Saturday, July 25, 2009


"You'll cross the Missouri," the RAGBRAI biker had told me, "and you'll enter Nebraska. And then you'll go insane. It's boring, and it's flat as a pancake."

When I left South Sioux City, it was, in fact, flat as a pancake. And I loved it. There wasn't much of a headwind, so it was some very easy riding, for once. I wondered about the woman who had biked away in the other direction earlier that morning, once I told her where to find the bridge. A few things had concerned me, among them:

  • She had no tent
  • She had no phone
  • She carried only one water bottle
  • She didn't know how to fix a flat

On the last of these, I regretted having let her leave before I left, because when I departed, I immediately discovered a flat and had to stop and fix it, and I thought it would have been very valuable for her to watch. Of course, she had pointed out that there should be cause for concern for anyone who observes me as well:

  • I carry no maps
  • I have nothing for cooking food, and my diet when I'm alone is candy
  • I carry dress shoes
  • I left my pepper spray back in New York and never replaced it, and have to scare off dogs just by being aggressive myself
  • I bike into the wind
  • I'd admitted to her that my first time fixing a flat was in fact once I got on the road for this trip, and I'd never seen anyone do it before

"You're clearly an idiot," she had said, "but you seem to be an invincible one."

"I hope I'll be able to say the same about you," I said.

She got me dinner and made me breakfast, so I hadn't eaten candy that night. But now I was biking on this flat road and realized I was going to need it. I saw hills in the distance, but, like over flat water, everything over flat land is farther than it looks, and as I pedaled, they didn't get much closer.

For a few miles, at least. Then I got to Jacksonville and bought candy.

"How far is the next town going west?" I asked the girl.

She looked confused. "There's not much there. But if you go 30 miles, you'll reach Laurel, that's really the next thing you'll notice, other than grass."

I bought a bunch more candy and refilled all my water bottles. I got into the hills. And for the first time, really, I just went over hill after hill and saw nothing besides grass. I just meditated (what else was I to do?) and the 30 miles passed relatively quickly. I'd used up about one third of the candy to keep my blood sugar levels up (otherwise my blood pressure drops too low sometimes), so I stopped to get more, and decided to get a sub to eat right there.

"You're in for some beautiful scenery," said the woman. "But don't ride on the dirt roads like you did in Iowa, unless you're ready to be charged by a bull."

I had been charged by a bull on a back road in Mexico a few years earlier, and was definitely not ready to be charged by one again.

"What's the next town over, going west?" I asked.

"You'll pass Belden, but you probably won't see a single person there, just an elevator. Randolph is really your next town, it's about 16 or 17 miles from here."

When people say "elevator" here, they mean a grain elevator. I took off to Randolph, where I stopped for more candy, to put some air in my tire, and to refill my water bottle. Since I had refilled in Laurel, I only had one to refill.

"What's the next town over, going west?"

"You'll hit Osmond in about eight or ten miles."

Nice. It was actually 12 miles, but that was fine.

"What's the next town over, going west?" I asked the girl.

"There's Plainview, it's about ten miles away. You're going to bike all the way to Plainview?"

Another girl chimed in. "He probably came from hundreds of miles away, look at him! Where are you from?"

The first girl laughed. "What do you know, Juanita?"

I grinned. (You'll notice I do a lot of grinning.) "Juanita, huh? How did you know that? Have you been stalking me since I was in Iowa?"

I debated whether I should try to get Juanita to offer me a place to stay in Osmond, but the sun was still high, and I felt like I might not have covered even 70 miles. So I eventually told them it's time for me to be off to Plainview, went out, and got on my bike.

Flat tire.

I pulled over immediately and found myself at an auto repair shop.

"You mind if I fix my blowout here?"

"Not at all."

I popped off the tire and started looking for the puncture in the tube. A worker walked over.

"I've never seen someone patch a bike tire, mind if I watch?"

"Not at all," I said. "See, I just popped off the tire with these irons, and now I'm inflating the tube a little to try to find the puncture."

"You want me to bring over the air pump so you don't have to pump it by hand?"

"That would be awesome, actually, thanks!" I popped Kenbob's converter onto the valve so that the air hose would fit on it.

But when I inflated it, I found that the leak was so slow that I couldn't locate it.

"I know something that will work," said the worker, and got a big canister with a hose on it.

"Oh, is that the foam you put into flat tires? Don't give me that, that's no good for me unless there's a bike shop within a few miles."

"It's just soap and water," he said, and started spraying it on the tube. And sure enough, in one spot, little bubbles appeared. He had located the puncture.

