I rode across the country with Jim Kersting. Jim’s wife, Sara, drove their camper and was an essential member of the team. We rode to raise money for the Finger Lakes Land Trust, an organization on whose board we had served, and in the end we raised over $30,000. The 300 or so people who pledged support for our ride wanted to know what we were up to, so every evening when there was wi-fi, Jim and Sara set up a camp chair, put a cold beer in my hand, and told me to write a letter to the folks while they fixed dinner. It was a once-in-a-lifetime writing fellowship. It was multiple dreams come true. I rode with a notebook and a camera and I kept my eyes wide open. This blog tells what I saw.
Note: Click on the small photographs to make them bigger. Also, this blog posts that follow are available as a print-on-demand book.
I joined the Finger Lakes Land Trust in 1994 and met Jim and Sara Kersting there in 1996. Jim and I got to know each other over the next decade as we took turns being President. The Land Trust was growing rapidly, and some of the things Jim and I puzzled through on the board of directors were kind of sticky, but we persevered. Both of us love wide-open natural landscapes, dislike suburban sprawl, and think big. And Jim is a good leader. He knows how to use humor, mediate conflicts, set goals, and pursue them doggedly. We didn’t socialize much, but we liked each other. In the fall of 2006, when Jim asked me if I would be interested in joining him on a cross-country bicycle trip, it was easy to say yes.
Riding a bicycle across the country is something I had wanted to do since I was a teenager on Florida’s west coast in the early 1970s. In those days, a short ride could still get you out into big open landscapes, and at bicycle speed you could see things and hear yourself think. You could look for gopher tortoises on the roadside, watch ospreys and vultures wheeling overhead, and be alone with your tortured teenage thoughts. Bicycling endured as my favorite way to exercise, watch nature, and meditate. I never tired of it. The more cycling I do, the happier I am.
William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell includes this one: “you never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” When Jim asked, the time was right for me to finally find out how much bicycling was enough. My youngest child had just gone off to college. I had been self-employed for eight years, and was successful enough at it that I could afford to take a long break if I planned it well in advance. I was approaching age 50. I told Jim I needed a year to prepare, mostly for work reasons. He stuck with me, and he convinced Sara to drive their camper for support. Touring cyclists call this a “sag wagon,” and it is an endless source of tender mercies. Every day, Sara freed us from cold dinners, wet sleeping bags, and stinky clothes.
Sara and Jim are both retired and had their own reasons for making the trip, but I think we were all attracted by the audacity of three middle-aged people with middling physical abilities taking on such a task. We also knew that signing up for ten weeks of intense teamwork as a trio was risky, but individually we decided that it was a risk worth taking.
My wife Tania has a generous nature, and she also loves bicycling. She consented, and later she became an enthusiastic support driver and part-time rider. Bill Yust, an old friend of Jim’s, made plans to ride with us in August. Sara’s sister Catherine made her own plans to ride along in her car, also in August. The clock kept ticking. I kept telling people I was going to do it. After a while, I had told enough people that I had also convinced myself.
On August 10, 2008, I spent the day looking out the window of a westbound cross-country flight headed for Seattle. The plan was to meander back east through the same terrain, but on the ground this time, and much more slowly. It occurred to me on the plane that I had done something similar to the bike ride a year earlier, when I hiked 82 miles of the Finger Lakes Trail in six days. I walked through some of the most beautiful land in Central New York, where I’ve lived most of my life, beginning just east of Watkins Glen and finishing near Cortland.
I had visited most of the Finger Lakes’ “emerald necklace” of public forests and parks before the hike, but always in a car that whisked me from my house to the chosen pleasuring ground for a few hours and then took me back again. At highway speed, with the windows up and the radio on, you can get a glimpse of a bird or a ditch full of tiger lilies, but only for a second before you have to get your eyes back on the road. When you’re walking, you can count the lilies in a marsh and also see sunlight reflecting off the water. You can call to a bird in its own language and if you’re lucky, it will answer.
Central New York unrolled before me on that hike like a long story told at leisure, with lots of time to think about what I had seen. I learned how to tell the difference between a farm field that has been reclaimed by trees and a second-growth forest that has never been anything other than a forest (look at the ground; if it’s smooth, it used to be a field). I understood glacial topography a lot better once I felt the hills in my legs. I lost a few pounds and got stronger. And although it was uncomfortable at times, I finished the hike thinking how grand it would be to do this for a much longer stretch of terrain. I wanted to climb the Rocky Mountains instead of Connecticut Hill. I wanted to sleep outdoors for weeks at a time, with the company of friends in the evenings instead of a media cacophony. I wanted to transect North America at 10 miles an hour and learn as much as possible from the sample. And I wanted to write about what I had seen without any instructions from an editor.
Somewhere in the months leading up to it, I turned the ride into a self-improvement exercise, with a hope that it would help me shake some bad habits. One of these is procrastination. If no one is paying me to write something, I tend to put it off. Over the last 35 years, this has lead to several boxes’ worth of projects that are unfinished because I have always put other things ahead of them: volunteering for worthy causes like the Land Trust, cleaning the house, cooking, enjoying myself, and living well in other ways while the sand runs through the glass. Procrastination is like a compulsion because it drains the pleasure from these good things. I know that I should pay attention to writing ideas when they come knocking, but I had not been able to keep myself from dithering.
