September 20, 2003: It’s really amazing how quickly America changes from the viewpoint of a cyclist. It would seem just the opposite – a cyclist moves at 10 mph, pedals only 50 to 70 miles a day, and takes two months to cover a distance that a car could do in three days. But a cyclist, more than any other person, will experience the sudden jolt of change in landscape or contour or even regional culture more than any other person.
Just yesterday, Geoff and I crossed over the Missouri River, leaving Kansas and the open prairie and entering the lush hills of Missouri. And in many ways, that single crossing of a river less than a quarter mile wide marked our passage from the Western United States into the East.
The change was at the same time instant and bewildering. On the west side of the Missouri, we rolled through miles of open prairie with only a few houses to mar the yellow solitude. On the east side of the river, hills and trees suddenly closed in on us. The landscape looked much smaller. Around every corner there was a house, and every house seemed to give way to manicured yards viciously guarded by barking dogs.
These river bluffs eventually gave way to open cornfields, but instead of the sweeping solitude we had grown so accustomed to along the prairie, we found the closed-in stress of rush hour traffic barreling home on a Friday afternoon. It hardly seemed possible, but within less than 40 miles we had lost the vast loneliness of the entire intermountain west and found the crowded outskirts of a major metropolitan area - hundreds of vehicles rushing home, scarcely taking the time to slow down, nearly brushing against us as they sped by, never looking back. And suddenly, our world as we knew it was different. Our beautiful, desolate, genuine western world was replaced by the lush crowded impetuosity of the East - all divided by the Missouri River.
It seems appropriate that we would reach this divide at the near-exact halfway point of our trip – 1500 miles. From now on we can expect more crowds, more cities, more cars, and more narrow roads with no shoulders and unforgivably steep climbs – eastern roads. And we can also expect Eastern culture – a little more frazzled, more hurried, more impatient, than the culture of the West. We’ll expect the lush green quaintness of eastern towns, the overwhelming immensity of eastern cities. And we’ll have to expect people that would drive right into us before they ever thought of slowing down for two seconds, and dogs that would happily take a chunk out of our legs before they let us past their house. Of course, you get these of people and pets everywhere – and everywhere you find kind and generous people too. But there seems to be this unspoken line that divides East and West right in the center of America, and the change is too sudden, too radical, to deny.