I dried the punctured section of the tube in the sun (it was about 100 degrees out), then showed him how I sanded it, applied a film of vulcanizing fluid, and then applied a patch.

"You guys getting anywhere?" It was the owner of the repair shop.

"I think it's pretty much set," I said. I had noticed the puncture was in the same place as a previous one, and on the inside, so I was checking the rim. I realized that the rim strip had slipped off and gotten glued to the side, and I couldn't get it back with the tools I had.

"Oh, wow, I see," said the owner. He brought me some tape and taped the rim. We hoped that would avoid punctures until I got to a place where I got my hands on the right tool (I ended up fixing it at a gas station with a big pair of scissors).

"How far are you planning on going today?"

"Well, I'm told Plainview is about ten miles away, and the sun is still high. What's the next place after Plainvew?"

"That would be Orchard, but you don't want to go there. It's a good 30 miles from here."

30 miles didn't sound bad, but when I checked the time, I found I had an hour and a half until sunset, and, what with flats, I didn't want to bet on holding 20 MPH the entire time.

The owner continued trying to talk me into not going past Plainview. "They've got a really nice city park. I really think you should stay there tonight."

I smiled. "Sounds good. That's where I'll head then." I figured I'd make my decision once I got there.

"You know what you need?" he suddenly said. "You need a motor on that bike."

Ha, ha. Like I don't hear that one every hundred miles.


I got to Plainview, and it was as if they had planned on my arrival.

I was tired and decided to check out the free camping they had. They had lights, power outlets, a bathroom—I didn't even look any further; I just relaxed in the park, charging my phone and using it to access what internet I could. I pitched the tent after dark, but I didn't care, because I just flipped on the lights.


The next morning, I went across the street to grab breakfast ($1.19). As I walked out, a man in a dress shirt and slacks walked over to me.

"Hello!" he said.

"How are you?"

"I'm having a great day! And I hope you do too. Here's my business card."

Then he walked inside without even a good-bye.


I rode out to Orchard. I realized I hadn't even noticed how slowly, over about 1,000 miles, trees had gone from being the rule to being the exception. First it had been just forests back in Massachusetts, with small fields appearing as I went west and then through New York. Ohio and Indiana had much bigger fields, but you could always see trees on the end. Then, after Chicago, the cornfields had appeared, and you could see only islands of trees. Now the corn was mostly gone and trees were quite rare.

The $1.19 breakfast hadn't been enough, so I walked into a small shack that had the inscription "The Lunch Box," where I ordered a small steak. It was set up like a small diner with tables and no booths. I sat at a table, and the people at the next table over started talking to me right away.

"Is that your bike out there? Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Has it been fun so far?"

I tried to get them to tell me about their own lives. A big man with a mustache walked over and sat down across from me at my table.

"You don't mind if I sit at your table, do you?"

"Go right ahead."

His name was Ryan. He gave me his last name too, which I won't post here. I noticed that people here always give their name with their last name, and always expect me to give my full name too, which still makes me a little uncomfortable. Last names here will often tell people what town somebody is from and what people they mutually know. My last name being completely unfamiliar, people often mis-hear it and identify me as being related to somebody from some nearby town, which I guess I don't mind. I even occasionally say that I'm a very distant cousin, which, in the scheme of things, is, in a way, likely true.

Ryan asked about jobs I used to do before I took this trip. There were a lot of those, too, and I talked about some of them, and some of the kinds of business I tried to do.

"Oh, you translated? I could have used that. Maybe I wouldn't fight so much with my girlfriend."

As always, I grinned. "Would you have needed me to translate into some national language, or just woman-speak?"

He shook his head. "Spanish."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah, let me show you." He took out his phone. "That's her. She's beautiful, isn't she? But we've been fighting a lot lately. Her brother and cousin don't like me. Just because I wouldn't get them a cell phone. But, you know, I don't want my credit f___ed up. And they could just take off anytime. You understand, right? See, and I feel like she should, too. Her cousin back in Guatemala is a cop, and he understands. He likes me. But she was calling me all sorts of bad words in Spanish and beating me over the head with a bible. Some of those people pretend to be religious and righteous, but....I don't know, you know how it goes." He laughed. "All I know is I'm going to bible study tonight, and she'll probably be there, and I'll try to be nice to her and see where it goes. It's about all I can do."

I thought it was amazing what some people are willing to put up with.

"Sometimes I wish I could just take off like you, but I can't just leave her here alone. Not to mention I'm a single father. I've got an eight-year-old son. Here, take a look, this is him. He's the only joy in my life."


It was 11 miles to Inman, but for some reason, now that I'd eaten the steak, those 11 miles felt longer than 30 miles would have earlier, and less pleasant. I made a mental note not to ride so soon after I eat. I stopped in O'Neill, went to a grocery store, and snatched up 12 Little Debbie cookies.

