A few reflections in response to prompts from readers


From my sister Margie: Dad was wondering after reading your blogs why you don’t drive your car between the states and cities and carry your bike in your trunk and then ride in the towns and cities on your bike when you arrive at your destinations. He says you’ve been hitching rides or renting a car and not really meeting people until you get to towns and a car would be faster and safer to travel. What do you think about that?

Well, this is quintessential dad. He’s a very practical man, and I mean that in the best sense of the word. Believe me, I’ve wondered why the hell I’m not driving a number of times myself. How much easier this trip would be if I could follow my whims to stay or go—or follow leads near or far. How nice it would be to know that that I’d always have a roof over my head—even if it was the Jeep’s roof! How easy it would be to get bike parts as needed and not let that slow me down. I appreciate the sentiment, and though some in my family might say that my dad didn’t always do things the easy way when he took on car and home repairs on his own, I understand that was an economic imperative.

From July-December 2007 I’ll be biking across the U.S. This experience will be the basis for book that follows José Martí’s 1891 call in “Our America” for a distinctively American culture, one that embraces rather than denies, the dynamic and organic relationship between place, language, and experience that shapes the American continent. In the blog I’ll document the exchanges I have with people about the Latinoization of the U.S. as well as my own life experiences and thoughts.

From this same dogged determination to do things on his own, I learned a lot from my father about being creative, stubborn, and how to unpack the mystery of fixing all kinds of things that most people would have paid someone else to do. But what I think my dad may have lost sight of is this: I’m riding the bike for numerous reasons—most are more symbolic and metaphorical than practical, though there is a practical element to it. I’m riding the bike to make sure I move slow—to appreciate the journey’s difficulty, not because I’m a masochist, but because I think I will see more even if I see less. What I mean by this is that my experience will be, rather it is, fundamentally different than the experience I would have by car. We are a car culture and I am a product of that. It’s insular nature can bring us together by allowing us to cover great distances at a fast pace, but it can also keep us apart from each other as travel in this metal cocoon with all our creature comforts.

Riding down the backroads and thru towns and cities on a bicycle I experience nature and the road and people and architecture and infrastructure entirely differently. Why does this matter? I’m not sure I have a pat answer for this except to say that it forces me to have a different kind of interaction with the world. It’s not always better, but that may well be the point. The journey is difficult but each day I have gained better appreciation for it—be it the power of the sun or the wind or the limits of my own body. Each day I encounter people in ways that would not do so if I were in a car. When I have had to reach out for help, especially these times, I have experienced goodness and trust and had opportunities to interact with people that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Riding the bike inspires interaction from people I would not otherwise have because they respect me for doing this. They want to know what I’ve experienced, share what knowledge they can of this or that town or what’s up the road and wish me luck on my journey. I find in these small acts of kindness a form of human solidarity. When these conversations go further and I have a chance to tell them what I do for a living and what I’m researching and hope to write, people are always intrigued.

At another level, this is about the physical and mental challenge of doing this—to make me stronger, more fit and capable of countering the many challenges this nation, this world faces—not because I expect to single-handedly offer solutions but the better we are each prepared, the better we are all prepared for the battles that lie ahead. When I am dog tired and want to make this trip easier for myself, I think of the many people who continue to travel across nations and borders by foot in search of food, job, a better life for themselves and their children and I know I have no room to complain because I have the luxury to take such a trip as this. I see getting myself in shape again as a metaphor for the hard work this country needs to do to get itself right. We have become not only heavier but lazier and as whole generations have moved away from the physically laborious work of our ancestors, and I’m talking across cultures here, we have forgotten that there are lots of folks who still do the manual labor of the fields, the services we take for granted, the dirty work. This has become invisible and yet it is an essential part of our social body.

What will it take to get people to really appreciate the role and sacrifices that everyone plays in making the success and well-being of this nation possible? I don’t know. But what I have began to learn from people, particularly people in small towns, is that they do know that the livelihood of their towns depends on an influx of new people. Over and over again I hear from people that these small towns would die if not for the immigrants in the factories, fields, mills and mines. Ironically, it’s the new immigrants who make it possible for some of the elderly of the towns to continue to hold on to their quaint lives—even as these elderly Euro-Americans have to adjust to the existence of Spanish language newspapers and radio, Mexican restaurants and tienditas, Spanish language in the schools and soccer fields. No doubt some resistance, resentment and suspicion exists, but I think many, if not most, see that the future is about change.

Finally, this is a long answer to a question, I know, but part of this is I’m doing it because I should be able to do it. A great number of people, including strangers, have expressed concern for my safety when they hear I’m traveling alone. I’m not doing this to test my bravery or show how tough I am—I am doing it to lay claim to what is rightfully mine—the right to go where I want, when I want, how I want. This doesn’t mean I’m being care less. No, a big part of this is acting responsibly in what I say and how I carry myself. Other people take these trips, why not I? I cannot live my life afraid of the worst possible people or accidents that could happen. To be free means to be able to make choices that will allow me to grow and be a force in the world. In my own small way, in moving across the country at this time I am trying to both be changed and be an agent of change—to educate and be educated—to show others that we have much to learn from each other—to affirm first hand what I already know to be true—that people struggle through anger and injustice to make this a better place—and that this is a collective project which we need to see ourselves mutually invested in.

Also, what do you think about when you are riding your bike or do you listen to music?

I don’t listen to music when I ride because I need to be able to hear cars coming from behind me. I think about the news I’ve read, about my life, where it’s been, where I’m going, about the next mile, the hill right in front of me, my breathing, the next mile marker, the speed I’m going, the aches in my legs, butt, and hands. I think of the land around me and wonder why we don’t have enough food to end world hunger or enough space to house anyone who wants a home. I think about the role the privatization of the land and fences that keep me from getting to a shade tree. I wonder what those huge RVs look like inside and about ice cold drinks. I observe all the road kill—snakes, rabbits, gophers, raccoons, deer, dogs, cats, and other unidentifiable furry things that are now flat and / or decayed.