Chapter 1

Shannon Cutler sat slouched in her school desk chair, in advanced calculus, not listening to anyone but thinking about keeping up a regular rhythm of pushing her fingers down the pencil she was holding against the desk top, reversing it, then pushing downward, again. She knew this stuff backwards and forwards and was bored out of her skull.

The one time the teacher asked her a question, she'd answered it concisely and fully which caused the simpleton students immediately around her, especially Dorothy Malone their ringleader, to ridicule and pass glances, giggles, and hastily written notes about her. They didn't like her clothing's looks and that piece of potato chip in her hair, Shannon was unaware of. It was the only thing besides water that Shannon had for breakfast. She hadn't noticed or cared about it once she had heard them whispering behind her back, but she was just about fed up enough now to punch the social queen in the mouth over the teasing. But it would only be more fodder for them.

She had just about had it anyway with school. It was Shannon's senior year and she had already fulfilled and surpassed all the requirements to graduate, almost a year ago but had never applied for the status of graduate. Where else would she go? She certainly couldn't afford college even though she was fed up with these socialite little girls and their cliques.

She heard another whispered attack about her appearance from Dorothy and thought about looking over at her, but that, again, would be fruitless.

Shannon made a final decision about school but the thought of picking up her backpack while running a complete scenario in her mind of what she'd really like to do went through her head. Like, removing and dropping all her notes and school items on the floor, she'd send the books she had for her morning classes into the faces of the ones laughing at her as the teacher told her to stop what she was doing, then don the backpack. Shannon morosely imagined several girls and one guy sprawled out on the floor as she swing and kicked, threw her desk aside and took Dorothy by the collar of her pretty blue blouse and slugged her again and again with all her weight and shoulder muscles behind it while the teacher tried to pull her away. She would turn on him and hit the old man in the eye while he backed off. Then again grab the shocked and now weeping Dorothy and continue the redesign on her face, leaving what she knew would be permanent marks and scars on her skin, or so she imagined.

When the helpless girl finally passed out from her cruel blows, Shannon continued, she would let her fall heavily to the linoleum floor, hearing the melon thumping sound of her cranium hitting the hard surface and not really caring. She thought she would look down mercilessly at Dorothy and wipe the bottom of her shoe's sole across her bloodied face as a final insult to her and her kind. "You don't look too good, yourself, this morning, Dorothy," she'd say, and that was all she would say to the bleeding torn face of Dorothy Malone.

The teacher would, of course, block the isle she was in and come at her, once more, but holding his black eye, now. Shannon would rush straight for him. He would begin to point his finger at her but she'd kick him away, jumping up in the air and putting all one hundred and fifty lbs, five feet ten inches of her real muscle and furry behind the kick. He'd sprawl backward, of course, sliding on the floor until the wall beneath the blackboard stopped him. She'd walk out of the classroom and the school and go straight home, never to return.

But it was all a scenario. She knew her abilities and it could probably go that way, but she didn't move, as she thought it through. No. She would just leave.

Shannon got her pack off the floor, put the calculus book and her note pad in it, and slipped into the shoulder straps as she stood and walked out of the classroom and went home.

When Shannon went inside, she watched her alcoholic mother take another swallow of almost straight vodka. She hadn't even glanced, much less noticed, Shannon had come in through the front door. She pitied her mother but she wasn't going to stay there forever and baby-sit her. She wouldn't allow herself to be dragged down by her anymore and knew she had to leave.

Shannon's stare lasted but a second and she left her mother in the chair with her blaring TV and walked down the short hall to her room, got her bicycle camping gear together, most of it already packed for the upcoming weekend of a planned solo trip, something she did on a regular basis, that or backpacking, and took her kit outside to the back wall of the worn out, rented, tiny house.

She lifted the tarp to her gleaming, metallic red Firenze bicycle and at seeing it, her heart felt calmed and glad to know it was there and ready to roll. She had found the twenty-three inch framed bike in a dumpster four years before. It was a low end machine, imported from Taiwan but made under license from the Firenze, Italian bike manufacturer, she'd learned from the internet on the school's computers. She didn't own a computer, or cell phone, or I-Pad, or anything electronic, not even a cheap watch.

