I made every mistake imaginable; some were beyond imagination. With little cycling experience beyond day rides in hometown Pittsford, or college spins around Boston, I nevertheless prepared for a journey to cover four and a half thousand miles over the course of ten weeks. I would do it, alone.
I bought the wrong bicycle, having become enamored of a cutting edge bike, a Viscount with aluminum frame and "sealed" bearings. That they were sealed only meant that when they failed, they could not be serviced, nor replaced in modest shops in small towns. By the end of the ride, neither pedal could be turned by hand.
Long-distance cycle camping was in its infancy, at least as a popular sport. Few manufacturers offered panniers, an old English variation of the French panier, which means bread basket - saddle bags meant to carry items while draped or attached to a rack. Those companies that carried them were quickly overwhelmed by the increased demand in the run-up to a summer that (officials operating Bikecentennial fervently hoped) would see fifteen thousand cross-country cyclists. When the brand I wanted was sold out until 1977, I bought a different pair. The design flaws inherent in these bags became quickly apparent.
As a cold and rainy Rochester spring unfolded, articles and stories about the approaching Bicentennial celebration filled the airwaves. We were an America still wrestling with the ambiguous end to a long, painful war in faraway Vietnam. President Nixon and his "advisors" had somehow bungled their way onto prime TV, investigated for (and, ultimately brought down by) their involvement in a clownish burglary and ensuing cover up. Yet, down to our souls, we were ready to party.
The grand and the gaudy were everywhere, shouldering their way into the celebratory limelight. The real voice of the season belonged to one man, Charles Kuralt, a reporter for CBS. Chubby and rumpled, balding, jowly - he was "On The Road to '76," traveling in an RV with a bare-bones crew. His voice was at once recognizable, a soft baritone that evidenced no accent, with diction crisp enough to be jovially conversational. What he offeredwas not portraits of the rich or powerful. From a Slate article written by Seth Stevenson:
There's the retired fellow who fixes up old bicycles and doles them out
to the poor children in his neighborhood. The Kentucky hillbilly who
adopted croquet as a hobby and ended up competing against the best
players in the world. The Denver man who heats his home with junk mail.
The South Carolina town that holds a festival every year to fill in its
Kuralt revealed an America made up not of news makers and law breakers, but of ordinary people living common lives in peace. It was (and is) the beauty of our country that the constituent parts are men and women who are as diverse and rich as the land they call home. He reminded us that the blessings of liberty, fought for two hundred years before, allow us to venture forward to find our destiny ourselves, whether at a volunteer fire hall in rural New York, or working in a family restaurant in Rapid City.
Armed with Kuralt's enthusiastic optimism, I accumulated camping and cycling gear, pored over maps and waited for my chance to find the road to '76, and meet people along the way.