Saturday, March 28, 2009

June 3 - July 22, 2008

June 17. Riding north from Jackson WY to Moran Junction with the magnificence of the Teton range to our left.


There would have been no cross-country ride at all without the people who inspired it and kept the dream alive over three decades. Rob, the “R” of R & M Bicycles in Springfield IL, fired my imagination by regaling me with tales of his Centennial Ride across America in the summer of 1976 as I dithered over buying a new Motobecane bike from him later that year. More than two decades later, Shirley, in Jacksonville OR, encouraged me by her own example to dream some more. Greg, my partner on the ride who’s younger, stronger, faster, and smarter than I, patiently—ever so patiently—aided and abetted it across the wide continent. Ultimate responsibility, though, lies with my wife,Mary, who not only permitted the trip, but blessed it.

While those four got me started on this trip of a lifetime, I am positive that the prayers, good thoughts, and countless encouragements of loved ones and well-wishers helped move me along the 3,299 miles that lay between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic. A village might be enough to rear a child, but it took massed choirs of angels to get me from coast to coast. Many thanks to each and all of you.

New Year’s Eve, 2008
Green Valley, Arizona



It started when a classmate announced the 55th reunion of the Keokuk (IA) High School Class of ’53. I wasn’t much interested in high school when I was in it, and participated only slightly beyond the minimal degree required by law. Consequently, I don’t have any close friends left in my class to draw me back to Iowa for a reunion. But, Keokuk is a small town and I knew all of my 135 classmates. When I went to my 45th reunion I enjoyed meeting some of them again, hearing about their lives, and seeing how middle age had altered the adolescents I knew. So I toyed with the idea of going back in October for a look at those folks as they gathered at the threshold of old age. Not too much time passed before I dreamed of riding my bike back to the reunion. Several weeks after that I casually mentioned my fantasy to my Green Valley biking buddies as we lingered over coffee and pastries at the Tubac Deli. Another several weeks after that indiscretion, Greg said he thought it was a good idea, one similar to a trip he’d been thinking about. So we started talking about how we’d ride to Iowa, me for my reunion, Greg for the sport of it and for the colorful fall foliage which we miss in Arizona. But the more we talked about it, the more it became apparent that we shared a more persistent dream of a transcontinental ride. We quickly saw that starting from the California coast in September posed too many weather problems—too much desert heat, for starters, and the likelihood of too much cold and wet as we neared the Atlantic in the late fall. It seemed to us that sensible riders would start from the West coast in mid-June. With that, route-finding and logistics proceeded apace.

Mary and I carted Greg’s bike and mine to Oregon when we drove to daughter Beth’s at the end of May, and Greg flew to Portland just a couple of days after we arrived. We picked him up at the airport and drove over to Florence OR, on the coast, the same day. On Tuesday, June 3, we woke to a gray, rainy morning, dipped our wheels in Pacific tidewater, and set off through the soggy gloom for our destination, Cape Henry VA, just outside Virginia Beach. The Atlantic Ocean seemed an impossible distance away.

The spirit of such a long-distance ride, however, is not to span the continent; it is to get through the day or, more often, through the moment. And that’s what we did, across the dramatic mountains of the West—the High Cascades, the Tetons, and the Rockies—the broad Central Plains and agricultural Midwest, the stubbornly steep Appalachians, and the steamy hills and tidewater plains of Virginia. Our route took us across eleven states: Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia. On July 22, fifty days after we left Florence and forty-six biking days down the road, we dipped our front wheels in the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Henry, officially ending our journey. Our way was filled with all kinds of weather, mostly good, with high drama and profound tedium, with bellyfuls of bad food, and with headfuls of vivid memories. You will encounter some of the drama, a hint of the tedium, and a sampling of the memories in the alphabetical entries which make of the body of this report. If you are afflicted by bad food as you make your way through them, your caretakers should be more carefully vetted.



Age. (also see Infirmities) No question about it, age is a factor. Throughout the planning stage and for the first several weeks of the ride, a dark thought lived in the burrow at the end of my mind: maybe 72 is just too old for a trek of this sort; maybe my body will not be up to the daily strain. Curiously, I wasn’t worried about climbing up the mountains; I’d done that, both around home in southern Arizona and, last year, on a week-long tour of high passes in the Colorado Rockies. Nor did the prospect of occasional hundred-mile days faze me; I’d done them, too. It was the thought that my old body might not withstand the daily grind that gave me pause. In that frame of mind I expected that, when they saw my wattles and wrinkles, the first question people would ask was my age. Not so. Though we talked with hundreds along the way, only five asked me how old I am. The first was in Glenn’s Ferry ID, a small town on the Snake River. We had stopped in on the street to decide which of the two restaurants might be best for a mid-afternoon snack of pie and coffee, and where we might find a room. At that moment, an older woman and a young boy of about seven years stepped out of the store we were in front of. So we asked her about the restaurants. She was emphatically decided in her opinion that the one closer to the river was the best. Ordinarily, people tend to equivocate on such an issue, hoping to find out what the questioner thinks is good before presuming to define the good unilaterally. But this woman was positive on pie. That decided, she moved on to other matters. What we were doing; where we were from; where we were going; and, finally, how old I was. When I said 72, the little boy jumped up and down, pointing at the woman and shrieking “That’s how old you are, Grandma!” Wow! I thought she was a generation older. How hard it is to know ourselves, and even harder to remember how old those selves have come to be!

The second person to ask was a very large truck driver who had come to the east Indianapolis Dairy Queen for an afternoon milkshake, as we had. Like everybody else, he was astonished that we were riding across the whole country and, after giving me a once-over, asked my age. My answer was a further amazement to him and he allowed that he couldn’t even imagine riding as far as we had. In fact, he said, pointing to his waist, he could barely walk from his truck to the milkshake counter. He was entirely believable.

The next morning, in Cambridge City IN, where we had stopped for a late morning breakfast supplement, a woman of indeterminate middle age came up to me as I was slathering on some sunscreen before we got on the road again. After completing her short list of questions about our journey, she got to the point: my age. She was curious, she said, because she was sixty years old and had dreams of a long-distance bike trip in spite of thinking she was, maybe, too old. I encouraged her with my own experience and gave her the object lesson of Shirley (see Dedication), who did a transcontinental ride at 62. The woman seemed buoyed up by my answer and left me with the promise that she would ride more now that the dream appeared to be practical.

A week later, in Romney WV, a sixtyish man in MacDonald’s engaged me in what was surely the briskest and most forthright conversation of the whole trip. He didn’t beat around the bush about anything (see also Jersey). The age question came tripping off his tongue, and my answer was not at all astonishing to him. He knew an eighty year-old who rode long distances for no reason at all. He, too, would bike were his many other activities not more interesting and reasonable. He abandoned his animated account of his engaging life only when a fellow Romneyite interrupted with the promise of being a more compatible interlocutor than I.

The last person to pop the question was, in a way, the oddest of all. I’d stopped at a red light on one of the main thoroughfares of Richmond VA when a scruffy guy in a surprisingly clean green T-shirt came towards me. I figured he was a panhandler and was surprised when he asked if I were riding across the country, too. Greg, who was riding a bit ahead of me, had met him at the red light some minutes before and told him our basic story. The guy wasted no time getting particulars, including my age. The number moved him to say that the Richmond Daily Press, whose logo was on his T-shirt, identifying him as an employee—one who sold papers at that red light—would be eager to write a story about Greg and his ancient companion. “Really?” I asked. No question about it. He’d tell the paper truck driver, who’d tell the editor, who’d send a reporter out immediately. I demurred, saying I’d be leaving when the light turned green. No matter. He’d give a reporter the information and the story would appear in the Daily Press the next day. He was so sure about all this that I began to believe a bit myself.

I think the age question came up so seldom because people politely skirt issues which might be controversial or embarrassing. Such matters must be avoided if they can’t be successfully euphemized. It would probably embarrass a questioner to ask “Hey. Just how senior are you, anyway?”

Animals. If you’re like me, bikes and dogs are paired like white and black, poison ivy and pennyroyal, sin and retribution. That’s why dogs get an entry of their own. (see Dogs). This one is about other animals, wild and domestic. Out in the country, cruising along at 10-12 mph, one is likely to see more wildlife than she might hurtling by in a Lamborghini. We saw Whitetailed Deer, Mule Deer, lots of antelope (also see Antelope), a River Otter and a Badger, and a healthy sampling of the Rodentiae—Ground Squirrels, Chipmunks, Red and Gray Squirrels, Pika, Prairie Dogs and Woodchucks. We thought we had run across a particularly aggressive subspecies of woodchuck on the way to Burley, Idaho, where one “attacked” Greg. We’d seen quite a few small colonies of these animals along the roadside. Invariably, they would look at my shirt (see Jersey), utter a shriek of what I supposed was delight, and all flee down into their holes—all but one which, when he saw Greg approaching, hustled straight for him. Greg was ready to flee before the onslaught, when the woodchuck dove into his hole beside a post at the edge of the pavement. We must conclude that the hearts of both parties were going pitty-pat.
Of domestic animals, the most noteworthy were the cattle, especially in southern Idaho where feedlots line the road like fast-food joints in college towns. One of the most poignant sights on the trip was of a large bovine standing all alone above the thousands, like some addled King of the Hill, on a huge pile of poop. It was painfully evident that his/her life would be brief and all downhill from there. The stench of the feedlot would certainly last longer than the cow; it was as close as I ever came to breathing pure manure. It was in our noses for the better part of three days. Finally we appeared to have passed the feedlots. But the long stock trucks which were passing us all the way to Pocatello ensured that the smell stayed with us. It’s an odd odor, though; not quite animal, but not quite meat, either; like all those logging trucks smell less of trees than of lumber.

June 12. Feedlots are the view from Bliss ID almost to Pocatello. Breathe lightly, if possible.

Antelope. Though we saw a few in Idaho and a few in Nebraska, Wyoming is antelope country. And nowhere in Wyoming did we see as many as in the desolate spaces between Shoshoni and Casper. It is a vast, rolling, high desert--sagebrush and grass—where you can see for miles in any direction. Perfect antelope country. I recall reading somewhere that antelope are our only indigenous ungulate, which leads me to wonder if the whole country looked like the high plains when the antelope were alone in the grass. In the hundred miles we biked to Casper from Shoshoni, we saw well over a hundred of them. I will always be grateful to the species for helping to keep my mind off the daunting headwind we battled that day. As I came to understand, they are also the most discerning of the large animals we encountered on our journey. (see Jersey.)

Appetite. Long-distance biking is not a lo-cal activity. Those who know estimate that a recreational rider can burn about 400-500 calories an hour. Riding up mountains can double that. Some days we probably burned up to 10,000 calories. It takes a lot of carbohydrates to make up that amount of heat. So we were always aware of the carbs we were taking in (see Pancakes and Pizzas ). Greg is a practicing member of the fundamentalist branch of the carbo-cult whose main article of belief is that you must take in carbohydrates within twenty minutes of ending a ride in order to prevent vital energy loss that could affect your performance the next day. Though I’m no cultist myself, I’m always hungry for chips, crackers, and such after I park my bike for the day, so their creed is plausible to me. We generally stopped to eat five to six times a day, and we ate enough at each stop to quell any pangs that may have found their way through the last layer of breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Greg ate constantly on the road. He had snacks (Oreos, trail mix, peanuts, etc.) in plastic sacks lined up in his handlebar bag like a smorgasbord, open and available for constant grazing. My handlebar bag was not so accommodating, so I carried my fig newtons and pretzels in my back bag or jersey pocket, but seldom remembered to eat them except at rest stops where no commercial food was available. We differed significantly in appetite: Greg was always hungry; I was hungry only three or four times during the whole trip. Nonetheless, I was never too far behind him at the trough. (see also Weight )

Attitude Change. Several years ago I had to reorient my attitude towards wind. I found that riding into a headwind always depressed me and, after a while, made me a little crazy. In the Midwest, where the winds are occasional, you can survive as a bicyclist with that mindset. Not out West where the winds are constant, though. Especially in the winter and spring, a 23-mile ride to Tubac was a spiritual ordeal. Not even the prospect of a Pecan Pinwheel at the end of the ride was enough to make it pleasant. Then I thought of Jack’s mantra, “It’s all attitude.” Jack, our Springfield friend, was a quadriplegic polio victim whose whole adult life was testimony to the primacy of attitude. So I told myself that wind was just another condition of the road, like pavement, temperature, sunshine, or hills. If the wind blew, it was what it was—gear down and enjoy the trip. Amazingly, I bought the script and came to accept the wind as just part of the road. However, a pretty stiff headwind for five days across Nebraska was making me backslide a bit. I didn’t realize how much it was affecting me until midday on the 27th of June, as we were leaving Kearney NE, the wind shifted to the west. It was as though a new day had dawned. There is a passage in the book of Job which describes the difference: Have you ever commanded morning or guided dawn to its place—to hold down the corners of the sky and shake off the last few stars. All things are touched with color; the whole world is changed. That’s the way I felt; my whole world had changed. Everything was brighter, fitter, happier by far. Pavement, temperature, sun, hills, and wind do matter; sometimes a lot.


