Monday, July 7, 2008
Epilogue Santa Fe, New Mexico
3,164.5 Total miles
84,428 ft Total climbing
35 Pedaling days
7 rest days
15.1 MPH Average speed
It's been almost two weeks now since we returned home to Santa Fe. I could say I was waiting to write this while assimilating the experience but in truth there was, and remains, so much to do at home. We're still moving in really.
As I interact with people back home I realize how different circumstances were on the road and have formed a couple of theories on why it feels so different from being at home. One lesson I want to remember and apply is that it doesn't have to be so different.
First, there are very few people to whom a rider on a bicycle is threatening. Some bicycle tourers may be perceived as derelict and no doubt some are, but they certainly aren't taking an easy way out and offer little threat. I admit I thought someone touring had to be a bit anti social. Now I know the opposite is true.
Second, there is very little you have, while touring on a bicycle, that other people want. Information is what the majority of people you meet are interested in. Where you're coming from, where you're going, how long you've been traveling, how much longer until you reach your destination, what your route is, how the weather has been where you've already ridden. The motorists and local residents with whom a touring bicyclist crosses paths often lend great assistance at very little personal cost by offering information about a place to eat, a place to sleep, what the coming terrain is like, where a Laundromat can be found, and how the local weather has been. Because of this I don't think people look at the touring cyclist and wonder, or worry about, what the bike rider wants from them. More often than I anticipated the "civilians" look at the cyclist and wonder if they can lend aid to the rider.
Third, when you are riding to benefit others, as in our case raising money for cancer survivors, people don't have the perception of the rider investing their time and effort for personal gain.
Fourth, when a farmer passes you on the way into town, he sees you toiling away in the same heat and humidity he has been working in plowing his fields. The same was true of road workers. They all had a wave and a nod for us. Law enforcement almost always had a wave and a nod for us too. These are people who have some notion of the physical effort the touring cyclist makes and don't spend a lot of time wondering why.
Because of the relatively slow speed at which we move and the lack of physical barriers (doors, windows, engine noise) separating us from the rest of the world, we are closer to the Earth and it's inhabitants, not to mention the reek left behind by some of the inhabitants unfortunate enough to encounter people in their high speed steel boxes with windows.
This physical closeness eliminates one of the principal barriers between people.
At the beginning of our ride I almost felt silly telling people where we were going. I remember day one when we had gone fifteen miles and stopped for lunch. We only had a little over three thousand miles to go. When we told people our destination that day, I think some related the idea more closely to themselves and thought about how it would be to begin such a long ride. As we logged more and more miles people began reacting differently. First with wonder and down the road it became amazement. We heard the word crazy from day one to the final day but with ever-greater wonder. By the time we got to Florida and were within a few days of Saint Augustine it became a little difficult for me to comprehend.
For us it was pretty simple. We set our minds to the expectation of success and spent time seeking solutions, when the situation demanded, rather than waiting around for external assistance. Everybody has this ability. Even the most vulnerable among us can achieve great things with determination and perseverance.
Patience is crucial to good decision making.
During the planning stages and at the outset of our trip I gave thought to human threats we could face. It could be we'd meet up with someone who thought we had something in our bags they wanted. It could have been we were on the wrong stretch when the last of a six pack of Bud was being popped in the cab of a pick-up truck driven by someone paying too little attention to the shoulderless road. While we were on the trip the news reported the killings of a couple of young girls walking on a country road. The investigators, at one point, determined that it must have been a "thrill kill". It's even easier to twitch that wrist a few degrees clockwise on the wheel then to pull a trigger. Just like life, you can't live in the shadow of unknown threats. You can only cower. We chose to live every second aware and perceptive of the amazing world around us.
I have friends who I think would be disappointed to know we were not armed. I have always tended to buy into the notion that violence begets violence and by extension, you can determine the level of force and firepower used against you by using like. Many might say I was being naïve but I would always prefer giving up the cash and credit cards to being involved in a violent and potentially deadly confrontation. If you're the unfortunate one hitchhiking when Ted Bundy drives by it's not a gun you need. It's better timing.
