Tuesday, September 27, 2011

King of the World

A stunningly beautiful stretch of road, genuine interactions with real people, major revelations and clarity beyond words summarize the last few days of my journey.  It has been wonderful.

Day 71: 9/24/11 Hermantown to Hibbing, MN: 66 miles
I recently commented to someone that I thought I would make a good king of the world. They looked at me and asked something like, “what would you change first?” I was totally stumped. It made me instantly realize that I'm only scratching the surface of so many problems that I care deeply about and feel like I can be a part of solving. Without a plan, big problems aren't even going to begin to change.
As an alternate train of thought, I try as often as possible to keep the “big picture” in sight, rather than focusing on the details of any problem in particular. So much of what I see as “wrong” with the world today stems from the same core set of misunderstandings, misguided priorities and plain ignorance of what is actually going on in the world. I would like to begin my plan with preventative medicine for humanity's woes, rather than treating the symptoms.

When it comes to treating symptoms, there are so many people doing so many good things on a small scale, and I applaud them. Part of my theory about how to fix the world is that every cause needs a champion. A person who is passionate and dedicated to that particular issue, and goes all-out to make the change that needs to happen from the ground up. If every person could find an issue to champion in order to improve life in the future, a hell of a lot of good would get done. And there are already tons of champions out there giving it their all. I recently read about a non-profit in New England called Project Laundry List, who's main goal is to get people to line-dry their clothes rather than using their dryer all the time. Without a doubt, this is a positive cause, in need of a champion (they were looking for a new executive director), but it is such a drop in the bucket of the mindset change that would result in everyone drying their clothes on a line. Because when you realize that everything is connected and you affect the entire planet negatively every time you run your dryer, then of course, why wouldn't you line dry?
And there I go, already getting caught up in the details. Some issues are so shockingly appalling that they are hard to ignore. Some will make a much larger difference than others, but I'm searching for the ultimate. I fear that most people are caught up in the details of their day-to-day lives to such an extent that they regularly loose sight of the big picture. It is true that several thousand years ago, after humans had already been evolving for 100,000+ years, that we had a very marginal, perhaps nearly undetectable effect on the other humans and life on earth. We are not evolved to think for the world. We are evolved to think for ourselves, our families, our survival and reproduction and the well-being of our communities and those closest to us. But this is no longer a world where competition for food determines who will survive. It is now a world where understanding our total influence as a species will be the most important step in creating a future in which we can thrive. We must expand our notion of taking care of our community to include the entire world. What makes this so easily approachable is that through education and understanding, we learn that what is best for ourselves and our families and what is best for the world are the same things.
This brings me to my tag-line for becoming king of the world. I was thinking to myself, “If I truly want to be a leader of some kind of large-scale change, then I had better work on my message.” A good leader is not usually the one with the strongest opinions or the most charm or the fastest wit. A good leader is someone who can be humble, honest, genuine and competent. A person of integrity, ingenuity, courage and wisdom who listens to the voices of his/her followers, and helps to decide what is best for all of them based upon their input. A person who is has the strength to choose what is right over what is easy. While I would love to receive more input (What changes do you want to see in this world?), I again fear getting caught up in the details. I think one of the reasons that real change is so mired in the bureaucratics of today's politics is that everyone has forgotten to look past the details and deal with the larger issues at hand. We're stuck arguing about gay marriage and border control when climate change threatens the entire planet.

At present, the issues that concern me most boil down to this: the well-being of the human species into the future. The physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being of the current and future humans on planet earth. While I could expand this to include a concern for the well-being of all living things on earth, that would not sound as important to a large group of people. And, once again, if we truly do what is best for the human species, then we will also be doing what is best for the rest of the living things on the planet, who are woven into the fabric of our existence in such intricate and integral ways that we do not yet recognize the value of most things as they pertain to our own well-being.