"How far is the next town over going west?"

"Atkinson is a smaller town about 20 miles from here."

I checked the calories on the cookies, counted off 3,000 calories and ate them. I put the rest in my pack. Then I found a place in the shade with an outdoor plug, plugged in my phone, and checked my E-mail and responded to a bunch before taking off again. It really did work out better.

I stopped in Atkinson, got more candy, washed my face, refilled my water bottle. The next town was Stuart. I shot over there, washed my face again, and refilled my water bottle. Newport was another 10 miles down the road.

I started riding and got a flat tire. I fixed it, rode for two more minutes, and got another flat. I fixed that. I had one patch left. I knew of no nearby bike shops. It was starting to get dark. I started riding. It was bumpy, but I figured it would get me to the next town and I'd check it out in the morning. Then there was a pop as the tube exploded.

Suddenly, my morale was completely gone. Who had gotten the idiotic idea of making inflatable tires, anyway? Why not just make a solid rubber one that is a little less smooth but doesn't go flat?

I started walking with my bike, but I didn't know whether I was closer to Newport or Stuart. I tried to flag down a car, just to ask which town was closer. I wanted to minimize the distance I had to walk on the highway in the dark, carrying my luggage and my bike (which no longer rolled). Several cars went by. Then I saw a small one and when I flagged it, it instantly pulled over. As it did, I looked at the side and realized why: "NEBRASKA STATE POLICE"

"Something wrong?"

"Just blew out a tire and it's a little late to be taking care of it now. You know if I'm closer to Newport or Stuart?"

He thought for a minute. "Did you check which dirt road that is over there?"

I had. "463rd."

"Well, s__t. I'd say you're right about in the middle. Five miles either this way or that way. Pick your poison."

And then I realized I had forgotten to eat candy. My head got really light. I had dropped my pack and I realized that by the time I'd reach it, my blood pressure would be low enough that I'd pass out. I grabbed a water bottle and drank, hoping the water would still be cold enough to jolt me, which would give me enough time to reach a candy bar.

Next thing I knew, I was seeing pleasant but completely unrelated visions. They were like two-second dreams, one after another, and I was thoroughly enjoying them. And then one came up that was a little weird. In it, I opened my eyes and I saw pavement within an inch of them. I realized I was lying down at the side of a highway. I raised my head.

"Sir! Don't move! You need an ambulance?"

It was a frightened police officer. Oh, s__t, this one wasn't a dream. I sat up.

"Nah, I'm fine, I just need some sugar."

The cop perfunctorily patted his pockets and looked around. "S__t! I don't have any!"

"I do. Here, they're in my pack." I took out three Snickers bars (for some reason in Jacksonville they'd been cheaper than Milky Way, which I prefer).

"Are you sure you're OK?"

"Yeah, I'm fine now, I just needed the sugar. Sometimes when I get stressed out, I forget."



"Then you must be....what's that other thing called?"

"Hypoglycemic," I suggested. I actually don't think that's my condition—I've never really identified it—but it satisfied him.

"Yeah, that's it! Hypoglycemic."

"Sorry I scared you."

He laughed. "Oh, it's fine. I have friends in the force who are diabetic, so I've seen stuff like this happen before. You want to take a seat in the cruiser for a bit, with the A/C?"

"Yeah, honestly, I wouldn't mind at all." Ever since Ohio and Indiana, most days had been sunny and close to 100 degrees.

"I have to pat down anyone I let into the cruiser though. You don't have any firearms or knives on you, do you?"

"Nope, but feel free to pat me down."

As he patted my pockets, I identified the items he was touching out loud. I realized hours later that I did, in fact, have a knife in my vest pocket, but I'd forgotten and he hadn't patted any of the pockets on my vest.

I sat down in the front seat of the cruiser and he sat down next to me. "What's your name?"


"Greg...." Oh, s__t. I'd forgotten people here always expect a full name.

"It's a weird last name. Here, I usually just let people look at my license."

He took my license and a jolt came over him as if he had just remembered something. "You don't have any outstanding warrants or anything, do you?"

I laughed. "No, but feel free to check."

As he ran it over his walkie-talkie, I caught myself wishing I did have an outstanding warrant. It would have meant a ride to a solid roof over my head, with no need to pitch a tent. When I realized this was my thought process, I decided I would shell out the money for a motel.

