Friday, August 2, 2002

After the Epiphany of Alma...

...everything changed.

Having little choice but to accept an updated version of the Mississippi River, complements of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we were no longer haunted by the ghosts of rivers past and with only a touch of nagging nostalgia we put Alma and the old river paradigm behind us and headed south once more.

Highway 35, appropriately enough, turned its back on the river south of Alma and headed inland. Out of sight of the river and out of mind, we spent the next 15 straight and level miles working out the details of our riding arrangements: how to accommodate our different styles over the long haul to come.

The first question was who sets the pedaling pace. This is a touchy subject, as anyone who has toured with others knows--rarely do two matched riders find themselves together on the road. I'm in better shape, leg- and lung-wise (Yep, despite my Pall Mall habit--believe it) than most in my age group, at least the few I know. George and I have a similar build, but he is eight years younger and carries even less excess body weight than me. But beyond mere physiology, he and his bicycle form a highly evolved organism with no unnecessary appendages, while I'm still in the awkward pterodactyl stage, you might say, a work in progress, flailing away with incompatible parts, trying to figure out which ones I really need to fly.

And luckily for me, George's legendary road stamina is exceeded only by his patience, so he lets me set the pace even though I know he dislikes riding behind my B.O.B. trailer. For one thing, he can't draft me (as if he would need to). And surely that orange safety pennant constantly flailing in his face must make him feel like a greyhound on the race track. And then there's the metal "slow-moving vehicle" reflective triangle, wedged between the B.O.B. bag and the frame. He must stare at that so much he probably sees it on the ceiling of his tent at night.

And certainly, the whole idea of the B.O.B. trailer itself, with that redundant third wheel, must remind him of some vestigial feature he eliminated in the name of efficiency many generations ago.

But all this is mostly conjecture on my part, based on a handful of offhand comments: George would never actually complain to me about those things.

How often to stop is sometimes an issue on the road, I have found. If you have never cycled cross country, you may think it's easy to stop on a bike--just put your foot down and you're there, right? Well, it's not so simple. Stop too often and you tamper with the zen of cycling--when your body, your bike and your mind are one with the passing landscape and space and time seem to meet at the horizon. This is what some call the spiritual side, valued as a time for introspection and contemplation. And George and I agree that from these periods spring insights, more or less profound, we like to think, which eventually find their way into our writing.

Balanced with this somewhat mystical dimension of biking is the more basic physiological side. Consistent with my food philosophy (see next paragraph), I don't like to stop until my body tells me it's time. George, on the other hand, having the benefit of thousands of more biking miles than me, recommends a more moderate, self-sustaining approach: "Just like eating and drinking before you're hungry or thirsty, rest before you're tired."

All that said there were no disagreements about stops. We seemed to be on the same internal stopping-watch right off the bat, and in the rare out-of-sync situations, George deferred to me.

Somewhat related to stopping is the refueling schedule. Here we had a small philosophical point to resolve. Despite (or because of) my brief but undistinguished stint in high academia at the University of Chicago some years ago, I am more inclined to listen to my body than my intellect when their messages conflict. On a long bike trip, this means, to put it simply, I don't eat until I get hungry. George, on the other hand, relies on intellectual guess-work and strikes preemptively, as it were, before hunger. Hence, the seemingly bottomless bag of peanuts he keeps within reaching distance in his handlebar bag.

Later on in our trip, after we had seen enough dams, we turned eastward into southwest Wisconsin. We had been climbing 400-foot hills all morning in an unforgiving sun and I was in pain and couldn't climb any more, so we stopped in a patch of shade. "Looks like you've bonked," George said. And in a rare didactic lapse, actually suggested I should have had something more than a cup of coffee and a Pall Mall for breakfast. "But I'm not hungry yet," I can't believe I heard myself say.

But at least I learned a useful, if hopefully infrequently, used word from George that morning. "To bonk" is the biking equivalent of running out of gas, when your engine starts consuming itself, which in this case happens to be our body. You simply can't go any further. I also learned how to prevent it. You guessed it: eat before you're hungry. It has a corollary: drink before you're thirsty.

Given George's experience on the road, I had to rethink, then and there, in that oasis of noon shade, my long-held trust in the gnawing stomach as the prime motivator, in this and possibly other of life's endeavors.

There was one more thing we had to work out on that stretch of flat road between Alma and our next campsite in Merrick State Park: it has to do with the contemplative aspect of pedaling long hours on the road, which I talked about before. Biking alone, there is no question. You are pretty much always in that state. But with a friend, there is a natural tendency to break the silence with conversation. The trick is to agree on a balance between the two. Aside from the concern of not knowing George well, my other apprehension about riding together had to do with this. On my previous Des Moines trip, I was alone, so I had plenty of time to think things through. Since I don't think clearly when I'm writing, it has to be mulled over beforehand, and stored somewhere until it gets transmitted. My fear was that a too sociable companion, however interesting and perceptive his conversation, might interrupt my thoughts to the point that they were all jumbled.

And in fact, I did find that George liked to pedal alongside and talk about his worldwide adventures quite often. This was distracting at first, I admit, but I had to ask myself, why are my thoughts more important than his? I soon realized I had nothing to fear from losing the "purity" of my own train of thought. There was plenty of room for George's stories, and they enriched the trip and hopefully this narrative as well.


Writing at home and getting ready to leave for another trip

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