June 24th -- Scituate, MA
Jefferson’s grand Monticello stands on a hillside a few miles south and west of Charlottesville, close enough that he could ride into town on his horse in the three hours he liked to allot himself for daily physical exercise but far enough away that, in his later years when horseback riding had become more of a challenge in his daily routine, he had the trees cut along the site lines toward the growing city so that he could watch the construction of the university he considered one of the only three things for which he wished to be remembered [the other two: authoring the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom].
The front of the house faces southwest onto lawn surrounded by flower beds, in full bloom when we visited – peonies, iris, hollyhock, poppies, lilies, Sweet William. To the south, along a remarkable terrace Jefferson had created beyond a walkway of mulberry trees, is a vegetable garden like no other I have ever seen -- lettuces, kales, peas, cabbage, and lavender, laid out in neatly tended rows below the house.
One enters the house from the northeast, from the back. This is where carriages would have arrived with visitors. It is where we, too, are ushered in. Jefferson was a remarkable man. Evidence of his creative mind and his ingenuity are evident before you ever even cross the threshold – a wind vane on the roof is cleverly connected by a shaft to a directional arrow on the ceiling of the portico; the seven-day clock in the foyer, the one with weights so long that they drape from the walls inside and have holes cut into the floor so that the clock can make it through Friday and Saturday, has a second face on the same porch so that it, too, can be read from outside.
The entrance hall measures maybe 20 by 20. The ceiling is 18 feet high. A balcony runs along one wall. In his day, Jefferson kept this entryway as something of a museum of things that interested him. There is a buffalo hide draped over the balcony rail covered in hieroglyphics that clearly tell a long and elaborate story. One wall displays Native American headdresses and arrows sent back by Lewis and Clark to the man who had commissioned their expedition. There is a case with the bones of some huge animal(s) that to my eye may well have been dinosaurs.
On the wall are two maps. One shows the country as it would have been in 1802, during his first term as President. Kentucky and Virginia begin to take shape, but not along present-day boundaries. The Ohio Valley begins to get filled in as it is explored and mapped. Jefferson has yet to send Lewis and Clark to explore beyond the Alleghenies, which are still considered by many impenetrable. No one, it seems, knows what is out there. Jefferson himself was apparently convinced that there were likely mastodons still roaming on some unexplored primeval plains.
The second map is an earlier one, drawn by Jefferson’s father, who was a surveyor to the Crown. For his services, Jefferson’s father would be given 2,000 acres of Virginia land -- the land his son would inherit and on which he would build this impressive homestead. On this map even less is known of the land beyond the Appalachians. It is simply labeled “The Wild Unknown.”
Kate and I have now crossed east from that “Wild Unknown,” We are back on the eastern seaboard, in familiar territory. Were we to have chosen, we could have ended our trip on the Potomac at Washington D.C. The water there is tidal. It tastes of salt. We had made it to the eastern shore.
But, for any number of reasons, we still wanted to pedal home.
There’s an almost insatiable desire, as a trip like this matures and as with each passing day the landscape starts to look more like home until you find yourself thinking that any day now the view just over the next hill will be of familiar territory, to want to capture something vital about the journey that can be kept, and shared, and remembered. More than anything I want to hold onto this trip. I want to take it apart in all of its complexity and store each part safely in its own retrievable place, where I can find it and have it forever. I want to simmer it down to its delicious essence, add just enough sugar so that any bitter memories lose their bite, then jar it, sealed with paraffin, on a shelf where I can know that it will keep, and on some cold winter morning open it and taste anew the New Mexico desert and the Tennessee rains, and share these things with friends, and remember these things with Kate.
Our photos will serve this purpose to some degree, each with a story to tell, each worth many thousands of words in memories. At some point they stopped being my pictures, or Kate’s – they were ours. We interchanged cameras so frequently that we likely forgot who took what picture, and even when we remembered, it’s as likely as not that one or the other of us was saying “oh, take it from here, the angle’s better,” or “wait a minute until the sun gets out from behind that cloud.”