While I would like to convince myself that I view all living things as equally important as humans in general, and myself in particular, I must admit that this is not so. There was a time when I was convinced that the world should just be rid of humans, because we're just trashing the place for everything else, but that was short lived. I have come to know that I value my own existence, as well as that of my fellow humans, especially my close friends and family, above most other things. While I do feel that this is only partly my choice (and partly how I am evolved to operate), I believe strongly that it is easy to expand the notion of oneself to include things that are not obviously, directly a physical part of me. The rice that I am eating is about to become part of me, and soon portions of it will depart from me to become part of the earth. In a similar manner, the water I drink and the air that I breath are extensions of my physical being, and they circulate throughout the world on a daily basis, entering and leaving countless other humans and living things. Thinking in this way, I find it much easier to care about everything, because it becomes much more obvious that everything is part of everything else. We are one. And I've gone off on a tangent that describes exactly what is important to communicate to everyone so that we'll all be on the same page about saving everything, thereby saving ourselves.

Some other, less selfish reasons that I can come up with for wanting the human species to do well in the future include the idea that humans are the only things we know of that can appreciate and reflect upon the beauty and wonder of the universe. Someone told me once, “we are the universe's way of reflecting upon itself.” We create beautiful works of art, magnificent buildings and bridges, and so much love. The wedding that I attended recently was a wonderful reminder of the power, beauty and all-engulfing fire that love is. I think its OK to think of ourselves as special, because we don't have anything similar to compare ourselves to. As long as we realize that being special doesn't mean we get to destroy, dominate, marginalize or bully anyone or anything else. We are special, and we are part of everything, so everything is special.

Back to politics: What ever happened to a government of, by and for the people? Who I see in elected office are the wealthy, corporate-backed moderates. I am none of these things. Are these my people in office? And when was the last time you felt like you had any true input on how things run in Washington D.C.? I'm going to write a letter to the president, and include some of my concerns. I will probably be written off as an idealistic wacko, with no clue as to how things actually get done in D.C., but it seems to me that currently, almost nothing gets done anyhow, so what have I got to lose? As for being “for” the people, I feel like that part was forgotten long ago. Now, the ears and the pockets of politicians are filled by corporate lobbyists, and I have no delusions that this is the reason that tax laws and regulations of all kinds are in their favor. I saw a bumper sticker recently that said, “I'll start treating corporations like people when one of them is executed in Texas.” Its time we realized our mistake in creating institutions which are required by law to prioritize profits above all else. My first official action as king of the world would be to reject corporate person-hood, and require that they place the well-being of current and future humans as their top priority. Perhaps then we'd see some real change. Maybe profits can come second.

Today was the first day the sun came out since Minneapolis, 4 days ago. I rode in shorts and a t-shirt for a few hours, and captured some great photos of red leaves in bright sun. Last night, I spent the night with the parents of the bride from the wedding I just attended. Dennis and Debbie Lofald are Minnesota born and raised. They live on a big piece of land next door to several members of Dennis' family. We went to their favorite pizza place, where they treated me to an excellent pizza and some delicious root beer on tap, which came in a big, frosty stein. Dennis told me all about his work for a company which collects blood plasma to manufacture products for all kinds of medical treatments. I also learned quite a bit of local and family history. In the morning, Debbie sent me off with 3 sandwiches, a small representation of the unending hospitality they showed me during my stay. Their youngest daughter recently moved out of their house, and it is just the two of them in their home for the first time in 27 years. I don't think they minded my company one bit.
Day 72: 9/25/11: Hibbing to Togo, MN: 49 miles
I awoke in a thick fog. The field that I slept in last night was full of soft grass and slugs. This morning, as I pedaled off, a slug fell off of my helmet, dropping in front of my face and surprising me. There was frost on my tent for the first time, but I was not cold. As the day grew longer, the sun came out, and by late afternoon, I was in shorts. I stopped at Side Lake for lunch, took my shoes off and enjoyed the sunshine on my bare feet. The lake was surrounded by houses tucked into a thick forest of mixed evergreen and deciduous trees. A few boats enjoyed the last days of the season. I very much enjoyed the rays of sun filtering through the multicolored trees as I pedaled the last few miles into Thistledew Camp, where I will work in the wilderness for the next 3 weeks. I feel ready.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Colors of Autumn and a Wedding

I am using a new camera which was purchased so that I can keep recording the beautiful world around me when I go into the backcountry without having to worry about the weight and break-ability of my current camera.  My new camera is a shock-proof, waterproof, freeze-proof compact camera.  It is very convenient, but has had trouble reproducing genuine colors, which is frustrating with all of the brilliant shades of autumn about.  Also, none of the video that I took this week is retrievable in its current format.  I'm working on it.

