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By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
Hayley Korman, a Woodside resident and soon to be a junior at Castilleja High School, has an inoperable cellphone. She is going to take her time replacing it, having recently learned how to live, and be happy, without it, she said.
If that sounds unusual for a 15-year-old girl, perhaps it's a consequence of her unusual six-week summer adventure she described to the Almanac in a recent interview.
She and 10 other teens -- five girls and six boys - from around the United States rode their bikes 3,000 miles, starting June 23 from a beach on an island off Savannah, Georgia. They wound through small towns in the Deep South, across the Mississippi River, up steep climbs and down steep descents in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, across the Kansas flatland, up and over the Continental Divide in Colorado, past a canyon that is grand in Arizona, and through a downpour -- including wading across what amounted to a river -- in the Mojave desert. On the last night, they made camp one last time in the mountains overlooking the lights of Los Angeles. The next day, Aug. 3, it was on into the metropolis and a second splash in saltwater, this time at a beach in Santa Monica.
Conversations with home were done via U.S. mail, by postcard for the riders and through mail drops for the parents. The American Challenge, organized by the Massachusetts-based youth-adventure outfit Overland, did not allow social media devices. Did she miss them? "Honestly no. You learn how to be rid of your phone and your computer. You learn how to live without that," Hayley said. "This trip really taught me to live in the moment. Life's too short to want to be someplace else all the time."
The riders also chose to turn in their watches. "We just wanted to be into what we were doing," Hayley said. Hours passed quickly and weeks flew by, she said, but not the days.
This was not your mother's cross-country bike trip. There were no support vans leapfrogging ahead to the night's camping spot to prepare meals and tents. The kids, with two college-aged guides, carried all their gear on their bikes. They broke camp and made camp, shopped for groceries every day, shared responsibilities and rode until they found a place to sleep: a campground, a backyard, a church yard. "There are a lot of churches throughout the South," Hayley said. The riders depended on the kindness of strangers, she added, unaware of that phrase's literary provenance in the Deep South.
"Southern hospitality is no myth," Hayley said. Residents of the small towns they visited and they were all small towns; the route avoided cities appeared to have close, strong relationships among themselves and were "really welcoming," she said. "Small communities were just that. They were communities. ... It's a nice change of pace from what most of us are used to. It's how the rest of the country lives. It's a whole new world."
Twice a week, they were allowed to buy their meals, often at a fast food joint. On average days, they spent nine or 10 hours on their bikes, logged 85 miles and consumed 10,000 calories. After their longest day 121.7 miles they spent $260 at a Burger King, she recalled with a smile.
"A really great group of people," Hayley said. "Everybody was super hard working. Everyone was super committed to the group. We learned how to live with other people and keep a positive attitude. ... Even when we didn't want to be there, we all really wanted to be there."
She brought along four outfits, a pair of flip-flops, a pair of bike shoes and two pairs of socks. "You really don't need that much to get by," she said. "Good friends and good vibes. You can be happy like that."
Happiness tempered by weather. In many parts of the country, if it's sticky, it's summertime. "It was crazy hot in the South, and super humid, too," Hayley said. "We're so lucky to live here, with what we have."
And tempered by insects, particularly mosquitoes and gnats. Theirs is a simple demand, one that goes back millions of years: "Be still!" To which these riders replied, "Shoo!" A low-tech approach and not terribly effective, but preferable to a bug repellant that, once applied, became like a sticky second skin, Hayley said. They showered about once a week.
There were other animal sightings, but they lacked variety. "There are a lot of stray dogs in the South," Hayley said, adding: "The South was full of armadillo carcasses (on the road). Lots of dead armadillos." One resident told her she'd lived there 60 years and had never seen a live armadillo.
Hayley is the daughter of Liz and Marty Korman. She has one younger brother and the family lives in Woodside's western hills.