Day 57, 42 miles

I hold in my hand a stone. It is a stone of little significance, well, it was a stone of little significance, to me at least, when I picked it up on the rocky shore of the beach at the ferry terminal in Anacortes, Washington. It did not catch my eye or stand out in any way, more so it was simply the one I happened upon when reaching down to pick up a small stone. For the next two months, it sat in my bags, adding weight with no function or benefit of its own. It was not shiny nor striking, nor sharp, nor any characteristic that is strongly definable, only a bit larger than a pebble really, a dark grey matte finish, smooth from its wear on the shore and just a bit oblong.

In coming along on this journey with us, in adding just a little bit of weight to what I had to push along, it now carries with it the weight of what these past two months have come to represent. I shall place it in my collection of stones which also are stones of little significance to the unknowing eye, stones from my childhood and travels, stones that each represent a life experience.

So it is with a swollen heart, poignant in the telling, that I recall this last day of our adventure. Before we depart back into the anonymous multitude of  modern lives, busily striving for stability of the status quo atop our spinning wheel, I want to thank you, the reader, for your audience over these past two months, for without you, I am merely talking to myself. In that regard, none of this has been done in isolation. I could not, nor would not have wanted to complete this trip without my companions, Sonali and Joe, who each brought and bring a life full of their own experiences colliding into my own, enriching mine through our interactions. And, behind my companions, an impressive support system, a web of relations of relatives and friends alike, the lines of which were sometimes blurred, but just as well, for family takes on many forms, and better still if the whole world is included.

Pulling into the shore in Guilford, the thought and care behind the gathering at the water was not lost on us, the love that went into the preparation of food and signs, the shared ride with family and friends in those final miles, and the people important in our lives who came to celebrate with us, could not have made it a better experience. As we dipped our tires in the water, I was left with an incredible sense of pride to have shared and finished this journey with Sonali, even though she technically won by touching the water first. There were few expectations, and all were greatly exceeded.

At the end of the day, despite the cause we were riding for, despite our affiliation with school, despite our desire for adventure, and our interest to be outdoors, we were just a couple of people, plodding along in the world, making our way in a certain reality for a certain eternity of time. There was no need for us to pedal across a continent, no one forcing us to do so, our lives did not depend upon it in any regard, but in carrying out this task, we have found meaning in an arbitrary thing which, over time, may define and decide many elements of our lives that we wouldn’t have been able to predict or plan for otherwise.

So when I hold this stone now, it represents a lot, something to aspire to, that I myself may be a stone of little significance, who takes on meaning in the world, that when called upon, comes to represent more than flesh and bone. If I can give meaning to a stone, cannot I give meaning to a life? This meaning may only exist for a short time, to just a few people, before being tossed back into a heap of scattered rocks, but in some way, its story, and all of our stories, are written into the unspoken history of the world and the ever altered fates of those that follow. In a hundred years this stone may sit on the Atlantic shore, unassuming to passer-bys, as a grave stone in a cemetery takes on similar fates, silent stories still imbued in it. But in that light, everything and everyone around us has untold and unremembered stories, in a universe that infinitely expands under the eyes of the observer. There is plenty of story in the world for those who seek it, to appreciate them as we find, and hold sacred the ones we will never know but still feel their presence.

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Day 56, 50 miles

‘If you want to change the world, you must first let the world change you.’ – Ernesto Guevara

We got off to a good start today, with Andy making bacon and eggs for us before sending us on our way. We rode through familiar terrain, down across the Connecticut border on the Northampton-New Haven Greenway, and before I knew it, we were riding trails that we had ridden in training for the trip, through Granby and Simsbury. A detour through Collinsville led to a ride along the Farmington river, where I appreciated the beautiful, well-maintained trails that we have right here near school. We took one final break at Truffles to collect ourselves, and with that, headed the three miles to the campus in anticipation of what was to come. Pulling up the final few hundred feet, I caught myself from getting choked up seeing everyone standing at the school entrance, and in a blur of excitement entered into the surreal moment of meshing our two different realities once again, of cycle touring and medical school, in a new light than when we had left. There were high fives, hugs, and photographs, and I once again was left with a continued sense of humility for the generosity of friends, family, classmates, teachers and the larger UConn community who came out to welcome us home.

Sonali and I each spent the night with our respective parents, before our final day to the coast and I found it strange to be sitting in my home, on my porch eating dinner with my family, my final ‘warm shower’s’ hosts, as if nothing that had just happened had just happened, so normal did it feel. I feel as though I will soon be transitioning back mentally into many of my old habits and rhythms, but before this moment passes me by, I’d like to catch it in its full fruition, and pick it like a ripe fruit before it drops.

