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The Baltimore Sun

Journeying into Jerusalem

Baltimore Sun reporter

The Holy Land was a little holier back then. The prospect of a permanent Middle East peace hung heavy in the air like incense.

And so it came to pass in the spring of 2000 that 15 of us bicycled from Cairo to Jerusalem via the Jordan bonus loop: an 18-day, 1,000-mile ride organized by a small adventure-travel company specializing in offbeat destinations.Cycling a lonesome ribbon of road has a way of loosening a person's tongue as sure as half-price drinks or a grand jury subpoena.

After pedaling 20 minutes alongside Tom Van Dyke, a genial, retired accountant from Michigan, I knew that he was battling prostate cancer, had been happily married to "the wife" for 41 years, and for decades dreamed of seeing God's country by bicycle, "following the path the Israelites took."

Van Dyke and I had that conversation one afternoon while cranking through the upper Sinai Desert, fighting the same wicked winds that mussed Moses' hair centuries ago.

"It's amazing," he said to me, "how so many parts of the world look like so many other parts."

Indeed, the high desert of Egypt had a very Arizona ambience: mile upon mile of wide-open nothingness speckled with mesas and buttes and arroyos. It was like cycling through a John Ford western.

Van Dyke was riding, as always, in Bermuda shorts and a polo shirt. Crewcut, meat-and-potato guys from Michigan don't wear form-fitting Lycra.

He also was riding, as always, at the back of the pack, content to chug along in his lower gears at his own leisurely pace.

As a group, we ran the gamut of religious belief, from Wayne (a lay minister) to Colleen (a kind of ecumenical free agent).

Before leaving home, Van Dyke said he carefully read the Book of Exodus, including "all the footnotes." I wasn't even aware the Bible had footnotes, but, then, I haven't opened mine regularly since Sunday school.

Moses spent years wandering the blistered terrain of the Holy Land. It blurred by us in a million pedal strokes and a hundred fleeting images.

Egypt was roadkill camels and an old Bedouin woman covering her face with a shawl as we breezed by on a winding road.

Jordan was devilishly hilly. Some "wadis," or gorges, are 6 miles deep. At one point our support van resembled a crowded clown car at the circus: Six cyclists, including Tom Van Dyke, ran out of gas and wedged themselves inside.

Jordan is politically moderate and Western-centric. But there was an ugly undercurrent, perhaps a harbinger of Muslim discontent that soon would boil over elsewhere.

For four days, children and teenagers pelted us with rocks, sometimes lining both sides of the street as we cycled through their middle-of-nowhere towns.

I remember being thankful there was no Little League baseball in Jordan: If those kids could throw with any degree of accuracy, we'd have been stoned to death.

God bless soccer.

Crossing into Israel was like switching TV channels from a black-and-white to a color movie. Suddenly life took on new ... life. Neon signs. Rock music. Cold beer. Women proudly flashing cleavage.

We stopped at the Pyramids and Mount Sinai, at the rocky ruins of Petra and the doomed outpost of Masada. We bobbed like corks in the Dead Sea. We cycled through the spooky Golan Heights, its bombed-out bunkers and twisted tank wreckage lingering reminders of the Israel's 1973 war with Syria.

But mundane sights often make the most indelible impressions. I cannot shake from my mind this picture of an Arab peddler in Nazareth.

I encountered him outside the Church of the Annunciation - which marks the spot where angels informed Mary that she was going to have a spectacularly unconventional pregnancy.

It was there that the peddler chose to set up his folding table and hawk his wares: bras. Lacy, ooh-la-la, uplifting bras. Ten shekels for the black frilly one. How much, I asked, for that gold lame job? "Twenty shekels," the peddler replied. "Bigger and nicer and stronger and boot-ee-ful, et cetera, mister."

No blasphemy was intended. This was simply street-level capitalism in action. I'm still not sure what's more bizarre: that souvenir bras were being sold so close to a religious shrine or that people were buying them.

A lovely but tortuous mountain road took us from the dust of Jericho to the din of Jerusalem. I was struck by how impossibly compressed Jerusalem looks, like a sentence without any spaces between words; a reaction probably owed to the city's looming so large in my imagination.

Our journey ended at the Western Wall, the click of bicycle cleats on cobblestone commingling with the buzz of murmured prayers. A few months later, the current intifada erupted. Bomb blasts are now background noise.

Seven out of 15 riders completed all 1,020 door-to-door miles. Tom Van Dyke wasn't among them. He did a slow fade after making it across the broiling Sinai Desert, his body winding down like a grandfather clock.

At our last supper together in Jerusalem, he shook his gray head and wearily announced, "I'm hanging up my bike, never to be ridden again."

We thought he was joking. Yet those words proved eerily prophetic. Van Dyke fell asleep on the flight home to Michigan - and never woke up.

Did he underestimate the effects of his cancer treatment and push himself too hard? Or was this a dying man's grand exit strategy: to enjoy one final, fabulous adventure following "the path the Israelites took" to its ultimate conclusion?

The Bible says the weak shall be made strong and the last shall be first. Tom Van Dyke, back-of-the-pack gentleman biker, wound up beating everybody to the top of the highest hill, the one we all must climb sooner or later.

Here's hoping the view was heavenly.

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