Excerpt's from the Metal Cowboy's Vault
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"Tales from the Road Less Pedaled"
By Joe "Metal
Oh, to Be Young and Go Very, Very Fast
was 5:30 a.m.
in Pocatello, Idaho, a thin sheet of icy rain masked sunrise, and I
wasn't quite sure I was up for my latest bicycling adventure.
through the nearly deserted streets of this small western town, I found
myself poised at a stoplight. An ingrained obedience to traffic laws
coupled with a sleepy hangover from the long train ride kept me
anchored in place though there wasn't a car in sight.
waited, an old rancher ambled up to the intersection. The fur collar on
his long coat was tattered, crusted with tobacco stains, and faded. As
his cane tapped its way over my bike, I noticed for the first time that
he was blind. One eye drooped shut like that of a tomcat that had seen
too many late-night brawls, while the other, still open, was cloudy and
distant. That eye reminded me of an African tribesman seen in the pages
of National Geographic who suffered from river blindness.
old rancher continued to work his cane over me, tapping as he went. And
though the light changed from red to green several times, I remained
frozen, allowing this slow survey of my person.
The moment felt intimate and awkward, but I did not break it.
When he was done, the old rancher stood back, grinned through a ruin of
teeth, and said, "Ah, metal cowboy."
was dumbfounded; first, that he had spoken at all, and more
importantly, that this battered husk of man had hit upon a perfect
description of me at the time, and my story. Though I looked more like
a surfer, or a guy on a fool's journey, to him I felt like a metal
cowboy, the bike my horse, and the asphalt my trail.
wind at your back, and find where the innocent sleep," he added. Then,
without fanfare, my rancher crossed the street and dissolved into the
A chill passed through me.
thought about that old man many times during my travels. He was right
about the wind, and as for locating where the innocent sleep, I want to
believe he meant to look for the best in people along the road, and
that's what you will often find.
My bicycle has also brought me
to the innocence and the best in myself. Collectively, my travels have
been the antidote for the cynicism that can gather at the feet of
complacency and grow in even the most useful and noble life.
remember the crusty old rancher tapping the back of my bike gently
before he crossed the street into the rest of his life. That little
push kept me rolling right into the new millennium.
But every cowboy's story needs a beginning. Mine started the moment I
learned to ride.
the day I met the woman I would marry, the love of my life was a
bicycle. Just a collection of metal, rubber, grease, and gears to the
untrained eye, to me that two-wheeled contraption has always
represented something more.
It has to do with possibilities.
1970, my sister began her bug collection in earnest, so, at the ripe
old age of five, I scooped up her bike and decided to teach myself to
How hard could it be?
I skipped right past training
wheels and took a couple of nasty spills. My five-year-old brain
registered that this was going to take some effort, but I desperately
wanted to learn.
Never mind that the vehicle in question was a
powder blue, one-speed tank with a pink polka-dot banana seat, ape
hanger handlebars, and pompom-style streamers fluttering from the bars'
grips. The flower-covered basket attached to its front and a pinwheel
twirling in the wind from its rear completed the look.
Macho was not in my vocabulary back then.
by dinner, I was circling the block, growing more confident with every
pedal stroke. My sister lodged a complaint with the parental
authorities, but by the time they came to investigate, I was gone.
what I felt my first day balanced on two wheels, and through all my
years of riding, that feeling has remained. Sure, I love the wind in my
face, the sound of my beating heart as I work up a hill, but the
simple, clean rush of freedom was what hooked me. Pedaling along,
playing the gears like a concert pianist battling through Rachmaninoff,
you feel like the hero of a tale that's being written where the rubber
meets the road.
When my parents tracked me down that evening, I
was six blocks away, hanging out by the elementary school fence with
some rough-looking second-graders, future Hell's Angels who had whole
suits of playing cards attached to their bicycle spokes.
I think they respected the fact that I would even approach them
sporting a bike that looked like my sister's.
"Kid must be fearless," they probably thought.
rode my sibling's cycle straight through winter. Nothing could stop my
daily escapes. My parents huddled together, and because there were no
official holidays or birthdays on the horizon, they did something
unheard of in the history of my childhood: They bought me a bike simply
because I wanted one-and not just any ride, but a black-and-gold
Schwinn with a functioning speedometer.
The speedometer was my
parents' one mistake. The expression "speed kills" comes to mind every
time I think of that device. We lived at the bottom of a rather steep
hill, a hill that needed conquering.
Oh, to be young and go very, very fast.
didn't kill me that day, but, with my left arm snapped in three places,
I was a few steps farther along the road to understanding a body's
Before the plaster on my cast had even dried, I was
back on the bike, waving to neighbors and friends as I pedaled along
the route of the accident, like a homecoming king in a small-town
parade, the fallen hero rising from the ashes. I was blind to the
occasional head-shaking and sagelike finger-wagging of parents sitting
Little did I know then that, as an adult, my story
would include numerous bicycle adventures around North America, an
odyssey across Australia and New Zealand, and even a few seasons spent
managing a bicycle-and-canoe touring company in the backwoods of
My love for cycling has helped shape who I am today.
That old rancher knew the score. With a few taps of his cane he'd
glimpsed this collection of lessons, experiences, and moments of
absurdity gathered while atop a bike.
Metal Cowboy. My name came looking for me that morning in Idaho-and I
found the rest of the story.
Oh, to be young and go very, very fast!
Sanctuary in a Wild World To
sleep, perchance to
long-distance cyclist pedaling the open road in search of adventure is,
by default, also on a quest for sanctuary, a safe and relatively
comfortable spot to lie down and recharge the engines each night. This
often can be a daunting task. Some evenings, after a grueling day's
ride, I knew exactly where I would end up: a state park with camping
facilities or my relatives' homes.
