"There they are!". I looked up at the top row of photo-plaques lining the back room of the Range Riders' Museum in Miles City, Montana. My grandparents, Albert and Helen Latham Truscott, smiled down on me.
Cheryl was flipping through a large loose-leaf volume, turning to the pages giving a brief history of these Miles City Pioneers.
I read out loud from the yellowed type written sheet, "Born in Miles City, son of John Truscott ... homesteaded NE of town near the Yellowstone ... served as deputy U.S. Marshall, game and fish warden ... lured to Omaha by Stockman's Bank ... died in 1965 ... buried in Fremont, CA."
The day before, we had biked 86 miles from Broadus, MT to Miles City, through country that looks like the American Outback; tomorrow, we would go another 102 miles before we got to the foothills of the Rockies. But today, we were looking for roots, not routes, trying to discover where our parents came from.
A year earlier, I decided to leave my job as medical director of a large group practice in Seattle, to return after 15 years to full-time practice. But first, I wanted a way to decompress from the intensity of managing the affairs of 1000 physicians. Bicycling across the country seemed a perfect means to turn my attention away from the business of health care, wash out all anxieties of those years, and ready myself for the art and science of medicine once again.
When I told my wife, Cheryl, about my plan, she immediately asked, "What about the rest of us?" We have three children: Cody, 16; Shaine, 13, and Ann, 7. All of them had joined us before on biking trips. Cody at age 13 had ridden in the Courage Classic, which goes over three Cascade Mountain passes, and had been on our initial 6 day mountain bike adventure in the North Rim area of the Grand Canyon. Ann, at age five, had started accompanying me on our tandem on weekend rides of up to 50 miles. Shaine, like her brother, had done the Courage Classic at age twelve, but on the back of the tandem.
From that simple question evolved our summer's adventure: to bicycle as a family from the Atlantic at Plymouth, Massachusetts back to our home in Gig Harbor, Washington, on Puget Sound. With the family as the focus, we picked four intermediate way-points, the hometowns of our parents. Luckily, they were more or less on a reasonable line, through Indiana (Seymour and Indianapolis), Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Miles City. We would try to learn a little bit about our country's history, and geography, and about our own past. Biking meant we would stay on back roads, away from big cities and major attractions. Keeping the trip within the confines of summer school vacation meant we couldn't meander all over; we'd have to see what was on the route the hometowns prescribed for us.
Cheryl wasn't about to do a self-supported trek across America, though. She went out and bought a small motor home, into which we could cram 6 people and their gear, as well as food service. On the back, we hung six bikes, including one tandem. In this beast, nicknamed "Bikrutz", we zoomed across the states in six days, stopping only to ascend the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Arriving in Washington, DC just in time for the hottest day in three years, we managed to see an endless procession of memorials to dead presidents and wars, watch the Senate in action, and view a showing of Picasso's early years. Our planned easy pedal to Mt. Vernon was canceled when the mercury hit 101 deg, with the humidity creating an outdoor steam bath. Out where we live, we watch the snow level, not the heat index, in the weather report.
Heading north, we took our first warm-ups through the Amish country-side of Lancaster Country, PA. With the "plain people" riding buggies and bicycles everywhere, the shoulders are wide, and the drivers are used to slow-moving vehicles. A quick stop to climb the Statue of Liberty, then on the Plymouth for the final shake down.
At the edge of town, the Plimouth Plantation is a re-creation of the village circa 1627. Instead of docents, this living museum features guides who live and breath as real historical figures. One of my ancestors, Francis Eaton, signed the Mayflower compact, and stayed in the colony as a woodworker. We hoped to see "Francis", and learn a bit about his life building a new community. When the first person we encountered at the village entrance turned out to be Mr. Eaton, we gave a collective gasp, jumped in the air, and pummeled him with questions. Shaine and Cody now know more about Francis Eaton, his wife Christian, and children Samuel and Rachel, then they could ever learn in school. Score one for education on the road!
On July 1st, we left the RV park south of town, and drove to Plymouth Rock. There, we lugged our six bikes down to the water's edge, dipped the rear tires, and took off. Cody drove the van, his friend Will (who accompanied us during the first half of our adventure) and Cheryl rode their singles, and I took Ann on the tandem. Shaine stayed to navigate. The plan was short mileage the first few days, building to an average of 70-80 miles a day within a week. On this first day, Ann went the whole 42 miles as stoker. She said she wanted to bike the whole way, but only made it through the first 18 miles on the second day, and then decided a bit of rest in the RV looked better than pedaling across the US.
We tried to fall into some routines, but trying to mesh the biological clocks of four young people and two parents proved hopeless. We didn't want to force any of the kids to ride, so we (I) ended up captaining the tandem at times and in places where I would have preferred resting, or riding my single.
