Why would a middle-aged couple who aren't particularly athletic decide to take off and pedal across the United States, Florida to California?
Well, we aways wanted to. It didn't seem like that big a deal, if you took it slowly enough. And a couple of years ago we looked around and realized we weren't getting any younger, so we started making plans.
We sent away to an outfit called Bikecentennial and got a set of seven detailed maps that direct you from San Diego to St. Augustine. We wanted to go the other way, since we live in Florida, so I e-mailed Bicycling magazine and asked whether there was any advantage in going from west to east. They said people like to do it that direction because they don't want to worry about the Rockies all the way. But since we're not in great shape, we figured we could use a few thousand miles of more or less level training before we tackled the tall mountains.
We're not exactly total couch spuds, though. I was 52 and Gay a bit younger, and we're probably in at least as good shape as most of our contemporaries. Gay does sporadic Jazzercise as well as bicycling a few miles several times a week. I bike about every day, and do perhaps 80-100 miles a week -- enthusiast level rather than fanatic. I can do 50 miles without strain, and did a century (100 miles in one day) on my 50th birthday. Gay's able to do 40-50 miles without too much trouble.
Actually, I've loved bikes since grade school -- except for that period most guys go through from about 16 to 18, when you have to have a car or at least something with a motor. Bicycles are uncool. You can't neck in a bicycle, at least not safely or comfortably.
When I got to college and realized that driving meant paying for a sticker and parking a mile from class anyhow, the bicycle started to look pretty good again. I bought an old junker and have never not had a bicycle since. (Well, I didn't have a bike for two years in the army. But it was waiting for me at home.)
We live in Gainesville, Florida, which Bicycling magazine called one of the ten best towns for bicycling. We're only minutes from the country and five miles from the middle of town. Most weeks I travel more miles on the bicycle than in the car.
During the fall semester we both teach up at M.I.T., and we rely on bicycles there. A car is pretty impractical in Boston and Cambridge -- parking's impossible, storage is expensive and not secure, the drivers are crazy. Bicycling alternates between being pleasant -- since there are miles upon miles of lazy bike trails -- and being rather exciting, dicing through the traffic with the aforementioned lunatics. But if you're careful, you're careful. I haven't had an accident in fourteen semesters.
So this cross-country trip is 3550 miles. Sounds like quite a distance, but there are ways to cut it down to size. A round trip to my grocery store is 3.5 miles, so it's sort of like a thousand trips to the grocery store -- or three trips a day for a year, time off for rain. That would be do-able, if rather pointless.
Well, I did do a hundred miles in one day, so theoretically I could do it in a little more than a month. Unless I fell over with a heart attack somewhere in Alabama.
It's also the distance light travels in a fiftieth of a second. That makes it seem long to me, rather than short. At the speed of sound it would take 4 hours and 47 minutes. Hmm. That sounds pretty far, too. One seventh of the way around the world? How about 0.015 the distance to the Moon? Think I'll stick to the grocery store three times a day. Hate to pedal in vacuum.
Most people who bike across the country load their bikes down with tents and cooking gear and all. Most of them are twenty years old, too. We thought it might be more reasonable with just a water bottle and a credit card. So we bought an old RV and put all our junk in it, and persuaded a retired friend, Rusty Hevelin, to follow us down the road. This would also give us a portable motel room and a haven from sudden thunderstorms and ferocious headwinds.
So it was to be an adventure, but a reasonably comfortable one. An excellent adventure!
(I took notes all along the way, which will eventually become a book, tentatively called "Road." Here are a few incidents from it -- )
Last updated: 6 Mar 99
Today: Molasses Junction
"Molasses Junction" was certainly an appropriate stopping place for today's rather slow adventure. At this rate, it will take 207 days to cross the country. We'll run out of money someplace in the middle of Texas, our scattered bleached bones a warning to future cyclists: Pedal Faster!
I once read an article about travel writing that said that if everything went smoothly, you were just out of luck. Everybody already knows that Paris is wonderful and the Louvre is full of pretty pictures. Nobody needs to read about that. But if you saw the waiter spit in your soup, and your taxicab broke down in the middle of traffic and the driver walked away, and the Louvre was closed to Americans because it was "French Only Day," you have an article. You may not have a good time, but you'll have an article.
