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Finding an Intimacy Among Strangers

POSTCARDS FROM AMERICA: Pedaling the Distance: Potomac to Pacific. One in a series.


ENID, Okla. — Long live the bicycle! It is a friend to man, like the horse. --Henry Miller


Had I been more courageous or foolhardy, I might have proceeded on. But the rain and lightning spooked me, and I pulled off Route 412 to wait out the storm and recharge my spirits before heading into the desolate Oklahoma Panhandle.

"I declare, you look a mess," the motel clerk said as I wheeled my bicycle into the lobby. I explained that I had fixed a flat tire a few miles back and couldn't avoid getting lathered up with the chain's grease. "Soap'll fix you," she observed.

Since leaving Pawnee at dawn--where a kindly merchant the previous night had found me a room of sorts in an abandoned five-unit motel--I had covered 72 miles, and Enid's grain silos looming on the horizon were a welcome sight. Enid, 1,575 miles from my home in Virginia, took me into the second half of my journey to California, and from my saddlebags I withdrew a new, untattered map, marked "The Western United States."

The America I glide through at 10 m.p.h. is an America I had forgotten existed. It is a place where kids wear caps with the visor facing forward and John Deere is a more popular logo than the Chicago Bulls. Keys are left in the ignition of parked pickups, the little churches that seem to stand guard over every crossroad are full on Sundays, and the end of harvest is celebrated with a potluck picnic at the community park.

In towns such as Skiatook, Okla., and Mountain View, Ark., and a score of places in between, the talk these days is not of Haiti or the November elections. It's of weather and corn and high school football teams and all the things that are small and personal. In a cafe in Pryor, Okla., I asked the meaning of the words written on a plastic jug: "Donations for the Alton O'Bar Family." The waitress replied, as though no further explanation were necessary, "Verna died. Didn't you hear?"

The intimacy with the people and the land that I have shared over the past weeks I attribute not to any great wisdom or sensitivity on my part, but merely to the fact that I am on a bicycle. There is time to think and listen. It is an entirely different way to travel, as part of, rather than isolated from, one's surroundings. It restores what the interstates have taken from us--the serendipity of the open road.

I suppose many true cyclists would scoff at the 53 miles a day or so I cover as rather wimpish. Indeed, that's the precise distance the stagecoach used to log daily on the 1,200-mile run from New York City to Savannah, Ga., way back in 1802. But I find it remarkable that my 54-year-old, out-of-shape body accepts such demands, and my friends agree. When I called one the other night to report that I had made it to Oklahoma, he said: "Amazing! I want licensing rights on your body. We're going to sell it to the Smithsonian."

I didn't mention to him, though, that way back in Virginia, during the first week of the crossing, I spent several days scheming to abort my harebrained adventure. My right knee had given out. My butt hurt. I was lonely. The endless miles seemed tedious and boring. Only the humiliation of limping home on the Greyhound and having to admit failure kept me pedaling toward the next town and beyond.

So now the Appalachians, the Smokies and the Ozarks are behind me. Ahead lies the Oklahoma Panhandle--which on the maps of the 1870s was identified as "No Man's Land"--and the Rockies and, one day, the Pacific. It's difficult to imagine a time when I didn't sleep with my bike next to the bed and start every day by heading down an unknown road.

The other night, in a speck of a sleeping Oklahoma town, sitting alone on a grassy stretch along Highway 64, I called my wife on the cellular phone I carry. Much to my amazement the call bounced off some faraway satellite and found its way, crystal clear, into my kitchen. Sandy greeted me, then asked what I have been asking myself often these past weeks: "Where are you?"

Off and Pedaling

Times Staff Writer David Lamb is biking across the country. He left his home in Alexandria, Va., on Sept 2 en route to Santa Monica.

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