Ernesto Guevara once said, ‘if you want to change the world, you must first let the world change you’, and in hearing that phrase several years ago, it has stayed with me and become a bit of a motto that I return to from time to time. In deciding to initially go on this trip, at this junction in my life, this idea stood out to me, that before I was to enter into a position in society such as that which a physician holds, before I offer my own advice or give my own opinions, perhaps it would be best to start by listening to my countrymen, by being open to what the world has to teach in many forms, to take the pulse of a country and culture that I will someday soon have a say in.

Over the past two months, we have been open to many stories and histories of the human and natural worlds alike. We have learned about many things, gold mining and fossils, manufacturing and cheese curds, bridges and rock and roll, bicycles, yes, bicycles, women’s suffrage, wine making, etc., and continually learned about human interaction, interpersonal dynamics and group decision making.

Over the past two months, sitting at innumerable dining room tables, breaking bread with an endless number of honest strangers, being treated like kin, my faith in the decency and generosity of my fellow man has been strengthened. I got the sense that people want to get along, that they want to have good, strong communities, that they want to avoid conflict and appease their friends and family. I also got the sense that people sometimes are willing to talk poorly about groups of others whom they have little experience with, whom they fear or are willing to project characterizations upon, in a way that I think they would struggle to treat as poorly if they interacted with one-on-one in person, as they interact with us, equally strangers into their world, and yet, as fellow human beings, intricately connected in a shared human experience.

One of our warm showers hosts in Ohio had given me a flag along the way, and although I kept it with me throughout the trip, I did not hang it up on the back of my bicycle, because I felt that perhaps it was too complicated a metaphor at this current moment in time, that what it means to me might be different than what it means to someone else, and that meaning might be different from a third person along the way.

So, rather than focus on a symbol itself, holding up a flag and saying, this is what it stands for, in a constant struggle to define and defend the metaphors we hold on to, I’d like to focus on the meaning itself, define a vision that offers the energy of human potential something to coalesce around.

I am neither a luddite nor a futurist, and would rather mark myself among the ranks of men who are in search of the timeless, that those things that have already shown their unending value are not taken for granted or treated as foundational relics to be built upon in a blind search for progress for its own sake, and that those things that are new and novel are judged only as they can stand the test of time.

There is an America I can imagine where each place of human habitation reflects of its underlying form, be it as thin as moss upon a glacial stone, or as rich as the sediment upon a Mississippi river floodplain.

There is an America I can imagine where the wealth of a nation is measured in the diversity of its plants and people, its living riches valued more than the shine of its precious metals.

There is an America I can imagine where the economy functions as a tool to meet the needs of a people, and the people do not work as tools to fit the needs of an economy.

There is an America I can imagine where we have a Native American President

There is an America I can imagine where a woman can walk down the street without having to accept harassment from a passing stranger.

There is an America I can imagine where the soil grows deeper over time.

There is an America I can imagine, where all of the noble beasts in their majestic ruminations migrate in accordance with the ripe and falling fodder, where men are not farmers of animals nor plants nor any singular element alone, but rather are orchestrators of forests, conductors of life largely singing of its own accord, according to the cyclic changing seasons, where the intervention of man is the bending of a branch of the world in our favor, freed from the simplistic visions of our own ability to create and control the world we want by ourselves, but instead accepting in equal parts a continual discovery of what the world has to offer, and only in doing so coming to fully understand ourselves.

 

 

 

Day 55, 42 miles

We continued on across the Berkshires today, through more of Western Massachusetts’s forests, to get to Northampton, our final stop before Farmington. Riding along the river today, we followed it as it travelled distinctly east, close enough to the coast now that the rivers are flowing in its direction. Today was a shorter day in anticipation of the finish, and as such we had plenty of time to spend in town, going to a coffee shop, an art gallery and passing some time on the city green. Of all the places along the way, a place like this one is one that I could see myself fitting in well with.

This trip has given me a greater appreciation for cities, small ones at least, with their bit of local flair and flavor, just large enough to speak to the culture of an area and not much larger.

Over this trip as a whole, we have seen a lot of places, a lot of local cafes, a lot of local pubs, a lot of local ice cream shops and and coffee shops, and despite the similarity of overlying themes, each maintains some unique aspect that in some sense speaks to person and place. Despite the increased globalization of markets over the past half a century, there is still a surprising amount of local culture and subcultures present across our country, in varying degrees of resilience, more than I had expected before coming on this trip.

