On my bike trip in the Pacific Northwest, I find myself facing another hazard of Life On The Road: a concern for my personal security.
As I drink coffee and review my maps for the day ahead, I am aware of the stares.
The three grizzled locals in the booth at the end of the room are watching me with a mixture of suspicion and amusement. As a woman alone on the road, I am becoming accustomed to the feelings evoked by the presence of men such as these: the flush of unwarranted superiority (I on my road bike and they with their flabby guts) mixed with a slight fear of gang rape or some other backwoods Deliverance behavior.
I know there is only one way to get beyond it.
I knock back the last of my coffee, then wipe my mouth with the paper napkin from my lap. Rising from my seat, I feel the vinyl stick ever-so-slightly to the backs of my legs where they protrude from my cycling shorts. I pick up the map I have been studying, and cross the room toward them. Startled, the three shuffle in their seats in feeble attempts at nonchalance, neither trying to meet my eyes nor act as though they are avoiding me.
With a broad smile, I say, “Hi,” snaring two of them with eye contact.
“Hi.” “Hey.” “Howdy.”
“Say?” I begin, assuming the hesitant tone of the needy as I lean forward and spread my map on their table. Relieved to have something on which to focus, all eyes go to the map. “Do you fellows know the best way to get from Antelope to Fossil?”
Ten minutes later, we are drinking coffee together. My map is marked and folded, a shortcut having been established, and I am listening to tales of local color. My faith in the essential goodness of human nature is restored.
As I write my book, I learn and re-learn what the touring cyclist has always known — the small towns, and especially the people within those towns — are what makes touring so rewarding.
It’s about being on the bike, yes, but it’s also about connecting with others, whether face-to-face or through the legacies left by their actions. Someone, some enterprising fellow human, was responsible for creating the tiny “American Hop Museum,” a tribute to the malt beverage industry, in Toppenish, Washington. Another took brush in hand and painted the remarkable mural commemorating the Oregon Trail on the side of the drug store in Vale, Oregon. The citizens of Helix, Oregon, — all 150 of them — found it in their hearts and community budget to create a grassy park in their tiny town, the perfect resting spot for a weary cyclist.
Again and again I am struck by the generosity of those with whom I come in contact as I conduct my field work: the receptionist at the Forest Service office who spends over an hour making telephone calls to find me a route that is not flooded; the little boys who offer an impromptu local history lesson as I gaze at their town’s majestic 1902 court house, the gentleman and cowboy poet who uses his red pick-up truck to block the wind and lead me, white-knuckled, through a storm-whipped canyon, then presents me with two cassette tapes of his lovely poetry.
I reflect on these people and these places as I stand, my weight against my handlebars, staring at Dry Falls gorge, Washington state’s answer to the Grand Canyon. These falls, when they flowed with water many thousands of years ago, were far wider and taller than Niagara. I am struck by the majesty of it, and make a note to include this information in my book. So many have shared with me, and now it’s my turn to share my little slice of nirvana with others. Despite January’s chill, the sun — which shines 300 days a year in the eastern part of Washington and Oregon — beams warmly on my back.