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The Metal Cowboy and his Pint-Sized Posse Take On America

An Excerpt from
Joe Kurmaskie's New Book

By Joe Kurmaskie

The Metal Cowboy rides again, this time with his two little boys in tow on a remarkable journey together across the USA via bicycle. We are proud to present the first chapter of Joe Kurmaskie's new book, Momentum is Your Friend: The Metal Cowboy & His Pint-Sized Posse Take on America. The ride begins as such...

Chapter 1

Portland, Oregon

Neighbors stop weeding their flower beds and let hoses spill water down porch steps as we wobble by.

“Feels like a parade,” Enzo calls from the trailer. I can barely hear him at this distance, but I’m glad he’s enjoying himself. 

“We are the parade,” Quinn points out.

Big Steve, an engineer who is never without his smokes, bottled beer or his black convertible with suicide doors - the John F. Kennedy assassination car - stands at the curb shaking his head. He smiles at us through a prodigious cloud of smoke rings.

It’s T minus two hours until lift off and I still have a few bugs to work out, but even this minor victory tastes sweet. I imagine it’s what the Wright Brothers must have savored high on that hill. Granted, we’re going to have to stay aloft for more than a couple hundred feet, but considering that 24 hours earlier our engineering set backs had reached an Apollo 13 rescue scramble, and not a rocket scientist in sight, I feel pretty damn good.

“Your arms look like Popeye,” Quinn says. It really is taking some muscle to steady the rig and solider forward on our pancake flat Blvd. I try to ignore the fact that we aren’t even fully loaded yet. Pannier ballast will trim the wobble and straighten the ride, but add to the overall rolling weight. I’m vindicated regarding a winter regiment of free weights and hours spent wrestling with the basement Blowflex machine - Spanish Inquisition style. 

I wave to the white haired woman on the corner who wears nothing but brown tunics or billowing pastel moo-moos no matter the season. This innocent action almost takes us to the ground. Adrenaline, angle and dumb luck avert a pre-trip disaster. 

Speed seems to level out our ride so I increase it. More reactions from front porches and other pedestrians a blind man could read their expressions.

“Would you look at that?! He thinks the rest of us haven’t dreamed about some foolish jailbreak from the daily grind?
But what sort of man acts upon such things? And with kids in the bargain?!”

I opt to nod instead of wave this time, hoping to hold off a call to child services. If there was more time, I’d stop and explain myself. 

It’s like this; I misspent the better part of my youth on a bicycle, with a career total of 100,000 miles and counting. That includes six coast-to-coast marathons, a 2,000-mile epic across Australia's crimson-red Nullarbor Plain, and up-and-down rollers on both of New Zealand's islands. I've chased ice cream trucks around Baja and pedaled a surfboard to the breakwaters of Jaco, Costa Rica. If a 12-step program for addicts of open-road adventure existed, friends would have tackled me to the ground years ago.

Raised in a community of Tupperware pioneers making damn sure no one would want for anything they couldn’t order from a catalog. This left me insulated, parochial and restless. 

Who wouldn’t wander into traffic?

I did stop rolling long enough to find a full life. But a wife, two boys, three books, and one mortgage later, the dangerous notion that it doesn't have to end in one zip code keeps surfacing.

Still, a meandering, unsupported, 17-state ride from Portland, Oregon, to Washington, DC, at the height of summer, my two sons in tow, Beth lost to us at grad school and the big clock set at 65 days and counting?

Vegas bookies call this one a sucker’s bet, throw open the window and try to mask their grins as they take my money clip. Close friends talk around me in hushed tones. Several have the backbone to come right out and predict I’ll get the whole fiasco hooked together, realize my folly and call it off in the driveway.

Only my wife seems serene. Maybe it’s the thought of all that peace and quiet, but it’s more than that. We’ve witnessed enough of each others lives to know real resolve. 

“You need this,” she says during a rare respite from the chaos around our homestead. “But, if this is about our promise of always trying to stay awake, you do know we were young, foolish and strung out of Springsteen at the time. OK, and only because I know you’ll be the same big hearted, safety freak of a Dad no matter where you are. So, here it is... have fun storming the castle.” 

That went well, considering that my back up plan was nothing more than to say we were heading out for some Snapple, then keep going.

We’re calling this the WWLDD tour. It stands for What Would Lloyd Dobler Do? 

For those who missed the 1980s, or VH1’s I Love The 80’s. Dobler was the working teen’s hero in “Say Anything”, a very smart film starring John Cusack that, despite a few hairstyling missteps, feels contemporary even today. It dealt with love, tax evasion, kickboxing as a career choice, and how to look cool holding up a 40 pound boombox. (Answer: make sure it’s playing Peter Gabriel)

Dobler had it together even though it didn’t look like it. He took chances on things that mattered while wearing a trench coat right through August.

He’ll be our Patron Saint for the duration of the ride. 

I’ve had T-shirts printed up with WWLDD on the front, and Dobler’s four line, star making speech on the back.

Along the way our shirts will elicit responses I expect; “Great Flick!” catch phrases from the movie like “Keymaster!” and the pantomiming of someone holding a boombox while they shout out the chorus to Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”. Other reactions will catch me off guard. I never expected so many thumbs up signs and Amen’s from folks throughout the Biblebelt. They think it’s a variation on What Would Jesus Do? In this case, What Would the Lord Do, or Decide To Do? or What Would The Lord Do, Do?

A sweetheart of a gal behind the meat counter at a country store in Southern Indiana went so far as to ask me, after reading the “I don’t want to sell anything...” quote on the back, if Dobler was some holy man she hadn’t made the acquaintance of yet… maybe on Sunday morning TV?

