Diary of an Unforgettable Cross-Country Bike Trip.
Billie Sargent recently moved to Athens from St. Simons Island. In the summer of 1986, she and her then-partner Bob Hatchell went on an adventure of a lifetime. Read about the first part of their journey below and take a quick tour in the interactive map above.
And if you’ve already read the first part of her story in the print version of Boom Magazine, click here to pick up where you left off.
June 14, 1986 – Mileage: 0
We dipped the rear wheels of our new touring bicycles into the Atlantic Ocean at St. Simons Island, Georgia, and thus began our sojourn across the United States in search of ourselves and the path which would take us to our next professional challenge. Our friends said we were crazy: we had sold our growing and prospering business, our house and furniture; we had stored our books and paintings; we had given away our two beloved dogs, and had found new homes for our cars, boat, and motorcycle.
I had just turned 40; my partner, Bob, would become 40 in Hannibal, Missouri, 1500 miles into our journey. We had been together for seven years, combining our talents and assets to build a tourism business, merging our personal lives as well as our professional ambitions. We had bought the perfect house and lived on an island where others vacationed. We had attained the American dream.
We were in the right place at the right time with the right idea. And we worked very hard.
Then, in 1983, Bob was diagnosed as a diabetic, and this chink in his immortality jolted us out of the womb-like comfort our holiday environment provided. It was a shock that Bob would have any illness, much less a serious disease. He didn’t smoke, exercised regularly, and took an active interest in and practiced good nutrition. In 1982, he had run the Savannah Marathon. Nevertheless, he was now insulin-dependent, two injections each day, with the possibility of heart disease, stroke, and loss of vision if the disease were not controlled.
In 1984, we attended a week-long heart disease and diabetes clinic in California which showed remarkable results through a strict, low-fat diet: no red meat, no chicken, no fish, no dairy products. Bob was put on an exercise and stress-management regimen. His cholesterol levels fell below 200 and he reduced his insulin dosage substantially. I lost five pounds and learned how to cook rice and beans.
When we returned to St. Simons, we struggled to maintain the plateaus we had reached in California, but the demands of the business…12-14-hour days, and the out-of-state marketing trips and national trade meetings… made it impossible to stay on a consistent schedule. The business was eroding Bob’s health. We began to question whether the benefits were worth the price he was paying.
We walked endless miles on the beach discussing our alternatives. We had stood by each other through too many thicks and thins for me to consider this to be “his” situation and not “ours.” The questions involved permanent consequences, and there were no easy answers.
The recurring solution was to sell the business and to find a career that could include exercise and a low-stress level. These two conditions seemed to have the greatest effect on Bob’s control of diabetes. But what could we possibly do for a living that would achieve these ends?
We decided to strip our lives to the essentials to discover what was really important to us. We needed time and space—distance from all that was familiar, routine, and predictable—to open our minds and free our lives for opportunities we couldn’t know existed if we stayed on our insulated island.
Our shared love of long-distance bicycling inspired our modus operandi: an around the world bicycle journey. The first step would be to cross America.
June 15-25, 1986 – The First Five Hundred Miles
We located maps designed for back-road trekking through BikeCentennial, a national bicycle organization. The maps followed the Mississippi River, and we would navigate the byways ourselves through Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to join the route in Memphis, Tennessee.
To put it mildly, bicycle touring in the deep South was a novelty, if not an aberration. Heading west through the Georgia towns of Hortense, Coffee, and Double Run, we established routines that would serve us well for over 4,500 miles: finding (often inventing) a place to camp, preparing simple meals on a camp stove, and securing our gear for the night. We had small quarrels about burning the oatmeal or which road to take, but an hour’s pedaling usually put things into perspective. No matter how vexed we were with each other, the heat and exertion were greater. Our tent was too small to carry a grievance into the night.
The heat was the major problem: this was a year of the Great Drought throughout the South. We started pedaling in the not-so-hot early-morning hours until 11:00, lunched and napped until 4:00, then rode until late in the evening…the long days giving us extra hours. Bob’s insulin was kept cool by putting it in small baby bottles filled with ice, and replenishing the ice at rest stops.
Our system had been established to consult a local policeman if we could find one or, if we couldn’t, a local shop-keeper to locate someplace to pitch our tent. We slept in vacant lots, in the back yards of county jails, and in city parks. We refueled with home-cooked vegetables and biscuits at community eateries, adhering to our vegetarian diet. When we couldn’t find a restaurant, we ate sandwiches with tomato and onion. A can of pineapple transformed our breakfast oatmeal into a gourmet treat.
