August 1980: College Station, Texas-Madison, Wisconsin

The longest and fastest (1100 miles in 11 days), and still the domestic gold standard. (Uruguay, January 1985, is tops.) It was supposed to be longer still - I really thought I was going to get as far as Newfoundland! The regular bump-bump of frost-heaved roads in Iowa gave me what I believe is called cyclist's palsy. It first manifested itself as a reduced ability to wipe my behind, and secondly manifested itself as a reduced ability to buckle my belt. But I managed. I never did seek treatment, and it went away, as most ailments do.

Best memory? Climbing steeply in Oklahoma, I watched a small car pass me in slow motion. A mother, a grandmother, and two little kids. They drove on, but not far: at the top of the incline, I saw them again, standing outside their parked car, applauding me. The mom offered me ice, which regrettably I couldn't carry. After saying all the encouraging things that could be said, they got back in their car, the little boy intoning, "So long, traveler!"

In October 2005 I was driving around Arkansas and near Fort Smith I looked south at the low rampart of the Ouachita Mountains. "I crossed those," I said to myself. I'd started so far south of them that you couldn't see them, and then I'd crossed them, and then I'd kept going so far north that you couldn't see them. Of how many self-propelled journeys can anyone say that?

May 1981: Sparta, New Jersey-Hereford, Maryland

One of those barely remembered trips. Here's what I do remember: (1) don't bivouac in a recently mowed alfalfa field, because the cut stems are sharp and will poke you, and (2) Maryland is certainly the most underrated state, beauty-wise.

March 1982: Houston-San Antonio, Texas

First time I bivouacked too close to railroad tracks when a freight train went by. Nothing will catapult you out of sleep like that, and by "nothing" I mean "not even being stung in the neck by a scorpion."

Another trip hard to remember now, though for the four years I went to school in San Antonio, I thought of it every time I took a bus between these two cities, which was often. The drive was strictly on the Interstate, but it didn't matter because I'd seen every town indicated on the exit signs. The only thing the bus ride showed me that the bicycle ride didn't was Woman Hollering Creek.

November 1985: San Antonio-Port Lavaca, Texas

A twenty-eighth birthday gift to myself. A cold front was supposed to come through, but it didn't, so I not only had warm clothing with no reason to wear it, but headwinds all the way. At the time I was pedaling 26 miles round-trip to graduate school, seven days a week, minus about six weeks of self-awarded vacation time, so I was - and remain - attentive to wind as few people other than sailors can be. Why all those trans-Texas rides in the middle of summer? Tailwinds.

May 1986: Lake City, Florida-Key Biscayne, Florida

Took the train from San Antonio to New Orleans, then the all-night bus to Florida. On the train, I read an amazing feature in the Houston Post, the first time I'd ever seen lusty criticism of the Soviet Union. Before and after this piece, the American pulp media ALWAYS treated the U.S.S.R. as an honorable peer. As for New Orleans, I stepped off a curb and sprained my ankle. Didn't affect the bicycle ride, though.

Despite William Least Heat Moon's assertion that the true milkshake doesn't exist east of the Mississippi, I had one in Florida. (Does anyone read Blue Highways anymore? Now THERE'S a 1980-give-or-take artifact.) In Palm Beach I had a hamburger so bad I reminded myself I'd come out of the Dominican Republic with some pesos and wished I'd had them with me now, to leave as a strange and disapproving "tip." (I never have done this.) In the Pompano Beach Winn-Dixie, I saw possibly the last Mallomars ever. In Miami I had cassava, which was offensive, in the mind as well as in the mouth - a civilization that eats ragweed pollen can't help but be mightier. North of Lake Okeechobee I got caught in a downpour; at day's end, I checked into a motel and laid out all my money on the bed, $1800 in cash, to dry it out.

This trip turned out to be a taste of Brazil, where I'd go bicycling in September. Not just the cassava, and the wet money too, but the just-barely-too-narrow, just-barely-too-heavily-trafficked roads. Well, in Brazil they were WAY too heavily trafficked. That Brazil ride (1200 miles, but it doesn't count because I took weekends off) was the most dangerous thing I've ever done.

February 1987: Houston-Austin-Port Aransas-Houston, Texas

Second time I bivouacked too close to railroad tracks when a freight train went by. (For the record, the third and I promise last time was on a day-and-a-half trip around Lubbock in 1989.)