"You know," said the cop, "I just thought of something. I'm not allowed to give people rides, but since you passed out, I might be able to get permission to take you back to Stuart. The only thing would be your bike—I can't fit it in the cage, I don't think—but we can leave it at the side of the highway and take the rest of your luggage, and I'll find someone with a pickup to bring it to you." It sounded good to me. He pushed the button on his walkie-talkie, gave the mileage on his odometer, and said he was giving a ride to a hypoglycemic man who had passed out on the highway. Whatever works, I guess.

"I don't know what anybody else says," he said, "but I love Nebraska. I was born and raised here. It's a pretty boring job to be a night shift trooper here, but that says good things about a place."

"What kinds of stuff do you usually get to do?"

"A lot of speeding tickets. Early in the night, usually some DUIs. Later in the night I'll get called to break up a fight. Basically just cleanup crew. So thanks for making tonight a little more exciting."


"Well, you know, that's not entirely fair either. My family lives around here, and I feel like every drunk I get off the road, they're that much safer."

He helped me carry my luggage into the motel. Within the hour, a woman officer came by with my bike. "You sure you're OK?"

I smiled. "I'll be perfectly fine."


The next morning, I called Jilly and Kenbob and asked for any advice I could get on misbehaving tires. Then I fixed my rim strip, put in a completely new tube and a completely new tire. (This was actually a sad moment, as the tire had been with me for about 1,500 miles now, and the tube for about 1,000. The history of my flats was recorded on the tube, which was pockmarked irregularly with patches all around it.)

But when I started inflating it, I got the dreaded bulge that I had gotten on my front wheel in Dubuque. The difference was that there was no bike shop here. I called up Charlee and asked if he could give any advice on a bulge. He said it would require tools he was pretty sure I didn't have, because it would be heavy stuff you can't carry. He told me to hitch a ride to a bike shop.

The only "bike shop" around was the furniture store, I was told. I went there, and it turned out that one of the members of the family that ran it did, in fact, love bikes, and did repair them. But he had died a while earlier.

"We do have some solid rubber tubes left over from back when he was here, if you want to check if any of them fit. I won't be able to help you, but if you know your stuff, have at it."

I almost couldn't contain my shock. Just the night before, I'd been wondering why no one else had thought of solid rubber tubes and tires, and here we were. I went back to the motel (which was the same building and same family as the gas station) and asked if they wouldn't mind me staying a bit past checkout time to fix my bike. They didn't. I brought back my wheel. None of the tubes fit.

"Hold on, let me call my sister in Atkinson and see if she's got anything."

The woman at the furniture store made a call. No luck.

"Well, she said her brother in law in O'Neill might have some."

She made another call. No luck. She made several more calls to nearby towns. No luck.

"All right," I said, "I'll figure something out. But do you carry patch kits? I'm just about out of patches."

"No, but let me call my sister." She called again. "She's got patches, let me see if my husband is driving by Atkinson right now, he might be able to get them and bring them here." He wasn't, and neither were a few other people she called, but eventually, she reached someone distantly related by marriage who planned to pass through Atkinson in half an hour. I bought all the patches in the store.


But the problem of the bulge remained, and I needed a bike shop, so I got my stuff out of the motel and prepared to hitchhike to Valentine, where I thought there might be a bike shop. I stood out on the highway for a bit, but I realized that cars didn't seem to go past this town. The very rare car that appeared would either be leaving Stuart going the other way, or be coming from the other way and going to Stuart.

I went to the city offices. The only person there was the town clerk.

"Oh, wow, you are stuck! The problem is the county line is between here and Newport, and people tend to work within the county. It's not often that you'll have someone driving between counties. Here, let me take your phone number down. I'll call some people and I'll give you a call if anyone is headed that way. They won't take you all the way to Valentine, but partway wouldn't be bad, either, would it?"

I went back to the gas station.

The woman there apologized to me. "I called a few people I know who drive fertilizer trucks and whatnot, but they're not going out there until next Tuesday."

Wow, these roads got virtually no traffic. I smiled because I had nothing else to do. "Guess I'll pitch my tent here tonight, then."

She smiled too. "Well, there's not much else you can do, is there?"

"You know of a place I can get dinner?"

"Go downtown by the watertower, there's a bar there."


I took a walk. When I'm biking, it's OK to be alone, because I can meditate. When I'm stuck in a tiny town in the middle of Nebraska and don't know when I'll be able to get out, it suddenly gets really lonely. I walked around. Everyone knew who I was. Everyone waved to me. People stopped to talk. But there was no one here I really connected with (amazingly, in other places I've passed through, there have occasionally been such people), and I suddenly felt utterly alone. I desperately wanted to get out of this town, and I couldn't do it.

I walked by a small store, and the door immediately opened and the woman who was running it walked out.

