Thursday, September 22, 2005

Small towns, other bicyclists, and foraging for sustenance.

One positive thing I realized after a few days of pedalling through the countryside is that I was visiting small towns that I would never pass through otherwise. Most of the route that I was traveling was away from the Interstates, and the only sizeable city between Minneapolis and Madison was La Crosse, WI. Every 5 to 10 miles I would pass through a small town, and pretty much every one of them looked like they were frozen in time. It was nice to see that the mythical "small town America" still did exist, even though it wasn't exactly thriving. Here was the ideal that so many Americans supposedly strive for, the places usually shown in television spots anytime a presidential election comes up.

And it was still untouched. These were villages off the beaten path. None of them had a Starbucks, very few had a McDonalds. The most evidence you would see from Corporate America (besides the beer advertisements at the pubs) would be the ubiquitous convenience store, and if the town was large enough, a Subway. It was refreshing to be away from those things for awhile without having to go into the total wilderness.

But there was a twinge of sadness to these places. I knew that Corporate America didn't touch these areas because there would be no economic advantage for them to do so. The towns weren't going to grow, most of them held on because there was nothing else around to compete with. And now the railroad didn't go there. I would see the historical photos circa 1890, when several trains passed through a day and there was the hum of activity as farm products were loaded onto the trains, while consumer goods and the mail were unloaded. Each place was important in its own way. Now there wasn't much to grab on to. The best business to open up in town was a bar, because everyone needed to drink. Hell, let's open four.

Maybe that's why the towns along the trail were so keen on the trail's existence. At least there would be some tourist dollars trickling in. At each town along the way there was a sign explicitly listing every business to be found there. Small billboards beckoned bicyclists to rest a minute at their tavern, where they can get food and beer, plus park their bike in their complimentary parking area. At least this tourist industry wasn't gross in the Florida/Vegas type of way. There were no meticulously recreated downtowns, just real places that showed the wear of time.

Of course I was a little apprehensive at first, a big city boy deep in "Red State America". I was worried about the stereotypical things one thinks about with the area: dumb rednecks driving big trucks who would either try to run me off the road or throw beer bottles at me while calling me "faggot". But none of that happened. Oh sure, there were plenty of big trucks on the route, plus ATVs parked in front of every other house. But I had no incidents with drivers while riding in the farmland. And everyone I met was nice.

It made me think about the supposed polarization of the US, Red State vs. Blue, Bush vs Kerry, progressive vs conservative, etc. Back in Portland and in other hippie-lefty strongholds we've become quite disdainful of the unwashed masses out there, the ones that support our commander-in-chief and the wars started by him. These folks are the "other". How many people have vowed not to visit "the Red States" after the last election debacle? But dude, they're just people. We need to find ways to bond with them before this who nation spins out of control. And divisiveness ain't going to be the trick.

And everywhere I went I stood out like a sore thumb, an outsider bicycle touring with a bike helplessly overloaded with supplies. Most of the conversations I got in were the basic sort of thing in this type of situation: "Where did you start? Where are you going? How long has it taken/will it take you?" They would also comment on how they probably wouldn't or couldn't do a trip like I was doing, and then wrapped it up with a "Good luck" or "Be safe."

The talk rarely diverged from that. It would have been interesting to run into some other bicycle tourists and exchange stories. But besides the Japanese dude outside Wabasha, the only other person who fit into that category was a guy on a recumbent I met outside of La Crosse. He had done a double-century, 210 miles in one day (!!) between La Crosse and Green Bay for his 50th birthday and was now returning. He had his wife drive his stuff for him, lightening up his bike, but dude! Can you do 210 miles in one day? In one day? When I met him he was without the wife's help, which meant carrying everything on the bike and doing three 70 mile days.

I did see other bicyclists, but they were either recreational riders on the trails, or speeding spandex-clad road racer types who don't have time for conversation. What was I to expect? I was touring on a route that wasn't a common touring route, during a time that is considered off-season. If I was doing the Portland-to-San Francisco via the Pacific Coast route I would have surely ran into other tour riders on a daily basis. I just had to suck it up and deal with the loneliness.

And the lack of food options. Most of the places I went to I was lucky to find a true supermarket. Forget about "food co-ops" and other types of groceries we denizens of hip cities get too comfortable with, there wasn't going to be any bulk bins out there! I found myself shopping for food at convenience stores more often than I would ever care to. Food shopping became less about what was most appealing but more about what was least unappealing. Thankfully most convenience stores nowadays have a rudimentary "fruit" selection, at least I could get an orange each day to keep my vitamin C up. The basic staple of the trip became the cheap microwaveable bean-and-cheese burrito, the likes made by Tina's that normally sell for about 50 cents. Using a trick learned from Traveling Dan, ex-roomie and pro at these types of excursions, I would buy a couple in the morning and by the time afternoon hit they would be thawed. I still got sick of them. It was a struggle to find veggie options, I can imagine the difficulty vegans would have.

But bicycling makes you hungry and you gots to eat. That metabolism was hard to turn off, though. Days after stopping the trip I was still eating food at the rate I would if I was bicycling for 60 miles, my hunger never satisfied. At least when I got to places like Madison I could actually eat well for a change.

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