(The photo above is from many years earlier… taken by Steve Orr in the basement writing office of my house in Dublin, circa 1980, when I was working on my engineering textbook.)
by Steven K. Roberts
July 22, 1987
Columbus, Ohio — 12,497 miles
I can’t believe I used to live here.
I pass my old Dublin house with a twinge of embarrassment; I shake my head sadly at the “growth” that frantically replaces cool greenery with hot traffic jams; I watch with horror as old friends deteriorate. They do, you know, and it’s agonizing: from the perspective of movement, midwestern stasis is a slow death, leprosy of the intellect. This city is so ordinary that it is a favorite test market of mainstream consumerism—and a suitable subject for social commentary (I wish I could draw sweeping observations about life in America from, say, the reality of Crested Butte… but alas… I can’t).
It’s a grim and muggy place, Columbus in the summer. I ooze from task to task, sticky and torpid, easily understanding why few people smile. The sun is lost in thick haze—yellow over the city, burning white above the Jack Nicklaus Freeway and the endless sameness of suburbia. Snarling traffic clots the city’s arteries, fighting slowly through a thick plaque of shopping centers, too-narrow roads, and construction projects. The pressure rises. For the first time since the last time I was here, a driver gives me the finger for no apparent reason. Shirt sweatstuck, hair in a wet mat, a relentless sense of suffocation. This was my last hometown?
Columbus hasn’t changed all that much, I don’t suppose, but my perceptions have. Columbus won’t change until a federal task force orders an investigation into the underlying causes of intellectual torpor and selects central Ohio as the ideal test case. Until then, it will follow a single cancer-like ethic: blind growth for its own sake at the expense of any and all nearby organisms. Asphalt angiogenesis… a choking of human spirit… a widespread, misguided self-chemotherapy of addictive adulterants and chemical time bombs. But hey—it’s a great corporate environment.
Lest this all sound too grim, I should hasten to add that the visit has had its positive components. Old friends remain steady anchors in my life—helping with business on one level and perspective on another. There are exceptional people in Columbus, including many I haven’t met. But those aside, my human observations are as depressing as are those of the town itself… and upon reflection, I suspect that I’m not talking about anything particularly unique to Buckeye country.
It’s easy for me to be misled by whiz-bang technology, the exuberance of travel, the stunning briskness of Colorado mountaintops, and the magic of special people. That’s a seductive blend—a heady and addicting cocktail of zeniths and beginnings—and it’s the very essence of this journey. Everything is always wonderful when change is in the air… and in a selfish personal sense, I have no complaints that can’t be fixed with a little old-fashioned discipline and some keyboard time.
But my dismay is more global than that—not just frustration with all these days spent hauling my old stuff from garage to garage. What happened to the national giddiness of springtime and the certainty of a happy future (or ANY kind of future, for that matter)? Take the sexual arena: once a kinky hotbed of playfulness and bliss, it is now about as much fun as an office building with a broken air conditioner. Maggie and I made a pilgrimage last week to the bar where we met, laughing our way past the dress-code enforcer, holding hands and drawing shocked stares with our obvious sexuality and her breezy pink beach coverup. The conservative horny young white jocks gawked or giggled; the nerds glanced at her legs furtively; the cleancut black guys speculated seriously about us without a trace of jive; the girls, dolled up in proper surface-sexy midwest foo-foo style, looked Maggie up and down with obvious disapproval. Eye contact, when it happened, was hollow and emotionless. This is a playground? Are we that different?
Of course, singles bars are under siege these days. It’s as if we’ve all been playing a great game of sexual musical chairs… and suddenly the stereo broke. Those with partners find themselves in a de facto marriage; those without are in a state of panic. It’s easy to be cocky with Maggie at my side, because I finally found more or less what I’ve been looking for—but our open affection (a sort of fairy tale luminosity) spawns not the delighted arousal of yesteryear but instead a sort of anger. We’re pedaling upstream against a frightening torrent of guilt, AIDS paranoia, hollow dreams, and even, fer chrissake, religion.
Ah, speaking of dreams: have they gone the way of passion, too? I have plenty, a whole lifetime worth—and so do many of the unusual people we’ve been drawn to during this last year. But around here… it’s as if dreams have become a luxury, bits of fluff better replaced by the slick realities of VCR, MTV, BMW, and 123. I look at the young in this town of some 60,000 college students and shudder, for the future majority is a bland lot. Life has imitated art once again: we’ve sired a generation of Vanna Whites. (By the way, I’m selling the van o’ brown—but that’s another story.)
Gawd, I’m starting to sound like an old fogey. “What’s wrong with kids today is that they never learned how to play…”
Columbus hasn’t been the only bit of culture shock since I last wrote… we’ve had all sorts of strange adventures between Calf Creek and Cowtown. Here—have a stack of snapshots:
Have you ever played Bessie Bingo? They do it in Vandalia, Illinois, and the results are published in the local paper right up front with Contragate and local politics. A field is divided into grid squares, you see, which are numbered and sold to the players. Then… a cow is turned loose and the crowd waits expectantly to see where the patties will fall. I can imagine the cheering, jostling people, urging poor confused Bessie this way and that, shouting “go, baby, go!” when she’s standing over a good spot.
