I turned 16 the year that 5,000 Americans died in Vietnam, and the Beatles sang ‘All You Need is Love’. I was more interested in riding my bike around the Garden of the Gods than in what was going on half a world away. Our family lived in a beautiful, pleasant little valley in Colorado Springs that was insulated from poverty, racial strife and political division that was tearing up my country.
My plan was to ride a bike across America. On my own. Solo. The summer of 1968. I saved up as much money as possible, worked out a detailed plan, and got my parents’ permission to go. Getting my dad to say yes was easy, but Mom worried like all moms about everything that could go wrong, and questioned where she got off track in raising her first son. But freedom was tugging at me, and it was time to go. Robert Kennedy was assassinated the first day of my bike ride across the land he would never lead.
As one mile after another passed, I saw and felt the immensity and pulse of my country. Rain, hail, mud, wind, heat, humidity, bugs and every misery that Mother Nature could inflict was testing my overwhelming need to be free, and every speck of dirt on every road I traveled was stuck to my skin and clothes like a badge of independence.
Pain and hunger were constant, and with every mile that passed, but I was determined never to quit, because nothing would keep me from seeing my nation’s capital. Most nights I camped in the woods or in town parks, but people often offered a room and meal at their house. Newspapers were keeping up with my progress, so hundreds of people waved me along on my ride. In several towns, the local sheriff welcomed me and offered a cell and meal in the county jail. One was in Sedalia, Mo., where I was put up in a cell next to an old guy named Jake. We talked for hours about his life, and I about mine. He kept repeating the same question: Why was I riding across this country and what did I want to find? I told him I wanted to find freedom. His favorite quote was: ‘I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery’, which I thought was ironic since it was first said by Thomas Jefferson and I suspect slavery was in Jake’s family past. He must have left an impression on me, because the next morning as I left, I gave him a compass that I didn’t need any longer.
One thousand nine hundred and seventy five miles later, I rode my battered bike and body into Washington, D.C. The city was indifferent to what I had done — there were no parades or greeting committees, just a $2 a night YMCA. I spent a few days exploring all the monuments, but as much as I looked, there wasn’t freedom to be found in all the places where it was supposed to be. I was 16, and finally saw that freedom was inside of me all along, just waiting to be uncovered by riding across America. I thought that I had done what no one else had done, and went on 50 years thinking that I was the first person to ride a bicycle across America. That is, until I picked up a novel based on two friends from Colorado Springs, Joe Bruce and Lester Atkinson, who rode from Colorado Springs to New York and back in 1916. (4,284 miles, R. L. Greene) I thought that what they had done was epic, but I was also shattered by knowing that my ride in 1968 wasn’t the first. Reading the book took me back to what I had done. It was like riding with Joe and Lester on their trip, and I felt the same freedom and challenges they faced. On my ride, as I suspect Joe and Lester had, it was as if the people I met across this country were woven together with the thread of our journey,
When Joe and Lester rode across the continent in 1916, we were on the edge of WWI, and lost over 100,000 Americans in Europe in the name of freedom. Fifty years later when I rode across the country, we were again at war, and Americans were again dying. Then another 50 years later, Russia had invaded Ukraine, killing children that will never be able to experience the freedom that their new democracy is trying desperately to save, and that makes me concerned about my country. I wonder if Americans still understand what freedom is? Have we taken it for granted? Or do we assume that politicians in our country would never erode our liberty? Do we as Americans value freedom enough to fight like the Ukrainians are now against Russia? I hope that we have the courage to protect not only our freedom, but to fight those who would take it from anyone else.
Which leads me back to 1968. When I got back home from my ride to Washington, I received a package from the Sedalia sheriff. In it was my old compass, and a letter from the old man Jake. He wrote “I hope you found the freedom you were looking for, but I still think you are crazy. I can’t wait to get free of this jail and to use this new compass… as it don’t work so well in here. I got the clothes on my back, $5.00 of county money, and will be free as you are and singin’ like a bird when I walk out into the sunshine, now that I can find my way.”
The sheriff told me in his letter that Jake died in jail and wanted me to have the letter and compass back. I have carried his hope for freedom ever since.
Mike Esch is a retired architectural engineer/designer, and a professional artist for 45 years.