I'd accept an invitation from
a newly acquired or longtime friend to simply drop in, or, when I was
in vast, unfettered territory like the Olympic Peninsula, the jungles
of Venezuela, or the Australian outback, it was a matter of merely
deciding that I'd had enough and pulling off the road. (I use the term
road loosely when recalling the jungles and the outback.)
other days, locating sanctuary was just a bit more challenging. During
my earliest adventures, the ride from Maine to Florida, especially, I
gave camping arrangements and possible destinations far too much of my
time and energy.
With the concentration of an engineer, I would
sit by the side of the road with maps unfolded, or spread them across
the booth of a coffee shop, plotting wind speed, weather conditions,
planned stops, the average miles per hour I was maintaining, and other
complicated factors. Through much effort, since math has never been my
strong suit, I'd pinpoint where I thought I'd arrive by nightfall. My
calculations were right less than half the time. I chalked it up to my
gregarious nature, always getting sidetracked in conversation with
compelling people or detouring to check out some eye-catching
architecture high on a hill or tucked away along a back road.
wasn't long before I adopted the Buddhist saying, "Don't push the
river," as my operating instructions. If there were definite camping
possibilities close by, I would shoot for them; otherwise, I relied on
ingenuity and no small measure of resourcefulness.
were often amusing. I've slept in playgrounds and church courtyards,
and on beaches. Once, I awoke to find that I had set up my tent in the
middle of a construction site. I beat a fast path away from the
hammers, nails, and shouts of workers that morning.
of certain makeshift campsites often led to other adventures. The night
I thought I'd nestled myself in a wooded park was clarified in the
morning when the rattle and whoosh of the amusement park's roller
coaster brought me out of sleep. The attraction was closed for the
season, but workers were testing the ride for weak tracks and rotted
planks. That was the morning I got to take a ride on a roller coaster
Then there was the time I rose to the aroma of
pancakes cooking in a church vestry. I thought I'd gotten my gear
packed up without detection, but when I took my stack of flapjacks and
placed my donation in the pastor's hand, he winked and asked if I'd
slept comfortably under the willow trees.
Things didn't always
end as pleasantly. My little tent was low enough to the ground that I
could hide behind a collection of rocks, or even in depressions and
culverts. This made me, when fatigue took its toll, a little too quick
to pick a spot and call it home.
In coastal Georgia, I pulled
off a desolate road and set up shop in what I thought was a quiet
ravine. About three in the morning the gray water from a sewage plant
made its way rapidly through my tent en route to the ocean. "Rude
awakening" does not begin to cover it. I spent half the next day in a
laundromat trying to clean up my possessions.
And never, ever
try renegade camping in Humboldt County, California. At the time, I was
not aware of this region's reputation as marijuana-cultivation central.
I rolled out my sleeping bag one evening in the pastoral setting of a
tranquil valley only to have the sound of a pump-action shotgun being
loaded freeze me in place. The briefest of conversations followed and,
though darkness had settled in around me, I considered myself lucky to
be back in the saddle and on my way.
My final resting spot that
night was a roadside attraction called Snake City. The owner was more
than happy to let me put up my tent, but didn't I want to visit with
some of his pets, first? The twenty-foot python named Stretch looked
"Do they ever get loose?" I asked casually.
"Rarely" is not the answer I was searching for, but it was already the
middle of the night, so I took my chances.
hands down, I discovered, one of the best places to make camp for the
night is a cemetery. Maybe that sounds sacreligious, but consider this:
As long as you're not the type of person who gets creeped out easily,
it's a quiet, safe night's sleep; a spot where you won't be disturbed
by anyone else getting up to use the bathroom.
daybreak, I crawled out of my tent to help a worker unload and steady a
pair of headstones. He said the couple, married nearly sixty years, had
died within days of each other. We should all be so lucky. Her stone
read, yours, and his, forever.
I considered my scant efforts a
form of payment for the evening's stay. Often, I lingered in those
graveyards wandering the rows, reading headstones and pondering stories
like the old couple's, and many others only hinted at through a few
words carved in marble.
Rather than causing me to experience
melancholia or tumble into feelings of helplessness over the
nonnegotiable finality that is death, cemeteries will always represent
a gathering of our collective histories, as well as a comfortable spot
outside where old friends come together one more time.
And a few
hours after sunrise on the outskirts of Beaufort, South Carolina, a
small country cemetery became the site of one joyous celebration. I
thought I was still dreaming: The voices harmonizing gospel reached my
ears like a gentle kiss. When I unzipped my tent, a sea of black faces
confronted me. They were clutching garbage bags, rakes, and brooms. The
fact that I was camping on their property caused my foggy brain to
register fear. I'd overslept, a rare occurrence on the road. An apology
for being there began to form on my lips.
"Shoot," one older
woman said, barely containing her laughter. "You're camped right next
to my granddaddy, Roger Henry. He liked to sleep late on the Sabbath
and skip church as much as possible, so I'd say you're in good company."
cemetery was part of a larger park and church complex, which members of
the congregation cleaned on Sundays before they got down to some
serious worshipping around noon. When the final amen was declared and
the last note on a steel lap guitar sounded, they asked me to partake
of a spread of food assembled atop picnic tables in the shadow of the
Children dashed through the cemetery, playing
hide-and-seek among the headstones of their relatives, and I enjoyed
some of the best eats, stories, and fellowship on record. I slept
indoors that night, my quest for temporary shelter taken care of by
none other than the Henry family.
The next morning I would ride
off into the wilds of another day, and by nightfall there was no
telling where I'd lay my head, but for the moment I was among friends,
free to sleep, and, perchance, to dream.