Our journals, the ones we each have kept privately, will serve this purpose. Kate has re-taught me the wonderful art of journaling. We would sit nights in the tent, each of us with a headlamp, and write about the day. Sometimes we would talk, sometimes not – but we have each kept our own chronicle of this remarkable trip. I’m sure Kate’s is full of captivating descriptions, the ones she’s so good at, of our day-to-day life on the road. Hers is much prettier than mine. Anyone who knows Kate will not be surprised to learn that hers is multi-colored, written in a beautiful, legible hand, or that there are countless things glued in – ticket stubs, pictures cut from brochures – or stuck on. Mine looks more like chicken scratch, but in it I have tried to keep a thoughtful accounting of our days on the road, to which, it should be no surprise, I have added a record of the more private reflections that strike me as we travel.
But beyond these, how is it we can capture this trip? What is it we can jar up?
Different jars should store different things. One I would certainly label “The Exquisite Joy of Being Physically Fit.” The sheer delight in being in top physical condition, in being able to scamper over hills and up mountains with impunity, is, to say the least, invigorating. We are blessed with having good physical health to begin with, I know – and we’re consciously thankful of this most every day. It’s this that has us wanting to raise money for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute – we’d love to think that everyone should be able to delight in being healthy and strong. But it is also true that we’ve worked ourselves into top shape. From this vantage point, much of America seems overweight and unhealthy. I say this delicately because I know the privilege of riding a bicycle across the country to get in shape is a luxury few can afford, one that has required sacrifice on the part of those others supporting us. And yet it seems, to paraphrase Garrision Keillor, we live in a country where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all too many of the adults weigh above average [many way above average].” It was a standard response when striking up a conversation, after the initial shock of finding out what we were up to, for someone to say: “I couldn’t ride a bike to the other end of the road” – and most of the time they were right. My standard retort, “If you were doing this, you could eat anything you wanted to,” always seemed to bring a smile or a chuckle.
Most people know they’re not in good shape, and know they should do something about it. It’s one of the things Kate and I both hope to keep in my mind as a treasure this trip has provided. Our physical health is a gift, one we would hope everyone should have – but, like so many other things, it requires a deliberate devotion to maintain a healthy lifestyle, a devotion most of America seems to be having a tough time maintaining.
Another jar will get labeled “Being Outside/Camping.” It might hold some essence with a taste slightly smoky, like a campfire. Wanting to be outside, not wanting to come in, finding sleeping in a tent preferable to the stale air of a motel room and the stars better entertainment than cable TV – these are things I do not want to forget.
One jar will simply get labeled “Bikes.” In this one I get to preserve the sheer delight of being on a bicycle, of getting to know it intimately, of getting to appreciate its elegant simplicity and efficiency. Leonardo himself could not have concocted a more perfect machine. This one might have a taste still a little tart, sassy -- I get to gloat over the fact that we traveled nearly 4,500 miles without consuming an ounce of gas. It will encourage thinking about alternative technologies, ones that do not deplete or harm the precious natural resources of the planet. It’s a jar worth tasting often.
In it I’ll also throw the panniers and the spare bike parts – the extra chain lengths, the derailleur and brake cables, the spokes we never needed to replace, the inner tubes and the fold-up Kevlar tire. I feel pretty strongly that there is another bike trip in us. We’ll need to know where to find our stuff.
There’ll be a jar that says “Self-Reliance.” It will taste very sweet.
Another I will label “Vicarious Pleasure.” Some of you who’ve followed us on the blog site will know a little of what this will taste like. We found long ago that a trip like this pulls deeply, and not just for us alone. Even before we left, friends were offering us books to read, had stories to tell, of adventures taken and others dreamed of. And it’s not just those we’ve left behind – it’s the many people we’ve met on the road – the people in coffee shops who ask you to repeat yourself: “You’re going where?” – the guy on the side of the road in Tennessee who shouted out: “Where y’all goin’?”, and then: “Oh, man … that’s somethin’.”
It’s been an unexpected and delightful pleasure to find that the blog has allowed us to share our trip so immediately and spontaneously. It’s been really fun. Our blog updates are picture postcards, mass-mailed, for anyone who cares to pick up and read. “Marvelous trip. Wish you were here.” It has become another record of our adventure, a wonderful chance to share what we are experiencing and seeing with others. It’s been one of the real joys and unanticipated pleasures of the trip for me. I didn’t know how important it would become. These sometimes hastily written updates are like the trip itself: we bike somewhere, try to absorb as best we can something of the essence of the place so that we can hold it in our memory, and then we move on. It’s like that with these extemporaneous moments at a computer keyboard – try to get something meaningful down, and then move on. These are our verbal photographs -- frame them as carefully as you can, see if you can capture the light just right, and then snap the picture. It’s time to go.
