Bicycling Across America

The first three nights of the trip I camped out. Once in New Jersey State Park, twice in the Pine Barrens. On the third night I was north of an Air Force base and lay in my tent, listening to the jets roaring into the gathering darkness. I imagined myself as the pilot of each plane, banking over the wilderness away from the city lights. I realized that I wanted to see the country, and that meant seeing the people. That night, I abandoned my original plan of camping in the woods. I’d head into towns and find the people. The next morning I packed up and waded down the river I had camped by. Out west I would start camping again when towns became sparse, but for now I prepared for a new challenge – asking people to camp on their land.

Asking to camp out may seem a trivial challenge, but I wasn’t used to approaching strangers to ask favors. In fact, I wasn’t really good at approaching strangers to ask for anything! The next night I took the path of least resistance and asked at churches. Although I was sometimes turned down, more often a local pastor would put me up.

The day I crossed into Pennsylvania was one of the more stressful on the trip. I had tried to visit Tom Brown, the outdoorsman and survivalist. Although I had called ahead, I was discouraged from visiting his ranch in the New Jersey hills. All his classes were booked into ’94. Nevertheless, I wanted to give it a try. Those other people had paid $600 to be in the course – but I had biked up the mountain.

I was turned away by two of his assistant instructors. Later I realized my error – I had come to see Tom Brown. I should have realized my goal, even if it meant getting brushed off with two words. I had set myself a goal and fallen short by my own fault. That disappointment would soon be compounded. The front rack and tire began to rub each other. I had had problems for several days with it. I pulled into a gas station, having become lost and ending up heading into the city instead of skirting it. I picked up a phone and started to call home, ready to call it quits. Crying, I realized that I’d have to get the bike fixed no matter what, so I might as well do it here. I asked the gas station mechanic – yes, there was a bike shop just down the road. This was the first of three stops I would make at bike shops – everytime I found respect for what I was doing. For the first time in my life, I felt I was respected not for what I knew, but for what I did. It felt good.

The bike shop owner helped me bend and reattach the rack. He asked no money either for his time or the few parts he had donated. I left in much better spirits. By now it was 3 p.m. I was in downtown Easton, PA, and didn’t feel like any more riding that day. I found a Masonic Temple, hoping to find a DeMolay Chapter. No such luck – in fact I never managed to actually find any chapters along the way. Those I saw listed on Temple directories never had contact people listed, and often I couldn’t even find a directory. Kansas City wasn’t much help – all they gave me was the Executive Officer’s name and number. I tried that in two or three states and could not quite find the people to work through state bureaucracies. It’s a sad comment on the state of our fraternity when we don’t even provide contact information at the temples.

The owner of the shop next door came out and introduced himself. We talked for a bit and I told him what I was doing and that I was looking for a place to stay that night. He asked me into the shop and started calling places – a bed and breakfast, a local college. Finally, he found a YMCA that had rooms for $12 a night. It was about 8 miles west in Bethlehem, PA. He gave me directions and I was on my way. Some nice people had helped me through one of my toughest days. I was through the day – and I was through New Jersey.

I stayed at the Y for two nights. Bethlehem is not what you’d expect from Steel Town, USA. It’s a college town with a historic downtown, pizza joints, bagel shops and a refurbished shopping area. When I left, I headed southwest in Lancaster County.

I stopped in a church near Blue Ball. No minister was around, but the people next door let me put a tent in their backyard. George had retired from sales and had gone back to farming, gardening a small plot behind his house. After my college course in crop production, I could at least have a conversation about fertilizers and plowing. Later, his daughter, who lived across the street called to ask why her dad was putting up a tent!

The early highlight of the trip came in Gettysburg, PA. It was getting dark and I wasn’t quite in town yet as I passed a Christian Rescue Mission. I stopped and asked if I could stay overnight. The night manager said I could, and I moved my bags inside. I met Wayne, about 7 years older than I, a college grad who had lost his job and gone hiking up the Appalachian Trail. When his money ran out, he wound up at the Adams Missions.

We talked a while, went into town together, and got along pretty well. There were some junk bikes behind the mission – we decided to use them for spare parts, get one running, and Wayne would travel with me for a while. I stayed an extra day to work on the bike. In the rush to get the bike running, I neglected to lock mine.