May 1987: Anderson, South Carolina-Savannah, Georgia-Charleston-Anderson

The tour of Brazil had been quite a shock, but this trip put it in perspective. The poverty-drilled minds of northeastern Brazilians were intractable. People in bottomland South Carolina had almost exactly the same look. Disturbing, but it had the salutary effect of softening my opinion of Brazil.

April 1989: Shreveport, Louisiana-San Antonio, Texas

I'd bought a two-week Ameripass in South Carolina, gone up to Ottawa, come back south, and still had a couple of days left on the pass, so I took 'em as far as I could, which was Shreveport. Reassembled my bicycle and returned to Texas from there. Made sense at the time!

May 1995: Austin, Texas-Hidalgo, Texas

The first bicycle trip I took with no intention of camping out on roadsides, which is how I'd always thought it had to be. I've never looked back. Sleeping in a bed: I am there.

When I was a kid, I had a National Geographic map of the U.S. tacked to the wall in front of my desk. At eye level was the town of Encino, Texas. This was not the first time I'd actually visited the place (I'd passed through on a Trailways bus in 1982), but now, in the saddle, I could honestly claim it mine. This I did by mailing a letter from the post office. I can't recall, but if there was an "Encino Postmark" slot, I definitely put it in there.

September 1997: Shelby, Montana-Foremost, Alberta-Boissevain, Manitoba-Rugby, North Dakota-Minot, North Dakota

The idea was a Prairie Province crossing, and Amtrak facilitated it: the railway runs just south of the 49th, and I could get a ride back home practically anywhere. Except Rugby, as it turned out - the eastbound Empire Builder didn't stop there. Thus the extra leg to Minot. Rugby, by the way, is the geographical center of North America. I have also been to Chapada dos Guimarães, Mato Grosso, the geographical center of South America. The latter is far more scenic. But the former at least EXPLAINS why it is the center. That little concrete pyramid in Brazil had looked suspiciously mobile...

In Melita, Manitoba, which called itself "The Hub of the Southwest," as in southwest Manitoba, but really felt like southwestern North America, I dozed in a motel room and saw a TV show called This Hour Has 59 Minutes. One skit was an interview with Mrs. Salman Rushdie, who asserted that Mr. Salman Rushdie was a real tit man. I keep thinking I dreamed all this. Did it really happen? If it did, then like I said, Canada is NOT a parallel universe.

Another, apparently TV-less day in this trip is described here.

July 1998: Austin, Texas-Clovis, New Mexico

I had long had the idea that I could bicycle in every direction except west of the Austin-San Antonio axis. But I studied maps closely, and pieced together a route, and carried lots of water, and knew the wind would help me. The original goal was Santa Fe; I had to cut things short because of a job interview back in Austin; but the trip was a great proof-of-concept. I felt I'd "won the West." I also determined that Lubbock makes sense only when you bicycle to it, or perhaps reach it on horseback. If you motor to such a town, you just won't get it.

June 2000: Rochester, New York-Wyckoff, New Jersey

Actual in-the-saddle quote: "It's 47 degrees on Flag Day?" That was in Pennsylvania, which (now that I think of it) looked as melancholy this time as it had on that 1981 ride to Maryland. New Jersey, on the other hand, was just fine. I do not know why New Jerseyans speak of themselves and their state with both pity and scorn. And upstate New York? Maybe the most...antebellum place north of the Mason-Dixon. This land was a powerhouse of industry and invention, and the voluntary erosion of its reputation has gone on so long that it is easy to forget that it had a beginning, and that there was an epoch of energy before that beginning.

June 2001: Austin, Texas-Artesia, New Mexico

Possibly the most remote-feeling ride now, as it was my last before 9/11. (And let me state here that I am sick of talking about 9/11. This is not to say I will stop talking about it. It won't go away. In a better world, our enemies' next of kin would be talking endlessly of 9/12...but that opportunity has been lost.) Anyhow, I was merely trying to pedal to El Paso, but changed my plans in the teeth of fierce winds. Tarried a day in San Angelo, finding a replacement part. The cratered one I mailed to my dad, who enjoyed reminiscing about the metallurgy classes he took in college. There's something about guys who went through engineering school on the GI Bill in the late 1940's that we will never recover. Yet I feel that today's engineering students, though superficially unlike them in every way, will honor them. Engineers just aren't the loveless aristocrats that college students in general aspire to be.

