I arrived back in Cambridge on the evening of September 3 after pedaling 3,050 miles; a very convoluted route from Denver to Cambridge, but for reasons that are not logical I found it was easier to make spontaneous detours at ten miles per hour than I ever do in a car going sixty. Nothing seems out of the way when the way is so leisurely. My route itself was irregular, I may be the first ever person who concocted a vacation whose landmark destinations were Denver, Oklahoma City, New Harmony Indiana, the Erie Canal, and Cambridge. Yet even within those quirky parameters, I sidetracked in search of local color. Without detours I would not have seen the teepees in Fiyol, Oklahoma or the levies in Cape Girardeau, MO, the Lincoln-Douglas debate site in Illinois or the courthouse in Salem, IN; the horse farms outside Coventry, KY or the provocative corner of E.66th and Hough in Cleveland, Presque Isle State Park in PA, the Oneida Community Mansion House in NY, or discovered the lovely Lenox Inn in the Berkshires.
I sought solitude on this trip, wondering how so many days of being alone would rest on my psyche. I don’t believe I felt lonely or alone, even once. During the day I was engrossed with my travel. I spent the evenings composing my blog and as the direction of this book took shape, I spent increasing amounts of time collecting the thoughts scribed here. I felt a luxury of time, yet was too occupied to feel the least bit lonely. On lovely evenings I wandered the towns where I stayed, cherishing the notion that I happened upon such provocative places by chance and in most cases will never return to them again.
I met my first critical success target well – I arrived home two days ahead of schedule. For this I thank Mother Nature. I never missed a day of riding because of bad weather. I took one rest day when Hurricane Irene stormed up the east coast, lingering in Rochester, NY to stay wide of her anger. That proved judicious; as I cycled east I witnessed many signs of her devastation and heard tales of closed roads and bridges, but I was far enough behind the destruction that it did not delay me. Otherwise I got caught in an afternoon thunderstorm in Limon, CO, a light shower outside of Ozark,MO, a drizzle in Massillon, OH, and a twenty minute deluge in Cleveland. Although I did not cherish 100 degree plus temperatures for ten days in a row, I had gorgeous cycling weather.
I reached my critical targets on safety with flying colors; no accidents, no spills, not even an excuse to open my first aid kit. Giving a nod or wave to every car entering from my right or poised for a left turn became second nature. The funny thing I discovered was how many people perked up and smiled back at me. Everyone likes to be noticed. I wore bright yellow every day, and where there was no shoulder I claimed the road to make sure I was seen. A total of four people made unwelcome comments or horn blasts designed to annoy rather than inform, most of them, predictably, in New York and Massachusetts where the drivers were significantly more aggressive. I spent the most amount of time on narrow, shoulderless roads in Missouri and I have to give that state’s drivers credit for being the most courteous and cycle conscious drivers anywhere.
I did not fare quite as well on my other measures. I stayed in vintage motels the majority of the time, but half a dozen nights I settled for budget chains. Only once did I spend more than $100; the Hampton Inn inMassillon OH is the only game in town and I was beat that day. It was the nicest place I stayed, if the measure is amenities for the business traveller. By my own parameters only two motels met the three criteria of having actual room keys (as opposed to card swipes), original pink and green tile bathrooms and casual chairs outside every room; Malone’s Motel in Mountain View, MO and Yellow Springs Motel in Yellow Springs, OH. Malone’s was the least expensive place I stayed all trip, $30, tax included, and it could not have been nicer. Honorable mentions have to go to the Lockport Motel and Suites in Lockport, NY for being the most unique place I stayed and the Lenox Inn in Lenox, MA for being lovely in every respect. Their refreshing swimming pool made up for having stripped the bathrooms of its vintage tile.
