Get out and pedal yourself, bicyclist challenges

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Editor's note: Matt Wittmer is a Cape Girardeau native and an avid cyclist. He is helping plot a bike route from Canada to Key West, Fla., as part of the East Coast Greenway. Wittmer's portion of the ride started in September in Washington, D.C., and will end in Key West this month.

I met an Israeli man named Eli on the street. He had a ragged beard reminiscent of Rasputin. I asked him what he did. He said he tried to figure out what was going to happen tomorrow. And if that was going well he'd go ahead and take a stab at the week.

There's a certain nobility to that, but it wouldn't have worked on this adventure. Each day was unknown, a microcosmic trip in and of itself. More than half of my 60 nights were not determined until near dusk. Imagining them as 60 of my children, they'd all have different names and unique personalities. I've liked some more than others, but I've hugged them all just as hard.

I worked under the premise that the world would take care of me as long as I acted in accordance with some simple principles: think smart, be kind to strangers, drink lots of water, breathe deep and often and always bring more Ziplocs than you'd ever imagine using.

Want to know what it's like? Here's an idea: Go out and stand next to any busy road. Appraise it intently. Breathe it in. Count the cars. Listen to the cacophony of engines and brakes, hip hop and country. Do it all day. Go home and pack your bag. Grease your chain, you'll be gone a while.

Get up at seven the next morning and ride your bicycle to Hucks on South Kingshighway. Enjoy your coffee and Krispy Kreme. Stretch a little. Head south on U.S. 61 through Kelso and Morley. Admire the perfection of row upon straight row of soybeans and corn. Push through the impulse to turn back.

Stop for lunch at Lambert's in Sikeston. Eat whatever you want. Sit back and drink the place in. Chat up the waiter. Nap if necessary. Bag some fried okra and a piece of pecan pie for the road. Fill up your water bottles and go. Marvel at the flatness of the land. Stop and talk to a farmer walking his field. Ponder the ancient American Indian presence. Project the future.

Start looking for a place to pitch your tent on the outskirts of New Madrid. Check for dogs. Ask someone if you can sleep in their yard. Take in the Hunter-Dawson State Historic Site. Stare at the river and compare it to a road. Notice how it can be swift and twisting or slow and lazy.

Pedaling A1A through Miami, for instance, was like running a class four or a class five rapid. Your day through Southeast Missouri has been a soft class two. But you understand now. This style of riding is not for the faint of heart. One time out and you might consider it pure folly. Then again, you may be hooked. And you'll have a fresh day's worth of new sights and sounds to download.

You've gone 50 miles and burned 1,500 or so calories. You've sweat. Your quads ache. Your butt hurts. But you met people you wouldn't have otherwise. You realized you're seeing a different world on two wheels.

Relax, wherever you are, you're in a place unlike any other in the world. Read your maps. Get some fast sleep. Get up and do it again. One thing, it's the Bootheel, so I don't want to hear any complaints about hills.

I wanted my journey to attack our culture of fear. I wanted to get away from all the snarling white noise, distance myself from impulsive consumerism and survive as best I could off the grid. I think it worked. I'm less afraid than when I started. I'm less anxious. I take little for granted. Less privilege has translated, paradoxically, to a sense of more security.

One chief lesson is reinstalled each time I travel, and never more so than on this trip. The world is not what we see on TV. It is not what we read in magazines. It is not what we are fed electronically.

It is more dignified than that. It is friendlier. It is more vast and more vexing. It is more beautiful and more hopeful. It is severe, surely, and doesn't take kindly to ignorance, but power and knowledge and beauty lie within our reach, in the hearts and minds of individuals. Realize this. Get up, get out, and hug it hard.

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