Written Spring 2009
On New Years Day (January 1st, 2009) I decided to ride my bicycle across the country. I am several years removed from my optimal physical condition but it seemed a challenging and doable goal. My rough calculation was that it could be done in a month, assuming the USA was approximately 3,000 miles across and that I could train enough to ride 100+ miles daily--comfortably. It has been 15 years since I have done even one century and a moment’s reflection would have recalled that it was not “easy” then. Thirty straight days of riding would be closer to exhausting and grueling than to “challenging” and “adventurous” but people are doing mind boggling athletic feats regularly. I read that someone has rowed solo around the world. Some woman swam across the Atlantic Ocean. A guy from Stockholm biked to Mt. Everest-climbed it-and rode home. Who knows what capabilities may be uncovered with a simple resolution?
I enlisted my son Hardy to drive the Sag Wagon for the trip and encouraged him to find a friend to help. A fraternity brother, Daniel, was game. My long time friend, Ralph, was open to the project and was able to commit to it when his family reunion was postponed a week. I had a simple training program: 20-24 miles Wednesday morning before work as hard as I could go and then 2 long rides as FAR as I could ride on Friday and Sunday throughout the spring. I planned the trip from July 1st to July 31st, requested the Adventure Cycling Association maps, and elected to ride West to East or drive to the West Coast to start. (We live in Alabama so that is not an inconsequential drive). I figured that if I did enough practice centuries then back to back to back days would be feasible.
Why ride across America? It’s been done. It doesn’t prove anything. The fun quotient is arguably lower than a relaxed tour in a desirable locale. My answer, to embrace America suggests a love of the American Idea. But what is that? Does America have a shared project, a cultural goal such as becoming a substantially just, multi-ethnic, environmentally sustainable democracy? E pluribus unum. Or have we given up on “ideals” and are content to chase the Almighty dollar, every man for himself? If our project is Liberty that is different than a project focused on Equality or even one primarily concerned with Justice. All are important but if our embrace of diversity confuses the hierarchy of our principles then we may be content with a lowest common denominator value like Patriotism, an infinitely malleable kind of loyalty.
My own religious impulse has withered and I am most interested in re-kindling and reflecting on the presence of God in these modern times. Darwin and philosophy “killed” him a hundred years ago and we’ve spent a ragged century trying to re-vivify him with a multitude of Great Awakenings or new human “isms”(communism, fascism, national socialism, etc.) proven unsatisfactory. The bike is a reflective medium. Many are the rides where the calm cadences and the glorious scenery locate the soul in a space that can only be described as transcendental. Our current growth paradigm and monetary system are broken. Consider: Population and demographic pressures are pressing in on a majority of societies. Cheap energy has given many of us our own personal genie, converting BTU’s to modern comfort, and it has made us rich beyond all historical measure. But now energy and resources are only getting more expensive. We are funding our enemies and hurting our environment. We know we have to change--but to what? What we have done in the past cannot be comfortably projected into the future and we don’t know a new type of economy that will work for us. I wanted to think about being an American while embracing America on a bike. A prediction: One hundred years from now the bicycle will be more important than the car. Energy could be portioned out in teaspoons not barrels. Greater efficiency could reduce consumption but there is no trend that says productivity gains will be so great as to deliver us. Nuclear may be a bargain with the devil and solar has massive capital costs for batteries and panels that may prove unaffordable. I would like to think though that America can find a role in supporting some rough justice for the entire world rather than seeking to expand its unilateral empire. A bike ride across America is easy by comparison, isn’t it?