There were a few, but only a precious few, instances when we were able to take more time composing what we had to say – a night at Marilyn and Larry’s when I sat late into the night with his laptop on the floor, a day at John Stoney’s in Austin, a night at Kate and Tilmer’s. Kate has hated these times – she knows it’s when I go completely overboard. Fortunately for her, mostly we were dashing into a library somewhere with 45 minutes or an hour and a half before they intended to turn off the lights, with days of things to say and a need to work quickly, usually being escorted out the door as the last lights were flicked off by some disgruntled librarian eager to get home to his or her dinner.
I find comfort in accepting that those who have read these narratives have had to be a bit forgiving, knowing that we’re writing on the fly, knowing to expect that things may be misspelled or misrepresented. Sometimes, like early on in Glamis, California, I’ve said things I’ve later regretted. Many times we wish we’d said something differently, or added something else, or not included something we’ve said. Like the trip itself, there is always a desire to revisit something, spend more time with it, not leave it so quickly behind.
It’s not entirely true, at least for me, to say that these updates were completely extemporaneous. On a bike there’s lots of time to think. I would find there were things I couldn’t wait to write down and share – in fact, after three or four days if we hadn’t been able to find a computer somewhere I would begin to feel a need to purge myself of the baggage I was carrying, get it down somewhere, just so I could move on. I’ve turned a phrase for hours in my head, chewed on it until it seemed right. It’s probably a shame few of those things have come out as fine in print as they seemed to taste on the road.
There really is something about riding a bicycle over great distance that is quite difficult to describe.
Already I’m missing the writing. We have friends tell us they’re missing it, too – missing waking up each day to see where we are, to see if there’s a new posting. I guess we’ll go through withdrawal together.
There will surely be another jar in which I try to preserve the memories of what we have seen – the wildlife, the bird life, the wildflowers. I think I’ll simply label it “Beautiful Things.” It’ll need to be a big jar. This is a beautiful country. Into the bottom of this one I’ll drop a few of the dried flowers we’ve pressed from the roadside, the tiny lump of coal from eastern Kentucky and the rock from New Mexico rich with copper ore I carried in my front pouch, the pecans from Texas, the tuft of cotton from an Arizona field.
There’ll be a tiny jar I’ll fill with a bitter concoction of something akin to Marmite that I’ll hide at the back of the shelf. I’ll label it “The Virtues of Spandex,” and only bring it down and admit to enjoying it on rare occasions, to share with my closest intimates. I’ll serve it on toast, with tea, when Graham comes round.
And there’ll be a jar I’ll label “Libraries.” I don’t think I’ll put a lid on this one at all – I’ll keep it open to the air. That seems most fitting. Nothing goes stale or rancid here. The library system in this country is a phenomenal thing, one we take for granted, and all-too-often overlook. But such a thing to appreciate! Kate and I decided in planning our trip that a laptop would be too cumbersome and too fragile, and that we would try to find a way to get into a library somewhere every few days. It’s true that we would find it odd that we would occasionally need to have our ID’s photocopied in order to use a computer, as if we posed some potential threat to national security, or that we would sometimes need to sign forms agreeing to abide by rules governing what we could or could not do on the Internet, or that connections were sometimes slow and once so heavily filtered that we couldn’t even access the blog site [that was the library right next to the town grade school]. But the libraries were always there, and always accommodating. What a remarkable treasure. I intend to let the librarians in Scituate know how much I appreciate them when I return. They’ve followed the journey with us.
Some of these jars I could have begun to put up as the trip began to wind down – they were sweet enough and ripe enough for canning even then. Others would have to wait until the trip was truly over, when the fruit had completely ripened. There’ll be the jar that contains all the vital statistics, the final tallies, the distance traveled and the number of flat tires. Other jars may require time to age, to cure – reflections on America, or on the human spirit. Like a good pinot, or a single malt scotch, it may be years before these things can be truly appreciated.
And then there are some things that simply cannot be preserved in jars.
