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NYTimes Article: Life is a Wheel



I read the Sunday NYTimes this morning and this article was in it, or rather a lot of it was.  I recommend buying the paper simply to look at the images and quotes on the two page spread in Travel.  The Internet simply doesn’t capture that, rather, while I love that it allows us to communicate, you can wander more easily on that printed page and I will be posting it somewhere to remind myself of the trip.  The article reminded me in many places of many places and feelings on the trips I have taken, not precisely identical, but formatted in a way to allow me to access my memories and experiences.

A Man, a Bike and 4,100 Miles

Jeff Swensen for The New York Times

The author in October on the Great Allegheny Passage in Pennsylvania.

Published: October 21, 2011

IF you can be said to be hurrying on a cross-country bicycle trip, for about two weeks I hurried to Pittsburgh. I pushed through some dreary weather in Michigan and Ohio, climbed the roller-coaster foothills of the Appalachians and battled traffic and chewed up roads as I entered the city. From there, though, with the end of a ride that began almost three months ago looming, I slowed down and started on an oblique route home.


For three days, instead of plunging ahead eastward toward Manhattan, I veered to the south along the Great Allegheny Passage, a lovely rails-to-trails thoroughfare through the woods that accompanies a couple of splendid wild rivers I’d never heard of, the Youghiogheny and the Casselman, and crosses the Mason-Dixon Line, connecting Pittsburgh with Cumberland, Md., where, if you choose, you can pick up another off-road trail to Washington.

I’m in Cumberland as I write this. It’s 10 days or so before publication, so by the time you read this I might well be home with my feet up and my knees swaddled in ice. The temptation, of course, is to race to the finish, and to imagine it even before I get there. That’s certainly how my previous continental crossing ended 18 years ago; I was 39, a young man eager to feel a conqueror of the country and to accept the plaudits of friends and colleagues. This time, while I won’t say that I won’t be ready for the trip to end when it does, I’m feeling the different pleasures of delayed gratification.

I’m feeling the pleasures of contrariness, too. Why is everyone trying to rush me?

People have been telling me that the tough part of my cross-country bicycle journey was behind me, or that I was almost finished, or that the rest would be easy — or some related sentiment — ever since I crossed the Continental Divide, and several friends and readers wrote to express the absurdly wrong idea that it was going to be all downhill from there. When I reached the Mississippi River at its source in northern Minnesota, a grocery clerk made sure to inform me that I was closer to the finish than the start. In Minneapolis, in Madison, Wis., and again in Chicago, the friends I met up with offered congratulations as if I were already taking a victory lap.

When I began my ride on July 20 in Astoria, Ore., the continent was sprawled enormously in front of me, but from the outset what people (noncyclists, generally) always seemed to be interested in was when it would be over. I understand the impulse; it’s a way of encapsulating an enterprise that doesn’t exactly fit in a capsule. After all, an endless journey is a little intimidating, a little scary — Columbus sailing off over the flat edge of the world — but a journey that ends you can put in your pocket.

Still, the actual day-by-day doing of the trip — the hours-at-a-time riding, the countless pedal strokes and huffing and puffing up hills, not to mention the daily deciding on a route, the finding of places to stay, the maintaining of the bike and the consuming of sufficient calories — has been so fraught with effort that I’ve never been able to project and see myself any farther east than, say, the Holiday Inn Express across the county.

This isn’t to say I don’t dream about crossing the George Washington Bridge with my arms raised in triumph (and then putting away my bicycle for a winter’s hibernation.) I do. But my visions aren’t terribly convincing; they generally engender despair, causing me to sigh out loud and give off a lament that begins with the words “I’ll never. … ” It makes me more than a little nervous to write this article now, about 300 miles from Manhattan. It may be easy to expect that someone who has already pedaled 3,600 miles can do 300 with his eyes closed, but I don’t think so. In order to own those miles, I have to expend my energy on them; in order to live those days, I have to work through all their hours. I’m as daunted by the next 300 miles as I was in Astoria by the first 3,600.

I’VE often told people that traveling by bicycle isn’t the contemplative, mind-meandering activity that it is generally presumed to be. Rather, it’s concentration-enhancing. When I’m cycling I tend to be focused on cycling, keeping a close eye on the road, keeping tabs on the messages my bicycle and my body are sending me. But one thing that has diverted me all across the country is the relationship between time and distance. I’ve measured my progress with both of them: Closing in on 4,000 miles and 13 weeks.