By the time we reached the hills of Americus, Andersonville, and Buena (pronounced as in Daniel Boone-a by the locals) Vista, our legs were stronger. Semis and pick-up trucks were unforgiving on the Southern highways as we clocked fifty hard-fought miles a day. I considered my gear-laden bike to be my trusty steed now, and, with a steady hand and heart, I could rein my sixty-pound mount off the road when a vehicle got too close. There being no shoulders on the two-lane highways, I often landed in scruffy brush to divert a trucker’s aim.
Life was a constant kaleidoscope, and we were beginning to anticipate and relish the ever-changing challenges presented to us each day. My legs began to enjoy the days of continual rotation, and we were no longer appalled if no shower was available at the end of a long, hot day. Hopefully we’d find one tomorrow.
July 12, 1986 — Mileage: 1,103.12
We pedaled close to 200 miles of Mississippi highway, then took a two-day break in Memphis over the Fourth of July weekend. There we rested our bones in a real bed, took hot showers twice a day, washed our clothes, and caught up on our journals.
Another 200 miles through Arkansas along Crowley’s Ridge. In the foothills of the Ozarks, the rugged terrain breeds a people eking out a living. The towns—with populations of 50 to 500—had only the barest services: a grocery, maybe a bank, one church, and a post office. We stopped for an overnighter in Walcott, Arkansas.
There being no apparent industry in Walcott, we wondered if we would have a chance to ask what people did for a living. The chance came unexpectedly around an impromptu driveway camp-fire gathering after supper. We were just chit-chatting with local folk, telling stories about our trip, when the opportunity arose. Bob took it: “What do folks do around here do to earn a living?” They answered promptly and unabashedly “We get checks from the government.”
We rolled into Williamsville, Missouri, in search of food and a shade tree after a hilly morning in the Mark Twain National Forest. There was no restaurant, so we purchased a loaf of bread and a tomato at the Main Street grocery store. There were no trees in town, so we settled under the grocery’s fiberglass awning, perching on the building’s ledge.
Immediately, the Williamsville youth surrounded us, bursting with curiosity about our bicycles and the trip, asking incisive questions which demanded our full attention. Not one of them knew where Georgia was located, nor how far the Pacific Ocean might be.
We couldn’t help but notice that their teeth were decayed. Colloquialisms made it difficult to understand their questions. They all—from the age of twelve to twenty—smoked or chewed tobacco.
Finishing our sandwiches, we asked them about school. Those thirteen and younger said they were in the sixth grade. The older kids had quit school at fourteen and were considering marriage and children…to receive larger welfare checks, they explained. One of the older ones spoke wistfully about joining the Army, but he didn’t have a high school diploma and couldn’t pass the equivalency test. Another announced that he wanted to be trained to drive semi-trucks like his father.
I felt indignant that these bright children were caught up in this inertia caused by ignorance. They didn’t know that there was a world beyond the mountains where, with guts and education, there was opportunity for a better life. I wanted to inspire them, to remove them from this depressed environment which suppressed their talents. But I said nothing.
The next day, riding was pleasant through Gad’s Hill, where Jesse James robbed his first train. I thought of the boys we had met yesterday, and wondered if they might rob minute-markets as a solution to their problems. I wondered, too, if I might one day return to make, somehow, a difference in their lives.
The sky began to darken in Vulcan, and by the time we reached Annapolis (population 300) the rain had begun to empty the clouds. We were lucky…the town was large enough to support a restaurant and a laundromat. We took advantage of both.
After lunch and laundry were crossed off the list, the rain was still unrelenting. We decided to return to the restaurant to reconnoiter our next move over another cup of coffee. Should we pedal twenty rainy miles to Ironton, or try to find a local alternative? There were no campgrounds or motels in Annapolis.
We had paused our conversation when a young man who had howdy’ed us in the laundromat approached our table. “Me and my wife were thinkin’ that if you don’t have a place to sleep tonight, we have a spare bedroom. We live right here on the main highway. It’s the gray house just past the church. It’d be a real pleasure to have you come to the auction with us tonight. It’s the only thing happening on Saturday night in these parts.”
Bob and I looked at each other, conversed telepathically, and accepted. The auction started at 7:30, and could we come early to ride with them in their car?
When we arrived at the “gray house just past the church” a few minutes early, we were invited to finish the wrestling match which was appearing in living color on the 24” console television in the front room. I asked if there were some place where I could freshen up, and was shown to a spotless bathroom. There was no hot water, Linda apologized, and could we please use our own towels as they had no extra?
Refreshed somewhat, we piled into their fifth-hand 1975 Oldsmobile, and rode a few miles to a large, unpainted building a half-block off the main street.
