The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2010

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JUL-AUG 2010 Issue

Iris in the Heartland

Ed.’s note: Part One, “Iris Rides Away,” appeared in the June issue of the Rail.


It’s high noon in central Kansas with cars and trucks flying down Highway 50 as Iris and Alex pedal westward into Hutchinson (population 40,889). Unconcerned by the proximity of the “big boys,” Alex speaks and Iris grins; it’s part of an ongoing conversation, together they have biked half of the 4,500 miles across the country. They have scheduled a stop tonight in America’s bull’s-eye; there’s a good bike shop there and the basement of the Zion Lutheran Church is a biker’s free hostel. They will have new chains attached, sleep in a bed, and take advantage of the shower room.

At any given time around the globe, there are thousands of bicyclists attempting long bike trips. People tell stories about the family of four in the 23rd month of their around the world trip: the two middle-school-aged kid’s real world education in geography, languages, economics, and social studies trumping the academic requirements of bricks and mortar learning. Or the man riding with a broken back “and a contraption for that thing.” 

There are those who ride to forget and those who ride for the joy, the adventure, the thrill, and yes, the danger. Or, as are Iris and Alex, to get some place. The two New York City teenagers are heading to Olympia, Washington for the fall semester at Evergreen State College.

The TransAmerica bike trail is well traveled—maybe thousands of bikers cross the country on one of five such routes each year. Between 100 to 150 of those riders stop at Harley’s Bike Shop on Main Street in Hutchinson. “Bikers come in all shapes and sizes, all ages and relationships. Some are going fast, some doing only 30 miles a day,” bike shop owner Bob Updegraff told me. “Some are on a shoestring and others stay at the nicest hotels.”

“We get groups, there have been tiny babies, a couple who had met on the road. We had the oldest contestant from ‘The Biggest Loser’ come through.” Bob glanced at the door as Iris and Alex entered Harley’s. “They look pretty typical,” he said.

Since the trip began in late April, Iris Howard, 19, has gone from city girl pale, through a blistering sunburn, to dark nut-brown, a shade past her boyfriend, Alex Berger, who plans to celebrate his 19th birthday in July in Glacier National Park in Montana.

Their hair is wind-twisted and matted from a combination of helmet, sun, and sweat. Iris’s face glows, her legs are downy and bruised. They both chew their fingernails; they admit to a cigarette in Illinois. Iris has bouts of homesickness and some Bronx habits die hard: she can’t manage an early start, which means consequences at the end of the day.

They have slept in a cave on the Ohio River in Illinois, in countless city parks, in hostels, some private homes, historical societies, an army base, and, on the first night of the trip, at the Hilton in Bound Brook, N.J.

As do many New Yorkers, Alex and Iris had pre-trip anxiety about New Jersey. They dreaded the unavoidable entanglement of main arteries, clogged highways, and busy roads. The first two days of their journey were difficult: bad weather, numerous flat tires, and a shuttered hotel plagued them as they zigzagged through the state.

Cold and wet, they pleaded for mercy from the management of the local Hilton as neither was old enough to check into the hotel. The management relented.

The second night was spent in a frilly bed-and-breakfast on the Delaware River, another unplanned stop on their itinerary. 

Since then, their accommodations have been a bit more rustic. They have camped in public parks across Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. “In a city park there’s swing sets, sandboxes, pools, us,” said Iris. “We crawled out of the tent one morning in the middle of a swim meet, surrounded by people.”

On the other hand, “Open fields are weird,” said Alex. “When you’re used to noise and then there is only quiet, any noise becomes important.”

“We try to stay in hostels as often as we can,” they said. Many hostels are in churches. While neither teenager is religious, staying in churches appealed to Iris, “I feel safer in a church,” she said. “The people do sometimes talk about religion and that makes me feel a little guilty.” She spoke of one family whose son wrote to them of the virtues of Christianity. “They want you to be a Christian because if you’re a Christian then you are going to heaven,” she said. “They want us to go to heaven, which is sweet.”

As Iris and Alex rode along America’s highways, the family Iris left behind in the Bronx faced an empty nest. Her father, John Howard, still disputes the details regarding her brother Juan’s conviction and incarceration. “The criminal justice system just can’t get it right, especially with adolescents,” he said. “It locks them up quickly; jails are full of young men who shouldn’t be in jail. They are not blameless, but it is an abominable round up of young brown and black kids thrown in jail.”  While in jail, John said that his son had “transformed himself.” He is scheduled to be released in two years.