When I was a kid my brother and sister and I used to catch fireflies on sultry summer nights on my uncle’s farm in Ohio. We’d punch holes in the lid of a peanut butter jar, and shove a fistful of grass in the bottom. I used to think if we got enough fireflies we could read by them, under the covers. It never worked. But I do remember being able to examine them closely, sometimes seemingly for hours, under those bed sheets – count the interval between their flashes, look for the rim of red around each wing that would be visible only in the fluorescent glow of their emitted light. You couldn’t see anything of a firefly outside of the jar. The best you could do, chasing it around the yard, was try to guess where it would be when it sparked again, so you could catch it. Otherwise it was just a flash in the dark night air.
It never worked to try to keep them alive. They didn’t like the grass we thought could be their food. By morning the magic had gone. They seemed a bit listless – and they certainly had no interest in flashing for us during the day. By the next night, if we kept them, most were dead, and the others never seemed to light again.
Try as hard as you might, some things cannot be kept – at least not outside the deep recesses of the human heart.
Adequately describing the privilege of riding a bicycle across the country with my 18-year-old daughter is such a thing.
Long-distance runners talk about finding a “zone” where they can run great distances without pain or suffering. I never found that running, try as hard as I might – my knees always ached, or my breathing was too labored, or I was too hot or cold. But on a bike, over many weeks, Kate and I have both discovered a remarkable “place” we came to know well. When I used to imagine what it would be like to get out of bed and want to do nothing more than get on the bike, it was the thought of physical satisfaction that seemed so obvious. They say Lance Armstrong hates the days off during the Tour de France. His body needs to be on the bike. Kate and I know what that feels like. But even more, it is the mental place we each would begin to go that was so inviting, so desirable. There were many times we would talk to each other as we would ride along, me a few yards behind her, never really side-by-side. We would say a lot to each other. But there were also countless hours we would pedal quietly alone together, contemplative, introspective. It would be entirely false to say we would “zone out.” On the contrary, on a bike all senses become heightened, alive. Smells are intense, birds can be raucous. I would find myself exquisitely sensitive to the dangers around us, almost hyper-alert to the world we would pass through. And at the same time I was able to go to a profoundly contemplative place where, like being under the covers on my uncle’s farm, I could examine fireflies in a jar.
This was the place I was eager to find with each day’s ride. It came easily toward the end, almost immediately.
The monks with whom we stayed at Gethsemane sculpt lives of contemplative silence around purposeful ritual and work. Who knows where this takes them? One of the brothers told me it was here they hoped to catch some faint glimmer of enlightenment, some small hint of the grandeur and enormity of God. For me there is a ritual in the methodical motion of daily riding, and there is [quite pleasurable] work in exertion over a long day – and in the contemplative silence I have found something I had never anticipated finding.
I’ve become convinced that if ever I should have something I truly felt wanted to be said, or if I needed profoundly to consider some thing or another, I would want to do it on a long-distance bike trip. This combination of days of long exercise, fresh air, and raw, almost inexpressible beauty is a recipe that has allowed me some of the clearest thinking I have ever done. This is what it feels like to be truly alive. If this is my road to enlightenment, bring it on.
The challenge of the last days became to examine the most fragile things, the fireflies that would not survive another night without being set free -- the vital things about the trip that might well defy description. I wanted to look them over closely, scrutinize them, peer at them as best I could, before I had to let them go.
The place to do that seemed to be on the bike.
Fragile fireflies. So many of them.
The thing I’m most aching to be able to capture and somehow record is the enormity almost beyond description of riding across the country in my daughter’s wake, of watching her rise to challenge, cope with adversity, struggle with decision-making, all with characteristic grace and cheerfulness. She knows what a pleasure and a privilege this has been for me. I’ve told her so. I am blessed beyond measure.
Good traveling companions are hard to find. Most people know this, even if they don’t admit it. It takes work, and understanding, and compromise – and conversation. Kate and I found our route across America littered with well-intentioned travelers who set out together and are now biking alone or in smaller groups. But the two of us traveled easily together. And we worked at it. We realized, quite early on, that we were in this together. There could be no “me” and Kate, no logic to thinking one of us could do this trip faster or better than the other. We were a unit. Our efforts needed to be devoted to supporting each other as a unit. Those things that might bring stress or tension into the equation needed to be eliminated, demolished, stamped on – instead, we would fight to find those things that would foster unity and common purpose. We’d help hold each other together.