Birds. Biking and birding, like hiking and sightseeing, are not perfectly complementary pursuits. Much of one’s time is spent peering at the pavement ahead, hoping to avoid glass or debris that could puncture a tire, or squinting at the little rear-view mirror in order to spot the dangers in the traffic coming from behind. Neither gives the eye much play to discern whether a primary feather extends beyond the tail or the bill has a yellow underside. Birding is for the relaxed moments when the shoulders are wide and the traffic absent. I made sure to pack my compact binoculars, but used them only a couple of times and not at all when I was on the bike. Despite all, I managed to see 89 different species of birds from the road. One of those species, the Gray Partridge, I’d never seen before. We had just crossed the Snake River from Oregon into Idaho and were enjoying a wide shoulder and no traffic. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed movement in an overgrown horse corral. We were close enough that I could see the pair of partridge without the aid of binocs. That was, hands down, the biggest birding thrill of the trip. It was also good to see a pair of nesting Trumpeter Swans on the north side of Jackson WY. Otherwise, all the birds on my trip list were pretty ordinary. I did see all the blackbirds: Brewers, Redwinged, Tricolored, and Rusty. I kept a running list, adding new species when I saw them. Consequently, more than half the birds on the list appeared in Oregon, and the next highest number in Idaho. By the time we got to the deepest Midwest, all the common birds had been seen and I suffered through a 2 ½-state dry spell which was finally broken by a Gray Catbird flyby in West Virginia. I was appalled to hear just a handful of crows in Iowa, until we reached the eastern edge of the state. I had heard that West Nile virus had taken a great toll of corvids in the Midwest, and it surely seems to be the case. I also thought it was sad to see only two Bluejays, another species of corvid hard hit by the virus.

(n=89, in order of appearance)

Calilfornia Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Double-crested Cormorant, Common Goldeneye, Mallard, Belted Kingfisher, Osprey, Turkey Vulture, Western Scrub Jay, Steller’s Jay, American Robin, American Dipper, Mourning Dove, Rock Dove, Song Sparrow, Bewick’s Wren, American Goldfinch, Brewer’s Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird, European Starling, Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Flicker, Great Blue Heron, Tree Swallow, Violet-green Swallow, American Crow, Common Raven, Dusky Flycatcher, Western Tanager, American Coot, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-billed Magpie, Tri-colored Blackbird, Lesser Scaup, Cinnamon Teal, Kildeer, Common Nighthawk, Say’s Phoebe, Cliff Swallow, American Kestrel, Western Meadowlark, American Avocet, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Sage Thrasher, Vesper Sparrow, House Sparrow, House Finch, Gray Partridge, Pied-billed Grebe, Northern Harrier, California Quail, Orange-crowned Warbler, Bank Swallow, Ruddy Duck, Redhead, Swainson’s Hawk, American White Pelican, Franklin’s Gull, Northern Shoveler, Bald Eagle, Sora, Trumpeter Swan, Moountain Bluebird, Golden Eagle, Lark Bunting, Horned Lark, Wild Turkey, Red-headed Woodpecker, Brown Thrasher, Common Grackle, Rusty Blackbird, Northern Bobwhite, Field Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Bluebird, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, House Wren, Downy Woodpecker, Gray Catbird, Great Egret, Purple Martin, Eurasian Collared Dove, Black and White Warbler, Bridled Tern, Herring Gull, Carolina Chickadee.

Bodily functions. Those not wishing to coarsen their delicate sensibilities may want to skip this entry. It is about matters which any long-distance biker finds compelling and which engage his attention for much too large a part of his ride. The older you get the truer it is (see also Infirmity). And, of course, drinking more adds to the truth value, as well. Wet mornings are always a problem—who wants to rustle around in wet, cold bushes? High plains are a problem, too. There are vast stretches of Wyoming where the sagebrush doesn’t even come up to one’s knees. Even though most highways offer rest areas periodically, the periods are much too long for any biker’s bladder. All that being said, I felt we had a pretty easy time of it all across the country. Neither of us was in agony more than once or twice, which is remarkable considering that we may have peed nearly 200 times on our way. That figure is from motel to motel, while we were actually en route, and does not include the somewhat fewer instances after check-in and before check-out. Even after a devastating meal at the Hong Kong Restaurant in Idaho Falls (see Food ) when I was aggressively diarrhetic, I was able to find porcelain facilities four out of five times, and the fifth venue was a lovely little canyon in a pine forest. Not exactly lemonade from the Hong Kong lemons, but it could have been a lot worse, believe me.

Bungee cords. If you want to see the human visage furrowed with disgust, just ask a bicyclist what he thinks about the condition of highway shoulders. His face will register the intensity of emotion generated by the jetsam and offal of civilization. Worse, he has to look at it all because, amongst the innocuous trash (fast food packaging, soft drink containers, plastic grocery bags, and some landscape waste) are the dangerous pieces (tire treads, screws, nails, broken glass remains of a thousand vices, pop tops, metal shards from the full catalogue of decayed machinery, mufflers, pipes, cigarette lighters) all rendered obscure by the general filth that surrounds them. All that could as easily characterize the “bike-friendly” towns as well as the less-advertised “bike-hostile” ones. Prominent amongst all that roadside stuff are bungee cords. Wherever there are lots of pickups hauling lots of household goods, there is a ready supply of used bungee cords. It makes you wonder how hardware stores are still able to palm them off as security devices. Around Green Valley we can pick up a peck of them in a single ride. In Oregon they are plentiful, too. But just as soon as I needed one (to secure damp laundry to my rear pack) there was none to be found on the pristine shoulders of Idaho, Wyoming, and Nebraska highways. I searched for 1250 miles before finally spotting a weathered bungee cord on the shoulder of Route 26 between Lexington and Grand Island NE. In fact, the shoulders, such as they were, between Oregon and Virginia were remarkably clear. In tidy places, such as Minnesota must be, they probably wash them down daily. (see also Roads )

Brothers. People would often ask how we were going to get back home, or what we would do once we got to Virginia Beach. What they really wanted to hear, I suppose, was that we’d turn around and pedal back to Arizona. The true answer, that our brothers would take care of us, must have been a consolation to them—we might be weenies, but we were family-oriented weenies, which goes down well with most folks. My younger brother, Rich, lives in southern Virginia, right on the North Carolina line, and Greg’s older brother, Dave, lives just southeast of Raleigh NC. Rich drove over to Virginia Beach to meet me at our prearranged rendezvous, the Oceanfront Public Library (see also Virginia ), carry me back to his home, put me up for six days, then haul me and my bike down to Raleigh-Durham International for the trip home. In addition to his duties as genial co-host with his son, Ryan (wife Vicki was gone during that time on a trip to Ohio with her mother), Rich keeps busy in his retirement by tending his farm, seeing chiropractic patients in the morning, digging graves and selling plastic burial vaults in the afternoons and evenings. There’s not much retirement around; any naps taken during my visit were taken by me. But he found time to thoroughly introduce me to the farm and the town. Greg fared similarly, visiting not only his brother, but his sister as well, and being delivered to RDI for the same flight I took, a day later. It was nice to have a brother week for winding down and weaning ourselves from the grind of daily roadwork.

July 22. Brother Rich inspecting the bike at the Ocean Front Public Library in Virginia Beach.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Cross-country bike trip (cont.)


Cities. When I think of long-distance cycling, I picture country roads, forests, fields, hills, and long vistas. Most people probably see it the same. What we forget is that roads through the countryside usually exist to connect cities. Ay, there’s the rub! Cities are generally confusing and dangerous places. The shoulders of highways tend to end at the city limits. Bike lanes, if there are any at all, terminate suddenly, throwing one into traffic lanes. Left turns at intersections of busy four- or six-lane roads can be extremely treacherous. And most discombobulating of all, signs disappear as if the city streets are as familiar as one’s own driveway, so you must find your way by your own shriveled wit—not a happy circumstance. If you’re lucky enough to find a pedestrian (the rarest of human types just when they are most necessary) to give direction, the chances are poor that he’ll be helpful. (see Misinformation) The most difficult city to get around in was Twin Falls ID, a small town, really, but clotted and fast-paced (see also Close calls ). The most mysterious city was Richmond VA. The highway we rode in on became a busy thoroughfare with no bike lane, as usual, and no highway signs, also as usual. We knew we were near the middle of the city where there should be a sign for VA 5, but it didn’t appear, and the locals we asked either had never heard of the highway, or didn’t know for sure ( had nary a clue) where it might be. We knew we had to avoid I-95 while somehow managing to get to the other side of it. Our maps were not very detailed; they showed no precise junction with VA 5, but did seem to indicate that a big toll highway became VA 5 at the end of its short (say, 3-mile) length. So we went down the on-ramp, threw our quarters in the basket, and entered the nearly deserted tollway. It was a nice ride for a while; then it suddenly got very busy and we figured it had dumped us right onto I-95. We were now criminals. We had to find an exit. Greg was well ahead of me, pumping like crazy, when I saw he was crossing the James River Bridge, a landmark that screamed “YOU”VE GONE TOO FAR!” I yelled and waved, to no avail, and finally had to race across the river to stop Greg. He’d had his head down, watching the road’s edge he was riding for glass and trash, of which there was a record amount, (see Bungee cords ) and didn’t even notice the river or the exit he’d passed. Well, we had to go back. That meant riding that trashy road’s edge again, against the traffic—criminality compounded! Curiously, only a couple of cars honked at us. But the State Police car that passed us immediately turned on his blinker to exit the road. We knew what for, and pedaled furiously to the exit which, blessedly, led to a maze-like railway yard, with industrial buildings and parking lots. It wasn’t where we wanted to be, but we figured it kept us out of jail. Eventually, we found ourselves in an old downtown area, where we asked a couple of people how to get to VA 5 and got some plausible answers. After a half-hour we were on our road. Unfortunately, it was not what we expected—no motels—so we had to leave it and strike out for the airport area about five miles away. I felt very strongly that we would be far better off when Richmond was behind us. Writing this, I still shudder to think of the place.

The easiest city to get through was Indianapolis. Having had a hard time finding our way through there after delivering Beth to Earlham College, a hundred miles to the east, I was dreading trying it by bike. So we sought advice. In a gas station on the far west side of town we spied a tow-truck at a gas pump. What better route advisor than a tow truck driver? We asked him the best way to get through the city. He said, “Go out on this street, jog left in two blocks and you’ll be on Washington.” He pronounced it Warshington. “Just stay on Warshington.” “But how about downtown?” I asked. “Stay on Warshington,” he said. “All the way to the city limits?” I inquired. “Stay on Warshington.” “We’re going on to Greenfield,” said I, testing a little. “Just stay on Warshington.” And it was just that simple.
July 10. Aged biker in jaw-dropping jersey riding through downtown Indianiapolis on Warshington Street.

