This Is America: Riding Coast to Coast, USA 2019
Updated: Nov 7, 2021
"This is America.” Beween the months of April and June, 2019 I repeated this over and over again—not because I was jamming out to Childish Gambino, and certainly not because I was at some incel gathering of Nazis who chant “THIS IS AMERICA” when they need to elevate themselves by putting other people down.
I was repeating it because I was riding my bike across the United States—west to east—in an effort to raise money for athletes in Greece who were competing for the 2020 Olympic games. And on this ride, I saw so many contrasting things that elicited that exclamation. I rode alone, and in the solitude and expansive nothingness that surrounded me, I found my mind wandering while my eyes observed and my legs pedaled, mile after mile, thought after thought. Often these thoughts delved into the absurd and unexplainably nonsensical, and when I found myself thinking out loud, speech was reduced to some protolanguage of grunts, sounds, oscillating coos, and repeated syllables (habaga….habagaaaaaa gaba). Other times, there were exclamations at the remarkable and ubiquitous beauty of this country. It’s no mystery as to why Katharine Lee Bates wrote a poem titled “America the Beautiful.” Though to be more complete, we live on a beautiful planet, but that’s not what this is about. Instead, I’m just going to write about some of what stood out most to me—observations and reflections to things I read about in the news juxtaposed with what I saw throughout my ride. It’s one thing to read about the opioid crisis and completely different to see stray humans wandering from one end of town to the other, their whole life stored in a sack that’s been dragged around for years.
I could talk about the issue of income inequality all day long, but to see a dilapidated house whose roof is collapsing on the six people living inside, next to a brand-new home with shiny vehicles in the driveway is a startling reality. Tribalism and division in this country are not new; they existed way before the 2016 election.
Riding across America is like listening to a compilation album that spans different genres. Santa Cruz felt like riding through a Beach Boys song. Everybody was, in fact, going surfing. Parts of New Mexico and Oklahoma felt like a Neil Young song—365 degrees of expansive, beautiful countryside in a part of the country that moves ALMOST as slow as he plays. And other areas of this country were in such a state of decay and desolation, that it was like having Kurt Cobain himself whisper the lyrics to “Something in the Way” while he delicately injected me into a heroin bath that I would never wake from.
Looking back, it’d be easy to write endlessly about “all that open space.” It’d be easy to make cliche metaphors about the “rosy fingertips of dawn, patiently reaching to caress the breasts of the surrounding hillside.” But I’m not a writer so, not gonna happen. Also, I don’t like cliches (did I mention I'm a 6'6 caucasian male?)
Initially, it was difficult to know where to start; I had so many images that told the story. But I realized, thematically, there were two main topics that became apparent early on, and a third that I didn’t realize until almost six months after I finished the ride. That said, it began in California.
April 24 2019
San Francisco, California
If you want to get into shape real fast, go ride in San Francisco. The city itself is not as cool as Athens, Greece, but the hills certainly match up for some incredible dynamics. My friend Celia lives there and she invited me to stay in her home for as long as I wanted before I kicked off the long, long ride east. What I didn’t realize is she’s a fucking baller. Robin Williams used to be her neighbor, and this is the view she has from her living room.
Trek Boone 5 Disc: A cyclocross turned road bike with Shimano Ultegra group-set, Bontrager XXX carbon aero bars, and Bontrager Aeolus 5 carbon wheels. The bags were Apidura.
Here’s what I packed in the bags:
2 pairs of underwear (IceBreaker)
2 pairs of socks (www.trekbikes.com)
2 T-shirts (www.Armiriki.com)
1 pair of jeans (Sugar Cane)
1 pair of shorts (technically, it was a bathing suit, but if I had underwear on, they were shorts.)
1 Assault Bivi (The North Face)
1 tiny inflatable mattress
2 base layers (Bontrager)
1 windproof jacket (Bontrager)
1 pair of sneakers
1 pair of flip flops
Hygiene essentials—deodorant, toothbrush, body wash, and shampoo (www.korres.com)
4 extra tubes (Bontrager)
Patch-kit (Park Tool)
Mini-Charger Floor Pump (Bontrager)—hands down THE best portable pump out there
I left San Francisco after an essential stop at the elusive Self Edge (https://www.selfedge.com) on a quest for a
denim jacket by Iron Heart, a rare, raw, 14 oz indigo denim dipped in black ink both inside and out. Over time, as the black fades, the indigo is revealed underneath. Like with any piece of raw denim, it's one of a kind. I wanted so badly to bring it with me so I could have the fade process tell a story unique to this trip but I'd have to settle for the pair of Sugar Cane Jeans being the story tellers for the denim realm (which they did very nicely...there's unique fade patterns to them from being rolled up so tightly in my bag).
Getting out of the city was exhausting. The hills of SF are great and fun when it's just the bike and me, but when the bike was weighed down by an extra 30 pounds or so..it was horrendous. But, I knew that if I passed up that opportunity I'd regret it for the rest of my life (which is how long that jacket will last). Not once have I looked back and thought "that was so dumb...what a waste of time." But EVERY time I see that jacket I think about how glad I am to have made that detour. Yeah, in total it added about three extra hours to the day's ride but it had to be done. Eventually I made it to Route 1. To my surprise, there wasn’t a road that ran parallel to the Pacific Ocean. If you’re thinking right now that I didn’t really do much research into this ride, you are absolutely correct.
Route 1 is intimidating just like anything else you do for the first time. But that was the way. I had my daytime running lights on and hoped for the best. I passed familiar landmarks like Half Moon Bay, keeping an eye on a rapidly falling sun..
I remember a feeling of discomfort seeping in—a heightened awareness. Did I microdose? What was this muted panic that had begun to stir? Unexpectedly, the reality of setting up and sleeping outside was causing great resistance within. I turned off into the grounds of a lighthouse, thinking “OK. Maybe you should get some sleep here and keep moving in the morning.” And luckily enough, it had, in fact, been converted into a hostel. Unfortunately for me, there was a field trip from Japan visiting the lighthouse and there was no vacancy. I asked the desk attendant about how far I was from the next town. He responded, “Well, there’s no civilization for another 20 miles.”
The word “civilization” really got to me. Where the fuck was I anyway? I thought I was in California...with harmless surfers and stoners and the hippies that never came back down from the aid trips of Ginsburg and beatniks. Would I encounter people who were not civilized? I kept riding. The wind seemed to grow in intensity as the daylight faded completely into blackness. While the 1300 lumens light on my bike illuminated everything directly in front of me, I still felt like a pilot fish alone in the midst of an opaque ocean. The anxiety of having something go wrong with the bike—even something as simple as having to change a flat in this darkness—was distracting me like a splinter. Unanticipatedly, I saw holiday lights up ahead that were decorating a structure which, upon passing, I realized was a large barn with a little seating area next to it. The seating area was also lit up by hanging lamps. Written on a sign was “PIE SISTERS” and “12 pm to 6 pm.” Five minutes after passing it, I decided I should go back and bed down there for the night. I’d ridden a little over 80 miles, and while I had the energy for more, the math in my head told me I wouldn’t reach “civilization” for another 40 minutes.
In the months leading up to the trip, I kept having this notion that after a long long day of riding, I’d crawl into my bivy and just pass out. This was not the case. Ever. As I did a quick recon walk around the barn, images of becoming a statistic to gun violence kept bouncing around in my head. I was waiting to hear the cocking of a shotgun at any moment. But before long, I started to really take in the beauty of this place. There was a little brook churning and bubbling just past where the lights ended and the darkness began. There is no sound more comforting than the symphony of nature—crickets, grasshoppers, frogs, various birds, the waves in the distance. By this time, the temperature had dropped to about 50 degrees . As I got ready to settle in, I figured I’d be back on the road way before this place would open up. So, I inflated my little mattress, and with it, crawled into the bivy.
Suddenly, despite the exhaustion, I found myself completely alert. Anyone who has partied too hard in their life is familiar with this feeling: when you’re just staring at your friends, eyes as wide as the sun that’s been rising for hours already...exhausted but unable to rest. That's how I felt...at 9 pm. It was about 11 pm or so when I last checked the time before I eventually drifted off.
At 2 am, I woke up from a shiver so strong it felt like my back had broken. It was like a current from a live wire. I was in a state of borderline panic and was shaking uncontrollably. As information made its way to my brain, I realized I was soaked, terribly cold, and the inside of the bivy was also completely lined with condensation. I checked the temperature and saw that it was 42 degrees. “Ok,” I thought. “You won’t freeze to death.” I told myself this a few times in an effort to calm down. “You might get pneumonia though...” My brain folks, the part time ally. I started to put a plan together. “You’re gonna get out. You’re gonna do pushups to warm up. You’re gonna change. You’ve got dry clothes. Put on the long sleeve base layer, then the wet short sleeve base layer over that, and then on top of that, your windproof jacket, and your jeans, and both pairs of socks.”
I was so cold I could barely move but somehow completed the plan. I got back into the bivy, which certainly provided relief from the bone-chilling wind, but I was still pretty fucking cold and, frankly, irritated. “WHY MEEE?!?!” I think it took almost another two hours to fall asleep again around 4 am.
At 5 am, I woke up in the exact same state as I had at 2 am. But there was nothing to do except suffer and wait for the sun to rise, which of course had to come up over an entire fucking mountain range before any direct light hit me. This was further delayed by a tree line and so finally at about 6:30 am or so, the first rays began coming down and I emerged simultaneously triumphant and defeated.
I sat in my underwear in a patch of sunlight after laying out all my clothes to dry, and since the east coast was three hours ahead, I called my friend Caitlin back in Maryland to tell her how unsuccessful the first night was. “I wanna come home,” I whined. “Oh my GOD, George! It’s only the second day and you already wanna quit?!? YOU ARE NOT PREPARED FOR THIS!!” I somewhat regretted calling her.
I needed encouragement, not reminders of why I was going to fail. As always, when I have nowhere to turn I look inside myself and reflected on every other time I felt like everything was going wrong and how fucked I was. But somehow, I made it and that’s where I was now: ready to bounce off a failure of an evening.