This is for me the most precious firefly, the one whose subtleties I could quite easily forget by tomorrow and by next week declare I had never seen. I’ve tried to look this one up and down, inside and out – fortunately, I found it early and recognized that I had in my hands a pearl of great price, an enormous gift. Privately, I’ve tried to examine the dynamics that made the trip so successful as exhaustively as I could, tried to put into words some of the things I’ll not want to forget as time and distraction begin to etch away at memory, at least gather up the grist for some future milling. And I confess I’m tempted to leave it there, as a private matter. But, for the record – and for those who’ve embraced our ride enthusiastically enough maybe to be interested in these introspections – I’ll risk putting some of my thoughts down here.
When Kate first proposed this trip, and after we all struggled with whether it was possible and decided it was, I began to keep a journal of my thoughts and feelings – well before we ever bought bikes, or considered our specific route, or bought our one-way tickets to the coast. In those first days, I tried to describe what it felt like to have had God swoop down and kiss me on the cheek – to have so many dreams and desires culminate in that one precious moment when my18-year-old daughter asked me to do such a thing as this, and then to have the support and the love of others that could make such a thing possible.
More than a few adults we’ve met along the way have been brought to tears when I have related this story. Some have described their own often unmet dreams and desires; others have cried over loved ones lost, and over opportunity never realized, or sometimes heartbreakingly squandered. We carry in our hearts and in our panniers hopes and dreams and prayers from many people. They are not our burden. I’m convinced, in fact, they lighten our load.
Kate had asked me on this trip – not to shepherd her or get her safely across the country, but to be her partner and traveling companion. And I wanted to honor her request.
But I am, after all, her father … and someone who knows himself to be too many times quite strong-willed and with intractable opinions about how things should be done. And so, despite my best intentions, it doesn’t surprise me in retrospect that we headed out of San Diego with me in the lead, with me carrying the maps, and with Kate trailing dutifully behind. She even made it quite clear this is where she chose to be.
It was a couple months before we would finally talk about why she felt more comfortable trailing behind – months over which our relationship had solidified to the point where we could talk so freely, months over which we’d both had the time to search our own hearts over miles and miles of contemplative pavement, after our mutual respect had grown to the point that such conversations became easy. Kate hadn’t wanted me to be “on her tail,” nudging her ahead in the annoying way someone tail-gating in a car as you drive down a highway gets under your skin, makes you nervous, makes you want either to scream or pull over. She knew that’s the way it would be. She was right. She knew that this was the dynamic that described many father/daughter or parent/child or husband/wife or even friend/friend relationships, and she knew, at that point perhaps only pre-consciously, that it could easily temper or even destroy our trip.
I couldn’t see that … at least not then. And so I spent those first days obliviously in the lead, inching ahead, keeping track of Kate in the rear-view mirror we’d affixed to each bike, eager to be moving, not wanting her to fall too far behind, finding myself sometimes mildly aggravated that she didn’t seem to be keeping up, thinking to myself that at this pace we’d never make it across the country in the time we’d allotted.
Two trip-transforming things happened on that remarkable day in the sand dunes of Glamis a week into the trip. The one we talk about often – our encounter with the Susan, the mother whose blog comment made us aware that in order to meet America we had to accept it on its own terms and not see it through our preconceptions. We both hope Susan is still following our trip.
But the other we’ve only hinted at – it was that afternoon when, for the first time, as cars and trucks and huge RV’s returning home from a day in those dunes began to frighten us by driving too fast on a road too narrow and too rolling for us to feel safe, that we decided Kate should go first, that she would be better not feeling so “alone” on the road and that I would feel better “protecting her flank.” It was logical at the time. We would ride closer together, and cars would have to slow and then pass us together. We rode the rest of that long day like that.
The next day we set out, as usual, with me in the lead. But over the next few days we chose occasionally to switch things around, again for the same reasons. We began to like it that way.
In most any other lifetime, in most any other circumstance, things might have gone as Kate had subconsciously feared. I remember riding close on her heels, nudging her with what she would undoubtedly have begun to experience as psychic taunts, thinking we should be going faster, or harder, concerned for our pace, annoyed. Annoyed. Hard to imagine now … but there it was. And there it would have been -- the stress-promoting undercurrent that has ruined many a good ride.
… but God swooped down and kissed me on the cheek … again.
