2013/07/29

From the (Eastern) Foothill of the Mighty Rockies

Reporting to you from the Mile High City of Denver, CO, on the Eastern foothill of the mighty Rockies.

Crossed the second thousand-mile mark. The first thousand miles, from Hampshire College, MA, to Chicago, took 25 days. The second thousand miles took 17 days.

On July 18th, after resting for three days in Omaha, the KR White Dragon Horse continued trotting west. Arrived in the town of Wahoo, after biking for a few hours in upper 90 degree heat. How could you miss out on a town with such a good name.


Larry and John, on a farm and machine workshop, allowed me to camp, and eventually invited me inside to sleep in the guest room. Larry drove me around the town to show the points of interests, with commentaries on the sea change in farming, agricultural industry over the past decades. Their hobby is to restore old farm equipment, including this 60-year-old tractor. They let me drive the piece of antique around their house. Being on a stick shift for the first time, I almost backed the tractor into a pick-up truck.


They showed me a piece of 1947 combine. I was amazed that the US agriculture was already so mechanized over 60 years ago, whereas China only recently started to use fossil fuel power to replace muscle exertion in the field.

John participates in "combine demolition derby," where you drive old combines into each other, smashing everything until the last one standing. Real Americana. Not your usual leave-no-trace backpacking.

Started to listen to the Quran. Found a good version of audio book, where they recite/sing the Quran in Arabic, followed by English translation after each verse. The Quran recitation in Arabic is so beautiful and powerful, even though I understand no word of it.

On 19th, continue to swim through the humid corn soup in the air. Here are some typical scenes from the side of the road.


The hay marshmallows are very delightful.


And the red barn in the green field.


Of course, pro-life signs dot the Nebraska highways.


After knocking on a few doors, a retired lawyer and biker welcomed me inside. And I used a bathtub for the first time in four years.

The 20th is another 75-mile day, caught in thunderstorm, much needed precipitation for the farms in NE.


In the evening, the Jameson family on the farm let me camp, fed me great food, and took me for a ride in four-wheelers and a tractor.


On 21st, most of the riding was done in over 100 degree heat. Stopped around noon at the "Pioneer Village" in Minden, where a visual history of America's progress was displayed. Hundred of old wagons and cars, and the original Pony Express Station, etc.


The pioneers of this country were the tough ones. Mind-boggling to picture the hardship they went through. They can't stop at Subway to buy a sandwich, or be welcomed into air conditioned homes to spend the night. I was glad that I wasn't pulling a trailer like this behind my bike. 


In the evening, arrived in Holdrege, NE, and had the fourth flat tire of the trip. Fortunately, it happened in front of a kind family, who allowed me to lay down my sleeping bag inside, and fed me dinner. Had a long chat with the family about their experiences during the 2008 financial crisis, losing their job, their house, and struggling to recover. Heard stories of working at Walmart (surprisingly positive), worrying about health insurance, and the squeezed working class.

The 22nd was an 80-mile day, in the hottest part of Nebraska -- over 100 degrees. It was still 90 degrees around 8pm. In the afternoon, saw from a distance another person on the bike, coming from the West. We must be both thinking: this other guy must be crazy! It's 105 degree out here! The young man is moving from Denver to Iowa. He was riding a mountain bike pulling a trailer full of clothes. We chatted from across the highway, with trucks passing in between us at 60 mph.

The sign from afar says, Jesus Saves.



Somehow, had the worst luck in knocking on strangers' doors. After at least 10 futile attempts, I set up camp in a free trailer park. The whole night was so windy that I felt I could be blown away with the tent. And I did not realize that I had set my tent right next to an automatic sprinkler, which came on at 5am. So it was a refreshing wake up call.

Got on the road around 7am, and had a double-hundred day -- biked for 97 miles with half of the day in over 100 degree heat. My bike computer showed a highest temperature of 117 degrees. With heat from the sun above and from the pavement underneath, I got sandwiched in the middle. The good things is that I had a strong tail wind for most of the day. The down side is that I was traveling at the same speed as the wind. So it felt like you were traveling with the same pocket of humid air for 100 miles.

Entered the Colorful Colorado, and the landscape changed.