I think there might be less than 400 people living in Davenport. It’s basically a tiny whale-watching station on top of hundred-foot cliffs that overlook the Pacific. It’s also where I had the best omelette of my life—an artichoke omelette—which was fitting because I was in the artichoke capital of the world. Also, ALL the coffee, and, of course, Cretan honey for the toast. My waiter was a quirky and very likable weirdo with a slight and endearing lisp. He was quite taken aback by my trip and then in an almost concerned tone asked, “So wait. You’re riding on this road?” “Yes,” I replied. “Route 1, huh….kinda sssketch,” he said.
Some hippie pulled out a guitar and started playing music. Initially, I hated him for doing it but tried to appreciate the free concert. As the pangs of too much caffeine began to run through me, I got back on the bike and started pedaling again.
At this point, you’ve probably realized that I didn’t have a sleeping bag. And that is a true assumption. I figured that between the base layers made of merino wool, the wind & waterproof bivy, and the heat retaining mattress, I wouldn’t need one. I didn’t realize a fucking rainforest climate would form inside the bivi. I decided I needed to get to Marina, California—the location of the nearest REI, which was about 80 miles away.
The ride there was actually not nearly as bad as I thought it would be considering the lack of sleep. It was almost 100 percent flat road, and there were massive fields of strawberries, artichokes, avocados, and other fruit. On the street, there were stands selling five avocados for a dollar (at Whole Foods back in DC, avocados go for over a dollar a piece). I also passed Dole headquarters.
When I got to Marina, the sky had transitioned into a dark lavender. I found a motel that was walking distance to the beach and booked it for two nights. I knew the next day would be a full rest and relaxation day. I was so exhausted when I got into my room that I realized my body temperature had dropped. I was also dirty, smelly, and ferociously hungry. I mustered up enough motivation to go to the Denny’s at the end of the driveway, and almost collapsed on the way there. I had to will myself to keep from breaking out into a shivering frenzy.
There weren’t many people in Denny’s and my server looked like she was 17 years old. She was Hispanic and so damn polite and excited when I told her what I was doing. When I mentioned that I’d be riding through Big Sur, her eyes lit up. “Oh my God! I love Big Sur!! It’s so amazing. You’re going to go crazy if you like outdoors stuff, and there’s this place where they make ice cream inside a van; literally, the best ice cream ever,” she said. In my head, I kept thinking, “Wow. This nice girl is telling me how much she loves a part of America; she’s telling me where to go and what to see. She’s so nice, and there’s people out there who wish she wasn’t here just because she’s Hispanic.” After I ate, I went back to my room and disintegrated into bed.
The next day, I went to the beach and realized it was everything I wanted and needed. I did nothing but lay on the sand and smoked, amused by kite gliders and seagulls. That afternoon I picked up a sleeping bag from REI. There was a time when anything over 80 dollars for a sleeping bag would have offended me. But finding one that weighed less than a pound and kept you warm at 20 degrees Fahrenheit seemed totally legit, even for four hundred. I left Marina feeling incredible. A sunny beach can fix just about anything, and the reassurance of a sleeping bag made me excited for the coming evening, knowing I’d sleep comfortably under the stars. There were many audible gasps at the beauty of the first day riding along the cliffs on Route 1, but the second day was remarkably better in terms of scenery. I was much closer to water and could see the details, seals included.
Despite my best intentions to ride nonstop and just get through each day with a plan to be back on the east coast as quickly as possible, I found it was impossible to not stop and take in the beauty.
As I mentioned, there were parts of my trip that felt like I was in a Beach Boys song: Riding through Santa Cruz was like a California dream—surf shops and marijuana shops everywhere—and I felt like most people were wearing wet suits. I stopped at one point to get some more water and all around me kids in FOX RACING attire one upping one another on their trick bikes, trying to impress girls that weren’t paying them any attention anyway. These kids were total bike nerds; they knew all the terminology, much more than I did. Also, I was kind of scared they would beat me up—little punks with their full heads of hair and confidence and effortless bunny hops.
As I approached Big Sur, the elevation began to increase and while the route was astoundingly beautiful, it began to feel more and more dangerous. I noticed that there was no cell signal anymore. That meant that now drivers were twice as distracted because not only were they going to be looking out at the view they had, but they’d also constantly be looking down at their phones to see if they had service yet. Honestly (and I KNOW Peter Flax will hate this), I can’t blame them. How can anyone really focus on the road when this is the view? Just look at me; driving with one hand, eyes off the road...taking a selfie. #shame
I will however, blame the guy who was in a nice Corvette—red, of course, for revving his engine obnoxiously as he passed me. Fury set in. A curtain redder than his “I have a small dick-mobile” began to come down over my eyes. I caught up to him at an overlook point. The car was parked, but the driver wasn’t there. So, I waited. In my head, I imagined walking up to him, grabbing him by the shirt collar, and bringing him to the edge telling him he could keep the car or his camera, but not both. There were a lot of people there, and the indifference of the world made me think that no one would do anything to stop me. More than likely, they’d just take video and try to get on World Start or something. When the driver finally appeared, he looked like the comic book store owner from the Simpsons, but less in shape and bigger. He had a big bushy afro on his head, and he just looked scared. He looked like he’d been scared since middle school….like the kids that taunted him his whole life would appear at any moment to give him a wedgie and shove cake his mouth. My fury was gone and I took this pic.
I pedaled on until it began to rain. I found this little restaurant where I had a three-hour lunch, waiting for the light drizzle to come to an end. I don’t mind riding in the rain really, but given the rollercoaster-like path of the road—constantly weaving and rising and dropping—the less control from the weight of the bags, and again, drivers inevitably distracted, I thought it might be best to lower the risk as much as I could. Waiting without internet is boring, but writing in my journal was quite nice. I also spoiled myself to the most expensive fish n’ chips entree I’ve ever seen, and while it was delicious, deep fried fish isn’t for me. I took a walk outside in the garden of the place and marveled at the things I’d have missed if I’d been driving through.
Snails were slowly sliding inside large flowers. A variety of floral color was sprinkled along the hillsides from the wildflower blooms. They were inevitably bright in the sunshine, but were now dulled to beautiful pastel colors in the light wisps of mist.
I met a kid at the restaurant. He was from Illinois. He was 22 years old. He told me the job opportunities back home led to nowhere, so he packed up a suitcase and started driving toward California in search of change. I asked him what he was waiting around for and he told me the owner might be stopping in and he was going to apply for a job. I wonder how many kids in America have this dream of just packing it up and heading for California.
When the rain stopped, I started moving again. There was quite a long descent, and I was back to riding around sea level, maybe 30 feet or so above it. The road opened up completely, and I didn’t notice the mountains in the distance.
I didn’t know it then, but I was approaching Big Sur . . . and lots of climbing. As the clouds cleared completely, I started getting excited about going through an area that had become almost legendary from all the people who spoke about it. I also got to see some California redwoods. Though certainly not as big as the ones in Northern California, the red bark was something to behold.
Big Sur, California
Big Sur itself is actually quite tiny, and there’s no cell service. I stopped at a cafe to get some food and everyone in the area was the stereotypical earthy tree-hugging type you’d see on South Park or something. I’m not making any judgments about their character…but tha is what a lot of them looked like, and that’s fine….you wanna be a filthy stoner hippie...by all means. :D
I did end up passing that ice cream bus, but it was closed.
Riding at cloud level was interesting, especially when the road kept going uphill. Without cellular service, I had no way of getting information to give me some kind of idea of where I was or how far the next town (or civilization) might be. I stopped at another little market shop and tried to get some details about where a good place to bed down would be. (I probably had about two hours of full sun left at this point and, I wanted to make sure I was planning for the night well before dusk.) The girl told me that if I was camping, I’d need to be registered with the National Park Service and that everything else was private property. “OK. Thank you,” I told her, knowing I wasn’t going to abide by the rules since I wasn’t technically camping. I mean, I didn’t even have a tent. I was just sleeping outside. So, I pedaled on, hoping I would find a place to bed down completely unnoticed. This would become somewhat of a ritual for me on the trip; a fun little game I played with my self. “Where can I bed down, undetected, and roll up a spliff to pass out with?”
The shadows started getting longer, but at least finally I was approaching what appeared to be a descent, which also gave me more visibility ahead for navigating a potential spot to sleep that night. With about 20 minutes of light left, I saw what looked like a “would-be” driveway that turned downhill toward the water and opened up to a small, relatively flat area about 15 feet long and 12 feet wide before the 120-foot drop to the water down below. It was perfect, away from the road and not anyone’s backyard.
I unloaded and excitedly got everything ready. It was golden hour now, and in about 10 minutes, it’d be dusk. The setting was amazing: the sound of the waves down below, the breeze rustling through the vegetation around me, stars beginning to twinkle above. And then, my mind turned against me. “Hey dude, what if you sleepwalk for the first time ever?” Pause. “Fffffffuck,” I exclaimed out loud as I sat up. As far as I knew, I’d never been a sleep walker. But now the thought was stuck in my head. I’d inceptionalized myself. Who the fuck does that?! Some more scary thoughts started to come through. “What if there’s a rock slide? Or an earthquake? And this whole cliff falls into the water?” My heart started to speed up a little as I imagined this disaster happening and not one person knowing where I was.. Then, I imagined that, ultimately, my friends and family would just assume that I killed myself because I was too ashamed to admit that I couldn’t finish this ride. THEN, I actually thought this: “What if there’s some weird animal that lives on these cliffs? And it’s super territorial and it pushes me off?” And that’s when I just started laughing to myself and said “Jesus Christ, George. Is this your first time getting high? A weird animal? Get it together!” By the way, the sleeping bag: the best and most comfortable sleeping bag I’ve ever used. I could have spent $600 on it and I would have still felt the same way.
I don’t remember when exactly, but at some point during my ride through California, my friend Caitlin called to vent about her life. she had good reason to, I suppose. She had just taken a three-month paid medical leave from work to avoid getting fired. “I feel like you’re always off doing cool shit, George. I mean, why can’t I have that life?” I responded by asking her why she was complaining to me instead of booking a trip online to meet me somewhere along the way to hang out for a few days. “Maybe we’ll even finally have sex,” I joked. Ok, relax...I know it's 2020 and we're all woke now and a guy can't make that joke but...only Caitlin can decide that and you know what? We're cool. And not that I owe you an explanation but, that was a long-running joke with some of her friends apparently. They’d say, “Would you just do it already and get it over with?” Anyway, we never did sleep together and as of the moment I’m writing this, she’s engaged to a pretty swell man. He might be “swole” too, but I’ve never seen him naked. Anyway, the important thing is Caitlin called me a few days later to confirm whether I was OK with spending a few days in Joshua Tree, California. She’d booked a sweet little AirBnB; two bedrooms. “Perfect,” I said.