When we entered the long wooden room, we could feel the excitement which filled the air. The women, dressed in cotton house-dresses or polyester slacks, laughed and talked on the south side of the room as they seated themselves in the folding chairs lined into six rows. The men, in their overalls, congregated at the doorway and along the walls behind the women, talking in low tones and smoking or chewing tobacco. The children scampered about, playing tag until the crowd was called to order by the auctioneer.
He was a large, LBJ-sized country man. Confident of his duties, he busied himself checking the boxes and containers of every description balanced precariously on top of each other half-way to the ceiling. So as not to neglect the gathering, he said “hi-dee” by name to the folks as they shuffled past him to take their seats.
Then, as if signaled, the room became hushed and the auctioneer brought out the first box to go on the block. One at a time, he emptied its contents while he spoke in the rhythmic cadence for which his craft is known:
“Glad yer all here tonight. We’ve got some real fine stuff for you! This here is Maggie’s box. Let’s see…One extension cord, looks purty near new; half-can of blue paint…now that’s a real nice color blue, ain’t it? See? And here’s something you probly all need: an almost-full tube of Preparation H! (A short pause to give room for laughter from the crowd.) Do I hear $1 for the lot of ’em?”
The Auctioneer came to life, pirouetting amongst ceramic Christmas trees, cobalt blue vases, and “almost-working” wall clocks with grace. The mountain folk frolicked in his broad wit, and happily parted with a dollar or two for a bartered box of “useful” as the price of admission. We, too, were enchanted.
(Story continued here from print magazine version)
The children were beginning to nod when the piece de resistance was held up for all to see. An appreciative gasp was emitted in unison, then “Wha’d’I hear?” answered instantly by “fifty cents” followed by a quick “one dollar,” topped by a-dollar-twenty-five, and it was anybody’s guess as to which lady would out-bid the others. The heated bidding continued in twenty-five-cent increments until a masculine voice shouted “four dollars!” from the doorway.
The ladies turned to see who was so extravagant, and the overalled bidder winked at his now-beaming spouse, whose egg money had been supplemented by deeper pockets.
A murmur of approval rippled through the crowd. And then, from the back of the room, an uncertain voice cried “Five dollars and fifty cents!” All heads swiveled, and eyes fastened on a blushing young man who was looking hopefully at a maiden in the third row.
Too much for the eager crowd to contain, it burst into applause. The Auctioneer solemnly took the prize to the young man, who, amid catcalls from his fellows, walked to the third row and shyly presented it to the girl with downcast eyes. The ceramic nesting chicken, which, when the chicken was lifted off the nest, played “Old McDonald,” was a gift to win his sweetheart’s hand.
That night, I dreamed of auctions, of young men without aspirations, and of my own quest for identity. I had found an Americana I never knew existed, and had, for a moment, been a part of it.
July 18, 1986 – Mileage: 1,443.46
Although we had heard stories about the Missouri Hills beyond the Ozarks, we had not expected the difficulties we experienced on the road between Ironton and Hannibal. We were greeted with 105+ temperatures, which, when the boiling sun beat down on the newly-tarred surface, made the tar pop under the weight of our tires and stick like soft bubblegum on a shoe sole.
That was added to the switchback hills that, instead of the gentle slopes we had envisioned, went up, up, up so grindingly slow and down so quickly that we didn’t have time to change our gears so that we could go up, up, up slowly again. Finally, the road dust was so thick in our throats that it never went away, just shifted a little when we swallowed.
At the end of the long days, we camped in churchyards, fighting Goliath mosquitoes when the sun went down, and woke up to dew on the grass the next morning. Dew sounds refreshing except that it makes the tent too wet to pack when we broke camp. Ugh! We packed it anyway and spread it out to dry in the sun during our lunch breaks.
My will to pedal began to crack under constant physical and mental stress, and it was with tears in my eyes that I confided to Bob that I didn’t know whether I could make it up the next hill, much less to the Pacific Ocean. He didn’t make any speeches of encouragement. He just let me talk out my self-doubt, knowing that I would end up talking myself into one more try. And he was right.
When we rolled into Hannibal a day and a half later, I had stretched my mind and physical endurance to their limits and, paradoxically, felt exhilarated with victory and humbled at how close I had come to defeat.
After the enormous struggle it took to get to Hannibal, the town seemed small. We had stopped under a shade tree, and a lady dressed in stockings and her go-to-town dress crossed the street to get a closer look at us. Politely, she smiled at me and remarked, “What a nice way to get a tan, my dear, taking a bicycle ride.”
