When I was 13 my family left the high plains of Wyoming and moved to a small town in northern Holland. We went from living in a land so dry that tumbleweeds bounced down the street to a country so wet that canals had been carved through the neighborhoods to drain the rainwater. In Wyoming the dominant color was brown, nothing but snow fell from the sky, and the sun was indomitable. In Holland the dominant color was green, water poured ceaselessly from heaven, and the sun hid atop a mattress of clouds. With fewer than five people per square mile, Wyoming was one of the least populated places on the planet. Holland had 900 people packed into every square mile.
My parents looked upon this year abroad as shock therapy for the soul. My brothers and sisters and I were six white-flour kids from middle America. We left a tract home on the edge of the prairie for a brick duplex, with a thatch roof and a tulip garden, on a cobblestone street. Mom put us directly into Dutch schools. None of us spoke a word of Dutch. The Vietnam War had made Americans unpopular in Europe. We learned how to argue in Dutch in three months, were fluent in six. We learned about Rembrandt and van Gogh, how to play chess and do multilingual crossword puzzles. And we learned how to bicycle.
Not physically, of course—we all knew how to ride—but philosophically. We'd left a cowboy culture in which most people drove pickup trucks and we resurfaced in a land of bicycles.
Everybody rode bikes. The factory workers, the cops, the carpenters, the plumbers, they all wheeled to work, tools protruding from voluminous canvas panniers. The mailman delivered mail by bicycle. The shop owners bicycled to their shops in the rain, umbrellas up, and the farmers bicycled to their fields in yellow slickers and wooden shoes. Our town, Haren, was seven miles from the city of Groningen. Every morning people on our street commuted into Groningen by bicycle. The accountants, the attorneys, the bankers, they all pedaled to work, their black briefcases strapped to their black bikes. Teachers biked to school, and so did the kids.
My brother Steve and I went to a junior high whose bike rack extended the length of the school building and was always chock-full. In Laramie only a couple dozen kids—out of a thousand—rode bikes to school. At our school in Holland kids biked in from all over. One of our best friends was a 13-year-old boy named Jan Bart Busquat, the finest athlete in school. The quickest soccer player, the fastest runner, the strongest cyclist; his thighs were already so well developed that in tight pants he looked like he was wearing jodhpurs. Jan Bart Busquat was a farm boy who lived 12 miles from school. He'd been biking the 24-mile round-trip since he was seven years old.
We lived in Holland for one year and then returned to Wyoming, existentially altered. For all the trauma of leaving, re-entry was even more difficult. We suddenly saw our hometown with a foreigner's eyes. Why were the streets so wide? Why were the cars so big? Why were all these people driving such big cars such short distances? We couldn't believe how many kids were being chauffeured to school by their parents. What with warming up the car and stopping at all the stop signs, it took more time to drive than it did to bike. (It took us seven minutes to ride the mile and a half to our school.) Besides, in a car you missed out on all the puddles and the smell of fall and the taste of snow.
A few years later, Steve and I bought a car for $100, a faded blue Comet date-mobile, but apart from girls we continued to bike everywhere. Which made us very uncool in a Wyoming high school where every boy was saving his bucks for a pickup. Some kids even saw cycling as un-American. Which it is. Americans drive.