As it turned out, Joshua Tree ended up being a life-changing experience for Caitlin, and not because we slept together. That would have probably ended up being life-damaging for her. But anyway, Joshua Tree is a place where a lot of things came together for her. When she got back to the east coast, she ended up landing an incredible job with an even more impressive salary, but that’s her story to tell. From me, I’ll share some pictures with you. I’m not gonna say much about it because some hippie on LSD has probably written about Joshua Tree in a much better way than I’ll ever be able to.
Joshua Tree, California
I wish everyone had the chance to spend time there. It’s like it’s made up of different worlds, both real and imaginary. There’s just something about it that can’t be described; it can only be experienced. Looking back at some of the photos I took, it’s like I’m looking at something out of a Dr. Seuss book.
It also felt great to take the bags off the bike and ride around in the desert. Caitlin snapped what turned out to be my most liked photo from the trip….and all I was doing was laying on an outside bed in the sun….(non) sex sells.
I can't allow this segment to end with that photo. It's also important to note that near Joshua Tree, you can find some weird shit out in in the desert. Caitlin also took some incredible photos during the trip that are worth seeing since I'm too illiterate to describe what I saw.
While on the road, I got a message from a girl on the gram that told me she noticed I was sunburned, that my wrist was swollen, and that I needed to come through Phoenix for treatment and rest. What the fuck? How did she notice that my wrist was swollen from my insta photos? It was, in fact, swollen. I’d had a stupid surgery to pin my scaphoid years ago, and it’s never been the same. The most recent shit to come from that was the ganglion cyst that had been slowly growing out the last month or so. God. Damn. Mother. Fucker.
It didn’t hurt so much as it did create a muted but constant discomfort. I did a pretty good job of ignoring it. But there was also a fear—on the outside it was just a slightly unsightly mass, but what was it pushing against on the inside? What if a vein, or even worse an artery, was being compressed? Would I wake up one morning with a fucking black and blue hand that would need amputation?
Anyway, back to the message. I’m always suspicious of stuff like that. But she was Greek, so there was instantly enough trust that she wasn’t going to roofie and peg me. As it turned out, she remains possibly the most selfless person I have ever met in my life. The room she booked me got upgraded to a fucking suite and a day of rest in a real bed was something I’d absolutely taken for granted.
The next night I insisted on taking her out to dinner as a thank you. She chose the spot; somewhere for burgers. The next morning, we were gonna go to Sedona. We both woke up with mild food poisoning, but she insisted we go. She gave me a trail-mix of pills and vitamins and we pushed through it. By the time we got to Sedona, the trail mix had kicked in so aside from the fact that I HATE hiking, I was in good shape. Below you can hear my friend Eleni (from the gram) exclaiming "Come on George...wow...wooow" in Greek in response to my whining.
Sedona was amazing.
About an hour before getting back to the car, the drugs had started to wear off and the food poisoning was kicking in. We took the last mile or so at a glacial pace. When I got back to the hotel, I went straight to bed. I spent the next day in bed as well. The day after that I finally got back on the bike and rode for about an hour, and it felt like my first ride in three months—absolutely abysmal. I was also wondering why my eyes were burning, so I checked the AQI on my watch, and for the first time, I saw it it say “dangerous.” Spent the rest of the day in bed.
A Highlight I Can’t Neglect to Mention: I gave one of my closest friends a call to tell him I’d be in Tulsa in about a week or two (he’d recently moved there). In the general “catching up” of the call, I asked him what he was up to and he said “Oh, I’m in Phoenix for a wedding.”
“Wait….what? Phoenix…Arizona?” I asked.
“Dude….I’M in Phoenix!”
“ I’m sending you my location right now,” he replied. Ten minutes later, I was pulling up to the W Hotel and laughter ensued. I wished I was 10 years younger (well, maybe a bit more) because Jesus Christ, the ratio of females to males was absurd. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a high concentration of beautiful women in such a small area. It was the best episode of the twilight zone ever, and we were walking around this entire block of bars and clubs that were blasting techno. Sadly, it was cheesy fucking bullshit techno that’s got nothing to do with Jeff Mills,
but at least it will open their minds to acts like Undeworld, Josh Wink, Digweed, etc... Anyway, there were so many people walking around that it almost felt like we were at some college festival. We met a group of girls while waiting for an uber. Two of them were on the level and we were talking about volunteer work, but were interrupted by the "every group's got one 'too drunk' friend" that kept coming over and gyrating in a failed attempt at seduction. It was so cliche. She actually asked if "I liked what I saw." "You're too young and you're too drunk," I said.
We (as in Omar and I) ended up going back to my place to smoke a joint, and as soon as we turned down the hallway, we could already smell the weed that I'd brought from California. When I opened the door, it was like we had just opened a vacuum-sealed bag holding a pound of dank. We both exploded in laughter as I muttered, “I should probably do something about that.” We threw all the jars and bags into the fridge, and since it was such a special occasion, I pulled out one of the pre-rolls and we went out to walk through the enormous organ cacti growing everywhere.
I only have one negative thing to say about Phoenix: Hands down, the worst drivers I’ve ever seen. And I don’t mean the clumsy fucks that most of the country knows. I mean these people wanted to kill me. Never in my life have I felt as though people were trying to intimidate me into an accident by purposely buzzing me.
Another Highlight: I took an hour-long bus ride down to Tucson to meet Kathryn Bertine….filmmaker and activist for women’s equality in sports (and life in general). Kathryn and I had been tweeting back and forth occasionally. She’s someone I learned more about and had tremendous respect for. She’s a role model to me and I wanted to put in some face time because it’s one thing when you have a twitter friend; it’s another when you know who that person is and what they stand for. The fact that she made time for me—a fucking stranger from the Internet—meant a whole lot. Anyway, her website is: https://www.homestretchfoundation.org
*From this point on, rather than writing as I have been, I’m just going to copy from the journal that I kept on the trip.*
Fort Defiance, New Mexico
Between the drivers who want to kill me, the food poisoning, and the fact that it’s basically due north from where I am now, I’m driving from Scottsdale to Fort Defiance, New Mexico. Fort Defiance is on a Navajo Reservationwhere a family friend lives with her husband and their son. Her husband is the hospital director there and they live in one of those neighborhoods that look like it went up overnight. “Little boxes…”
It’s beautiful and isolated here. Lots of people living off the grid, no power or running water. We enjoyed a wonderful home cooked meal with lots of catching up. Politics at the dinner table. It’s funny how people jump to extremes...I don’t know how the question of “we can’t turn our back on people seeking a better life” gets answered with “So what are we supposed to do? Let them all in?” It's everywhere. "Oh, you're anti-communist? Obviously then you're a nazi." It's like, "whoooooaaaa buddy....there's plenty of common ground between the extremes."
We saw a beautiful moonrise over the valley below. Stars appeared like confetti against a black sky swirling with milky space debris. A headache began to set in because the elevation was so high.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I'm with an old work colleague of mine & his husband. It’s awesomely gay . . . .they'd dance and start singing old show-tunes and do each other's drag make-up. There's always laughter. The conversation is always jovial. Lots of people on Twitter are furious about the GoT finale. Also, in the same way that Scottsdale had the highest concentration of beautiful women, ABQ is the opposite. Diabetes is everywhere and, I mean, the avoidable kind. Lots of people with metal in their faces and stupid, meaningless tattoos. I had to stop by the Apple store for something and there was a guy walking around in a Qanon t-shirt. Even without that shirt there was something off about him. At one point he went outside and slipped something to a security guard. Fucking strange...all of it.
I saw the Breaking Bad house...it was riding distance from my friend’s place. I didn’t take a picture of it. I think the people who live there actually did some remodeling so it’s different from how it appears in the series. There’s also a big fence around the yard with a sign that says “TAKE YOUR PICTURES FROM ACROSS THE STREET. LEAVE US ALONE!” Amazing.
When I left ABQ, I hopped on old Route 66. It was a beautiful ride of nicely spaced hills that created an easy momentum. I had mountains to my left and right. The earth would split into red canyons and the vegetation changed from cacti to a forest. I saw a sign for bears. Holy shit, tarantulas!!! Suddenly and unexpectedly, historic Route 66 merged with Interstate 40 East. There was a sign that said only bicycles were allowed to ride on the shoulder. This meant that now I was sharing the road with 18- and 24-wheelers. Fine. To be honest, it was actually just kind of AWESOME when those things went by.
Not awesome, is that the shoulder of the interstate wasn’t nearly as smooth as the shoulder of any other road, and the debris from those trucks was plentiful. Big chunks of tread...coils of tire bead….engine parts, broken glass….fuck this. I made it to a place called Klines Corner, home of a world famous truck stop with the biggest gift shop I’ve ever seen. It sold everything: cowboy hats, biker vests, day of the dead minarets, spoons dedicated to the 50 states, Native American jewelry, knives, and glass pipes for lazy stoner hippies that can’t roll their own.
Behind the main building of the shops, there were what looked like some old, unused garages and a house. Actually, it looked like the setting for a place where dead bodies would be hidden in a horror movie. A red balloon floated out from one of the broken windows, so I went in and asked if it’d be alright for me to bed down there overnight.
I got the OK, and despite the temperature dipping into the low 40s according to my watch, I slept comfortably in my $400 sleeping bag. Those damn lights from the highway signs though; I guess no sky full of stars for me tonight. Truckers made their way from the enormous parking lot into the shop. There were no prostitutes in sight.
Santa Rosa, New Mexico
Pushed on into a town called Santa Rosa.
When I was at Clines Corner, a guy who saw me with the bike and gear asked all about the ride, and he was really impressed. When he found out that I’d be riding along Old Route 66, he told me about Santa Rosa. “It’s got some blue hole water pool thinger. I ain’t ever seen it, but I’m fixin’ to,” he said to me.
