Thursday, June 06, 2024

Willard Motley


I began participating in many years ago. One night I was talking with a friend on Ocracoke about her bicycle journey across the United States. I found that absolutely fascinating and wanted to know more. I had many questions in which one was asking where she stayed at night. The answers were fun…campgrounds, cemeteries, churches, friends and folks on This was the first time I had heard about this organization. I immediately looked it up and became a host. It is quite easy, actually. Warmshowers is an organization that helps bicyclists, those traveling for long distances, to have a safe place to camp for the night. Each host offers something different. Some cook supper for the bikers, offer beds, advice, bicycle repair. I offer beds when I can, but I always offer a safe place to camp in my back yard, and a warm shower, of course!

Over the years, I have had many guests from all around the world. Everyone has a different reason do bike across the country. Some want adventure, some bike for a cause, some bike for their gap years between college and working, others just want to see the country from two wheels and not four.

This past week, I had a cyclist stop in for the evening. I had a free room, and he was grateful for that along with a warm shower. By seven in the evening, I was coming in from the garden and offered to order a pizza from Dominoes and would he care to join me? Benjamin was definitely interested, and hungry, so I ordered pizza, and we sat out on the front porch as dusk turned to evening with just the quiet sounds of my neighborhood.

“Okay,” I said, “what is your story?” He began. Benjamin is from Paris, and even with excellent English, his accent was quite strong and quite lovely. He has his PhD in biology and is currently teaching in New York City. I asked him about his bicycle trip. Benjamin became aware of a man, Willard Motley, who biked from Chicago to New York City in 1930. He followed Route 20. Motley graduated high school in 1929 after being editor of his school newspaper. He wanted to go to college and had hopes of attending the University of Wisconsin. However, the depression hit and made it financially impossible. Instead, he had to decide what he wanted to do. He knew he wanted to be a writer, so he decided to take this bike trip to give him something to write about. The year was 1930, and Motley picked up an old bicycle and started out. Route 20 was still in the infant stages and some places were still a gravel road. There were few places to stop for the night. Roosevelt’s CCC program had just begun so even state parks were not in existence. He spent some nights in cemeteries, other nights in churches. When he arrived in Angola, he could not find a place to stay so he knocked on the sheriff’s door and asked for a jail cell for the night. He was granted that and had a safe place to sleep. He kept an intricate diary, so we know he stayed here at the jail and spent time perusing the town.

Every few days his bicycle needed to be welded so he needed to always find a welder in these small towns to help him out. Following his bike tour, he took two road trips to California working as a ranch hand, laborer, shipping clerk, and any job he could take to learn about America. When arriving back home in Chicago he became a writer for the Office of Civil Defense and was a photographer. All of this went into his first and most famous novel, “Knock on Any Door.” This book was so popular that it was made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart.

As Benjamin and I talked about Motley into the late evening, I could only wonder how difficult this was for Motley as he was a gay African American man making these journeys in the 1930. He was determined to be a writer and find something in which to lend his own voice.

The next morning, after breakfast and a fond farewell, I decided to do my own sleuthing about Motley. I love learning about something new, and I love knowing that Willard Motley stopped in our town looking for material to write about in 1930!

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