?

No, bears.

A suggestion was made to test the spray pump in the kitchen sink.

It worked!

Iris began coughing, John came in and coughed. Two visitors, hands to throat, began to hack. Someone opened the front door and someone said the pepper spray worked just fine.

Operations moved to the driveway out back where John tried several times to weave a pannier’s stretchy strap through the bike’s frame. Grimacing but patient, Iris watched and waited for her father to give up trying so she could do it.

Iris disappeared once more into the house. By the time she ran back down the cracked concrete steps, John had straddled his bike. Buckling her helmet and snapping her raincoat, she swung onto her seat. Anna Howard gazed out the back window at the wet gray morning as father and daughter put hoods up against the rain and pedaled out of the driveway, past the Lutheran Church and to the end of the street. They turned left. Only 4,500 miles to go.

To be continued…

*The original version of this story stated that the victim "wore a colostomy bag," but according to the Howards, that is inaccurate.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

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