Climbing. From the vantage point of a bicycle saddle, it seems pretty much uphill from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. This biker’s illusion is based in the hard fact that you spend more time and energy climbing hills than you do coasting down them. I did not calculate the difference, but I’d guess that a third of cross-country pedaling time is spent laboring up hills. Before the ride, when I thought of climbing it was the mountains that occurred to me, and not just mountains, but ranges: Cascades, Rockies, Appalachians. Of course, you climb particular hills, up to particular passes. There were some great climbs. The Santiam Pass, over the Cascades was not high (4718’), but it was long (6 miles), and made miserable by rain, snow mixed with rain, and my very sore right ankle. The steepest, and ostensibly most difficult, was the Teton Pass (8431’) which boasted grades of 10% and more over eight miles. ( Most modern mountain highways are engineered for 6% grades.) The road was narrow and the traffic heavy, so to enjoy the beauty of the snow and forests we had to pull off the road, so we really had several climbs going up that one. Descending the other side into Jackson WY was harder; the grades were even steeper, up to 12%, so we were squeezing brakes as hard as we could down the curvy, nine-mile mountainside. Braking so long and so hard really gets you in the shoulders, wrists, hands, and arms; you feel the descent more than the difficult climb. Most bikers taking US 26 across Idaho and Wyoming skirt the Teton Pass by staying on that highway. We didn’t choose the hard climb; we went via the Teton Pass because it looked to be the shorter way to Jackson. Compared to the Teton crossing, the climb over Togwotee (pronounced TUH-guh-tee) Pass (9579’) to crest the Rockies was a piece of cake. The grade was normal, and we got help for about a half-mile of the ascent. There was road construction going on and the road crews did not permit bikes to cross the construction zones because trying to ride a bike uphill, over clods and rocks, would slow the flow of traffic too much. So, they carried us up—put us, our bikes, and our gear into the back of a pick-up and drove us to where the pavement resumed. It was a welcome, and hilarious, respite. The Appalachians, in a way, posed the greater challenge. We knew, from biking over the 10,000’ passes in the Colorado Rockies in 2007, that we could climb mountains. We just didn’t know about the eastern ranges. We had read of daunting experiences with the “straight up and straight down” mountain roads of the East, and a West Virginia bike shop owner whom Greg talked to on the phone confirmed the legends by saying that some people ride all the way across the country only to quit in the Appalachians because the roads were just too steep. Though we felt that claim had the odor of hillbilly chauvinism, it did cause us to wonder. So we faced the last two days in West Virginia with some trepidation. We weren’t really relieved to hear a young fellow in Grafton WV tell us that “It’s a pretty drive over to Romney, but there’s some hills.” We knew there were “some hills:” we were just in the dark about how high and steep they were. The next-to-last day was almost a perfect 10 in the Tough category. It was in the 90s, drippily humid, the hills were long (say, about 3-4 miles) and steep, and we had to get over a hundred miles of them to get to our motel in Mt. Storm. It was really hard, mostly because the road was so bad—narrow, no shoulders, in terrible condition, with holes, ruts, and drop-offs at the edge of what passed for pavement (see Roads). Our last day in West Virginia, which I had figured would be the most difficult, wasn’t, luckily for us.

The hardest climb of the trip for me was over some nameless hills on the road from Bridgeport NE to Ogalalla NE. I had reckoned that, since we were passing from the high plains to the agricultural expanses and the Missouri River, we’d be going downhill all the way. When I mentioned my supposition in a conversation with a convenience store clerk in Oshkosh NE, she said, “Maybe so, but there’s them hills around Lewellen.” I almost lost it in “them hills.” It wasn’t that they were so high; elevation gains were less than some of the mountain passes. But they were long, long, long; the day was hot, hot, hot; the wind was right in our faces. My mind went. Instead of relaxing, breathing correctly, and letting my energy concentrate in my leg muscles, I started thinking how long and hard the climbing was, how hot it was, how I detested the wind, and, generally, how miserable I was and would be for hours and hours to come, confirming it all by too frequently checking my watch and odometer. At the end of that 92-mile day, in the space I reserved for characterizing the difficulty of the day’s ride, I entered “H+”, super-hard. I might as well have entered “S+”, for super-stupid. Like any other physical activity, biking is mental, and I was having a profoundly retarded day.
June 17. Climbing up to Togwotee Pass (9579'), on the spine of the Wyoming Rockies.

Close calls. Sometimes I think that bike riding is a lot like NASCAR racing: the race is the thing but the crash is the draw. People seem to be inordinately interested in how dangerous it is to ride a bicycle. We fielded a good many questions about accidents narrowly avoided, dangerous drivers, malicious or otherwise. Well, they’re right. Biking is a dangerous pastime, but not that dangerous. A biker should have two watchwords, Visibility and Vigilance. Bright clothing is an important part of the program, even if those screaming colors are not what you’d choose for ordinary street dress. One school of opinion holds that the loud jerseys (see Jersey ) signify an unseemly surrender to the corporate interests which manufacture and market the plastic clothes sported by Lance Armstrong and other heroes of the Tour. The Northwest is home to this school. Some of my friends and family are among its adherents. As a lover of sparrow-colored clothes, I incline to it myself. But I don’t see any advantage to bicycling in earth-tone plaid shirts. The object while biking is not to blend in but to stand out. You can control part of the risks of the road by being visible. The other part that’s up to you is watching for danger: keeping your eye on the road ahead so you can plan for the unexpected end to the bike lane, or the hole in the pavement, or loose gravel, or the hundred different causes for a crash or spill; looking into your rear-view mirror at the traffic coming up from behind—are they going too fast, or seeming to come to close, or making a turn that would cut you off; and riding predictably so the drivers will not be in a panic when they pass. But even the freakiest-dressed and most cautious rider can be at risk. I think we had surprisingly few close calls over the 3299 miles we rode, a handful each would just about account for them. Sometimes they are the rider’s fault. A good example would be the time I about got creamed in Twin Falls ID. The situation was typically urban, trying to turn left at a busy intersection of multi-laned roads. Greg, who was riding ahead, took advantage of a break in traffic and slipped from the right gutter over into the left turn lane. I was following about a hundred yards behind and found myself trapped in the gutter by at least two lanes of speeding traffic. The intersection was wild, with traffic speeding across the other way in the first millisecond of a yellow light. I couldn’t just get off and walk my bike because there were no “Walk” signals. So, I decided to turn right, ride a ways in the direction opposite of that I wanted to go, then find a place to cut across the road to the desired eastbound lanes. But when I turned right, the craziness of the traffic was compounded by mall parking lots emptying out on both sides of the street. I got a little bewildered and tried to get over to a median when I shouldn’t have. If a driver had not stopped his left turn into a mall, I’d have been roadkill. All I could do was beat my breast in contrition and mouth an “I’m sorry!” That’s the only time I came close to being the instrument of my own demise. I don’t think Greg ever did.

A second sort of situation is more common: you’re riding along visibly and vigilantly when a vehicle accidentally just about hits you. A good example of that was on US 50 in West Virginia as we were climbing the highest mountains on our next-to-last day in that state. It was a terrible road—old, narrow, and crumbly (see Roads). I was laboring uphill when a car came up behind me just as a big logging, coal, or sandstone truck was coming downhill in the westbound lane. The road was probably not wide enough for the three of us and, because of the mottled shade, I could not see what the condition of the rocky shoulder (if any) might be. I moved over to ride the last millimeter of the road’s edge when the edge of the pavement fell away. My back wheel swerved right, leaning me right into the lane of traffic. Luckily, the car and truck passed as I was struggling to stay upright. How, I do not know. Another time, on IA 2, a car coming up behind Greg was so close it drove him off the road.

Some such incidents are clearly malicious. East of Tuscola IL a pair of red gravel trucks came over to the very edge of the roadway, missing us by inches, air horns blaring. I think they were just having sport at our expense but, had we wobbled at all, it would have been a blood sport. I recorded more than half a dozen other instances of less perilous harassment, but they are pretty much par for a bicyclist’s course. In eastern Idaho, a group of young men threw a drink can at Greg while hurling insults at him, as well. The can missed and the insults were incomprehensible, but both stung, anyway. Clarksburg WV was the capital of harassment on the trip. It’s one of those cities you think of in connection with “dump” or “armpit”; its downtown is entered through a parking garage. As we passed through the town on the way to our motel, five separate cars full of teenagers shrieking insults passed me. Again, the language was impossible to understand, though the tone was not. This sort of harassment is better seen as bad manners than as a close call, stupid adolescents trying to behave in ways that their mamas didn’t raise them to.

Coffee. On Wednesday morning, June 11, the ninth day out, I gave up coffee for the duration. It was cold and rainy that morning in Boise, no time for an old guy to be swilling diuretic drinks. I had been stopping to relieve myself four or five times on a day’s ride, on average, and was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t have time to ride across the country. So I hoped that cutting out caffeine would help me along the road to Virginia Beach. I don’t know that it did. The average number of pit stops didn’t diminish until we started measuring our perspiration in liters when entered the heat and humidity of the Midwest and East. Still I persisted, lapsing only once, in Chillicothe OH, when we arrived early in the afternoon and I thought a cup of coffee and a roll (alas, no cinnamon buns were available!) would be a nice treat as I toured the old Victorian section of town. Some ten days later, I was really keen to break my fast on the first morning at my brother’s house in Clarksville VA. He and nephew Ryan had gone off to work early, leaving me to make my own coffee. Perfect! I could make it at my preferred strength without having to hold back for others. I don’t know what happened—whether it was the coffee, the pot, or my fallibility, or some demonic synergy of the three—but the coffee was awful. Undrinkable. I poured the evidence down the drain, got on my bike and rode to MacDonald’s. Every morning thereafter, I walked someplace—Uppy’s, MacDonald’s, Burger King—for my coffee. I figure I really ended my period of abstinence on July 29, when I made my morning pot of coffee in Green Valley.

Cost. A few people have wondered how much a trip like ours costs. I can answer that question: $3,231.66, which amounts to $0.98/mile over 3,299 miles. The biggest expense was lodging, $1501.18, followed by food, $1,068.41. I spent $73.21 on the bike; $360 on air fare back to Tucson; and $228.86 on miscellaneous expenses, mostly on gifts. Surprisingly, the total was very close to my estimate. The tour I’d signed up for in the Spring of 2006, which I had to resign in order to undergo the seven-week course of radiation for my recurrent cancer, would have cost me about $6,500 for a fully-supported trip. Today that same trip costs $8,552. Other fully-supported tours are similarly expensive: Crossroads Cycling offers one for $8,995 and the Womantours equivalent is $8,590. These “fully-supported” rides usually include a motel room shared with one other person, two meals a day, a couple of refreshment stops on each day’s route, a van to haul luggage from motel to motel, and a free T-shirt or jersey. There are other supported tours that are cheaper, but they are camping tours—motel options are quite a bit extra. CycleAmerica offers a camping tour for $6,000; Adventure Cycling has one for $6,499; Wheels Across America, a Christian witness tour that our friend, Shirley (see Dedication), joined in the ‘90s, costs about the same. It would be possible, if you camped and bought food at groceries much of the time, to do a transcontinental trip for $2500. That option, however, is not for old people who have become so accustomed to comfort that they can no longer sleep on the ground or eat out of cans.

