A Cyclist’s Reflection on a Ride across the Country
On June 2, three friends – Ben, Sam, and myself – set out to tour the country by bicycle from Washington, D.C to Washington State, Seattle; East Coast to West Coast;
We were wildly unprepared. We had packed the night prior. We had no physical maps charting our journey. The first 500 miles of our route from D.C. to Pittsburgh was based on second-hand knowledge of trails connecting the two cities. None of us had
much experience with bicycle touring. We knew how to ride bikes and how to read maps, and figured the rest would just be a matter of synthesizing the two concepts. Easy.
But in the first 15 minutes Ben had forgotten his cell phone. In 30 minutes we had gotten lost after taking a wrong turn to the C&O Canal Trail. In the next 45 minutes Ben had a flat tire, and Sam’s patch kit proved ineffective at mending it.
In the next week Ben would lose his wallet, Sam would begin developing Achilles Tendonitis, and I would have a concussion and a bloody shoulder from a 20-mile-an-hour crash.
At that point it was clear the journey would not be as smooth as expected. But like any journey from Odysseus to Huck Finn, it yielded life lessons that cannot be truly known until experienced affectively first hand. We finished the trip on Aug 1, and I have since tried to tabulate some of those experiences here: I hope you enjoy reading through them. We were three bikers, rode three thousand miles: here are three points of reflection, on politics, on life, and on home.
A Cyclist’s Reflection: On Politics
Leaving Washington D.C. set a mental agenda for observing our country: we were starting from the epicenter of partisanship, distortional rhetoric, and divisiveness. This was the city that – as the functional hub of a democracy – was supposed to represent the country around it. We cycled out of D.C. under fire: Republicans were attacking Democrats over the handling of the Bergdahl exchange; both parties were performing flanking maneuvers over the NSA and executive overreach; the left was pushing for EPA climate change regulation and the right was pushing back for intervention in Ukraine.
After about 40 minutes of riding we crossed under the beltway on the C&O Canal Trail, past the political battle lines and into the country that D.C.’s partisan leaders are supposedly representing. But from rural Maryland to inner city Pittsburgh, from Midwest cornfields to suburban Tacoma, and from sea to shining sea, the constituents did not reflect the divisiveness of Washington.
Universally, we witnessed people just trying to get by, living their lives, and supporting their families. In both blue Iowa and red South Dakota, there were farmers attending fields of crops. In blue Ohio and red Montana, there were retirees camping out and playing cards. In rural Indiana, a middle-aged woman stopped to ask to pray for us, and in a bar in Portland a young man bought us a round of drinks – different forms of well wishing but ultimately the same in its good will. In a trailer park in Illinois, an old man on a tractor offered us shelter from a tornado, and in suburban Tacoma a family opened their home to us as rain poured down – different settings, different political colors, but ultimately the same kindness and hospitality.
This is not to say there weren’t stark divides. Our country is wildly culturally diverse. Nowhere was it more visible than Washington state, where the Cascade Mountains split the state in two: the dry, arid, crop-growing east (and right-leaning voters) was delineated from the wet, green, service-based coast (and left-leaning voters). The division was tangible. But at no point did the roads we travelled on change color from red to blue. At no point did we feel the vitriol, polarization, or divisiveness political pundits spew forth in D.C. and on CNN.
I wonder what would have happened if John Boehner could have ridden with us through deep blue Seattle? What if Nancy Pelosi had ridden through bright red rural Idaho? What if politicians knew each other’s constituents, and not just their leaders? Maybe it wouldn’t do much – but to humanize our politics would mean seeing the country as more than a binary colored map, and perhaps bring sense to our national debates. As Pico Iyer wrote in “Why We Travel”: “the first lesson we learn on the road, whether we like it or not, is how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal.” Amen.
