By Nathaniel LaCelle-Peterson
I took Kory’s picture in front of the sign—yellow safety vest, a grinning face (also grimacing into the sun), and a sticker-covered Fuji steel frame with a neat, streamlined blue pack bound onto the rack about the rear wheel. We each ate a granola bar and drank deep gulps of what was now lukewarm water. It was still dizzyingly refreshing.
A few miles later, I caught sight of another cyclist in my helmet mirror. I shouted something up to Kory—it was mostly drowned out by a passing truck. The cyclist, unladen with tents and cook stoves, was gaining on us. It was hard to watch her, however, as the sun jumped back and forth across the helmet mirror.
“Well where are you guys goin’?”
We ran through what was now a common script: riding to Seattle, from back East, yup, have to eat a lot of food, sometimes it’s miserable sure, haven’t had too bad of weather except in the Black Hills, and of course you have to avoid the heat of the afternoon.
“I’m just trying to get out of the house,” our new cycling friend replied. “We have nine houseguests this weekend and that’s just too much. Have to get up early to sneak out before they start askin’ for breakfast!”
She rode past, and out of sight.
Kory and I arrived in Aladdin, WY, at around eight. Aladdin, which was at least a named location on Google Maps, consisted of a three-story general store, complete with a wide front porch, and a few trailers and woodsheds scattered behind. It was not open when we arrived. The building was covered in signs: cheap beer, cheap gas, cheap cigarettes, post office inside, groceries, weekend karaoke, and “For Sale: $250k.”
The store wouldn’t open for another hour, and Kory wanted to make it to Devils Tower—and our camp for the night—before the midday heat. We took a short break, leaning the bikes up against the porch posts and unpacking some trail mix from our panniers, Kory his collapsible plastic water bottle. I sat in a rusty metal chair, chewing on the sticky lump of mint chocolate Clif bar peeled out of the wrapper. Kory searched around for a bathroom.
Surveying the dusty porch, I thought about the future: Aladdin had been in operation for over 100 years; in the quiet cool of the morning, it seemed inexorably permanent—not old, not new, just there. In the quiet of the morning, both the past and the future seemed far off; they felt flimsy in comparison with the physical now, just off Highway 24.
Last summer I biked from Ithaca to Seattle over the course of two months. It had been a vague plan, hatched during the deep dark days of finals week—what better way to wash away the stress of never-ending, never-good-enough school work than a summer on the road with no responsibilities? But sitting on the porch in Aladdin, that ideation was amusing, even alien. The trip was not an idyllic and carefree journey; it was a slow, sweaty slog through flyover states, and always an experience ruled not by the destination, or the miles I had collected through my pedals so far, but by the present moment. In the saddle, making progress on some grand journey was not something I considered—the journey receded behind needs, like food and water, and the mindless necessity to keep pedaling. But remembering the trip is the exact opposite—it is hard to think of any moment without thinking about where I had been and what would happen next.
Instead, my daily experience taught me that progress is made through the most monotonous kind of work. The route from Ithaca to Seattle is about 3500 miles, a fact I first confronted as a blue squiggle drawn in Google Maps. Traversing that trail is only possible through hundreds of hours of sweat, spinning pedals, patching a dozen inner tubes, thousands of semi-trucks roaring past at three times my speed. None of that feels like progress. But those hard earned miles were also profoundly beautiful. Riding west during cool mornings in the empty space of South Dakota, for hours my only company was found in the agitated birds in the shoulder-scrub and the laconic eyes of cattle grazing along their fence. Or take the day Kory and I rode to to Mount Rushmore through the rain and mist: dodging the bus-sized RVs hurtling around the rock spires and pines I felt completely alive, despite the ridiculousness of the destination.
In fact, just a few days after that strangely lucid morning in Aladdin, I would spend the night camped on a cliff overlooking Ten Sleep Canyon in the Big Horn Mountains. The sun set as I made my dinner of one part instant mashed potatoes and one part cheddar cheese, setting the red rock cliffs above and below me glowing a deep warm color. The pleasures of the trip were just like the pains: an immediate experience, powerful for overwhelming any sense I had of where I had come from, or where I would go next.
