A Cross-Country Tour with a Different Spin

A Hole in the Wind:  A Climate Scientist’s Bicycle Journey Across the United States

David Goodrich, 2017

In 2011 David Goodrich celebrated his recent retirement by bicycling from Delaware to Oregon. He wasn’t a newcomer to bicycle travel. Goodrich had taken a challenging solo tour through Washington, Idaho, and Montana a few years earlier. He would take several more throughout the country before this book was published.

A Hole in the Wind is structured around that 2011 trip, but Goodrich also recounts those other tours because they provide before-and-after context for what he encountered on his cross-country journey. For as a scientist who had devoted his life to studying Earth’s climate, Goodrich was on something of a mission: to see and experience firsthand the effects of climate change—and attitudes toward it—across the country from the seat of a bicycle.

Goodrich writes authoritatively about climate change. He worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and served as director of the United Nations Global Climate Observing System in Geneva, Switzerland. He retired as head of NOAA’s Climate Observations and Monitoring Program.

We often think about global warming largely in terms of sea level rise, whose effects Goodrich encounters in Delaware at the start of his journey. But its effects are far more pervasive and sometimes unexpected: droughts and aquifer depletion on the plains, pine beetle infestations killing off vast tracts of trees out West, vanishing glaciers, increasing numbers and sizes of wildfires, species forced from shrinking habitats, and shifting of meltwater timetables that affect animals and agriculture alike. Goodrich encounters dramatic evidence of all this and more.

You’ll learn much about climate change and global warming in A Hole in the Wind. But it’s also a pretty good story about bicycle touring. Goodrich faces all the expected challenges of long-distance bike travel: wind, rain, heat, cold, hills, and the loneliness of the road, along with the warmth and kindness of strangers. He even includes a “Nuts and Bolts” appendix at the end, offering sage advice to novice bicycle travelers and a pannier by pannier packing list. And because he’s neither a clueless beginner nor a cocky hotshot, he presents a thoughtful and relatable account of what crossing the country on a bicycle is like. My favorite quote:

“So here we are, two sixty-year-olds washing out clothes in a motel sink.”
“Yep,” I said, “livin’ the dream.”

Despite the mounting effects of global warming and dire forecasts of things to come, Goodrich remains an optimist. He is convinced that the world’s nations are fully capable of dealing with the human-caused effects of global warming and of stopping or even reversing that climatic trend. He cites as an example the success at reducing the ozone hole discovered in Earth’s atmosphere. Caused by accumulations of human-produced chlorofluorocarbons, the hole was an ominous warning sign and a growing threat to human health. But thanks to government and industry action, it is shrinking.

A Hole in the Wind is not an elegy for the world as we have known it, but a call for action and a declaration of hope.

David Romanowski, 2017

Florida Before Theme Parks

Backroads of Paradise: A Journey to Rediscover Old Florida

Cathy Salustri, 2016

At the depth of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the federal Works Progress Administration created a program to put unemployed writers, librarians, teachers, and historians to work documenting the nation’s culture, history, and landscape. That effort, the Federal Writers’ Project, produced a series of guidebooks that covered every state.

A large part of each book consisted of a travel guide organized by route. Teams of writers drove every major road, visited cities and towns, and documented what they saw. Nearly 80 years later, the WPA guides remain priceless time capsules that capture what America was like just before World War II began to reshape the nation.

Cathy Salustri arrived in Florida in 1980 as a seven-year-old, when her parents relocated there from New York. She instantly fell in love with the Sunshine State and never left. She eventually earned a master’s degree in Florida studies and became a journalist and writer, focusing mainly on her beloved home state.

Fascinated by the 1939 Writer’s Project book, Florida: A Guide to the Sunshine State, Salustri began tracing the old routes, first on modern maps and then on the road. Ultimately, she packed herself, her hound, and her boyfriend into a borrowed camper van and spent a month traveling around Florida revisiting those routes.

In Backroads of Paradise, she invites you along for the ride, all 5,000 miles of it, crisscrossing the state from the Panhandle to the Keys. Each chapter covers one of 21 routes, each following, as closely as she can, a state or U.S. route described in the Guide. Some, like the routes slicing through the narrow Panhandle, are short. Others traverse the state from coast to coast or from north to south through the Florida peninsula. The longest, state route A1A, closely follows the Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Salustri blends her descriptions of the towns and landscapes she passes through with bits of natural and human history, Florida lore, and her own adventures on the road. Like the routes she follows, some chapters are more interesting and engaging than others. But she is unfailingly entertaining and witty and avoids bogging down her spritely narrative with conversation. Her travel companions, for the most part, remain politely in the background.

