I returned to the campground as the sky lost its deep darkness to the dawn. I was tired now and falling asleep was an easy matter. Staying asleep was not. Campgrounds come to life at an early hour and become noisy collections of waking families preparing for a new day. The commotion subsided when most campers had driven off to their destinations. The midmorning sun, radiating through a cloudless sky, heated up my tent. Even after moving the tent into the shade I found it difficult to sleep. By 10:00 I gave up and decided that I might as well start traversing some more of the miles toward my appointment in Washington.
Heading west on blue highway 14, I share the road with rural traffic and the occasional bicyclist. I enjoy seeing the bicyclists; they ignite the memory of an earlier epoch in my life when I would bicycle for weeks through beautiful countryside, carrying everything, and camping along the way. Bicycling is just the right speed to experience the land. A car travels too fast, there is not enough time to truly let in the details of the terrain. Walking is too slow, the details become stale before you reach the next vista. But a bicycle brings you close, living and breathing the environment you travel through, giving you options to linger or to move on.
I started seeing quite a few more bicyclists. Almost all were headed east, taking advantage of the westerly winds that never seem to quit on the Dakota prairie. Some were loaded with panniers, most were traveling light. Whenever I see cyclists wearing brightly colored jerseys, I think back to a chart I had once seen that graphed “the desire to wear lycra” versus the cost of the bicycle.
I stopped at the next opportunity to get gas. It was at a crossroads that included a tavern and a bowling alley among the convenience-store-equipped gas stations. A small park could be seen a block down the gravel road, and in front of it a flock of brightly clad cyclists grazing at a canopy-covered buffet. This was a CycleAmerica stop!
CycleAmerica organizes a number of bicycle tours through diverse sections of the U.S. I was familiar with them from a trip through the Colorado mountains with my son in an earlier summer. They take care of the enormous logistic details of finding places to stay and enough to eat. They provide physical and mechanical support each day, ensuring that your possessions, if you don’t care to load them on your bike, will end up with you at the end of the day.
If you string the right set of CycleAmerica tours end to end it is possible to travel from coast to coast across the United States. In fact, this is exactly how one of my colleagues, Jeff, had chosen to spend his sabbatical time. He had departed a month earlier for his adventure, starting in Seattle and heading for Boston. I wondered about where he might be, a month into an 8-week itinerary. My hamster-powered brain (my wife’s affectionate description of how the obvious frequently eludes me) concluded that he might be at about the middle of the country, say in South Dakota!
I intruded on the lunching cyclists to make some inquiries. Before I could find out the details of this tour, a brown-skinned Jeff on his sleek recumbent bicycle pedaled up, recognizing my profile before his full arrival. It was a purely coincidental encounter, my travel west had intersected his path east at just this place. Our lives had intersected in the workplace on projects whose importance had made us a close team of two, now we find each other again at random, as if we are members of the same Vonnegutesque karass.
Jeff briefs me on his recent experiences through the mountains of Wyoming relating additional trials of heat and wind on the South Dakota plain. He wonders what day this is, a sign that he has truly disconnected from the weekly schedule we all keep. I show him my minivan packed with gear, and we discuss cameras and film. Jeff is the proud owner of a Leica, a compact and silent 35mm camera that he has carefully packed behind him on his bike and with which he has been accumulating portraits of landscapes and people. We take pictures of each other, still amazed that our paths had crossed. We bid each other good luck, knowing it will be many weeks before we meet again.