Meanwhile, out on the open road, Iris and Alex have met plenty of colorful characters.

There was Etienne, a French farmer cycling from Cancún to Montreal, who seemed to subsist on a carb diet of bread, jam, and beer.

Then there was a “competitive” unicyclist who passed them on the road.

And Christof, a thirty-something army vet with countless stories of odd jobs and dangerous travels. As Iris wrote to me, Christof now “only dated strippers after his many failed attempts at love. He said with a stripper, you know they are just using you—that when a stripper is done with you, they just pass you on to their friends.”

At the first steep mountainside of the Appalachian Mountains, Iris and Alex made a pilgrimage to the Cookie Lady of Afton, Virginia, a TransAmerica fixture since 1976 when “Bikecentennial” riders stopped for a drink from her faucet. At 89, June Curry no longer bakes cookies for visitors—she estimates over 14,000 have stopped in—but she runs a hostel known as the Bike House.

“I like the bikers,” she said. “I feel like I’m doing some good in my life.”

But it was Patrick, a law student in Carbondale, Illinois, whom Iris and Alex picked as their favorite person so far.

“Patrick had hitchhiked across Australia, taught in Korea, spoke French and Russian,” said Iris. “We rode in his car for two hours one day singing Disney songs and listening to Obama speeches. He was inspirational,” said Iris. At Patrick’s family home they paddle-boated, ate steak and “sour cherry pies from their own cherry trees.”

Iris and Alex eat what is available, which, more often than not, is some variant of burgers and fries. Arriving late to their destination often means they are “too tired to do anything at the end of the day but eat,” said Iris.  Except for an opportunity to pick strawberries and peaches in Kentucky, Alex and Iris lament the absence of fresh fruit in their diet.

Unexpectedly, Iris said that after almost eight weeks on the road, she has not lost weight and, in fact, thinks she may have gained some. She explained, “You’ve been biking all day and you see a sign that says ‘two-dollar burgers,’ and you don’t want to wait for a fire to cook your food.”

“We’re not roughing it,” she said.

Portland, Oregon-based biking authority Willie Weir knows something about roughing it. He said he stopped counting miles biked after 60,000. He writes, lectures, and answers questions about adventure biking.

“When you get home, you tell only the good stories,” he said. “But on a bike you are vulnerable, and bad things can happen, that’s part of what adventure is about. Fear is something you can’t get a hold of,” he said. But fear is often made worse by television. “The media is hate and fear—one kidnapping is multiplied 10,000 times.

“I tell kids, the first thing to do when thinking about going (for a bike trip) is turn off your TV, because it will terrify you and you won’t go anywhere.”

Iris and Alex have seen their share of bad things in the form of the inevitable road kill. There have been dead armadillos, possums, cats, dogs, deer, squirrels; they have become the “turtle rescue squad,” with Alex doing the rescuing and Iris singing the theme song: “Turtle rescue squad.” They have seen various dead snakes and a few live ones. They have swallowed a bunch of insects.

Some dogs chase them snarling and other dogs chase them for fun. One wounded dog trailed Alex for miles in Kentucky. They have seen many beautiful birds, including peacocks and a hawk that followed them through Lancaster, PA. They profess to still love horses, but they are over the “big sacks of stupid” cows.

It’s a pretty day in mid-June in another American town: this one on the flat lowlands of the Midwest.  Hutchinson’s main street is livelier than some. They have passed countless boarded up buildings of mid-recession American towns and biked past the trash-strewn shanties of Appalachia: rotting car husks, dumped refrigerators, rusting junk as front yard. They have also fallen in love with the Ozarks of pristine Missouri: “America’s best kept secret,” declared Iris.

Taking a break after biking only 28 miles, the travelers settled into a table at a Mexican restaurant for lunch and a World Cup game: America versus England. They are not on a complete news black-out, as they are aware of the Gulf Coast oil spill, but not the details. They talked of the trip so far and what’s coming.

“I can’t wait for the national parks,” Iris said.
“Yeah, the Grand Tetons, the Glacier,” Alex said.
“And Yellowstone.”
“And the Rockies, we can’t wait for the Rocky Mountains.”

They are a long way from the Bronx, indeed.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2010

All Issues