Monday, August 5, 2013

Week Seven

Kansas City...1 more day Missouri, 1 day Kansas, 1 day Nebreaska, 2 days Iowa, 5 more days Nebraska on boder of South Dakota

705 miles...16,287 feet climb
3170 miles total...113,402 feet climb total
There are no coincidences. (Robbie)

[Unfortunately there is still no fix from Blogger to be able to post photos within this text. I will try to upload to Picasa. You hopefully can view this posts photos by going to...]


This Sunday morning 8-4-13 I crawled out of my tent to find a container of fresh blueberries left by a trail angle sitting on my saddle. I am grateful. Gear was packed in an intermittent light sprinkle. I rode to and was the first customer of the restaurant just as it opened at 8:00. Checking my emails and Facebook I came upon a posting of the author George Saunder's convocation speech addressing kindness. There are no coincidences.

This speech is copied below for you to read. It is a good point to ponder.

Earlier this week I stopped in the small town of Missouri Valley. While partaking lunch of peanut butter crackers, Fig Newtons, pizza, and Gatorade, Dennis said hello. As town building official he was on a Police insignified bicycle that he rides about the town. We had a long discussion of bikes, travel, and the natural amenities of his state. He told me to stop in for dinner land tell Janet hello at the Bamboo Chinese Restaurant in Onawa, where indeed I did have my dinner later that day, making it just prior to the afternoon thunderstorm. There are no coincidences.


During that day I biked along the Loess hills of western Iowa enjoying the beauty and ruggedness of these eroded wind-blown clay hills covered in prairie grasses and Bur Oaks. There came a point where I had to cross several miles of farmland to be on a different road to take me to Onawa. I don't mind a few miles of gravel. After a particularly rough section of loose gravel (that I do mind), I came to an intersection and turned north. I was on a gravel road in the midst of a very rural area surrounded by nothing but corn. I had seen no person or vehicle for hours. Then far up ahead appears a women jogging toward me. I was surprised. I continued in her direction calling out greetings as I came close. I stopped and she told me the bridge ahead on the farm road I was traveling was out and that unless I planned to swim across the drainage creek I should turn left onto the dirt field road just ahead to take me to the paved road I sought. Would I have figured this out when confronted by the bridge outage? There are no coincidences.


I stayed the night in O'Neill, the Shamrock City, two nights ago where I received the blueberry gift. Tonight I camp in the City Park by a stream in Valentine, the Heart City. They like their branding here abouts...with large shamrocks or hearts as appropriate painted in the main street intersections. Completing my ride relatively early at 3:00, I stopped for late breakfast, lunch, and early dinner at the Coachlight Inn having the Badger Burger with all the fixin's, fries, water, large salad of cottage cheese and pear, water, strawberry/rhubarb local pie (rates excellent), coffee, water. As another customer and his lady friend were leaving I noticed he was toting a South Dakota Gazette. He lives near Sturgis, SD (more on this later.) I stopped him to confirm the roads I was considering to take from NE to the Badlands were paved and a reasonable route. Another table of three women overheard this. Martha was quite enthralled by my adventure and wanted my picture. These Lakota women were just returning from a four day Sun Dance ceremony in South Dakota. They fasted during that time and the Coachlight was their first meal in the four had the strawberry/rhubarb pie also. Martha was sincerely supportive of my bike adventure...of following a dream...pursuing the strength to do so. They gave me their prayfull blessings for the journey. Turns out they also picked up my tab. There are no coincidences.


Over the past several days I have been passed by lone riders, but most often by groups of motorcyclists. I have talked to several at restaurants and the convenience/gas stations along the way. Most are headed to a huge motorcycle rally in Stugis, SD near Rapid City. This is a huge gathering, with upwards of 400,000 cycles congregating in a town of 6,600 inhabitants. Most will enjoy daily rides out and back covering all points around Sturgis...this is not the time i want to be there. Methinks this is akin to Asheville's Belle Chere on steroids. The event ends on August 11, just about the time I roll into the area. I camp tonight next to Scott, a small farmer from Iowa who has attended many such rallies, but not this year. He is in Valentine to celebrate the 95th birthday of a 35 year long friendship with a man Scott interned with 35 years ago. Dean and Pam from Omaha were my neighbors on the other side. They were on a motorcycle on the return leg home from Sturgis. They shared stories of the fun but also of the crazy aspects of thousands of people celebrating time off their better behaviors.