I’m frankly surprised it happened as easily as it did, that it penetrated so painlessly, that it became so transparent, so obvious, so quickly. I had no business thinking I could do this trip faster, or better, or wiser. I would not be here were it not for my daughter. I’d be home slugging off to work and ensconced in the routine of daily life were it not for her. She proposed this, she orchestrated it, she created the scenario in which this was all possible. She knew what the task was, how far we needed to go, what the challenges would be. She knew them as well as I … which is to say that the “Wild Unknown” was no more apparent to me than it would be to her. She had asked me to accompany her. I needed to relax about this.
Funny how little revelations can become transformative, but there it was. I developed two simple mantras that I would repeat to myself until, after only a few precious days, they became firmly implanted in my psyche. The first: “This kid can do no wrong.” Kate had given me a gift beyond measure, and I needed to appreciate it in my every waking moment. This one came back to haunt me when I confessed it to Kate and afterwards she would remind me of it when the dishes needed to be washed – “Hey, you wouldn’t even be out here if it weren’t for me.” And the second: “Kate will set the pace.”
There was no abrogation of responsibility here, no revocation of decision-making responsibility. But we were in this together. I’d help hold us together. So would she. We’d talk out our decisions. She’d have her responsibilities, and I’d have mine. For starters, she would be the one to set the pace. I would have other responsibilities, as important, as vital. In my mind, I’d begin by being content to do what I could to protect the flank.
By the time we reached Arizona Kate was taking the lead each day, and setting a comfortable pace. By Phoenix she’d taken over the maps and the navigating. By New Mexico I had been almost blissfully transformed into feeling as much protected by as the protector of my daughter. We were in this together. And together we were heading home.
Sometimes, pedaling across miles of unremitting pavement, I would wonder … what would happen if we all began to realize that we were in this together, that we all came to see that there was no “me” or “you” more important than our collective well-being? Now there’s a firefly to examine pretty thoroughly – and then to encourage back out of the jar! Go forth, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, little firefly. Be the light of the world.
Oh, such a trip!
How to protect the flank? How do I keep my daughter from harm’s way, keep her safe?
People have said that the very nature of our adventure was foolhardy, fraught with danger, even irresponsible. I’ve struggled with this – and I believe them wrong. These are people more comfortable assiduously planning each day, anticipating each night’s lodging, avoiding chance encounters and serendipity. Since our return I’ve actually had people say to me: “We didn’t really get the whole picture of what you would be doing. We thought of this as mostly an athletic endeavor. We didn’t really realize that you were going to meet people.” These are the people who would have had us carry weapons on our travels. Do these people carry weapons every day, arm themselves against every encounter on any street corner? Does this make the world a safer or a more dangerous place?
Kate and I set out to see America, and, as we declared early on, to meet America. We recognized from the first day that our choice of riding bicycles was categorically the right one for both purposes – and our chronicles have only underscored time and again that we were right. If riding bicycles across America left us vulnerable to weather or to dangers, it also left us open to the random or deliberate acts of kindness of so many we might not otherwise have ever met. This was the risk we felt well worth taking. We wanted to meet people. We wanted to be invited into their homes, have supper with them, find out how they think. Getting to know one’s neighbors, it seems to us, is much less dangerous than living in isolation and fear of them. Our “weapons” became those things we could employ that might engender trust or invite goodwill – a firm handshake, a solid look in the eye, and a willingness, even an eagerness, to share the excitement we were feeling each day. And we learned to listen – to temper inclination to be judgmental or self-righteous in favor of finding the common ground on which mutual respect and any meaningful dialogue must be based.
This is not to say we are now blithely encouraged to tramp through life oblivious to danger or to the real threats and evil that surround us. But time and again it has been confirmed to us that there is a basic goodness in the human spirit, and that given the chance people are apt to extend themselves in hospitality and kindness even to total strangers.
There are solid life lessons here.
So how do we muster protection against the very real dangers around us? Caution, good judgment and vigilance were of course imperatives, though where these lines are drawn can lead to strident disagreement. One person’s caution may to another be utter recklessness. Always insisting on wearing a bicycle helmet makes little sense to someone who believes you have no business being on a bike in the first place.
But what of ignorance and carelessness in others, the two things of which I found myself always most wary, most watchful, the two things I felt a hundred, a thousand times more likely to cause us ruin than the conscious or intended malice of some evil-doer? Is there protection from the unforeseen?
