APEX — Steven Hill took two hours and about 20 miles to propose.
Nobody watching would have known why this guy was riding back and forth, looping around random streets. They wouldn’t have seen the little Garmin GPS unit strapped to his bike, checking its position every second or two against a network of satellites, recording his path on a digital map.
Hill had planned for weeks to do this on Christmas Eve, looking on maps for the route that would spell his message. Normally soft-spoken, the 25-year-old graduate student decided to print his question two miles wide, and somewhat sloppily: “WILL YOU MARRY ME?”
“I imagine people have hired a skywriter,” Hill said. “It’s like writing in the streets.”
Hill wasn’t the first to try this art form. It’s a natural progression – people started writing with their GPS units as soon as they realized they could. People have drawn Apple logos and women’s faces and animals – and at least a couple have proposed marriage.
Hill’s route ran through the subdivisions west of town, around downtown and out to the east. Vatersay Drive made most of the the “W.” Every so often, he’d pause the GPS and bike to the beginning of the next letter marked on his print-out maps. He only recorded a 7.1-mile path on his Garmin, but the actual journey stretched much longer as he wove around highways and neighborhoods to get in position.
“And she thinks I have no sense of direction,” he thought to himself. Two hours later, he had reached the end of Briarfield Drive, which looks a lot like a question mark.
He’d only told the plan to one friend, who assured him it would be perfect for his girlfriend. Caroline Moakley cycles 10,000 miles a year and races for an elite team. She and Hill met in the cycling club at UNC-Chapel Hill. She asked him out after she heard he’d been hit by a car while riding.
Hill and his girlfriend met the day after his journey for Christmas with family. Gifts were exchanged, and Hill took Moakley aside. He really wanted to show her this route he’d ridden – not unusual since they both love maps and cycling.
But then “he took his laptop and got down on one knee. That’s kind of unorthodox,” said Moakley, 25, an English teacher at Green Hope High School.
As Hill knelt, the map of the Christmas Eve ride appeared on the computer screen at the top of her Strava news feed, like a post on Twitter or Facebook. The penmanship was sloppy, but Moakley knew what it meant. She said yes and wrote it as a comment on his post.
First they showed the map to her family. Then it gained traction online. Two weeks later, Hill still had about 700 unread emails from around the world about his marriage proposal.
To Moakley, that little map says more about her relationship than an engagement ring would. In fact, she got an engagement bike rack instead.
“I appreciate the originality of it. It’s very Steven; it’s very me,” she said. “I think every couple should do what feels right for them.”