June 2002: Anderson, South Carolina-Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

Despite what I intimated above, I enjoyed crossing SC by bicycle, and here I will say I enjoyed doing it a second time. In Lake City, a monument to an astronaut killed in the Challenger disaster. He was from that town. In Camden, the only Revolutionary War monument I ever saw. For that matter, the only Floridian War monument I ever saw. And didn't Laurens have an opera house? It's comin' back now.

Something that never left - and I knew, at the very moment I heard it, that it never would - was the way a bicycle bell sounds of a June morning in South Carolina. I don't think I was ringing at anything; I just thumbed it for fun; and if I never did a perfect thing in my life, well, I did that.

July 2005: Austin, Texas-Springfield, Colorado

Unlike the other westward-ho trips, this one ended where I proposed it to end. The declared goal had been Colorado, and Springfield was the first town with regular bus service home. Not much to say about this trip other than that I had a certain Serbo-Croatian song playing in my head for most of it and that I liked actually seeing the Santa Fe Trail (the Cimarron Cutoff, more precisely). I might do the non-Serbo-Croatian part again, and again. I just don't get tired of crossing the Texas Panhandle on a bicycle. I love campaigning in clear space.

September 2006: Manchester, New Hampshire-Montreal, Quebec

See this.

August 2007: Nashville, Tennessee-Anderson, South Carolina

There is no sun more Civil War than the sun of Tennessee. Under it, I fell into a conversation with a motorcyclist, a fellow who had himself done great bicycling in the 1970's. He asked me about this ride. I described it as "duty and pleasure." He understood perfectly, even before I told him about my mother's 80th birthday, and some of the other personal responsibilities on both ends, none of which I will tell you about here because they do not belong on a website. Anyway, I felt supremely encouraged. A mile down the road, I made myself sit in shade for ten measured minutes, looking at a mountain and a meadow, and when I was done, I knew this would be a great trip.

A few minutes after that, a motorist pulled up and insisted I accept an icy bottle of water. He said he'd seen me three hours earlier.

What else? Chattanooga is like Lubbock in this way but no other: you have to bicycle to it. And it is NOT like Lubbock in this way and also many others: if you can't bicycle or ride a horse to it, you must walk to it. You just don't "get" the geography of the place unless you do it this way. And on the way to East Ellijay, Georgia, I got the most precise directions I've ever got, from a guy who looked like a weightlifter and had a Long Island accent, but a good Long Island accent. In East Ellijay itself, I finally figured out what was so strange about all these very new-looking towns in north Georgia: they killed the kudzu.

October 2008: Pensacola, Florida-Apalachicola-Blountsville-Marianna-Pensacola

Just before the '05 ride, a pretty girl asked me what I thought about while I was bicycling all these miles. "Pretty girls," I said, because I really had no idea. I should have answered, and it would have been fully truthful, "Flat tires." I certainly DON'T think about pretty girls in the saddle because that is a very inconvenient place to think about them, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

Anyway, for this ride, I did make notes (later, in motel rooms) of what I thought about. Some are trip-specific, some not, but if you want Idea Purity, brother you have come to the wrong website.