I’ve never been entirely sure how I feel about prayer. I’m probably not very good at it. So it’s never seemed to me, at least consciously, that prayer should offer any defense against the unanticipated. It seems to me that the God of all Creation would be hard-pressed to be bothered by even my most valid concerns. There’s a lot to attend to in the universe on any given day. The anthropomorphized father-figure who would hold me on his knee like a sometimes benevolent, sometimes punitive Santa Claus and listen to my concerns eager to respond if only my heart is pure has never struck me as either comforting or valid. The Benedictines we visited in Kentucky believe God to be so big and so incomprehensible that even to approach understanding is the task of a devoted lifetime. “The light shines in darkness, but the darkness comprehends it not.” No anthropomorphized father-figure here, nothing to easily wrap your understanding around or to lean on with some smug self-certainty. Have someone shine a bright spotlight into the total darkness Kate and I were allowed to experience in Kentucky’s Mammouth Cave 250 feet below the surface of the earth, a darkness so complete, so thick and dense and quiet as to be unsettling, and then say: “What light? I can’t see a thing.” God, it would seem, has to be that incomprehensible.
And yet it is claimed this God of all creation can hear our appeals, can be petitioned with prayer. Can this possibly be true? Jim Morrison most certainly didn’t think so. My mother-in-law most certainly does. What I know is that over many miles of peddling across this country almost every time I would start thinking I might pray that the headwind that’s been buffeting us in the face all day long would turn to our backs, someone would come peddling over the hill in front of us, tailwind blowing him or her comfortably along, smile on his or her face, going in the exact opposite direction. How audacious to think that my self-centered desires might find an ear with the life-force of the universe, with a very busy God! I find myself thinking that the best I could reasonably expect is to pray: “Thy will be done” [and take on faith in the process that this God has a will and a purpose] … and, if so, how presumptuous to think that I’m doing anything other than placate my own neuroses. God, it seems, would do God’s will with or without my supplications.
On the other hand, not a day on the road went by, riding three or four yards behind her on the road, that I did not consciously will an invisible shield of protection over Kate in front of me. A hundred times each day I have envisioned this bubble in which I would see her floating, still able to feel the wind, still able to hear the birds, but protected by a shell as impermeable as my psychic resources can summon as trucks roar by, as potholes emerge, as rains make the pavement slick. I believe with all my heart that it helps.
I am comforted by the knowledge that there were people, many people, who prayed for us on our journey, and that there were many others who more simply kept us wrapped in their hearts and thoughts. We asked friends to pray for us. I have asked the Trappist brothers in Gethsemane, and the congregation gathered in the basement of the Elk Garden United Methodist Church in Rosedale, Virginia, and the pastor of St. Mary Cathedral in Austin to pray for us. I believe it tempers the shield I employ, hardens it, helps keep us from harm’s way.
At one point in the blog I wrote: “Many times I imagine that we are being carried along on a cushion of kindness. We are being pulled forward, across a whole country, on the many well-wishes of the many who follow us, of family, and friends new and quite old – on prayers and on goodwill. On grace. It is a wonderful feeling.” I still hold that to be true. And, while I don’t naively believe it kept us impervious to pain, or suffering, or danger, I do believe it has helped to keep us safe.
I believe Kate and I have ridden across America on a cushion of kindness blown along by the breath of God, a sweet breath smelling of honeysuckle and magnolia on a damp Mississippi morning. The life force, the one we can breathe, the one that can blow us gently down the road. I believe the cushion is sustained by kindness Kate and I can generate -- for each other, most certainly, but also in the way we sculpt our interactions with others, the way we try to meet others with gestures of openness, with a firm handshake and a solid look in the eye. We’re blessed here, too. We carry little of the baggage others all too often seem to bear, the baggage of suspicion, the memory of abuse, or neglect, of inflicted pain, of suffering – the baggage that would make for a painfully more difficult journey. Suffering can beget and invite suffering as completely as kindness can invite trust. We’ve taken on the almost unwitting task of spreading joy … and it comes back to us in very many ways.
It can’t be denied that by many measures we live in an increasingly dangerous world fueled by the kind of mistrust and misunderstanding that all too often leads to hatred, a world of escalating tensions capable at any moment of erupting into catastrophe. Is it wisdom to entrench oneself more completely in defense of this mistrust or to discover, as Kate and I had done, that our best defense might be to encourage conversation and dialogue, all the while looking for and embracing the good around us?
