During the last days of August in 2016, I traveled from Portland, Oregon, a city where my heart sings, to Indianapolis, the city in which much of my family and professional life developed and where I became an aggressive cyclist. With my twenty-nine-year-old grandson, Erik Ulberg, doing most of the driving, we made the 2,640-mile trip in six days.
Forty years ago this summer, during America’s bicentennial year, I made much the same journey by bicycle with my twenty-two-year-old daughter, Sharon Watkins, and a family friend as companions. Self-supporting and camping much of the way, we travelled 2,630 miles in thirty-six days.
Although they were intertwined in my heart and mind, these two journeys were significantly different: early summer/late summer, slow/fast, exposed to the elements/traveling in air-conditioned comfort, in frequent contact with people/largely isolated from people along the way, celebrating the nation’s heritage/anxious about the future of our nation and the world.
In 1976, we were part of a venture that encouraged more than 4,000 people to bicycle across the country, whereas in 2016 cyclo-touring had become routine in American life. My first trip was fired with the eagerness of new experience; this second journey was tempered by the melancholy of my advancing years.
In broad outline, both trips followed the same route: through the Columbia River Gorge and rolling hills of the Palouse Country in southeastern Washington; across the Snake River at Clarkson and along the Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers to Lolo Pass and Missoula; south to Chief Joseph Pass, the Big Hole National Battlefield, Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks, through Wyoming and across southern Nebraska to the Mississippi crossing at Nebraska City; Mound City, Missouri, and eastward on U.S. 36 or closely parallel low-speed roads to Indianapolis.
At two places only did the drivers in 2016 deliberately deviate from the cyclists’ route forty years ago. At Wisdom, Montana, the cyclo-tourists took the northern route to Dillon and the auto-tourists took the shorter, southern route. On the Wind River Indian Reservation in western Wyoming the cyclists stayed on U.S. 26, traveling to Riverton, where we used a motel for the first time on the trip, and then made a 100-mile mad dash to Casper where we stayed for the first time at a church. We continued to Scottsbluff and Lake McConauchy in Nebraska.
The motorists turned south of U.S. 287, driving to Rawlins, Wyoming, where we began our sprint to the east on I-80. Most of this later portion of that day’s drive took us through country I had never seen before, and it included some of the most interesting terrain of the entire journey.
A full account of the 2016 journey can be constructed around a series of themes; among them are the following.
The Yellow Ocher World
Because the auto-tourists were traveling in late summer when much of the west is rain deprived, colors from the ocher palette dominated the countryside. In the eastern Columbia River Gorge, vegetation had a dull, brownish hue. In the Palouse Country, wheat stubble clothed rolling hills in bright yellow tones. At higher elevations some of the trees glistened with golden and reddish colors. In corn belt states, fields of ripening grain displayed their readiness for harvest by their varied shades of yellowish brown. Erik, who is seriously interested in the interface of art and technology, suggested that the ocher color chart, ranging from dull yellow to rusty red, contains many of the end of summer colors we were seeing.
Grasping the Scale of the Bicyclist’s World
Because bicyclists necessarily focus attention on the road just ahead, they rarely can view the grand scope of the larger landscape. Because they are free to look all around, auto-tourists can see the roads winding far ahead, disappearing over the hills and reappearing on the other side. They can see smoke rising in the far distance, blotting out the sun, and the imposing magnitude of mountains on ahead. Driving this route gave me a new sense of the courage required of cyclo-tourists.
Requiem for Western Woodlands
The conifer forests throughout the high country, which I remember as healthy and whole forty years ago, are now distressed. We drove through long stretches of highway with blackened, denuded trees collapsing against one another, with occasional signs of new underbrush beginning the slow work of reestablishing the forest. Similar stretches of lodge pole pine were dying from beetle infestation, the result of climate warming and diminished precipitation.
Big Hole National Battlefield
On both trips, the emotional high for me was the Big Hole National Battlefield, which solemnizes the memory of an attack by U.S. Army forces on a band of Nez Perce Indians as they slept in their camp early on the morning of August 9, 1877. This event dramatizes the long history of broken treaties, deprivation of rights, and ethnic cleansing that America’s dominant white society has and continues to perpetrate on our nation’s first peoples.
America’s Ice-Age Rivers
As we drove along the eastern bank of America’s greatest river, I became aware of the similarity between the Columbia and the upper reaches of the Mississippi. Both were formed by melting of ice packs during the closing of the ice age and the impact still shows in the geology and geography through which we travelled.
The Ghostly Cyclist
In 1899, a young American, W. E. Garrison, spent three summers cycling through Europe. One of the photos he took of himself was double exposed so that his portrait standing by his wheel is superimposed on a shadowy image of himself in much the same pose. During this drive through America’s western lands, I often sensed that I as the younger cyclist of forty years ago was also in the car, hovering over the shoulder of the old man I am becoming. It was, and is, a strange but confirming experience.