August 1, 1986, Mileage: 2,023
A cool Illinois breeze rewarded us when we crossed the Mississippi River outside of Hannibal and traveled through verdant, alluvial fields and storied 19th Century river towns into Iowa. Our backroads map led us through the uncharted territory of the Iowa cornfields—those great, sea-like masses of tassels with never a clump of trees to give relief from the factory-like production of maize. Often, on what seemed like a dirt path, the directions mentioned “a large oak tree on the east side of the road—can’t miss it!” or a two-storied white house on the left as our instruction to turn left or to go straight-past. Sometimes, a farmer or his wife saw us coming, and invited us to a glass of lemonade in exchange for where we were from and where (on God’s green earth!) were we headed?
One couple told us about another long-distance cyclist traveling the same backroads route as we were on. His name was Ken, they said, and you’ll know him by his long white hair and ancient orange Schwinn. So when we saw well-worn yellow saddlebags topped with spare tires, sleeping bag, and tent on a wobbly old bike in front of us, we knew who we were following. Bob pedaled up beside him, “You’re Ken aren’t you? I’m Bob! and that’s Billie.” and invited him to have breakfast with us in the next town: Kellogg, Minnesota. He happily accepted.
“I didn’t start cycling until I was 65 years old and had retired,” Ken told us over pancakes and coffee. “That was when the doctor told me I was going to die before the year was out. I stopped smoking and started pedaling. Figure I’ve cheated the doctors—and the devil—out of ten years so far.”
After a filling breakfast and trading a few stories, we said our fond goodbyes and “hope to see you on the road agains” and headed off to Lake Pepin.
By now, Bob and I had developed our separate and distinct methods of dealing with various conditions of the road: weaving through broken glass, staying upright on dirt roads, and defending ourselves against attack-dogs. Pending off blood-thirsty hounds required boldness. Bob’s response was to mount an aggressive counterattack, growling and barking more ferociously than his assailant. I took the coward’s way out. I pedaled as fast as I could and squirted my water bottle in the general direction of my adversary.
Our odometers tripped 2,000 miles while we coasted down a hill on a lovely shaded road in a residential area outside a lake resort. I was concentrating on my gearing, preparing for the approaching uphill climb when I saw a 100-pound “wolf” with bared teeth racing across a manicured lawn directly toward us. In the distance, I heard someone calling Snuggles to come home right-this-minute!
I knew that I could outrun Snuggles by gearing high and pedaling hard. I dropped to the lower handlebars for maximum power and grabbed my water bottle, ready to squirt. Suddenly, in front of me, I heard Bob’s “woof, woof, woof!” and, too late, I saw him wheeling his bike around into attack position. I pedaled into him broadside, creating a tangle of Billie, Bob, and bicycles. Snuggles’ attack yelps turned into woofs of glee as he retreated to report to his mistress the successful defense of family turf.
Fortunately, neither of us had broken anything, bones or bikes, but our separate and distinct feelings had been wounded. It would be an hour’s ride before we would kiss and make up.
August 16, 1986 — Mileage: 2,713
Three days of hard pedaling against 15mph headwinds traveling west from Fargo were taking their toll. We woke up tired in Pekin, and packed our bikes in slow motion. Our lethargy made the morning dreary and the countryside dull. Even the headwind had gone somewhere else. An occasional mist and light sprinkle prodded us onward.
A signpost informed us that we had entered Fort Totten Indian Reservation. We were jerked out of our stupor, a Fargo voice hovering in our joint memory: “Whatever you do, don’t stop pedaling once you enter an Indian reservation! Just go as fast as you can until you see the sign announcing that you are now leaving.…”.
The farmland looked peaceful and prosperous, and we wondered about the ambiguous warnings we had received. When we questioned the advice in several instances, we got only shrugs and “believe me-s.” As we pedaled, everything looked normal enough, though there wasn’t much car traffic for Saturday morning, only an occasional auto.
We had been on the road for twenty miles since leaving Pekin, and the BikeCentennial map showed a town three miles ahead: Warwick, North Dakota, population 168, with a restaurant, service station, and grocery. A cup of coffee might pick us up, so we decided to stop. Maybe we’d learn something about the Sioux.
We turned off the highway at the Warwick signpost, and coasted into town abreast. The pavement turned into dirt, and suddenly it was as if we had time-traveled backwards into a 1920 Western ghost town. There were ramshackle low-rise wooden buildings on either side of the street. A bank on one side, the dusty shades drawn. Next to it, a sign advertised a grocery store, but it didn’t look like it had had food on the shelves for a long time. Across the street, a restaurant with a smashed plate-glass window was next to a saloon. I knew it was a saloon because we were West of the Mississippi and the volume of what was passing for music emanating from within. No swinging doors here. Just a plain, dog-eared wooden door.