The road to Molasses Junction was, like the study of planetary atmospheres, mainly gas and dust.
We'd loaded up our RV the day before, doing a rather desultory job, because we knew we'd be passing back through town in a few days. So we had plenty of parsnips, since they were in the fridge, but lacked a few basics like heavy coats. It's in the twenties out there as I type.
And we didn't know how to turn on the gas for the furnace. We'd spent two days living in the RV at the park where we bought it, and so we knew how to operate the microwave and all. But we had the LP gas tank filled as we left, then drove the 40 miles to home, and pretty much left the thing in the driveway for a month, while we tied up some loose ends and created new ones.
They forgot to tell us that you turn off the main valve to the LP gas tank while you're travelling, to minimize the chance of turning into a fireball if a possum runs in front of you. They also forgot to tell us where the main valve was.
We didn't get a manual, of course, since the crate is nine years old and all the manuals are sealed away in a box in a deep cavern near Salt Lake City. We did get a couple of mail-order manuals, like Fun With Your New RV and Generic Maintenance Procedures for the Halt and the Lame, but neither of them had anything about finding and turning on the main gas valve. That would be like starting out a car manual with "First find the ignition key."
I took my degree in physics, admittedly an old one, down to the LP tank, and attempted to analyze the fluid dynamics of the situation. I did find a valve that was turnable by hand, and seemed to be in the right place, but it was labeled VAPOR -- and when I turned it on, it started to hiss and everything smelled like a mine shaft after the canary croaked. So I closed it and we ate out at a restaurant and hoped it wouldn't get too cold.
The next morning we pulled into the first place that sold propane and asked whether there was something we were supposed to turn on. A cheerful dirigible-like lady bounced out to the van and cranked the VAPOR valve wide open. "Smells somethin' awful, don't it?" she said, and didn't light a cigarette until she was quite far away.
We'd stayed in an RV park outside of Palatka, which was to be the first stop on our trek, so we traveled the 40-mile route in reverse. It looked pretty neat, country roads through farmland, the occasional little town. St. Augustine was one big gridlocked jam, but we'd expected that, and crawled amiably through to our starting place, Vilano Beach.
We'd chosen Vilano Beach because the official bike route inexplicably didn't start at the ocean, but rather in the middle of St. Augustine. Going from coast to coast without starting and ending at the oceans didn't make sense, like watching all but the first and last minutes of a movie.
Vilano Beach was the closest beach to St. Augustine, but the half-inch squiggle on the map translated into a long shoulderless clogged highway, ending in a highrise bridge worthy of the L.A. freeway. So we got to start out with the only steep hill we'll see in all of Florida. (The Native American name for the peninsula translates as "temporarily dry coral reef.")
But we took each other's pictures in front of the Atlantic, smiling through chattering teeth while a gelid gale whipped the ocean to a freezing frenzy. It was the leading edge of a type of air mass that Florida weatherpersons, pert in their blazers and heated studios, cheerfully call a "Canada Clipper." It was coming from the west, and we were headed west. We got aboard our bikes and crawled into the 20-mile-an-hour wind. We had jeans and sweatshirts over our biking togs, and they weren't quite enough.
The bridge wasn't as bad as it looked, mainly because it was steep enough to block most of the wind. We knew we were in trouble, though, when we reached level ground on the other side and had to use the same low gear we'd used going up the bridge, to cut through the gale. (So if sixteen miles doesn't sound like a lot of progress for a day's bicycling, visualize sixteen miles laboring up a ten- or fifteen-degree hill!)
Going through St. Augustine was kind of fun, since we made a lot better time than the cars, which usually stay off the sidewalks. It's one of the most beautiful cities in the country, even in this sere season, with red and orange neo-Gothic and Late Romantic buildings striking against the coral sky, framed by stately palms, now bent over and rattling in the wind. It has wonderful restaurants, and perhaps if we had stopped in one the waiter could have been persuaded to spit in our soup, but we just got a sandwich on the other side of town and soldiered on.
Like most Florida towns, St. Augustine has a black section. It's not as bad as the old days of legalized segregation, but it's still plain fact. Black people with money can buy a house wherever they feel comfortable, but those without money tend to concentrate in a particular neighborhood.
