Twenty-eight years ago, my wife and I did a cross-country bike tour. As the journey unfolded, we kept friends and family apprised of our exploits via email. This digital correspondence wouldn’t seem remarkable today—I guess email is even considered old-fashioned now—but back then it was cutting edge. I carried a laptop in my bicycle pannier; it was roughly the size and weight of a big-city phone book (if you even remember those). The power supply alone was several pounds. The modem, which was external and attached via a 9-pin RS232 serial connector, was the size of a pack of cards and connected at 2400 baud, which is roughly 1/42,000th of the speed of my current Internet connection. I couldn’t email very often because most of the time we were camping. Even when we splurged on a motel, many of those fleabag places didn’t even have phone lines. When we stayed with friends or family, I had to time my CompuServe session carefully, as it took our hosts’ phone offline.
Recently I came across some email chronicles that somehow didn’t make it into my bike tour memoirs. (The first of these was written twenty-eight years ago to the day.) I’ve cherry-picked some of the more interesting passages to give you a little travelogue. Enjoy please enjoy.
(The photo below was snapped by Erin’s great-aunt; she wrote on the back of the print, “7-5-94 Erin & Dana waiting at Coop to weigh bikes & gear before going to Iowa.”)
Kansas – June 30, 1994
I had a good birthday: we went to the Barbed Wire museum in La Crosse, Kansas, which I’d really been looking forward to. (I wrote my high school research paper on barbed wire, which turns out to be a fascinating topic.) But when we got there the sign said “Post Rock Museum,” so we were confused. Turns out there are three museums in a row there: the Post Rock one, then a Historical Society museum, and then the Barbed Wire museum. This little old lady in the Post Rock museum was incredibly knowledgeable. “I’ve been here longer than the museum!” she quipped: and it was true, she’d been in La Crosse all her life and had taught in a 1-room schoolhouse there.
She knew all about post rock, which is the limestone they dug up from quarries to use as fence posts. There was a whole piece of quarry resurrected inside the museum (which was an old house). You could see the layers of soil, then rock. The crew would dig down through the limestone, which would be fairly soft since it hadn’t been exposed to the air. They’d drill holes, then tap in these rods just until they were about to split the rock, then stop and put in another one. Once a whole row of these pins was put in, they’d tap the end pins extra hard, and the whole rock would split along the pins. Then they’d haul up this whole piece of limestone, and within twelve hours it’d be hard as, well, rock.
Then we went to the Barbed Wire museum, which had gobs of fascinating displays, but a very poor so-called guide who watched TV the entire time. That was a disappointment. The Historical Society museum, though, was amazing. Stuff in there from the 1700’s, and another little old lady who knew everything. This museum was built in an old Union Pacific depot that had been moved from a little town called Timkin, named after a ball bearing magnate who owned the land on which the depot was built. The depot, too, goes by the name Timkin. This little old lady worked there back when it was a depot, and she pointed to a bench and said, “I’m gonna have them move that over by the door, which is where it belongs.” They had a whole collection of ancient typewriters, some so old (1726, I believe) that the shift key hadn’t been invented, so it had two entire sets of keys, one set for uppercase and the other for lowercase. This museum had dozens of photo albums from the 1800’s and thereabouts, and old books and diaries, and old dental equipment, and clothes, nothing in any particular order but all of it absolutely fascinating. We hung out there until 4:30 in the afternoon when it closed, then finally hit the road. It was 106 degrees out there, the sun blazing, and we stopped 25 miles into the ride for Dairy Queen: my birthday treat.
By 9:30 p.m., when it was just getting dark, we were 50 miles outside of La Crosse in a little town called Caskill or something: I can’t remember the name and I don’t feel like digging out the map. We found a cop and he gave us permission to camp in the city park. There, Erin set to work on my birthday dinner, but it was not to be. The little fuel line gasket in our camp stove had given out, so the stove was worthless. So we had cold chili and cold canned corn—but good! These little kids wandered up, and it seems in a small town like that kids are allowed, probably even encouraged, to talk to adults. So they chatted with us until about 11:00, at which point a few of the parents who had heard the legend of our bike tour came out and talked for another hour.
The policeman we’d gone to for permission to camp had been driving by every so often to make sure we were okay, and at about midnight he came by and we talked until like 1 a.m. He manages a Rug Doctor franchise by day, and is a part time policeman (two weekends a month) for $5/hour, mainly as a community service to his town. He bought a house in that town for—get this—$6,000. No, I didn’t slip a decimal point there. Heck, Erin and I could’ve bought a house there with cash, on the spot, and lived there the rest of our days, supporting ourselves on a minimum-wage job!
