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Jay Wilker is one of 200 bicyclists in the Big Ride, a summer-long bike-a-thon sponsored by the American Lung Association to raise public awareness and funding for respiratory health. This letter describes the eighth and final leg in a journey that began in Washington State and ended in the nation's capitol. Writing for World Travelers of America, Jay offers a unique view of America across the handlebars. In his other life, Wilker, 56, is a litigation attorney with Oppenheimer, Wolff and Donnelly, LLP, in New York.

Bicycling Across America - Leg 8 

Hi from Washington, DC . . .

On Saturday, July 29, we began the final, eight-day push on our summer-long journey across America with the 80-mile leg from Sandusky to Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Despite humid and rainy weather, this was one of the best days of the entire trip.

The ride along Lake Erie from Sandusky to Cleveland was a surprise, taking us through one charming port town after another, often by marinas crowded with spectacular sailing yachts. Vermilion and Rocky Creek were particularly memorable.

Nearly twenty years ago, Midge and I chartered a sailboat in the British Virgin Islands that was registered at Rocky Creek, Ohio. I always wondered if there actually was a yacht facility there, and now I saw the answer, right in the middle of the Ohio Riviera.

In Cleveland, several dozen Big Riders converged, as planned, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a modern glass and stainless steel museum reminiscent of I.M. Pei's dramatic entrance to the Louvre. It covers the history of rock and roll, from Blues and Jazz and Hillbilly (e.g., Leadbelly and Louie Armstrong and Carl Perkins) on the first floor, all the way up to Hip-Hop and Rap on the seventh.

I spent most of my time with such groups as the Doors, the Beatles and the Stones in the 60's and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Eagles in the early 70's.

They show a wonderful short video on the Late Greats such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix. One of the most poignant exhibits is on Morrison. He had made a lewd gesture during a show in Miami in the late 60's, and the judge asked his father, a Rear Admiral, to comment on his son's character and to address the issue of whether the offense was likely to be repeated.

The Admiral's letter sums up the huge culture clash of the late 60's between the young and rebellious and the older and more traditional. The Admiral wrote that he had little contact with his son over the prior five years. He said he did not approve of his long hair or life style, but he had to admit to pride in his success even though Jim had chosen a career in music against his father's advice and wishes. He asked the judge to appreciate that whatever his son did he always did well, and he was confident Jim would not be in trouble with the law again. Also in the exhibit were Morrison's will, and an announcement of his death in Paris in 1971.

After that very worthwhile stop, we had a fun lunch on the Cayuga River in the Flats, a restored area of Cleveland filled with neat restaurants and bars. Most people remember when the Cayuga River was so polluted it caught on fire. It's not polluted any more. It is now a recreational river filled with yachts, a picturesque backdrop for our luncheon.

This was the first time on the trip I had a beer at lunch, and definitely the last. Once the spirits wore off, I faced another 40 miles of pedaling.

Cleveland was the only large city that we rode through between Seattle and Washington, D.C. Before we got out of town, we came across the Cleveland Museum, and stopped to see an Impressionist exhibition. About ten of us were still feeling some effects from our festive lunch, and all of us were pretty sopped from the on-again-off-again rain. Other viewers moved to avoid being too near this collection of wet, possibly tipsy creatures in spandex and strange, colorful shoes that clicked loudly on the marble floor as we circled from Renoir to Degas to Manet.

Somewhat sobered up by our confrontation with culture - and with the prospects of our first hills in hundreds of miles - we rode on through Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights, ending the day at Chagrin Falls. This upscale, Yuppie village seemed indifferent to the two hundred cyclists in its midst.

The next day we were out in the country again, on the road to Canfield on the eastern border of Ohio. After a pretty ride through rolling hills and past modest farms, we arrived at the Canfield fair grounds, which were jumping with activity. The main event was a truck pull, a tug of war between giant tractor-trailer cabs.

The crowd clearly considered this among the highest forms of sport, and it promised to a long night at the campsite. Several of us decided we would rather be on the road, especially with thunderclouds on the western horizon. So Mark, Jeff from Milwaukee and Howard and I agreed to ride to the first town in Pennsylvania with a motel, which turned out to be New Castle. This dreary mining town has clearly seen its better days, not at all like New Castle, Wyoming some 1500 miles earlier.

However, while the town itself is bleak, the surrounding hills and valleys are beautiful. This is in the western Appalachians, steep little mountains covered with hardwoods and patches of evergreens. After a good sleep at a Super 8, we headed out early the next morning for a 75 mile ride to Indiana, PA - just about the toughest stretch of cycling of the entire trip.

It was even worse for those who had to start their day from Canfield. For them, it was 110 miles over the steepest, if not the longest climbs we had yet encountered. The narrow, craggy shoulders gave us hardly any wriggle room as huge, 14 wheel coal trucks whizzed by like juggernauts. Like us bikers, these monster trucks climbed slowly and descended fast. Fully loaded eastbound, they struggled up the hills alongside of us and then would descend at speeds of 80 mph to try to get momentum for the next hill. The trucks heading west were empty, but they too contributed to our challenge, often descending at outrageous speeds in the opposite direction as they passed the trucks climbing, forcing the cyclists into the narrowest pathway on the shoulder.

