Man Riding Backwards
Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life - and travel - leaves marks on you. ~ Anthony Bourdain
I stayed in Hamilton, MT for three days as I consternated about the next leg of my journey and had great times with my old friends Kelly and Wendy. We went tubing on the Bitterroot River. I performed some minor bicycle repairs. I did route research and pondered the remainder of the path to Mexico.
In the end, once again, serendipity intervened.
On day two my good friend Hal contacted me out of the blue. We’d ridden the Trans America Trail together in 2014 and met up several times since then for other misadventures. He happened to be looking for a summer distraction. The just-published Adventure Cycling route, Chicago to New York City, was suggested and before you knew it we’d hatched a plan to meet up in Missoula, drive to Chicago, and start pedaling to New York. It would take about a month.
Being the Great Plains, there wasn’t much of interest between The Rocky Mountains and Chicago but we did stop at Mount Rushmore, the massive National Memorial carved into a mountainside in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. We toured the museum and interactive exhibits and spent some time reflecting on a fascinating era of United States History.
At length we arrived in Chicago, at the home of another old TransAm friend, George (a.k.a, Corky). Beers were had. Toasts were made. Corky drove us to the official start of the route in downtown Chicago along Lake Michigan and we were off. The end of one adventure had become the beginning of another.
The CNYC route is notable in the United States in that a large section of it - some 400 km from Chicago, IL to Columbus, OH - is mostly paved bicycle path. Having its first half in the Eastern edge of the Great Plains means it is also completely flat. This was the polar opposite of the route I was on less than a week before hand, tracing the spine of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico along rough logging roads and hiking paths, climbing at least a couple thousand meters every day.
Much to our chagrin, this part of the United States was unseasonably hot and humid. Every day saw high temps around 37C and relative humidity near 100%. Clothing and gear remained perpetually damp. Zipping up your tent to avoid mosquitoes also created your own personal sauna.
Lest I sound soured on the CNYC experience, the riding was beautiful. The Midwestern United States is unfailingly lush with wide open and quiet spaces dotted with picturesque farm land and quaint, sleepy towns. It is peaceful. The camping is cheap or free and the people are kind and interesting.
After picking up a new tent for myself in Indianapolis we continued on toward Columbus. We had the unique experience of camping on the grounds of a county fair which, while somewhat loud, was a refreshing change from the usual. At some point my friend Tom Helbig, whom I’d met on on another bicycle tour in West Texas a few years earlier, had caught wind that I would be passing through and invited us to stay with him at a campground on the Miami River in Dayton, OH.
What ensued were several days of camping, visiting breweries, sleeping in a two story tree house, and seeing Tom deliver the talcum bag and ball for the opening pitch of the Cincinnati Reds game at the Great American Ball Park. Tom had just finished hiking the entire 2,250 km Ohio Buckeye Trail a few days before we got there and was being honored by the community in ways such as this.
A day or two before we’d arrived in Dayton, at a booth in the local McDonalds having breakfast, Hal admitted to me that he was having second thoughts about finishing the ride to New York. The heat, humidity, and protracted physical exertion were wearing on him. I seemed to be having exactly the same conversation I’d had with David a few weeks before in Montana and I told Hal now the same thing I’d told David then - If you aren’t having fun and want to go home, you absolutely should. Hal ended up taking a rental car out of Dayton after our adventures with Tom, drove back to Chicago, and took a train back to Portland, OR. An ice cold beer in the air conditioned bar car must have been absolute heaven.
I made the decision to either continue on to New York City, or turn north just before it and make my way through New England to Maine. I’d choose which at some point down the road. This entire corner of the US remains largely unexplored by me so any route was as good as another. Besides, I had a friend living in Maine that I hadn’t seen since the first time I’d ridden the Oregon Outback in 2015.
After leaving the Dayton area, and quite out of nowhere in the corn fields surrounding it, I happened upon a diner in what appeared to be a former grain elevator. I wasn’t anywhere near a town. Being perpetually hungry I wheeled up to the facade, left my bicycle against a post, and walked in. A table of three elderly men looked me over as I scanned the room, pointed at their fourth empty chair, and invited me to sit down.
This isn’t rare on a bicycle tour but what makes the memory stick for me was one particular person at this table. His name was George. After the other two had left I must have sat there and talked with George for an hour and a half. He was very old and told me all about his life, his family, and living in the area. He had Parkinson’s Disease and his hands shook visibly while we talked. His eyes were cloudy from cataracts. Eventually, near the end of our conversation, he looked me intensely in the eyes and said;
“I am old and sick and I will probably never see you again before I die. I want to tell you something.”
He paused for a moment.
“Everything is going to be OK.”, he said, nodding. “It will.”
He said it with such conviction and vehemence that, of the countless faces and conversations in my travels, that moment still stands out in my memory. He was reminding me of a truth that I think we all know but often forget. On that cloudy day in a corn field of rural Ohio.
In the long run, everything will be OK. Everything works out in the end, one way or another, so stop worrying so much. Stop trying so hard.
I still think of him occasionally.
A few days later I was somewhere east of Zanesville, OH, making my way into the first of the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, when I got a text message from back home. My dog was sick and my friends that were caring for him needed direction on what to do. For me, it was the final straw. I’d spent the last two months attempting two different bicycle tours that, fun as they might be, were mostly not my idea. Both of my riding partners had aborted for various reasons. Now I had urgent matters calling me back home and finishing an unplanned ride to Maine seemed a lot less important by comparison.
It was my turn to decide I shouldn’t be there.
I cycled back to Zanesville, rented a car one-way, and was back in Texas within 48 hours to care for my dog. He got over his infection after some time and is doing just fine now for an old man. Plans have since been hatched to make yet another attempt at finishing the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in 2019.
Hopefully, the third time’s a charm.
- Kelly & Wendy Zeigler, Hamilton, Montana, USA
- Hal Sessions III, Beaverton, Oregon, USA
- George Salabas, Des Plaines, Illinois, USA
- Tom Helbig, Dayton, Ohio, USA
- Brent & Amy Anslinger, Miamisburg, Ohio, USA