A Cyclist’s Reflection: On Life
My experience with bike riding is from racing. I competed in triathlons in college, won my age group at a few races, and completed an IronMan. Every time I get on a bike, adrenaline sets in. I methodically calculate the calories, ounces of water, and milligrams of caffeine I take in. I push my legs until they burn, and up the tempo until my lungs do too. Runners reading this can empathize – whether you’ve run a 5K or a marathon you know this racer’s mentality. It is focused, engaged, aggressive, and goal-oriented. You hear Nike slogans blaring in your head: Just Do It! Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body! Don’t Stop ‘Till You Drop! In your head you’re a champion, a winner. You set your goals, and you accomplish them one lap at a time.
Instinctively, I set out from Washington D.C. with this mentality. We had a short 60 days to finish our 3,000-mile journey, which meant we had daily mileage quotas to hit. We needed to take in around 7,000 calories a day to keep our body weight up and avoid fatigue. We needed a liter of electrolyte-spiked water each hour in the June heat. We needed regular stretching to prevent injury, and constant bike maintenance to prevent breakdown. But on day four this racer’s mentality was knocked out of my head, literally.
I was frustrated on day four. We hadn’t hit our mileage quotas. Sam’s Achilles tendons were sore from not having trained appropriately and from not getting his bike properly fitted. Ben’s shoulder and quads were sore from not training sufficiently. I was tired from not doing enough weight-loaded training rides. I hadn’t planned our route out in enough detail, and I had packed too much weight. And so when a bee flew into my helmet at mile 40 for the day, I found the proverbial final straw. I crashed, and the next thing I remember I was on the ground fixing a blown out tire.
After repeatedly asking Ben some simple questions I should have known the answers to, we both realized I had suffered a concussion and was experiencing short-term memory loss. 30 minutes later my memory returned, my shoulder was covered in Neosporin, and the tire was patched. We were on our way (and would finish the day’s 70 mile ride), but I was shaken.
The next day we arrived in Pittsburgh, nestled in a river valley with the gently sloping Alleghany Mountains rising up on all sides. The next day was cloudy, and we spent it relaxing, taking a breather: the weather and the city set a perfect tone for reflection. I realized my race mentality was active in more than just this bike trip. I often get tunnel vision on objectives, benchmarking success academically, professionally, and athletically. I move at a fast pace, achieve a lot, but forget to look down at the roses, much less stop and smell them.
For many of us – not just me – this is deeply embedded in our culture. Modern American society has become overwhelmingly success driven, with success very narrowly defined. We have revved up Weber’s “Protestant Work Ethic” into overdrive with Starbucks double espresso shots in the mornings and Red Bull in the evenings. We work too long each day, too many days each year. On average, we spend a week of time each year stuck in traffic getting to jobs we don’t like for an end we don’t believe in. We try to be super workers, super athletes, and super moms or dads. We try to do everything, and thereby enjoy very little. It is not surprising that the United States is ranked #1 globally for GDP, but 105th for happiness (right after Belarus. Yes there are statistics for this, check the HP Index).
I was guilty of this attitude in biking: I was so concerned about meeting our mileage benchmarks and calorie counts that I forgot to enjoy the view. We spent two days in Pittsburgh, resting. We fell behind our mileage benchmark in that time, but that was okay. I sat and read a book in a quaint brick-walled café. I ate delicious Polish sandwiches and drank amazing craft beers that would not help my cycling performance, but sure were worth it. I ate ice cream, listened to street music, called my family to catch up, and chatted with Ben.
“What is the point of this trip,” he asked me rhetorically, picking up on my pensive attitude. “Is it to be able to say we crossed the country on bikes? No. You have quite a long list of very impressive athletic accomplishments, but I don’t think this is supposed to be one of them. This is about seeing the country. It’s about meeting people and experiencing places. It’s about spending time reflecting with friends. Maybe we don’t make it all the way, but that’s okay.” He was absolutely right. And on a deeper level than I think he realized at the time.