The shoulder is rarely as smooth as the highway, so there's a steady temptation to ride on the road. I bought a rearview mirror that I relied on continuously to maximize my time on the smoother surface. I can tell you there is nothing much more exhilarating -- if that's the right word -- than descending on a twenty pound bike at 35 to 40 mph while being passed by a coal-laden behemoth a few inches away traveling at over twice your speed. The truck drivers were true professionals, and while they often didn't give us much room, they always gave us enough, and by day's end everyone made it safely to our dormitory at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The sweltering rooms made us all wish we were in our tents.

The next day was a repeat of the one before, with relentless steep hills and the same monster trucks. We rode to Hollidaysburg, a charming town nestled in heavily forested mountains just outside Altoona. The Tour de Toona, one of the top cycling events in the United States, was taking place when we arrived. It consists of six "stages" or daily races, ranging from individual time trials to grueling 100-mile team rides over the Pennsylvania hills.

The next two days were one Pennsylvania ridgeline after another. Finally we left the coalfields and the trucks behind.

On the ride southeast toward Maryland, we traded the main highway for scenic, quiet, winding county roads where the hills got even steeper right up to the outskirts of Gettysburg. Here the land returned to rolling hills and lush farms similar to Wisconsin.

The riding for these two days was about the most fun, and most challenging, of the entire trip. The climbs were tough, but they were up spectacular cliff lined mountains and the descents were hair raising, especially on damp roads the condition for our entire ride in Pennsylvania (we didn't see the sun from Sandusky, Ohio to Frederick, MD). A couple of riders with altimeters reported that in our four days across Pennsylvania we rode uphill 24,000 vertical feet, much more climbing than in any four day period in the Rockies.

Gettysburg was a welcome sight after so much work. While many of the riders were too pooped to enjoy the historic wonders of the area, a combination of adrenaline and love of history kicked in and I spent hours riding my bike alone around the battlefield that evening despite the rain. It was thrilling to ride south along the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, up a small but fairly steep hill that defined the far left flank of the Union Army. This location, called Little Round Top, could be the most important battle site of the Civil War. I parked in a bike rack and walked to the edge of the hill.

Beyond the field to the left I could see Seminary Ridge where the Confederate army under General Lee assembled on July 2nd and 3rd, 1863, the last two days of the three-day battle. On top of Little Round Top is a monument to General Gouvenour Warren, of New York, Chief Engineer in General Mead's army, who prevented an almost certain Union defeat. On July 2, 1863, due to an error by one of Mead's corps leaders named General Sickles, Little Round Top had been left undefended. General Warren climbed the hill and saw that Confederate troops were about to capture the hill. From there they would have easily decimated the Union Army spread out on the line I had just ridden. Warren's timely warning allowed Mead to move regiments from New York, Pennsylvania and Maine (and possibly others) onto the hill just in time to stop the Confederate advance. The next day, Lee's army made its famous all-out charge across the open field, but by then the Union line on Cemetery Ridge was well dug in. The attackers were slaughtered, especially General Pickett's Division from Virginia, and the Confederates were soundly defeated. The South never regained the momentum it lost at Gettysburg.

On Friday, August 4, we spent another two hours on the Gettysburg battlefield, before riding the easy 40 miles to Frederick, MD. This time I rode with Charlie from Santa Fe and Ray from Oregon to show them how a New Yorker saved the spectacular, prosperous and contented nation that we had been crossing for the past three thousand miles. I proudly took them to Little Big Top and the statue, explaining General Warren's role in the victory. I don't think they were all that impressed with Warren, but we still had a good time riding around the battlefield looking at some of the hundreds of monuments to the units and heroes on both sides.

After our battlefield tour, we rode south toward Frederick through some of the most pleasant terrain of the entire trip. That afternoon, we camped next to the Frederick Keys minor league baseball stadium where about a dozen of us took in a game against the Kinston, NC Indians. This was a true bit of Americana, if not the most exciting ballgame. The 4,000-seat stadium was near capacity, including many families with small children. The fireworks afterward were an appropriate way to celebrate our last night of camping in tents.

The weather the next day was an equally fitting end to this trip of a lifetime, the first bright and sunny day in a week and a half. We rode the 50 plus miles from Frederick to the Mall at the Lincoln Memorial in a festive mood over rolling hills through gentlemen's farms with Yuppie-sized trophy farmhouses and impeccable barns behind perfect, snow-white split-rail fences.

Early on Saturday morning, the traffic was light and we rode three and even four abreast for miles on end, treasuring our last day, while looking forward to the journey's end. I rode with a fast group to Potomac, MD, where we waited at a Starbucks for the others to catch up. We then continued on into the District of Columbia along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal bicycle path beside the Potomac River. By this time our route was filled with other cyclers as well as strollers, joggers and rollerbladers, all paying no attention to our group of 200 Big Riders.

We reassembled at a checkpoint under the highway at 31st and K Streets in Georgetown, and then rode single file to the Mall led by Phil pulling the Chain of Hope. I never quite rode my bike to the end of the designated route because I stopped to kiss Midge as the group continued on.

For past dispatches from the road, visit www.worldtravelers.org.

Notice: This information is current as of Summer 2000. It is recommended that you contact the numbers, and/or visit the web sites above to determine any changes to the information.