In June 2011, I convinced my spouse to take a leave of absence and take a 12,000-mile bicycle journey around the perimeter of the United States. I had just been laid off. I was deeply depressed. Desperation can lead to a foolish kind of courage.
I needed a purpose. I was inspired by a 2012 economic study that found that 92 percent of people in the U.S. — across political and geographic divides — wanted a more egalitarian society. I sought to find out why, in this purported democracy, we do not have what we want.
People break rules about talking to strangers when they meet someone who is obviously on a bicycle adventure. They share their dreams and nightmares in ways that even long-time friends do not. As an introvert, I needed that bicycle icebreaker to connect with people.
On the trip, I learned the power of the brain in physical pursuits. My hierarchy of fears toppled. I gained insight into why local places are important to human beings, and how tapping into our impulse to offer radical hospitality can help us overcome racist nationalism. I recount the trip in my book, “Allegiance to Winds and Waters: Bicycling the Political Divides of the United States.”
Excerpt from “Allegiance to Winds and Waters: Bicycling the Political Divides of the United States”
In the desert, the wind usually rises in late morning and dies in the evening. On this morning, it was already roaring at 8 a.m. We were headed to Hachita, New Mexico, — “a ghost town” the internet said — and the only stop for 100 miles. We had considered two other paths across the state — over mountains or on the interstate — before settling on the desert route. We were counting on “Sam” in Hachita who, we heard, provided bikers with water and a place to put up a tent. By late afternoon however, the math was against us, and we faced stealth camping in the desert. Gusts were so strong we expended energy just to keep the bikes upright. Dust swirled, filling our lungs.
And then, abruptly, the wind stopped like a factory worker done with her shift!
At the town sign we turned onto a dirt road, passing a dozen houses of tin, wood, and concrete, and a few RVs, scattered along a four-block grid. A stately stone church with manicured yard told us that though there might be ghosts in Hachita, for a handful of households, this was home. There was even a post office, and a person there to ask directions to Sam’s house.
A layer of dust covered the four small rooms of the stucco home. Sam was recovering from pneumonia. His nostrils were too narrow for an oxygen tube, so he had one for his mouth. Most of the time, it dangled to make room for a Marlboro. He invited us to use his kitchen. Following my gaze to the onions and potatoes sprouting on his floor, he smiled. “My garden.” His pantry shelves were nearly empty. “I’m fifty miles from a grocery store,” he explained. “I shop once a month.” From the look of his emaciated frame, I guessed he was living on tobacco. We made our oatmeal and tried to get him to join us. He refused.
In the morning, we returned to his smoke-filled home to warm up. Sam saw I was shivering and patted the seat next to him instructing, “Put your feet next to the heater.” His furry little dog placed himself on Sam’s feet — canine slippers. We talked about the border war at his doorstep. Sam said, “If I hire someone without papers to weed my yard, I get a $10,000 fine, but the farmer who hires forty won’t be touched. Those workers pay into Social Security, workers’ comp, without receiving the benefits. They keep this country afloat.”
The TV filled a lull in our conversation. Donald Trump was endorsing Mitt Romney for president. “I support Romney,” Sam asserted. “We need a hard head, not a soft soap.” He grimaced at the wagging orange fop. “But what I’ve seen of him, there’s nothing I like.”
When the newscaster said that Israel might attack Iran, Sam shook his head. “Two people, two religions.” He paused. “I loved the Iranians.”
My face betrayed me.
“Surprised you, huh?” Sam said. “As an ironworker, I had jobs all over the world: Caribbean sugar plantations, Middle East oil rigs. In Tehran, we used to sit on the scaffold, watch the traffic and bet on when the next accident was going to happen.”
Sam had traveled the world. Now the world came to him. Showing me a photo of young guests who stayed with him when they unicycled from Canada to Mexico, he gave me a cigarette-wobble grin. “You think you’re something.”
Five miles west of Hachita, a thousand sandhill cranes hovered above a rancher’s irrigated hayfield. At the Panther Tracks Café in Animas, New Mexico, a Latina Border Patrol officer came in for a sandwich to go. A white man with a plate of chicken fried steak asked her, “How’s business?”
“Been pretty slow,” she said. “But it’s picking up in Arizona. The asparagus harvest has begun.”
Anne Winkler-Morey will be reading and signing books at ColorWheel Gallery in Minneapolis, May 21, 1–5pm. annewinklermorey.com