The real pros do not have this problem. In his memoir On Writing, Steven King advises aspiring writers, above all, to have discipline. Never leave your desk for the day, he says, until you have written something – 500 words, or at least a single paragraph — that you know is worth keeping. One of the reasons this self-evident rule works is because it redefines the task. It isn’t a big, scary book any more. Today, it’s just 500 words. The rule worked for the bike ride, too. I realized that I could ride across the U.S. when I stopped thinking of it as an enormous 3,600-mile ride across an entire continent and started thinking of it as 60 rides that are each 60 miles in length, with rest days scattered among them. I knew I could do that. And if a 100,000-word book is really seven or eight months of meeting a 500-word daily quota, maybe I could do that too.
Jim wanted to ask our friends to make donations toward the ride that would support the Land Trust’s stewardship fund. This turned out to be wildly successful, and by the time we finished we had collected $39,000 from nearly 200 people. I came up with the idea of making blog posts from the road so that the people who had supported us could ride along. Knowing that I had this audience gave me the energy to take notes during rest breaks, snap photos with my trusty old Canon PowerShot, and stay up after dinner to type it into my MacBook Pro. It also cleaned some rust out of the writing pipes. It helped that I saw much more amazing stuff in a typical day than I could ever put into words.
The little things you see on a bike ride can be like the first sentences of short stories. On the first day of the ride I flashed past a girl with a weed-whacker who was trimming around the bases of some wooden crosses that had been set up beside the road. They didn’t look like a cemetery, or even like one of those roadside memorials to a fatal car crash, although they might have been either. They looked like a display of faith that was on exhibit but was also private. I spent the rest of the ride imagining what the girl was thinking as she trimmed the grass.
In Michigan, I saw an empty box of Little Debbie Swiss Rolls on the side of a rural highway. Immediately I imagined that a woman had thrown the empty box there because her boss had yelled at her during her shift at the dollar store. The woman had been pretty and popular in high school, but now she had two small kids and her husband worked the night shift. She stole the box from work and ate the whole thing on her way home because she needed to get something into her that felt something like affection. Then she threw the box out the window so her family wouldn’t find out about her secret bad habit.
Writing well requires long stretches of solitude. I’ve been making a living as a writer since 1981, so I know how to grind out magazine prose and meet deadlines. But there’s not much of a spark in that kind of writing, no wild rush as you realize that your pen is scratching out something unexpected, no sense of wonder as you make a compelling image or phrase and you’re not sure where it came from. To get on top of that game, you have to practice alone. That’s what the ride was: hours of rumination in the saddle, followed by an afternoon or evening spent pouring out the results at some picnic table.
After I left Florida at age 17, I lived on a ranch in eastern California for three years. Back then, I thought solitude alone could produce great writing. I had the luxury of self-absorption, a privilege granted only to the immature. I would wander through the desert for days at a stretch, reveling in the beauty of what I thought at the time was untouched wilderness, as infatuated with myself as Walt Whitman ever was, communing with truth and beauty and completely unconcerned that on the other side of the country. I had a mother, grandmother, and other people who were worried about my safety and longed, mostly in vain, for some news about how I was doing. I had a great time, even if I can see now that I was acting like a complete jerk.
The big bike ride was not like that. The act of saying goodbye to my family and friends made it clear to me that there were a lot of people who were deeply concerned about my safety and welfare. On the plane, I thought of each of the people who expressed their concern for me in ways that were unique to them, and which also encapsulated the value of all the years we had known each other. For some it was a hug; for others it was a stern warning to get a complete physical. I could see the love in each of those gestures, and I will always remember them. As the ride wore on, I keenly missed my friends and the home Tania and I have made. Somewhere on the way to middle age I had become a homebody and a family man while remaining a writer.
My life so far has been a story of incredible luck and undeserved privilege, as well as the usual boring stuff about hard work. My wife is smart, funny, pretty, and kind; my kids are loving and talented; I have dozens of loyal friends who lead interesting lives and can also tell good jokes; I have more than enough stuff. But looking back, I can also see several important moments when I passed on the chance to do something important because something bad might happen if I tried. Timidity and negative thinking and their father, fear and laziness, have dogged me since childhood. One reason I did the ride was to conquer these things.
When I told people my plans, some of them were envious and expressed admiration. Others looked at me funny. Some of the skeptics even said what I believe all of them were thinking. Why spend months away from your job, burning through money instead of making it, when you’re supposed to be in the prime of your career? Why do a dangerous thing that worries the people who love you. if you don’t have to do it? Why do something that you know will hurt – maybe a lot – and will probably be, at times, truly unpleasant?
One of the people I told about the ride turned away and wouldn’t talk about it. Another asked me if there was any way she could talk me out of it. I grilled myself, too, imagining broken bones, chipped teeth, stolen property, drunken drivers, and as one good friend memorably put it, “getting smooshed.” But then I went ahead and did it anyway.
A writer has to be selfish sometimes to do the job well, because a writer has to find an authentic voice. Retreating into solitude is essential for writers because it is the only way to nurture that voice. Thousands of people make long-distance bicycle rides every year, and hundreds of them keep blogs. Most of those blogs are not interesting to non-riders because they describe the internal facts of the ride: gear, nutrition, routes, weather. I didn’t care very much about these things. I was a hunter-gatherer going out every morning in search of material, and I found much more than I managed to capture in writing. It is all stored somewhere in memory now, waiting to be recycled in ways I can’t forsee.
I went with Jim and Sara to grant myself time to see, listen, and speak freely. What follows is what came out.