These particular bikes had been made too light weight and because they were, that particular batch of them couldn't pass the rigorous and ridiculous crash/safety standards the U.S. government put on imported and domestically made bicycles. They had been forced to give them away as promotional items to companies selling furniture, stereos, or car mufflers, whatever, as an incentive to buy their particular brand of junk. It was no wonder they had been neglected, and then tossed. Since finding it, Shannon had upgraded the bike with better, lighter parts she had found on other junkers she'd collected and that made the bike a whole lot more responsive and quicker to accelerate, a vastly more fun machine to ride.

Instead of multi-speeds, she removed all the extra gears and shifting mechanisms and opted for the simplicity of a single speed bike.

The front and only sprocket was a smallish thirty-eight tooth aluminum piece on a one hundred and seventy-five millimeter aluminum crank set, scavenged off another thrown out ten speed. That item changes alone had made the bike three pounds lighter. She disassembled the rear freewheel and kept only the two outside sprockets, which had held the whole of the six gears, originally, together on the cluster. The two end sprockets were a one unit piece and the gears were fourteen and seventeen teeth. She used the seventeen tooth one, almost exclusively. There was no hill or head wind that could stop her with this gearing and though some days were harder with this set up, it was low enough to handle any kind of terrain and high enough to keep her peddling cadence right around ninety rotations a minute while traveling at a good clip.

Her muscles were toughened and strong. Very much so after years of solo backpacking and hundreds of miles of cycling each week. She was afraid of no adventure and was never intimidated by men or women, or anything intellectual. This might be hard on her, what she was about to do, but Shannon had to go through with this.

With little more than a silent goodbye kiss to the top of her mother's head, Shannon left home for good, though there was a serious regret in her eyes.

"I'm going backpacking," Shannon told her mother, stepping out the front door. That would explain her disappearance for the next few days. After some time, maybe three or four days, and she'd not returned home, her mother would notice and notify authorities. The police would finally start to look for her but in the wrong places.

She was thinking someone would call from school, too, eventually, and Shannon wanted to be on her way.

Their was fifty seven dollars in her rear panniers side pocket, money she had saved for months, and a comfortable sleeping bag, with a one-man nylon tent attached to the top of her rear aluminum rack. A homemade wood stove and extra synthetic clothing in her panniers as well as everything she would ever need for life out on the open road, or in the backcountry, on or off trail. It was all there in her gear, plus what she was dressed with, as well as tools for working on the bike. She was leaving Duluth Minnesota for good and doubted she'd ever return. This place had been a disappointment to her, through these growing years, and she had had enough. Shannon was certain there was something different out there, something better, and she was going to find it. She pointed the bike down her street and eventually would find herself heading west by south-west. She had just turned seventeen.

Sawyer, a small rural town on highway 210, was three miles away, in front of her, when Shannon decided to stop for the night. It had been a late start and even though she wasn't tired in the least, it was a good feeling to be out and alone, camping by herself. It always made her feel better. She was out of the cities and towns bordering Duluth and in between two small towns. The deciduous forest was not especially thick, on either side of the road, but walking into it with her bike, after a couple of hundred yards, she found she could hardly hear the road traffic and certainly couldn't be seen herself.

She set up camp behind a large bush, between her and the road, after circling the spot she'd picked for the night, making certain she was alone and not near anyone's property, or structures', or a dirt road of some kind. She didn't bother with the tent, as it was a fair evening and almost mid September. She'd cowboy it, sleep out under the stars in her comfy little sleeping bag, on top of her short, thin, inflatable mattress that lay over a ground sheet. She'd picked up the mattress at a garage sale. Something called a, Neo Air. It was compact and super light and very comfortable, and knew, brand new, it was quite expensive. She got it for three dollars and after a small silicone seal repair, it was as good a new.

Her little tin can, home made, hobo-stove was a marvel of design for cooking. She'd perfected the function of it, screwing around with different hole sizes, shapes, and different can sizes, for years. Her old neighbor, next door, an old widower in his seventies, had taken a shine to her when she was younger and taught her how to use his power tools while she was still a preteen. With this stove, there was no need to buy or carry fuel as it was everywhere; all over the ground, in parks, the woods, next to roads, beside parking lots, everywhere. All she needed was fresh water and food, and those free books of matches you got at gas stations.