Here’s what a trip like this can teach! Here’s something to remember! And here’s where prayer, it turns out, makes most sense to me – not the supplicant petitions I still find suspect even if I unconsciously beg them, but prayer as a daily devotion to “practicing the presence of God,” to being ever-reminded of the basic goodness of creation, to finding joy, to affirming life, to extending oneself in the kinds of acts of kindness that have meant so much to us in our travels. This is how to disarm evil. This is how to live.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul and mind -- and love your neighbor as yourself.” Love Goodness with all your heart and mind and soul – and find it in your interactions with others. This, I become convinced, is essential truth. Arm yourself with this weaponry, and the world would change. “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For when I was hungry, you gave me meat; when I was thirsty, you gave me drink, when I was a stranger, you took me in, naked, and clothed me; when I was sick, you visited me; when I was in prison, you came to me … Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brothers, this you have done for me.”
The Creative Goodness that Kate and I found in the mountains and the desert and the songbirds and in a delicious piece of “scrambleberry” pie in the Hillsboro General Store and Café is nowhere more evident than in the interactions we have had with others each day -- in the encounters we create, the ones we deliberately cultivate, and in the ones we stumble into. God is Linda opening her door to us in San Diego. God is our encounter with Larry and Marilyn, with Eric and Sally Ann, with Larry in Rockville. God is the kindness and support we have experienced at home. God is the love in my friend John’s eye when he greeted us in Charlottesville, and again the next morning when we left. God is Gertie and Tammy.
God is what I’ve come to share with my daughter.
And Kate is right about June Curry, who it turns out comes to embody most everything about this trip we could hope to describe – the kindness and generous spirit of giving, the encouragement, the food in her pantry, the welcome mat at the door where we were invited to stay. God, it turns out, is the face of the Cookie Lady.
The final statistics can now be told. We traveled 4,644 miles from the Pacific to the Atlantic. We went through 16 states and the District of Columbia. We were on the road 83 days, riding 73 and taking 10 off, only two of those “off” days for weather, although we cut a few others short to get out of rain or heat. On average we traveled just over 61 miles per day. We rode about 10-12 miles per hour -- though climbing we could easily find ourselves literally at a snail’s pace, and once on a long downhill, I can now confess, I found myself going 37 MPH! Kate has a picture of herself being clocked at 46 MPH … draw your own conclusions. At that rate we’d have been home in a couple weeks!
For the first two weeks we weren’t making much more than about 300 miles per week. The last two weeks we covered over 1,000 miles.
We started and finished the trip at sea level, though some purist may point out that the mean sea level in the Pacific is for esoteric reasons of density and current actually higher than the Atlantic, in which case we rode downhill about 20 cm over 4,500 miles. Our highest climb took us to 8,228 feet in New Mexico.
Wind was a big factor in the trip, but in our experience there is no wisdom whatsoever to the notion that prevailing westerly winds are of any benefit on a west-to-east cross-country bike trip. At 30,000 feet winds may blow across America mostly from the west. At ground level, local conditions will almost invariably prevail.
Over the course of a 3 month trip we of course experienced all kinds of weather. We had snow on day 3, 100-degree heat in Texas, and rain as our near-constant companion through much of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. Still, Kate estimates that we camped out about 85% of the time.
Our bikes performed wonderfully and required no major repairs, in part because of our daily devotion to maintaining them. We each went through two full sets of brake pads, front and back. We had only 7 flat tires between us – well, 7 or 8, depending on whether you count that we needed to repair the same flat twice on the streets of Franklin, Tennessee after we snapped the valve cap off the Presta valve while inflating it the first time. We replaced all four tires in Nashville at just about the 3,000 mile point. They were wearing quite thin. We had no flats after that.
As of this writing we have raised just over $12,000 for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute through the Jimmy Fund and the Pan Mass Challenge. We had hoped to raise considerably more. It must be that we are better bike riders than fund-raisers. We’re still soliciting contributions. You can still help.
We have had the ride of a lifetime. We have seen things, and met people, and grown in ways that we could never have imagined. We have been overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of others. We live in a beautiful country. Thanks for riding along with us.
We’re glad to be home.
… and we’d do it again in a heartbeat.