“As I live and breath,” I said. “But these days, he’s only on cable.”

Most wannabe mavericks looking to instill a bit of rebel yell in their sons would do well to start each morning by teaching them the lyrics, plus hand motions, to songs such as Violent Femmes “Blister In The Sun”, and read aloud from Huck Finn every night. 

I’ve taken this prescription a step further.

Instead of a raft it’s five wheels and so much forged aluminum tubing. Standing in for the Muddy Mississippi is every Blue Highway, back road and occasional farmer’s frontage path ending abruptly in barbed wire, robust cursing and a delicate, multi-staged portage up, over and back onto blacktop. 

While Tom and Huck had the ingenious if not quite literate Jim, Quinn and Enzo have to settle for Papa Joe, clever in a limited sort of parlor game way, chatty to a fault and, for what it’s worth, fully matriculated. 

Those Missouri lads fought racism and a return to share cropping serfdom. We will battle headwinds and the end of their summer vacation. 

Lest you think I lack for loftier goals to leave as a familiar legacy, our plan includes learning, to public performance level if asked, a full catalog of songs, mostly Brit punk, Talking Heads and three part harmony on Bob Marley’s, No Woman No Cry (because there’s nothing more satisfying than really putting your suburban, white boy back into the line, “Oba, Oba serving the hypocrites, mingled with the good people we meet” in a faux Jamaican accent. It’s been known to help heal the hurt when the engine of injustice bears down on your rear wheel. A simple Trenchtown gift from Mr. Marley, which I want my boys to make their own; if only for singing in the shower, or in lieu of slugging a nasty coworker one Tuesday morning 20 years from now.) 

And while I doubt our tales of chain ring rebellion will be banned in libraries and classrooms someday, (couldn’t find myself in better company though) the audacity of our endeavor is obvious. You heard the body pierced man of Colorado. He called us a bold statement. And if that impulse free adrenaline jockey defines me as a radical, I must be completely off the map and I just don’t know it, yet. 

Stupid is as Stupid pedals, Sir!

Regardless, our project doesn’t want for wanderlust, a solid grab at independence, the head clearing simplicity of graceful transportation and enough journalist commitment to make the ghost of Twain tear up a little. Braving first light with my pint-size posse in tow, shaking off the easy pleasures of inertia and the merits of good sense all summer... This is serious windmill tilting territory.

On the face of it, blame falls squarely on an article deadline imposed by a national magazine, but that would be taking the easy way out. 

I’m all about personal responsibility, sometimes. 

To that end, I’ve been up nights assembling a long list of reasons for doing the ride and for doing it now, but here’s one that feels authentic: I've just hit 40, and there's no denying every man's fantasy - no, not that fantasy, the other one - to see if his body, tuned up to it’s current best, will stand or fall, stage a bloody mutiny at the bow of the boat or hold the lines.

In other words, do I still have “It”; the soaring finger roll into the basket while two men guard me, the perfectly executed swan dive for the three meter platform. “It”. 

What we have then is an old-fashioned Texas cage match pitting myself against the easy athleticism I might have treated with arrogance in my 20s. This could get interesting. 

I’ll be pulling 14 feet of traffic-stopping rig: My custom-made 27-gear Rodriguez touring bike, plus four expedition-size Arkel panniers loaded with everything from replacement parts to fishing poles to pots and pans. Quinn’s my copilot, pedaling a Burley tagalong cycle attached to my rear rack; Enzo will lounge in his Chariot trailer, wedged between sleeping bags, bike pumps, and the occasional watermelon. Most days this 250-pound caravan will feel like I'm hauling a Hobie Cat behind me. I draw inspiration from the unsung Sherpas working Everest and New World conquerors weighed down by armor and battle axes. This brand of insanity always gets my blood going. 

Returning safely from our “startle the neighbors” tune up ride, we begin the tedious task of refolding map after map covering the hardwood floor of our living room. More of an accusation than a departure date, the red circle around July 1 stands out from the piles of papers. By pedaling Oregon, Idaho, Montana, a bit of Wyoming, high country Utah, and the length of Colorado, we'll get heart-pounding scenery instead of choking heat; I simply pretend not to notice how many times our planned route crosses the Continental Divide. But highlighting every mile of a proposed route is akin to cartographic masturbation. Once beyond the Big Muddy we’ll improvise our way to the nation's capital.

“We’re bringing the red light saber for you, Dad... cause that’s Darth Vader’s.”

And they say you’re always the hero in your children’s eyes. Losing interstellar laser battles from here to the Atlantic doesn’t bother me as much as what those light sabers weigh.

With a long holiday weekend ahead of her, Beth will be able to pace us out of Oregon, but she’s all about the tough love, agreeing only to cart our front two panniers and some extra grub in the car. 

“It’ll be less of a blow that way,” she notes from the front seat of the Forester, windows down, AC blasting enough to compete with the Coldplay CD. Beth appears to be enjoying my burdens a little too much. I’m reminded of every Florida highway patrolmen who wrote me traffic tickets from a cool, comfortable, reclined position, with the notable exception that I never slept with any of them.

When we finally take our starting positions, the day turns against us. Not by wrath of God, thunderclaps and plague of frog proportions, it’s more subtle and far worse. A thin, hazy summertime cloud cover traps heat and humidity across the length of the Willamette Valley. I soak through my first jersey standing in place. It’s 2 pm, our rig is a few pounds shy of a prairie schooner, and there’s a slight breath of sticky wind coming out of the East. 

“Ready, Dad?” Quinn adjusts his helmet.

Absolutely not! I’d look back but I wouldn’t want to turn to salt or lose my resolve.

“Let’s do it, boys.”

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