Breakfast and coffee were often served in small-town taverns, so we leaned our bicycles against the wall of the one-story, sandstone building and went inside. The jukebox was blaring what was undecernable as music from the far wall. Directly in front of us was an over-the-years stained wooden bar lined with seven or so backless stools. The first two stools from the door were the only ones not occupied.
As we walked further into the room, our nostrils were filled with the odors of sweat, stale beer, and cigarettes. Our eyes were struggling to adjust to the minuscule light from three rope-hung light bulbs. Having no place to go, cigarette smoke stacked itself against the low-hanging ceiling. On our right were three bare, hastily-made wooden tables. Chairs were higgly-piggly in the general area, but nobody was sitting that I could see.
At the rear of the room was a pool table. One player was bent over the table making his move; another, standing nearby, was ready to take over when he missed. They stopped in mid-concentration and leaned against the apron, watching us as we entered.
Looking on from behind the table were five or six wiry men in low-slung, rummage-sale-jeans, their backs against the smudged wall, cigarettes hanging from their lips. All was quiet and still as we entered the room, leaving just the jukebox screeching a plaintiff song of woe. All eyes were on the white man and woman in funny-looking shorts, dusty themselves from three days on the road. Ironically, Bob wore a bandana wrapped around his forehead.
We were entering serious Indian territory up close. To turn and retreat, as every instinct in my body told me to do, would have been an insult.
With as much nonchalance as I could muster, I walked to the bar and sat on one of the two vacant barstools. The barmaid, looked at us and quickly offered to make a pot of coffee, saying she was about to do so anyway…this as she walked towards what we hoped was the kitchen.
The Indian woman seated next to me asked where we were headed and smiled, revealing several missing teeth. Before I could reply, she was joined by a man, who, though discernibly white-skinned, wore his greasy hair long in the Indian fashion and tied a kerchief around his forehead. His grimy blue jeans were held up by a silver-buckled belt, and his shirt: Tide’s ultimate challenge. His breath reeked of tobacco and whiskey when he introduced himself as “Bud.” Concurrently, our freshly-brewed coffee arrived and was placed nicely in front of us.
I admired the way Bob calmly made polite conversation and answered Bud’s slurred questions. Bud became expansive, as though it was important for us to accept him. Even in his inebriation, it was obvious that he had had some schooling.
“The white man’s been cheatin’ the Indians ever since he got here. I’m on the Indians’ side. That’s why I live with a Sioux woman. White men gave ‘em the worst land possible when the treaty was signed. Then, when irrigation came along, they wanted the land back.
“All those manicured lawns and farmland you saw on the way from Pekin? They’re owned by white men. They got the Indians drunk and stole it from them for chump change. The Indians didn’t understand what they were doing. They weren’t used to owning land. A left-over speck of dirt was given for the reservation.
“Most of the Sioux live at Fort Totten now, like my woman here. They get a monthly check from the government; most of ‘em spend it on booze in places like this. Losing your God-given land doesn’t hurt as bad when you’re drunk.”
I couldn’t breathe much longer in the fuggy (fu-gee) air, and was relieved when Bob rose from his stool signaling it was time to go. The barmaid wouldn’t take our money for the coffee, and invited us back if we passed through Warwick again.
We were turning to leave when a young pool-player, carrying his cue stick in his hand and a bad-ass look in his eye, approached us. With his free hand, he combatively pushed Bob on the shoulder, squared his face six inches from Bob’s, and said “When the white man won a battle, it was called a great victory. When we won at Little Big Horn, it was called a massacre.”
He shoved Bob on the shoulder again// about-faced on his heel, and returned to the pool table.
Bob, for once, was speechless. I was too shaken to move. Bud took my arm and walked us out the door saying, “Don’t pay any attention to him. He just had a little too much to drink this mornin’.”
Outside, Bud turned to Bob as he closed the door. Seeing him for the first time in the daylight, he noticed Bob’s gray beard and recalled his mild manner. As if he’d had a revelation, Bud said, “You’re a minister, aren’t you?”
Surprised, Bob answered, “No, uh…” but Bud pulled a ten-dollar bill out of his pocket, pressed it into Bob’s hand, and left us to return to his friends.
As we rode out of Warwick, I was nervous and felt vulnerable on my bicycle. It would be easy for one or two of the Sioux to follow us and harass us to entertain themselves on a dull Saturday morning. But we never saw them again.
We spent many days in Indian territory throughout the West, visited pioneer museums and Department of Interior interpretation centers, talked to white museum docents and Indian store owners, trying to grapple with the emotions, inequities, and insecurities — the helplessness of these two cultures still struggling to co-exist in a climate of mistrust.