It was pretty grungy, as most such areas are, but also friendly -- more so than you might expect, to a couple of white people pedalling through on bikes that cost more than most of the cars there. There was a feeling of neighborhood, rather than the sense of dislocation and transience that makes some black areas feel alien and dangerous to me. People were hanging around together talking, anywhere that was out of the wind. One enterprising guy had set up a freelance barbecue establishment on his lawn. I stopped and chatted with an old man who was selling from a few bushels of vegetables as well as, curiously, a box of American flags and one of canned salmon with sun-bleached labels. I filled my small carrier with celery and green onions and corn on the cob, and he gave us each an orange, to help us get to California.
Outside the city limits, the road passes through a dark swamp, which would have been more beautiful in the proper season, and without all the beer bottles and eternal Styrofoam litter. But it was still interesting. I stopped for a toad or frog that was so cold it wouldn't hop away when I touched it with my toe. It just backed up a couple of lethargic steps and glared at me.
You do get to see a lot of wildlife, bicycling in Florida, but most of it's dead. There was the predictable assortment of roadkill, too early for reptiles, too underpopulated for housepets. Mostly raccoons, possums, and squirrels, all selflessly providing more forage area per capita for their species' dwindling populations. (Once, thundering herds of raccoons were an awesome sight to ... never mind.) The one feature new to me was several little corpses per mile of songbirds. Has the cold weather slowed them down? Have the state's many hunters stopped sparing the sparrows?
When we got out of the swamp it was like going straight from Florida to Oklahoma -- and straight back from the 1990's to the 1930's; the dust bowl days. This part of Florida is a real breadbasket, the largest producer of winter potatoes in the country. But they'd just harrowed the fields, and had a dry week, and when that Canada Clipper came down, all that soil became airborne.
Try to imagine pedaling slowly through a howling wind full of grit about as fine as coarse flour. Now the steady 20-mile-an-hour wind was augmented with gusts more than twice as fast. The telephone wires hummed and shrieked; the metal speed-limit signs whickered, flexing in the changing wind. And we looked through the lambent glow of swirling powder for someplace, anyplace, to stop. And at the corner of Narrow Road and Dirt Road, there was a sign saying MOLASSES JUNCTION, and a dilapidated general store.
The ancient angular old lady who ran the joint crept in from a back room, where she'd been filling catsup bottles with a substance, and advised me that we shouldn't be out in weather like this. She also gave me one of the best Cokes of a lifetime, and the opportunity to see what we looked like, caked with grime, mud-streaked from watering eyes. We had to laugh. I wandered around the store, which looked like a movie set for something with a Woodie Guthrie sound track, and bought some poisonous-looking home-made datil pepper sauce, a toxin peculiar to the region.
Maybe you've travelled enough to know why we were glad the first day was a strange and hard one. Forty miles of pedaling down pleasant roads would have been anticlimactic. This gave us a useful benchmark: for several weeks, we'll be able to say, "Well, at least it's not a dust storm." Or "... at least we know how to turn on the heat."
25 Feb 96
Spent all day on Route 90, which is in the process of being upgraded, but otherwise holds little of interest. About half of the miles were on brand-new asphalt, and half kind of rugged. Mostly uphill, it seemed. A lot of traffic in some places, with no bike lane, but other miles were easy and pretty. Did see some neat hawks and an alligator.
I was buzzed by a bumblebee, who paced me for several dozen yards at 14.1 miles per hour -- which comes to about 40 body lengths per second, not a bad rate for something that engineers supposedly have proven cannot fly. (I think this is an academic version of the urban legend. Thirty years ago, when I took differential equations, the teacher said that what actually had been demonstrated was just that the turbulence around the bug's wings was so complex that it couldn't be described by numerical analysis at that time. Nowadays, highschool kids probably solve it in calculus class. The ones who can count.)
One interesting thing on Route 90 was the chance to be an impromptu firefighter. We'd been smelling smoke off and on for days, sometimes from brush fires. Going downhill from Greenville on a long curve, I smelled it getting acrid and close, and then suddenly was rolling fast by a small farm whose front yard was on fire! The family, dressed up in church finery, had obviously come home to disaster, and were hauling buckets and beating at the flames with blankets and brooms. I got off my bike and ran over, carrying buckets to the edge of the fire and stopping its spread. By the time Gay caught up -- I was about five minutes ahead of her -- we had the thing pretty much under control. The main casualty, besides about an acre of brown grass, was the lady of the house's new white pumps, which were not made for stomping in wet ashes.
