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Volume 45, No. 3
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Eager, Thoughtful & Chafed
Sagehens Peter Pitsker and John Boutelle (both ’81) have pedaled their way across some of the most stunning—and some of the nastiest—landscapes in the United States, all part of Boutelle’s quest to ride across each of the 50 states. Here Boutelle explains why, after 6,000 miles of headwinds, roadside repairs, rain and hazards, he still finds it so compelling to see the U.S. by bicycle...

By John Boutelle ’81

I’ve been alive almost 50 years and haven’t made a lot of progress toward unveiling eternal truths or attaining profound wisdom, but I have learned one thing from bike-riding: a whole bunch of small adventures can be more fulfilling than a few big adventures. I’ve jumped out of an airplane, tracked mountain gorillas in the Congo, and run from police on a couple of occasions; but I’d trade in those escapades for the little unexpected stuff that happens on bike rides.

The difference is that you have to earn your adventure on a bike. When you go skydiving you know what you’re getting into and surprises are a very bad thing. On a bike you have no idea what form your adventure will take, and the surprises are the good stuff (even though you may not see it that way at the time).

You might make a wrong turn and drift 35 miles off course on a 90-degree day and get an unexpected test of your endurance (happened). Or you might >> stop for a Gatorade break and see a cactus get caught in a dust devil and blast 200 yards straight up in the air (happened). Or you might suddenly be forced to dodge snakes of all types and sizes as you ride across a bog after a rainstorm (happened). Small surprises, small adventures. But they change the way you see things in a big way.

Take Florida, for example. If you’ve flown or even driven across it you probably conjure flat, swampy, somewhat monotonous landscapes punctuated by scrubby palm trees and maybe the occasional armadillo.

My route took me from Fort Lauderdale to Fort Meyers, across “alligator alley.” I’d been having a miserable first day: 90- plus degrees, huge trucks whizzing past at 80 m.p.h., broken glass and potholes on the shoulder. By the time I got to Lake Okeechobee I was ready for a break, so I walked my bike up the steep bank of the levee to get a look at the lake. To my surprise there was a freshly paved walkway at the top of the levee. I decided to ride it as far as I could.

As I pedaled along I’d startle small birds that had been resting in the grass. Birds of this particular species apparently were hard-wired to respond to approaching bike riders in a very specific way: they’d explode into the air with panicky flapping, then continue to fly straight ahead of the oncoming rider. A small cloud of these birds began to form ahead of me—dozens, then a hundred, then several hundred. Suddenly, my front tire hit a pothole—clank! The birds scattered in all directions like a bomb had been detonated. This became a game for me. I let them accumulate again, then yelled “hey!” at the top of my lungs. Chaos. Birds everywhere.

Florida was no longer just a hot, congested, man-made hellhole; it was part of the natural world again—something to interact with, to see, smell, hear and enjoy.

As for the rules of my 50-state quest, generally, riding “across” a state means no cutting corners. Whenever possible, you must ride from east to west or north to south (or vice versa), though riding across at the widest point is not required. For states that are not rectangular, like South Carolina, use your judgment. My plan for Hawaii is to circumnavigate each of the major islands to the extent possible. And remember, none of this is for the Guinness Book of World Records.

I do most of these rides with someone else. My dad came with me on the ill-fated Minnesota ride (ask me for a copy of Weapons of Ass Destruction, the authoritative account). Peter Pitsker and his dad accompanied me in California and Arizona, with his wife Marilou Quini ’85 and his mother Polly Dubose Pitsker, ’56 handling sag-wagon duties. And the ride across Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine was a circus, with a total of seven riders.

A bike tour helps you see and experience people differently too. And again, it’s about the little stuff, the new idiosyncrasies you discover in people you’ve known for decades.

Case in point: I learned that my dad’s well-documented frugality takes on new dimensions when it comes to bike-riding. He insists on riding that $200 Trek he bought 18 years ago, with its slow, fat tires, heavy steel frame, upright handlebars, and big wide pedals with no toe clips. And he’d rather get saddle sores than spring for those “fancy-schmancy” bike shorts with the padded seats.

You see how your closest friends and family handle new forms of adversity: hills, heat, rain, wind, cold, cramps, dehydration, flat tires.

Peter and I were tested in Oregon last summer. We had planned our five-day tour along the coast from north to south— because in August there are always strong winds from the north and rainfall averages only one inch for the whole month. Reality turned out to be quite different. Oregon’s weather actually made national news (“Freak Storms Pound Oregon’s Coast”).

On the morning of the third day we woke up tired and irritable. It didn’t help to hear the forecast for 30-40-m.p.h. winds out of the south and torrential rain. We hit the road, planning to ride 85 miles from Waldport to North Bend. An hour and a half later we had covered nine miles. We stopped for breakfast, thoroughly demoralized. But neither of us said a word. This was why we were out here. We weren’t stopping at any stinking nine miles. We’d see if we had it in us to go 85 in this hurricane. And it turned out we did. It took us 12 hours, and the last few miles of it required us to walk our bikes across a two-mile-long bridge spanning Coos Bay, 200 feet in the air and exposed to a pummeling, 50-degree wind, but we made it. And both of us know, as a result, what we can expect of the other when the going gets rough.

On the more contemplative side, pedaling along the open pavement also affords plenty of time to let the mind drift. I’d like to say that I use the time to contemplate philosophical questions or develop my views on political issues or reflect on the historical parallels of current events. The sad fact is that I mostly think about how far it is to the next coffee shop or motel, calculating the arrival time based on the terrain and current wind speeds.

I suspect all riders spend a great deal of time thinking about the stuff we see on the side of the road. Just on the rides I’ve done with Peter and his dad we’ve seen enough truck parts to construct a fleet of Peterbilts, a girdle and many other interesting clothing items, dozens of discarded CDs, an open suitcase with all of its contents still inside, and much more. Every item is a story that each rider is free to speculate about, providing endless amusement.

Finally, and I don’t know how to say this without sounding corny (but I’ll just say it anyway), on a bike you will find proof positive that there is such a thing as magic. Each trip involves suffering and exhaustion, but somehow all the memories are good. It’s a transcendent experience that satisfies the basic human nomadic imperative: to explore, to understand, and to triumph over adversity.

Want to come along on the next adventure? Just send me an email at jboutelle@earthlink.net. All Sagehens welcome. Many thanks to Peter D. Pitsker and his extended family for their many contributions.

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