The latest pictures were taken earlier today in Duluth, MN.  It is in industrial city, having mostly to do with its being the furthest inland port in the US.  I crossed over the the St. Lawrence River to visit Superior, WI, so that I could pedal over the bridge, get some pictures and get another state under the belt.

Day 69: Pine City to Moose Lake, MN: 50 miles

The seasons are changing. This was difficult to notice for the first couple of months of this trip, due to the fact that I started off in a very wet, cool Oregon in the middle of summer. Rain has found me in nearly every state, and Minnesota is no exception. Today was the coldest riding day I've had, and yesterday threw both wind and water at me. Two days before I arrived in Minneapolis, it was 90 degrees, and I couldn't drink enough water to stay hydrated. This morning when I left, it was 45 degrees, I barely drank 3 quarts all day, and had to stop every hour to pee.

Fall colors abound on the endless bike paths of Minnesota. I spent most of the last two days isolated from highway and city by a line of trees of varying width, all of which are beginning their preparations for the winter. I cannot remember the last time I saw so many shades of pink and orange. It has been a long time since I've been anywhere but California for an autumn, and mostly in deserts or on seashores for the last several years. I feel as though the change in the seasons is somehow coinciding with the change in pace of my trip, as I get ready to settle in one place for a while. The world is telling me that great things await in the north.

I spent exactly one week off the bike. During that time, I prepared for, helped with, and attended the wedding of my great friend Greg Krajacic as one of 6 groomsmen. Greg and I were roommates in college for 2 years, and became constant revered companions. We also played Ultimate frisbee on the same team, and 8 of our teammates (not including Greg and I) also attended the wedding. This made for a posse of awesome dudes with whom to pre-party as well as celebrate with during the event. We all had a great time together playing soccer, poker, quarters, wrestling and dancing our butts off at the wedding. As is to be expected with such a group of dynamic, motivated, intelligent and energetic guys, I enjoyed their company thoroughly.

As I grow older, I begin noticing different things about such gatherings as weddings. It has been longer than I can remember since I attended a traditional wedding without a partner, and even then, the last wedding I attended was over 3 years ago. At Greg's wedding, I noticed that there were nearly zero single, unattached women close to my age. I think part of this could be due to the fact that it took place in the mid-west, but age must also be a factor. About half of my frisbee teammates are now married, with several others engaged or about to be. All of the bridesmaids were either married, engaged or in a committed relationship. For the second time in my adult life, I have not been in a committed relationship for about 6 months. I must admit that this is certainly intentional to some degree (how could I have a girlfriend somewhere and ride my bike around the nation?), but it is also a unique circumstance for me. In a few months I will turn 30, and though I don't feel that this will limit anything I'm trying to do, it is making me aware of how I'm using my time, and who I'm spending it with.

Due to the fact that Greg and I have the same first name, we generally go by our frisbee nicknames when we spend time together, so I'm “Ace” and he's “Krackerjack”. Everyone in Greg's family knows me as Ace, and to simplify things, this is how I was introduced to a number of people at the wedding. Greg and I got to spend an hour or so just the two of us as we drove to the airport to pick up his brother, Chris. We chatted about life, and it was nice to notice that we are able to maintain the high level of understanding that we always had when conversing in college. There aren't too many people who I can have that kind of candid, connected conversation with, and it dawned on me how much I appreciate Greg's friendship for just that reason. As he is taking steps to move on to the next phase of his life having married, bought a house, and planning children not too far down the line, it is comforting to me to see how our friendship will evolve and grow and remain intact. Connecting with friends whom I haven't seen in a long time was one of the primary reasons I undertook this trip, and I'm so glad I did.