Bob and I were both Southerners and had seen the injustice and consequences of discrimination and racial tensions, but never had we witnessed so much misunderstanding, bitterness and animosity between two races as between the white man and the red man in the West. All we had seen and experienced rested uneasily in our hearts and minds.
August 23, 1986 – Mileage: 3,122.32
The Great Plains with their serious headwinds gave us the opportunity for long, internal discussions. The roads were flat, but our cruising speed was reduced from our usual 10-12 MPH to 5-6 with the throttle wide-open. Bob handled the headwinds with more strength than I had, and was usually a couple of miles ahead of me.
Distance-vision was so unobstructed that we were able to count hundreds of freight train cars from the engine to the caboose stretched across the prairie. Grain elevators marked the small towns like hotels on a Monopoly board, and what seemed near became miles and miles of empty space and headwinds.
In the morning, I had dialogues with myself about the children in Williamsville, and wondered if anyone would teach them about Georgia and Minnesota and Montana. In the afternoon, I compared the plight of the Indians with that of the Southern Black, and concluded that the Indians needed their own Martin Luther King, Jr. As the sun moved westward declaring evening, I wondered why my younger sister didn’t move herself, her two children and their five horses out West where land was plentiful instead of being crammed-up in Atlanta. And I wondered where Bob and I would end our search.
A day or two had passed when the grasshoppers’ plague swooped down on us in the afternoon. Thousands were hopping and flying about, some as high as my eyebrows. Avoiding the mass of these insects was not an option. I could hear crackling as my tires ran into and over the flow. I tried to distract myself by counting how many there were, but I couldn’t remember what came after 999,999,999. Thankfully, they went away at dusk, but our search began for a spot to camp.
We kept pedaling. Would we never camp that night? My mind continued to wander: I wondered at the vastness of America and how all that we had seen could possibly be one country with one government, and, generally speaking, one language.
Finally, a lonely spot in a rare stand of trees appeared on our right. With only dark and a few keen-eyed deer surrounding us, we fell into our tent as soon as it was raised.
Towns were scarce, and we stopped to rest at almost every crossroads we encountered. There were other cyclists on the same BikeCentennial route stopping at the same saloons as we did, but Georgians were a novelty. The locals’ curiosity was welcomed by us, and we happily reciprocated by answering any questions about the South, ourselves, and our journey.
I loved the cowboys in their boots and hats best, having spent childhood Saturdays watching Lash LaRue, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers ride into the sunset after doing battle with evil for ninety minutes. Our new friends didn’t have fringe and sequins on their shirts, nor did I ever hear them sing a song, but they were friendly and didn’t seem to mind that I’d left my hoop skirt back in Georgia.
In Culbertson, Montana, we were the center of attention at the local watering hole and took pleasure in the conviviality of the ranchers along with a cold brew. We had toasted Montana and Georgia and several spots in between when one of our hosts commented: “All you hear on the news these days is about those Illinois farmers sending hay down to Georgia and South Carolina, and about how the heat and drought is killing the livestock. Nobody even batted an eye a few years ago when it was dry out here and all our cattle were dying like flies. What’s so special that Southerners rate help and we didn’t?”
We described the farmland we had passed through in Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi, the small fields of withering corn, and how a 100-200 acre farm was considered quite respectable. We compared that to the vast expanses of land, huge herds of cattle, and the acres upon acres of fields in North Dakota and Montana.
The cowboys were dumbstruck that small “spreads” could exist where several bales of hay could make a difference. It was incomprehensible to our hosts that anyone could survive on such small acreage—even during the best of times. We had to agree.
Two Indian couples entered the tavern, and all talk at the bar stopped abruptly. There was total silence as the Indians sat at a table.
Not looking at the newcomers, the cowboys paid their tabs hurriedly and left. As the last one took his departure, he cautioned us not to get off our bikes while we were on an Indian reservation…just loud enough for the Indians to hear. Alone at the bar now, we took our time to finish our beers before leaving.
September 3, 1986 – Mileage: 3,807.09
We cycled our only 100-plus-mile day to Chester, Montana. The grain elevators of Zurich, Chinook, Havre, Kremlin, Gilford, Hingham, Rudyard, Inverness, and Joplin were lined in a row to count off the 108.6 miles. Nothing could keep us from sleeping well at a crowded campground.
We crossed into Canada to rest and re-group in Waterton, Alberta, the next day. It was Labor Day Weekend in the Canadian Rockies, and Lake Waterton and the glaciers were breathtakingly beautiful. Refreshed, we re-entered the U.S.A. at Chief Mountain and rode to Glacier National Park.
