“There is only one river with a personality, a sense of humor, and a woman’s caprice; a river that goes traveling sidewise, that interferes in politics, rearranges geography, and dabbles in real estate; a river that plays hide and seek with you today and tomorrow follows you around like a pet dog with a dynamite cracker tied to his tail. That river is the Missouri.”
-George Fitch, circa 1840
In 1981 my husband, Bob, and I packed a toothbrush, nylon wash rag , change of clothes, camera, portable radio, maps, a tent, sleeping bags, lightweight camp stove, nesting pots and pans, and an assortment of other very small items into two boxes containing our bicycles, and flew with everything from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Portland, Oregon. We were headed for Boston. The idea was to get there using pedal power.
It was the beginning of a dream trip–bicycling across the United States to visit various national parks, prominent landmarks, and see the unusual variety of things that made each state unique. At the time, neither of us had ever been further than Las Vegas where we were married. This would be a new adventure in learning.
Let me just say here the first thing I learned is that our country is really big!
Distance wise, I knew we’d be riding approximately 2,500-miles, from sea to shining sea. But traversing the land of the free and the home of the brave on a bicycle, one pedal rotation at a time, was an entirely different way of counting the miles. Mount Hood, the Rocky Mountains, the Big Horn’s and a couple of other smaller mountain ranges added their ups and downs.
For three months, we pedaled and camped, then pedaled and camped again, ad nauseum, averaging around 60-miles per day. It was a hard trip with no grey areas–it was either fun or crappy. Mother nature called most of the shots, geography managed the others. Some days I was supremely discouraged. The country was so big and we were so small.
Then, approximately halfway across the United States, in the midwest on the South Dakota plains, we stopped for the evening at a campground on the Missouri river, which bisects the state. The river’s course was defined by the trees along it’s banks, a floodplain forest of willows and cottonwood trees. The bluffs were forested with elm and oak, all presenting green relief on the otherwise flat, dry, plain.
That evening, at sunset, I sat on a park bench listening to the radio, trying to recall anything I had ever studied in elementary school about the Missouri and its source, the Mississippi River. I remembered some lore; mostly Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn came to mind. I knew both rivers were major pathways of commerce and that the Lewis and Clark Expedition traveled the River in search of the Northwest Passage, and that was about it.
Seeing this great river up close and personal was a magical moment for me. There we were, halfway across America, halfway to our goal of cycling across the United States. I was filled with emotion. I remember feeling pure joy, moved beyond explanation.
The radio was tuned to a random music station and, as I sat there taking in the panorama of the sun turning the cloudless sky to gold and purple, it sank behind the trees on the opposite riverbank just as the station signed off with America the Beautiful.
I ached with the beauty of it, and I cried.