Cyclists, Long-distance. We saw about 20-25 other long-distance cyclists on the road, all but one of them before we crossed the Missouri River into Iowa. Most of them we stopped to talk with, but a couple were pedaling westward on the other side of a divided highway which allowed no contact. I think our route from the Pacific through Nebraska was a favored one for cyclists. We saw almost all of them on either US 26 or US 30. The first bunch we met in Mitchell OR. They were headed for Cape Henlopen DE, camping with their sag wagon that hauled all their gear from one campsite to the next. In the same camping grounds was a sixty-something man with a great set of red panniers. We wanted to talk with him, too, but he eluded us, perhaps by simply riding West. In Vale OR we talked with an earnest young Christian who was traveling to somewhere on the West coast with three other fellows from Tennessee. We met a few more people as we rode I-84 in Idaho (see also Roads).A group of seven cyclists from Missoula MT were following the Lewis & Clark Trail to Astoria OR. Along that route we also met a retired man who cycled a lot, and had fabulous equipment with real waterproof panniers, front and back, an expensive touring bike, and various gizmos he’d made for his own convenience. He’d previously biked to Alaska, which seems to me an enormous feat. This time he left his home in Jacksonville FL and was biking kitty-corner across the country, through Colorado and Wyoming, to Bellingham WA. At a convenience store on the road from Jackson to Dubois WY we talked to a couple college-age guys who were traveling East-to-West, camping along the way, towing those bike trailers that look like large scooters without handles. I’ve always imagined that they would be hard to pull, but the young guys said not, except for uphill grades. A big exception, since uphill grades take up most of your time on a long trip! They were also greatly dispirited—just about ready to turn around and go back East—by the headwind they’d been riding into for days. Greg and I had been enjoying an 8-day tailwind and, with a degree of mindless noblesse oblige, wished them a tailwind for the rest of their journey. We should have cherished our good fortune with greater care. Not ten minutes after we left them, the wind turned and stayed strong and in our faces for more than a week. (see also Wind). Down the road, in Lexington NE, we met a young Scotswoman at our motel. Gillian took a four-month leave of absence from her job at the National Library in Edinburgh, and from her husband, also in Edinburgh, to ride across America from San Jose CA to Quebec City, Canada. She was riding alone, amazingly enough, not at all concerned about the dangers everybody else dwells on, and was having a wonderful time. We saw her again in southern Iowa, rode with her for several hours, enjoyed a very nice piece of gooseberry pie, on her tab, at the Junction CafĂ© in Bedford IA, and parted company. I was sure we’d see her again, since she was going our direction, but we never did. We have since communicated by e-mail; her card, showing addresses and such, was headed Cycling across North America—mostly fueled by pie. My kind of girl!

June 30. Riding IA 2 east of Clarinda with Gill, a prodigious lover of pie--and a Scot, to boot!

We also saw another young woman who was cycling from New York to the Pacific coast by herself. I don’t believe we’d have seen women riding alone twenty years ago. Some people we talked to thought we should not see it today, citing all those lunatic rapists that lurk in the dark corners of our country. The weirdest get-up we saw on a long-distance cyclist was on a young man in his early twenties on the return leg of his South Bend IN-Lincoln NE trip. He was cycling towards the Missouri River in the heat and humidity of the Midwest in long pants, wooly sox and sandals, a heavy sweater, a woolen cap pulled down around his ears, and a big pack on his back (no panniers or bags on his bike, at all). The only rider we saw east of the Missouri was a young Marine who pulled over to talk with us in Tuscola IL. We were the first bikers he’d seen, and he’d come all the way from Annapolis MD on his way to the Los Angeles area. He had come over US 50 and reported it was fine, except for traffic in the Washington D.C. area (see also Roads and Misinformation). Most of the cross-country cyclists starting north of San Francisco would head towards New England, across what we call The Northern Tier. Those starting in Southern California would likely meet the Atlantic in Yorktown VA (the terminus of the classic Centennial Ride in ’76) or further south than our route, in the Carolinas.

Day, typical. We’d wake up at around 5:15 or 5:30, unassisted by alarms, desk calls, or other unnatural intrusions. (Only once, after lying awake with a migraine during the night, I slept until 6:30. Greg, ever patient, was creeping around in the dark, wrestling with his conscience over whether to wake me up.) We’d make our ablutions, pack up our bikes (which we kept in the room with us), and go off to the lobby for the continental breakfast offered by the motel or to a restaurant for pancakes. We were usually on the road by 6:30 or 7:00, though it was a little later in Oregon, where folks sleep in longer than they do in other parts of the country. Once we got to Nebraska, all the restaurants were open by 6:00 so we were on the road earlier. We usually stopped for a “breakfast supplement,” a snack and something to drink, if we came to a restaurant or convenience store after 20-30 miles. Lunch would typically be in a fast food restaurant another couple of hours down the road. By 3:00 or 4:00 we normally had completed our ride and had checked into our motel. Greg would ride off in search of his post-event carbs (see Appetite), while I washed out my sox, shorts and jersey, and took a shower. By that time, Greg would be back, laundering and showering. I’d compile data and jot down the daily adventures in my crabbed little script, while Greg pored over the next day’s route and motel possibilities. We had dinner at around 6:00, or a little after. Greg often bought some microwaveable food at a grocery, which he ate in the room; I’d go off to some restaurant. It would take some discriminating arguments to conclude which of us ate better fare (see Food). By about 7:30 we’d be back in the room, reading, fixing an inner tube or some article of clothing, or watching TV (see NBA Finals). Greg introduced me to The Dog Whisperer, on the National Geographic Channel, which I viewed avidly for seven different nights, I believe, until I realized that all the programs were pretty much the same. But it is a great show. Cesar, the whisperer, makes a lot of sense and does remarkable rehabs on a lot of pretty awful dogs. My favorite was a truly nasty little yappy Chihuahua, who, when his attempt to bite Cesar was stopped by a shush, turned and burrowed into the sofa behind his mistress like a maniacal gopher. Even after that sort of excitement, we were asleep by 8:30 or 9:00. I won’t bore you with an account of my nighttime peregrinations (see Infirmity).

Directions. (see Misdirections and Misinformation)

Dirt. I wanted to bike across the country for a lot of reasons. Foremost, I suppose, was the cachet of having done the ride of legend. Almost everybody who’s ever set foot to pedal wants to do it, and people who find their pedals on pianos or cars are, nonetheless, immediately impressed by the epic character of such a ride. I suppose, too, that there’s an element of denial behind it, too: I am NOT too old to make a 3,000-mile bicycle trip. Patriotism was part of my motivation, too; crossing every foot of my country’s span is a way of assimilating it, making it my own—being able to say this is MY country. I have always felt my patriotism most intensely as a geographic response. When I’d return to my home in Iowa after I had left it for good in the 50s, I’d feel my heart soar when I came to the bluffs of the Mississippi, the landforms of my birthplace. So it is with the country, too. America the beautiful; its majestic mountains, fruited plains, shining seas—the whole proud, albeit hackneyed, bit. By the time you’re my age and have traveled a little, all the conventional landscapes are well-known. Biking across them and through them is a way to know them differently. I now know how they smell, how they sound, how they appear to the senses in the tinier elements you can only see when you pass slowly by. On this trip I recognized an aspect of America I’d never seen before. Dirt. You could make a gorgeous national flag from the marvelous palette of soils: yellow, brown, ochre, beige, gray, purple, black and, yes, red, white, and even blue. American dirt, I salute you! Lava soap salutes you!

Disappointments. The High Cascades are beautiful mountains, a series of snow-covered volcanoes rising high from the dark green fir-forested hills. In Oregon there are nine or ten such peaks in a north-south line, extending from Mt. McLaughlin, at nearly 10,000 feet, in the south near California, to the conical majesty of Mt. Hood, over 10,000 feet, near the Columbia River in the north. In between lie Mt. Jefferson, the most symmetrical of them, the jagged peaks of Three-fingered Jack and the Three Sisters, and the lesser eminences of Mt. Washington, Broken Top, Mt. Bachelor, and Diamond Peak. There are some spots, to both the east and west of the mountains, where one can behold much of the range in one breathtaking vista. Mary and I visited old friends Colleen and Arnie in Bend, on the western slope of the Cascades, a week before Greg and I passed nearby on our bikes. From the friends’ porch we could take in the view—blue skies, snowy peaks, picturesque clouds, dark firs. The greatest of the very few disappointments on our trip was that Greg, who loves mountains and has never really seen the Cascades, missed out on the view. They were socked in, covered with gray clouds. It snowed as we breasted the Santiam Pass; it rained intermittently the rest of the day; and the following day, as we rode east from Redmond in bright sunshine, the mountains were shrouded in clouds. We thought we saw part of a snow-capped peak (probably Three-fingered Jack if it wasn’t a cloud) as the gloomy overcast broke up around a patch of blue. That was it. I was heartbroken that Greg missed the inspirational view, but he was philosophic about it, feeling pretty confident that he’d have ample viewing time when he and his wife, Rhonda, come to Oregon on their motorcycle.

Dogs. You have to wonder how a dog might respond to “What’s not to love about a bicycle?” I’ve been riding bikes around country roads for more than fifty years and, over that span, dogs have been a constant theme of conversation among bicyclists. Everybody who’s ever touched foot to pedal has a dog story to tell. Mine used to be how the big dogs north of Springfield cut my biking compass almost in half. It got to be just too harrowing to venture north. The worst day was when three German Shepherds raced out and surrounded me, barking viciously and looking frighteningly bloodthirsty. I got off my bike and tried to put it between me and the dogs, a difficult task because there were three of them. I couldn’t just run away; that would expose my flanks, so to speak. So I danced about with the bike for about 15 minutes, until they wearied, got hungry enough that kibble seemed easier, or got called away, I forget which. Biker friends and I used to argue about which dogs were the worst. My view was that multicolored dogs—the black, white, and brown ones—were more dangerous than bicolored ones, regardless of breed. That was before Rottweilers got popular and mean. But all those stories and images from the past got erased several years ago when we met Black Dog of Tumacacori. He took up residence at the Santa Cruz Spice Factory, just south of the historic Tumacacori Mission, about 25 miles south of Green Valley. When he first came barreling out of the driveway at me, I was riding solo to the next town, Rio Rico. I saw him coming, made him out to be a Chow, and reckoned that he would behave according to his breed: display viciously at the gate to make sure I kept on going, but not venture onto the road. Wrong! Black Dog did, indeed, look like a Chow from the front but, from the back, he looked like a Greyhound. And the back end did the running. Black Dog was not only fast enough to keep pace as we raced away at 20+mph, but had the stamina to keep up for a quarter-mile or more. He snapped at legs and feet, so it was necessary to keep veering away from his head. Escaping the jaws of Black Dog was a fearsome, exhausting, and dangerous piece of work. The route past the Spice Factory was a popular one, so he terrorized a lot of bikers. Some of them, along with Greg and me, got pepper sprays to deter him. After getting spritzed a few times, Black Dog got the point. Then, all I had to do was to point a fist his way for him to think “PEPPER SPRAY!” and come to a skidding halt, like Wiley E. Coyote suddenly realizing that he was about to burst into the Roadrunner’s trap. About a year after his education, Black Dog was taken away by the County Animal Control Truck. He never returned, but we’re confident that he’s found his bliss tearing out from behind clouds to intimidate Ghost Riders in the Sky.

Given the ongoing symbiosis of bike and dog, you might ask about how many times we were chased on the 3,299-mile road to Virginia Beach. Amazingly few, as it happened; less than a dozen for the two of us. Greg had more bad experiences than I did. Being younger and swifter, he often rode ahead and caught the unfenced dogs when they were fresh and full of high spirits. By the time I came along, several of them were tired or bored already, or had found better things to do. Though Greg had some encounters in Idaho, Indiana, and West Virginia, most of our canine adventures came along Rt. 2 in southern Iowa. I don’t know why so many more dogs ran loose there; differences of wealth, status, culture, and power appear slight among Iowans and their kindred in Nebraska and Illinois. But, on one stretch of back road between Bloomfield and Keosaqua IA, we were so pestered by dogs it got comical. We inferred that a Jack Russell terrier was the most successful breeder in those parts. Every farmhouse seemed to have one, and all the dogs looked and acted the pretty much the same. The worst, by a degree or two, was a more rotund version of a Jack Russell, who came tearing down the hill at me so fast and furiously that she ran right into my rear wheel. I don’t know if her nose got tweaked by the spokes, or not, but the bump seemed to satisfy her bloodlust.
Cross-country bike trip (cont.)