The next morning it was gone. At the time, I remember I felt relief, since each day had become a battle to keep going and not dwell on the enormous task ahead. Within a few days, I had gotten a lift home from my parents and realized that I had to finish the bike trip. While waiting for the insurance money, I visited a commune in Virginia that had been on my itinerary and did some work to get extra bucks. A month later, I would make a point to pass through Gettysburg on my new bicycle. Wayne would still be there.

During the month between these two stages in my trip, I visited Springtree Farm Community in the Virginia hills. I stayed a few nights and really enjoyed it. This commune got started in the early 70s and has gone through some ups and downs. They had 6 people there full-time, plus visitors. All the food (well, almost all) came from the garden and orchard. The fruit crop was really kicking during my visit – cherries and strawberries out the wazzo. I helped plant, harvest and cook. I enjoyed a solar shower and a swimming hole. The relaxed pace gave me a chance to reflect and recharge. I left with some new friends and a fresh commitment to my trip.

When I restarted the trip at the beginning of July, I was soon glad I had visited Springtree when I did. I hit the Pennsylvania mountains in the midst of a heat wave. Instead of turning south into West Virginia as planned, I decided to head into Ohio and get through with the hills. This cut out Virginia completely, so I would have missed Springtree.

I did cut off a small corner of West Virginia, hitting Morgantown and spending a few days visiting one of my brothers, a friend of a friend. It was nice to relax in a familiar college atmosphere for a bit. If you ever get to Morgantown, be sure to grab a meal at Maxwell’s, a nice little restaurant in “downtown”.

Next came Ohio. Riding down the highway one evening, I saw a man struggling to put up a sign – “Country Church”. I stopped, gave him a hand and wound up getting food, a place to put the tent for the night, and an enjoyable service the next morning (it was a Sunday).

In Kentucky I spent a day “on the job” helping a stonemason I had met at a church in a small town. Farther south I headed off the main road to visit the next community on my list. The hills got steep and the weather was hot, Hot, HOT! On one hill, I just collapsed and let the bike fall in the middle of the road. I vented my anger and frustration at an imaginary driver who ran over my bike. No drivers came along the remote road and gradually I calmed. I thought about heading back again, but that didn’t feel right. No – I had to finish the trip and that meant I had to finish the hill. I said a prayer for faith and strength, then got back on the bike. I didn’t stop until my destination.

New Age Community Land Trust is currently manned by two women. They practice permaculture, raising garden crops on raised beds (since the soil was so poor). They have no running water (except a gravity-drop cistern), relying on rainwater and a spring, no electricity, using kerosene lamps, and cook with a woodstove. I really enjoyed the “rustic” experience. Something about raising crops, harvesting them and cooking them appealed to me very deeply. Also, Joanie had spent 3 years in seminary. She finally dropped out after concluding that the church was more interested in managers than in spiritual leaders. She mentioned that they never had a discussion about “faith struggles”. This was certainly something I knew little about, but I would remember her words in Arizona.

I stayed two nights, then left in the morning, when it was cool and the hills were manageable. Heading into Tennessee, I turned south to visit The Farm, a famous commune in the 60s/70s. The Farm went through an economic crisis in the early 80s, emerging as a land trust more than a commune. The fields are no longer farmed seriously, camping fees are charged to visitors, and the Store, though maintaining a leftward bent, features your typical junk goods and high prices. Outside the store I met some teenagers who invited me over to their house. That turned out to be a much better call than staying at the Farm.

I have since been told that since these folks threw their beer cans in the back of the truck, instead of out the window, they were “Good Ole Boys” and not “Rednecks”. The first night I was there, we went to pick up some sand at their cousin Steve’s. Steve demonstrated the canon he had built in the back of his pickup truck. It ran off an acetylene torch rig mounted behind the cab. First Steve primed it with a small charge. Then he pumped gas into it for two or three seconds, as black smoke rose from the barrel from the primer. He lit the torch and touched the flame to the cannon. The bang would have made any rock band cringe. I was told he once fired a tennis ball half a mile.

Next, I swung back into northern Tennessee, to a visit a DeMolay friend from several years back. I had a fun weekend with Hart, his girlfriend and her 14-year-old brother, Brad. Both Hart and Brad have an interest in loud car stereo systems. Hart sells them and Brad plots to outdo Hart. “You get a ‘450’, I’ll get a ‘650’,” he says with a flick of the eyebrow. “You get a ‘650’, I’ll get a ‘750’.” Hart has a Bronco and Brad has a pickup truck which, err… sits in the driveway, since he, err… can’t drive yet.