Another friend who I was able to spend a few hours with was Jenna. Jenna and I went on a bicycle tour through Southeast Asia two years ago, and had an amazing adventure. It was that trip, with Jenna's help, that showed me what an amazing way to travel cycling can be. Upon my return from Asia, I was immediately motivated to begin planning my next bicycle tour, this time in my own country.

Jenna is in graduate school and the University of Minnesota for Occupational Therapy. She has found a great apartment in a very culturally diverse neighborhood in the heart of Minneapolis. We had dinner together at a Somali restaurant after walking through a Somali market. Inside the market, I felt immediately transported back to the markets of Costa Rica or Cambodia. Narrow isles lined with dimly lit stalls displaying all manner of watches, clothing, trinkets and tons of absolutely gorgeous cloth. The religion of most Somali immigrants in Minneapolis is Islam, and it occurred to me that many of the women must make their own clothing, which involves much more material than the clothing of most non-islamic women. Jenna and I still get along perfectly well, and it was very comforting to see her thriving and enjoying her new environment.

Many sayings, phrases and bits of advice have stuck with me from a young age. One that always seemed to make sense was, “The more you know, the more you know you don't know.” I suppose this is referring to the fact that as we become more educated and knowledgeable as people, we begin to understand that there is SO much more knowledge and information in the world than we could possibly expect to learn in a lifetime. There are definitely times in my life when I lost sight of this concept.

I remember being 17, a junior in high school, and having the parents of a friend or two ask me what I was going to do with my life. I was very confident that I was going to be an actor and that I had the world figured out. I had trouble understanding why so many people struggled at making sense of life, when I, at 17, had everything figured out. Entering college and having my brain filled with mounds of information that I never knew existed was a lengthly process, but it certainly humbled me in terms of making me realize the quantity of knowledge that I would never be able to obtain. That process probably helped me to build more character than many other things I've done in my life.

I had a similar experience in 2006 when, in combination with getting a job where I was backpacking and camping all the time, a loved and respected colleague from college began a bicycle tour from Los Angeles to the tip of Argentina. Both of these expansions of what is possible in life filled my head with even further possibilities, greater achievements, vaster realms of knowledge on physical, spiritual and emotional levels, rather than purely intellectual knowledge, which is what I had primarily focused on previously.

At this point, I feel like I'm in the midst of having another “aha” moment, where some previously overlooked realm of possibility reveals itself to me. College was one of those “moments,”, but I don't think this one will take quite as long. My recent trips to Berlin and Australia, falling in love with an artist and experiencing the world through her eyes, have played an important role in helping me step out of the box of creative understanding that I now know I was previously in. The bicycle trip is helping me to drop my very strong, thoroughly implanted preconceived notions of the lifestyles, attitudes and behaviors of people all across America. My new job, which will send me back into the wilderness, where my current lifestyle was born, waits for me only a few days away. I am excited and open and ready.

Last night, I had a tremendous couch-surfing experience once again. I stayed in Pine City with Val and his pitbull mutt, Angel, a total sweetheart of an animal. Val and I operate on the same wavelength. The man is doing all he can to improve the world around him, while enriching his own life in the process. We chatted about martial arts (he teaches), economics (he has a degree, but hasn't used it), animal rescue and corporate irresponsibility. He used to race bicycles until he got into a bad crash, and now he just restores classics once in a while. We both snowboard. If it's yellow, we let it mellow. We got along great right from the start, as he gave me the tour of his cozy home, decorated with furniture from garage sales which he has fixed up and made worthy of collectors.

