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.

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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