Bicycle speed is a slow speed even if you try and go fast, according to 69-year-old Dawson resident Gary Pichon.
When Pichon set out March 4 for a bike ride across America, he had more on his mind than just the freedom of the open road and the thrill of the ride.
He wanted to observe small town America, compare and contrast his home in the north Georgia mountains to the flat plains of Texas and the dry air of Arizona.
Twenty-four people accompanied Pichon on the guided 3,000-mile ride from San Diego, Calif. to St. Augustine, Fla.
They were on the road for 52 days, traveling through Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.
The youngest participant was 36; the oldest was 72.
Pichon said the United States is really, really big, and startlingly different in terrain and in the people, something he was able to fully observe during his weeks on the road.
“I have been that way in a car or RV before on major roads but never slow enough to absorb what you travel through on back roads,” Pichon said.
It wasn’t a race, Pichon said; each rider went at their own speed, however long it took to ride the 60 or 70 miles required that day to make it to the next stop.
They kept to small towns and back roads. Pichon said he noticed almost all of the people he met along the way were nice: Of the thousands of cars and trucks that passed him, only two came too close.
“I have seen the same pattern in my recent travels no matter what part of the country I am in. Rural America is generally hurting and the city and coastal people don’t even know about it.”Gary Pichon
The speed of the ride allowed Pichon to observe the condition of small town America, in contrast with the larger, more prosperous towns. Pichon said most of the people in his group were not from rural parts of the country, and often commented on the low standard of living they observed.
“I was not surprised,” he said. “I have seen the same pattern in my recent travels no matter what part of the country I am in. Rural America is generally hurting and the city and coastal people don’t even know about it.”
San Diego, Yuma, Tucson, El Paso and St. Augustine and the other larger towns the group rode through were typically prosperous looking, Pichon noted, with big box stores, nice houses, shopping and some factories.
“Almost all the little towns we passed through are full of unoccupied buildings, factories long closed, abandoned homes and all the other signs that those places are now left behind,” Pichon said.
There were other indicators that the rural south is having a hard time, Pichon said.
“Water supply in southwest was a constant theme,” he said. “The small rivers out there are about used completely up. The once mighty Colorado River is now tiny. Most of the farmland is irrigated with electric pumps everywhere and it looks like it is at risk long term. Too many people for the supply.”
The ineffectively-guarded Mexican border was also a cause for concern.
“The Mexican border leaks like a sieve with no screen in the bottom,” Pichon said. “I saw a zillion border patrol officers and we got a tour of one of their headquarters and talked to some of the foot patrol officers. They figure that they stop only about 30 percent of those coming across.”
Pichon also remarked on the state of the roads, as the group rode on interstate highways, state, county and town roads.
Most were in poor shape, he said. And with the amount of time he spent on them, he would know.
“The pavement was potholed, busted, tar snaked and rough,” he said. “Bridges were old and weight limited. Most of our riding was on small county roads and some were not as good as a bad dirt road. Florida had the very best roads by far. Arizona had the worst.”
Pichon said that in the end he is glad to have done the ride while he still could.
“It’s nothing I could have done when I was 35, it’s hard to carve 60 days out of your life when you have bills to pay, kids to raise,” Pichon said. “Crossing the U.S. is a real investment of time and money, but it’s a wonderful experience.”