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After Six Weeks and 2,400 Miles, It Feels So Natural : Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. --Helen Keller

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

October 25, 1994|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOLBROOK, Ariz. — I slipped over the Continental Divide without a whimper and pedaled for miles along the rooftop of North America, snow-dusted buttes to my right and left, the raw mountain wind racing me through the passes and into the valley below.

At dusk, high-tailing it down from the summit, I found an old friend--Route 66--and my bicycle and I followed it westward toward Gallup, N.M. Ahead I watched an eastbound Sante Fe freight train come rumbling toward me. The engineer leaned from his window and waved, saluting with three whistle blasts that rolled across the silent plain. Seldom have I felt more alone or more important.

When I left my home in Virginia six weeks and 2,400 miles ago, headed for Santa Monica, I had planned to travel roads far north of 66. But after finally escaping the Oklahoma Panhandle, where for miles and miles you see only miles and miles, winter was closing in. I looked at the orange line drawn across the top of New Mexico and Arizona on my map and saw nothing but high mountains and emptiness.

"Hell, I wouldn't take my rig up there this time of year, let alone a bicycle," a trucker in Boise City, Okla., said. I have come to trust what truckers, oil drillers and highway patrolmen tell me about the road ahead, and I paid attention to his instructions: Drop south through Texas on Highway 54, then head over to Tucumcari, N.M., where the Mother Road, as John Steinbeck called Route 66, ambles west through the mythology of our travel lore.

A group of cowboys in Stetsons, jeans and boots eyed me the next day in a Dalhart, Tex., cafe as I leaned my bike against the glass window and walked in, feeling quite out of place with my short pants, helmet and sweat-stained jersey. I ordered coffee and a grilled cheese sandwich and, leaving my wallet and glasses on the table, went back outside to buy a newspaper. "That's a pretty good way to get your money stole, wouldn't you say?" one of them drawled when I returned.

"Back in Washington, D.C., it is," I said, "but I figured in West Texas it's safe." They beamed and I knew I had won them over. "Well, glad to hear you Easterners know we're different in Texas," the man said. "You'll find decent, honest people out here." Later, as I tried to pay for lunch, the waitress said the cowboys had taken care of my tab.

This is handsome, open country I am passing through, and I like it and am comfortable in it. Yet I still feel great unease every morning leaving the security of a motel room with zero miles on my odometer. I get numbed by the solitude of my days and nights, and I worry about the weather and the hills and the distance between towns, and I hear the echo of friends' voices telling me it is dangerous to venture alone where one does not belong.

Then in a few miles the voices fade and I hear only the reassuring hum of my tires over the pavement, reminding me that I have never been so aware of my surroundings. I study the sway of sagebrush to judge the wind's intensity. The croak of katydids tells me the day will warm. In the road ahead my eye can now spot a glass shard at 30 yards. I can hear an 18-wheeler coming up behind me even before it is visible in my rear-view mirror.

Although my journey has turned me into a functional illiterate--I have not read anything but maps and historical markers for weeks--the open road has provided ample nourishment. It has carried me through towns with such names as Slapout and Ft. Supply and Brady's Corner--places where John Wayne portraits stare down from the wall of every cafe--and taught me much about an America that, like Route 66, still seems a mirror of the '50s and simpler, more trusting times.

"My husband and I went down to Tyler, Tex., the other weekend for a holiday," a woman in Elmwood, Okla. (population six), told me. "They had 27,000 people there. Twenty-seven thousand ! I couldn't believe it."

I asked her if she didn't sometimes yearn for a little more activity than Elmwood offered, and she said: "No way at all. The way it is here, I know everybody. You need a hand, anyone will extend it. You get into a big place like Tyler, and that's just not going to happen."

Off and Pedaling

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

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