Santa Rosa does, in fact, have the “blue hole.” It’s a 30- or 40-foot (in diameter) pool that I read is about 80 feet deep. It reminded me of Melisanthi Lake in Kefalonia. Both have legends around them and vivid blue colors that change with the movement of the sun; both are connected to an underground cave/tunnel network that pulls currents in scientifically inexplicable ways.
Santa Rosa is a place that’s half ghost town, full of boarded up businesses and houses. Back in the 50’s and 60s, though, it must have been a fucking super center of commerce. The surrounding landscape is exceptionally beautiful, adorned with little canyons of red earth, winding roads that cover a varying elevation of hills, and lakes with a blue so deep it reminded me of the Aegean Sea.
I met another cyclist. He was a teamster actually, and he’d bring his bike along on his routes so he could stop to put in 20 miles wherever he felt like it. Then he'd throw the bike back on the rig and keep driving.
Tucumcari, New Mexico
Decent push to Tucumcari, which became my favorite of towns. In a way, it’s a microcosm of America. It was 60 miles away, and I was riding along Route 66. I got to the outskirts of town around 4 pm. I took an exit off 40 East that made a wide turn out over the interstate, connecting me to a state road. From the map, it seemed as if the town was sparsely spread across eight miles or so. The first two miles were a ghost town: both sides of the road were littered with burned out and crumbling motels. It was like something out of the Walking Dead. There was an oppressive sense of decay and disregard, and it was eerily quiet against the sounds of my tires and the air blowing over head. There was no one in sight—in fact, no sign of life at all—save for one trucker who had pulled over and was staring at one of the burned-down motels. I’ve never seen anything so out of place. I half expected him to turn and reveal that joker smile from Tim Burton's original Batman when the news anchor gets poisoned after using hygienic products laced with the Joker's chemicals.
After what felt like a time trap of stillness, I saw what appeared to be some sign of activity up ahead and eventually, I rode past a Dollar General, a community college, and a sign for a dinosaur museum. In between all of those were boarded up bars and shops.
I stopped to eat at a place where I had a good conversation with the people who worked there. A girl about the age of 16 was my waitress, and she was pretty curious about me and my life and why I was biking. She also warned me that if I were to spend the night, that I should be careful because of all the crank-heads. “Crankhead, eh? That kind of makes me want to stay and observe…” I replied. In fact, one of them was sitting not too far from me. He was talking about how he crashed his motorcycle and the cops busted him for a DUI (again). He'd spent a couple nights in jail and got out this morning. He came over and gave me dap.
My waitress urged me again to be careful while I signed their wall. And yes, I thought about drawing a defiant Greek flag in response to the German one but I didn't have a FUCKING STICKER OF A GREEK FLAG! Seriously, who does that? Who walks around with stickers of their country flag to put on brick walls? Then again...you know, historically speaking, it's not surprising. "Hello Mr. Hanz. Hello Mr. Snitzel-face."
As she spoke more, I realized that my server was broken youth. Now that doesn't mean that she is hopeless, but her openness alarmed me. And each bit of information was a piece to a familiar puzzle. Her mother lived in Vegas and was an addict. It sounds like she used to be a piano player of some regard out there; maybe she still is. The father isn’t at all in the picture and may have left before she could form memories of him.
On a hunch, I asked if she was married. “No, I wish I was, “ she replied. “My last two boyfriends are in prison.”
Whoa! OK, I needed to know why, based on her most recent romantic relationships, she wanted to get married. She asked to sit with me while I ate, and I said sure. She told me all about her life, and ultimately, she got to the part where she told me she thought the moon landing was fake because “things don’t move in space, and the flag was moving…”
I had this very morbid realization that this girl was a predator's dream. She was vulnerable and trusting. It was disturbing and unsettling to think about how these are the kinds of girls who go missing. They tell a bad man the things she was telling me and a bad man says "I can help you...I can take care of you." And they believe him. And when things never get better, they believe him when he tells them it's their fault.
There was hope. Despite her consumption of conspiracy theories , she also talked about how she didn’t understand why there was so much hatred and bigotry (her words) in the world. Despite some misgivings, she was pretty aware and observant. She also had already taken classes at the community college which integrated with the high school and the town to provide graduates with a job that also served the community. These types of systems being in place are what create opportunity and longevity that is key to these towns being able to prosper. They are also fundamental in creating opportunity for people like my waitress. Tucumcari is a place I wanted to see do well, and during my short stay there I saw many reasons why it would.
I took a room at the Safari Inn. The owner, Larry, came from Tennessee to buy the place and created something I fell in love with. He’s also the owner of the shyest dog I have EVER met, a beautiful boxer named Samantha.
All the rooms had been redone and modernized, while every piece of artwork was vintage and dedicated to the history and glory of Route 66—AKA The Mother Road. There were vintage radios, road signs, home decor, etc. It was like being on the set of a film. In the parking lot, he had actually brought in vintage cars to add to the aesthetic.
As Larry put it, the motel pairs the nostalgia of the Route 66 Era with today’s convenience. For example, the vintage radios in the room had all been retrofitted with bluetooth compatibility, and they played Route 66 Radio—which is incredible by the way.
After settling in and unpacking, I took the bike out to explore the town, ultimately making my way toward Tucumcari Mountain. According to the legend, a tribal chief who knew his time was ending wanted to find a successor. He had a daughter and decried that two braves would fight to the death for his title. One of the two braves was in love with the chief’s daughter, and she, in love with him. As it turned out, he was killed in the duel. In her grief, the chief’s daughter killed herself, and upon learning of this, the chief killed himself as well, his final word being “tucumcari.”
The sun began to set, and I was in the perfect place for it: big open sky with clouds that dissolved into different shades of red, purple, pink, and orange. The pictures themselves don’t look real to me. It was at that moment that I decided I’d take the next day off, just a straight up do nothing but ride around and learn more about this place kind of day.
When I got back to the motel, I talked to Larry a bit more. I found him to be a fascinating person. People like Larry are what make Tucumcari one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been to. It’s on the fringe, between progress and collapse. It was the type of town—and there are so many like it—that was described in the book “Our Towns,” a story about the different towns in America and how they reacted to the 2008 financial crisis that destroyed so much of what makes this country. Some of the towns in that book came out of the crisis and recovered; others slowly descended into something not so different from many other places I’d ridden through. These places looked like they’d been decaying slowly since the 60’s...places that became forgotten and discarded, inhabited by those unable to leave.
A lot of things came into perspective in Tucumcari. While back in Santa Rosa, I had realized the impact that the construction of 40 East had on the death of the Route 66 Era, and a place like Tucumcari made it abundantly clear. All the things that America has been discussing since even before 2016 came into focus here: income equality was the house with the caved in roof and six people living inside, with useless shit littering the entire yard, next to a brand-new home that had been rebuilt after whatever used to exist there got knocked down for a fresh start. There is clearly a meth and alcohol problem, and crank-heads literally appear out of nowhere. Like, all of a sudden, they’re drifting aimlessly and you wonder what shuttered-up window they crawled out of. Two seconds later they're nodding off in front of you, and by the time you blink again, they've scurried off somewhere, out of sight.
It dawned on me that for all the talk about stray animals that America has, it has ignored its desperate stray human problem, which is insanity to think about. This guy told me that he couldn’t drive anymore because he got too many DUIs and now just kind of walked around because he wasn’t working anywhere. His whole life is in the two bags he carried with him.
And then there are guys like Larry, who are pushing for a better future. Larry introduced me to another like-minded mover, Brandon Goldston. I had asked Larry if there were any bike shops because I needed some more supplies for a couple flats I’d gotten along the way. Larry kind of smiled and said, “There is . . . sort of. I gotta call the owner and see if he’s around to open it.”
He called and gave me an address to head to the next day, at 9:15 am or something like that. I rode over and met Brandon, who does, in fact, have a bike shop. It’s tiny and hard to find, but it’s a fucking gem. He had plenty of vintage Trek bikes in there as well as supplies. Brandon was also the organizer of the annual Wheels on Fire race, and I think honestly, that he had the bike shop as almost just a hobby. Brandon was also a saint. I needed another spare tube and a couple of CO2 cartridges. He refused any payment, saying, “This is for your journey, man.”
Little gestures like that are everything, especially when it’s easy to get carried away on social media about a decaying moral compass and an increasingly hostile world. I don’t think that’s untrue...but at the same time, there is beauty all around us if you look a little further. Never in my life would I have imagined that in Santa Rosa, there’d be a blue hole that reminded me so much of one of Greece’s most beautiful tourist attractions.
More conversations with Larry revealed that he and some other folks in the town were pushing to open a brewery. I also suggested a marijuana dispensary, which, for now, would have to be medicinal, but it would certainly help curb the opioid crisis. By the way, it’s one thing to talk about the opioid crisis and hear about it on the news every day, it’s another to see it right in front of you, every single day from coast to coast. It’s profound to see these decaying shells wandering about, and through certain interactions, see their humanity peek out.
I spent another day casually exploring Tucumcari and observing more of the stuff we talk about on a national level. There was this notion of struggle and decay, but out of that, growth can come. It’s a strange concept to articulate and process when there are such conflicting images all around you. Natural beauty vs. manufactured excrement of capitalism that comes with a sense of feeling trapped even in a place where there is so much open space around it in every direction.
That night I rolled up a spliff and walked around. Naturally I stopped over at a gas station to get some gatorade and I’d forgotten that in these places, the gas station is not only a minimart, but a place that people just hang out at. At the checkout, with a long line of people behind me, the cashier asked, “Is that you man?” He looked exactly like Wyatt from Ozark.
He was staring right at me and I suddenly got as paranoid as the first time I got high and went to the mall. “Play it cool,” I told myself. I answered, “It might be....uhhhh... I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” “Well,” he said with admiration. “If it is you…my man it smells damn good……it smells like that’s good shit.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “Maybe you could be a bit more subtle about it though….” In retrospect, maybe I should have been more subtle about it as far the smell goes but, it was all good. I think the police there are more concerned about crank than dank.
