Sam the cyclist


April 25, U.S. Route 11 outside Newbern --

Early in the day I spied a fresh banana peel on the side of the road. Bananas being a favorite of cyclists, I interpreted this to mean that there was another rider not far ahead; and indeed within an hour I had spotted him. (I later learned that banana peels are distributed randomly on secondary roads in the United States and that they are in fact not very reliable indicators of other cyclists.) Whoever this was, he would be the first fellow cycle tourist I'd encountered and I was eager to catch him. He was moving slowly and it was easy.

His name was Sam, and he was not so much a cyclist as a vagabond on two wheels. Deeply tanned, he was wearing khaki pants and a flannel shirt (cigarette pack in the pocket); his hair was greasy and his fingernails were cracked and dirty. He seemed to be carrying the universe on his machine. Most of his luggage was strapped on top of his rear rack (I didn't see any panniers) and it was stacked literally as high as his head. His front carrying capacity consisted of a large wire basket clamped to the handlebars. Through the mesh I could see a machete with an 18" blade, and a two foot hatchet. A flashlight bungeed to the basket was his headlight.

Sam had attached three or four American flags to the rear stack (to gain the sympathy of hostile drivers, he told me) and they fluttered in the breeze while we talked. He'd set out from New Jersey on Easter Sunday (March 30) and was on his way to Tennessee, to a farm belonging to a couple of cyclists he had met while riding from New Mexico to Maine the year before. They'd told him to drop by whenever he was in their area, so he decided to make them a destination. He was bringing the knife and the axe to "make himself useful" once he arrived.

We were riding on the same roads but in completely different worlds. Sam spent his nights not in hotels or at campgrounds, but in abandoned buildings and doorways; police, he said, often gave him a hard time. He went on to tell me that his front derailleur had been frozen into position for weeks and his rear had broken the day before, so he was propelling himself using a single gear. I couldn't imagine how he would traverse the Appalachians.

Sam was friendly enough but once we had exhausted the common subjects of weather and pavement conditions, we had little more to say -- neither of us was really curious about the style in which the other had chosen to ride. We wished each other well and got back onto our bikes; within a few minutes I couldn't see him behind me any more.


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Page posted July 5, 1999