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.

John Benhart, T’19, is the 2019-2020 Kenan Postgraduate Fellow. As an undergraduate, he was a 2018 Kenan Summer Research Fellow and a participant in the Institute’s Citizenship Lab.

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