Heading west again, I crossed the Mississippi at Dyersburg, but not before the first and worst crash of the trip. I was riding in the evening and wasn’t paying close attention to my riding. No cars were coming – I simply ran off the road. I ended up with a flat tire, a cut knee and a sprained wrist. The wrist caused enough pain that I stopped to have it X-rayed. Nothing was broken, but it bothered me the rest of the trip. I can still feel it if I bend my hand back.

I crossed into Missouri, the eastern part of which featured some of the worst drivers I encountered. These people just couldn’t slow down, even though I had no shoulder to ride on. I even had people blowing the horn at me when the left lane was completely clear for them to pass! I saw some people sand bagging, and thought to myself: These floods have a benefit. They bring the people down to size. My basic impression of eastern Missouri was that the people forgot how their forefathers struggled to farm the land. Now everything is pesticides, tractors, and futures quotes on the Chicago Board.

After leaving Missouri (and the Ozark Mountains – whew!) behind, I picked off a corner of Arkansas to visit Shiloh, a Christian Commune. It was here I felt most comfortable of all the places I visited. Shiloh is somewhat liberal as communes go – they let you keep private property, though any work you do while there is donated. They support themselves by running a bakery, which turn out the best commercial bread I’ve ever set my teeth into. The people were relaxed, welcoming and generally fun to be around. I hope I took some of Shiloh’s “state of mind” with me and look forward to visiting there again the next time I’m in Arkansas! It was during this time that my parents caught up to me with their motorhome. I traveled with them for a day or two, and was rather glad to part company. Though I miss my family and friends, I found the vehicle and campsite quite stifling after a month on the road. I slept outside at night, and marvelled at the other people packed into sites on the campground. Incidently, they had so much trouble with the motorhome that I made it to California before they were back in Maryland!

In central Missouri I visited East Wind, the largest commune I saw. The community had about 70 members who ran a hammock and sandal business, as well as a nut butter plant. Through these industries the commune funded itself. By commune standards, they were wealthy – a small library, a videotape collection, dozens of buildings, electricity and running water throughout. Most food was purchased from outside, unlike the homesteaders, who tried to grow almost all of their own. I stayed a couple days and decided that East Wind was neat to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. A work quota of 40 hrs/wk was demanded of each member. Of course, this time including cooking, child care, and various clean-up chores, but still I would come to such a place to escape the pressures of a regular work week. Also, I saw some political actions that disturbed me. One of the kids had a squirt gun taken away after the commune passed a bill stating that members of a non-violent community had a right not to see “violent” toys. So is a football a violent toy? This struck too close to freedom of expression for me.

Now I began to ride across Oklahoma, where the land started to open up and I started to see serious head winds for the first time on the trip. In Stillwater, I passed a Catholic Church and stopped in to ask if any Monestaries were in the area. I hadn’t though of this before I began, but I figured since I was visiting communes, I should check out the oldest ones of all!

I was directed to St. Gregory’s, about a day’s ride south. I tried to call ahead but by the time I a got ahold of the Father I was to speak with, I was practically there, so I just rode over. I think my appearance with no advance notice hampered my welcome, but it was still a fascinating visit. St. Gregory’s monks run a small college to support the abbey. Mass is every morning at 6 a.m (I got up once), followed by a silent breakfast. The monk talk during lunch, and dinner is eaten while a selection is read from a book (I got English history while I was there). Two monks stick out in my mind – Br. Dominic, who was always ready to help me out or show me around, and Br. Benedict, who I didn’t talk to for long, but he impressed me with his spiritual commitment.

After Oklahoma, things started to spread out a bit. I slept in unlikely places like an airstrip, since towns spread farther apart. The highlight of Texas was a night spent on a “peace farm” across from Pantex, the U.S. nuclear weapons assembly facility. I learned some neat things about how H-bombs were moved around on tractor trailers, saw some pictures (“H-bombs in Rush Hour” sticks out) and came across a book called Peace Pilgrim. If you get a chance, check it out. It describes the life and teaching of a woman who spent much of her last 25 years walking across the country with God’s message of love. She stopped counting at 25,000 miles on foot!

In New Mexico I climbed to and crossed the continental divide. The mountains were actually easier than the Appalachians, since the younger Rockies don’t have the rolling hills that keep you climbing the same height over and over. But above 7000 feet it can get cold! I remember the last day of August. I rode about 20 miles after sunrise and my breath was freezing in front of me.