I see our country moving towards a greater centralization of information and power over time, as though the solution to our woes might lie in a unified command with egalitarian ideals, as if power did not corrupt of its own accord, and attract the people it ought to avoid, in corporations and governments alike. I think the strength of a nation comes from the reciprocally balanced tension between the individual and the whole, like spokes in a wheel tightened just right to keep it traveling in a straight line. In that light, a strengthening and resilience of local economies and governments may be a necessary defense against an emerging oligarchy of power in America, individuals who produce something, neighbors who exchange goods and services with neighbors, and a public sphere that raises the lowest common denominator for its vulnerable citizens to allow them to meaningfully take part in a society’s affairs, things of this nature may help to reaffirm the balance of power to a healthy degree.

We spent the night with our final ‘warm showers’ hosts, Andrew and Tory, camping in their backyard after eating hamburgers and sitting around a grill talking about the places we had been, comparing them to Andrew’s when he had done a cross country trip just two years ago. Tomorrow we head to Farmington, and are interested to see how the day will unfold.

 

Day 54, 42 miles

Our luck with the weather this trip has been unbelievably good, and any time the topic comes up, we enter into a chorus of superstition, knocking on something wooden or throwing a pinch of salt over our shoulders or whatever else we can find appropriate to appease the gods and show our continued humility in the wake of their kindness.

So, it was with no lack of appreciation again today that we were able to get to Pittsfield in the morning, before a nice soaking thunderstorm came through in the afternoon. However, one thing before the storm which often does precede them was a stifling humidity, 100%, as we climbed up and down the Berkshires as we headed east from Albany, one final hoorah of hills, sweating and huffing like we had been back in Washington state. Overall however, it was a nice ride on old forest and farm roads, New England forests and farms, with their old world feel as compared to the ones out west. We passed by a summer camp and a replica Shaker village, mostly on back roads avoiding too much traffic.

There wasn’t much in terms of places to stop along the way, but one place, ‘Mama T’s country kitchen’ stood out as a good place for lunch. We were happy that we did, because Mama T gave us lunch on the house, taco bowls, complete with an ice cream bar afterwards, and took a picture with us to put on her facebook page.

There was one strange moment today, when pulling into Pittsfield, I began to recognize my surroundings, and something about the reality of our trip began to sink in, in a way that it hadn’t previously. To think that after 2 months of biking in one direction, east, through continually new environments, to suddenly come within a range of a familiar radius of home, roads that I have driven and places that I have visited, blew my mind in a small way, as if I had been expecting in some small way to be in somewhat alien surroundings for ever.  Perhaps this is the way that sailors used to feel when they would cross a sea, or pioneers when they travelled by horse and carriage, but there is a sort of incredulousness to it that perhaps only the likes of Gulliver or Bilbo Baggins could start to appreciate, that instead of falling off the edge of the earth somewhere, we instead struck a narrow path that has led us home, despite all of the obstacles of potential fates and misdirections along the way. Google maps has certainly greatly helped, as we were not simply following a compass, but two months is a long time to head in a single cardinal direction before reaching one’s home.

Spending the evening in Pittsfield we passed some time in a coffee shop before grabbing dinner and getting an early night’s rest, as we prepare for the final days.

Day 53, 78 miles

excerpt from Sam Walter Foss’s, ‘The house by the side of the road’

‘I see from my house by the side of the road, by the side of the highway of life, the men who press with the ardor of hope, the men who are faint with the strife. But I turn not away from their smiles nor their fears, both part of the infinite plan, let me live in my house by the side of the road and be a friend to man.’

Today I woke up to a flat tire, before we had started on our way, so I changed it with a bit of apprehension, hoping that it does not come back again. At this point the fall back plan is to hide my stuff in the woods, go on Craigslist and find a $50 bike to ride home if any more trouble comes up, so close are we at this point. These problems are likely due to the rough road we have been riding on these past few days, our bikes not well suited to the rattling they’ve been taking, and Sonali’s bike took a bit of a beating as well, losing a vital screw from her pedals, making it hard to clip in and out of. By the time she realized what was going on however, we were in Schenectady NY, and were able to find a bike shop a mile away.

What can be said about today? The familiarity of the forests we are now riding through resonates as a place that I have called home for the past 27 years of my existence, everything around us, just a few hundred miles from home, speaking in the flora and the fauna that I have become accustomed to over the course of my life. In that breath I look forward to communing with the ones that I have planted and watched grow, some taller than myself by now, at which point I bid them well, no longer under my care, to hopefully live a life much longer than my own.