"Did you manage to get your bike fixed?"

I had never seen her before in my life. "I don't have the right tools. I'm working on hitching a ride."

"I heard your issue was the tires. My kids haven't been riding much, you might be able to use their tires."

I was pretty sure they wouldn't fit, and tried to just answer politely, but a man who turned out to be her husband walked up, shook my hand, and introduced himself by first and last name.

"Lou," said the woman, "could you drive him down to check the kids' bikes?"

Before I knew it, I was in his car. We drove to a small trailer home.

"How does this tire look?"

"Bit too small and too wide."

He looked surprised. "If this one's too wide, you're SOL." (Note for foreign readers: that means "s__t out of luck.")

"That's what I figured."

He drove me back downtown (it was about three blocks away) and dropped me off in front of the bar. I went in and ordered three double burgers; with the bars out here, that's become my usual.

The sky had been blue when I walked in, but within about ten minutes, some girl walked in and as she opened the door, I heard rain pounding the ground and hailstones clinking loudly.

"Does this kind of stuff happen out here all the time?" I asked her.

She smiled and nodded. "Are you glad you're not on your bike now?"

I might not have known these people, but they sure knew who I was.


By the time I left the bar, the rain had stopped and you could see the storm moving away.

I walked back to the gas station slowly, still craving companionship. It reminded me of a novella I had wanted to write as a child about the Earth getting destroyed and one man being left alive (oh, how original), and about the subsequent mental breakdown he endures from the lack of socialization. I had planned to end it with him finding a payphone and dialing a number and hearing a semi-human voice on the other end saying "We're sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed...", and, that being the closest thing to human contact that he was going to get, have him, in the final paragraph, holding the phone and just dialing that number, over and over, listening to the voice on the other end.

Now, walking through Stuart, I realized the story, although it hadn't been written, was already technologically dated. I got back to the gas station.



The next day, I was picked up by Bruce. He lived way out in Western Nebraska, and was driving up to Smith Falls to check on the aspens there.

"Aspens are amazing trees," he said once I was in the car with him. "Once they grow, they bring everything else. They grow in stands. The whole stand is one living organism with one root system. The stand by Smith Falls is about 12,000 years old. And it's going to die if we don't take care of it."

I just listened and watched the plains of Nebraska shoot by.

"In western Nebraska, we have one of the biggest uranium mines in the world. 800,000 tons of yellowcake per year. Can you imagine? We're working hard to close them down. I'm actually really upset with the current administration. Their energy policy is just not tough enough. And they're allowing nuclear. It's like they've never seen Chernobyl. I've been to Chernobyl. Twice. And nuclear is the most expensive energy in the world. More expensive than any other way to generate electricity. There's no reason why we should be using it."

I don't know why I didn't ask why the market wouldn't adjust to the expense by itself.

We got to Smith Falls via a long and completely desolate road, the last four miles of which were dirt.

"Man, look at these cedars. All over the place. I wish I could just take a machine gun and—boom, boom, boom!—gun them all down. We're working on cutting them all down. We'll have them all eradicated from here someday. See, here's a bunch we cut down. The good thing is that once you cut down cedar, unlike other plants, it never grows back."

It crossed my mind that in some sense, environmentalism often ends up being related to eugenics. But it's really not like life has ever allowed for much else: someone, or something, is going to die. The question is whether we choose to meddle, but the choice not to is just as much of a life-and-death decision.

It then struck me that humans, as well as all animals, seem to always feel a need to alter the surrounding environment, just on different levels. At first, we alter it to survive. Once we're set with that, we alter it for our comfort. And once we're set with that, we alter it to our heart's content, however we feel appropriate, to whatever seems nice to us. Bruce's constant travels around Nebraska and South Dakota to preserve the aspen stands were a sign that he lived somewhere with a very high quality of life.

We checked on the aspens, making our way through the tall grass along the Niobrara River.

Bruce walked ahead, so I knew how my footing would be, whereas he regularly fell in. He also cleared out all the ticks for me, as they all jumped onto him.

When we got back to the car, we checked each other for ticks (I only had one on my clothes, whereas he had at least 15 I counted), and I found to my delight that there was someone else who hated ticks as much as I did. He made sure to rip each tick in half as he removed it.

"At home, I have a pair of pliers to crush them. Or else, if you're feeling really mean, you can toss them into a jar of acid and just watch."


  1. Greg, The other half has to be easier...
    Stay safe,

  2. This was an awesome update. Not what happened, but your style of writing Greg.

    It has finally shined, have you thought about writing literature?

  3. What I meant by that last comment, is actually done it as a profession?

    It may not pay well but this whole blog could be turned into a book.