  1. The pleasure of leaving an airport by walking across its front lawn. I drove to Pensacola, stowed the Echo in the long-term lot at the airport because the town had no other such facility, pulled my bicycle out of the trunk and reassembled it, and, because nobody was looking and wouldn't have cared if he had been, just hefted my Raleigh over a hedge and wheeled away into the Sunday dawn.
  2. Lyrics. Serbo-Croatian, as before (Jesi li ljubila do sada?/Jesi, jesi, al' Bosanca nisi!, which I'd translate as "Have you ever been in love?/Yes, you have, but not with a Bosnian!") but also Portuguese (On the road/Por aí/Em qualquer lugar and Blue Moon/Eu não estou jururú/Tenho alguém pra sonhar/e pra dizer I love you, which I feel require no translation at all). Also, a lot of Little Feat: Skin It Back!
  3. You don't know a coastal road will show you the coast until you go and look. Maps of Florida, and also Texas, Hawaii, Brazil, and Uruguay, are all deceptive. North Carolina, California, and Peru deliver what their maps promise.
  4. Wind, until now epic but brief (they're still talking about Moose Jaw-Regina! And Falfurrias-Edinburg! And Lamesa-Seminole!) became a day-after-day feature on this ride. On the earlier ones it hurt more, but those were mere mornings - the travails ended when lunch began, and that had been that. Not so this time.
  5. No disturbance at the touristic infrastructure, never negligible in Florida. I just don't mind it, though this isn't to say I like it. What I did like was the fact that they don't just build it, they keep rebuilding it. Condos (or are they casinos?) may be painted with the same dyes used in dry pet food, but it doesn't matter because in a few years they'll be made over. This is not the feeling you get looking at, say, the dismal holiday warrens on Gibraltar. In all Soviet places, not just Soviet England, the high-level plaint is We gave them Trabants - wasn't that enough?
  6. A repeat of a thought I had the previous month on a business trip to Little Rock, specifically in an Indian restaurant there: all American cities and towns now have the same very considerable suite of amenities, so what now guarantees uniqueness is geography. This I was reminded of as I turned inland and the terrain rose, with unbroken umpteenths-of-a-percent steadiness, almost all the way from the waterline to the capital. There are all kinds of flatness, with Louisiana, the Mackenzie River Valley, and the Texas side of the Rio Grande Valley at one extreme, Florida at the other extreme, and North Dakota and Nebraska in a lurching oceanic in-between.
  7. The pleasure of being able to call up all this stuff.
  8. The pleasure of being able to put away all this stuff (and the wet-flag snap of the wind too), climb off the bicycle, and instantly have a normal conversation with a total stranger.

September 2009: Memphis, Tennessee-Cape Girardeau, Missouri

As with Pensacola, so with Memphis: I could drive to it in a day, then pull my bicycle out of the trunk. Memphis having plenty of downtown parking, I left my car there rather than at the airport, although the latter would have permitted me to say later, "I bicycled past Graceland." But never mind that. The real objective was to pedal in and out of Kentucky, the state I probably think about the least.

This visit was as short, and as agreeable, and as self-propelled, as my first one, in the summer of 1981. Then, I'd hitchhiked from West Virginia to Ohio, near the point where these two states and Kentucky meet. I walked in. I almost walked out, too, except right on the bridge back into West Virginia, two guys stopped and recruited me for a mission. They wanted to buy liquor in an establishment with a no-shirt-no-shoes-no-service policy, and as I had the first two, I might be able to gain the third on their behalf. But we got to the package store just a tick after closing time. They took this with model composure.

As for 2009, I found the crossing from Kentucky to Illinois decisive. Panicky blatting from truckers on the narrow wind-whipped bridge over the Ohio River told me that here, right HERE, was where the South stopped and the Midwest began. Safely landed in Illinois, I immediately saw a sign warning me off cigarette smuggling. Smuggling? This is a word that not even Brazilians would put in print on something you could see from a road. Then on into Cairo, the most astonishingly derelict town I have ever seen. It was as if, in between deciding to shatter Chechnya and announcing his decision, Stalin shipped in plenty of plywood and nails.

September 2010: Denver, Colorado-Greeley-Cheyenne, Wyoming-Laramie-Fort Collins, Colorado-Denver

Wyoming is a bicycle problem all its own. The rides in the Prairie Provinces and Texas-Panhandle-plus were imagined to be adequate preparation; they were not at all. Florida, southern Florida, was closer. In southern Florida, the mind silently evaluated the ratio of cars passing/unit time to shoulder width and returned a feeling as pointy as a number: This place doesn't look crowded but it is. In southeasternmost Wyoming the just-too-fewness of roads, the just-too-sparseness of settlements, and the caprices of summer-autumn wind weren't evaluable at all, and so returned nothing, no matter how many times I ran the program. ("All right, this time let's try it after UNchecking the box next to 'Cheerleaders must wear bras.'") Either way, one arrives at a conclusion - Everything here is farther than it looks - and understands, even enjoys, the fact that it is mathematical without being numerical.