Her biggest demand and expense would be food of course, filling her cooking pot, another tin can, with something to eat. The fifty-seven dollars would last her awhile, maybe till she got to wherever she ended up and found some kind of temporary job. It was almost easy to starve herself, as she had today, out of necessity, but she had always lived on very little food. Her mother drank most of their income and there had been a lot of fights between Shannon and her mom about that subject. Shannon was tall and thin and made like an athlete. She knew she was tough because she'd had to be. She knew how to discipline herself to handle the stress of not having enough to eat. But it would be harder out on the road like this, where she was exerting herself all day, day after day. Regardless, she ate her two packages of Raman noodles, savoring the salty goodness of it.

She watched for birds as she ate, listening for them, but most had already migrated south as she was doing. So, this forest evening was silent, for her, except for the emerging cricket noise.

Didn't do that wonderful a job of discipline, this morning, though, did you? she thought, thinking about her imagined beating of that prissy school girl. She laughed knowing how messed up and sore Dorothy probably would have been. And then she thought about the permanent scars the girl would have had the rest of her life and felt a twinge of guilt. The full magnitude of what she'd thought of doing, even though it was just imagined, slowly weighed upon her. She was known to be a fighter and a scrapper in sports, an excellent athlete, though never participating in anything organized, other than gym class. She was too antisocial and bitter to do teams.

But Shannon was a brilliant student, though, always angry. She really had no friends, other than casual acquaintances. Yet, there was a soft side to Shannon almost no one knew about or saw. But it rarely came out in her.

She whispered to the bracken and trees beside her sleeping bag, "I've got to stop running these scenarios. I really do." Thoughts always preceded actions, she knew, and she was tired of fighting. Finally, she fell fast asleep on that note.

In the morning, Shannon's thoughts drifted to her mother while she made oatmeal over her stove. Her mother was all alone, now, again. Her boyfriend, in high school, had deserted her when she'd gotten pregnant, his family having moved several towns away following a law suit for child support, which she and her own mother had won. But the pregnancy had shattered her life. Her mom had never returned to school and never married, had never worked, and was dependent on the State and Federal governments for her existence.

Shannon hated that and wouldn't be a part of it anymore. Her mother hadn't been strong enough to withstand the ridicule of fellow students, like Shannon had, and never returned to society, following the 'alcohol spirit' instead, as the Native Americans would say. Shannon completely understood her feelings, but to let her life turn to drinking and dependency, that -- she could not understand. Shannon swore she would never drink a drop of alcohol. Ever.

Riding through Sawyer, Shannon saw a rare but real honest to goodness pay phone. She thought of calling home but then decided not to. She had too good of a cover and a clean get away. Telling her mother she was going backpacking, Shannon had purposely taken the thin compressible pack. With her, as well as all her other camping gear, that's where the police, if they were bothering to now or in the next few days looking for her, it would be in the woods, not on the road. No, she would be hundreds of miles away before anyone considered an alternative of her lost in the woods.

As a runaway, living off panhandling in downtown Duluth, that was the most likely place police would start looking for her first. But they'd never find her there, either. They'd scour the kids on the streets but would come up empty handed. Besides, she'd said her good-bye to her mother. Maybe she would call another time. Maybe.

And Shannon doubted her mother even knew about her Firenze bicycle, she had so many bikes collected and stacked up against the fence-line, behind the house.

For three days, Shannon followed several different back road highways southwest and was a day away from leaving the state. She would be in South Dakota, then, when she left it, and the first time for her, out of the state of Minnesota. She stopped at a city park in the sizeable town of Marshall and ate one of three apples she had with her. She spread some peanut butter across a flour tortilla and licked the plastic knife clean. She rolled the tortilla and ate it together with her apple. It was lunch and she was hungrier than that, but it would have to do. The constant miles was burning a lot of calories and she wasn't eating enough, she knew, but it had to be this way.

She watched the cars go by on the main drag and some teenage boys in the park that were climbing trees barefooted, which looked like great exercise and fun, but painful. They were as graceful as monkeys and she would have liked to have tried it out and learn from them. She even considered staying nearby as the sun was getting low in the horizon. But no, she knew she had to keep moving.