Epithets. For some reason, I’ve never been tagged with nicknames. There’s not much you can do with my given name, and my general appearance is sufficiently nondescript that there’s an obvious epistemic gap between my looks and the labels others want to pin on me. One old grocer at the Benner store in Keokuk, where I worked during my high school years, called me “Highpockets” several times, but gave up, after a week or so when it didn’t seem to catch on. Consequently, I’m always alert to what people call me when they’re not using my name. This happened three times on the trip and, each time, the epithet was unprecedented. The first time came at the registration desk of the seedy Sutton Motel in Springfield OR. The owner, a Chinese woman, was passing the time of day with us as I was trying to get my credit card together with my registration act. She asked where we were going. I said “Virginia Beach.” Then, when she seemed to think that Virginia Beach was over on the Oregon coast and I offered “Virginia” as a corrective, she looked up into my face and said “Man of Iron!” Wow! That’s almost Superman! I could spend my retirement conjuring on that one: How would I design my business cards? What sort of car does an iron man drive? Do I need to buy a toupee? Fortunately, we had hard enough roads ahead that the label was belied before it had a chance to be believed. The second stunner came north of Springfield IL, outside a convenience store in Sherman, as rain clouds came rolling in and I was struggling to get my bright yellow pack cover over my panniers. A fiftyish guy came running out of the store to his car and, as he passed me, shouted, “Better batten down, old-timer, it’s comin’ in!” Old-timer! Though I have been accepting senior discounts for nearly thirty years (my first time was when I was 45, at a barber shop, of course), I had never been called “old-timer.” That made me feel all… how do I say?...old timey. The last and, arguably, best happened in the middle of West Virginia, in Fellowsville, I think, outside a convenience store. Greg asked a woman exiting the store about the road ahead and a conversation ensued, or, I should say, a Q and A session. The woman asked the usual questions about destination, miles per day, and so on, then asked if we were together. I said that we did ride together, though Greg often rode ahead a half-mile or so. Then she said she meant to ask if we lived together. I said that we live in the same town. “No,” she demurred, “I mean…are you partners?” I laughed and replied that, were it so, we’d be going to California, not Virginia Beach.

Entertainments. We went to no movies en route. Nor did we patronize any bars after 2:00 p.m. Nor did either of us carry a Walkman or IPod. We did watch TV occasionally, and it was sometimes enjoyable, if not gripping. (see NBA Finals and Day, typical) On two occasions, however, I stumbled into real entertainments as I supped alone. Eaton OH, our destination on July 11, had no motel, so we rode five miles further to the outskirts of Glenwood where we found a little motel being refurbished. Surprisingly, there was a restaurant about 200 yards away. We went there for dinner, I to eat on the premises, Greg for take-away. It was Friday night and the place was packed with old people, about 60 of them, at least 50% of whom were older than I. A country-western combo was playing on the stage, mostly oldies, about half of which I knew. Now my country-western phase was pretty much started and over with in the winter of 1951, so that tells you something about the crowd’s age group. But everybody was having a great time, rocking in their chairs to the music, occasionally singing along for several bars, talking animatedly together, some making their way outdoors for a smoker’s recess. It was great. Even though I was by myself at the table, the good cheer was infectious, and I rocked and sang right along with the crowd. The other time was in Tuscola IL, on July 8. We had pulled into our Super 8 just as a thunderstorm hit. By the time it let up, I was ready to get a bite to eat. Fortunately a MacDonald’s was just a hundred yards away. I got my dinner without incident and was doing all right with it when I noticed a couple several tables away looking up, gesturing the same direction, and talking intensely. They looked a bit marginal, like they might be homeless, and I spent a couple of minutes watching them. Then I looked up at what they were watching, and saw one of those fiberboard ceiling tiles, wet and bulging. There were several other tiles in nearly the same condition, but the one most observed was clearly the closest to floodstage. I commented on it to the couple, who laughed and said they’d been watching it for quite a while. Several others in the restaurant said they had, too. So I watched along with them, through the rest of my dinner and some ice cream after. It was rather like the Seinfeld show on TV: how to make something out of nothing. But it was dramatic, convivial, and entertaining as all get out. I watched for quite a while, say twenty minutes, and it hadn’t yet burst, so I left. The day had been long and hard and even a mini-flood in the making couldn’t keep me awake.

Falls. Sorry, this isn’t where you get the blood and gore, either. In fact, there was very little of that on our journey. The only time I hit the pavement with more than my feet wasn’t even a fall; it was more of a crumple. Just after lunch at Crazy Tony’s Bar and Grill—the only place open on a Sunday in Guernsey NE—we rode down the block to a service station. I coasted into the driveway, then slowed so much I couldn’t lift my right leg over the seat to dismount before the weight of my panniers pulled the bike over, and me with it. Fortunately, it was Guernsey NE so there wasn’t a crowd to watch me disentangle from the bike and rise, ever so slowly, from the drive. Neither the road rash on my knee nor the pressure cut on my elbow required much treatment. Otherwise, the only injuries I suffered came from my pedals. Sometimes when I’m walking the bike, or dismounting awkwardly, my legs get in the way of the pedals, which have moderately aggressive teeth on them to hold my shoes. They did a number on my right ankle early in the trip and on my left shin the last day, at Cape Henry. I don’t think Greg bled at all. There. That’s all the gory stuff.

This entry is about waterfalls. We saw several big ones along the way, and quite a few smaller ones, especially in Oregon. The larger towns in southern Idaho appear to be located at falls on the Snake, probably because, in the early days, portages and transfers of goods from the boats that plied the river happened at them. Think of Twin Falls, American Falls, Idaho Falls, for example. I wanted to see the twin falls at Twin Falls, so Greg kindly accommodated my desire and we rode in from the interstate on an ill-fated mission. Not only did I nearly lose my life in that town (see Close calls), but we didn’t even get a very good look at the disappointing falls. The Shoshone Falls, a double-streamed falls for which Twin Falls is named, was about five miles out of our way. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a reason to avoid the trip. But there was a brisk breeze in our faces, too. Still we persevered until we came to the bluff above the river and saw the falls, a mile deep into the canyon. The return, a long, steep climb against the wind, was a daunting prospect, so we ventured down the hill far enough to see the falls and to judge the degree to which they failed to meet my rather high expectations. We were so bummed by the Twin Falls experience that we were pretty half-hearted as we neared American Falls. In fact, we tried three exits to find them. Two led nowhere. A third exit led down the hill to the small town, but the falls were still several miles further, so we settled for a Subway sandwich instead of the view. Idaho Falls were the best we saw on the Snake. They fall about 30 feet from rock shelf that runs in a long diagonal across nearly 1/2 mile of the river. Some of it was quite picturesque, with lots of big boulders and white water against a backdrop of trees and fields, a Mormon temple marking a sort of Renaissance perspective point at the end of the vista. Far and away the most impressive waterfall we saw was Sahalie Falls in the Cascades. We came to them early in the morning of our third day. It was cold, gray, and raining lightly when we walked through the trees down a little trail to see the falls. The McKenzie River was flowing fast and full. One of our informants the day before told us that more water was passing over the falls at that time than at any other since the flood year of 1964. We could believe it as we stood watching the thundering torrent. The falls are about 80 feet high, as wide as the river (about forty yards at that point), and characteristically Northwestern, with lots of ferns, firs, and mosses. We watched, transfixed, for about ten minutes, then used the conveniently located porta-potty before we left the area, as falls watchers are wont to do.

July 5. On the way from Belknap Springs to Sisters OR. Greg in the mists and gloom after viewing Sahalie Falls of the Mackenzie River in full flow.

Farewells. Most of the time, when we parted company with folks we’d been talking to, they’d urge us to be safe. “Y’all be careful out there.” Or, the most popular, “Keep safe out there.” I always felt like one of those Hill Street Blues patrol officers who were always dismissed by their shift sergeant, “Be safe out there.” What lurked “out there” in the “jungle” was lots of danger and certain death for the witless and complacent. I think that’s the way most people felt about bicyclists on the roads—that our kind was far too witless and complacent to survive for long amongst the crazy and reckless drivers our well-wishers knew from personal experience. We always thanked them for the sentiment, albeit somewhat witlessly and complacently. I remember something my mother said to me as I was about to set off in the family car for my girl friend in Carthage IL. “You be careful,” she yelled at my back. I probably responded with some such reproof as, “Oh, Mom.,” to which she replied, “It’s not you I worry about, it’s those other damn fools.” Witless and complacent in high school, too! The oddest parting shot I heard on the trip was from an old fellow in a pickup truck. We had just left Ogalalla NE for North Platte. The threatening rain clouds had broken and some sun was peeping through. After five miles, or so, Greg was already well ahead of me. When I caught up, he was chatting with a fellow in a pick-up truck. They were talking about Arizona at the time, I think, and the conversation sounded pretty normal. But my appearance on the scene gave them closure. Greg got on his bike and, as we turned to get back on the road, the old fellow called, “Stay out of the cheatgrass!” Cheatgrass is so called because it looks good when it’s young and cattle readily eat it. But, because it doesn’t have much nutrient value, the stock get puny and sicken. They’re cheated on nutrition. As it ages, cheatgrass develops a tremendous number of very sharp awns to encase its seed. These awns are perilous and painful. When I first arrived in Arizona I hiked through some cheatgrass, which is abundant in the area. The awns penetrated my sneaker tops and socks and gave me fits all the way home, despite my attempts to pull them out. So I appreciated the old fellow’s farewell. As it happened, of course, it was not his personal signoff line. He and Greg had been talking about cheatgrass before I arrived.

Firsts. As a bred in the bone Iowan I was eager to see signs of the Midwest as we headed east. I’m sure I kept Greg bored by calling out “firsts,” such as the first big agricultural fields we saw as we approached the Snake River—fields of wheat, corn, potatoes, onions, and sugar beets. I hadn’t seen sugar beets up close before and thought for a while that they were potatoes. In Nyssa ID there was a huge sugar beet refinery that makes White Star sugar. It’s owned by Swedes or Danes, which reminded me that “local” has to mean more than just “near this place” in our global economy. I was really excited by two indicators that we were in the Midwest—the first soybean field, which we saw on the way to Grand Island NE, and the first daylilies growing in the roadside ditches, also in central Nebraska. Other noteworthy firsts were: the first sunny day of the trip, on June 7, as we rode to John Day OR, felt like the first hint of summer after four days of rain; the first cinnamon roll of the trip, at a bakery in Blackfoot ID, which was such a disappointment I never had another for the rest of the way—a major statement for a pastry lover like me; and the first flat tire, on the way to Pocatello (see Tires). I kept myself amused counting firsts for the better part of a month, when the effort of keeping track began to pall.