This was part of the sense that I rode with today, and zoning out in this regard, I narrowly caught myself from bisecting a snake that was sunning himself lengthwise in the bike path. After that point I used a greater discernment of stick vs. snake, and in doing so was able to better avoid another one just a short bit up the road.

Today we were on more trail, the last of our stint along the Erie Canal trail, and I think we shall part with it without too much nostalgia for its questionable ending miles.

In the evening we ended up in Delmar, a suburb of Albany, and stayed with a couple, Anne and Steve, whose son had just completed a coast to coast ride himself, a few days ago, going east to west. In hearing all the positive stories and generosity he had been shown on his trip, they decided to  host cyclists themselves, and we were their first guests.

In attempting to reach a certain expectation for hospitality, they greatly outdid themselves, as usual, and provided us with a wonderful home cooked meal, desert, and stories and pictures from their son’s adventure. The model they said they were following, based on their son’s recommendation, was to, ‘be like the extra set of grandparents the cyclists didn’t know they had,’ and so, for this one evening, we were showered with all of the familial care that a pair of roaming cyclists could ask for.

In this regard, and in reflection of the ‘Warm Showers’ cyclist hosting experience as a whole, I’m reminded of the Sam Walter Foss Poem that had come up once before in our trip, as a line of it had been spray painted on the side of a small house out in Montana, I believe. Rather than analyze it, I’d rather let it speak a bit more for itself,

‘I know there are brook gladdened meadows ahead, and mountains of wearisome height, that the road passes on through the long afternoon and stretches away to the night, but still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice, and weep with the strangers that moan, nor live in my house by the side of the road like a man who dwells alone.

Let me live in a house by the side of the road, where the race of men go by, they are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong, wise, foolish, so am I. Then why should I sit in the scorner’s seat or girl the cynic’s ban? let me live in my house by the side of the road, and be a friend to man.’

 

 

 

Day 52, 80 miles

This last week feels a bit like a cool down, and I think mentally and physically we are starting to gear down for the finish. It has a sort-of coming together quality to it, as the threads of the story along the way are starting to tie themselves into succinct knots, little ribbons and bows as we prepare to start our transition back into ordinary life.

The transition that we are currently passing through feels a bit like the archetypal ‘sage’ stage. Talking to people here in New York, there is a genuine admiration for how far we have come, and a degree of respect that comes with it. We stopped to help two cyclists who had a flat tire, and although we ended up not fixing their problem without an appropriatly sized inner tube, they certainly treated us like we knew what we are doing. At the ice cream shop, when we got to talking with the owner, he ended up just giving us the ice cream for free, and wishing us well. Our schedule, fit with several stops including a definitive ice coffee break in the mid afternoon, is rote in nature, and ingrained into a fairly systematic daily rhythm, despite the unending novelty of new places every day. I’m not even sure where my mind goes when I ride anymore, it sort of has just accepted this way of life as the status quo, and before I know it we have arrived 8 hours later from where we started, some 80 miles or so from where we left.

I suppose the one piece of intrigue from today was the questionable quality of the path we were on, as it slowly went from gravel to dirt, to mud, to grass, to areas with trees blocking the path and so forth, until we look at each other and are like, ‘perhaps the road is not so bad’.

Little Falls was a nice town to stop in, and after dinner we walked down to the river to find a small rehearsal for an outdoor play and some nice shops to check out as well. There are a number of nice small towns here up around the Erie Canal.

Day 51, 46 miles

A day fitting of what we needed, not too long or hard of a ride, as we were in Syracuse by 11:45 am, and were able to relax for the rest of the day.

One thing that did happen on the ride this morning was that the connecting pin from my frame to my rack snapped, leaving the rack dangling to one side. I have some wire with me, so I was able to wire the two parts back together to hold it in place, to keep it from hitting my wheel, but at some point I will need to get it welded back together. This is a problem that other people with my model of bike have had, and it wouldn’t be considered the hardiest touring bike on the market. Talking to some bike shops here, it is not something that they do in store, and they would have to ship it out to get fixed, so my current plan is to add a few more loops of wire, which held it all day today, and hope that it holds for 7 more days, a little bit of hope and wire.

We spent a pleasant evening in Syracuse with Steve and his 98 year old father, eating ravioli and ice cream cake on their front sun porch, overlooking their front yard garden. There are a number of garlic bulbs drying on the porch and the flowers in the garden are all in bloom.

Overall we are appreciative of a roof again, and good company, and will likely sleep soundly tonight, provided there are no new surprises, which we thankfully do not expect.