It interests me that both time and distance are concepts in the abstract but that both are more often used in specific terms — a particular span of one or the other — and can be described similarly, as long or short. On a tiring afternoon I’ll habitually monitor my odometer and do the math — 23 miles to go, two hours if the wind doesn’t turn; I’ll be in my motel by 5:15. It suggests that time and distance are inextricably related, but that isn’t so. If I stood still on the shoulder of the road, 5:15 would come and go on the shoulder of the road. You’ve noticed, haven’t you, that 23 miles in two hours is 11.5 miles an hour? That’s pretty slow, unless you’re climbing or facing a tough wind. Thirteen weeks might describe a lot more than 4,000 miles for a stronger or more zealous cyclist. On the other hand, I’m dancing as fast as I can.

In sum, for time to be meaningful, it needs to be filled by distance; for distance to be meaningful, it needs to fill an appropriate measure of time. A long trip like mine — timewise, I mean — requires a lot of distance to make the whole experience rise above standing on the roadside. You have to pedal and keep pedaling.

Perhaps you sense a larger metaphor looming ahead. Good for you, because here it comes. I decided to make this trip in the first place because I felt my résumé for adventure wasn’t keeping pace with my advancing age. Unlike my last trip, which I viewed, somewhat contradictorily, as both a young man’s errand and a farewell to youth, this one, at age 57, has been about my encroaching mortality, no doubt about it, and when I compare the two journeys I recognize in the current one the frailty of age. I’m slower. I’m less eager to ride long days and long hours and ride with the sun going down. I’m much more concerned about finding a place to stay and knowing early in the day where I’ll be spending the night. Never an especially intrepid downhiller, I now ride the brakes on a steep incline like a grandfather. And though I’ve been thinking all across the country that there is simply more auto traffic than there used to be, and that roads that felt safe 18 years ago are now riddled with hazard, it occurred to me recently that I’m simply more attuned to cars on the road and no longer blithely unconcerned about them. To put it bluntly: I’m more of a chicken.

All that acknowledged, my decision to ride cross-country again was a great one. Not because I’ve staved off anything grim, but because I’ve found a new way to think about my life — as a self-powered trip across the country. What is distance, after all, but experience?

Maybe you will scoff. O.K., it’s a little facile. But what I’m trying to do here is spin the cliché, not fall back on it. I don’t declare that life is a journey. I do think what I’ve discovered is that a journey can add depth and dimension to a life and even, in retrospect, represent it.

Among other things, my path through the nation has made me far more conscious and appreciative of the nation. I’m not just speaking of the scenic highlights, though the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, Glacier National Park in Montana, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca State Park in Minnesota, and the Great Allegheny Passage, where the fall colors were on vivid, spectacular display, are enough to make a patriot out of a cynic.

This was an American journey by a New Yorker who became more American as he went along. By virtue of absorbing almost 4,000 miles of thrilling landscape, inch by inch, I learned more about topography and how it figures in the identities of thousands of localities and millions of Americans than I had ever understood.

Is there any way for a cyclist, especially one from a vertical metropolis, not to be awestruck by northern Montana? It took me two weeks to cross its vast expanse, from the dauntingly magisterial Rockies in the west to the endless, wind-whipped flatland of the east, where the towns are dots on the highway dozens of miles apart, pulsing on the prairie like blips on a colossal oscilloscope.

Easterners, city dwellers and certainly Manhattanites tend to view the West with a kind of dismissive interest in its vastness and little interest at all in its variations. But it was striking to me how equally remote regions are hewn by different forces. In the Palouse of eastern Washington, where the golden wheat fields were so blanched by the summer sun that they seemed to reflect the light, life revolves around the heat and the harvest. A month after I left there, I passed through the flood-riddled plains of eastern North Dakota, where crops have been compromised, grazing land for sheep and cattle has been submerged (so have a number of roads, which seriously complicates getting from one small town to another), and everyone I spoke to, ranchers, hotel clerks, waitresses and pharmacists, joked unhappily about scanning the sky for the next cloudburst on the horizon.

In the heartland — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio — day after day I traversed enormous farms, and the sheer acreage of corn and soybeans, not to mention the huge grain silos and mammoth tractors and hay trucks, testified to the unending labor of farmers. They were always out working in the rain, and as I rode by, sodden myself, they always waved.

In addition to America, there were, of course, Americans. We New Yorkers can be hideously provincial, so enamored of our high-cultural advantages that we lord our sophistication over the rest of the population. An island off the coast of America — so goes the smug definition of Manhattan. Here is what I have to say about that after not being home for three months. New York City remains the national center of conversation; one thing I’ve missed on the road is the kind of verbal dexterity that you can find in any Manhattan bar. But one thing we could use more of in the city is the inclination toward benevolence.