Floods. All across Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming we heard about the near-record flooding in the Midwest, reportedly the worst since 1993. I remember 1993. Mary and I were in Springfield IL at the time, but had traveled fairly often to Keokuk IA to visit my sister and my mother. In May of that year we had to make a 60-mile detour through Quincy IL to find a road that was open to Keokuk. The floodplains of the Illinois and Mississippi River are vast, and they were full right up to the bluffs, an awesome sight. It is just hard to imagine that much water. And there was nearly that much this year. So we were apprehensive about what we’d find when we got to the Midwest, and were concerned that we might have to hole up somewhere and wait for waters to subside. It was a wet spring everywhere; all the rivers we crossed were bank full, or more, and rushing. We crossed the Missouri at Nebraska City. As we approached, Greg, who had traveled the road before, remembered that we had to cross low ground on the Iowa side of the river. We were lucky that the crest had passed about a week earlier and the bridge, which had, indeed, been closed, opened up just several days before we crossed. There was a lot of water left in the bottomland, and we could see the high water marks all around us. Our highway, IA 2, was much busier than usual because bridges on the east-west highway north of us (US 34) were out and traffic was diverted to our road. (see Roads) All the little rivers in western Iowa which usually flood in the spring—the Waubonsie, the Nishnabotna, the Nodaway—were all high and the nearby fields still full of water. Our hotel in Keosaqua IA was right on the Des Moines River, one of those along which a lot of the nationally reported damage occurred. We could see that it had flowed over its banks and noted the high water mark on the hotel’s foundations, but it was nothing like the flood of 1993, where the high water mark was six feet up on the wall of the hotel. When we parted in Keosaqua for separate R&R with friends and family in Peoria and Springfield (see Fourth of July Break), Greg headed for the Burlington IA bridge to cross the Mississippi. It turned out to be still closed from the flood (see Miles). The Keokuk bridge was open, but, when I crossed, the road that traversed the low land on the Illinois side had been raised by a dike of crushed rock about 9 feet high was constructed to keep traffic flowing. I saw no evidence of floods east of the Mississippi.

Florence OR. (see Oceans and Route)

Flowers. One of the delights of our journey, especially at the beginning and end, was the show of flowers. In Oregon, spring still held sway; peonies and daffodils were still blooming and, oh, the lilacs! There was one variety we saw all the way along the road across Oregon and into Idaho that was the most intense deep lavender I have ever seen. For the first four days, when we were riding in gloom and rain, we could only guess how intense they really were. But, after the fourth day, when we were in sunshine, those lilacs were just breathtaking. I kept after Greg to pose for a picture in front of one. He kept refusing. I think I put the wrong spin on it. Floral beauty may not have been a clincher. Had it been an intense lavender ‘67 Mustang, he’d have been begging me to snap a shot. I kept pestering him into Idaho, where he finally proposed a deal: he’d pose with the lilacs if I would pose for him in a setting he knew but would not divulge in advance. Now, with Greg, a practiced and proficient practical jokester, that might have been like a pact with Old Scratch. So keen was I on those lilacs that I took him up on his deal. Then there we no more lilacs; we had pedaled into summertime and the cool, wet spring of Oregon, and the flowers that went with it, was just a memory. I loved the chickory and daylilies along the Midwestern roadside, and was surprised and delighted to see some mountain azaleas still blooming on the higher mountains in West Virginia. But all these were completely outshone by the crepe myrtles in Virginia. What a display! Some properties had long avenues of them, mostly a bright pinkish red. They were absolutely stunning, almost to the point of redeeming Virginia (see Virginia). But not quite. I think I enjoyed them so much because they reminded me of Madaline, our across-the-street neighbor in Green Valley for about seven years before she moved to Ohio and expired. Madaline was a stitch. A former Vegas cocktail waitress who came up in the world through a series of fortunate marriages, she had an amazing repertory of dirty jokes and a heart of gold. How ‘ya doin,’ Madaline,” I’d call across the street. “Doin’ every one I can, and the good ones twice!” she’d call back. Outside her front door Madaline had a smoky purple crepe myrtle which she loved passionately, partly because it reminded her of her home place in West Virginia. I dedicated all those Virginia crepe myrtles to her memory. As usual, though, I couldn’t remember a single one of her jokes.

July 19. On the road to Fredericksburg VA. An avenue of glorious crepe myrtles makes a splendid memorial for Madaline.

Food. This was not a gourmet adventure. For all our patriotic instincts, we did not discover America the Delicious. For the most part, it was no foodie’s adventure at all, since we ate about half our meals at fast food chain restaurants. We frequented MacDonald’s more than any of the others because it offers a filling, relatively cheap pancake breakfast. Their “Deluxe Breakfast”, which features hash browns and a biscuit as well as pancakes to accompany the eggs, sausage, and bacon, is almost more than we could eat. It, like any of their pancake breakfasts, is made palatable by snatching the styrofoam top from the pancake tray as soon as you can without scratching or otherwise injuring the counterperson. Left on too long, the lid helps the pancakes steam themselves into an unedifying mush. Subway sandwich shops were our next favorite. Their sandwiches were about the right size for us and offered a significant salad in addition to the major carbs. Pizza Huts were the odds-on favorite when we arrived in town before 1:30 p.m., when the buffet lunch closes. It’s an all-you-can-eat event, which for us carb-crazy animals is a very good deal. After that, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Dairy Queen, Arby’s, Hardee’s, and Burger King follow in roughly that order. In the extreme outback of western Oregon and most of Wyoming, it was catch-as-catch-can. Towns too small for any real restaurants are not ideal mealtime stops but, on a bike, you take what comes your way—and that’s a convenience store. In the longer view of eating out, the convenience store is a new phenomenon, dating, I think, from the big oil shock of the seventies when service stations had to supplement their gas revenues with something else to make a go of it. A lot of them dropped service and took on Twinkies, Ho-Hos, and a thousand variations on them. In many small towns, a convenience store is all there is. They substitute for groceries, restaurants, gas stations, social meeting places, and casinos. Some of them are really well-stocked. The mid-Atlantic states on the east coast feature my favorite, Wa Wa, which sounds like baby talk but is Algonquin for “wild goose.” Wa Wa is a high-end convenience store, the kind of place where they have five different kinds of salad, all excellent, some good pastries, and the best gas station coffee you can find anywhere. We only saw two of them on the trip, and didn’t actually stop at them, more’s the pity. Other, more ordinary, convenience stores offer fried chicken, french fries, hot dogs, pizzas, prepared sandwiches and burritos, coffee and a vast array of sodas, beer, and icy confections I cannot name. Low end convenience stores stock packaged chips, candies galore, a Twinkie rack, and lots of soda pop. It is hard to make a meal at the low end places, but we had to try about ten times. Some weeks, a French fry was as close as we got to fruits and vegetables for lunch. The unchallenged best meal we had in a gas station-convenience store was in Brogan OR, a wide spot in the road about eighty miles from the Snake River. The first room was ordinary (candies, chips, etc.), but a room off to the left had wonders—crock pots and hot plates filled with German-American delights. I had a bowl of good chili and a polish sausage with sauerkraut; Greg chose a dish that looked like Potatoes Anna and some other confections I can’t recall. Coming after a night in Unity OR (see Motels), we felt as though we’d fallen into Antoine’s, or the Four Seasons, or some other fashionable watering-hole. But fashionable we weren’t. The best meal we had was a plate of spaghetti and meatballs in Bosco’s, an Italian restaurant of local repute in Casper WY. I also had a good dish of lasagna near Richmond VA. Both were restaurants which served what our biking buddy, Jerry, calls “Italian comfort food.” The worst meal, far and away, I consumed in the Hong Kong Restaurant in Idaho Falls ID. When the chop suey plate was set before me it looked bad. When I took the first bite it tasted bad. I knew I shouldn’t eat it, but I’d paid for it and, well, I was cheaper than I was prudent. I paid the price for two days with a yucky tummy and an extremely unsettled bowel. Surprisingly, that’s the only food on the whole trip that upset my gastric balance. The second worst meal I ate in a place called “The Steak and Chicken Buffet,” a fixed price, all-you-can-eat operation specializing, apparently, in very dry, overcooked fried chicken and small hunks of steak that were impossible to chew. Amazingly, the place was packed. Greg often ate his evening meal in the motel room, especially when we had a microwave oven. He likes eating that way. I tried it a couple of times. The second time I tried nuking a Hungry Man frozen meal which was not worth the electricity to heat it up. Moreover, I decided that eating nuked food, even good stuff, on the edge of my bed was not pleasant. So I went out most nights by myself to sample the culinary delights of low-budget, large-waisted Americans. If I frequented those places without riding seventy miles, or more, a day, I’d be large-waisted, too.

June 28. Brightly jerseyed bikers beaming after an unexpectedly great lunch at the Hunter in in Waco NE (pop. 844).

Fourth of July Break. (see Rest days.)

Greg. My partner in crime across America is long-retired but not yet old enough to claim geezer status. He was a top machinist for Caterpillar in Peoria IL who took the golden parachute offered during a corporate downsizing about ten years ago and jumped to Arizona. After a brief interlude in a suburb of Phoenix, he and his wife, Rhonda, came to Green Valley. We met about four years ago on our bikes and became biking buddies not too long after. Greg turned 58 just about a week after he returned from our trip. As I am always birding as we travel along, Greg is always looking at cars. They are his passion. He can tell you all about the motors and mechanical idiosyncrasies of almost any model of Ford automobile and pick-up truck, and most other makes, too. He was accommodating enough to stare at birds occasionally, and I reciprocated by gazing into junkyards (my term) to look at a treasure, a wreck he’d love to restore. He’d talk about its engine, the parts that might be difficult to get now, what aspect of its restoration might give him problems. At the moment he has only one classic car, a 2000 Mustang, in addition to his Jeep and Ford pick-up. His dream is to add a port or two to his garage so he can work on old cars. Autophilia runs in Greg’s family. His brother in North Carolina (see Brothers) has eleven cars, lots of garages and a separate barn for his treasures. Greg is handy in all kinds of ways. He remodeled his house into a showplace a year or so ago, doing all the work himself. He is my guru in all things mechanical.

He’s also athletic and extremely fit. He’s a member of the Southern Arizona Hiking Club and climbs with them frequently. Two weeks after returning from the bike trip, he and Rhonda took their annual trip to Colorado to climb “fourteeners.” Their aim is to bag all 54. This year they added five to their list. He runs, as well (see Virginia). He says Rhonda is the better runner (she’s won some long-distance races and has competed in marathons) but he sure looks good when he takes off. It should not surprise you to know that he’s also a strong cyclist and an excellent climber. He’s done a number of long bike trips, one across Wyoming and, several years ago, a ride from Green Valley to Peoria IL. He’s a phenomenal climber: one of our Green Valley group calls him “Pistons” because his legs turn the pedals so quickly. So why does he ride with me, you have every reason to ask. I have asked myself, and him, the same question. My best answer—he’s practicing virtue, namely, patience!

Temperamentally, Greg is conscientious about doing the right thing. Where most of us have nightmares about bears, monsters, and finding ourselves naked in public places, Greg’s bad dreams are about ethical and moral dilemmas. His sober hyperconscientiousness (Word’s spell check went bonkers on that one!) is balanced in social circumstances by his impish sense of humor. He’s an inveterate practical joker which, one might think, combines oddly with moral and ethical rectitude. I’ll have to ask him about that sometime. He’s very thorough about the things he does, which made him an excellent logistics manager for our trip. He seemed to enjoy solving the puzzles involving calculating how many miles we could manageably ride in a day and still find a motel by evening. That is not an easy task (see Motels), but he puzzled it all out. He is more independent than most, and takes responsibility for himself and his projects. Fiscally conservative and given to laissez-faire in social matters, he will nonetheless vote for Obama, I think. One facet of his independence is that he likes to be alone. On several nights he got a room for himself after being surfeited with togetherness night after night with a genuine geezer who is likely to be as active at night as during the day (see Infirmities). He also liked to have meals in the room at night, a practice I tried, but failed at, probably because, with me, gourmandaise trumps miserliness. I am famously careful with my pennies, but I am a drunken sailor with money compared to Greg’s parsimony.

Our trip featured another Greg, a restaurateur in Capon Bridge WV, whose restaurant, named “Greg’s,” we patronized at lunchtime just before crossing into Virginia. It was clean, friendly, and efficient. I had salmon patties which were exemplary for their kind, maybe good enough to make“Greg’s” the second-best restaurant on the trip, now that I think about it (see Food). We hailed the eponymous Greg, told him what a fine restaurant he had, and wished him the best. A sociable sort, he wished us well, too.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Cross-country bike trip (cont.)