When we live our lives day to day it is important to check our mentality: are we in race mentality, striving to achieve a laundry list of objectives, or are we in an easy cruise mentality? Are we enjoying our journey, coasting from town to town, or speeding between them trying to hit our daily mileage requirements? Perhaps it is important to ask this question before we crash and suffer a concussion.
We left Pittsburgh for Cleveland, rolling a little bit more smoothly. The sky was grey from overcast clouds, but to me the world hadn’t looked so vibrant since we left.
A Cyclist’s Reflection: On Home
The night before leaving Virginia I rode my bike to a cookout with a group of running friends from Metro Run & Walk. It was a wonderful send off, but as I showed them my bike fully loaded I realized it hadn’t occurred to me how strange it was to have all of my belongings for the next two months fit into two backpack-sized bags on either side of my rear wheel. “Where do you keep your shampoo and conditioner?!” someone bawled.
There was a lot more than just shampoo and conditioner I couldn’t pack. I couldn’t take my family and friends. I couldn’t take my bed, or an air conditioner. I couldn’t take the corner café or the bar in Boston I like to relax in from time to time. I couldn’t take good home cooked food, or comfortable cotton clothes, or a TV, or my daily routine. There is an irony about the sensation of “home”: it is the routine and ordinary nature of the place that makes it so wonderful. It is our daily routine, the family we see daily, and the friends we meet with regularly on the weekends, the coffee we prepare each morning, and the dinner we cook each evening that all give “home” its value. But we don’t realize the ordinary, and therefore cannot realize how comforting home is for the exact reason it is so comforting in the first place. It is only by breaking away that we realize the special nature of that place.
For Ben, Sam, and myself, our surrogate “home” during the trip would be three, small waterproof bivy sacks, basically mummy-shaped tents. We each had an inflatable ground pad, a sleeping bag to keep warm (and keep the mosquitos away), and an e-reader for nightly entertainment. We had Fig Newton’s for snacking, and two friends to talk to. It shouldn’t have felt like home, but over the 3,000 miles there were numerous times we actually felt pretty, well, “at home.” And it wasn’t because of our gear, it was because of the people we met along the way, and the company we travelled with.
The first notable feeling of “home” was in Illinois when a tornado struck. We were riding through cornfields, noticing on Google Maps that there wasn’t a campsite anywhere near us: the sky darkened and it became clear a storm was quickly settling in around us. We rode up on a trailer park, and hoped that at worst we’d be allowed to lie low there under a tree until the storm passed. After briefly meeting the “co-manager” of the park, we were allowed to pitch our tents under a patch of trees to wait out the rain. But as the lightning picked up and the wind started pulling at the tent stakes, we began realizing this storm was a little bit more severe than we expected. From a concrete bathhouse across a clearing we saw a group of guys wave us over, and were more than happy to oblige. We took shelter in the men’s bathroom, Ben and I sitting on a stool outside the shower, with Sam watching the sheets of rain through an air vent behind the toilet stall. Awhile passed, but when the storm finally lightened we were able to check whether our tents were still around.
Stepping out of the bathroom we saw an old man, missing most of his teeth, but smiling ear to ear and sitting on a beat up tractor. He had the steering wheel in his left hand and a beer can in his right. “You kids still alive?” He shouted. “Well that was one hellofuh show wun’t! I tell you what, there’s a shed there you can clear out and make yourself at home, and oh! There’s beer in a cooler over there, help yourselves!” We thanked him, but kept our distance as he floored the tractor to clear a fallen limb, spilling beer out onto his lap.
He checked our tents. They were still staked to the ground but completely water logged – the old man’s offer of an empty shed was looking like a perfect place to call “home” for the night. That evening we got to know some of the town community while helping clear fallen limbs. They welcomed us, and we quickly forgot about our wet tents and sleeping bags as we sat around sipping cheap beer, moonshine, and talking about everything from the city folk in Chicago up north to the storm damage being reported by the little towns all around us. The locals told us funny stories, and we made them laugh with the “insanity” of our bike trip. We were comfortable, in every sense of the word.