By the lights of my experience over the past three months, in most of America, the default temperament is decency. O.K., there were a few beer cans tossed at me out the windows of pickup trucks. But strangers have gone out of their way for me regularly, to give me a lift over construction sites or unridable gravel, to help me find a place to stay when none were evident, to do me simple favors when there was no actual reason to do so except the inclination to be kind. To give one example, I was on the road late one afternoon in the middle of Montana, and with 25 miles to Chester, the next town, and my strength flagging, I called the sheriff’s department to ask where I might stay that night. The woman who answered — I wish I could remember her name — not only called the two motels in town to find me a room (and called me back to say I had a reservation) but also asked if I needed her to send someone out on the highway to pick me up.

“We do that all the time,” she said. “A lot of cyclists through here, and it’s a long way between towns.”

It’s hard not to be grateful for that attitude.

MANY moments on the trip have revealed me to myself. I knew, before I started, how rigorous the trip was going to be — I’d done it before, after all — but I was unprepared physically. I can confess it now: the first two weeks I nearly gave up and flew home half a dozen times, thinking I could feign an injury. But I didn’t. The stick-to-it-iveness I needed to build up the stamina in my legs and my lungs was something I didn’t know I still had. As I approached the Rocky Mountains, I was sad, disappointed, weary, self-doubting. I was living with the kind of perpetual lump in my throat that I have associated for 40 years with the aftermath of a broken teenaged heart.

The turning point was Aug. 13, the day I crossed the Continental Divide on Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. The ride to the top of the divide features an 11-mile climb that rises about 3,500 feet to Logan Pass, 6,646 feet above sea level. Intimidated, I’d intended to go around it, get through the mountains over a lower, less challenging and interesting pass, until a stranger at a lunch counter in Whitefish, Mont., shrugged and said it seemed awfully silly to be so close to one of the justly celebrated rides in America and not take advantage of it.

He was, of course, correct, and two days later I set off from Lake McDonald Lodge in the waning dark of early morning, pedaled for nearly an hour as the sunrise glowed pink and orange behind the mountains and began the ascent with trepidation. My thighs and glutes strained and started to burn, but for three miles, my enthusiasm grew. Eight miles from the top the road makes a hairpin turn, ceases being a forest road and begins a series of switchbacks along a mountain precipice. The views are progressively gasp-inducing, but so was my muscle-weariness. I crept uphill, but, importantly, I kept creeping. At the top, the relief, the wonder, the thrill were previously unimaginable. The 17-year-old girl I longed for as a 17-year-old boy had just kissed me. It was exactly like that.

One of the things that makes me feel as though this bike ride is like my life is that it has been long enough in both time and distance that I can’t remember everything about it. Details, for example, from my several days’ ride through the Montana Hi-Line, the plains near the Canadian border, are hazy, the towns I stopped in mixed up in my head. Was that meal in Chester or Malta? The picture I took of the silos and the passing freight train — was that before or after I took a rest day in Havre? It’s hard for me to believe that the bike ride I’m on now is the same bike ride I was on then.

But of course it is. The other day in eastern Ohio I turned a corner from a lonely country lane onto a better-used thoroughfare, a two-lane highway with a yellow center stripe and a very slender shoulder with a raggedy edge that dropped off dangerously into a cornfield. There wasn’t much traffic, and it was the sort of road I’ve been on a lot, though it always makes me a little nervous to share a lane with drivers who don’t expect a lot of company and hurtle by at high speed.

The moment I made the turn I had a vision, the kind of flash before your eyes that people call déjà vu. Maybe it was the time of day, late afternoon with its pretty, angled sunlight. Maybe it was the fact that there was sunlight at all; I’d been riding in wet weather for several days. Maybe it was the precise height of the corn or the precise width of the shoulder. Maybe it was the sense of anxiety at having to trust the drivers coming up behind me after happy hour had begun. Maybe it was my level of exhaustion. Whatever the stimulus, I saw in my mind’s eye a road outside McMinnville, Ore., that I’d ridden at the end of the second day of my journey. I suddenly recalled that whole day’s ride with utter clarity, from the Oregon coast on a rainy morning, along the twisty, forested bank of the Nestucca River, and out into a sunny valley with the foothills of the Cascades in the distance. It was as though I’d encountered a college friend I hadn’t seen in years and together we reconstructed the memory of a wild party in 1972. I love the idea that the bike trip, in and of itself, has its own vanished but recoverable memories. Perhaps there will be more of them before I’m done.

I hope it’s true that when you read this I’ll be home. I’m ready for the ride to come to its natural end, but I don’t want to anticipate it or celebrate it before it happens or even to talk about it. Eighteen years ago, from the time I crossed into Manhattan on my bike, I became the guy who had ridden across the country. But I’m no longer as eager to put the past behind me as I was in the past. If there’s one thing the ride this time has impressed on me, it’s that the present is where I want to live. Never wish away distance. Never wish away time.


BRUCE WEBER is a reporter for The New York Times.

A version of this article appeared in print on October 23, 2011, on page TR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Life Is a Wheel.