Through all of the running back and forth, a little black boy stared at me with his thumb in his mouth. I guess he'd never before seen a guy in gold and blue biking shorts, with matching magenta bike shirt, come leaping through the flames to save his house. What the hell; when you wear Spandex, you gotta be a hero. (My only fear is that now he'll grow up believing everything he reads in the comics is true.)
Route 90 is part of the DeSoto Trail, named after the explorer, not the car. A friend of ours, Don Grooms, who's a Cherokee singer and songwriter, thinks there ought to be a matching William Bundy Trail; maybe a Charles Manson one in Beverly Hills. DeSoto's memory is not revered by Indians here; Cherokee, Seminole, or generic Native American. One of the historical markers along the Trail notes that DeSoto's army took advantage of game trails, which often led to Indian villages, "where food could be found." That's a delicate way of putting it. Muggers like to hang around alleys, where wallets can be found. I was bushed today, partly because of the firefighting; partly from the heat in general. This is the first day it's gotten up in the mid- eighties. (Boy, is that going to look quaint in a month or so.)
28 Feb 96
Well, we had to go back home to Gainesville at the end of our ride today, and when at lunchtime the heavens opened up in a torrential gullywasher, we decided to forgo the afternoon's cycling and get home a few hours early. It would have been good for character, I know, and also good practice for what will be some of our more memorable days. But we were dry, sitting in the RV eating, and wanted, perversely, to stay that way.
We spent the night in an open field called the Beaver Lake RV Park. It was almost deserted when we came in, but by the time I had the bikes serviced (nearly an hour because of some drivetrain problems) and had washed up, there was a line of about twenty behemoths plugged into their stubby little life support modules. Most of them dwarfed our 29-footer, which I initially thought looked big enough to apply for membership in the United Nations. We were lucky to have gotten to the showers early.
It was obviously kind of a backyard operation. The sixtyish lady who ran it had a house on about ten acres, maybe twenty, a grenade hurl from the Interstate. So she had a shed built with two showers and four toilets, and installed twenty electrical and water hookups, and twenty dumps to a sewage holding tank. Twenty picnic tables. It didn't sound like a huge investment for a retiree who already owned the house and land -- employ a part-time mechanic and cleaning person, maybe off the books, and hire some service to periodically empty the holding tank. It doesn't have to have any attraction other than being there, since it's the only RV park in a twenty or thirty mile radius. Close it for a month or two in the summer and go someplace cool.
We spent a laid-back, rather exhausted, evening reading and listening to music. We did wander across the field to a convenience store that had hand-dipped ice cream, to replenish all those calories we'd incinerated on the road.
In the morning, Gay was accosted by our cheerful next-door neighbor, a creaky old guy who was handing out little smiley-face folders of biblical quotes. Mr. Smiley exhorted us to take Jesus into our hearts. Rusty and I didn't avoid him, and of course he had a story to tell, though one always wonders about the parts left out.
Eighteen months ago the doctors told him he had only four months to live, because of cancer. But they gave him an operation anyhow, that lasted three and a half hours and took 24 pints of blood. During the operation he felt Jesus put his hands on him and tell him not to worry. And by dingy, the cancer went away! The doctors said he was going to die, and Jesus saved him!
Would've been considerate of Jesus to have saved him prior to the surgery, so those 24 pints of blood could have gone to someone who needed them -- not to mention all those people whose twisted agnostic beliefs might require the use of a surgical team for three and a half hours.
Anyhow, he did know all about bicycles, since his house is on the northern Bikecentennical route in Illinois. He told a rambling story about a boy who stopped to talk to him, real nice although Jewish, who sent him a postcard from New Jersey when he got home. Then he told us to be careful, because his neighbor killed three bicyclists coming around a bend, never even saw 'em. Golly, three with one blow! The Little Tailor of vehicular homicide. I have this mental picture of a guy in his eighties nodding off at the wheel of a Winnebago the size of Rhode Island, not even waking up when he slams into three cyclists. Looky there, Maude! And you thought them love bugs made a mess.