Now we’re in Topeka, staying with Erin’s Great-aunt J— and Great-uncle V—. They’re a 60-something couple, retired (she from the phone company, he from the police force), in a very nice house they designed themselves on a couple of acres. They’ve got a pond and pasture land, a brand-new John Deere tractor, and a horse, and chickens and pigeons and even several hundred pet catfish. Uncle V— walks out to his pond every evening with a giant pail of pellet-style fish food, and yells “Here, fishy-fishy-fishy-fishEEE!” while rapping the side of the pail. Even though the pond is easily 200 feet from his front door, you can see the ripples where the fish are approaching. He strolls down there, and the fish converge. When he feeds them, you can see them all plain as day, their huge (4”) mouths wide open as they thrash about. We were sitting out there one evening after feeding the fish, and V—’s son J— (a policeman himself) said, “Look, dad, a snapping turtle.” To my amazement, V— whipped out a small handgun and fired at it. “Missed him, Dad. Too high,” said J—. “Yup,” said V—. Erin protested, horrified, and V— explained that the turtles eat the fish.
Speaking of eating, they feed us gobs here. At every meal my gut ends up ready to bust open. If I stop short of being stuffed, V— seems to sense it and says, “Nope, you better finish it up. No sense feeding it to Harley” (i.e., Harley Davidson, their Rottweiler). We’ve had pot roast with mashed potatoes and gravy, handmade egg noodles with chicken, bacon and eggs, a picnic, all-you-can-eat-fried-chicken, biscuits-&-gravy, a patty-melt, and ham with scalloped potatoes. J—, Erin’s great-aunt, is so happy: “Just like having our son at home again!” I can’t believe how much they feed me. I eat until I’m sure they’ll be exchanging glances and shaking their heads, making comments about tapeworms, trying to figure out how to get rid of me—but no, they don’t seem to think there’s anything strange or wrong about me eating 10,000 calories at a sitting. Since we had a late dinner tonight (with about twenty relatives visiting, invited over in our honor), our hosts insisted we have a big afternoon snack—so we got onion rings and ice cream at Dairy Queen. And they are absolutely refusing to let us leave before the 4th of July. So we’re here, living high on the hog, until then. I’m loving it, needless to say. Thing is, I’m eating so much I just can’t seem to stay awake between meals. I walk around in a stupor, yawning, my body working overtime to convert all that food to fat. I’ll look like Big Boy by the time we leave.
Kansas itself is really nice. Rolling hills are the rule out here—don’t let anybody tell you it’s flat. (Sure, it might seem flat when you drive along, but with our loaded bikes we feel every little rise.) Although our hosts say everything’s brown and dead right now, it’s greener than Colorado or California ever get. And they’ve got lightning bugs here (fireflies, by another name) that are just amazing to watch. I can’t get over them. Everybody here thinks I’m crazy for thinking they’re anything special.
Cracked rim – July 19, 1994
We have arrived at [my stepfather’s brother’s] place in Northfield, Minnesota. Earlier this evening they fed us a very spartan dinner: this strange casserole made with brown rice and veggies, and just a smattering of cheese on top. It was almost non-caloric. I asked for seconds and our hostess seemed taken aback, like I was some absolute glutton or something. For dessert they served the tiniest, most stingy portion of ice cream I’ve ever seen. When I channeled Oliver Twist and asked for more, she frowned and said she’d already put it away. In desperation I offered to fetch it myself, at which point she relented, but she seemed really put out. I hate to be an ingrate, but man, what’s wrong with these people?
After dinner it was still light enough out for me to check over my bike and troubleshoot a braking problem. One of the most common questions we get from locals along our route is, “Have you had any major mechanical failures?” This is asked with the same sort of enthusiasm you see in bike race spectators who watch from the most dangerous corner, hoping to see a good crash. So far, we haven’t had an exciting tale to tell—we’re on only our second pair of tires, with zero mechanical problems—but that just changed. It turns out my rear rim is imploding. Like a star collapsing on itself, it is trying to achieve a smaller diameter. The rim has huge cracks along the surface that the brake pads contact, and the metal is beginning to overlap there. At any time it could crush flat like an aluminum can.