Begrudgingly left Tucumcari. Despite no open open pools or being near a beach, it was a place I wanted to spend months in….exploring the nearby areas or just taking long rides through the desert. I don’t know how these types of attractions work. Are they celestial? Are they magnetic? Something else? It's like the inescapable call of the mountain...I see it and I want to ride to the top.
* * *
On the interstate again...
I had a suspicion of a leak in the rear tire. It was the kind of thing where I just kept looking down at it, trying to see if I was noticeably losing pressure. It’s a terrible distraction to have. It reminded me of a time in college when I took an incredibly potent hallucinogen (ordered legally from a long since defunct company called “American Chemical Supply dot com”) and on the drive home I thought there were explosions happening and fireworks and I was watching city blocks crumble and get geometrically rebuilt in real time….and I kept checking my rear view mirror because I thought I was getting pulled over. Right…so safe…aggressively hallucinating and not looking in front of you. I gave myself the same advice now that I gave myself then. “Keep your eyes ahead…you’re on a fucking interstate…if you have a flat, you’ll know.” 30 minutes later the front tire went. I changed it in the relentless wind (which was nothing compared to what would come in Texas). Added air to the rear.
An hour later, the rear tire went. I texted my best friend to vent…he texted back “just throw away your last tube and come home.” Hashtag, #motivationalspeaker.
75 miles later I made it to a tiny (30 houses from what I saw) town that had an open gas station where I got some water and a snack. The lady working was of Greek descent, and she recognized the flag on my jersey. She let me know the next town was 13 miles away. I had about two hours of sunlight left. I pushed on and it made it to the halfway point between LA and Chicago on Rt. 66. Also, check out the camo!!
A sign told me that I was in Vega, Texas. Everyone here talks like they are on the show King of the Hill.
I slept behind a truck stop again after dinner at a Dairy Queen, which as far as fast food goes…might be my favorite. I had an incredible sunset followed by an even more incredible sunrise that was like an orange dripping yolk emerging out of an orange pool of thick liquid. The whole fucking horizion was that color. I felt like I was in a Robert Zemeckis film (pics didn’t capture it so great). I remember now that while I was eating at the DQ, one of those wonderful single serving moments occurred. This black guy walked in…huge huge black guy that just looked like a good guy. The plates on his car were Chicago’s, and we made eye contact and I just smiled from my table and said “Hey man…how are ya” or something like that. He smiled back and gave one of those “One day at a time my brotha….one day at a time.” And I had a thousand questions…what had brought him down here? What was it like socially? Had people been polite to him or was the racism of America overt? Also, this man was in such stark contrast to the guy who appeared to be the manager of the place...thi farm-fed white guy that looked like he had a klan robe in the trunk of his car. He didn’t smile once the entire time I was in there…just sat in the corner brooding in a silent fury. He looked like he was mulling over how to murder the girl that rejected him in high school.
This reflection reminded me of my trip down to Tucson from Phoenix. The bus I took was packed….no chance for having a row to myself. As I scanned the people hoping to get some kind of a “I know it sucks but you can sit with me” gesture from someone, a young, skinny Pakistani kid shyly put his hand up and gestured that I could sit with him. “Thanks man, that’s real nice of you,” I told him. We got to talking. He was a student and was just traveling around. I asked him frankly, “What’s your experience been like? I mean…have people been kind to you or have they been afraid of you because they saw an action movie that depicted all people from the middle east as terrorists? Have you ever been in areas where you felt unsafe?” He told me for the most part, people had been very nice, and there was only one area in which he felt so unsafe that he wanted to get out of there. Big surpise…that area was somewhere in Louisiana! I lived in Louisiana for about a year and while I met many great people, it is also where I heard, hands down, the most hateful racist rhetoric I have ever heard in my entire life. And I’m using the word “hate” here…literally. There was hatred. I remember one southern gentleman….one of the most polite people I’ve ever met, tell me he didn’t think I’d like Louisianna “because of the blacks.” Our conversation ended with him saying “Nice to meet you too young man...and you watch out fo them ni**az now.” What. The. Fuck dude? Are they gonna swing down from the trees and murder us? Is that what you are implying?" Anyway, I slept undisturbed next to another giant fucking gas station and woke up to a beautiful sunrise.
Big coffee for breakfast and a cool thirty miles to Amarillo and a bike shop. Checked into a Motel 6 to wash clothes and try to organize my stuff a bit better so it was more streamlined on the bike. I packed my sleeping clothes into the same bag where I have my bivy so at night, I only need to open up one bag.
Being in Texas, I figured I should order a steak. I’m not crazy about steak…once in a long while it’s a good thing. This was out of this world. In fact, it was SO good, I then ordered ribs and a banana pudding for dessert.
On TV, I watched my alma mater’s lacrosse team win the national championships. I needed to walk off all that food so I wandered up and down this main road that the restaurant was on and called my uncle and aunt, who had both lived in Texas during their university years, and I marveled that everything was indeed bigger here. Big sky, big steaks (they have these places where if you finish an entire 72 ounce steak, it’s free. Back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep and an early start for a big ride the next day.
I woke up the next morning to temperatures that had fallen into the low 60’s and a brutal wind. I was furious. I took it personally. Rode 7 miles or so to get out of the city and I was out around the airport where I considered very seriously, just renting a car and taking it to the next town. In fact, I actually rode towards the building with the rental cars before I talked myself out of it. But each pedal stroke made me more and more angry…the fury building inside me was about to cause me to self combust. I needed to reset my mood, and soon…or I’d have a break down.
In movies, there are scenes that show a bar and as the protagonist approaches the door, you tell yourself “don’t go in there.” That’s what the roadside shack I was riding towards looked like…a small structure on the side of a service road….aluminum siding…storm front outer door, metal inner door….it was like something out of a Tarantino movie. But I desperately needed coffee. I walked in…full spandex gear and all…and immediately noticed men in their denim overalls and t-shirts at the bar, smoking cigarettes and drinking bud light. It was 11 am. Then the storm-door slammed shut behind me like a fucking rifle going off, and, record scratch, everyone turned to look at me. This happened in slow motion. I grinned and asked, “How ya’ll doing?” I sheepishly added, “Sorry about the door.” “That’s ok hun, come on in,” said the beautiful cowgirl behind the bar. I was actually struck by her beauty…just classic Texas gal kind of beauty…tall, cinnamon blonde hair, blue eyes, and a wonderful smile…..warm and gracious.
The folks in the overalls were all curious and as I was taking my first steps towards the bar one of them exclaimed “Damn buddy…where you coming from?!” Don’t forget to read that in a big Texas accent. “Technically….San Francisco,” I chuckled. “San Francisco!!! And where you riding to?” “Washington DC.” “Damn son….I don’t even ride down my driveway…..and it’s COLD out there today!!!” I chuckled again and said “Man…I gotta tell ya…I’m not quite ready to talk about that just yet,” and turning to Mrs. Texas, I asked if they were serving coffee.” Fortunately they were. This would turn out to be one of my most interesting exchanges on the trip…fascinating as a matter of fact. But first, let’s talk about the sign hanging from the ceiling.
It was a caricature of Tea Party hero sheriff David Clarke, kicking Obama in the butt, OUT of Texas, and back to Washington DC. Under this, in bold letters, it said “DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS.” And it’s like, “Ok…I get the joke but…as it turns out, Texas asked for federal monetary assistance following a natural disaster so….maybe I don’t get the joke at all?”
But this is part of what made it so interesting. Once I’d gotten two cups of coffee (I drink coffee like a college student taking shots by the way), I got to talking to some of the guys at the bar. They were all farmers and ranchers. One of them asked how he could help me after he heard about what I was doing. First I thanked him for the gesture and told him that what would really help me is if he just shared what I was doing and from the shares, donations would come in. About thirty minutes later it was just the owner (Wendy) and me, and two other women who appeared to be family. The conversation was fascinating to me. Having learned that those guys there were farmers, I asked her if any of them had been bailed out by Trump or if their farming had been affected by the trade war he had started with China. None of them had been affected by it. Then I asked her if they believed in climate change, and she said they absolutely did, but it was more their children who had the capacity to deal with it, and it was because they had all gone to college and studied things like agriculture or ranching. Then I said to Wendy, “So I bet you’ve seen some pretty crazy things in here.” In my mind, I was talking about bike fights and shit like that. The place was certainly a restaurant bar, but also had a pool table and again…the setting of it all was just biker bar heaven. But for Wendy, “crazy things” I think meant judgmental liberals that come from somewhere else. “I take one look at people like that and I know right away they think they’re too good for this place,” she said. As we talked more, she told me about her life and about how she feels like whenever people like that come in here, they hear her accent and just immediately think she’s stupid. “They don’t know that I’ve got an advanced degree….that I was a nurse practitioner [I THINK that's what she told me...if she wasn't a practitioner she was something else that you have to work really, really hard for], but just didn’t want to be around death anymore. They don’t know that I bought this place out completely so it would be 100% mine…so I could do with it as I pleased. They might see some redneck bar but we’ve seen families come through year after year and their children have grown up coming here.” I was starting to fall in like with her. She continued, “I admit…sometimes with people like that…I’m a little nervous that they’re going to hear my thick Texas accent and just assume that I’m stupid. And I feel that way a little bit when I travel too,” she conceded. And then it dawned on me….in a fantastic way. “You realize…Wendy…that what you just described….is prejudice, right?” “Yeah,” she said….”that’s what it is.” I said, “So you can imagine then…what it must be like for someone who is brown or just different….to feel like when they’re immediately associated with crime or violence or just…being evil, right?” And it was just this remarkable moment of understanding. And for the record, Wendy is an angel…I don’t think she has a hint of malice in her heart. I don’t think she had this “aha” moment….she is someone who knows herself and knows her values. But our politics are certainly different. And that’s ok...I think that the exchange we had...finding common ground from our differences...is what makes America great. Because at the end of the day, despite our differences, we want the same thing: to feel safe...to do better than our parents...for those of us with children, to put them in a position that will help them do better than us. “This is America,”I said to myself yet again.
Sadly, it was time to push on…but the wonderful conversation and the mental reset allowed me to accept that the rest of the day was going to be fucking horrible. Before I left, Wendy wrote her number down on a piece of paper and asked me to call her whenever I got to my next destination so I could let her know that I was alright. And no, this wasn’t one of those “sext me later you hot Greek stud” things….this was her being a good Christian woman…a real Christian, looking out for another human being. Say what you want about religion, but I appreciate that sort of thing.
