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A close-up of America for 9 weeks

Bill Fortune, my friend and cycling buddy, called one evening last fall with an announcement: "I'm going to ride across the country."

Fortune, a veteran law professor at the University of Kentucky, is phasing into retirement, so he finally had the time to pedal coast-to-coast. At 68, he's in better shape than most people 20 years younger. But he thought that if he was going to make the ride he had long dreamed about, he needed to do it now.

So, in mid-June, Fortune flew to Seattle and met up with two guides and 14 other cyclists, many of whom had retired after careers as a nurse, a banker, a helicopter pilot, a builder, a lumber executive and a physicist.

Their trip was chronicled on a Web site whose name probably summed up the thoughts of many of their friends and relatives: www.crazyguyonabike.com.

After dipping their tires in Puget Sound, the riders set off across the northern United States and Canada toward Portland, Maine. Over the next nine weeks, Fortune said he learned a few things about himself and a lot about his fellow countrymen.

Fortune said he knew he was in for an adventure the first day when the group pedaled out of Seattle. The cyclists met a group of locals on bicycles headed to the summer solstice celebration in the counterculture neighborhood of Fremont. They were wearing body paint — and nothing else.

There were many strange and ordinary sights to come as the group pedaled more than 60 miles a day and spent nights in small-town motels, campgrounds and church basements. Bill called occasionally to update me on his progress, and I got more details from his wife, Beverly, a Herald-Leader colleague.

Of course, there was a lot of beautiful scenery: The peaks of the Cascades and Glacier National Park; the endless prairies of South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming; and the beautiful Erie Canal towns in New York state.

There were famous landmarks such as Mount Rushmore and the Little Bighorn battlefield, where Indian warriors' graves now have marble stones noting that they died "while defending the Cheyenne way of life."

But what impressed Fortune most were the places he never would have stopped to see, and the people he never would have met, had he been driving through in a car.

There was the couple in Waterville, Wash., who bought and renovated the abandoned Lutheran church where they had been married years before. Now it's beautiful again, and the couple rents it as a wedding chapel.

There was the museum in Stanford, Mont., with a vast collection of salt and pepper shakers. Fortune now knows that Buffalo, Wyo., claims to have the world's largest swimming pool, and Huron, S.D., the world's largest statue of a pheasant.

There's a section of the Berlin Wall standing in Rapid City, S.D. And in a museum in Manitowoc, Wis., there's a replica of the biggest thing to ever hit town: a 20-pound chunk of the Russian satellite Sputnik. It landed in the middle of a Manitowoc street on Sept. 5, 1962.

"You see the country in a different way when you're on a bicycle," Fortune said. "If you made the trip in a car, you couldn't see it as slowly and intensely as we saw it."

Fortune marveled at the vast openness of the West as he passed abandoned houses and towns depopulated by a changing economy. Many people had lived in their small towns all their lives, but their children had left in search of jobs and a more exciting lifestyle. He saw human despair on Indian reservations, and noted there was at least one bar in every Western town, no matter how small, and gambling machines in every bar and gas station.

The cyclists agreed that the West ended and the Midwest began when they crossed the Missouri River in eastern South Dakota near the Minnesota border. Gradually, the empty country gave way to tidy farms and farmhouses and well-kept small towns.

The cyclists were invited to a church ice-cream social in one town, a rhubarb festival in another, and a county fair in rural Michigan. They attended Aebleskiver Days in Tyler, Minn., a festival dedicated to a spherical Danish pancake.

The people Fortune met along the way were open, friendly and more broad-minded than he expected.

"They were interested in what you were doing, and they wanted you to be interested in what they were doing," he said. "They wanted to talk about the history of their small town, and its prospects for the future, which often weren't good. And they loved to tell you about something that you don't know anything about."

In South Dakota, Fortune ran into a crew of Kentucky men with R.J. Corman Railroad Group, busy laying track across the prairie. He met a couple from Africa who had traveled throughout the United States looking for a place to settle before they bought a small campground in Waterville, Minn.

He had a long conversation with a woman in Fond du Lac, Wis., about sturgeon spearing. "Her whole family was into sturgeon spearing," he said. "It has to do with cutting a hole in the ice and standing over the hole with a spear and waiting for the sturgeon to swim under your hole."

By the time Fortune had dipped his wheels in the Atlantic Ocean in Maine, his last few ounces of fat had turned to muscle.

A week before his journey ended, he called me from upstate New York so we could make plans for a Louisville-to-Bardstown ride the weekend after he returned home. Even after pedaling 4,100 miles to get a view of America from a small, hard bicycle seat, he was eager to ride more.

"I'll bet you're coming back with legs of steel," I told him.

"I don't know about that," he replied. "But I sure have a butt of iron."

And a new appreciation for small-town America and its people.

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