For dinner, we ended up at Froggy's pub for burgers. I ordered the ½ pound Froggy special, with everything on it (onions, lettuce, tomato, pickles, 3 kinds of cheese, mushrooms, jalapenos, bacon), and finished it while Val still had 1/3 left of his slightly smaller burger. It sure hit the spot. While we waited for our food, ate it, and for quite a while afterward, Val and I were entertained by Frank J Cummings, a retired police officer from Missouri. Frank was about drunk and half when we came in, and continued ordering himself pitchers of beer the whole time we were there. At 58 years of age, he looked 70 (the age he told us at first), and reminded us constantly that he was “one mean son of a !#@%$” He immediately told Val and I that we looked like the Beegees, and then insisted that we were federal agents. Frank was loud and smart-mouthed and full of wise-cracks, but never quite hit the point of mean-spirited. He did impressions of several famous people, sang a line from a song every now and then, and tried to impress every women who'd look at him. Anytime anyone asked him a question, his reply was, “none of your business!” Since Val and I were sitting right next to him at the bar, we were the “watch this” guys of choice, and I think we satisfied his need for attention. He insisted that I looked like Kid Rock (blech!), and ended up giving me his address in Missouri, so that I can come visit when I go through. I think I just might.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Minnesota, the Universe, and everything

I have made it to what was originally the only set destination on my trip.  I have pedaled 3320 miles, enough distance to have crossed the entire USA, and yet, I am just in Minnesota.  I feel accomplished and ready for the next step.  It is a relief to have come so far on such a tight schedule with such success.  I will now be in the company of good friends for the next week, and off to work in Northern MN for two months.

Check the YouTube link to the left for new videos. 

9/11/11 Day 64: Huron, SD to Lake Benton, MN: 101 miles

10 years have passed since “9/11”. I did not expect to be where I am now, rolling through cornfields and windmills at sunset in western Minnesota. I remember being woken up by my father on 9/11/01, and listening to the radio in a sleepy haze. I was home for the summer from my first year of college. The world has certainly changed since then, but mostly in directions that I wish it hadn't. People are more fearful, more paranoid and more annoyed at airport security. In those 10 years, no “terrorist” attacks of any significant proportion have taken place here. I'm sure that one day, we will be attacked again by zealous people who've been screwed over by American policy overseas, but isn't it time we stopped worrying so much, and got rid of some of the ridiculously invasive policies of “homeland security?”

3 days ago, I also did not expect to be where I am now. I thought it would take me another day to get to Minnesota, but after 120 miles yesterday, and 101 miles today, I am over the border. 221 miles of some of the flattest country I've ever seen. More wetlands and lakes than I expected, fewer trees than I hoped for. It was hot, and my sweat glands have had a full workout. Wind was not a major factor, which I think was lucky. Everyone here talks about the wind as daily part of their lives.

All that flat land gave me lots of time to think. I thought about all the roadkill I'd seen over the course of the trip: skunks, rabbits, cats, pheasants, turtles, frogs, ducks, snakes and lots of deer. Animals in all manner of decomposition. Today I saw a big turtle (its shell was about 12 inches long) on its way across the highway, and stopped to help it across. It got really angry when I picked it up, and hissed at me, snapping its head in and out, but I got it to the other side safely.

I thought about universal truths, religion and connection. This trip has been reinforcing two concepts in my mind over and over again: Everything is connected, and everything is changing, all the time. I have been reminded of these things not only by the cycles of life that I see going on around me at every moment, but also through messages from other people. I watched a documentary called, “Zeitgiest Addendum” (its very alternative – check it out) while I was in Washington state, and the main point it made toward the end was just those two truths – everything is connected, and everything is changing. They refer to the earth and everything on it as “emergent” to remind us that the way things are now is simply a moment in time, temporary, and it will change into something new, starting with the next moment.
A book I picked up off of a night table at the cabin I stayed in on the Missouri river was about native culture and religion. The first few pages address exactly those topics: everything is connected, and everything changes. As I walked into the theater in the visitor center at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone, the voice of Chief Dan George came out from behind a screen showing silhouettes of people hiking into a sunset. “Everything is connected,” he said, “and this means that even the white men and Indians are brothers, and we hope that some day, they will understand this too.”
So much of what we do as humans in America at this stage in our history is to resist change. What a waste. The world will change whether we are resisting it or not. Instead, we must simply direct the change in a positive way. Time and time again, we must be the change that we want to see.