Yep, everybody needs a little excitement now and then. Even Kansas is changing its style—they’re finally applying a little public-relations expertise to the state’s long-standing image of “flat and boring.” Now… Kansas is America’s Central Park… the land of Ah’s!
A day after the Calf Creek episode, we stopped in Durango, Colorado—seeking sleep. The guy at the hostel said, “What? You gotta be kidding, man—there’s two thousand cyclists in town tonight!” Further investigation revealed the existence of a tent city at Fort Lewis College, the inauguration of a 6-day cycling extravaganza from Durango to Denver (the “Ride the Rockies” tour, sponsored by the Denver Post). Naturally, we had to join them for a day…
Pitching camp on the periphery of the crowd, we slid into the group-ride culture. It’s a strange phenomenon—a sort of mini-city of healthy people who coalesce out of nowhere, meander together for a few hundred miles, then evaporate into a puff of memories and sunburn.
Holding hands, peering out over the moonlit acres of ripstop, Maggie and I spoke quietly of the allure of movement—a longing that brings people together even while scattering them to the winds. Suddenly… there was a flicker of activity in the dark landscape of domes and pyramids. Two naked young men scampered among the tents, darting around bicycles and leaping over guy lines, visiting friends in another nylon neighborhood. There was a brief exchange of words and muted giggles… then they streaked back home. Ever notice how people run differently when they’re naked?
Ah yes, and the ride. What a teaser: one day of pedaling though Colorado beauty while dreading the drive east. While Maggie piloted the van, I climbed two passes above 10,000 feet—50 hard miles—riding with a string of cyclists as far as I could see in both directions. The faster ones passed in a steady stream, each asking a question (“Hey, can ya pick up the game on that?”) or offering a comment (“If you see any Iraqi jets, go ahead and shoot ‘em down”). I had fine fantasies of future traffic jams, the smells of sweat and pine replacing those of mouldering hydrocarbons…
The Fourth of July found us in Lake City, visiting old friend Jim Mitchell. Somehow, we ended up riding in the parade.
This is an odd place. Fishing is the raison d’etre; the town is a haven for sportsmen and refugees of Texas heat (“Zitburnyerlahts?” asked one man impenetrably, gesturing at a solar panel). Lake City is far removed from mainstream Colorado life—yet it’s nestled snugly at the confluence of Henson Creek and the Gunnison’s Lake Fork like the quintessential mountain town of everyone’s fantasies.
But a 4th of July parade with a trout theme? Floats built like red, white, and blue fish swam down the main street, blaring Americana music through overdriven speakers. Old men waddled along in well-worn waders; kids wore fins. And through it all pedaled the Winnebiko and the Winnebikette, their pilots waving and tooting horns like visiting dignitaries.
Night fireworks started grass blazes on the mountainside, and the crowd cheered. We climbed Uncompahgre and joined the 2.7-mile-high club. And then, reluctantly, we crawled back into the van for a 1,600-mile marathon drive, nonstop, across the Land of Ah’s to the midwest.
I only fell asleep at the wheel once.
As soon as we reached Columbus, the urge to leave struck hard. The feeling took many forms, none more offensive than my brush with local government.
Blue lights in the mirror. My gut quailed like that deeply familiar doctor’s-office feeling from childhood, and I looked around guiltily. (We ARE conditioned, aren’t we?) I pulled over and stepped out to meet him—remembering my 6’4” height and the supposed psychological advantage of talking to a policeman face-to-face.
“Get back in the van!” he barked.
I did as I was told and handed over my driver’s license, while the cop called in his position and my vanity plate (WORDY, of course). Then he appeared at my window, a ticket already partly written. “Too fast?” I asked, scanning the road for a speed limit sign.
“License plate’s expired.”
“I’ve been out of state. The van’s been parked out west—”
“That’s not my problem—it’s your responsibility.”
The ticket was $44; the renewal, $60. I struggled to grasp the relationship between the crime and the punishment, to understand how the color of a sticker could matter in any sense other than the purely aesthetic. Apparently, anything enforceable or traceable is, by government definition, a source of revenue.
You’ll be happy to know that the Wondrous Winnebiko is going to be in the Guinness Book of World Records next year—as “the highest high-tech bike in the world.” This curiously worded distinction is a spinoff of a video we did last week.
The TV show is The Amazing World of Guinness Records, which begins in the fall. After a marathon of telephone tag (itself worthy of distinction) we managed a rendezvous in Akron—in the thick of the national juggling conference. Things of all descriptions parabolized through the air: one fellow juggled a running chain saw and two tomatoes; another managed to keep three 16-pound bowling balls afloat. While waiting for the crew, I began tossing baby socks filled with popcorn… getting advice from the professionals. Nothing can make you feel more clumsy than learning to juggle amidst thousands of accomplished court jesters (setting me up to get hustled a few months later).
In time, I got the hang of it, and now spend odd moments defying gravity and dreaming of the big time—of riding along with Maggie, juggling bananas and tire pumps between us while speed-typing a humor column and threading our way through a maze of broken glass.
Well. This is it. A fragmented time makes for a fragmented tale—but the bikes are packed and we’re out of this hot place in the morning. Columbus has come through once again, succeeding where Palo Alto failed: it rekindled the urge to leave.
Movement, my perennial substitute for solutions, is again my way of life…