Monday, October 15, 2007

Oberlin, Ohio

Friends: Halloween may be a couple of weeks away, but its not too early for many homes out in rural and small-town America to already have transformed their front yards into some sort of tribute to the occasion. Ghosts and goblins and ghouls and graveyards with an array of tombstones abound. There is no shortage of pumpkins on display, some carved and others painted, along with a variety of giant plastic inflatables.

The decorations aren't as plentiful as those devoted to the bike along the Tour de France route,
but many are as ornate and extravagant and would most certainly attract the TV cameras if there were a parade or race passing by. Many are as passionate here about Halloween as the French are to their bike race. And the Ohioans are equally devoted to their Buckeyes. Once I crossed into Ohio from Indiana, I was greeted by flags and banners dangling from porches celebrating the number one-ranked gridiron Buckeyes. This is most certainly football country.

Only rarely have I noticed a bicycle on those porches or parked or ridden anywhere. For over 400 miles across Indiana and Ohio bicycles were an extreme rarity until I reached the college town of Oberlin, a town that announces itself as being home to the first school to accept students of both sexes and all races. It also has historical markers celebrating itself as a key stage in the underground railroad for liberated slaves.

If I hadn't included the Bicycle Museum of America on my route I might have been wondering if the bicycle was even known in these parts, or if it had been driven to extinction like the passenger pigeon. The dogs though knew enough to bark at me, and if unchained, to give chase, but with tailwinds all the way they had no hope of catching their prey or even giving it a fright.

I knew better than to hope I might encounter a fellow touring cyclist, as that is a breed virtually
extinct except in certain isolated pockets such as the Pacific coast line or the Bikecentennial Trail or New Zealand, but I had been hoping to see school kids out and about on their bikes and the occasional enlightened adult riding down Main Street to the P.O. or grocery store or wherever else people go in small towns that haven't been turned into dead zones by a Wal-Mart. White picket fences and expansive old trees with a swing and porches and bikes are supposed to be the emblems of small town America. Where was I? What would Norman Rockwell have to paint if he were still around?

In all these miles since leaving Chicago, the only person I came across upon a bicycle was a little girl riding on the sidewalk late in the afternoon in some small community. Her mother was walking beside her with a hand on her shoulder keeping her fledgling upright. Upon seeing me the girl jerked a hand from her handlebar and gave me an enthusiastic wave and hello, which I gladly returned.

And then in Oberlin I stayed with friends with a six-year daughter of their own who had just gained her wings and was eager to give a demonstration. She sped off down their driveway, not slowing for a couple of blocks, with her dad and I jogging along trying to keep up, not realizing she was going to be so speedy that we ought to have been on our bikes as well. She was thrilled when her dad said he and I would bike along with her to school, and so were we. Two small
drops of hope, not much, but at least something.

On to West Virginia, George

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