There are a lot of good beers and good people in little-known watering holes between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. John Greenfield can vouch for that. Greenfield, a Chicago writer and avid bicycle tourist, documents the forty-eight bars he visited and the people he met along a transcontinental bike trip from Oregon to Maine in his new book “Bars Across America: Drinking and Biking from Coast to Coast.”
“It’s an amazing experience to go from sea to shining sea on a bike,” Greenfield says. “I love bicycle touring because it makes daily decisions so simple: you get up and ride and you know along the way you’ll experience good scenery, good food and interesting dive bars.” The drinking establishments are checkpoints and characters alike in “Bars Across America.” They are places to relax with a beer after a seventy-mile biking day, community-gathering spots to strike up conversation with a stranger and a glimpse into the lives of the people who frequent them.
In the book, Greenfield writes, “Drinking and biking go hand in hand.” To be in a bar for Greenfield is to be on a bicycle tour; the bike tourist and the bar patron are always meeting new people and sharing stories. “At points in the trip, I rode with strangers I’d met who were also biking, and it’s like that in bars. A tavern is the type of business where you’re expected to visit with strangers,” he says.
The strangers Greenfield met in the fourteen states he rode through shared with him their stories, their homes and, on one occasion, a spare can of Busch. He writes about a mother and daughter riding a tandem bike eastward toward their home in North Carolina and about a man in a fisherman’s hat biking westward from Nebraska where his wife is pregnant with another man’s baby. In Montana, “a scrappy-looking fellow with muttonchops” lets Greenfield and a riding companion stay the night at his ranch after they sip whiskey in the man’s hot tub.
Ascending the Cascades in Oregon with the Pacific at his side, Greenfield finds the best of bike touring in the country, and he finds the worst of it, crossing Nebraska in 100 degree heat with saddle pains and empty scenery. He experiences RAGBRAI, “a rolling frat party” across Iowa and learns the history of the House of Davis religious commune at a bar in Benton Harbor, Michigan. In Montana, an RV park owner threatens to call the sheriff on Greenfield for no apparent reason, and in New York, he rides a sixty-three-mile day with his 71-year-old father.
“Bars Across America” tells the story of where Greenfield biked, where he lived for day, and where he drank, and it tells the story of where anyone lives and drinks. “All bars serve as community centers,” he says. “Even if a town has a couple hundred people, there will always be a tavern. They all are places where people go to hang out and see people they know.” Some are corporate like the Cheers Greenfield visits in Boston; some have more taxidermy on display than beers on draught like the Shoshoni Winds, an early stop in Prairie City, Oregon; and some serve deep-fried beef testicles like the Quarter Circle Saloon he finds in Kremmling, Colorado.
Release party for “Bars Across America: Drinking and Biking from Coast to Coast” at Cole’s tavern, 2338 North Milwaukee, April 23 at 9pm. At the free event, Greenfield will read from his book and perform cycling-inspired songs on guitar while alternating sets with the Blue Line Riders.