This time last summer I was struggling to pedal over mountain passes. I still often reflect on what I learned bicycling across the country.
One observation was that guys are experts, whether they know what they're talking about or not. Sit down at a local bar and ask directions, and the entire line of stools starts speaking up. I got great riding tips and an open door into their lives. I loved it.
In the eastern Washington town of Okanogan, I learned that the 75th annual "Stampede" was coming the next weekend — a wild race in which horses gallop down a steep hill, through deep water, over obstacles and onto the fairgrounds. Every year a couple horses die.
"Hey," one stool asked, "you aren't from PETA, are you?"
In Idaho I watched a Texas Hold 'Em poker tournament while learning that the guy next to me hated Seattle, could not breathe in the city and longed to get back to installing natural gas lines — "the best job in the world."
In Shelby, Mont., I joined two border patrol officers and their wives for drinks and dinner and learned all about the pornography and sex toys the men seized from travelers. I slept that night under the full gun rack of one of the border officers.
Further east I sat with wheat farmers who, to a man, declared me to be nuts for riding a bicycle in that heat.
To escape the heat I once entered a bar in the afternoon. Bad idea. The bartender — a tattooed, tough-looking woman, told me she was leaving her husband that day and asked me to hurry up as she was going to close early. The owner showed up and started arguing with the bartender, demanding that she stay put and run the bar. The owner left when the tattooed bartender threatened to shoot her.
As I got up to leave, the bartender's in-laws were arriving outside, and they weren't happy. I exited quickly.
In Glasgow, Mont., I stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel, sleeping rooms largely used by railroad workers. They were lively talkers and big drinkers.
There and elsewhere, like the rapid booms at the end of fireworks, as the conversation peaked, someone started buying rounds and the beers stacked up in front of us as we all matched the gesture.
In Culbertson, Mont., I met a salesman who sold aerial photos of family farms. He claimed he left a lucrative investment banking job to sell $29 framed photos door to door, saying he made more money this way. He also said he did inspirational speaking, wrote books and took almost every other week off to take his kids camping and be a super dad.
I was having bike trouble, and he offered to take me to a city to get parts if I needed them. That would be plan B. I asked where I could find him the next day. This rich salesman said he was staying in his van at the rest stop.
The people in these bars were fascinating, and their stories were fabulous. But the beer? Horrible!
All they drank was Bud and Bud Light. Whenever the conversation lulled, I told them their beer tasted like piss. And that started another round of stories from the experts.
AL GERHARDSTEIN is a civil rights attorney in Cincinnati. In 2005, he rode his bicycle 4,000 miles from Seattle across the country to Portland, Me.