Finally left behind the corn country, after seeing nothing but corn for an entire month, from Ohio to Nebraska. Anything that is not corn just seemed so pleasing to the eyes. High desert and horses.


Or a straight road heading west. Go west, young man. 'Cause not much going on around here.


Single track railway, sagebrush, and miles and miles of solitude.


In the evening, knocked on a few doors, and ended up at a crazy "Big House," where many hospitable and lively "rednecks" were living under the same roof. The first three questions they asked me was: Do you want a beer? Do you smoke pot? Are you a Christian? When I told them I was listening to the Quran on audio book, they grabbed their hair in horror.

But they still welcomed me in, fed me, and changed the sheet to let me sleep on one of the beds. I thanked them, and one of them responded: Jesus taught us that you never know if you are entertaining an angel in your house.

Thank you, Jesus. I'm not sure that I am an angel, but I do appreciate the effects of your teaching. I wonder if these people would treat strangers in the same way, just out of the kindness of their heart, if they were not religious.

The rednecks (they embraced this word) proudly told me about their gun collection, including a few AK-47, and said how they were pissed off by the liberal legislation on gun control, that they want Western Colorado to secede from the state. Was fascinated by their life, upbringing, and worldview, and had a great time chatting.

Thought to myself: if I were not in a desperate need for a place to spend the night, I might never have chosen to hang out with these folks, out of my own prejudice. But once I entered their world with an open heart, we had a great time. Now I understand them a bit more, and wonder if I grew up in their shoes, would I be one of them? If they grew up in a progressive, big city, would they still hang on to their AK-47?

On 24th, biked through vast open space of Eastern CO. It's 10 or 20 miles of nothing between towns. Towns usually have just one building that look like this.


They sell boot liquors and insurance. See the connection? It's like having a funeral home across from the church. They take care of everything for you.

As the elevation rose above 5000 feet, and the land became flat, the wind picked up. The whole day, I had strong side wind, pushing me off the road. Better than pushing me into the road! At one spot, a sudden gust of unbelievably strong wind literally lifted my bike off the ground, and blew me into a 5-feet deep ditch on the side of the road. I remembered flying through the air for one or two second, in a state of utter disbelief -- how could the wind be so strong and so sudden? Is this going to be the end of the trip?

This was the first time I fell off a bike during this trip. Luckily, I was not at all hurt. Not even a scratch or a bruise. No thorns, no poison ivy, no rattlesnake. I was thrown off the bike, and the bike landed much harder than I did. But the White Dragon Horse was tough enough to withstand the impact, and only had a bent handlebar and seat, which could be bent back. Got back on the road. Keep riding, keep smiling.

You would pass by 100-cargo trains.


Or golden wheat field.


It was in this kind of "middle of nowhere" that I heard the hopeless sound of air leaking out of my front tire. I used up all my spare tubes, and could not locate the leak in the tube, so couldn't even use the patch kit. So, I tried to hitchhike, but saw this sign down the road.


Given my 1/4-inch-long hair, I did look like some one just escaped from the correctional facility. After sticking my thumb up for 30 minutes to no avail, I decided to call the friendly hotline of 911. This was the first time calling 911, and enjoyed the chat with the dispatcher. Soon, a county sheriff arrived, who happen to be a biker himself. Had a lighthearted conversation, swapping ideas for preventing flat tires. Eventually, a neighbor showed up, and volunteered to drive me to the next town with a Walmart. Duane drove me 30 miles into Fort Morgan, and took some detours to show me around the town, with agricultural and historical commentaries.

Fixed my flat in front of Walmart, and connected with David, who is the son of one of the members in the "Big House" where I stayed the day before. He and his friends took me in for the night, fed me dinner, and let me sleep on the couch.

They belong to a different world, and again, if it were not for this bike trip, I would never imagine myself in their house. But in the end, we are more similar than we are different.

The next morning, the 25th, David showed me his pistol collection. This was the first time I saw a real gun, and to hold it in my hand. I could see why people would have fascination with these deadly pieces of art work. Guns are so much more symbolic than they are realistic. They represent power, dominance, destruction, independence, self-sufficiency, masculinity, etc. Some guys would feel neutered without their guns. But the world would be better off without those killing machines.

