“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”
Over a year ago, when our love was only a small, tight bud, Jeff and I hatched a plan. It was a stormy night, maybe, and we had undoubtedly cooked an amazing dinner together in my small apartment. Our backs rested on the soft, squishy arms of my hand-me-down couch, our feet meeting in the middle, interlocking. We shared with each other our hopes and dreams for the coming months, which were then a hazy expanse of unknown. But we shared ideas that were slowly beginning to include each other in a yet-unknown future. At the time, I was rooted in Ashland for at least 16 more months to finish my graduate degree, but adventure burned temptingly in my desk-bound legs. Jeff was in a similar place: eager to see the world outside our small, artsy town. And we knew we both needed to commit to an adventure when the time was right, or it would never happen. So we hatched a plan: put our earthly belongings in storage, pack four panniers between us, perfect the gearing and brake calibration of our touring bikes, and hit the road in June 2017.
You see, there is a network of well-worn roads that has always called both of our names. Researched over the course of many years, traveled by the most adventurous among us, and then ridden again year after year, the Adventure Cycling Association’s Route System is a fantastic resource for cyclists. I had used one section of their Pacific Coast Route in 2014 when I toured from Portland, OR to Port Townsend, WA and was incredibly impressed with how detailed and informative the rip-resistant maps are for cycling vegabonds. Since 2014, I have always been drawn to the multicolored lines that criss-cross the country from coast to coast and border to border. Adventure Cycling has published four complete map sets to travel from the Pacific to the Atlantic and four routes that span America from Canada southward, amongst dozens of other shorter routes. So when Jeff suggested biking across the country after my graduation, which really meant time to relax into little responsibility and a commitment to not committing to my career, I was in. I was hesitant and fearful of the physical, mental, and logistical challenges of course, but I began to warm to the idea as the months went on.
And then the 2016 election happened. Holding each other in the dark, scary new reality that became apparent on November 8th, one thought bubbled to the surface of our thoughts: Who actually lives in America? We were dumbfounded at the election of Donald Trump to our country’s presidency, but within the fear and sadness of the election, a modicum of curiosity emerged as well.
Like a seed, our curiosity began to grow. As the spring wore on, I began to wonder, “What do the back roads and mountains and grasslands of the United States look like?” and “What stories are people wanting to tell us in grocery store aisles of Chinook, MT; Bonesteel, SD; Mondamin, IA; Boonville, NY; or Fairlee, NH?” I wanted to know. So we bought the maps for the Northern Tier Route and Lewis and Clark Bicycle Trail, began sprucing up our bikes, and calling friends and family about staying with them along the way. We were getting ready.
For the first time in almost thirty years, I am beginning to realize how big our country is. We live in a nation that is filled with people like me and people very different from me. People who look different, believe different things, live different lives, make different livelihoods, read different books, and have different conversations. Riding a bicycle opens oneself up to comment- we are, by nature, vulnerable. Riding a bike means that we are entirely exposed to the world and all it offers: wind and rain, vehicle exhaust and fresh forest air, smells of diner food and gas stations, potholes and smooth bike paths, as well as both enlightening and potentially disturbing conversations. I am open to these experiences, ready to accept it all.
Political boundaries are but a formality as one imagines a course of travel. So therefore, on June 19th, we will make our leap. Right now, a pile of tents, camping pots, bike shorts, and empty panniers sit in the corner. But in about two weeks, they will be road-ready, and so will we. Turning our back on Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Accord Climate Agreement, we will traverse the country fossil fuel free. Dismissing Trump’s decision to “review” federally protected National Monuments, we will cycle through some of the best that America has to offer, Edward Abbey-style: San Juan Islands National Monument, Glacier National Park, Teddy Roosevelt National Park, Cuyahoga National Park, Adirondack State Park, and Acadia National Park, amidst other gems we will surely encounter. Over the next four months, we will “Make America Bike Again,” reminding ourselves and the others we encounter that unplugging, clipping in, encouraging dialogue with strangers, and experiencing the beauty of this country are all ways we can explore with new eyes what citizenship of the United States really means to us.
Join us on our adventures here on “In the Midst” as well as on my Instagram feed @katie.bees!