Shannon filled her water bottles from one of the park's drinking fountains, which miraculously were still turned on in September. It was still warm weather and she got in another twenty-five miles for that day. She was in the prairie of America, now, but you'd never know it. Most of America's prairie was being farmed and so much of it was fenced off. Very little of the original grasslands were still in existence. She'd thought of going to the Sioux Indian reservation back by Maynard, she passed through a while back, today, but decided to keep at her goal of getting out of the state. It would have been fun, maybe, to see some grasslands there, for surely, they wouldn't have plowed it completely under, in there, would they? Not the Native Americans. No, she didn't think so.

She went through a remote farmer's gate and onto his land, finding a place to stay behind a low hill big enough to hide her and her camp from the highway and that farmer's road, if he happened to come by. It was a dusty evening so she set up the tent and slept well throughout the windy evening in her little nest.

In the morning Shannon awoke to thoughts of when she had gone to her father's parent's home, for some unknown reason. She had been fourteen. Curiosity, mostly, she now knew. She rode her bicycle to the town. It was one of her first solo bicycle rides on her Firenze. She went to the house of his parents, because his name wasn't listed in the phone book.

Staring from the sidewalk, hoping someone would come out of the house, hopefully her father, and then someone did. It was a gray haired woman, his mother. She asked if Shannon needed anything, not knowing who she was, and why she was watching the house. Shannon couldn't think to say anything other than asking if Billy was home. The nick-name of her father. That's how her mother had referred to him, several times.

The woman stared intently at Shannon and asked who she was, her eyes flickering up and down her face, trying to find some sort of recognizable feature and suspecting.

Her lower lip trembling and reluctant, a huge emotional upheaval welling from her heart and rising, she finally blurted out, "I'm Shannon, his little girl."

The grandmother wept and put her hands to her mouth and they both cried. And then she embraced her grand daughter she'd never seen before, explaining their son, her father, had died many years ago in a car accident. It was more than she could stand and rode away on her bike, saying she had to get back home and that she was sorry. The grandmother begged her to stay but it wasn't to be. It was a difficult memory for Shannon as she got up, ignoring the cool air, and packed without making any breakfast. She never had gone back for another visit.

South Dakota, Shannon noticed, looked largely the same as the southeast corner of Minnesota. The only real difference was a whole bunch of South Dakota license plates on the cars. But she felt good to have reached this goal and was happy to be away from that land that had caused her so much unhappiness, even though it was still journeying with her, in her mind.

She continued to guide her Firenze through the big city of Sioux Falls, skirting the east end of it and was approaching the border of Nebraska by mid day. She was close to Yankton, still in South Dakota, but knew she wouldn't get there before sundown as there was too much confusion to these roads and streets, and desperately looked for a safe and secluded spot to camp. She found a pick-nick table off to the side of the road, at an unmarked rest stop, and noticed the one sign that said, no camping, and went further off into the brush, behind it. When she got up, the next morning, she used the table for cooking some breakfast and started out on her ride, again.

The road was smooth along there, which Shannon was relieved to ride as the city streets were filled with trash and bumpy. Shannon finally crossed the wide Missouri on a long bridge south of Yankton and was at last in Nebraska. South Dakota was especially congested but it felt good to be out in the open of a new State.

Looking at the map, Shannon saw there were very few towns, not nearly as many as in the other two states she'd passed through, so she realized she had to pay closer attention to the amount of food she was carrying and where she would have to re-supply.

The roads were very long and very straight. At one point, they began to be filled with bumps and cracks, every so many yards, there in Nebraska. It began to wear on her neck and her bum, making them both a bit sore, along with her hands.

She had been keeping up roughly 85 to 105 miles per day but out here it would be a lot easier, she thought. However, the prevailing wind was a new factor thrown into the mix of road travel and it was enough to drain her energy quickly, as well as her water supply.

By the time Shannon reached a very small town called, Royal, she was in need of a long rest, water, and some good solid food, but all that she could find was a small gas station with a little bit of snack food. She bought some then stopped inside of the town's city limits and sat in some semi-dry, yellow/green grass of fall, next to the road. Under the shade of some trees, noticing a few birds on the silver water tower across the road, she laid back in the crunchy grass. Her trusty Firenze laying on the ground beside her looked as worn out and tired as she felt.

Later, a beat up old pickup truck came to a slow stop beside her as she was checking her small road atlas, when the driver got out. She noticed right away he seemed kind and didn't feel threatened. He was an old guy and had trouble getting down on one knee and asked her, "Whatcha doing there, girlie?" She was surprised by his gentle identification. She had kept her long blond hair under a watch cap all this time. She'd learned long ago to keep her gender hidden, as best she could, being a lone woman on the road. She'd had some bad experiences and knew better now, but this old fella wasn't fooled.

