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At Journey's End: Reflecting on the Great Divide

POSTCARDS FROM AMERICA; Pedaling the Distance: Potomac to Pacific


SANTA MONICA — Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.

--H.G. Wells

From the moment I left home on my bicycle--3,012 miles, 59 days and eight flat tires ago--the destination was what mattered most, and now, just ahead where the Santa Monica Pier juts into the Pacific, I could finally see the journey's end.

"Great joy in camp," Meriwether Lewis had written 189 years earlier when the Corps of Discovery came within view of the Pacific, and I, too, felt that elation. What seemed a lifetime of miles had been reduced to a few manageable yards. No longer would mere movement be the expression of my purpose or accomplishments.

I pushed onto the pier, my 54-year-old body not quite as creaky as it had been when I left Virginia on Labor Day weekend. A group of friends awaited me with a bottle of champagne. One of them asked if I had given up cigarettes, whiskey and junk food along the way. No way, I said, I couldn't have survived without them. Did I ever feel threatened since leaving Virginia? someone else wanted to know.

Only here in Santa Monica, I replied. I had meandered getting to the pier and everywhere I turned were vacant-eyed, raggedy people. I found them urinating in alleys, pawing through dumpsters, sprawled in grassy parks, a babble of incoherent voices and gnarled fingers that reached out for money. It was a nightmarish vision so alien to the back roads' America where I had spent the last two months that I wondered if I had landed on another planet.

"Our high school class went to Washington two years ago," a waitress had said to me back in Monteagle, Tenn., "and near one of the monuments we saw a man sleeping on one of those heating grates. I said, 'Why doesn't he just go home?' Our teacher said, 'He can't; he doesn't have a home.' Doesn't have a home ? I couldn't believe it. It was one of the strangest things I've ever seen."

Almost everywhere I went I was reminded, as in Monteagle, how great the divide is between rural and urban America. Our big coastal population centers may set the national agenda, but in the little towns that reach across Appalachia, through the Oklahoma Panhandle and into the Southwestern desert one hears the unheralded voices of another America--an America that is old-fashioned, hard-working, trusting and not at all concerned with how many grams of fat are in a blueberry muffin.

When I told a man I met on the old Route 66 in Seligman, Ariz., that I might not get home until Thanksgiving, he was shocked. "How are you going to vote ?" he demanded. "You'll miss the elections." To him, such an abrogation of duty was unfathomable.

Although some yahoo did throw a beer bottle at me from his pickup back in Virginia, it would perhaps surprise people in urban America to know that I crossed the country from the Potomac to the Pacific without encountering a single harrowing moment or a major mishap. Only loneliness and isolation gave me cause for concern.

My American-made bike--a Trek 520--proved as roadworthy as the most expensive Mercedes-Benz, and it strikes me as remarkable that such a simple contraption was capable of carrying me so far without extracting a single penny for fuel, oil or mechanical repairs. To most adult Americans, the bicycle is no more than a toy, but as our city streets clog with traffic, it is worth noting that this affordable machine is still the prime source of transportation for the majority of the world's people and remains the most efficient means of self-propulsion ever invented.

That said, I should admit that I am taking the short way back to Virginia. My bike is being prepared for shipment at a Wilshire Boulevard shop and this continental crossing on United Airlines will take us only six hours. I'm wise enough to know when it's time to go home. There is, after all, an election to vote in, and besides, I have been on the lam long enough.

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. *

Retrace the Route

All five parts of David Lamb's series, "From the Potomac to the Pacific," are available on TimesLink, the new on-line service. Sign on and jump to "bicycling."

Details on Times electronic services, A4

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