The trilling noise was probably what woke her up.
See Cait Giddings, age 26, in a city park in the middle of Kansas, partway through a cross-country bike ride on the Trans-America trail, waking up startled and confused, in a solo tent and a sleeping bag that’s not her own.
A raccoon wants in. It’s making a gurgly, trilling noise and beating the tent above her head.
“I probably had some food in the tent,” Cait says, “so I guess it’s normal, but the persistence was horror-movie level.”
The raccoon was jumping and beating and scratching on the outside of the tent—Cait could see it through the mesh as it hurtled away and scrambled back. She was kicking at it and beating it from inside the tent with her flashlight.
Nevertheless, it persisted.
She was afraid it would claw its way into the tent, so she ran outside to fight it. It chased her. She climbed onto a picnic table. The raccoon scaled up a bike that was parked alongside the table, and it kept on coming.
She feels bad about this part now, but she says instinct kicks in when a wild animal is coming for you this way, and I believe it. She kicked the raccoon in the face, and it ran off into the woods, finally defeated.
A British guy she’d met during the ride and had done part of the trail with had woken up in his own tent to see what the commotion was and was watching this all play out, in hysterics.
Cait started to calm down when he saw him laughing. It was funny? Maybe it was. The nightmare was anyway over, and she was considering climbing off the picnic table when—cue scary music—the raccoon came running full-tilt back out of the woods, and straight for her.
“It was like a horror movie where the part of the murderer was cast by a baby raccoon.”
All right, are you ready for the part where it turns from mildly horrifying to creepy beyond belief?
The next morning, the raccoon was still there (it has smashed some eggs against the side of her tent overnight) and Cait and her traveling companion decided to cycle into town for breakfast.
The raccoon FOLLOWED THEM INTO TOWN.
And sat outside the diner and waited for her.
She said that in the daylight, it didn’t feel so scary. I don’t know. Imagine looking up from a plate of waffles at the diner and seeing the raccoon waiting, biding its time.
Cait and her companion parted ways after that. She’s not still in touch with the British guy.
Nor the raccoon.
“That trip was one of the bravest things I’ve ever done,” Cait says. “I knew nothing about bike touring at the time. I didn’t have any of the gear. I didn’t know it gets cold in the mountains. I was going in July, so I thought I’d be warm the whole way. I didn’t realize that when you are in the mountains at night, it’s below freezing.”
She didn’t have a proper sleeping bag, either. She had a used one she had borrowed from a friend, but it wasn’t for camping; she described its temperature rating as “middle school sleepover.”
She started out the journey with a friend of hers who had more experience. They had planned their route—Portland to Kansas City, Mo. in 2,600 miles—using trail maps from Adventure Cycling Association, which has maps that get you from one ocean to the other, via a combination of highways, interstates, back roads, and bike paths, in 4,300 miles.
On the first day, her friend got sick. And he flew back home to Portland.
“So I decided I just had to keep going,” Cait says. It was 2005. She didn’t have routing equipment or a cell phone, just her paper maps. “And it ended up being the greatest thing I ever did. It gave me so much confidence that I could do anything.”
Her parents were worried for her safety and told her not to do it. She refused the advice, and says they stopped talking to her for the first few weeks of the trip.
“I would call them from pay phones with a calling card, and they wouldn’t answer. They still thought they could stop me somehow. I was like, ‘I’m doing this, so you might as well answer the phone and find out where I am.’”
They came around eventually. Her parents drove out to meet her in Wyoming, and Cait says that by that point, they were “really stoked and proud.” She thinks they liked that she showed so much independence and determination.
“They’re not usually helicopter parents,” Cait says, “but now that I have a kid I kind of get it. If Millie wanted to do that in her 20s, I guess I would give her my blessing, but I would really worry.”
Cait says a few hundred people do this trip each season, so it’s not uncommon for cyclists to sync up for part of the route, as Cait and the British raccoon observer did.
“We had met up a few states earlier, and started riding together,” Cait says. “It was more fun that way. When I was riding alone, I was like ‘I’m getting weird.’”
Cait has completed and led many bike tours since then—all around the U.S. and once on the south island of New Zealand.
“I met a guy who was walking across the country,” she says, “who was carrying a cross with a little wheel on it. He was doing it because he was religious; he was doing it for Jesus. I loved the idea of him trying to ride the cross down hills.”
“Like a unicycle?” I asked.
Cait says her parents weren’t the only ones who put up resistance to the idea of her going on solo bike tours.
Camping alone in city parks, she often met people who assumed she was a teen runaway. Or the people she met in cities would offer dire cautions: “you’re going to get murdered out there, or raped.” She never felt unsafe on bike tours, though.
“I’ve been resistant to the idea that I can’t do things because I’m a woman,” Cait says. “Like by not being male or not being a big physical presence, that I’m not allowed to do things. That feels unfair to me.”
She says she has experienced violence from strangers, as both a runner and a cyclist, as well as being a young queer person growing up in Kansas.
“I’ve been hit by batteries from windows,” she says, “or knocked off my bike by someone throwing a soda at me. So it’s not like I don’t know that strangers can be mean to you for no reason.”
But when she was bike touring, she only ever experienced extreme kindness from strangers. In conservative areas, people would take her in to their homes — “people I probably disagreed with on every area of politics”—because they were worried about her safety.
This all amazes me. I cannot imagine being this physically brave or confident, and I tell her so.
“I don’t know that having a confident attitude has kept me safe or if it’s just completely random,” Cait says. “I do try to just set aside worries or fears about things outside my control. I’m an anxiety-prone person, and I guess I think: I’m not willing to add it.”
Cait Giddings is a freelance writer, and most recently was on staff at Bicycling as an associate editor. Her work has appeared in Runner’s World, Outside Magazine, Wirecutter, Lonely Planet, ELLE, and more. She lives in Austin with her wife, Lydia, their daughter Millie, and three cats, Pirate, Fig, and Fuffle. She is a founder of She&D.