The ride was mother-fucking horrible. The wind was powerful and constant. I cursed God, declared that He was not malevolent, and screamed and yelled into the howling winds that had been sent by Him to go against me. The wind was so strong that I was getting sore way up in my thighs from pushing down so hard with each stroke. It was cold and exhausting. The howling was so loud that trying to listen to music was pointless….it just turned into distorted background noise. I want to kill everything in the world. Fuck all of you, you pieces of shit.
I came across another rider, a guy on a seated bicycle with a massive wind-guard on it. He was biking from LA to Chicago, and we rode together for a bit and chatted, but Jesus he was riding at MAYBE 8 miles an hour in a high gear, and I just wanted to get to wherever I was sleeping that night, as quickly as possible. I needed to at least FEEL like I was making an effort.
VW BEATLES, somewhere in Texas
I moved on and came up to some desert art thing made up of VW beetles that had been spray painted and inserted into the ground. They were all next to some dilapidated and broken down motel that had been completely vandalized and destroyed, probably by ANTIFA (that’s a joke).
It was here that I also met another rider, a non-English speaking Japanese guy who was only able to tell me his age and his name. 61 year old Hiroyuki Watanabe, from Kobe, Japan. I remember he was very proud of his age. I still wonder what that must have been like for a guy who spoke almost zero English…to be biking around America….in the south no less. But then again, this wasn’t the first time I met a foreigner who had told me that overall, things were actually pretty good. And I think it was around this time, I started to realize that there are many Americas within this country….and there’s different ideas about what America is, and what it can be.
A few more things about Texas: HUGE belt buckles, cowboy hats, boots, and a fanaticism for guns. Lots of signs on people’s houses that said things like, “WE DON’T FIRE A WARNING SHOT: MOLON LABE” and “WE DON’T CALL THE POLICE AT THIS HOUSE.” I just don’t get it. Can you imagine if I started walking around in my cycling clothes the way those people walk around in camo? Or if all my t-shirts said things like, “My bike costs more than some cars,” or “I’m not crazy…i’m a cyclogist.” What the fuck? I can’t think of any other hobbyist that is such a fanatic about what they do that they rub it in everyone’s faces, except for religious extremists.
Passed a decent sized tarantula and was fascinated and immediately teleported back to the American Museum of Natural History, where they have exhibits in which you can see them outside of their terrariums. They are such beautiful creatures.
I stopped in Gary, Texas for some food at a grocery store where I got some weird fucking looks from people….especially the farm-fed giant who looked like the main antagonist in season one of True Detective.
Across the way, there was a giant cross rising up like a phallic symbol from a 90's era Madonna video.
Passed into Oklahoma today. I had a long romance with a girl from Oklahoma. I think we both thought we might end up marrying each other some day. We’re no longer in one another’s lives. I did send her the below pic though and told her what I was doing and why and that I was thinking of her and hoped she was well.
Oklahoma was much, MUCH greener than I thought…at least the area that I entered from which was right on other side of the Texas pan-handle. This was nothing like Steinbeck’s famous work. There were also turtles EVERYWHERE..and not the desert tortoises..turtles that spend most of their time in water. I picked up three and moved them out of the road. I approached a fourth but he literally sprinted off the moment he saw me. I didn’t know turtles could move that fast. If I could bike as fast that turtle sprinted, I’d have been home by now.
I arrived in Erick, Oklahoma…population one thousand. I stopped at a cafe that was actually a dispensary, and the only baked goods they had….got you baked. Sadly without a medical marijuana card, I couldn’t buy anything, but I needed a break from riding and the girl working there was pretty chill and she let me hang out and relax. We talked about life while she ground up weed and prepared the pre-rolled joints the place sold. She offered to get me high but I declined, telling her that I usually saved that for after the ride. I learned that it was the first dispensary to open in the area. A doctor had opened it in order to help treat her husband because she hated the medication he was prescribed. I asked if she ever got any flack from the community in a conservative area and she said generally people were pretty cool, but she was also carrying a gun just in case. I've seen a guy that small only once in my life, the movie Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. It's criminally underrated, and if you wanna skip to the tiny gun, it starts around 1:10.
I went across the street to a food mart where I got a sandwich and the manager asked, “Hey…you been next door yet? To Harley’s? He’s a character.”
Erick, Oklahoma - Harley
Next door was a house. It looked like the house from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it was COVERED in Route 66 Memorabilia. I went inside, and I found this man playing the guitar.
Yes, he’s wearing overalls and boots. I sat down while he continued to play beautifully, and some time passed while I just took it all in. What WAS this place? There were ashtrays with 500 cigarette butts in them. There were half empty bottles of Jack Daniels randomly placed throughout the area….four of them. Then Harley turned to me and he said, “Well my God ain’t you the most conceited son of a bitch to walk in here and sit down like you own it!” “Yea…..I was told I should come in and say hello….I don’t think either of us were expecting this.” Harley howled about how he’d have much preferred a beautiful young girl to suck his dick, but I was rather pretty to look at so, no big deal. It didn't phase me. “I’m George,” I told him. “Gorgeous George…..alright Gorgeous George…what are you up to?” “I’m living man…that’s what I’m up to. I’m biking across the country.” Harley told me that if I was riding along Route 66, I should absolutely stop in and see a pretty young girl that’s got a place called Bazaar on 66 a few towns over.
While he literally roared at me for my “arrogance,” he seemed to appreciate how comfortable I was with myself. In fact i think that quib about the blowie was just him testing me. We talked about weed, women, and life. We talked about America. I asked him about all the bottles of JD and he casually replied, “I use it for mouthwash” A few minutes later he was tipping a bottle back and then started a hitting a vape pen. I asked him why he was using that artificial shit when there was a weed shop across the street. "It's convenient," he replied.
I got the impression very quickly, that Harley is brilliant. Yes, he’s a complete hillbilly…100%. But he’s a total pro…a showman who knows exactly what he’s doing….and he turns it on and off whenever he pleases. For a moment he got real and talked about how when trying to accomplish something…no matter what it is, you need to become more than a name or a person. He knows his brand, that’s for sure.
Back on the road. The signs at this massively wide intersection involving a state road, a highway, and a county road aren’t exactly accurate. I had something like 20-30 miles to get to Elk City, OK. A dunce at the gas station had me go the wrong way for about 45 minutes, the only silver linings being a beautiful red, yellow and black snake, and also….Bison.
THEN, the mother fucking Apple maps had me go down what became a dead end…at the bottom of a fucking hill. A LONG FUCKING HILL. They have fucking satellites to figure this shit out..back up the hill, and at this point it’s basically dark out…and I’m riding through an ASTEROID FIELD of winged insects. My fury is relentless…I am consumed by rage and a feeling of complete betrayal. I cursed Steve Jobs' ghost and all of you for this humiliation.
Elk City, Oklahoma - Big Boy Win
It's night time. I am surrounded by darkness. There is light pollution coming out of the hill ahead. Made it to Elk City…got a motel. Elki City has a population of between 11 and 12 thousand people, and is about 110 miles west of Oklahoma City. I had biked 150 miles since Amarillo.
It seems like a fine place to live, but I found their public pool to have lazy hours. I think they opened even as late as 1pm...well after the UV index was above 7. However, at the pool I witnessed something remarkable. There were lots of kids there…11-13 years old…a big group of boys. Amongst them…there was a great big fat one. And I don’t mean he was chunky…I mean this was Chris Farley…but at the age of 11.
And you know how most boys are at that age…fearless and competitive. They were hitting the diving boards and doing back flips and screaming. It was pure summer small-town childhood. Anyway, big boy went up to that diving board and his friends were yelling at him to do a backflip. The kid…was petrified. Shit I was fucking scared for him…standing there alone…on the edge of that 10 foot board..the momentum of his weight slowly oscillating him up and down like a big doughy piston. This went on for a whole five minutes…and by the point, the whole pool was silent. Aside from rhythmic up and down movement, everything was still. Do you understand what I’m describing? A mother fucking pool…..FULL OF CHILDREN….and there was SILENCE!!!!! Hashtag….#suspense. Suddenly one of his buddies yelled out “COME ON MAN! YOU GOT THIS!”
Big boy did his cross several times while heaving up and down….and finally…he bounced once, just a little harder, and with exceptional and unexpected grace, he floated into the air and still in slow motion, did a backwards revolution while fully extended…and landed feet first into the pool. He surfaced with this expression of disbelief…and the entire pool exploded into applause. #bigboywin
This really can’t be said enough….be good to people out there. I watched that kid turn into a man that day, and it’s because people were nice and encouraging and because they supported him.
I checked out Bazaar on 66, per Harley’s recommendation and approached who I thought might be the girl he told me about. “Are you Melody?” She looked up and exclaimed, “OH MY GOD! GORGEOUS GEORGE!!!!” Why can't all strangers talk to me like that? We spoke quite a bit about Harley. Harley has basically survived on tips for the last 30 years. She confirmed my suspicions that he was brilliant and a master or branding. I had also gotten the impression that Harley was a romantic….not quite sure how…just my instinct, and she went on to tell me that he had a wife that he was very much in love with but she had died from cancer. They had started this whole charade together. In fact, there's a documentary about him that you can see by clicking here. We talked about her life, her shop, etc… She is stupidly beautiful. She asked for us to take a picture for her insta page and said “Hey, what if you hold me in front of the store?” She hopped up and as I brought my arm around to catch her, I ended up totally cupping her boob. I thought about it every day with guilt. “What if she thinks I’m some scumbag that actually gets off on a cheap grab like that?” About a week later, I called her to acknowledge and apologize and she just laughed and reassured me she didn’t have any inclinations that I was a creep.
My friend Sharee had flown in for a planned visit so she and I were hanging out and checking out different places along historic route 66. A massive tornado had blown through and again…it’s one thing to see damage on the news…it’s another to be in it. Jesus Christ.
This carnage was unbelievable. I also realized that the ridiculous wind I’d encountered in Texas was actually from the storm that was leveling Oklahoma. The winds I was dealing with were so strong, that I was riding at an angle, against the wind, in order to stay level. It’s the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been on a bike, especially when I had to be on the highway.