Before spending the night in Ten Sleep, I would stay in Gillette, after parting ways with Kory at our camp at Devils Tower. I had forgotten to fill up both water bottles at the campsite before I left, and the last three miles before town I nearly fainted in the saddle. I spent the afternoon in Starbucks (air conditioned, wifi-ed), where I met Glen.
Glen was a coal miner; Gillette is a coal town.
“What are the skinny tires for?”
I mentioned rolling resistance on the road. We chatted the usual chat; I followed the usual script. Then Glen asked me where I was staying the night.
“I don’t know yet. I’ll figure something out though.”
I ended up staying in a room at Glen’s, after he showed me the sights of Gillette in his big SUV at twice the speed limit, and took me out to his favorite bar with his daughter, her husband, and assorted friends. It was clear to me that Glen’s hospitality was not entirely charity, but a purchase of social capital: I must have explained my trip to at least a dozen people, and always with Glen’s addition that he let me stay in his home, even though he just met me that afternoon.
Glen exemplifies another source of significant experience on the road: the strangers I trusted and relied on. We would cook meals together, swap stories, I would sleep on their couch, and then at 5 a.m. the next morning I would ride away. I became a part of Glen’s world for roughly a dozen hours. We will probably never meet again.
But night after night of staying with strangers and listening to them tell their own stories—of piloting helicopters through war zones, of childhood ice hockey games and of kids moving to Toledo, of sailing across the Pacific Ocean, or of a late wife whose absence filled every corner of the home—I always found myself at an uneasy juncture the next day. Not only were those bleary morning goodbyes the last I expected to see of any of my hosts, but after the day’s ride I would find myself in the candid company of another aged architect or widowed Forest Service ranger. The stories I heard the night before and meditated on all day were unknown to my new hosts; each night, my new friends didn’t know my old ones.
After I had progressed the 3500 miles to Seattle, I took the train down the coast as far as LA. From there, I took the train back home to Rochester, undoing those months of westward travel in three days. I sat watching the grand landscapes play past in reverse, traveling the distance which had taken me the better part of two months to traverse. According to Snapchat’s speed filter, the train cruised at about 90 miles an hour when the track was straight and open.
I spent those days engaged in a bittersweet task: rewriting a journal. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of a daily journal is that, like my hosts on the road, each day is blind to what comes next; I had recorded how I felt at the end of each day, with a sore body, well-fed, barely staying awake with a pen and notebook in a tent, or on a stranger’s living- room couch.
I kept a rigorous journal, but on the train I re-wrote it: not because I wanted to process my disjointed experiences into a narrative that made sense, but because along with my bike, my original journal was stolen in San Francisco. I walked out of a Safeway to find my lock cut, swinging on the bike rack. It was a shock. After a summer of casually leaning my bike against gas stations on busy roads, against country diners packed full of the local who’s who, it was gone.
What I have left to reconstruct the journal—which is about half done—are just pictures and maps. I have a picture of that porch in Aladdin: there are four rusted chairs in the sun, a wooden Coors sign, and in a distant corner, Kory’s bike. It affirms that Aladdin exists; it even reaffirms my remembered sense of what sitting on that porch was like. I don’t remember why I took the picture. Clearly, the chairs and sun were my focus, but it is hard to see their significance now. I have maps, recorded on my phone, from each day’s ride. This is an indispensable tool, and sometimes I’ll drop down into Google Street View as I try to remember the day’s landscapes and moods. Street View never takes me back as you might expect it to—the photospheres on Street View cannot do the smells and heat of the road’s shoulder justice, and they frequently take me back not to the sunny summer day I experienced, but to a grainy, pixelated view of a grey October day in 2007.
Pictures and maps are limited. It is hard not to recreate my trip as ordered by its progress across different landscapes, and from photograph to photograph. Inevitably something is lost—the unrecorded moments are conspicuously harder to remember—and something gained, which is perhaps false: that sense of progress with which memory strings together experience. How should those moments like that morning in Aladdin be preserved? How, in remembering, can I avoid the narrative of progress, which, in the tired moments which create it, is so remote?