"Trying to figure out where to go from here," she said, with a small grin.

"Well now, if I can suggest somthun' to help, I've lived here all my life? You up for a few pointers?"

"Sure. Can you stop the wind from blowing, too?" she asked.

"Nope. But I can sure whistle in it," he smiled, chuckling a bit and showing off a winning smile. It must have been some kind of joke, but Shannon wasn't sure she'd gotten the punch line. She thought he had a good sense of humor, though. "Kinda hard peddling in it, I'm guessing?"

"Yes. I'm wiped out."

"Well, lets take a look at that there map," he said, sitting down in the grass beside her in his jeans and long sleeved shirt. "Which way are ya headed?"

"Scottsbluff," Shannon lied, but it was as good a place to head for as any. It was there on the map and way west and south of their location in the same state. From where they were, in the north eastern side of the state, it was a long ways, but seeing it on the map, she just blurted it out. She didn't want anyone to know where she was from so she already had it decided in her mind to say she was from the nearest big town, in this case, Yankton, across the border, if he or anyone asked.

"Well, seems to me, you have to go south from here," he said, "to get across the next river. "Lookee here," he pointed. "You should have gone south at the last crossing, five miles back," he pointed with his thumb to the way she'd come. He was right, too. She should have because it would have saved her some miles, she now saw. "There's a bridge at the end of that road where you can cross the Elkhorn river, otherwise you have to go north and then back south again. You can go south form here, though, straight out of town, but it looks like the road to get back to the bridge would be a might longer to travel. You in a hurry?"

"No, not really."

"Well then, I'd suggest our road out of town then. It's right across the street there. Go south from here and you can't get lost. It's some pretty country and fairly flat."

"Okay. Thank you," she said.

"Whatcha doing for food this evening?" he asked.

"Oh! I've got some noodles, candy bars, and stuff. I'm okay."

"I know the misses is cooking a roast, if you're interested? You could clean up and sleep in a bed, tonight, if you'd like? I'm guessing you've got plans for camping out, huh?"


"We've got an extra room, if you'd like to stay the night. Not much south of here but harvested farm land on one side and wild grass one the other."

Prairie! thought Shannon. Real prairie.

"Be more comfortable for the evening and we could send you off with a full belly tomorrow. That sound good to you? No charge. Be happy to help out."

It did and Shannon found herself easily talked into it and decided to take him up on the offer, hoping his wife wouldn't be too put out.

And she wasn't, in fact, just the opposite. They welcomed her in like a family member and she even got to watch a little TV after a much needed shower, before going to bed shortly after dark. When she woke up, the Livingston's, that was their last name, were up and at it, making breakfast, almost all ready for her. She had a wonderful sausage, bacon, eggs, pancakes and milk breakfast. She thanked them profusely and left feeling like she wanted to come back and visit some day.

Her heart swelled as she looked back at the silver water tower in the distance, after a few miles, and Shannon was very grateful to them both for their kindness to a stranger. She should have given them both a hug, she thought, now, but it wasn't something she was used to doing.

The road seemed a bit lonely that morning, but she did alright, crossing the Elkhorn river where Brad, that was his name, had suggested.

Shannon continued south to a town called Albion, where she turned west, directly into the wind that was still blowing from west to east. It was slowing her progress dramatically but she fought on, finding a pace that wasn't too hard or too slow, and finally got on a highway, old 70 or new 91, whichever it was, and saw from the map it would eventually take her directly into Scottsbluff, way across the state. She didn't know why, but it seemed a good place to head for so that was what she was doing. She thought of heading more southerly, into Kansas and beyond, because cold weather would be coming eventually, but she had picked a goal, now, and was headed for it.

The days were still warm, but not too warm, and the nights were cool, but not terribly cold, so she was all right, she felt. Eventually, she knew, she would have to go south. September would turn into October and that meant snow in some states. She had good clothing and good gear, she could do it, but Shannon didn't want to spend all day in the saddle in freezing or near freezing temperatures. No. After Scottsbluff, she would go south. Yes, she promised herself. After Scottsbluff.

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