Intimate surroundings, personal interactions

Every time I step on a bike, I am reminded of how intimate I can become with my surroundings. In many of the places I ride, there aren’t rail trails or bike lanes; so, I ride on the shoulder. The shoulder is a dynamic place, up close and personal with the pavement and dirt. I personally define it as the space from just to the left of the white line (if there is one on the right side of the road), across the rumble strips (if there are any), to the edge of the pavement. On some roads, like U.S. highways such as Route 19, this has meant a wide space with many possible paths across which to cut, while on others, like the even-more-local state roads, it can mean a lane only a couple of feet wide. The texture of the shoulder varies greatly. Some are smooth blacktop. Others are cracked with divots and holes. Still others can feel like a minefield, plagued with glass, rotting roadkill, old car parts, trash, and other obstacles to be avoided at all costs (or suffer a flat tire or worse damage). These last ones require the most concentration, but they also can be the most rewarding.

As I ride past the rocks and broken bottles, I experience so much. On a bike, facts about the world around us that are often obscured to motorists become obvious. I feel the different grades of the road (and their effects on my legs), fight the headwinds, hear the din of cars approaching and passing me, and relish the silence of the forest and mountains whenever I stop cycling and listen. I now know that dips in the road most often have creeks winding under them, and that animals (like dogs and cows) are quick to notice cyclists.

So much of the detail I am able to observe comes from the choice of route that I, as a cyclist, can and must take. In a car, I am always tempted to take the fastest route, which usually falls as the one that traverses interstates. A cyclist cannot (and should not) ride on interstate highways, but instead can choose the route that actually covers fewer miles, while also visiting more interesting places. These routes consist of roads of a more local character, such as state highways, county roads, and U.S. routes—ones on which I have seldom seen a car without a West Virginia license plate, and often lead to county seats, up steep mountains, or through the tiniest towns defined only by an intersection of two state roads. Along the roads themselves, I see the homes, factories, farms, and stores of the area, in varying states of upkeep.

The ability to choose a route that takes me away from the highly-trafficked interstates to the roads used by the local population is an essential feature of my project this summer, one that is part of the motivation for the project itself. This deliberate choice has brought me into the mountains of West Virginia, and into contact with people and places that I am surprised to see, but are also surprised to find me. This past week, I have ridden—red-faced, sweaty, and red-eyed after being assaulted by pollen—into more than one gas station parking lot. At first, observers are startled, but then they comment with interest, asking where I am from and where I am going. And, oftentimes, they will say how they wish they could be doing a trip like this, but aren’t able to, for one reason or another. This sense of serving as an outlet for others’ imagination has been an unexpected outcome thus far, something that transforms my interactions with others from purely observational to more participatory and personal.

Some of my favorite interactions are with the people I pass as I ride. I have learned how the smallest interactions make a huge difference with both feeling connected to an area and gathering the motivation to move forward during a long day. The smiles and nods shared with the men and women lounging on patios or mowing the grass are equivalent to downing Gatorades. Seeing the kid mowing the grass stare in wonder and wave can be better for my mood than a shot of caffeine. There is a lot of power in this personal attention and courtesy that can be easy to forget at Duke, if you aren’t looking for it.

We are able to so easily place ourselves in silos on campus, in our particular corner of the library or cafe, or even as we stare at the ground on the walk to class, avoiding eye contact as though a glance could kill. But, while riding a bike on a trip like this, the loneliness-in-disguise pervading campus is something I would despise, after coming to depend on contact with others to push me onward.

The journey begins

The world around me — from my closest neighbors to the furthest countries — has always been a fascination of mine. As a kid, my awareness of this world expanded gradually, first with jaunts into my backyard to play ball and make-believe. Then, I went further — to the woods, then the neighbor’s yard beyond the woods, then the playground a quarter mile away from my house. Adding these new worlds to my imaginative realm was exhilarating, especially in that the places I observed were often unexpected. I found that people actually lived so close behind the woods I had thought so immense, and their houses looked so similar to mine. This patch of grass on the playground was very marshy, while this tower could let me see so far. I relished this exploration.

As I grew older, my grandmother’s lessons on geography and other cultures and family trips helped turn my local fascination to a national and even global scale. And, just as my sense of geography expanded as I discovered maps and began to use my bike, so too did my interest in people and what brings them together grow. This fascination for exploring a new place and getting to know its people — a mindset that that is both eager and open-minded enough to expect nothing yet be excited to see anything — is fundamental to the motivations for my project.

I have decided to take my exploration and understanding of community up a notch. Instead of the woods, I am now exploring national forests and rural farmlands; instead of playgrounds, I am exploring full-scale U.S. cities. This summer, I am cycling across the United States, beginning in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA, and ending as far west as Seattle, WA. Along the way, I will be cultivating a unique perspective of the U.S. — one that seeks to understand some of what defines our communities while also keeping in constant view their inextricable link to geography, which I will come to know well on my bike.

First, let me clarify what I mean when I say that I am cycling. I will be riding this bike (see photo), carrying with me everything I will need (and probably some things I should have left at home), including my clothes, food, water, and a tent. Each day, I will bike, on average, 70+ miles, staying at campsites and sometimes in local inns or bed and breakfasts. Thus, this project will be both an exciting ethical exploration and an extreme test of physical and mental stamina.

So, I will get to know the places I visit intimately. When I visit Charleston, West Virginia, I won’t just be stepping out of a car after having driven four hours down interstates 77 and 79 from my home. I will have spent a week riding over the Allegheny and Appalachian mountains, experiencing every rise and fall of the road, and seeing some of the state’s people and places, all before I even set foot in the capital.

During my day-to-day travels from town to town (and campsite to campsite) and in three-day stays at cities on the smaller end of population size (but that still pack a lot of cultural punch), I will be observing communities in action, talking with residents from all walks of life and being present in the area, visiting festivals, museums, and different parts of the cities. Through these conversations, I will try to find out as much as possible about the local community, as well as how people see themselves in the context of the world around them, on the state and national level and even internationally.

In a lot of ways, this project is about putting myself in a place where I am vulnerable and seeing how I and others respond. There will be days when I am tired, soaked from rain, and hungry, and I will learn about the community by how I am treated in this state, if people offer help and encouragement, or whether I am just another person. Moreover, I have never been to most of the places I will be visiting; so, when I am exploring, I will be a true outsider. Thus, I will be investigating communities from a two-fold sense: gaining insight from how I am able to fit in, and what I can surmise about the communities as I spend time with them. From this, I hope to find larger commonalities and distinctions across various American communities.

I expect to encounter an innumerable number of ethical motifs along the way. Some topics I already plan to consider are how people treat me and what this shows about how we view one another; the difficulty of simultaneously exploring places as I try to describe them; and the brevity of passing of my stay in each city (as I have to keep biking in order to make it to my next destination), but also the opportunity this provides. All in all, I am thrilled to be taking this journey. Thanks for reading.