Cycling across America

Cycling across America

One-time Jersey City boy takes two coast-to-coast bike rides

The United States of America is a very big country.

Yes, of course anyone looking at a map knows that. So does anyone who’s ever driven across it, or even flown across it.

But, Larry Prager says, you don’t really understand how big it is, not viscerally, at any rate, until you try to bike across it.

He’s done it twice. He knows.

Larry, who just turned 63, grew up in Jersey City, the son of German Jewish refugees. His mother, Susan Heyman Prager, got to the United States in 1946, at 26; her parents, who were “petit bourgeois,” her son said, owned a clothing store in Silesia, and didn’t try to get out until after Kristallnacht. They were able to send Susan and another daughter to Sweden; they and their other children were murdered. “By the time my grandparents tried to get out, they couldn’t,” Larry said. “It would be like trying to buy an airline ticket to San Francisco for tomorrow. All the seats were gone.”

Larry’s father, Steven, was born in Bavaria; he and his family — his father was a tobacco broker — left when he was 18, in 1937.

“My parents met at some kind of Jewish event in Jacob Reiss Park,” in Queens, Larry said.

So Larry and his sister, Deborah, grew up with an understanding of history — of time and place.

He went to the College of New Jersey (which then had the less grand name Trenton State College), moved across the country to San Francisco, and began a decades-long career, logically enough, teaching high-school history. He’d always been in good physical shape. “I began biking when I was a kid, like we all did, but then when it became uncool, I stopped. But then in college I began to bike from my off-campus apartment to school.” It was well before cycling caught on. “I was an anomaly,” Larry said. “People always would say to me, ‘Oh! You’re the biker!’”

And “I’ve always been interested in travel,” he added.

So when he retired, at the end of the 2017 school year, he thought “it would be an interesting experience to bike across the United States, for a few reasons. Just to see if I could do it, and to see what it would be like to do it, and to see parts of the United States that I never had seen before.

“The U.S. is so huge! How much of it can you see in one lifetime? I haven’t explored a lot of it. I’m no John Muir,” the Scottish-born American naturalist, writer, and environmentalist who walked through and advocated to preserve much of the wildest parts of the country. “He would take a loaf of bread and a bag of tea and walk around the United States.” But he was inspired by Muir’s adventures.

“I thought of going to Europe, but first there’s the United States,” Larry continued. “It’s an existential thing. I only have so much time left. I could spend all of that time just seeing Montana.

So first last year and then again this year, Larry began his planning. Last year, he and an old friend, Jay Kozak, took three months to bike from coast to coast. Jay, who grew up in Teaneck, cycled to his 50th Teaneck High School reunion. They took a very challenging route, pedaling through the Rockies. This year, Larry took a slightly easier ride — a mere two-month-long jaunt — accompanied by his nephew, Eric Burstyn. They rode from San Diego, California, to Saint Augustine, Florida.

Larry Prager, left, and his nephew, Eric Burstyn, biked from San Diego to Saint Augustine this year.

How do you start preparing for a bike trip like his? “The ACA” — that’s the Adventure Cycling Association — “puts out maps,” Larry said. “They’re very detailed.” You can map a route, according to what you want to see or do, with those details. “There are some stretches with nothing, and they tell you that. You have to prepare for it. You might be going for 70, or 80, or even 90 miles with nothing. For a bicycle, that’s a big deal. You ride on average 10 miles an hour, and when you add in stops for things like going to the bathroom, it might be longer than that. If it’s hilly, it might take longer. You might have to fix a flat — between my nephew and me, on this trip, we had six flats. You also have to add in error time, so if you’re going 70 miles, you have to assume it will take 10 hours.”

The ACA has checklists. When he prepares for a long trip, “first I think about what I need,” Larry said. “And I follow the checklist. I put everything down on the floor, and then I check it off as I put it in.” He knows that if he doesn’t do that meticulously, he’ll make small but annoying errors. He remembers when “I packed and I forgot what I packed, so I had three nail clippers and no toothbrush.” So now he checks his list, and then he takes a photo of that completed list and keeps it on his phone.

“I bring like three sets of clothing,” he said. “I am constantly washing my clothing. It’s lightweight polyester. And I bring a tent and a sleeping bag and a pad.” How much does it weigh? “I guess that my bike weighs about 30 pounds, and so does the weight I usually carry.”

Often his burden also included the food that they’d buy in the last possible store before mercantile civilization ended. “Every gas station has a food mart, and we’d stop at gas stations constantly,” he said.

On the first trip, he and Jay camped out often; on the second one, he and Eric more frequently stayed at motels. Eric preferred them, Larry explained.

“We started off in the desert,” he said. “We saw the wall between Mexico and the United States.” Past that, “the dunes were amazing. You could have filmed ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ there. It’s just sand.”

Eric Burstyn silhouetted on the California dunes.

As always, even in a country as vast and as generally not-Jewish (not anti-Jewish, just not-Jewish, please note) as the United States, there were Jewish interludes.

“When we got to Terre Haute, Indiana, we were staying at a motel, on a road, a major thoroughfare, an ugly road, with a Wendy’s and a Burger King, and I looked on Trip Advisor to see what we could do, and it said there was a Holocaust museum 30 yards away. And I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

They went. It’s called Candles Holocaust Museum and Education Center, and it’s run by Eva Mozes Kor, who had been at Auschwitz. Mengele experimented on her and her sister. She got to Indiana in the early 1960s, and later she founded the museum. “She wasn’t there when we were there, but there was a big hologram of her, and you could ask her questions,” Larry said. “Very simple questions,” he amended. Still, he was awed by it.