Reflecting on Jesus being able to cure cancer but not wake up a driver, we secured the bikes and battened down the hatches and went back to Havana (pronounced HAY-vana) to get in at least a part of a day. The sky was glowery and rain was forecast, chance of thunderstorms. One reason for the RV is that I don't want to trust Jesus to protect me from lightning.
It was a good ride except for a few miles of scary truck traffic. Gay witnessed a near-disaster where a speeding truck almost broadsided a car that was turning without having signalled. Rusty was parked just a half- block away, and I was talking to him through the driver's-side window, so we all could have been totaled, except for divine intercession, or perhaps luck. We passed through Quincy, a small town with a gorgeous "historical district," which is to say a few blocks of well-preserved southern mansions. There was a little Civil War stuff there.
(A lot of you Yankees probably don't know that nearby Tallahassee was the only state capital in the Confederacy that was never conquered by Northern troops. Of course the history books don't point out that it might have been worth some effort for Sherman to March through Atlanta to the Sea, but it wasn't worth anything for anybody to march through Tallahassee to the swamp.)
After up-and-downing a lot of steep hills, we wound up ravenous in the town of Gretna. Gretna in its entirety comprises two rundown convenience stores flanking a dangerous-looking pool hall. The entire population seems to be drunken black men from twenty to fifty years of age. We were starting to think maybe we should have stopped in the Taco Bell in Quincy.
But I pedalled down to the pool hall, feeling like a visitant from Mars in my multicolored Spandex, and the two guys sitting out front smoking and sharing a quart of Old English 800 did say they liked the convenience store on the right better than the one on the left, for the chicken. They said they hoped I made it to California, but seemed doubtful.
In fact, it was a good recommendation. Far from your standard 7-11, this joint had a big steam table full of vegetables and ribs and chicken, tended by a woman who looked tired enough to have cooked it all that morning. Everything we had was perfect country cooking.
Then up pedalled two gents who were obviously of our Spandex tribe, though more heavily laden, coming the other way. They were from a little village in England, near Chelmsford. Both named Brian. One had been cranking for seven weeks, from California; the other had met his friend in New Orleans and had been going for two weeks. We told them the food was good and offered our RV as shelter, since the convenience store didn't have anyplace to sit.
It was interesting that we'd actually travelled a tenth of the way, and these were the first people we'd met who were using the same maps, out of the thousands of people who make the trip every year. (Most of them do take the northern route.) We had fun trading travel stories and bike stories. While they were eating, the rain started coming down like a Speilberg special effect. But after a half-hour it let up to a steady drizzle, and they gamely got on their bikes and pedaled away.
We decided we'd tempted fate enough for one day, and tooled on back to Gainesville. A pleasant three-hour drive, the time underscoring the actual distance we'd covered in twelve days of cranking that pedal about fifty thousand times a day.
It was strange to be back in a house. So much room. When you live in an RV, it's sort of like a submarine, shuffling back and forth.
27 April 96
Bon Secour, Alabama
The bicycle trip ended in a split second on a badly designed road headed for the Dauphin Island Ferry. A three-inch-high asphalt slab with no shoulder.
As near as I can reconstruct it, my front wheel slipped off the edge and the bike somersaulted. I made a two point landing, head and shoulder, shattering my helmet and breaking my collarbone, then cracking one knee. Plus some minor road rash.
I could be a poster boy for bicycle helmets. Without it I would have suffered at least a concussion, probably a skull fracture, maybe death. It was like being thrown up against a brick wall at 18 miles per hour. My head wasn't hurt at all, just an incredibly loud noise, which might have been the collarbone breaking.
I had just checked my rearview mirror and knew that there were cars maybe forty yards behind me. I managed crawling to drag my bicycle out of the road and stood up, fell down, stood up, fell down. I knew I was hurt pretty badly but would live.
Six cars passed without stopping. I hope they all need help some day.