That night Sharee and I got a hotel in Opaloosa. But before that, here’s a picture of why so many people in the midwest have diabetes. And I’m not saying that to make fun of them…but considering the friends I have with that disease…it’s frustrating to see people not doing anything to prevent themselves from getting it. Now that said, there's a family sharing that but FUCK!
So, Opaloosa…Sharee and I had a room and we stepped out to smoke a spliff. I was in a fantastic mood…catching up and hanging out with Sharee the last couple of days had been really, really nice, as had been spending some time off the bike. As we walked out the door to the parking lot, a white trash meth couple was sitting by the pool. I looked over and said hello, and the guy asked me how I was doing. I replied jovially, “Pretty fucking great man!” The guy then replied, “Watch your mouth in front of my woman.” I couldn’t help myself…I looked back at him and just started laughing. “His” woman grabbed him by the arm and “shhhushed” him. We kept walking and Sharee added, “Right, because he’s so wholesome.” Brilliant. We were down at the other end of the parking lot when I noticed that tough guy, against the wishes of his woman…who clearly had more sense than he did, was making his way over to us while she was holding him back and trying to get him to stop. There was part of me that wanted to let him come over and take him out. One sweep to the leg and the pavement would have taken care of the rest. But then there’d still be his girl to deal with…and also the fact that if the police came, I’d have to deal with them. And who knows, one of those cops might have been that dude’s brother or some shit. I told Sharee we should just walk away. We made our way across the street and followed a little path that brought us to an area that must have been near a small pond or something, as we could make out distinct frog chirps, all sorts of bugs, and various other sounds of nature.
The next day I arrived at one of my best friend’s homes in Tulsa, Oklahoma for what was going to be a one week stay of R&R. As it turned out, the bike needed some service and a new chain and we were having so much fun we decided to make it two weeks. I’d put in the miles of the ride each day, and then I could drive to Loretto, KY where I’d spend a few days with an old college buddy of mine. In some ways, that became the most significant part of the trip….but we’ll get to that later.
Tulsa is incredible…and being there during Tulsa Tough was exactly what I needed to see because it inspired me and invigorated me in terms of the things I wanted to see in my own home country of Greece.
Tulsa is also a prime example of income inequality, and what happens when the opioid crisis is ravaging a community. My buddy lives in a nice neighborhood…with beautiful homes. He’s walking distance to downtown Tulsa, and walking distance to the River Walk of the Arkansa River….which has been converted into a beautiful walking and biking area with various parks and gardens. Two block away from him is a gas station/mart….and behind it are some halfway houses. Multiple times a week, I saw an ambulance come to take away a person who I presume was overdosing.
Across the street from that was a place called Ron’s Burgers…where I wanted to eat. I mean if a place has the name of ONE food in their name, that one meal must be awesome. I wanted to like it. Anyway, while waiting for my food, I looked out the window and observed a meth deal go down. This dude opened a box full of what could have passed for mineral salts….but no…meth. Right there in the open.
That said, there are too many wonderful things to write about with regards to Tulsa…so again I’ll let some pictures do the talking for me. And I also met some really, really wonderful people there.
I got to Louisville at 2 am. It was POURING rain…and I was exhausted. There was only one hotel near me…it was called a Budgetell, and if that doesn’t give you an idea about where I was staying, the front desk was surrounded by bullet-proof glass. The only other person in the area was a dude in shorts, a beater, and flip flops, and he was trying to put a dollar through the coin socket of a soda machine.
My room smelled of stale nicotine and vomit. I was so paranoid about bed bugs that I couldn’t fall asleep, and before I knew it, my alarm was going off. I took the rental to the drop off, and there was my buddy Mark Baxter, who I hadn’t seen in maybe even seven years. He’d grown out a big wizard beard that makes Letterman’s look like peach fuzz.
We went back to the hotel where we loaded his car up with my stuff and from the railing, watched a guy steal a television out of one of the rooms. Mark took me to a place he knew where we had undoubtedly, one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had.
It’s impossible to accurately describe Mark because he is so unique. When it came to cuisine, he didn’t just know good food; he knew ingredients. He knew methods. When it came to whiskey, he knew everything. He would at times send me a picture of a whiskey with four pages worth of information….where it came from, who the master brewer was, the history of the distillery going back generations under different owners, different master distillers…he knew current focuses of the distillery as well as changes being made on the distillery's campus. I’d tell him he needed to make an instagram account and instead of sending me all that information, he should post a picture of the whiskey and then write what he sent me as the caption. It took him 7 years just to open an instagram account; he posted a total of zero times. There were so many idiosyncrasies that came with Mark.
He moved slower than Rust Cohle, and he took just as long to accomplish something. It was something elemental with him. In college he and I were part of the same pledge class. One night, our pledge class needed to be back in our pledge master’s room by 9 pm. We had finished our activities by 8:30 and were gonna head back early. We were not allowed to separate from one another, ever. It was then that Mark told us he needed to grab something from his room…on the other side of campus. We agreed we’d have enough time if he just had one thing to grab and off we went. We got to his house and he ran up to his room. A couple minutes went by…five minutes…. “Mark we gotta go.” “I’m coming.” Another five minutes.
We accepted that we’d be late and at that point stopped caring. But another ten minutes went by, and another ten after that. Our buddy Reny went up and found him ironing clothes. There’s a hundred other stories just like that.
Mark lived in Loretto, Kentucky. I think the population must have been around 500 people. Mark lived next to a gas station that he been robbed at gun point the night before I got there. It was so good to see him. We talked about possibly taking a road trip down to the college we went to, and I told him that would take me way out of the way, but if I could put in the miles while I stayed with him, it would be alright. And so that’s how it went; I’d wake up in the morning and go riding and then come back to hang out and he’d take me to a bunch of incredible places.
Kentucky is beautiful to ride in…at least from what I saw. Long, elegantly beautiful country roads that expand effortlessly and infinitely. The quality of the pavement too…smooth and consequently, fast rolling for the tires. Riding by the old warehouses of bourbon, especially as dusk rolled in, always made me feel like I’d gone back in time. There’s something so traditional about Kentucky…maybe it’s the legend that comes with all the bourbon, or the history of the place. Maybe it’s just that there’s so much that’s undisturbed, and so much that’s been preserved.
Also, some of the most beautiful storms I’ve ever seen…you can literally watch them rolling in.
And the lightning...
Mark had been pretty adamant that I avoid certain areas near him, making a big fuss about the “cornbread mafia,” and that it was dangerous. This was hard for me to imagine…especially if I was just riding around on my bike. Mark also did have a tendency to blow some things out of proportion or just create an illusion out of something that wasn't really there.
Now, the cornbread mafia is a real thing…it’s the name associated with a bunch of folk from Kentucky who created the largest domestic marijuana production ring in the history of the United States. The story broke in 1989. But again...riding around on a bike should be fine.
Anyway, it was on that same ride where for the first time in my life, I found myself say “Damn…those people wanna hurt me…..” I’d ridden from Loretto to Lebanon, Kentucky. On what must have been the outskirts of Lebanon, I stopped at a gas station to grab some gatorade or something like that. Sitting outside the gas station, again…full spandex…I drew some looks. Then a black girl commented on how much she loved my bike…asked me some questions about riding and we enjoyed a pleasant single serving conversation. I wished her a happy june-teenth…which blew her fucking mind as she said, “Damn…not a lot of folk know about that round here…” “No shit,” I thought.
Then…a car pulled up….a station wagon. The first thing I noticed was the straight up redneck fucking facial hair on the deformed (don’t get offended..just keep reading) man driving it. Then I noticed the thick denim overalls…the eyes too close together…the big forehead…the wide nose…..massive chops coming down from his little ears. There were four other people in the car and as it came to a stop, I realized they were all staring at me. You just KNOW when someone doesn’t like you…and that’s when I had that “those people wanna hurt me” feeling. It was the most peculiar stare I’ve ever encountered...this was like Children of the Corn shit.
I wasn’t afraid per se…just aware. The deformities were clearly the result of inbreeding. They hadn’t taken their eyes off me. I couldn’t tell if they were seething with anger or salivating. Possibly both? “You got a purty mouth boy….I’m gonna use it as a luber ‘fore I fuck my sister…” I was transfixed…I’d never seen anything like this before, except in the epic film Willow. You know, the scene where Bavmorda turns people into pigs?
I stood up to get on the bike and keep going, and at that moment the female sitting in the passenger seat abruptly opened the door and stood up. I could hear walk talky interference from inside the car…which was incredibly strange. She then asked me, “You from around here….?” Her accent was twanging out of her mouth like a broken banjo. Can we talk for a moment, about how inappropriate that question is? You know God damn well I’m not from around here. I know you don’t know the flag on my jersey is a Greek one…but you damn well know it’s not an American one…and you’ve probably never seen anything like my bike or anyone like me in your life…so what kind of trap are you laying?”
“No,” I smiled back and got on the bike to ride off. I did wonder if they were going to catch up to me and run me off the road somewhere.
I called a friend of mine who had lived in Kentucky for a time to tell her and she
got extremely worried. She told me some places to avoid because “people there will kill you and feed you to their pigs just because they don’t like what you’re wearing.” I debated on whether or not I should tell Mark what had happened. Naturally I did and he was shocked I’d survived. One day while we were sitting on his back porch, the sound of gunfire could be heard from pretty nearby. This was recorded shortly after that.
Mark made it his mission to be the best host ever…both in terms of food and also coffee. Mark took forever to complete any task, but his final product was perfection. The BEST coffee. The BEST joints…the best meals. And he was indeed, the best host. He took me to see three different distilleries, two of which were over an hour away. He also took me to the cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born, as well as to different areas to just enjoy the beauty of nature. We reminisced about college and different adventures we’d had in life.
