OF A TRANSCONTINENTAL BICYCLE TRIP
FLORENCE OR to VIRGINIA BEACH
June 3 - July 22, 2008
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.
BIRD SPECIES OBSERVED
(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.