The goal was in fact the Black Hills of South Dakota, and maybe I would've got to 'em if anyone could tell me Meriden WY had a Coke machine. I'll admit it: the combination of a crosswind plus "No Services Next 77 Miles" made me turn tail after about eight. So I pushed instead over the 8,640-ft. hump to Laramie, and had a glorious experience of Wyoming. What a privilege, to live and travel in a country still physically hard to know.

June 2011: Tupelo, Mississippi-Iuka-Cypress Inn, Tennessee-Muscle Shoals, Alabama-Booneville, Mississippi-Tupelo

On the Natchez Trace Parkway I did not think about flat tires because on the Natchez Trace Parkway there is nothing to puncture them. This is because on the Natchez Trace Parkway there is nothing at all. So instead I thought about national parks in general, how they are open-air museums, and how hard to enjoy such things can be.

My route was so twisty because I had to get off for food and water, but even had those been available at roadside I would have exited just as frequently, so oppressive was the tolling of the mileage markers. The Natchez Trace isn't about Mississippi, Alabama, or Tennessee, but that's where it is. A museum should make you forget it has an address. Museums that are national parks usually fail to do that. I just kept thinking, Can I please get back to Mississippi, Alabama, or Tennessee, please? They're right there.

I believe the most exemplary national parks happen to be in Brazil: Pico da Neblina and Alto Caparaó. The first's utter remoteness was protection enow, and it had absolutely no amenities; the second had just a few and these were well kept-up. But more important were these parks' reasons for being: they are where Brazil's highest and second-highest mountains are, and those features won't die. 'Course you could say the same about Big Bend...and Wind Cave, the park that inspired me to coin the phrase "Federal Weirdness Protection Program"!

October 2011: Austin, Texas-Surfside Beach-Galveston

The plan wasn't at all to take a second big bicycle ride in a calendar year. It was to see the Panama Canal within a long weekend that would also be a cheap one because it would be propelled with something I'd never before used: frequent-flyer miles. In preparation for this, I read up on current events, mostly on prensa.com. Things I had not known: the Canal was being significantly widened; marauding gangs of delinquents are called pandillas and people fear them; people might also fear dengue, of which there had been over a thousand cases this year, including quite a few hemorrhagic ones; Colón has a Chinese colony, though I doubt this means they are Chinese citizens; Darién has oil but getting to Darién is way difficult; almost every week some aggrieved group is protesting by blocking a highway in this physically pinched country for several hours; and there is something called pele police, which seems to be a method of crime suppression involving checkpoints everywhere. On an English-language site, someone said Panamanians like this and you really had better too. Sure, it's pesky, but if you're not guilty, you have nothing to worry about, right?

It is, after all these decades, still alarming when people, just trying to sound sensible, defend subtractions of civil rights in this particular way. But that isn't why I went on a bicycle trip. No, wait, it is: I just didn't feel like passing through an American airport! Instead, I decided to do something I hadn't done since 2005: start a do-it-myself trip in my own driveway.

I'd fretted about wind since 1985 but pushed anyway; I hadn't done 95 miles in a day without supporting wind since 1986, and it felt...fine, actually. You would not have guessed that to look at me, though: I had never had such bags under my eyes, the next morning. But luckily the next morning, it was full sails up the 40 miles to Galveston, on one of Texas's very few stretches of seaside road. Almost a shame that almost no one was there to share its October sparkle. Just a bait shop where I bought postcards, including one of Galveston's Christmas Eve 2004 snowfall, and the San Luis Pass tollbridge, where, as into Keokuk in 1980, my two wheels and I were admitted without charge.

May 2012: Kansas City, Missouri-Atchison, Kansas-Council Bluffs, Iowa-Lincoln, Nebraska

Had I read my Lewis and/or Clark, I would have known about the geography of this, their jumping-off point. It is hilly. I wonder if Lewis and/or Clark viewed positively all this gentle up-and-down, considered it to make the land a still greater treasure. I thought it did.

Hills generally have no overall effect on the speed of a bicycle trip, but wind sure does. As in 2010, it changed my South Dakota arrival time from midweek to eternity. Unlike in 2010, however, chill and damp were in the equation too, and I just couldn't commit to a long hard mush up from Omaha, a race to get under a roof before the skies opened, opting for a safe side trip southwest. The morning, the moment I decided this, the words just came out: I can't face fighting wind to beat rain. This was clear thinking, and yet I'm not proud of it. Excuses shouldn't sound like slogans.

