Setting Off for the Gulf of Mexico on a Bike in the Dead of WinterBy Doug Keil
In the winter of 1992, Doug Keil decided to ride a bike to the Gulf of Mexico. He planned to take two months to arrive and one month to get back to Northern Iowa. He slept on the ground seventy-five to eighty nights and slept in motels for another ten to fifteen nights. He burned forty-six and one half candles on the road for heat that winter, January-March. Looking back, he stated that this trek gave him a much deeper knowledge of our culture and the people that inhabit this North American Continent. What follows is an excerpt from the longer story. Copyright 2005.
Late in December I left, starting late in the day. I had all in order. Slowly, the bloated overloaded bike coasted down the farm place hill, south. Temps between 20’s and 30’s, calm winds, roads totally ice covered. Could barely ride at all, heavy folds of fabric strapped on my back, cardboard tube across my upper shoulders, coils of knotted nylon rope crisscrossing my chest over the duck feather coat. Heavy insulated boots sluggishly turning silver cranks. Large amber-colored mittens clutched the handlebars that held a rather ominous looking two-foot-long bolted stick wrapped with leather lace so as to secure a razor-edged machete. How slowly those boots, legs, and cranks turned—the pistons and rods of this strange looking beast.
I must have looked a sight, an animal, a soldier off to war. I was leaping into a cold, dark abyss alone. I was hungry for the gem, the shining virgin jewel of the mystical snowy northlands. In preparation I had conditioned myself to accept the cold, wet and dark. At one point I had even stripped down naked at night with temps in the upper forties, poured cold water on my clothes, wrung them out, put them back on, crawled into a blanket and tried to sleep. I figured I had best learn to face this now, cause later I would surely meet such hellish conditions on the road with no warm place to run to. I wanted deeper knowledge of nature, life or something. It was there, I thought, finally within reach.
Dusk a mere two-miles down the road found me by a corn bin and a slough. A mittened hand quickly yanked out the wooden peg of my winter travel kit. Out of the red bag came the blue tarp and blanket spread on cold ice-capped snow cover, with my large tent flung nearby, unassembled on snow. Sitting there cross-legged, the cornstalks mere skeletons poking through the snow, I could sense the frozen dirt underneath it all. Being dark at five o’clock, the thought of sleeping about fifteen long hours scared me. What if the wind came up with the temps falling to zero degrees? Could I really make it? It dawned on me, the life of summer is truly gone. All living things are either dead, gone, or they have crawled inside of themselves, leaving mere phantoms floating around. Inside I panicked. I gave up, just stashed the stuff in an old shed, and quickly pedaled home in utter defeat.
It wasn’t until late morning, New Year’s Day that I tried again. Somehow from the confines of a warm, friendly building, talking to a friend, I finally found the courage to do it! I just blacked out my mind and turned off my feelings. Leaving Thompson, I silently slithered off on this brave or stupid thing. Calm winds, temps between 20-30 degrees, about a foot of snow cover capped with ice. With all my clothes, I felt a bloated soldier. Progress was so very, very slow on these ice-covered roads. Two miles from home I passed the spot where earlier I had failed, only now I was unthinking, unfeeling, a mere mass of flesh.
I had to pay a price for this wild winter trek, alienating family and a community of 600 people. One family member had even threatened to have the law stop me, but, this was my thing. Being in the 30’s, I had the freedom of a single person. That bike, I was married to it. How I loved that tiny machine. We had been from Jersey to California as one, in a perfect union. Now it was simply time for a higher step. Time for something at a deeper level.
Meeting people on the road, it just didn’t register. Surely they were thinking, Why would anyone be riding a bicycle in the dead of winter? But I was thinking, Surely they were trapped in their warm, metal, cocoons. It’s what the prison of winter does to individuals. Cut them off from everything.
Four-thirty afternoon early dusk found me merely fifteen miles from home, south of Garner, Iowa. Got permission from a farmer to camp in his field. He gave me food, one of the few really good meetings in this frozen snowscape. Don’t forget I was this scary-looking animal, probably a convict escaping from something. I quickly assembled my tarp and crammed the blanket and two black bags inside. Got candles burning in the stick-holder as I sat cross-legged under the blanket, turned into an igloo. Those two tiny candles flames at my feet got me warm, warm do you hear? Warm and relaxed without working at it or shivering. I was an eskimo! Such a powerful feeling traveling this simple way in the frozen land.
The second night I camped concealed from the road by piles of crushed rock near naked tree stems. Very pretty that blue tarp, as it glowed from flickering candlelight against a backdrop of white snow, timeless, wild.
Years ago, working at a factory, living in a house, my winter bike ride to work had revealed the snow as pretty beautiful. After a blizzard, it was eye-popping virgin splendor. The colors of a rainbow revealed by prismatic ice crystals, snowflakes whipped up and sculpted by Artic winds into bizarre forms to rival, even outdo, human architecture. It was beautiful here too, but when I woke in the early morning with the ever-present cold dampness underneath me, I wondered what I had gotten myself into, the snow simple becoming a shitty, white, cold, wet crud.
With daylight one more cloudy, dreary day, I sat up cross-legged, pulled the blanket over me, got two flames burning, and just sucked up all the heat I could for half an hour, trying to get the courage to roll up and tie gear on the bike at the worst time of day, exposing myself, losing much body heat. Easily I could see why deer simply wait out storms, holed up to conserve precious calories, which in turn is heat. Leaving the spot, I could see two small melted depressions from body heat in the snow. There were candle wax bits, match sticks and a yellow stain from urine, too. It stirred me deeply—that not many even try to live like this. Not until one hour’s ride had passed did I feel warm or “normal” again.
And so it went on for a full two weeks, just for me to cover the first hundred miles to Ames, Iowa. That heavy duty tent on my back, I decided I didn’t need. I just wanted the extra security. I would start breaking wheel spokes, I realized. I was too overloaded, so I stashed the thing at a friend’s house and rode on.
I never got tired of breathing cold, crisp, clean air, so pure it was stimulating as a drug. Sitting in the blue tarp at night, I was cramped, only had three workable positions to spend fifteen hours in, damp conditions, yet I was warm. I was as a king, do you see it? To the outside world, I was a homeless bum, but I was surviving the awesome dark season with little or nothing. No permanent dwelling with foundation, furnace, no camper or car even. For each cultural thing shed, I was freed at another level. I was as in the tranquil eye of a tornado, watching people around me fight the dark winds of the season. So free, simple and easy this was.
Here in this open prairie, everything was held in the iron jaws of cold, nothing was exempt. All things had crawled inside themselves, even the cries of birds were muffled. The crippling silence made people seem more spirit than flesh. They were as spirits of the mystic north. Things had a hollow ominous sound, the buzz of a chainsaw, the lonely sound of a metal ring banging the top of a flagpole in the frigid air. Even the turning of those cranks, and the tiny “tinkle, tinkle” of little metallic bells on my gray coat, banging on the frame of the bike in time with pumping legs. Winter as a prison, no one exempt. But I was traveling through it all—a timeless human being inching his way through it all. I was a king!