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.