Last August, I rode a bicycle across the country from Belmont to Anacortes, Washington on the Pacific Coast. I left my house at 5AM on July 29 and rode hard every day through Labor Day.
There is absolutely nothing more exhilarating than rolling out in the dark and discovering a new world as the sun rises. And the exhilaration sustained me through hot afternoons of headwinds, hills and sometimes dangerous road conditions. Averaging 85 miles per day, on a rig weighing 90 pounds fully-loaded with camping gear, I was often physically exhausted, but the emotional high never left me and I hope the memory of it never will.
It was, first of all, an athletic challenge. Keeping the legs spinning from dawn to dusk requires some training, but it wasn’t so much my prior training that made a difference, but my prior learning from experience in distance events. That experience gave me better judgment about how much and what to drink to stay hydrated. It also taught me how to keep food down on the move. I really only had one afternoon of bad dehydration — coming over the top of the Rockies, the cool kept me from realizing how water much I was losing. I got back to Belmont without any overall weight change.
It was also an emotional challenge. At times, you just have to follow the line and pray. In North Dakota, there is a lake that is rising slowly and inundating the towns and roads around it. The state is trucking in load after load of boulders from hundreds of miles away to build an elevated highway through the area. The side dumpers streaming by were awfully wide and my route had essentially no shoulder. They were doing 70 and I was doing 12 and I was constantly conscious that if either they made a mistake or I made a mistake, there would be no time to react.
In the oil boom, further west in North Dakota, the truck traffic was even worse. In a one-gas-pump town after the rising lake, a minister and his wife had given me dinner and a blessing — a band of angels to surround me and keep me safe. As the oil tankers and construction trucks roared by on Route 2 west of Minot, those angels and the focus to just follow the line carried me through.
By the time I got to the long lonely climbs to the mountain passes in the Rockies and the Cascades, I was a little stronger physically, but I was also just tougher — I had discovered emotional reserves I didn’t know for sure that I had.
Most of all it was an emotional bonding experience with my country. I was raised to love our flag and to think of myself as an American and I do. But the kindness of dozens of strangers brought me even closer to the country. I just can’t emotionally feel the divide that some people feel between “red” states and “blue” states. Yes, there are big gaps in world view — I was unable to reply to a soldier who explained that he had recently left the army because he felt he could not fight under a President who is a Muslim. But we were friends while we talked as his wife and young kids played tag in the falling light by a lonely lake in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
Taking in the country visually gave me some unease in my economic thinking. As you ride you can see the wealth wax and wane. You can even taste it as your road-stop diet goes from pop-tarts and beef jerky to clean sandwiches at Subway to Portobello mushrooms on locally grown mesclun with finely grated gruyere cheese. You can taste the rugged extractive prosperity of oil drilling. And you can taste the government-subsidized prosperity of hospitals and universities. And if you get invited into a farm-owner’s house, you can taste the traditional prosperity of agriculture. But in between, there is a lot of beef jerky and abandoned infrastructure.
None of this has anything directly to do with being your State Senator, but it is all part of what I now bring to the job.
I’ll be talking more about the trip and sharing some great photographs at an open presentation on Saturday, April 14 from 3-5PM at the First Church in Belmont, 404 Concord Avenue. If you just want see the photographs, you can visit tinyurl.com/bikeamericamap.