Salustri bemoans, but doesn’t dwell on, the vast swaths of the state that have been degraded or destroyed. Instead she savors what has survived a half-century of rampant development and explosive population growth.

She finds much to celebrate, including a wonderful system of state parks, where she camps most nights, that preserves unspoiled niches of natural Florida. Along the Panhandle coast, she observes, “Had the state not snapped up all these beaches—100 miles of sandy coastline in all—instead of sand dunes, bathhouses, and covered shelters, we’d be driving past condo canyons, three-for-ten-dollar T-shirt shops, and high-rise hotels.”

Salustri admires towns that have managed to resist the pressures of tourism and defy decay: “Flagler Beach escaped all this, and finding it is like finding Florida, except it’s a Florida you assume no longer exists.” The presence of a Dollar General store signifies to her a surefire sign of a town struggling to survive economically.

Many of the backroads Salustri travels pass through ranch and farm country and forested regions that haven’t changed all that much since 1939. She steers clear of most of the big cities, which would be unrecognizable to the WPA writers.

She visits Old Florida tourist attractions that stubbornly remain standing in the shadow of Disney, such as Weeki Wachee Springs, now a state park. With its famous “mermaid” shows performed in an underwater theater, Weeki Wachee “pays homage not only to generations of mermaids but also to the dying breed of Florida’s roadside attractions. The park may be paler than the bright world of modern tourist attractions, but it has a patina all its own.”

Here and there, she stops to sample the local shellfish, strawberries, or sour oranges (they’re tasty but look like “big, bumpy lemons”). She pauses to paddle her kayak down an enticing stretch of spring-fed river. “I notice a congregation of baby alligators watching me with eyes too old and mean for their oddly adorable, bright-green bodies.”

Salustri warns you about the only two towns in America that even AAA flags as flagrant speed traps: Lawtey (US 301) and Waldo (US 301 and SR 24). She labels lovely Sanibel Island “the prom queen of Gulf coast islands” and nearby and lesser known Pine Island “her mangrove-encrusted, tomboy little sister.” She is “obsessed and enchanted” with the Florida Keys. “I don’t understand why everyone—including myself—doesn’t live on this string of limestone pearls streaming off the edge of North America.”

She writes with special affection about US 98, which runs along the Gulf shore through the Panhandle. “I thought to myself, ‘This place. This is paradise.’ When we left, it would be with deep, searing regret . . . until we found the next scrap of paradise.” She finds that US 90, which traverses northern Florida, has more of an “Old South” feel than the rest of the state and seems relatively unchanged after eight decades.

Salustri is also fond of eclectic A1A. “In parts, A1A runs right on top of the sand dunes and fronts the cobalt-blue Atlantic. In other parts, it runs through a horrid glut of T-shirt shops and low-rent tourist traps, but every inch of this road speaks to a different part of Florida’s soul.”

She later adds, “A1A is an extended metaphor for Florida: a smattering of everything, still more wild than you could possibly imagine, and entirely unlike anything else you’ve ever known.”

I’ve traveled many of the roads Salustri writes about, and I was impressed by how accurately and articulately she describes them. Her book left two impressions on me:

(1) What a great idea, retracing the old WPA routes! She made me want to find the WPA guide for Maryland in a local library, which I recently did.

(2) I really need to drive some of those routes again the next time I’m in Florida! Which I will.

If you love exploring Florida beyond the big cities and theme parks and are looking for new roads to travel, Backroads of Paradise may help you discover for yourself some unexpected scraps of paradise.

David Romanowski, 2017

Remembering Author and Cyclist David Lamb

While reading an article about the Trek 520 touring bicycle in a recent issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine, these startling words snagged my attention: “But when it comes to finding out what the bike is truly capable of, I tip my hat to the late great David Lamb.”

I had not known that the man who inspired my passion for bicycle travel had died.

I learned from obituaries I found on the Los Angeles Times and New York Times websites  that David Lamb passed away in June 2016 at the age of 76. The obituaries summarize his many notable achievements as a journalist and author. My brief connection with him related to the bicycling adventure he wrote about in one of his books.