Sometimes, though, the randomness of our riding paid off. On the fourth of July, we got off late, waiting for a tire re-build after Will had rolled into a nasty drain near Hadley, MA. Ann and I labored up the "Notch" , 10 miles of uphill into the western Massachusetts mountains. Most farms we passed were decked out for the holiday, with several picnics in full swing. Dads were riding daughters around the lawns on tractors. Flags and flowers decorated walks and porches. Each town had its old white steepled church, and all looked freshly painted for the day. But by the time we reached Savoy, it was 4:30 PM., and I was ready to ride the sag into Adams, as we still wanted to make it into Vermont, another 30 miles of biking and 20 more of driving to our campsite, before dark. Cody, who had assumed all driving duties by this point, refused to let me put the tandem on the rack.
"No! Someone in the family has to keep going; I'm not going to let you guys wimp out here, now."
Cheryl and I looked at each other, and agreed to go on for another hour, and see what transpired. We'd told Will to ride ahead into Adams, where we'd meet him at the intersection of two state highways. Thank goodness we let our son push us around. The next half hour was some of the best riding of the whole trip. All that uphill now translated into one prolonged downhill, the whole way into Adams. The steel bodied tandem hugged the road like some Cadillac land yacht; as cars passed us, I gave them each a grin and a wave. Cheryl, who usually is taciturn on downhills (gritting one's teeth makes it hard to talk) was bubbling over with awe and excitement. We hit bottom a little after 5 PM, ready to follow the Hoosic River to the Green Mountain State. Cody got the day's gold star for that advice.
In Illinois, Cheryl and I were cruising along a canyon of corn, when we saw a couple of guys walking towards us. Wearing T Shirts and running shoes, they didn't look like farmers, and beside, we hadn't seen many pedestrians outside of towns. We said, "Hi", but didn't stop, until we came to a Suburu parked on a side road. The car had a sign on top announcing it was a cross-country run for charity, "Los Angeles to New York, 2900 miles in 69 days". These guys were running across the country, going 2-4 mph, 12-14 hours a day. I marveled at how they could keep up so dedicated and ambitious a schedule, when Cheryl pointed out, "They don't have their families with them. They don't have to worry about kids screaming at each other, accommodating picky eaters' food preferences or teen-age boys' sleep schedules, or little girls' desire to change their clothes every half hour, or complaints about the awful weather (temperatures higher than our usual summer fare of 75 F routinely brought groans from our crew), or ..."
"OK, I get the point," I said. If it was just the two of us, we could have done this trip more smoothly and quickly. I was learning that the reason for going was not to bike the miles, but to make the smiles in the kids. We wanted them to see and feel the places they'd never been, and learn a bit about what people in other parts of the US were like and what they did.
One fellow we learned from was a farmer outside of Youngstown, Ohio, whom we'd met at Plymouth Rock. I asked this gentleman to snap our picture with our cameras; he seemed a likely choice because (a) he had several cameras and a photo equipment bag around his neck and (b) he was the only other person out at that early hour. We got to talking, and when we discovered he lived near our route through Ohio, we made plans to meet.
Two weeks later, while camped at Lake Milton near Youngstown, he drove up to our campsite with his two daughters. He made the effort to drive the forty miles from his farm to where we were, and then found our spot among the 240 campsites at the lake. For three hours, we talked about corn, soybeans, agricultural economics, antique farm equipment, and how to avoid boredom in middle school. He told us one story about some folks who, a few years earlier, had attempted to cross the country with Belgian horses pulling a large wagon, to show people what farm life had been like 100 years ago. Three weeks later, while stopped to mail some postcards at the town square of Centerville, Iowa, we came across a sign commemorating the extent of their westward progress. They'd quit there and flown back to San Diego.
I grew up in Ohio, and had always felt that the wide open spaces were out West. The Midwest seemed compact, and more densely populated. It's true there are more cities there, but out in the country, there's little happening but the crackle of growing corn and the hum of roadside crickets. Fully one half of the days and miles on our trip were between the hills of western Pennsylvania and the Missouri River in South Dakota. At least once a day through this verdant flat land, one of us would say, "It's a big country". The reply became, "And most of it's hot and flat".
It also featured some surprising rides. On the hottest day of the trip, Will and I found ourselves finishing up a day's ride into Nauvoo, IL. The heat index was hovering above 115 when we turned north to follow the Mississippi. Trees leaned over our route, and the road's shoulder widened, and became smoothly asphalted. The breeze shifted to our backs, and we pumped it up to 25 mph. We stopped just outside of town, at "Historic David's Chambers" a cooling watercourse over tumbling rock drops draped under thickly shading trees. This was said to be a favorite spot of Brigham Young, in the years before he lit out for the Great Slat Lake Valley. For us, it offered a free shower and a bit of air conditioning in the outdoor steam bath.
The next day, we crossed the Mississippi. For anyone going across our country, the Great River, and the Continental Divide are obligatory encounters. Each brought us into fabulous riding. Entering Iowa, and evening thunderstorm brought not only radically cooler temperatures for the next four days, but also a shift in the wind, from west to east. This combination made me agree with Kevin Costner, in "Field of Dreams". After he builds his baseball diamond, Shoeless Joe Jackson steps out of the corn, and asks, "Is this heaven?" "No, it's Iowa," says Kevin, with a laugh (implying, I've always thought, that it's a little bit better than heaven".