There were these kinds of moments everywhere. There was the couple in Sandpoint, Idaho we met on a community moonlight bike ride that showed us the town and allowed us to pitch our tents right in their backyard because we had nowhere else to stay. There was the old hired hand in the central Montana plains that made us a pizza when there was no other food stops for 60 miles in any direction. There were the old retired women playing bridge in Hicksville, Ohio, who bought us lunch and shared the history of their town just as we were starting to get the feeling that we no longer knew at all where we were. There was the restaurant owner and wait staff in Tonasket, Washington who let us rest on their deck for two days, pitching our tents behind the restaurant, and sending along friendly hospitality as we waited for raging forest fires in the surrounding woods to be put out.
There were Ben’s aunt, uncle, and cousin in Seattle who took in three sweaty, tired, and hungry bikers, making us all feel like family too. There was also Ben’s co-worker in Portland, who made the city that flaunts its weirdness feel homey and welcoming. And there were the three of us friends, carrying on running jokes and lending support from the wilds of the Appalachian mountains to the middle of nowhere in the Cascades.
We realized a “home” is not built by brick, glass, and mortar but by an attitude generated from everyone living in it. It is a sense of belonging. It is a sense of security from the elements, but also from alienation and isolation. We thank everyone who built this feeling of home for us wherever we went.
My home is beyond place and name. It is with the beloved, in a space beyond space. I embrace all and am part of all.
~Jelaluddin Rumi, 1207 – 1273 AD
Some Last Thoughts
David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005. I think the speech went viral because it touched a nerve in the modern American psyche, and I think has something to say about this bike trip. The speech began:
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’
If at this moment you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish: please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.
The idea for the bike trip was formed about six years ago, as a wild dream shared between Ben and I while sitting beside a fire pit. We went inside and looked at a U.S. map and decided: “Yeah, that country’s not so big, lets do it.” The rest was a matter of timing and opportunity – we didn’t put much more planning into it than we did that first inceptive evening. But that was okay, because the point was never to make the crossing in record-breaking time, or log a certain number of miles, or bragging rights that we had moved on our own steam from coast to coast.
The trip was truly meant as a two-month meditation – a chance to consider where we have been, where we are, and where we are going (in life as well as on the road; as a country; as people; as actors on the world stage). It was a chance to escape from the daily grind of driving a car, going to the super market, being surrounded by the familiar, and to see the world and our lives through a new, ever shifting lens. It was a chance to leave the fish bowl and think about water.
Novelist Tony Hiss reflects on the sensation of travel in his book In Motion, describing “an exhilarating state of mind that travel can evoke, when everything seems suddenly fresh, vivid, intensely interesting, and memorable. Because you focus on what you’re looking at and listening to, Deep Travel is like waking up while already awake; things have a way of seeming emphasized, underlined.”
But he also notes that “travel can sometimes summon this kind of awareness automatically – we can all remember times when the world came alive unexpectedly – but we can also bring it to vibrant life voluntarily,” with our conscious choice to look on the world as constantly changing, novel, colorful amidst daily routine.
We don’t all have the opportunity to leave the fish bowl: we may have fish kids to take to soccer practice, or a fish job at the bubble factory. But we can all take a moment to consider the water we swim in. For the three of us, the bike trip set the perfect stage and established a perfect emotional state for reflecting on water. It made this process easier, but was not necessary. The Tao Te Ching argues:
“Without going outside his door, one understands all that takes place under the sky; without looking out from his window, one sees the Dao of Heaven. The farther that one goes out, the less he knows.
Therefore, the sages got their knowledge without travelling, gave their names to things without seeing them; and accomplished their ends without any purpose of doing so.”
In Wallace’s words, we can understand the water we swim in without ever leaving the bowl. But as a fish that has done some swimming, if you can get out to explore the ocean, please do.