Hazards, road. There are lots of dangers, difficulties, and inconveniences to be encountered on America’s highways (see Animals, Bodily functions, Climbs, Close calls, Dogs, Food), but there are two hazards on the road that deserve special mention. The first is the ubiquitous “alligator,” that hunk of tire tread that litter road shoulders nationwide. Sometimes they’re barely visible, sometimes they are whole truck treads that I am barely strong enough to drag off to the side but, large or small, they are always dangerous to bikers. Treads almost always contain thin reinforcing wires, probably about 20-gauge, that break off into little nail-like lengths. In my experience, more than half of flat tires on my bike have been caused by those little wires. It was also true on the trip (see Tires). Greg says that most of the “alligators” are from retreads, which some states prohibit. We see a lot more of them in Arizona, probably because of the heat and the number of Mexican trucks on the road. Riders spend a lot of mental energy searching shoulders for glass, but broken glass is way down the list of tire dangers. If you should have a chance to voice your opinion for an anti-retread law in your state, you’ll have a legion of lycra-clad fanatics behind you.

The second big hazard I discovered on this journey is motorcycles. I hasten to add that not all motorcycles are hazards, just the ones with the earsplitting, headache-making, unmuffled exhausts. Greg, my mentor in all things vehicular, says the ones that do it are the bigger Harleys which have had their exhaust systems modified from the relatively civilized factory specs. I first noticed them on the interstate in southern Idaho. Some of the motorcycles that passed us were so loud that I suffered real pain in my ears. It doesn’t happen when they are even with me, but when they are down the road a bit. Then the pop-pop-pop percussive sound becomes sharper, more penetrating, more painful. I don’t know why this is the case. Greg also says that many states have laws which forbid unmuffling motors or impose decibel limits on them, though these laws usually go unenforced. So, again, if you have the opportunity to speak out for restrictive legislation or more vigorous enforcement of existing laws governing exhaust noise, do it. For the sake of our old guys on bikes, do it.

Hometown. I rode into Keokuk IA, my native place, on the third of July. I had not thought of my time there as a farewell visit, but that’s what it turned out to be. My sister, Bev, was the last Brown in town. Then, four years ago, she died, and there were no more. It is a hard thing for me to get my mind around. The Browns had been in town and the area since the beginning, in the mid-19th Century. In the 1840s and 50s one of my forebears, Andrew Brown, was known as “Citizen” Brown and carried a lot of influence in the community. My grandfather, Horatio Brown, ran the county farm early in the 20th Century and was bailiff of the District Court in his later years. My father was a member of the Republican courthouse gang in Lee County and was elected County Clerk several times in the 30s and 40s. Two of my aunts were well-known teachers in the Keokuk schools. Great-uncles and great-aunts lived in nearby small towns; second- and third-cousins abounded. The small town was coextensive with family in my childhood. Everywhere I went in the town, the eyes that watched me and knew me were as likely to belong to family as strangers. Spatially, my immediate family lived in many of the town’s neighborhoods. I lived in eight different houses before I left town at seventeen. They were on the north side and the south side, Keokuk’s two social worlds, and from 19th Street, near the country edge of town, to 5th Street, closer to the River. From the time I was nine or ten, old enough to get anywhere on a bike, the whole town was my playground. We kids ran the alleys, the dirt roads, the vacant lots; we knew all the woods around the town; we sneaked off, against rigid prohibitions and prudent advice, to swim in the river, never for a moment granting that it might just be one of us who died in it that summer. My memories of the place are rich and my attachments strong.

On the way into town, I decided to visit the Hickory Grove cemetery, where most of the Browns are buried. Searching for the graves of grandparents, aunts and uncles, I paused at the newer plots where classmates, family friends, near and distant cousins, are buried. What a trip that was; I was awash in memory, conscious of the passage of so much and so many into near-oblivion, and keenly aware of my own survival in the short term. I spent the rest of the day, and the morning of the next, riding around the town to all the places I’d lived, past the gutters and curbs where I’d lost marbles, raced little cars, made dams and caught worms after rainstorms, past the buildings that housed neighborhood groceries, past the vacant lots that once held my schools, my church, the grocery I worked in. Then I went to Oakland Cemetery where my parents, sister, and my maternal grandparents, the Craigs, are buried. That, too, was a trip to my childhood. Cut into the stones of the cemetery’s Catholic section are the names of the families who were members of St. Mary’s parish or St. Peters, the people the Craig side of the family talked about on summer evenings, sitting on the front porch—lots of Irish (from St. Peter’s ) and Germans (St. Mary’s) leavened with a few Italians, apostates, and heathens. It was a sentimental journey of the first water, a visit to the home that exists only in my mind and heart. Though I have made noises about going back for my sixtieth high school class reunion five years from now, it’s likely that I’ll never return to the town again. As a farewell gesture I took a picture of the statue of Chief Keokuk in Rand Park. I’ll send you one, if you like.

July 4. Statue of Chief Keokuk on the bluff overlooking a wide stretch of the Mississippi River known as--you guessed it!--Lake Keokuk.

Hole, Jackson. More than three months after the fact, it is hard to capture the revulsion I felt in Jackson WY. Memory dims, the gorge subsides, and nice infiltrates the space of nasty. But I’ll try to recover some of it for the record. You must know, first of all, that after the descent from the brilliance of the snowy Teton Pass, down the harrowing nine-mile grade, past nesting bald eagles, sliding into a sump of terrifying traffic and tourist trash is a bit nauseating. Now imagine yourself, still a little green, reeling from another blow—the motel you’d picked from the internet because rooms were just $50 is actually charging $88 more. See yourself, riding through the gutter detritus of a throwaway culture, trying to be aware of the clot of cars racing up from behind to kill or maim, going from dump to dump attempting to find lodging at an affordable price. Then feel the triumph of finding a 1930s-vintage tourist cabin for only $100, the cheapest room in town. Then realize that you must reverse your course for a couple of miles, daring the narrow streets and traffic once again, to find something to eat—at an outrageous price, of course. (I’m beginning to tremble now; I think I’m into it.) The people who live there changed the town’s name from Jackson Hole to Jackson some years ago because visitors were probably much too inclined to drop the “Jackson” and add a “Hell.” You can be sure it didn’t take me long to do it. What a relief it was to ride out of town the next morning and luxuriate in stupendous views of the Tetons for hours on end!

Hours. How long does it really take to ride across the country? To say 46 days is to give a grossly approximate measure. It actually took 316 hours of pedaling, an average of 6.88 hours on the bike each day. The shortest day on the bike was when we rode over Teton Pass to Jackson (a.k.a. Hell) Hole, a distance of 25 miles, in just three hours. That was almost matched by one of our short Ohio days when we rode from Athens to Parkersburg in 3 ½ hours. Our two longest days were from Bridgeport NE to Ogallala, when we had to climb “them hills around Lewellen” with the wind in our faces (see Climbs), and the hot, muggy day when I wilted on the grueling hundred-miler from Pleasant Plains IL to Tuscola IL. On both those days we were in the saddle for 11 ½ hours. Other long days worthy of note were the 101-mile trek across the lonesome sagebrush plain from Shoshoni WY to Casper, and the nerve-wracking climbs over the hump of the Appalachians from Clarksburg WV to Mt. Storm, both eleven-hour days. To put our piddling little endurance dramas in perspective, the record for a biker in the Race Across America Marathon is just over 125 hours.


Infirmity. I did have a few misgivings in the spring about undertaking such a long ride, figuring that the old body might not be up to the daily grind. I’m not one of those eternally young sorts who can’t imagine they are over 50. One of the gifts of cancer is a certain objectivity about mortality, including how close the end may be. So I was quite certain about my age, 72, and rather open-minded about the disability that age implies. I expected to get out of bed a few times each night to ease my bladder or to work out leg cramps. I wasn’t too worried about migraines, which can be controlled by medication. I found on the rides around Arizona and Colorado that the pills do work and that I can bike through a migraine, if necessary. I was really more concerned about bad colds and stomach distress than about headaches. But, amazingly, neither was a problem, excepting the two-day episode following the dreadful chop suey at the Hong Kong Restaurant in Idaho Falls. I was also concerned about my rear end. It is susceptible to compression sores that can turn into boils when I ride a long time in the heat. I take as much tender, loving care of my butt as a fashion-plate model does of her face. I’m glad to report that there were no serious difficulties in that area, though I’m sure it resembled hamburger by the end of the trip. I had some discomfort in my SEWR zones (shoulders, elbows, wrists, and rear). Experts figure that, on a road bike, perhaps 30% of one’s weight is carried by the upper body and arms. Arthritis in my wrists and elbow led me to reduce some of that load by raising my handlebars and selecting a plumper saddle to cushion my rear in the new, more upright position. Still, shoulders, elbows and wrists hurt after a long ride. Fortunately, it was short-term discomfort; by morning I was always fresh and ready to go again.

There was one injury that I feared would be a trip-stopper. I think it was at Belknap Springs OR, on our second evening, that I somehow injured my right Achilles tendon. I don’t know how it happened; there was no moment I said “ow” (or worse), and I don’t remember it giving me pain at bedtime. But the next morning, when I started pedaling, it was sore as the boil I never got. With every turn of the crank, pain shot through my ankle and up my leg. It was somewhat less painful if I turned my foot to the right and let it rest on the pedal without pushing. So that’s what I did: over to Sahalie Falls; up the five-mile grade to the Santiam Pass; across the crest and down to Sisters—all that had to be done virtually one-legged. I hoped it would improve overnight, but it didn’t. It got a little worse, in fact. Luckily, we had no long climbs like the one over the Cascades the day before. But after five days my leg started swelling, ankle to knee, giving me a noticeably lop-sided look. Then I got really worried, thinking that, if it continued to worsen, I’d have to abandon Greg and find a bus back to Beth’s farm in King’s Valley. Greg and I had discussed the possibility of one, or both, of us bailing, for whatever reason. He had taken care to note the cities that were served by Southwest Airlines, his discount carrier; I figured I could get a bus somewhere. I talked with him in western Oregon about the possibility that I might have to bail. But then I started imagining a little improvement each day while being dismayed at the ongoing reality of pain. The day I stopped taking five or six Advil a day the swelling stopped, to my vast relief. Nonetheless, the pain continued. One June 27, I noted in my log that the ankle still hurt, starting about ten minutes into the daily ride and lasting until I was well warmed up, sometimes starting to hurt again on a steep or extended climb. It wasn’t until the Fourth of July Break that it healed enough that I didn’t think about it any more. On the ride from Bliss ID to Burley ID, a week after the ankle pain started, I decided that it was caused by the heavy sandals I walked around in at Belknap Springs because my bike shoes were soggy from the rain. Being an entirely rational actor, I threw those sandals into the motel trash in Burley and bought a new pair—plastic, cheap, and light—in Pocatello. As it happened, I never had to wear them on the trip, but I am wearing them now as I write this. The extended ankle episode reminded me that bad stuff just happens at my age. Old folks who never smoked die of lung cancer. Gym rats in their seventies drop dead of strokes on their treadmills. Mortal stuff happens.

Itinerary. (The wee gods in the Blogger program had their way with this entry. Sorry.)