As the Adventure Cyclist article summarized it:

In 1994, the veteran Los Angeles Times correspondent rode his 520 more than 3,000 miles from the Potomac to the Pacific, eventually spinning the three-month journey into a book, Over the Hills: A Midlife Escape Across America by Bicycle.

I bought Over the Hills when it was published in 1996 and also heard Lamb speak at the Smithsonian about that trip. What struck me most was that, when he set out on his Trek 520 from his home in Alexandria, Virginia, for Santa Monica, California, Lamb was in his mid-50s and a cycling novice. Yet he managed to cross the country under his own power with no significant mishaps, not even once getting caught in the rain.

His trip struck a chord in me that continued to reverberate as I reread Over the Hills during the next few years. Through his book I discovered the Adventure Cycling Association and a culture of bicycle travel I had never even known existed. Each time I closed the book, I thought to myself, “I could to do that!” As my 50th birthday approached, I began to consider the idea of embarking on my own “midlife escape.”

That trip, which I finally undertook in 2006, was a self-contained Adventure Cycling tour down the Pacific Coast from Bellingham, Washington, a few miles from the Canadian border, to San Francisco. For me it ended a half-day’s ride farther south at my sister’s home in Half Moon Bay. Before I embarked on the trip, I wrote David Lamb a letter of appreciation:

All of this—these last four years of dreaming, planning, and preparing— have happened because of the inspiration I gained from reading Over the Hills. As this adventure approaches, I just wanted to write to you and simply say, thank you.

I was on the tour in Washington when I received his reply.

David, thanks for the great letter. Can a writer have any greater reward than knowing he has inspired a reader to travel down a new road? Your upcoming Bellingham–San Francisco ride definitely qualifies as epic! You will make it with ease because half the challenge of long-distance biking is mental, not physical, and mentally you’re obviously already psyched.

He extended an invitation to meet him for lunch after I returned from my trip and concluded with words I would reread time and again along the way, and that would help me over my own hills:

When you pull into your sister’s home in Half Moon Bay, you’ll feel like a hero. And you’ll be one, too.

For the rest of the trip, we kept up a sporadic email conversation. I had no smart phone back then, so I looked for public libraries along the way where I could access a computer. His brief messages cheered me on as I biked through Oregon and California and reached my final goal.

A few weeks after my trip ended, I arranged to meet him for lunch at Chadwick’s in Old Town Alexandria. I biked from my home about 15 miles away; he walked from his a few blocks away. The notes I wrote afterward recall, “I almost didn’t recognize him when he walked up. He was shorter and thinner than I expected. His hair was sort of blonde. His voice was a little faster and raspier than I remembered when I heard him speak at the Smithsonian about ten years earlier. But he seemed like an affable guy.”

We chatted for about an hour and a half. I asked if he had any regrets about his cross-country trip. No, he replied, other than not stopping longer to smell the roses. (I said I regretted that too.) I asked if anything surprised him about his own reaction to his trip afterward. Not really, he said. It ultimately didn’t change his life.

He told me about his time living in Hanoi, his travels in a recreational vehicle to write a book about minor league baseball (he loved living in an RV), and the supported cycling trips he had since taken with his wife and friends in a half dozen countries. Like me, he’d thought about cycling the Florida coast someday, would prefer staying in motels rather than camping on such a trip, and liked riding about 50 miles a day.

Afterward, we went outside and I showed him my Trek 520, very similar to his own. “The 520 is a great bike for touring,” he had written me. “The best, I think. I was in Trek’s Wisconsin factory and met the guy who designed it. I got fatter tires at his suggestion for my trip. Wish [like you] I’d thought of lower gears.”

“To David Romanowski –
Who saw the mountain,
and climbed. With admiration.”
David Lamb,
November 2006

He signed my copy of Over the Hills, and I gave him a signed copy of a book I had written. Then we wished each other well, said we hoped our paths would cross again, and parted ways. I contacted him a couple of times over the next few years for one reason or another, secretly hoping he might someday invite me on one of his biking trips, or that we might plan one together. But our paths never did cross again.

David Lamb’s bicycle journey may not have changed his life in a lasting way, or so he believed, but it profoundly changed mine. It inspired me to challenge myself and undertake my own epic adventure that took me farther beyond my comfort zone than I had ever gone. In the end, I did feel like a hero, even if just for a while. And in the years since, taking bicycle trips has become an important part of my life, and I have found my own circle of touring friends.

And so I bid a belated Godspeed to David Lamb for cresting that final hill, and I offer him one last heartfelt thanks.