Arizona turned out to be the climax of the trip. My second day in the state brought me close to Winslow. It had been a tough and frustrating day, as I had fought a 20mph head wind all the way and didn’t make good time. By this point in the trip, I was looking forward to the end and starting to count miles and days. Also, insects came out at nightfall and I had to put up the tent on a quite interchange off I-40. I didn’t like putting up the tent, preferring to sleep outside. I wasn’t in a very good mood as I put up the tent, inflated the air mattress and lay down to pray. In my mind’s eye, I pictured myself saying to God, “just do whatever you want to me”.

In the next minute, I had what I would describe as a mental lightening bolt. I suddenly saw that my problems were of my own creation – I was relying on myself instead of on faith. I was going to ride the bike; I was going to put up the tent; I had the money to buy food. I saw that what I needed to do was get rid of all that. The next day was Labor Day and everything was closed, so I rode on the Flagstaff. Here my bike trip ended.

I agonized for a day or two, then committed myself. On Wednesday morning, crying, I took the bike for a last ride. Finding a local church, I gave the pastor the bike and most all the gear, telling him to do what he wanted with it. With my last money, I bought a pack to carry, and paid for postage to mail my wallet, contact lenses, and few other things home.

I hitchhiked 60 miles south to the last spot on my itinerary. Arcosanti, in the Arizona desert, is a design city being constructed by Italian architect Pavlo Solari and his colleagues. His basic idea is to abandon auto-centric design in favor of compact, dense structures that put people within walking distance of work and play. It’s on I-17, about halfway between Phoenix and Flagstaff. Stop by if you’re in the area – take the hour tour. It’s worth it.

I got another ride west to Prescott, from where I started walking south. I got into a national forest and lay down under some pines. I slept several hours. I guess I awoke around 3 a.m, judging from the moon. A mosquito was bothering me, so I started walking again. The moon was half full, so I had plenty of light and the road wasn’t heavily traveled. I walked through sunrise, getting out of the hills and the national forest around 9 a.m. I napped a bit, then continued my walk across the mesa. The night had been only slightly cool, but the day was hot. I decided not to hitchhike, but to keep walking for a while, fasting. Foolishly, I had brought no water, so had to wait until I passed through towns.

By late afternoon, I was coming into a small town and stopped at a ranch to ask for water. I was also offered food, and that was the end of my fast. That night, I slept until dawn in an abandoned building that was once a shop or restaurant. Morning saw me facing a long downhill to the desert, so I hitchhiked down it and into the town of Wickenburg. I was depressed and upset. I felt disappointment at having broken my fast. I was afraid to keep walking across the mesa in the heat. More than anything, I was afraid that if I kept walking, I was afraid I would find my calling, and I was afraid of knowing what it might be.

That day, I broke down. I got money wired to me and was on a bus by that evening. I had discovered that a part of me, much stronger that I thought, wanted nothing to do with grand visions of any kind. I wanted my family and friends, didn’t want to be rich, but didn’t want to be poor, wanted to write software, play music, cook nice meals and certainly not wonder all over the country.

By the next day, I had made it to San Clemente, California, where a high school friend was living. Chris was gracious enough to put me up for a week I waited for my wallet to be mailed back to me. I don’t know what it was – the two months on the road, the two days on the Mesa, or just being around someone who loved what he was doing. I realized that the big reason I found computers unfulfilling was that the work didn’t challenge me physically. I saw that I had become much less assertive in groups than I used to be, more content to be with people just because I enjoyed their company. I found a deep respect for a young man I hardly knew, but who was ready to surf for the 20 years even though he could never make a penny doing it.

I left San Clemente after a week I really needed. It let me put my feet back on the ground. Right now, I’m in San Diego, toying with going to Mexico for the two weeks before a friend of mine comes out to visit. Then what? I don’t know. I love the land here, the surf crashing into the rocks, but am already tired of the congestion. I’ll see what happens after a week or two.

I realized something about friendship, too. Some people judge friends by their influence on you – “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” “Friends don’t use drugs.” “A friend would never tell you to drop out of school.” But it’s really much more than that. Just because someone may not be a fully wholesome influence, doesn’t mean that they don’t care. We’re all human – we all make mistakes. Friends introduce you to new ideas, new ways of life. It’s the prerogative of a friend.