Gay caught up with me and did wifely things and then retrieved my water bottle and map carrier from the road. Then an older man and his wife stopped to render aid. We managed to get my shirt off. He had some paramedical experience, I guess in Korea or WWII, and after some wiggling and prodding he said he thought the shoulder probably wasn't broken, but I'd better get it X-rayed. They offered to take me back into town, twenty miles, but I said no, we'd just wait for the RV. Then another good Sumerian stopped who had a cooler full of ice and a plastic bag, and improvised an icepack for it, which helped a lot.
He was on his way back from a Little League game, and when Gay asked who won he said, "The kids. Who cares?" Good attitude.
A few other people stopped, notably a couple who were obviously bikers of the motorcycle type, wearing stars-and-stripes coveralls. The guy smiled sympathetically and said "Crash and burn?" That's kind of ironic, since it's the greeting catch-phrase in the movie I wrote, not-my-title-ROBOT JOX.
We settled in to wait for Rusty. Normally he wouldn't have been more than ten or fifteen minutes behind us, but we'd sent him to the grocery store with a shopping list, and we know he's slow and methodical.
It was 1:30 and the Alabama sun is suspiciously like the Florida sun, stunning hot. I kept it off my bald spot for awhile with my busted helmet, but finally took my book and Gatorade and flopped down in the partial shade of a pine thicket. The book I've been reading during the intervals I wait for Gay is HEMINGWAY'S GENDERS, by Nancy R. Comely and Robert Scholes, and although it's a fascinating study, it's a little dense for reading to distract oneself from intense pain. I needed something on the order of a Batman comic book. After an hour, we were starting to worry. What if something had happened to Rusty, or to the RV? I was starting to feel rather worse. I'd taken 800 milligrams of ibuprofen, and with the side effects of that together with the still heat and warm Gatorade, I was getting badly nauseated. I don't think I'll try the Tart Apple flavor again any time soon.
Gay wanted to send me back to the hospital with the next car that stopped to offer aid, but I said I should be good for another fifteen minutes, half hour. I had visions of repaying some stranger's kindness by barfing in his car.
Rusty did finally show up, and they installed me in the back bed with some stomach settler. What I dearly wanted was an ice-cold Heinekin out of the fridge, but decided that would be a bad idea, since I didn't know what kind of medication they were going to give me. Rusty made me a glass of ice water and then helped Gay put the bikes up on the back.
We found the hospital without too much trouble and did the usual hurry-up-and-wait routine, not as bad as you might expect on a Saturday. Gay gave me the book she was reading, Jack Dann's THE MEMORY CATHEDRAL, to distract me while I was wheelchaired from place to place, and it was perfect for the job -- fascinating opening chapter.
I got six X-rays, a pretty painful process since I was stiffening up and had to un-stiffen to get in the right position for the rays. Turns out I managed to shatter the left end of my clavicle.
It's not really serious; four or five weeks of discomfort. The discomfort is not just pain, but lack of mobility. A clavicle restraint is pretty complicated. Think of two shoulder holster straps connected in back with a tight X of elastic. That assembly is connected to a band that goes around the chest over the sternum, to which the left arm is attached by a Velcro strap around the bicep. Then the left wrist is immobilized by another strap over the sternum.
I can release the left wrist, though, for limited mobility, and so I can use the keyboard. I think I'll even be able to play the guitar, if I capo it up about five frets and hold it in an odd position. And I paint right-handed, of course, so there's plenty to do while I wait for the thing to heal.
Our immediate plans are to wait around until Monday, when the bone doctor is going to see me. Then we think we'll just go on vacation for awhile -- go to New Orleans as planned, but hang around a bit for the Jazz Fest. Then wander out to Texas for the Texas Star Party, and fly up to Toronto, as planned, for Mike Glicksohn's fiftieth birthday.
The bike trip is temporarily suspended. Depending on what the bone doctor says, I might be able to put in a few weeks in June and July. Or maybe wait another year. But sooner or later, there's a spot two hundred meters west of Brigadoon Trail on Alabama 180, where I'm going to plant that bike and pedal on. And watch out for the God damned edge.
Hemingway claimed that anything that doesn't destroy you makes you stronger. I've never thought that that was universally true; surely even Ernie knew people who had one bad card after another dealt, and finally lost interest in the game. But we're going to make the best of this, and have a good time moseying around Alabama and Louisiana. We don't have to rush anywhere, and the book is done. It could have been so much worse.