I couldn’t believe we were actually in the Rocky Mountains. We met four cyclists just completing their passage. They looked real tired. “Slow going,” they advised, “with fog at the top.” Flashbacks of chilling stories from earlier east-bound cyclists darted through my mind: hours of tedious uphill climbing with knees giving out half-way; narrow roads where rock slides were common; ceaseless automobile traffic pushing bicyclists closer and closer to the edge. I wondered how Bob and I would fare. The Hills in Missouri were one thing; the Rocky Mountains were quite another.
We both awakened with the first ray of sun the next morning and were dressed, oatmealed, packed, and pedaling by 8:00. We circled St. Mary’s Lake with mountains on all sides. I was in the middle of a picture postcard.
We started climbing, and the air became thinner and cooler. We put on our jackets. Then the road turned sharply, and we could see the highway rising into the clouds. My arms had goose-bumps. Were they from the chill in the air or the thought of climbing the Road to the Sun—or through the clouds on this particular day—under my own steam? I tried to smile as Bob looked back at me over his shoulder. He was ebullient at the challenge ahead of us. I couldn’t let him know how scared I was.
Granny gear…that’s as low as she’d go…just one rotation at a time and soon we’d be there. I couldn’t see Bob anymore. The fog had rolled in so fiercely that all I could see were the tail-lights of the cars as they passed me, and the white line on the road guiding my wheel. I prayed that my bicycle lights were hard at work, and blessed the salesman who had sold us the flashing, waistband lights.
Agonizingly, I followed the passing cars’ lights, every bone in my body concentrating on their eerie glow. I wound and re-wound my way slowly to the top. Finally, the lights turned left; I followed, and found myself in a parking lot. I felt rather than saw Bob at my side. My knees gave way as I dismounted and fell into his arms.
I had just climbed to 6,680 feet elevation at Logan’s Pass, but our challenge was only half-finished. Being no fool, I had an idea about how steep it would be on the way down.
Bob went first, and, behind him, the e-e-e-e-e-e-ek of my brakes against the tires echoed through the mountains. Then, somehow, I let go of my fear, and all of a sudden it was twenty-five miles of look-ma-no-pedaling and the wind was whistling a victorious song and all of a sudden we were out of the mountains and back into the valleys with their lakes.
Two nights later, we woke up to water streaming through the tent’s roof and into our sleeping-bags. The tent just couldn’t withstand the all-night deluge in Eureka. It snowed in the Rockies, and Logan’s Pass was closed to tourists.
The Cascade Mountains and four passes stood between us and the Pacific Ocean. The first was Sherman Pass, elevation 5675 feet, named for William Tecumseh. Ah, we’d heard that name before! We pedaled uphill for three hours, a steady five-miles-an-hour, full speed ahead.
In the distance, we spotted a set of yellow saddlebags with tires lapped over a sleeping bag and tent. It was the old orange Schwinn, moving even more slowly than I was. Ken waved us on as we passed him, saying his legs had given out a few miles back. His determination to continue despite his 75-year-old weariness spurred us to the top. Unfortunately, our paths never crossed again.
We toasted Ken and Sherman with our water bottles only briefly. Hail began to pelt our helmets and the Wauconda Pass was still on the day’s itinerary. We made it half-way up, then camped at Sweat Creek Campground, waking to a thirty-degree temperature. After notching Wauconda Pass, elevation 4,310 feet, on our belts, we coasted downhill to the Okanogan River Valley.
We were tired, but we pushed on to Number Two: Loup-Loup Pass, summit elevation 4020, named for the sadistic loop-de-loop near the top. A night’s rest, then a leisurely ride to Mazama. Local talk had it that the steepest passes were behind us, but we had Number Three and Number Four yet to climb—Washington and Rainy—before we reached Marblemount, 74 miles away.
It was early afternoon, and I figured that 74 miles would be a good day’s ride—for tomorrow. Bob had it figured differently. With the night-time temperatures in the low thirties, one day might make the difference between crossing the passes and being caught by snow in between. Besides, he argued, half the way would be down hill. Who could refute that logic?
We departed. Four hours later, the altitude and sheer drop to my right making me dizzy, a highway sign proclaimed that we had reached Washington Pass, 5,477 feet elevation. We celebrated only briefly. Three miles downhill, and the sun was behind Bebee Mountain. Two miles back up, and we reached the top of our last obstacle to the Pacific, Rainy Pass, 4890 feet elevation. It was 5:30 p.m. It was getting cold. We put on more clothes and added safety lights for our descent. Ten miles raced by.