Had I mushed just a little harder and longer the previous day, I might've tried the full projected Sioux City-Vermilion route. I'd spiritedly battled headwinds, and felt quite good as I arrived in Bellevue, Nebraska. The sun shone, the temperature was perfect. Shouldn't I shoot at least for the far side of Omaha, giving me a good hour-plus jump on the next day's stage? I should have. But I found myself in a slipping neighborhood, and a sign for El Museo Latino decisively soured me. This was unclear thinking, but only for a bicycle trip. On any broader stage, rejection of public works that fracture the public, rejection of the belief that generosity isn't generous unless it's dopey, rejection of the idea that institutions must be smaller than anyone who helped build them, is always just.

May 2014: Detroit, Michigan-Algonac-Walpole I., Ontario-Chatham-Talbotville-Simcoe-Pt. Colborne-Niagara Falls-Niagara Falls, New York

Though mostly a Canadian passage, its American parentheses require some comment. First I'd like to point out that Detroit is still in Michigan, which is still in the Midwest, where people still drive awfully. All that episodic hornhonking that makes me think crania are just duffel bags stuffed with bowling balls and whoopie cushions. But how to describe Detroit itself? Depopulated. One hopes this sort of thing becomes old-fashioned. Even if you're moving faster than a bicycle through this space, the tedium of liquor-lotto-EBT-street ministry should still register and make you wish the mighty hurtling inertia of government policy could be made to look...uncool. I don't think anything else will ever stop it.

In Detroit, or in Niagara Falls, which is pretty similar. At least Niagara Falls did not have Michigan drivers, nor a high school that appeared to have leased out its rooms just last month for a reenactment of the siege of Stalingrad.

May 2015: El Paso, Texas-Las Cruces, New Mexico-Alamogordo

Funny how the state of New Mexico can delay, by decades, one's asking oneself, "Did Spain ever accomplish anything?" That ought to be the first question the visitor puts, but it sure hadn't been mine. The place has got some magic, no question about it.

I had the sense, barely, to look around as I pedaled steadily across the White Sands Missile Range. Only if something goes wrong in a desert is a desert passage at all difficult; otherwise, it's just like riding through rain, where one moves with especial quickness because there's no incentive at all to stop. I did stop at San Augustín Pass, and at White Sands National Monument itself, but I'd had to remind myself to. And I did recall that on the Texas panhandle in 2005 I had made a point of looking straight up at one point, just to know what a great sky I was under.

July 2016: Lockhart, Texas-Giddings-La Grange-Smithville-Bastrop-Lockhart

After almost 36 years, some personal firsts. Besides consciously taking brightly-colored T-shirts to make myself more visible, and actually choosing the longer of two routes because its roadways had wider shoulders and were thus presumed safer, I took along FAA sectional charts. My announced intention was to scout out small airfields, those being hard (at least I find 'em hard) to spot from the air. This I did, noting such things as greenhouses and a dirt track. The former, being in fact a long row of very large ones, would certainly be visible at altitude. As for the dirt track, I am not so sure, although if there were several side-by-side, that would be conspicuous, yes. I also noted hangars and similar warehouse-like structures, specifically the colors of their sides. Aerial photography only points straight down! For that reason it also leaves water towers undistinguished. For aviation, you really have to view them at an angle, as ensembles. Bicycling, you can do that.

That might have been yet another bicycling first, just looking up, or at least not constantly down; but I see I mentioned something similar in 2015. This time it was, more or less uniquely for me, a lot of horizon-scanning within a few miles of airfields. Yet another not-quite-a-first: sidetrips, to those airfields. I'd thought I'd never done that sort of thing on rides, wanting to conserve energy. But I recalled I had in 2007 taken a short sentimental detour to Pendergrass, Georgia - I had been treated very nicely there in 1979 and then again in 1985. That 2007 ride, by the way, was my last high-summer trip. This one I undertook with some trepidation because it was a rare roundtrip, the sort of thing I avoid even in cool months because it means half the circuit will be in a headwind. But I made it. Of course, bicycling only 135 miles in 3 days will keep a guy pretty fresh!

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