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The Sites, Sounds and Smells of Americana

A cross-country ride through America’s heartland

By Abigail Thorpe

Photo courtesy of Mel Dick

“When you ride, you see things you’d never see from a car,” explains Mel Dick, who returned from a cross-country bike ride from Sandpoint, Idaho, to Key West, Florida, just a few months ago. In the six months leading up to his trip, Mel road 20 to 75 miles every day to prepare for the grueling 4,000-mile ride that would take just two months.

It was like having a job—only each day instead of heading to the office, he’d jump on his bike for an average of 85 miles through the heartland of America, where he made new friends, connected with old ones, and gained a picture of life in America that inspired, sobered and delighted.

Going into the trip there was some apprehension—after all, he was riding 4,000 to 5,000 miles through rugged mountains, expansive prairies, remote backcountry and along deserted highways entirely solo. Apart from his bike and a trailer he named Bob filled with 60 pounds of supplies to last two days and spare gear, Mel was on his own.

This wasn’t his first cross-country trip, but it was by far one of the most unique. In 2008 he did a 10,000-mile trip cross-country, followed by a 1,500 mile in 2016 and participated on a team that rode 3,000 miles as part of a Race Across America several years ago. But this trip he rode across America during fire season in the west, hurricane season in the south and east, nation-wide political and social upheaval, and a pandemic.

The plan was to ride from Sandpoint through Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, across Kansas, Missouri and Tennessee, and south through Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to Key West, raising a penny a mile for 5,000 miles to benefit the youth services programs of the Sandpoint Rotary Club. Three direct hurricanes as he came into the southeast spurred multiple route changes, taking him directly through the Ozarks and some of the toughest riding he’s ever experienced: relentless hills, steep, long grades, and dangerous blind curves.

The route changes cut his trip to 4,000 miles, and so he walked the remaining 1,000 miles in Key West, determined to reach his goal and fulfill his promise.

The journey was a much different ride during the second half. “The whole thing kind of changed at that point in time to much more getting to know the locals as opposed to meeting other riders on the road,” says Mel.

Because of COVID people had taken to their RVs, campers, bikes and motorcycles to get outside; one of the few remaining activities and travel that still allowed for social distancing. Indoor dining and events may have been canceled throughout Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, but the campsites were full. In Breckenridge, the main street was closed off to traffic, and the bars and restaurants were serving outdoors.

But as he got farther east things were more subdued. Streets were silent and lots of businesses had closed. Those that remained open were operating with to-go orders for food, and many of the hotels and motels remained empty. But the people were generous, open and kind.

It was “the sights, sounds and smells of rural America at its best,” smiles Mel. Communities welcomed him, and in the dearth of food options, convenience stores became a regular haunt. He watched people from all walks of like come and go from what he describes as the “melting pot of America.” Grabbing their coffee and burrito for the day, construction workers picking up bags of ice.

“They’re all walks of life, they're every ethnicity you can imagine, and they’re all getting along very well. It kind of struck me the vast majority of the country really gets along,” reflects Mel. His trip took place as America was experiencing much unrest and the cities were filled with riots, protests and discontent. But mid, rural Americana was a different story from what the news channels portrayed. People were getting along, and everyone was eager to help each other, to be a part of Mel’s journey.

In Missouri, as he was waiting for a shop to tune up his bike, a guy came running in off the street and greeted Mel, asking for a picture together. He was a complete stranger but knew some owners of a small country store Mel had spoken to several days before. The man had recognized Mel’s bike trailer outside the bike shop from what the couple had told him.

Another day in Florida, a guy in line at a convenience store had forgotten his wallet, so Mel covered his $10 purchase. An hour later Mel was at a bike shop to get some work done, and after several hours of working on his bike, the shop told him he didn’t owe a thing. It was a pay-it-forward moment for Mel. “It renewed my faith in how genuine and how real people really are.”

By the end of his journey, Mel had gone 5,000 miles, met strangers who became friends, and raised just over $14,000—more than his initial goal of $10,000. Of the funds raised, $2,500 went to support the Resource Closet at Farmin Stidwell Elementary School, which provides basic necessities to students and families in need. An additional $3,000 of it will provide six $500 scholarships to the Bulldog Resilience initiative at Sandpoint High School, where students create their own project representing what resilience means to them.

Asked if he would do it again, Mel smiles. For him, cycling and exercise is a type of health insurance policy. Health permitting, he plans to do another trip in two and half years when he turns 70, and then another cross-country trip at 80. “With a goal of saying I want to be able to do this when I’m 80, then I know I’ll stay healthy,” he laughs.

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