Thanks to the time zone difference, I was able to reach my former boss at the bike shop in Berkeley and order a new rim. He’s FedExing it, to arrive tomorrow morning. I ordered a model of rim identical to the old one so I can use my old spokes (i.e., tape the new rim to the old one, and swing the spokes & nipples over), to avoid the nightmare of trying to buy the right length spokes from an old geezer in a small town bike shop. I know full well it’s unwise to lace up a new rim on old spokes; last time I did that, the wheel came apart on a fast descent during the Berkeley Hills road race, and someone yelled out, “Get away from him, HE’S GOIN’ DOWN!” But I’m not of the racer or bicycle mechanic mentality anymore. I’m a tourist now—I really ought to be fixing this thing with duct tape. Then I’d have more stories to give people goose bumps with.
Solo Joe Nobody – July 22, 1994
While riding along near Mondovi, Wisconsin we met the most amazing guy. He calls himself Solo Joe Nobody and has written (and self-published) a book, which we bought. His bike is loaded up to 150 pounds, so he’s the closest person I’ve come across to my state of lunacy. (I weighed my bike at a grain/feed lot, on the accurate scales, and it was 180 pounds.)
But this guy is different: his bike is loaded up like a homeless person loads his shopping cart—stuff just tied on, willy-nilly. He’s even got a portable stereo dangling precariously from the handlebars. All his equipment looks at least twenty years old. Hard to tell what kind of bike he’s on—it’s covered with the stickers advertising the bike shops he’s stopped in at. He has them from all over the country. He rides along smoking a pipe; even has a little leather holster for it. He wears mirrored sunglasses … for reasons I shall get to in a minute.
Within a minute of talking to this guy, we knew he was not your typical bicycle tourist. He’s a Vietnam vet and suffers from brain damage. After three years in the Navy, including a combat tour in ‘Nam, but while still on active duty back in the U.S., he was in a heinous car accident—forced off the road by an oncoming car in the wrong lane, he went off an 80-foot cliff. I could see the scar in his throat from the resulting tracheotomy. He was in a coma for two months and in the hospital for another thirteen. Because he was on active duty when it happened, he receives disability money and can eke out a living. The sad part is that he really can’t do anything productive because his left arm—indeed, the entire left side of his body—shakes visibly, all the time. In addition, one leg is now shorter than the other, and together with badly disrupted balance (related to his brain damage), he can’t walk right. He looks like a drunk, which alarms a lot of people. In fact, he’s been picked up many times by cops thinking he’s drunk; when they look in his eyes, they fear worse: for his eyes, since the accident, don’t work right. They roam totally independently of one another, each pointing off in a skew direction. So the cops often think he’s on drugs. His solution for avoiding public scorn and whatnot is to wear mirrored sunglasses, and not walk anywhere. Everywhere he goes is by bicycle. How he balances with all that load, given his balance problems, is beyond me, but he insists it’s easy.
Another strange idiosyncrasy of this fellow is that he swears like a sailor all the time. He apologized profusely, saying he couldn’t help it, “it’s left over from the Navy.” I wonder if it’s from the brain damage; remember Phineas Gage, that 1850s railroad worker who was tamping down explosives with a 4-foot long iron tamping rod, and the explosives exploded (as explosives tend to do), launching the rod through his head, and though he survived he began cussing all the time? Maybe when Solo Joe Nobody says he can’t help cussing, he literally can’t. (This is all my own speculation; I’m only 130 pages into his autobiography.) Anyhow, for whatever reason, he throws more profanities into his speech than anybody I have ever encountered, but is the nicest, most easygoing guy you could imagine. For somebody with his disabilities, or even for somebody bicycling into a headwind for thousands of miles (as he was doing, coming from east to west), we found him an amazingly upbeat and cheerful person. We spent an hour chatting with him.
He tours about half the year, every year, all over the country. He prefers the interstate highways, because they’re the flattest and most direct routes (never mind that he’s not trying to get anywhere in particular). He tours, amazingly enough, with only one chainring on his bike: the big one. I can’t imagine how he gets over the hills, nor why he would want to tour without low gearing. We asked him why he doesn’t prefer scenic routes like we do, and he said, “Aw, fuck, you can see all that shit in a library!” He uses a German-made Ciclomaster bike computer, because its display has enough decimal places to record tens of thousands of miles. Imagine breaking 10K on a single bike computer battery!
At the end of our conversation, Solo Joe said to me, “You know Dana, you and I have something in common. We both love your wife!” That was a good cue for Erin and me to wrap things up, shake Joe’s hand and bid him adieu, and get back out on the road.