Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Joy of Biking & Traveling

Midway through our trip this past month, one of our friends wrote and commented that in reading our blog, the trip sounded pretty "grueling". Later that same day, we went through the town of Joy, Kentucky, a truly enjoyable little town near the Ohio River, across from Illinois. The combination of these two events got me thinking that maybe I was biasing the blog entries towards all of the difficult aspects of the trip, and was not giving a balanced view of the positives. Now that we are home for a while and I have time to reflect, I will take the opportunity to describe some of those aspects of this cycling trip that have truly been joyful. There are many.

First and most basic of all, riding a bicycle really is fun. And doing it out in rural, natural settings can be really beautiful. Examples:
-Riding in the early mornings. You know it will be a hot day, but it is relatively cool now, and there is a brightness and a freshness in the morning air that makes you feel alive. There are no human sounds to be heard. Only the birds and the noises of the crickets and insects in the woods and in the tall, dew-covered grasses that you pass. Those insect voices will be stilled later during the heat of the day, but they are dominant and almost musical in the early mornings.
-Riding across the wide open fields of corn, wheat, soybean, tobacco. Fields stretching to the horizon in every direction. Perhaps a tractor at work off in the distance. The road stretches out like a ribbon in front of you over a rolling landscape for as far as you can see, and there are no vehicles on the road, save your bikes. You feel like the world is yours.
-Entry into towns happens the way it used to happen before Interstates and limited access super highways and "Exit" signs. After riding for miles along rural roads, you catch sight of the town's water tower peeking above the tree line off in the distance. Ride a little further, and you see a road sign: "Reduced Speed Ahead", signifying you are approaching civilization. Then you see a town limit sign, or maybe one that reads "Entering Police Jurisdiction", and then a "Welcome to ....." sign erected by the local Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce. A few houses and stores appear, perhaps the road turns from 2-lane to 4-lane, there are people on the streets, and you are suddenly "in town". The process happens in reverse as you leave town and find yourself back on the rural routes, heading for the next town down the road. You get this very human, very spatial picture of the entity that the small town is. You have just gone through the "Mayberry" of the old TV days. It's nice.

There are physical joys of bike riding.
-When you are riding well, you just feel good. Those long stretches when your legs are cranking the pedals with a steady rhythm, the bike in the perfect gear so that each stroke provides power but feels comfortable, an effort that feels good and not overly strenuous. You feel in synch, as if you, your bike, and the road are all one.
-Those gentle downhills where you coast smoothly and effortlessly through the world of scenery that surrounds you. Your legs resting as gravity moves you along, cool breeze in your face.
-And then, those long hill climbs up -- the ones that invoke the word "grueling". But as you climb those hills, ever so slowly, there is the sense that you are making progress. You are giving that good effort, sweating the good sweat, and you realize that you are conquering this hill. And when you finally reach the top, stop for a short rest and a drink of water, you look back down in the direction you have come and appreciate the mini-goal that you have just achieved.

Then there is what I call the "Joy of Simplicity". When you are traveling by bicycle, life seems to be reduced down to the basics in a way that I find completely refreshing. A world of concerns, worries, and material things seems to be removed from your thinking, and you focus all of your energy and attention to those priorities that will get you safely through your journey. Your bike. Your body. The road you are on, and the traffic situation you face. Where you will be able to replenish your water supply, get food, go to the bathroom. Your possessions are just what you can fit on your bike. I find that being immersed in just the basics in this way clears the cobwebs in my head in some sense, and is a real rejuvenating experience.

Finally, there is the joy of the people you meet.
-The interactions on the road, the literally hundreds and hundreds of waves, nods, friendly toots of the horn, and verbal "hellos" that we received while on our bikes has been amazing. Young and old, men and women and kids, people in cars or pickups, farmers on tractors, pedestrians, drivers of 18-wheelers -- these roadway connections have been made with so very many people. And they just make you feel good.
-The conversations when we are stopped at a convenience store, a restaurant, a hotel, etc. have been really fun and rewarding. We have received so many expressions of true interest, friendliness, wishes for safe travels, and offers of help. Most people seem fascinated to learn about this bike route, its historical and symbolic aspects, its physical aspects, and we enjoy telling people about it. Similarly, we took away much in terms of seeing the regional cultures play out, learning about each area we travelled through, local industries and histories, daily life patterns, etc.

We met a few folks who, when they heard about our trip, suggested strongly that we should be carrying a gun to protect ourselves. From what? From all those crazy people "out there", they would say. (I remember reading that Ken Lyon had received similar advice on his cross-country trip a number of years ago, so this is not just a recent phenomenon.) I don't want to minimize this.... there are indeed a few dangerous people running around, and there have been one or two situations on this trip that, while I would not consider dangerous, were uncomfortable enough that we quickly removed ourselves from the setting. But I remember getting this advice about guns from a very nice waitress in Mississippi who had the TV in the store tuned to CNN or FOX, and the newscasters were reporting yet another insane shooting incident somewhere in the country. THAT was her window on the world of the people "out there". What I wanted to tell her was that on this trip, we are traveling "out there", and she herself was one of those people "out there". If there is anything that has impressed itself on us during this trip, it is the basic goodness of people, all kinds of people, so incredibly diverse, but all basically good people. In the world of mass news-reporting, where it is the anomalies that are elevated to the status of the headline news of the day, it is worth reminding ourselves that those are indeed the exceptions, and that the vast, vast majority of people "out there" are decent, hard-working, well-meaning, good people.

What can be more enjoyable than that?!


Ken Lyon said...

Wonderful! You make me want to get back on my bike & do some serious pedaling.


Russell said...

This is absolutely brilliant Mike . Encapsulates everything we have wanted to say at the end of touring days or trips , but never have had the skills ( or energy ) to do . We also loved Joan's assessment of phase 1. It could have been Mary writing !

We are keen to do the 1st phase of the UGRR at end of Aspen ski season in April 07 . Would v much like to tap your knowledge base before we go - and perhaps meet up for dinner when ( if ) we reach Cincinatti.

All the very best to you on phase 2.

One final comment - you'd love Provence , France.


Mike said...

George, absolutely, we'd be happy to talk with you about the UGRR route.... just email us at, and we can go from there. And sure, meeting up to celebrate your arrival in Cincinnati would be fun!