When I went to check my tire pressure, somehow, the rear tire is totally flat. There was one bike shop in town, but it does not have a regular hour. Neighbors say, the man running the bike shop is married to a doctor, so he doesn't really need to work, and rarely show up on time to open up the shop. Well, affluence breeds laziness.

So, I was once again stranded. It started to rain. I was only 70 miles away from Denver, where I could stay with good friends for a few days. The only way to get into the city would be to bike on a 10-lane freeway, which seemed suicidal. I thought I had enough excuses, and was close enough to Denver. So I found a car ride into the city.

But, as if some deity wanted to punish me for letting myself off the hook so easily, my bike fell off the bike rack from the car, and bent both the front and rear rim. The replacement cost almost $200. The fell might be just an accident, but I will use this as a reminder, not to take the easy way out.

So, arrived in Denver on the 25th, with a badly injured bike, and some funny tan line to show. Like a tiger.


Staying with the family of a dear college friend. It feels almost like home, so relaxing. But the magnificence and wonder of the mighty Rockies beckon me daily. For a true nomad, the state of traveling is home. And change is familiar.

After having spent time in New York, Boston, Chicago, Denver, San Fran, it seems that Chicago and Denver are the up and coming cities for young people, with good future and cheaper cost of living.

Denver has a lot to offer, like the Moonlight Classic bike ride, with thousands of riders from the city. We entered as a group theme: polygamous shotgun wedding. I had the privilege to be the farmer dad, carrying a paper shotgun. So many daughters, so much trouble!


Also got a chance to experience what it feels like to be pregnant.


Visited Steve, the Guinness record holder of biking across the US on a high-wheeler in 29 days. Saw his incredible collection of over 60 antique high-wheeler bikes, all of them before the year 1900.


Finished listening to the Quran on audio book. The Arabic recitation is breathtaking and awe-inspiring. However, it is hard to judge the content, given the translation could never do justice to the original.

The past 500 miles, from Omaha to Denver, brought me further into the heartland of America, in the land of corn, soy and tractors. It's a different way of life -- hardworking, down to earth, farming and fixing, going to church, feeding grandchildren. They do not have the urban snobbery, worldly sophistication, or bourgeois indulgence.

At times, it almost seems that the midwest does not have much of a cultural life. But, their life is their culture. They have a rich and strong culture that is invisible to the urbanites or coastal people. I might never choose to live in the small towns in the midwest, but now I have much more appreciation for their way of life.

7 comments:

Ethan Kaseff said...

So great reading your story. Thank you again for sharing :)

Keep up the great posts and I would love to see a picture with you and all your gear! What gear do you've on you anyway? I assume you packed quite light. How do you keep enough water and food with you?

Stay safe.

Ethan

lichiness said...

Wow, Zilong! What an eventful time you're having. It's hard to believe how many things you've experienced in such a short while. I'm glad you didn't get hurt when the wind took you for a ride... that "sun-tan" on the other hand looks mighty scary! Wishing you well, my friend. Hopefully your bike will withstand the journey!

Best,
Alicia

P. Nicholson said...

I was just wondering to myself over the weekend, as I was taking the train to and from Detroit, how you were doing. I very much enjoyed reading the update and can only imagine the type of conversations you're having! Please assure me that you're getting enough calories every day and water!!!!
Best,
Peter N.

China Nomads said...

This is such an awesome journey you're on! Keep up the awesome biking and looking forward to reading more!!! 加油!

Sharyne said...

Zilong, I am just amazed at everything you are experiencing on your journey! Some pretty scary to say the least! So glad you lived through the moments and are enjoying Denver. I really enjoy reading your posts and seeing the photos. Please continue to be safe, eat well, sleep well and enjoy the beauty of the Rockies! Sharyne

Jane C said...

You have had quite the journey and there is so much yet to come. If you have time and any legs left, when you get to CA bike up the coast a bit. Good luck and safe travels!

Karen W. said...

Zilong,

I'm just back from an amazing sea kayak trip in Alaska and catching up with your odyssey--what fine adventures. I love reading about the lessons learned from staying with different people. Be safe out there.