For the bicycle traveler...

  • Kansas City, Platt City to join Adventure Cycling Lewis & Clark Trail Section 1, Atchison IA, White Cloud, Rulo NE [halfway point on day 45], Nemaha (good Mennonite grocery and diner), Brownville, StramboatTrace Trail (crushed limestone is too loose at times; rides like sand for large sections; but there are lovely sections close to Missouri River), Peru (very nice basic camping shelters), Nebraska City, Riverview Marina SP camp @ $11 on bank of Missouri River
  • Nebraska City, Percival IA, Pacific Junction, Wabash Trace Trail (very nice, tree covered), Council Bluffs, bike trails to Lake Manawa SP @ $11 on shore of lake, bike trail connection to Omaha NE, leave Adventure Cycling map
  • Council Bluffs, bike trails back to Wabash Trace, Harry Langdon Blvd Trail (that leads eventually to non-trail on road), W. Broadway, Old Lincoln Highway, Crescent, Loess Hills Trace, Missouri Valley, gravel and dirt roads (would have been better to follow paved roads to Mondamin), Austin Ave, Onawa, Lewis and Clark SP @ $11 camp
  • Onawa, Highway 51 (no shoulder, but light traffic and road is very straight so drivers can easily see...only problem is when vehicles in both lanes converge at bicyclist's side...just hold steadfast), Highway 275 (that has very wide shoulders and is excellent passage), Norfolk, Ta-Ha-Zouka Park and camp $11
  • Norfolk, Cowboy Trail (for 15+- miles outside of Norfolk this is good trail...but after awhile it becomes tedious...Highway 275/20 is preferred choice to cross state...every once in a while you can get back on trail, particularly when it swings away from highway to ride closer to natural setting), O'Neill, Carney City Park, no fee camp
  • O'Neill, Highway 20, Atkinson, Bassett, Long Pine, Long Pine State Recreation Area camp
  • Long Pine, Highway 20, Ainsworth, Wood Lake, Cowboy Trail and trestle bridge (easy access from Hwy 20 and not too far into Valentine), Valentine, city park camp
  • Valentine, Highway 20, Kilgore, Nenzel, Cody, Merriman where there is good cafe, Cottonwood Lake State Recreation Area camp $7
  • Merriman, Highway 61/73 to South Dakota, (there is a historic park that is closed on the Wednesday as I passed...Arthur Bowring Sandhills Ranch), Martin, Highway 18/73, highway 73, Long Valley that has a store, Highway 44, Wanblee with good grocery, Highway 377 to Badlands NP
  • Highway 275 and 20 were wonderful roads to cross the plains of Nebraska with the best shoulder conditions to date of any state transversing the rolling corn and soy hills of the east, the flat grass lands of the center, sand hills of near west, and if continuing the sandstonelateau of the far west

George Saunders delivered the convocation speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013. The speech touches on some of the moments in his life and larger themes (in his life and work) — the need for kindness and all the things working against our actually achieving it, the risk in focusing too much on “success.” This printing of the speech comes from

Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).

And I intend to respect that tradition.

Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.

So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that.

But here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then – they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still. It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.

So let me just say this. There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well,everything.

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.

Congratulations, by the way.

When young, we’re anxious – understandably – to find out if we’ve got what it takes. Can we succeed? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? But you – in particular you, of this generation – may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition. You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can….

And this is actually O.K. If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.

Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really:selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

Congratulations, Class of 2013.

I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.



  1. Glad the cycling angels are watching over you, sending kind people your way. Roll on!

  2. Hi, Robbie,
    I'm a friend of Susan and Allen, who sent me your blog link. Sounds like your journey is going quite well, meeting wonderful people along the way. I enjoyed the Saunders' speech on kindness. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Love this post, Robbie! Glad your trip is going well, and I hope you keep enjoying the acts of strangers!

    Ryan, outside the Lees Summit, MO Hy-Vee


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