Ahead, Bob pulled onto the shoulder…a flat tire. He went into his two-minute drill, and the bike was unloaded and the rear wheel off by the time I had dismounted to help him. A sports car sped by, slowed, then backed up. The driver rolled down the window: Could he help? There was no room for our bikes and gear, so Bob reluctantly waved him on with a weary smile and a sincere thank-you.
The tire was off the rim, the punctured tube out and a new tube inserted in record time. I saw headlights of an approaching station wagon, and grimly accepted the finality of the setting sun. The car stopped; one of the six passengers got out and offered his services. With warm thanks, Bob declined. Washington State drivers were high on our list for neighborliness.
Bob’s wheel was soon back on the bicycle and the gear re-loaded. We pushed back onto the road. Marblemount was thirty miles away. It was dark in the mountains.
I had all but given up on sleeping horizontally when our bike-lights bounced back at us reflecting off a newly painted sign. Bob’s flashlight beam spelled the message: “Diablo Dam Campground—Next Left.”
There were no street lights, so we pedaled slowly, afraid we would miss the turn-off. The gravel appeared first, then the arrows marking the way. We thanked the twinkling stars for bringing our day to a safe closUp at 6:00 a.m.; the air was frigid. My stomach felt like an empty hotel. Last night’s tomato and stale-bread sandwich and this morning’s oatmeal occupied only a room or two. The “vacancy” sign was still out. Marblemount was 27 miles away—downhill miles, Bob pointed out, forever the optimist.
Even though the road’s slant was in our favor, I rotated the pedals to keep warm. I sang every Brownie camp song I could remotely remember, making up second and third verses. Growls from my stomach accompanied with bass as I noisily made my way downhill.
When the neat houses with geranium-filled flower boxes announced that we were nearing Marblemount, Bob joined in with off-key harmony, and we joyously rolled into town and sniffed out the nearest eatery.
The waitress brought our order, and differently-sized plates decorated the red and white-checkered tablecloth. We merrily emptied the plates of giant buttermilk pancakes, a double order of homemade hash browns, and the best coffee west of the Mississippi. My stomach sighed “full” as we waddled back to our bicycles.
We soon understood why the Washington roadsides were so splendiferously green: the mist that had started outside Rockford developed into serious rainfall by the time we reached Concrete. A kindly Concrete-ite told us that we were in rain country, where the dew turned into mist and the mist turned into rain nine-and-a-half days out of ten.
Too tired to cope with the elements, we checked into a motel and were resurrected after a hot shower and spaghetti dinner.
September 13, 1986 – Mileage: 4,353.31
When we arose the next morning, we donned our freshest T-shirts—the Pacific would be greeting us and we wanted to make a good impression. The narrow roads through the rain forests enchanted us with their lush beauty. After lunch in Sedro Woolley, we called friend-Lynn in Bellingham to let her know we were getting close. An hour’s ride to her and mother Claire’s cottage, a welcome-after-ten-years hug, a how’d’do to new-addition Norm, and they piled into their car. Its tail-lights guided us through Bellingham traffic to Puget Sound where—in the grand cycling tradition—we dipped our front wheels in the Pacific Ocean. We were thirteen weeks, 92 days, 2184 hours, 4,353.31 miles, dozens of new friends, and thousands of memories away from the Atlantic Ocean and St. Simons Island.
Our odyssey across America was over. Our quest for self-awareness had just begun.
Our plans took us to Europe in 1987, where we landed in Luxembourg and traveled through Belgium, England, Wales, ferried to Ireland, and the Aran Islands; Galway back on the mainland, across to North Ireland; another ferry to Scotland and Edinburgh, down to York; ferried to Europe where we traversed the north-south axis of France, traveled the Mediterranean and then through the Pyrenees to Barcelona to Madrid.
We had made advance arrangements with Guerba Travel in England to join their travel group of 15 British, Australians, Dutch, Canadian and the two of us representing the USA through 8,000 miles of Africa. In Nairobi, Bob became very ill with Malaria, where he was hospitalized and under the care of a local physician who had received his M.D. in Chicago.
A shaky, but alive couple boarded a plane a month later to London via Moscow and back to the States to recover with Billie’s parents on St. Simons Island.
Copyright © 2021 by Billie Sargent. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Interactive map created with StoryMapJS (Knight Lab) by Tracy Coley © 2021
I really enjoyed your account of your trip,
A beautiful account of an amazing adventure! I bicycled much of the same route going the opposite direction in 2006 and it was wonderful to identify with the challenges, beauty, and camaraderie experienced on a cross country bike trip.
Lovely, readable tale. Takes us all back to simpler, happier times when the world seemed safe and full of hope.