In reading the online journals of cross-country cyclists, I’ve been struck by a recurring theme: unexpected acts of kindness rendered by strangers along the road.
In a nation riven by politics, religion and ideology, it’s comforting to believe, as I prepare to set out on my own transcontinental journey, that most Americans are essentially kind, decent, caring people.
Whether it’s just a wave and a wish of good luck, jugs of water and baskets of fruit set out in a yard for traveling cyclists or the offer of lodging and a hot meal, the gestures of friendship and offers of help seem to be legion.
And, of course, there’s June Curry, the fabled “Cookie Lady” of Afton, Va., who since 1976 has provided chocolate chip cookies to cyclists traveling the classic TransAmerica Bicycle Trail from Astoria, Ore., to Yorktown, Va. She’s now 88, has had a stroke and can no longer bake, but she says she’s determined to provide hospitality to cyclists through October.
Perhaps these acts of kindness are prompted by a strain of hospitality dating from frontier America, when a traveler had precious few options in seeking a meal and a bed. Or maybe, like itinerant monks in Asia, cross-country cyclists laden with gear are perceived as no threat to small children and animals.
Or it could be, as Ma Joad said in John Steinbeck’s Great Depression novel The Grapes of Wrath: “If you’re in trouble, or hurt or need — go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help — the only ones.” As in the 1930s, America these days has lots of poor people.
It’s fitting that this is written on the eighth anniversary of 9-11, when acts of kindness and heroism proliferated across the land. But I was prompted to write this by a post this morning on the blog of the Adventure Cycling Association.
ACA, the organizer of my trip, plays host to many cross-country cyclists who pass through Missoula, Mont., where it’s based.
“One of the most common types of stories we hear is that of the ‘unexpected kindness of strangers’ along a cyclist’s path,” the blog post said. “The random encounter that leads to a place to stay, a warm shower, and a good meal. A bike shop mechanic coming in on his day off to do repairs for a stranded traveling cyclist, sometimes at no charge. An offer to store a bike and gear when a family emergency cuts an adventure short. A veteran tourer lending her gear to a cyclist she just met, with no fear that it will not be returned in great shape and with much gratitude.
“These stories,” said the post, “are in some way common to almost every bike traveler’s experience. They come as part of the larger revelation that many bicycle tourists discover: that the world is full of good, generous, helpful, wonderful people.”
I wrote on this theme in an April 25 blog post, (Abducted by aliens?) and quoted David Lamb, a longtime foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, who made a solo, self-contained bicycle journey in 1994 from Alexandria, Va., to Santa Monica, Calif.
In his book, Over the Hills: A Midlife Escape Across America By Bicycle, Lamb wrote of the many folks he met along the way:
“What seemed to intrigue them most was that I was making the journey alone. Didn’t I know the highways weren’t safe anymore? When I’d ask, ‘Well, is it safe around here?’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, sure, you won’t have any problems here,’ I would reply, ‘That’s what they say everywhere I’ve been. So I figure my odds are pretty good of not running into trouble.’ Rather than being reassured, people often seemed disappointed that I didn’t have a prime-time horror story to share.”