He saw an old synagogue in Jefferson City, Missouri — he thinks it’s 19th century — and in Mobile, Alabama.

“I ran into a truck driver who was Jewish,” he said. “His father was Jewish, from Europe, and after his parents separated, his father married an anti-Semitic Polish woman. But this truck driver clung to the religion, and he had a book of Jewish mysticism with him” — it was a copy of the Zoha. (Also, and not so Jewishly, except for the connections between Jews and Italians, at least in New York, “he looked a lot like Al Pacino.”)

Larry encountered a Jewish truck driver who carried the Zohar, a book of mysticism, with him.

Another Jewish story was when Larry and Eric stopped in San Antonio. There is an app called Warmshowers that bikers use for free hospitality; it’s a service they provide to each other because they all know what it’s like to crave running water. “It was going to be Passover,” Larry said. “Eric did Warmshowers, and we found a guy, Nate, in San Antonio, a social worker there.

“Guess what he was doing? Having a Passover seder. He said, ‘You can stay here. You have to help with the seder, because no one else Jewish is going to be there. So we did, and it was freakin’ awesome. It was fantastic.”

Larry and his companions had non-Jewish adventures as well.

“When Jay and I were biking through Nevada last May, there was a ridiculous storm,” he said. “Ice and hail. And sudden. You look up and see a blue sky, and suddenly it’s like someone is taking black ink and throwing it in the sky. It’s coming right at you. The sky behind you is blue and in front it is turning black and the wind is picking up and it’s getting cold. Very cold.

“I have a bell on my bicycle that you click from the side, and all of a sudden my bell was ringing. It was hail, hitting the side of my bell. The hail was coming at me sideways. And all of a sudden it was in the 30s.

“Jay and I got separated. It was really hard biking in this ridiculous weather. He got desperate. There was nothing at all around, and then he saw a farmhouse. He went in, stood by the door, yelled ‘Hello. Hello! Hello!!’ Nobody was there. He stayed by the door.

“And then a woman who must have been five months pregnant must have just come out of the shower. She had a towel around her. She said, ‘Just a second,’ and he stayed by the door. She got dressed. And then her husband came, and eventually they gave Jay a ride to the hotel.

“Jay said he told them, ‘I felt really bad because I scared you.’

“And she said, ‘Don’t worry. I had a gun.’”

Larry has another weather story.

“After Jay and I got hit by this storm, we made it to Austin, Nevada, and we found a motel owned by a woman named Sara. She was 30 years old, she’d been a truck driver, and she was very independent. Jay and I read the weather report, and we saw that it was going to be bad, so although we usually didn’t do that, we stayed for another day, and the next day we pushed onward.

“Nevada is the most mountainous state when you look at the frequency of mountains. It’s a tough state. And once again here come the big clouds, scary as hell. And it is cold again; 30 or maybe 40 degrees. It will be rough.

A house in Mobile’s historic district

“So I look at Jay. I can see that he’s not dressed warmly enough. I don’t know what I would do if he gets hypothermia. So we try to get the tent up. It’s very hard, because it’s so windy, but finally we do, and we’re in it, but it’s just pouring and hailing and it’s scary. Jay goes in the tent and somehow he manages to call his wife from there — it’s unbelievable, he’s been trying and usually he can’t get through, but this time, in the middle of nowhere, in the tent, he gets her. And we say we don’t know how we’ll get out of this.

“And then it clears up a little, and we get out of the tent, and a van pulls up, and a woman rolls down the window and asks me, ‘Are you Larry?’”

He is astounded. How could she possibly know his name?

“And then she says that Sara was concerned about you guys, and she said to look out for you.

“And then they opened the back of the van, and they had a spread of food, chicken salad, chocolate-covered berries. They were Australian, and they had stayed in Sara’s motel, and they looked out for us because she asked them to.”

Larry learned many things about the United States, and about himself, on the trip.

One of the first things he learned is that the country is surprisingly hilly. “Eric and I had been under the mistaken impression that once we had gotten out of San Diego, it would be all downhill from there,” he said. “We were quite mistaken.” Among other places, they found the Texas hill country — so named because it is not particularly flat — a great challenge.

A scene from an old hotel in Van Horn, Texas.

He met people from all over — he is particularly moved by the ambitions of the two Australians who were working to set a world record biking tandem across the world. “They were in their 30s, and they were both very fit, very barrel-chested and bearded. They looked like they were members of Jethro Tull. They said that when they were biking across Russia, they came across a big bear. They said that it just stood and breathed and then walked away. They were freaked.”

The pair had almost completed their tandem trip. They planned to finish in San Francisco.

The ride, Larry said, “made me realize how amazingly beautiful this country is, and how friendly people are.” He rode through neighborhoods that he might have been intimated out of walking through, but he found that the people he passed were friendly.

He rode through black communities in the South, places that were entirely foreign to him, and people’s friendliness felt particularly good there. “It was pretty cool,” he said. He went to museums and saw mythic places like the Alamo and rode on unexpectedly beautiful paths next to urban rivers.

“America is amazing,” he said.

Larry’s not exactly sure what he wants to do next, but he realizes that his love for teaching possibly could be combined with his curiosity and love of travel. “I would like at some point maybe to be a docent or a travel guide,” he said.

But there still are many routes across the United States to explore, and many many more stories to find and tell, before he does that.

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