The German couple was out to see America by bicycle. It was day two of their big adventure, a perfect springtime afternoon. We met by chance on U.S. Highway 180, halfway between Flagstaff, Arizona, and the Grand Canyon.
I was making the 40-mile trip by bicycle back to my eco-shack in the boonies, pulling a single-wheel trailer loaded with groceries. They were outfitted for a month-long ride with stout panniers and lightweight camping gear. We stood astride our bikes by the side of the road, chatting in the sunshine.
The two had flown into Flagstaff the day before and planned to watch the sun set that night on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. “We still have jet lag,” the guy said, “but we can’t wait to see it. This is great.”
A big motorhome swept past, and we all leaned, involuntarily, away from it. I mentioned that the road was far safer at night, when there’s less traffic.
“Oh, we won’t be riding at night,” the woman said. “We’re here to see the West. Forty-four miles so far. What a beautiful road.”
Indeed it is. Route 180 climbs the west flank of the San Francisco Peaks through ponderosa pine forest, tops out in bright-green aspen groves a mile and a half above sea level, then drops 2,000 vertical feet into the high desert.
I asked my new friends what they thought of the traffic. Sharing any pavement with motor vehicles is risky for bicyclists, but Route 180 is truly a death trap — crowded with tourists in a hurry who generally look everywhere except at the road. Shoulders, where they exist, are less than 18 inches wide.
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” the guy said. “I was a little scared by the drivers at first, but now I’m starting to trust them.”
“Well, don’t!” I practically shouted, then reeled out my bike-load of worries onto the formerly blissful travelers. We agreed to ride together for a while, and headed off, single file and way over on the right side of the road, where we belonged.
But the driver of the big Dodge Ram was displeased anyway. He came up fast behind us, stood on the horn, and sped up as he passed us — so closely that if he had hit a pothole and swerved, he would have creamed us. Then he stuck his arm out the window and flipped us the bird.
Welcome to America, I thought, the land of Get Out of My Way.
The Germans were puzzled by the incident. “What just happened?” they asked.
I explained that there are lots of angry people in America. For some reason, the sight of a bicycle on the highway really triggers rage in some drivers. I said that in my years of bike touring I’ve been cursed at, swerved at, and spit at. A beer bottle has been lobbed my way. More than once, a stranger has yelled out the window, “Get a job!”
To my knowledge, there is no statistical link between bicycling and employment status. Maybe there’s some research I don’t know about. But I do have some guesses about where this kind of inexcusable behavior comes from.
Perhaps some of you are thinking, “Well, that driver in the truck was probably just fed up with bicyclists who don’t obey the traffic laws.” Maybe, but even if that were true, the driver’s pointless, threatening display was way out of proportion to any perceived “offense.” And there was no actual offense, by the way: We two-wheelers were following Arizona traffic laws to the letter.
No, that kind of hostility comes, I believe, from deep in a person’s psyche: a disdain for and fear of people who are perceived as different. To some drivers, the bicyclist is the “other,” the one who is different. And difference, for some at least, presents a threat. To these people, the other can’t be trusted, and the other shouldn’t even be here.
That distrust makes no sense, but humans do not always make sense. Despite our undeniable skill at abstract reasoning, we are largely irrational beings, with violent tendencies. Fear of the other just is.
This fear is probably at the root of most of the world’s ailments. It sparks wars, fuels religious persecution, and keeps demagogues in business. In the past, it has led to lynchings, and it leads to unarmed black men being shot in America today.
And on a perfect spring day in Arizona, it could have gotten three bicyclists killed on a highway. Imagine that.
Michael Wolcott is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. Top photo: David Mulder