Yesterday's New York Times Travel section featured a wonderful article by Bruce Weber as he completes his second 4,000 mile cross-country bicycle trip which began this time from Astoria, Oregon on July 20th and is scheduled to end on the Isle of Manhattan, New York soon, if it hasn't already. What grabbed my attention to his journey was not only the sheer physical accomplishment of the feat at age 57 versus eighteen years ago when he first made the trip at age 39, but the almost de Tocqueville quality of his observations of Americana along the way made from a middle-aged perspective of not being in a hurry. Also, it was relevant to a couple of personal cycling experiences, which I will get to in a minute.
Contrary to his first trip as a younger man, he admits that his current trans-continental trip has a much more contemplative quality, as this time one's mortality factors into the equation. Gone is the drive to ride at break-neck speed from sun-up to sun-down with a fearless determination to cover as many miles as possible in the shortest period of time. Also, there is now a deep appreciation of the risks involved in such an adventure in terms of traffic and road conditions that has triggered much more caution and awareness. But the trade-off is a heightened consciousness and appreciation of this nation, generally the kindness of its people, which he terms "the default temperament of decency" and the spectacular beauty of the countryside. From the River Gorge of Oregon, over the majestic Rockies, across the plains of Montana and North Dakota, to the headwaters of the Mississippi in Minnesota, through the heartland of Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio to the Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania, 300 miles short of his final destination when his chronicle was written, one just cannot be anything but awed. In his words "This was an American journey by a New Yorker who became more American as he went along".
While he also confesses that the physical demands of this trip almost took its toll, his defining moment was on August 13th, the day he crossed the Continental Divide. After seriously considering taking a lesser route to avoid a grueling 11-mile climb to the top, he was persuaded by a stranger in Whitefish, Montana that it would be "awfully silly to be so close to one of the justly celebrated rides in America and not taking advantage of it". And I just loved his equating the exhilaration of the moment with that when as a 17-year old boy he got kissed by his 17-year old girlfriend - "It was exactly like that". His journey is unquestionably a metaphor for life that can be summed up by his own conclusion to live in the present. To learn more about it and see images from this amazing trip, go to http://nytimes.com/travel.
Now, let me share those personal experiences. On April 2, 2010, a friend and I were at the Toltec Mounds Museum between Scott and Keo, Arkansas when we crossed paths with a man from California who was in the seventh year of an on-going bicycle journey across America. It happened to be his 64th birthday, so I persuaded him to let me take his picture and e-mail it to his wife just to let her know he was alive and well. I filed that encounter away and had almost forgotten about it when out of the clear blue last December 14th I received an e-mail from Joel thanking me for that picture, and letting me know he made it to Memphis OK, but flew back to California. However, he had resumed his trek last September riding from Rapid City, South Dakota to Sioux City, Iowa, thus completing the final leg of his "across-America" ride which he admitted his wife only allowed him to do in "little pieces each year". Just like Bruce Weber's journey summarized above, what started out as just riding a bike soon morphed into weaving a quilt of personal encounters that became his main focus of interest, and just by happenstance my friend and I had become a part of that fabric, for which he again thanked me. And then, once again out of the blue Joel e-mailed me on May 16th of this year voicing his concern about the recent storms and flooding that had occurred across the south last spring and wondering if we were OK. I greatly appreciated and thanked him for his inquiry and concern, as our house had been a victim of a fallen tree the prior month. Obviously, that "default temperament of decency" cuts both ways.
And, finally, within the past ten days it has been my true pleasure to take two mini bike rides, the first through the vineyards of Napa Valley, California with my wife, children and their respective spouses, and the latest this past Saturday, which was an individual ride through Two Rivers Park here in Little Rock, a place about which I first wrote on August 14, 2011. While both were leisurely and soulful rides through pristine and beautiful places with little physical agony, I can only imagine what strength and commitment it must take to pedal across America, particularly during middle age, whether all at once like Mr. Weber or piecemeal like my new found friend, Joel. Gentlemen, I applaud you both!