We did end up making the trip down to where we went to college, in Emory, VA. We stayed with an old fraternity brother of ours, Bill Mapp. I’d never met Bill before, but we had communicated extensively via the facebook over the years. I felt like I knew him already, and when we did meet, the legendary Bill didn’t disappoint. He’s many things, but I think at heart he’s a philosopher and a student, always eager to converse and listen and share. And aside from an infamous outing to Five Guys, I think that’s all we did down there, especially when we got a surprise visit from another brother, Raymont…a guy with some property who has been throwing an annual three day party where we camp out, have bands play…huge ass bonfire. I reflected on my trip and what I’d learned and seen. I talked about the kindness I’d encountered and the curiosity I’d seen in people…and not just those interested in me. But also people I met along the way….people who were curious enough about something to explore it for themselves. Like that kid from Illinois that just picked up and drove to California to work a minimum wage job for the summer, just to say “I did something didn’t I, God damn it.
On my last day in Emory, Mark and I drove about 15 minutes from Bill’s house over to our former college to walk around the campus a bit and reminisce. To say that memories flooded back as we walked around would be an understatement. Mark in particular though, wanted to go and walk around by the old civil war graveyard. It was on a large hill overlooking the campus. From my time at that school, I couldn’t remember if I’d ever been up there before. If I had, I’d certainly forgotten how beautiful it was…with views of the mountains in the background.
Mark and I barely spoke up there…we just wandered around the gravestones. Aside from the hot, humid and heavy wind blowing through the pines, there was nothing else to disturb the stillness.
We walked back down to the campus for lunch and took a few final pictures before I had to ride on. Also, considering I’d be home in a few days, I was able to ship some stuff home to make the load a bit lighter on me for the bike.
From Emory I was planning to ride to Radford, Virginia where I’d be staying with another college buddy of mine, Reny Villaroman. I was making pretty good time, but I’d also forgotten that this part of the state is exceptionally hilly. I was planning on getting there by around 7….and it was about 6:30 when I realized I’d still have about another hour to go. Reny insisted that he come and scoop me up because he wanted us to eat together. It had started raining. I obliged.
He surprised me by picking me up with another college buddy, who was now his neighbor. They scopped me up from the top of Draper mountain, that overlooks the draper valley below. Even with the clouds, it was quite beautiful.
I was gonna spend the night in Radford and leave the next morning, but Reny was trying desperately to get me to stay for the next day as well, talking about how we’d get to spend it at the lake and hang out. I was trying to tell him I just really, really wanted to get home…that I’d been on the road for two months…that I was so close. Then I realized something and started laughing. I told him, “You know man….you’re going about this the wrong way….you’re not using the right pitch. What you should be telling me is… “We’ll spend the day at the lake…you’ll get to even out the tan lines you’ve gotten from biking….” This was in reference to our college days, when Reny was secure enough to only allow me to know he went tanning, and that’s only because he knew that I would go tanning. Anyway, that kind of settled it…one more day of rest and relaxation and fun.
On to the final push….and this is where the mental toughness really needed to flex. I could technically argue that I was home…my mom and sister live in Virginia…I could have rented a car and been home that evening. But I kept pushing that thought out of my head.
I pedaled on, passing by James Madison University. “You could rent a car and be home in two hours dude….” Kept pedaling. Stopped at a gas station and a guy pulled up in a big Ford pick up…a 150 that had been raised and I think had an elongated bed. Long hair….mean look to him. He had a gun on his hip and his stickers were about guns and “Molon Labe” and the IRA…he probably still saves his confederate dollars. He had kids in the car…all girls. I wonder what their home is like. For all I know it’s amazing….life on a farm….close to nature….maybe. Probably not.
This part of Virginia is exceptionally beautiful….there are mountains, looooong country roads, and caverns. The rolling hills, even with the bike weighing what it weighed, were delightful. And of course, knowing I’d be home the next day really kept me going.
Despite it being dark, I had the energy to keep pushing….though i admit I began questioning that decision when I started up yet another seemingly endless ascent through a wooded area. I kept thinking about the burned out church in a town I passed through a couple hours earlier. There were a bunch of confederate flags hanging all around it…and I wondered what happened….was it a black church that got burned down by people still clinging to the side that lost? Was it a white power church that had an accident and their confederate faithful had hung up the flags to show their resilience?
I told myself I’d make the drive there when I got home just to try and learn more but….that obviously never happened. But I did see a sign that said I was 10 miles away from Front Royal, VA….which was always big landmark when I was driving to college from home, or coming back. In fact, coming back was always much better because I knew that I only had about an hour left. That’s by car. An hour in the car is about a day on the bike. I got a motel…rejoicing at the fact that it’d be my last night getting a motel…because I desperately needed a shower…stupid fucking swamp weather God damn it. And on the window of the motel, I saw what the bugs I’d been flying into looked like. “You’re telling me those things are real??!!?” Yeah…and they were fucking EVERYWHERE!!!!!.
It wasn’t until I got into the room that I realized I was EXHAUSTED, but it was imperative that I wash my clothes. I’m talking…it was a matter of national security…that’s how much I’d sweat that day. I took a quick shower, ran across the street to a seven eleven and I got something with sugar just to give me a long enough rush to keep me going for another hour…long enough to wash my clothes and just arrange everything on the bike again so that I’d just get dressed and go in the morning. But no…never listening not myself, I woke up that morning and walked down to the bridge about a half mile away to take some pictures that didn’t even come out so great.
It was nine am when I started walking back and it was already getting sweaty. Fuck it….today I’d be getting home. Nothing could stop me. Then of course…way off in the horizon…I saw another mountain. “That’s going to suck,” I said. And my God…awful….it was one pm. The heat was hostile, and the humidity was oppressive like a straight jacket soaked in warm clay. The ascent was endless…a mile and a half on a steep grade (must have been at least 8) with absolutely abysmal pavement conditions. It was basically a “mountain bike required” gravel trail on the shoulder and a little more than half way up I just had to stop and sit on the side of the road. And sure…after an ascent there’s always the descent but in this case…it wasn’t worth it. That ascent almost killed me. My heart rate monitor told me so. Fortunately about forty five minutes later I was back in a woody area riding under the shade. I stopped at a little cafe in a quaint New
England style village…and got a little good luck visit from a butterfly. That’s what my friend Nikki said when I posted to instagram at least.
On to the final push and things were really starting to look up. The temperature began to drop and by mistake, I happened to come across the WO&D Trail, a paved multi purpose trail that was laid over the Washington and Dominion Rail line, which closed in 1968. This trail runs right by my sister’s house….and it made me realize I couldn’t be more than two hours away. This gave me a renewed burst of energy…and since I was on an isolated paved trail, I could listen to some music. Then came the rain.
Spent the night at my sisters...and met my nephew who had been born while I was away. Also, no escaping reading duty to my niece.
Leading up to the trip, I didn’t delve too much at all into notions of what it would be like…on whether or not I’d have some profound experience or realization about myself. As I said so many times, “I’m just pedaling…for however long I’m doing that for, my job is to just pedal.”
I did freak out about it once…one night when I got into bed a few days before I was leaving I actually thought how much fucking distance that was…that even a week long trip of cycling is long…and I was looking at least a month and a half. But then I just talked myself back about how incredible it would be.
As I got closer to home, there were moments on the road where I would feel overcome with emotions….seemingly out of nowhere. The day before I got home, I became very emotional about my dad, who in two days, would be remembered on the tenth anniversary of his death. I considered how much he loved back country type of stuff…away from a lot of other people. I thought about how much he’d have loved to do at least part of the trip and camp out somewhere, and how much valuable that time would have been with him. While they are alive, you think your parents are old. And when they die unexpectedly, you realize how much more time you could have had to keep learning from them. When I think back to the ride, there are so many moments I’d have loved to have had him there for. Of course I missed my mom but that type of excursion is one she’d rather hear about than experience first hand, and when it comes to things like Route 1 in CA or the inbred pig people of Kentucky…it's just better that she doesn't know about it all. For my mom….post cards from the road were what she needed.
I think back often to what are the three main themes of the trip…two of which I’ve mentioned (many Americas and that there's more that unites us than divides us). On the human condition as a result of poverty, the opioid crisis, and this notion that we don’t have the resources to help one another is profound. I saw its impacts first hand from one coast to the other and everywhere in between. These stray humans...for fuck's sake are people already living a post apocalyptic experience. I rode through so much open space….I mean wide open space…that I can say with zero doubt, that anyone who says we don’t have room for immigrants in America, at the very least doesn’t know what they’re talking about. This is likely because they haven't taken the time to find answers and experience things for themselves.
At some point during the trip a woman reached out to me via instagram to ask me about the ride. Secifically “is it safe for a woman out there? I’d like to do a big adventure ride some day.” I hesitated and said “I don’t know how to answer that….is it safe for a woman anywhere?” “I appreciate that,” she answered. Two months ago, Ahmaud Bery was stalked and murdered by a father and son who shot and killed him while he was out jogging. Just a few days ago, a 17 year old kid shot and killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. But I maintain that America as a whole and as a collection of different versions of itself, isn’t actually as divided as social media…specifically facebook and twitter, would have us think. Do I think America needs to come to terms and make good on the genocide, slavery, murder, pillage, rape and betrayal that it was built upon? Yes, absolutely. And that's going to come from goodness and humanity that exists in this country. America is like so many of those towns I rode through...broken. But just like in those towns, there were good, forward thinking people working to make sure those towns could be a beacon of stability and progress. I think there's more than enough good people in America to push her in the right direction so she can again be a beacon for the world.
The final theme didn’t become apparent to me until December 28th, 2019. I saw I’d gotten a voicemail from Mark’s mom and without listening to it, I called her back. She said she had called me to talk about Mark, and I chuckled, telling her I figured…and was expecting to hear some story about the guy. Unforunately, she called to tell me that Mark was dead, adding that he’d collapsed in a liquor store. “You know Mark…he was probably looking into some rare bourbon or something….”
I was besides myself…devastated by the news that was becoming more and more difficult to process. I fumbled through the repetitious “oh my Gods…” and finally choked out that I was so grateful that I’d gotten the chance to spend time with him back in June. And she replied, “Well that’s just the thing George…if you hadn’t been riding that bike across the country, you probably wouldn’t have gotten to see him again.” And in that moment, I realized something. Of all the things I’d associated my bike with: freedom and exploration…fitness and a whole lifestyle…a tool with which I could create fundraising and awareness…I’d been eluded by what would perhaps be that bike’s greatest feature: it was the instrument that allowed me to see my friend one last time.