Friday, December 31, 2010

Over the Hills

Over the Hills: A Midlife Escape Across America by Bicycle
© 1996 David Lamb
254 pages



Despite a life of front-line journalism in Vietnam and Rwanda, LA Times journalist David Lamb feels as though his lifestyle has become positively sedentary as he approaches middle age. In an attempt to prove to himself that he's capable of great deeds, he decides to travel across the country -- on a touring bike. After cursory preparation, Lamb hits the road with his saddlebags and makes his way across the hills and valleys of the Eastern coast, through the southwestern deserts, and over the Rockies straight to Santa Monica's pier. Since pedestrians and cyclists are barred from the interstates,  Lamb keeps to the backroads, including the venerable Route 66, stopping to chat up local townsfolk on deserted city streets and pedaling for his life to escape from packs of aggressive dogs in farm country.

The trip itself is absent of drama, aside from the dog chases: there are no accidents, no close calls, no miserable slogs through blinding storms. Lamb manages to avoid rain the entire time, the only inclement weather being the 'headwinds' of the plains which slow him down considerably.  His travel log consists of descriptions of the passing landscape, particularly the small towns he beds in, his dealings with the people he meets, and ruminations about life on the road. He adds to this a history of the bicycle, and its role in shaping the United States' social and transportation history.

I enjoy stories about people who hit the open road and go where it takes them, exploring and venturing into the unknown, and Over the Hills was no exception. While Lamb doesn't use his isolation on the road to delve into philosophy and the meaning of life (as did Peter Jenkins in A Walk Across America), I enjoyed his encounters with small-town America all the same, though aside from the 'ordinary kindnesses' the strangers offered there was little good news to be had. Most towns, Lamb wrote, had picked up and moved to interstate exit ramps,  leaving the old communities to rot in abandonment.  More cheery than this was the fascinating history of the bicycle in American culture, which Lamb concludes by detailing how modern cities are attempting to encourage bicycle activity.  Parts of the book are dated ($15-and $20 motel rooms?!), but  it's a fun ride read.

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