It was Wyoming. The young couple rode up to the scenic overlook on bicycles. I rolled down the window of my Mini and shouted through the wind: “May I ask where you’re from?”
“We’re coming from Virginia, headed to Oregon.”
“Wow” I exclaimed, “How long have you planned?”
“Three months” said the bearded young man.
“We have another month to go,” said the girl with a slightly pained smile.
I had stopped to look back at the mountains I had just gone over and they were viewing them as the mountains they will soon climb.
I had been passing many bicycles along the way. Bicycles with saddle bags and bicycles with small, flexible trailers attached. Cyclists in neon jackets and black bike shorts, the stretchy kind that most of these cyclists shouldn’t really be wearing in public. They were criss-crossing the country in much the same way I was. I mentioned to the young couple I was on day 39 of my ‘round-the-country trip. My proclamation seemed pretty anemic compared to theirs. They were young, looking ahead; I was old, looking back.
Over the 39 days I had also observed many motorcycles loaded down with metal cases and bags and rolled up tents; bikers exposed to the elements, outfitted in leather and waterproof rain gear. I had seen bikes with hiking boots bound by the laces dangling from mounded luggage strapped down with bungey cords.
And then there were the ubiquitous motorhomes and trailers; all sizes and shapes of RV being driven or towed along every highway of this country. Many were rented and I wondered how these people do it. Novices and veterans navigating these beasts along the same narrow, twisting, congested roads I’ve been on. The same mountain roads that had given me calloused palms. I was impressed by their maneuvering—annoyed because I couldn’t see around them— but impressed nonetheless. Travelers of all types, enduring their own personal heaven or hell in discovering America or themselves or simply checking the next destination on the map off their bucket list. I had had it easy.
I had started out this expedition having read a couple of great books on how to see America through its rural, lesser traveled roadways. Rather than learn from these erudite travelers, I did it my way. I rarely stopped long enough in any one place to actually get to know the area or its denizens. I reverted to my old self and watched from afar, standing in the back of the crowd or avoiding the crowds altogether. I simply observed and watched as I drove and drove, stopped to take a few notes or pictures, to buy gas or coffee, all without interacting with other human beings. 45 days of self.
But truth be told, some of my happiest moments over the course of this journey were those places without people: the smaller venues, the gardens, the mountains and canyons without busloads of international tourists, parks devoid of the long lines of recreational vehicles.
And then there was Nebraska. I had always wanted to visit Nebraska, one of those places that seldom makes the news, a forgotten state. I wanted to experience it, to see what it was all about. Last year I was introduced to the author Poe Ballantine and read several collections of his personal essays. I wound up liking him, the way he expressed himself and was able to convey his truth through his vulnerability. Then I read his book, Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. That clinched he deal, I had to visit his adopted town of Chadron in Nebraska. When all was said and done I stayed two nights at the Olde Main Street Inn, hung out at the historic bar with Poe and several characters out of his book and felt a part of this Chadron family for a few heady hours. Jeanne, the delightful red-headed Inn owner, regaled me with stories and confidences and insights into the local culture and beat. It was here I got to experience an authentic part of rural America, the America I had been driving through and passing by. After crossing the Continental Divide a half dozen times, the plains of Nebraska provided me with the cultural high point of my trip. And now that I’ve closed the loop on this jaunt, having driven over 12,000 miles in 45 days; through twenty seven states and one big-ass Canadian province, I look back on where I’d been, not wanting to dwell on where I’m headed next.