Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on August 6, 1972 · Page 68
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August 6, 1972

Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 68

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Charleston, West Virginia
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Sunday, August 6, 1972
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Page 68
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Two Wheels and Ten Speeds -"?: _ --- By Lawrence Zwart O/ 77ie Associated Press 6m CHARLESTON, W. VA. ABOtJT 20 MILES NORTH OF VICKSBURG, Miss. Welcome to my lark. Two wheels, 10 speeds, the wind whistling past my ears, the soft whine of my tires on the road. In town, the sleek ability to pass the cars that have been passing me. Skinnying through. Eat your little hearts out. You need eight feet and I need two, sometimes less. A bike, and everything I need, and three weeks vacation, and 1,000 miles of open road, and freedom and the belief, the quiet belief, that biking is fun and not many people know it. Gil, I'm a recent convert, and it's not fun all the time. Every hill has its up and its down. But for all the work of the up, oh the lovely freedom of the down. Teaches you something you knew all along. My 1,000-mile lark wasn't much. The first American to cross his native land by bike was Thomas Stevens. He rode a 50- inch, 60-pound, high-wheel cycle across the country in 1884. Mine was a vacation on a 28-pound French touring bike. The only things Stevens and I had in common were two wheels and a devilishly slim, inflexible saddle. I spent 20 days on that saddle and I felt for Mr. Stevens. Most of my time is spent at the drawing board and brush strokes are not the heart-, iest of exercises. The longest trip I'd taken before this one was 50 miles. But Manhattan breeds a certain nervous unrest. I wanted to follow Stevens' path. Friends talked me out of it. "I settled for something less. A shorter, more digestible trip down the Mississippi and across Florida, from Memphis to New Orleans to Tallahassee. My friends tried to talk me out of that too. But it wasn't just biking. It was a chance to see some country, to stop, to draw and sketch and bring it home. So it was that I had the bike shop pack my Peugot and air-freighed it to Memphis, making sure "fragile" was stenciled on the side of the carton containing my (180 chariot. I met it in Memphis. You could no longer read the word "Fragile" on the crumpled, torn cardboard. I asked the freight attendant whether anyone had survived the crash. "We don't package them," he said with the air of a man who'd said it before. ".Just ship'em." I called every cycle shop in Memphis, searching for a new front wheel and some missing parts. Curse the French, none stocked foreign parts. Might as well order a hot dog in Peking. But I reckoned without the new fraternity I'd joined. One bike shop gave me the name of Charles Finney, the president of the local bike club. Before I hung up the phone I had an offer of help. The night I arrived, the Finneys had just received a new 10-speed racer to replace Mrs. Finney's bike wrecked in a collision with a car. Bikers think of cars the way sailboat skippers consider powerboats. They smell, they're noisy and sometimes unnecessarily impolite. They cannibalized the new bike to repair mine. They made me send my combat boots home and buy tennis shoes instead. Then Finney took me to the outskirts of town, headed me into the 30-knot wind blowing north on Highway 61, and shook his head, "bad to day to start," he said. But time and tide impatient, I took off anyway. I'd picked my route because it followed the Mississippi south and water runs downhill. Right? Wrong. Somewhere down the road I ducked away from the driving rain and took refuge with some highway workers in an abandoned building. "How far is it to New Orleans?" I asked. "Oh about 400 miles down this hill." Thanks, wise guy. "Pretty strong wind," I said trying to dry out. "Sure is. Always blows north this time of year." Leaving my slain morale in that small, warm building, I mounted my metal steed and started down that hill, into the wind. I was just too tired to remember the end of that first day. But enough of that. I took to early rising because the wind was more likely at my back then and the sun was low in the sky. and there was a newborn beauty to the dew on the grass, the calm, cool haze in the air. And people are more friendly then. Down the Mississippi, ducking the rain under a fourtunately placed barn roof, then back to the road again, thinking if I could cut down all the trees, I'd see the Gulf. High gear, time and land speeding by, weaving in and out of the dotted line on the empty road starting back at the staring cows. So nearly silent on my way no one knows I've passed. North of Vicksburg there are hills that look like the French Alps after the flatness of northern Mississippi. The town nestles among them, watching over the river and the old battlefield and the unmarked graves. And on my silent way I imagine that the cannon are alive again, and men in grey and blue charge each other and everything but death is real. And I stop by the silent marble-domed mosque, guarded by metal men on metal horses, and read the names in bronze, all that remains of the blue- coated men from Illinois. South out of Vicksburg, the early sun glints off the black breeches of cannon overlooking the river and I think horsemen troubled this land more than I do. A car roars by and seems unreal. To me, the road to Natchez is not measured in miles, but by hours of grass, small animals, the sweet smell of the air. A flat tire brings me to. Broken glass. A shattered bottle. Not the first. So many thoughtless shards of glass "Shooting from vehicles is illegal," the .roadsign says. The old man who ran the. country store told me there was plenty of game and some out-of-state hunters took to shooting from their cars. But he told me about a dirt turn-off up the road, a quiet brook, a place to hide and watch for deer, "and while you're at it, taste the water, sweetest water anywhere." I took the turnoff. The road was narrow and rutted by erosion. The forest closed off the rest of the world. I fell asleep. I never saw a deer, but the old man was right about the water. Natchez. It breathes of old beauty if you can forget the shopping centers, the gas stations, the highway. Below, the great brown river keeps rolling. The old sidewheelers are gone and now diesel tugs shoulder barges up and down the Mississippi. Baton Rouge and Louisiana and families combing the bayous for crawfish. And I remember how I used to hunt crabs off the south coast of Long Island on a Sunday afternoon. Nothing changes. People though, they don't seem to understand. Wherever I stop they ask, "You came all that way on that wheel?" I don't make many pit stops, just roll along, drinking a beer, munching a sandwich. Nice and easy. In New Orleans I took off three days and sketched and cycled around town and listened to jazz on Bourbon Street. And for a change I wasn't alone. The narrow streets are alive with cyclists. They fit right in. And finally Florida and the'wind at my back and the surf off my right arm and sleeping on the soft, sandy beaches. And then the most hateful thing of all, Tallasassee. Because it was the end. A thousand miles on a bike. And many more miles ahead. And no more time. V--? mi- Gazette-Mail

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