David Romanowski, 2017

America on 5 Dollars a Day

The Road Headed West: A 6,000-Mile Cycling Odyssey Through North America

Leon McCarron, 2014

I’m always on the lookout for a good cross-country travel tale, whether it involves cars, trains, or bicycles. The first bicycle travel book I read (and still my favorite) was David Lamb’s Over the Hills: A Midlife Escape Across America by Bicycle. Lamb tells about the journey he took alone by bicycle in the 1990s from his home in Alexandria, Virginia, to Santa Monica, California. His story especially appealed to me because Lamb was in his mid-50s when he took his trip and a complete touring novice. And yet he managed to cross the country under his own power with no major misadventures. Over the Hills introduced me to the world of bicycle travel and inspired me to buy a touring bike and plan a trip of my own.

I’ve read or started to read a few other cross-country cycling books since then, but invariably I either found the writing or storytelling disappointing, or I couldn’t relate to the traveler or the journey. I’m drawn to tales of beginners facing daunting new challenges, not to tales of the hyper-adventurous or the woefully and ignorantly unprepared.

9781849536356Thus, I fully expected to dislike Leon McCarron’s 2014 book The Road Headed West: A 6,000-Mile Cycling Odyssey Through North America. At the time of his trip, McCarron was a 20-something Irishman in the United States on a visa. Having just finished an internship in New York City, and with no job prospects in sight, he planned to spend a few months cycling across the country to get to know America and figure out his next life move. His book jacket photo shows a bearded, long-haired, youthful fellow and reveals that he went on to cycle around the world, walk across China, and become a filmmaker and motivational speaker. This didn’t really sound like my cup of Earl Grey.

But when the prologue begins, “It seemed a terrible shame to meet my end in Iowa; I couldn’t imagine anywhere more disappointing to die,” and then sketches a picture of a drunk, armed, and angry man in a pickup truck pursuing the frantically pedaling lad into the path of an oncoming tornado, well, it compels you to keep reading.

The Road Headed West turned out to be the most engaging book about cross-country cycling I’ve read in a long while. The main reason is McCarron himself. He’s a good and unpretentious storyteller who doesn’t get bogged down in details and keeps the tale on track. Although he is decades younger than me and way more daring, I warmed up to him immediately, even while I cringed at some of the choices he made and the risks he sometimes took along the way.

For example, he admittedly over-packed; who hasn’t? But how could someone who wanted and needed to live as frugally as possible manage to end up cycling thousands of miles carrying a complete set of fully loaded panniers and towing a fully loaded trailer—some 100-plus pounds of baggage? Somewhere in the Midwest, he impulsively chose to ditch his bike in the brush, hop a freight train, and take a joyride for a couple of days, just for the hell of it. And although he lists Adventure Cycling Association among the resources at the end, he clearly didn’t consult their well-researched route maps, which might have saved him a few hair-raising encounters on some of the cycling-hostile roads he ended up taking.

But despite all that, he won me over with his thoughtfulness about his journey, his observations as a foreign traveler about America and Americans, and his insights about the nature of bicycle travel that I recognized from my own, much more limited, experience. For instance, at one point he describes the often wearisome, yet fulfilling nature of bicycle travel this way: “Much of each day was spent bored, or tired, or suffering from whichever of the elements seemed to be too extreme at that moment. Yet each evening I felt a deep-set contentment; a sense of achievement. The reward I craved was just the very act of being a little further down the road in a spot I’d never been.”

McCarron began his trip alone, but now and then he joined up with other bicycle travelers he met along the way. He sometimes rode with them for hundreds of miles, but he was always happy to return to cycling alone on his own terms. Once he reached his goal of Seattle, where he rested up for a while, he decided to continue his trip and biked down the West Coast to the Mexican border. There, his American cycling story ends, but he describes in his epilogue how his journey continued.

So, question: So how do you manage to see America on 5 dollars a day?

Answer: You travel by bicycle, camp out of sight along the roadside each night, eat peanut butter all day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), and otherwise rely on the kindness of strangers for shelter and sustenance. Really, his planned budget was $5 a day! Consider that Arthur Frommer’s seminal travel guide Europe on 5 Dollars a Day, was published in 1957!

I enjoyed reading The Road Headed West, and I ended up liking McCarron, even while I couldn’t fully identify with him or his approach to travel. He left me feeling that he would have made an amiable and interesting travel companion.

David Romanowski, 2016