I fared better with my food targets. I never spent more than twenty dollars and rarely more than ten. My most expensive meal was the buffet at the Bella Terra Casino in Markland, IN; the least expensive was breakfast at JR’s Place in Jonesboro, IL which served me the best pancakes of my life (as well as eggs) for under five dollars. I admit to having the Saturday buffet at Shoney’s once and lunch at Subway a handful of times, but otherwise I ate only at independent places, never had a bad meal and ate stupendous food, either because it was really good or I was just too hungry to know any better. I arrived home three pounds lighter than I left. My most memorable lunch was at Shorty’s Café in Buffalo, OK, with the very caring waitresses, but I also enjoyed my first pretzel sandwich in Millersburg, OH, incredible biscuits and gravy in French Lick, IN, remarkable Mexican food in Garden City, KS and I became an eagle eye for Chinese buffets all along my route. I am sure they made no money on me, as I took the idea of all you can eat chicken and broccoli very seriously.
Although the stated goals and objectives of any project are the formal measure of its success, every project also generates unanticipated benefits, and sometimes collateral problems. In the case of my cycling trip, the things I could not have anticipated became some of the most lasting experiences.
The waitresses at Shorty’s Café were wonderful, but I found friendly, loving, efficient waitresses everywhere. They work hard and lift the spirits of everyone who enter their establishment. The pair of waitresses at Carol and Ted’s in Lakeport, NY managed to include the entire restaurant in a discussion about strategies for gaming at the Indian casino in nearby Oneida. The very next morning the waitress/cook at Mona’s in Herkimer gave me the requisite ‘honey’ greeting and shoulder hug along with a detailed rundown of the various Hurricane Irene related closings, and then fixed me a fine breakfast. After she rang me up and I had tipped her she said, “Oh, I forgot you asked for your toast dry; I am so sorry I put butter on it.” I smiled; used to the reality that most waitresses overlook my unusual request for dry toast but unaccustomed to someone actually apologizing for the minor slip. Her apology, like every aspect of her being, was service in the extreme and completely sincere.
I appreciated Walmart and McDonald’s in new ways. I was not familiar with Walmart; they have not made the inroads in NewEngland they have everywhere else, though I had heard they were ubiquitous. Until I actually saw them in town after town (and the empty old stores that lie in their wake) I did not realize how completely they revolutionized the supply side of our consumer culture. I kept a few Cliff Builder’s bars in my saddlebag for snacks and occasionally needed bicycle tubes. I never bought anything else, but those two items were available in every Walmart whenever I wanted them. McDonald’s offered the benefit of the Wi-Fi break. McDonald’s Wi-Fi is very reliable and though it is completely free, I always purchased a soft drink or an ice cream cone while occupying a seat. I could nurse a soda for two hours checking email and posting my blog; no one ever hurried me off. We bemoan how these chains have stripped American towns of their identity but we are slow to acknowledge that they bring people what they want. Walmart and McDonald’s are the dry goods and restaurant equivalents of the industrial food plants of Dodge City,KS. What they provide may be less than ‘nourishing’ than we deserve, but their ability to offer consistent product absolutely everywhere is remarkable. Besides, the people watching at McDonald’s is top-notch. Business men, teenagers, families, elderly, virtually everyone goes to McDonald’s.
Beyond bike tubes and power bars in small towns and afternoon Wi-Fi breaks, my trip became a seeking out and savoring of endangered aspects of America, pockets where time drifts unmeasured and individual touch is a value add. Ten years from now, maybe less, many of the places I visited will be gone, the motels converted into studios for itinerant workers, boarded or torn down completely. Already in many towns there are no independent motels, and it is easy to see why. In Colonie, NY I stayed at an EconoLodge for $59 that offered a huge room with modern bath, granite counters, ironing board, hair dryer, Internet access and a complimentary breakfast in the fireplaced lobby. Everything you could possibly want at a great price, except for character. It is efficient to have dozens of identical rooms and a new face at the desk every eight hours. But I will not remember that motel as long as I will recall the salty desk clerk in Yellow Springs who reminded me that he lived in the back, so unless it was an emergency, please don’t call after ten. He set out baskets and stacks of fresh fruit, juice and muffins for guests to compile their own breakfast the night before, and littered ny cozy room with handmade signs invoking me to enjoy my stay. I did.