Bicycling across America created fond memories

By John Frederick

Earth Matters

Forty years ago last week, I set off on a grand adventure, aspiring to see a cross-section of America by bicycle. As a college graduation gift, my parents gave me $300 in travelers’ checks for the trip and bought me a one-way bus ticket to Astoria, Oregon.

Shortly before lunch on June 8, 1978, I heaved my Raleigh International bicycle into the baggage compartment and boarded a Greyhound bus for the west coast. In a moment of idealistic optimism, I thought the bus trip would be interesting in its own right. Besides, you couldn’t beat Greyhound’s special one-way ticket to anywhere in the country for $79. Clearly, hope springs eternal and, like the bus trip itself, my vision of the places I would pass through was still one of charm and scenic adventure.

The trip was long and uncomfortable, and it seemed as if the bus stopped at every town on the route.

The bus stops took all kinds of forms, from charming and welcoming to filthy, desolate and even scary. The route, too, was often plagued by incomprehensible rural squalor and urban blight. Yet other places were breathtakingly beautiful.

I can still vividly recall waking from a nap as we crossed southern Montana, and came to understand for the first time why they called it Big Sky Country.

Cities which had planned and invested in their downtowns stood in stark contrast to the run-down urban centers we too often passed through. The pedestrian malls, tree-lined streets and litter-free streetscapes of Portland, Oregon made it easy to understand why such cities were destined to grow and prosper.

Unfortunately, when I got to Portland after three days on the cramped quarters of the bus, I had no bike.

It was somewhere between Pittsburgh and Portland, the victim of a crotchety old baggage handler who refused to load it on the bus when I had to transfer in Pittsburgh.

As my riding partners and I waited for my bike to catch up with me, it rained incessantly. I had long understood that the Pacific Northwest got a great deal of rain, but did not fully appreciate what that meant until I lived through four soggy days of it.

After the bike finally arrived in Astoria, we struggled over the Coast Ranges in the stubbornly persistent rain. We camped the first night at Big Eddy Park, named after a large eddy in the Nehalem River. But it was the campground manager, not the river, which was most memorable. He claimed to be the only hummingbird trainer in America, and proceeded to show why by getting the tiny birds to eat off a spoon placed in his mouth.

It was still raining the next morning, but we managed to get through Portland and camped at Mount Tabor Park, an extinct cinder cone volcano. A visit from a motorcycle gang interrupted our much anticipated sleep, the first of many nights our sleep was abbreviated by one thing or another over the course of the month long trip.

Though we were all experienced cyclists, we quickly came to realize that minor inconveniences on an automobile road trip, could turn into half day fiascos when traveling by bike. Such struggles would test our patience and resolve on a regular basis.

John Frederick continues the 40th anniversary recollection of his 1978 cross-country bike trip in the next edition of Earth Matters. Visit his website (www.johnjfrederick.com) for more and information about his book, Winding Roads, due out in early autumn.

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