Easily said by someone who hasn't experienced that kind of situation.
The biggest reminder of all is how similar we are as people. I almost used the word lesson in the last sentence rather than reminder. What I think makes it a reminder is how most of us knew this as children. It's not until you realize other people have things you want, and vice versa, that you begin calculating your interaction with them.
More than anything, I think people want to be relevant. This begins by communicating with others. I think that establishes, to others, your entry in the human race. Relevance comes through sacrifice as well. Whether it's the sacrifice of time to offer directions, or re-open the kitchen to cook up one more lunch or dinner, or make the Housekeeping Department's washer and dryer available for a small load of cycling clothes. I heard a comment the other day where the speaker said, "sacrifice is the noblest of human acts". I think almost everyone has it in them to commit noble acts but don't know how or never find the opportunity or fail to identify their chance when it presents itself. Other people seem comfortable with the idea and make little conscious effort at all to act nobly. It, like many actions, becomes more and more natural with repetition.
On our last ride day, we crossed the St. John's River with around twenty miles to go to St. Augustine. We crossed and turned north along the shore for several miles before turning East again for the final push. Just before our turn East we saw a picnic area on the shore and stopped. We sat on a picnic table and watched some people, not to familiar with boats and trailers, attempt to get their boat out of the water. Dusk was coming and the wind was blowing. The river is very broad at this point. Maybe as much as a mile. It was a great final scene. We had experienced so many beautiful scenes in the preceding weeks.
I think back and realize the rate of sensory input was huge. I have watched the slide show of the trip several times now and I am transported to the place and time of the picture with each frame.
People have asked about the experience. I wondered myself how I would feel once we completed our trip.
Several years ago I was invited to sky dive with our neighbor. She had received a jump as a gift from her sisters for her fiftieth birthday. She asked if I would be interested in going with her and jumping myself. I had always talked about it and I don't think I hesitated at all before accepting the invitation. We went to Perris, in Southern California, and each arranged to jump tandem (with an instructor strapped to your back). It is a life changing experience for many people. Some become so addicted to it they are referred to as adrenaline junkies and they hang around a jump zone offering to pack chutes for enough money to get rides up in the plane. The jump was a fun experience but it really didn't leave me feeling different.
Several years ago a friend called me up to say he had heard about an event called a double century. He knew I raced triathlon and was an avid cyclist and asked if I wanted to go and ride one with him. I said, "yea sure" with no hesitation. It was an epic affair. A two hundred mile bike ride in Death Valley that lasted over twelve hours. After finishing, I was pleased with my performance but it did not leave me feeling like a different person. I went on to win the California Triple Crown a couple of years later (three doubles completed in one calendar year). Achieving that allowed me to purchase and wear a pretty exclusive jersey but the world around me looked pretty much the same.
In 2005, I raced my first Ironman Triathlon. That is an event that begins with a 2.4 mile swim, then a 112 mile bike ride, then a 26.2 mile marathon. The legs are raced back to back and the entire endeavor will take the winner just over eight hours to complete. It took me twelve. I thought surely this would leave an indelible impression on me. The desire to compete in the race was the natural progression after racing shorter events for the preceding few years. I chose to race in Brazil (there are somewhere around twenty events annually around the world). It made for a great vacation. I witnessed people around me experiencing profound life changing effects during and after the race. Many who complete an Ironman distance triathlon will define themselves in that context for many years or in some cases the rest of their lives. The effect on me was not so profound. I did get a nice finisher's medal and tee shirt though. I went on to race two more Ironmans and will race my fourth this August in Louisville, Kentucky.
Here I sit two weeks and two days after my final pedaling day into Saint Augustine. The resulting feeling is far more complex than that left by my other physical endeavors. I hesitate to use the word profound because I think time provides and evolves perspective. The lasting impression I'm feeling has not to do with anything so personal or individual as the physical accomplishment of the ride. Rather, I feel like I know every other human being I meet a little better. What I often feel is the decency others offer, although sometimes hidden. I suspect if you ask for help, far more people than you might expect would line up to offer it. The feeling comes with the realization that it took more than our individual efforts to complete our journey. It took the kindness and decency of dozens or hundreds of people. People I had never met before and many who I will likely not meet again.