For bikers, that certainly is true. We rode through a week after the classic cross-state event, RAGBRAI, tracing parts of the route backwards. Each small town we went through had a smile for us, and the drivers all gave us plenty of room. The puffy white clouds, the mild air, the tailwind, and the friendly people all combined to make this one of our favorite states.
The tail wind kept pushing us through South Dakota. Cheryl, courtesy of her friend Catherine in Vermilion, SD, got to experience and Indian sweat lodge ceremony, and then we all chowed down at the pig roast that evening, celebrating a local boy's success at becoming a Navy SEAL. He wanted to say "thank you" back to the Indian community which had supported him through his training.
In South Dakota, we shared the road with another kind of biker. The first week of August, motorcyclists from all over converge on Sturgis, outside the Black Hills. The campsites that week were overflowing with motorized two wheelers, all dressed in black rally T shirts, sporting graying hair and gleaming fenders. We bicyclists could learn from them, and try to get TREK or GT or Schwinn or (shudder!) Shimano and Campangnolo to sponsor an annual rally for us. It might raise our profile, and certainly would be fun. Half the bikers we saw at Sturgis drove cars to the rally, pulling their rides behind them on trailers. A week of 300,000 bicycle tourists descending on, say, Jackson, Wyoming or Sugarbush, VT, would definitely generate some brotherhood. And maybe we could get a special rally beer produced for us, like Harley-Davidson did for the motorcyclists.
Between the Black Hills and Miles City, the land turns desolate. A hand-lettered sign accompanying a map to all 7 ranches on a 20 mile stretch of road said it all: "A hard land makes hardy cows". No streams, no trees, unbroken country that lets the air wind up and pitch a breeze like a Randy Johnson fast ball. In the middle of this outback sits a small town called Broadus, 70 miles or more from any place else. Into Broadus dropped my brother-in-law, Craig. He'd been following our trip on the Bikrutz web page, and got caught up in the romance of our adventure. In three days, he flew in from San Diego, rode 86 miles to Miles City, toured the town with us, looking for signs of my family's past (there's a short road called "Truscott St." there), and flew out the next day. He didn't see Eastern Montana as barren or windswept; he kept humming "America the Beautiful" to himself. His high spirits lifted us up for the next day or two, enough to get us to the Rockies.
We entered a land of pine and fir, broad river valleys, mountains passes, and afternoon thunderstorms. The weather turned cool and showery. At the top of our first pass, the air was wet with mist, the temperature down to 52 F. Annie took her seat on the back of the tandem, bundled against the breeze in fleece, wind shirt and pants. After the first six miles, when we had dropped down enough from the 6000 foot height to warm up, we stopped for a food break. We were surrounded by dun colored slopes dotted with evergreens; a clear water stream whooshed next to us as it churned through a culvert under the highway. The air, though cold, was starting to clear, and the afternoon sun slanting through the mist rising from the road made little wavy rainbows dance in front of us. One month later, when I asked her what her favorite part of the trip was, Annie picked this moment she shared with Cheryl and I.
For the next week, we followed the route of Lewis and Clark up and over Lolo Pass, and across the Idaho panhandle. It was the mountain roads I remembered from my childhood: endless forests, little towns that were nothing more than country stores, campgrounds along a narrow river, and roads that went up or down, but never straight or flat. Shaine had studied and written about the "Corps of Discovery", and read about Sacajawea in her seventh grade classes. She got a much better appreciation of just how hard it was to get from the Missouri down to the Pacific, without roads or restaurants. She's glad she lives in 1997, not 1805, though.
Our home state of Washington gave us our toughest tests. One day, along the Snake River, the winds came so fierce and gusty in our face we abandoned riding entirely. If Cheryl and I had been touring on our own, we would have waited out the day at the state park. But with three kids expecting to get home, see their friends, and go to school, we drove instead of rode our 80 miles that day. Then, going up Chinook Pass to clear the Cascades, we met a thunderstorm with winds so sudden and fierce that 200' tall old growth spruce and fir cracked and dropped all around us with Jurassic thuds. We were rightly scared; five miles away, four people died in a pick-up, crushed by one of the falling giants.
On the last day, Cheryl and I rode the tandem 40 miles down the pass into Puget Sound country. Fittingly, it started to drizzle, then seriously rain as we got to the Narrows Bridge which signals we are home in Gig Harbor. A gaggle of Shaine and Annie's friends had gathered with "Welcome Home" signs and a tape to break through as we sloshed up our driveway through the woods around out house. We had meant to dip our front tires in the Sound, two miles away, but, the way I see it, the Sound came to us in the form of all that rain.
What did we learn? It's a big country, and much of it is given over to cattle and corn.