September 3, 2003: Two weeks have passed since I left Salt Lake on my bike. Two weeks and 700 miles over the Rocky Mountains and into the flat alien land of the prairie. The thick black of night creeps over the eastern horizon much earlier. The vacation-bound streets are vacant and the charcoal stench of seared hamburger has faded from the chilled evening air. Mosquitoes cloud the dusk, whining of West Nile Virus, and summer is over. But autumn is still a ways away. September waits in limbo for a return to frost, while Americans reside in the sullen heat, the remnants of a summer they no longer own.
Life on a bicycle has heightened my awareness of the ebb and flow of weather and seasons. Each night I study the swirl of thin clouds with anticipation. I watch them gather and darken, steady myself for the rain, and wait for them to move on. The sun beats down in the afternoon, and the wind flows continuously across the Wyoming desert. In its erratic movement patterns form. Mostly, the pattern seems to contradict my own. When I move East, the wind moves West. When I move North, it goes South. Such is life on a bicycle.
Life is very different out here. We feel each quiet contour of the land; no gentle slope goes unnoticed. We hear each subtle sound – lonely trains whistle in the distance, the soft sweep of a soaring vulture, and the frenzied bark of a chain-bound dog. We smell the sweet stench of the earth – rotting road kill, freshly watered lawns, baking fertilizer and cut hay. And at 10 mph, we see the things that are so easily missed – individual blades of grass rustling in the wind, rabbits darting from brush to brush, wary stares from confused cows.
The people are very different out here. Some are much nicer than expected. They wave from the streaming safety of their vehicles. They offer friendly greetings in campgrounds and cafes. They strike up jovial conversations. They give generously and give well, out of kindness or loneliness or sometimes even pity. Other times they are boldly rude. They swerve and honk on the roadway. They sneer and mock in their towns. “It must be nice to not have to work and just bike around all the time.” It is.
But sometimes it’s not nice. Sometimes the rain pelts down and streams of dust blow head-on. The sun burns weathered skin and burns it again – there is no relief. Sometimes the night is cold. Sometimes lungs burn and gasp. Sometimes muscles stretch and strain so much to push the heavy burden of life’s necessities up each hill that they collapse in exhaustion when night falls, only to wake up in the morning and do it again. But sometimes the wind shifts in just the right direction, the burden of a long-enduring climb opens up and the screaming freedom of elevation bursts forward, and there is nothing, nothing in the world that can match the coasting view of the earth thrust downward.
Life looks different from the seat of the bike. It feels different and tastes different, and that’s probably the best explanation for why we do it. We’re not crazy tourists, or aimless aesthetics, or obsessed athletes, or stuck-up hermits. We’re just people, trying to get a view of life that’s different from the one we’ve always known. We’re just people, asking the questions that don’t always get answered, listening to the world rather than an interpretation, watching the night sky with anticipation and faith. We’re just out there, living. Are you?