In a time when we are bombarded with divisive rhetoric by our leaders and inflammatory reporting in our media, it is very reassuring to know that at their core most people are good and decent. Most people want to be loved and want to express love. Most people cherish peace. Most people want to help.
In Texas people told us we wouldn't meet friendlier people on our trip than Texans. They attempted to prove it over and over. In Louisiana we had the pleasure of riding across the heart of Acadiana. Real live Cajun country. I had no idea what to expect and what we got was consistently the warmest and friendliest treatment of our whole journey. I was reminded of our family cycling trip to Holland and Belgium in 2007. Acadiana is like the Western part of Belgium. They long ago figured out what matters is what you can't buy. Life across most parts of the South is much more about relationships than possessions. I think that is probably true in more places than not but that attitude doesn't sell soap as they say. Our media delivers its message in an attempt to create a world where you can be happy enjoying your big TV while limiting your interaction with strangers and being good consumers.
Chris was the ideal traveling companion on our trip. He never complained about anything. He let me be the in charge alpha jerk I can sometimes be. He never suffered from poor attitude even when he suffered from inadequate nutrition, challenging weather conditions, or high mileage. I have to hand it to him. How must it feel to a twenty three year old? Rightfully, it should serve as a lifelong reminder that anything is possible given desire and dedication.
Finally, I was struck by the frequency of contact with people having stories of personal survival or the survival of friends or family to share. There is an odd complacency that seems prevalent when it comes to cancer. There is a feeling of acceptance of its existence and fear of its effect. People often don't approach it as something we can combat and eradicate. It is easier to imagine shooting enemies with bullets than curing cancer. Some people believe the cure exists and it is for economic reasons that people die from it. I never was one to believe that. I met too many people who would gladly pay a million dollars for a cure. It seems that with multi million dollar benefit caps many insurance companies would pay the same million dollars to cure a patient. One round of chemo can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
I don't know what to do about it other than spread the word that fighting cancer matters and is a worthy battle. I think the Livestrong approach is unique with its emphasis on survivorship. Most people fear the diagnosis and don't think about living beyond it. How do we convince our politicians that stopping cancer deaths matters to Americans?
The chances of receiving a cancer diagnosis and dying from cancer is greater by orders of magnitude than the chance of being killed by a terrorist or as the result of any other violent act. As a nation we spend more in one week fighting wars than we do in one year fighting cancer. We lose more citizens to cancer death in two days than we have in any and all terrorist acts perpetrated against Americans, at home and abroad, in all of history.
Who's in charge?
It is a beautiful, big, diverse country we live in. I believe we are among the most fortunate citizens of the world. Our country has some of the warmest most caring people in the world. Our country is not as ill as our media and politicians would have us believe.
Perpetuating the fear of a de-evolving world falling into violence and disorder keeps us scared. When people are scared, they want more than ever to be told what to do. They want someone to be in charge. They receive their orders via the media. Fear works well for politicians' job security and media outlets' ratings.
Don't believe everything you are told. Get out and see for yourself. It's not hard to do but it is easy not to do. Work a charity event or visit a hospice. Visit a care facility providing for the very old or very young. Work at a soup kitchen for a holiday. Rock a crack baby in your arms in a hospital nursery. Take your child or grandchild for a walk or better yet teach them to ride a bike. Or even better, do that for the kid next door while you're at it.
I used to think it nothing but responsibility skirting when politicians talk about volunteerism in America. I see that it still is for some of our leaders. I resent the claim there is a necessary connection between religion and selflessness or even that there is an automatic association. If religion is what it takes to make someone act more socially responsible than so be it but I think gratitude is the most powerful motivation for doing good. Not threats of damnation and hellfire. The feeling a person receives from sacrifice is the reward. Try it.