Day Place of Motel Miles Total Day Place of Motel Miles Total

0 Florence OR 0 0 26 Seward NE 72 1812
1 Springfield OR 71 71 27 Nebraska City NE 80 1892
2 Belknap Springs OR 54 125 28 Bedford IA 72 1964
3 Redmond OR 69 194 29 Corydon IA 79 2043
4 Mitchell OR 68 262 30 Keosaqua IA 79 2122
5 John Day OR 71 333 31 Keokuk IA (Craig) 52 2174
6 Unity OR 51 384 32 Hamilton IL (Craig) 4 2178
7 Vale OR 64 448 33 Pleasant Plains IL (Craig) 105 2283
8 Boise ID 74 522 34 “ (July 4th Break-Craig)
9 Bliss ID 90 612 35 “ “
10 Burley ID 85 697 36 Tuscola IL 100 2383
11 Pocatello ID 80 777 37 Rockville IN 60 2443
12 Idaho Falls ID 54 831 38 Greenfield IN 80 2523
13 Victor ID 66 897 39 Glenwood OH 72 2595
14 Jackson WY 27 924 40 Wilmington OH 65 2660
15 Dubois WY 86 1010 41 Chillicothe OH 58 2718
16 Shoshoni WY 100 1110 42 Athens OH 63 2781
17 Casper WY 101 1211 43 Parkersburg WV 40 2821
18 Casper WY (rest day) 44 Bridgeport WV 76 2897
19 Douglas WY 57 1268 45 Mt. Storm WV 74 2971
20 Torrington WY 102 1370 46 Winchester VA 80 3051
21 Bridgeport NE 72 1442 47 Fredericksburg VA 77 3128
22 Ogalalla NE 92 1534 48 Richmond VA 78 3206
23 North Platte NE 56 1590 49 Hampton VA 74 3280
24 Lexington NE 66 1656 50 Virginia Beach VA 19 3299
25 Grand Island NE 84 1740 (Cape Henry)


Jersey. Visibility counts for a lot. Hence, most of my jerseys are incandescently high-viz green, except for a white one, the first I ever bought, and my Arizona shirt, the design and color of which is copied from the state flag of Arizona. I mean the official state flag, not the unofficial state flag which is the plastic Wal-Mart bag stuck to a cactus. The official state flag has none of the high-viz green in it, but it is egregiously colored, not to say electric. A large gold star hovers on a bright blue field, surrounded by alternating sunrays in yellow and red. One of my older biking buddies in Green Valley hated the shirt because it reminded him of the Japanese flag we all despised during World War II. It is outlandish, and the “ARIZONA” on the belly and back don’t help any more than the “GRAND CANYON STATE” that runs up the right and left sides. The smaller gold starts on the sleeves are an added fillip one hardly notices. I never wear the shirt when I am in Arizona, only when I’m in foreign places, such as Oregon and all the other states we crossed during the summer. After it warmed up enough so that we didn’t have to ride in our jackets all day, I wore the Arizona jersey every day, washing it out each night in the motel. It’s a pretty good jersey, actually, the most expensive one I own; it’s also effective at wicking moisture to keep one’s skin dry and relatively cool. But it is a sight! It has an odd mesmeric effect on some animals. On the day we we saw the hundred-plus antelope on the long ride to Casper, I noticed that they would stare at me as soon as I came into view and keep their eyes on me until I was well past. I can only believe that they loved the jersey! After encountering a couple dozen rapt antelope, I’d shout “Nice jersey, huh?!” Not one antelope ever shook his head “No.” Oddly, only one human being ever commented on the Arizona shirt. It was a garrulous old guy I talked with in the Romney WV MacDonald’s. “It’s a wonder they (West Virginians) didn’t kill you wearing that shirt,” he said. “It’s outrageous.” “It is outrageous,” I shot back, “and you’re the first person to say so!” I still wonder at all those other people I talked to, the ones who silently averted their eyes from my jersey; what could they have been thinking?


Kindness, acts of. It is probably impossible to make it across the country without benefiting from numerous acts of consideration. We were constantly grateful to drivers who slowed down for us in tight places on narrow roads, and to the truckers who pulled over into the oncoming lane of traffic when they could to spare us fright and destabilizing winds. Beyond such civilities are the affirmative acts of kindness that smooth the rough spots in human relations, make new people seem like friends, overcome the human consequences of scarce resources. In the realm of kindness, you hope to give as good as you get. I’m not sure that our balance sheet is reconciled yet; we’ll probably have to work on it a while more to pay back to our species what was so generously given us. We met some really nice people. Ray and Marva, owners of the motel in Shoshoni WY, let us stay in their camp trailer when there was no room to be had for miles around (see Motels).

June 18. Shoshoni WY. Ray and Marva's luxurious camping trailer, with bikes.

Tom, a Keokuk biker, his wife and his friend, invited me to their table and bought me breakfast on the morning of the Fourth of July. Pote put me up in Hamilton; Charlie and Barb lavished their hospitality on me in Pleasant Plains over the weekend of the Fourth, and invited a dozen Springfield friends to a potluck at their house (see Rest days). Most of all, we have to mention John the Archangel/electrician, our personal St. Christopher, who got us across the Chesapeake Bay to Cape Henry (see Virginia). We were lucky enough to find opportunities to be kind to others, as well. In Parkersburg WV a boat trailer came disconnected from its pick-up truck just as we pulled up behind it beyond the intersection. We helped pull the trailer into a gas station driveway and looked hard, though fruitlessly, for the lost hitch-pin. My most spectacular kindness to another came on the 15th of June, on our way from Idaho Falls to Victor ID. I was suffering the effects of swill I’d downed at the Hong Kong Restaurant the night before, and considered myself extremely fortunate to happen upon a Phillips 66 gas station just outside Ririe ID precisely at a moment of great need. I raced into the station only to find a person already waiting for the rest room. I braced myself to tough it out and wished the fellow godspeed as he entered the toilet and locked the door. Just then, a Hispanic man, all hunched over and barely able to speak from the strain of holding it in, rushed in, assessed the situation and asked, nay, begged, to be next in line. He tried to tell me he’d be no longer than two minutes. I finally caught his drift and responded, “dos minutos,” thereby exhausting my command of Spanish. He looked overcome by gratitude and raced into the toilet room when the fellow before him came out. Less than two minutes later, he emerged looking like a poster boy for Quick Relief. I couldn’t really appreciate the moment, since I had to use it racing for the throne on my own behalf. But I like to think my expression was as joyful as his was when I emerged, though I don’t believe there was anybody around to notice.


Lawns. As we neared Seward NE it seemed that we had crossed over some sort of line into Midwestern culture. The sign to me was the vast lawns that began appearing around farmhouses. Further west, in sagebrush country, lanes run up through the dirt to parking lots, also dirt which might be more or less tidy, according to the inclination of the householder. In the Midwest, that’s the moral equivalent of living in sin. One’s lawn is a sure sign of virtue, that one has been blessed with good estate and that, if the John Deere doesn’t fail, it will look like a good estate, evenly mowed and a delight to the tidy eye. The connection between the expanse and condition of one’s lawn and the state of one’s soul has been often remarked, recently by Elizabeth Kolbert in a review article in The New Yorker. She reiterates the link, noting the irony that the currency of middle-American morals is foreign coin. All of our lawn grasses—Bermuda, rye, bent, and good ol’ Kentucky Bluegrass—come from Europe or Asia. All that aside, it is astounding how much time, energy, and resources a farm wife or suburban husband is expected to spend on keeping up a lawn. As some will recall, I did it myself in Springfield, where I had nearly two acres to mow. But that was back when I was manifestly virtuous. I have failed a lot in recent years.

Life and death. The most fortunate encounter of the trip came on July 17th as we made our way from Clarksburg WV to Mt. Storm WV. We were thoroughly enjoying a beautiful, relatively flat stretch of road along the Cheat River near Aurora WV when Greg heard a faint cry for help. We turned off the road to the right, down a driveway from which we could see a truck and some machinery in an untidy pile at the end of the yard near the river. As we got closer and threw down our bikes, we could see an overturned tractor and a man pinned underneath. It was immediately clear that we’d have to get the tractor—a large lawnmower with a big deck—off him, and that lifting the tractor was the only option. So we tried, failed, and tried again, the second time successfully, though I have no idea how we were able to flip the tractor off the man. He said he was all right and could walk, so we got him to a chair in the shade. His voice was weak, his breathing labored, and his upper body and arm movements limited, but he was able to tell us that he was driving the tractor onto the truck when a ramp kicked out and the machine overturned on him about 45 minutes earlier. He assured us that, though he was having trouble breathing and moving his arm, he was OK. He did not appear to be in shock, so we got him a glass of water, called a neighbor lady over to look after him, and told him to call 911 if his breathing didn’t improve. The neighbor lady gave assurances that she’d call an ambulance, if necessary, so we got back on the road again. About an hour later, as we were struggling up one of the steepest and longest climbs in the Appalachians, a car pulled up alongside Greg. It was Carl being driven to a hospital by his wife. They got our names and the name of our town and Carl wheezed out that we had saved his life, and they drove on. Later, after we had arrived home in Green Valley, we each got a call from Carl. It turned out that he had been seriously injured (5 broken ribs, a dislocated clavicle, one lung collapsed and the other punctured and partially collapsed, and paralysis in his right arm from nerve damage, not to mention a lot of bruising). His wife had taken him to the hospital—I think it was in Elkins WV—and the emergency room doctor said he was OK and that he needed just to go home and rest. So Carl went home, where he began to fail dramatically. He’s a pharmacist, so he knew pretty much what was wrong, so went back to the hospital and demanded to be admitted. When the doctor found the extent of the damage, he told Carl that he was lucky to be alive and that he would have been quite otherwise had he been pinned under the tractor much longer. Carl wrote each of us a note around the second week of August to thank us again and to let us know that he was mending, though slowly. Ironically, way back in Nebraska Greg had commented that we were sure to happen upon a just-occurred accident before our journey was over.

The second life and death situation was mine. As we were passing through Newport News on our way to Hampton VA, on the penultimate day of our trip, the temperature was in the high nineties and the humidity was twice that, I swear. It was about 1:00 p.m. and I was fading fast. I told Greg that I had to get off the road, find some shade, and rest a bit. A couple of blocks further on, I pulled into a little parking lot for some apartment buildings and a synagogue, as I recollect. There was a big tree shading the sidewalk and the curb area, so I parked my bike, took a big swig of water, and lay down on sidewalk, arms spread out, and dozed off. When I awoke, about twenty minutes later, Greg was talking with two women about 15 feet from where I lay. I could tell it was a conversation of concern and reassurance. Apparently, women had spotted me lying on the sidewalk from their second-floor apartment. They watched for a while and, when I didn’t move, they came down to see if I were as dead as I looked. Greg rode up from doing some errand just as they approached me and assured them that I was not dead. How he knew that, I don’t know. I’ll have to ask him some time. In any case, the women were relieved when I performed my Lazarus act and walked over to thank them for their concern and wish them a good day. I have to admit, though, Virginia is exactly the place where one could succumb when the temperature-humidity index climbs into the “terminal” zone.

Lost. It may interest you to know that we were only profoundly lost once on the whole trip—in Richmond VA where we got onto I-95 and narrowly escaped arrest (see Cities). I was completely lost once when I was riding alone to my July 4th rendezvous. Between Keosaqua and Farmington IA, on my way to Keokuk, I had a strong and sudden urge and pulled off the road into a state forest to relieve it. When I emerged from the forest, I couldn’t remember whether I had pulled off to the right or crossed a lane of traffic to pull off on the left side of the road. I was down in a little holler, so couldn’t tell which way the wind was blowing, nor was there moss on any side of the trees. The day was cloudy and gray, so there was no sun to give me bearings, either. I had no idea. But, I took a guess and began to ride. After about a mile things began to look familiar, though I couldn’t be sure whether they actually looked that way or I just talked myself into believing it. So I stopped and waited a few minutes until a car came by so I could ask which way to go. Then the car sped on by and I waited a few more minutes, then a few more minutes until a car finally stopped. Then I muffed the whole thing by asking an overly complicated question, i.e., “Is Keosaqua that way (pointing the way I was headed) and Farmington that way (pointing the direction I’d come from)?” The young fellow responded to the two-part, confusing question with a two-part confusing answer, which I thanked him for, then forgot. So I had to repeat the process, this time asking the simple question, “Which way’s Farmington?” The helpful old couple pointed the way and I took their advice. I spent the miles between that spot and Farmington repeating solemn vows to pee only on the right side of the road.
I think it is amazing that we didn’t get lost more often. Sometimes, especially in large towns and cities, we’d not know exactly where we were, but we usually had a functional sense of direction and some confidence in the seats of our pants, even when we were lost in Paradise (see Paradise).