My thoughts on religion stemmed from my time with Jennifer, the woman running the ministry on the Pine Ridge reservation. Pine Ridge is the Oglala Lakota reservation where I watched the native funeral, and found out only later that it is also where the massacre at Wounded Knee took place, resulting in the final surrender of the plains Indians to the US Army's demands to give up their old ways and live on reservations. Jennifer's mission is ultimately to help convince as many natives as possible to accept Jesus and Christianity as their main belief system, and to drop any conflicting beliefs and/or traditions. While I feel that she is being a very caring, positive and helpful influence on the reservation, I also feel that her goals are not only a bit insensitive, but ultimately impossible. Her intentions are motivated purely by the good in her heart, and what she truly believes in, but these things are not in line with reality. The world will never unite in the name of a miracle worker who lived 2000 years ago. There is not enough tangible truth in that belief system to hold onto in the here and now. Native religion in many countries centers on the tangible things of everyday life; rain, sun, animals, the connectedness of all things. The idea that these things should be dropped for a story about a pregnant virgin and the son of an all-powerful consciousness somewhere out of the realm of our perception is a very hard sell.

Since high school, it seemed ridiculous to me that people could ever think that their religion is the only true and correct religion. Religion is nearly exclusively a matter of what a child is taught at a young age. If you are born in Saudi Arabia to a Islamic family, you will be taught to believe in Islam. If you are born in Israel to a Jewish family, you will be taught to believe in Judaism. Adoption yields the same results – an Arabic child adopted by a Christian family will be taught Christianity, and unless he or she is a “rebel”, or discovers some strong reason to question their teachings, they will remain with that worldview at least until they start thinking for themselves.
I can't help thinking what a huge help all of the missionaries and evangelists in this world would be if they were trying to unite people around universal truths that all people can believe in, rather than teachings from a very specific set of texts with a somewhat bumpy history. Devout followers of any religion will not convert to another, so why are people trying so hard to bring others to their point of view? Instead, why don't we find things that we can all believe in, all work toward, and all be a part of? Why don't we devote more time to working on the things that we can know through seeing, touching, tasting, feeling and hearing, because these have a much harder time conflicting.
With what we have discovered in the last century through scientific research, psychological analysis, study and observation of our changing planet, I believe that the time has come for a new way of life based on what we know about our world. We need to embrace the realities of the impact that humans are having on everything here, and decide what we want to do about it. Everything is connected. What this means is that with every action that we each take, we are affecting the entire rest of the world, and that in itself is a spiritual notion. We are a part of something greater than ourselves, whether we believe in it or not. We are a part of everything. We need to embrace the everything that we are a part of, and be the change we wish to see.

That got a little deeper and more preachy than I expected. I was on a roll. In another article, I am working out explaining the connections between everything in a way that is easy to understand, so that if “everything is connected” is not already obvious, then it may be more obvious afterward.

Last night I spent the night in a county park and met a couple of people, Nick and Julia from Minneapolis, who had just started a cycling tour in the opposite direction. I was the first other touring cyclist they'd run into, but they were already making friends and having a good time. We had some lat night discussions on routes, equipment and cycling in general, and parted quickly the next morning. They were excellent company.
I stopped at a you-pick raspberry farm today. Their price: you pick as much as you want, and leave half in their refrigerator. I got about ¾ lb. They were delicious.

9/12/11 Day 65: Lake Benton, MN to New Ulm, MN: 97 miles

You'd think a lot more would happen on a day where 100 miles have passed on a bike, but I think the opposite is in fact true. Longer days means less time off of the bike, less time for photos, for tourist sites, and for meeting people. It means more scenery, generally, but not today. Today was corn and soybeans. All genetically engineered, with tons of signs advertising the companies that engineered them. I would like to sit down and listen to some of the farmers, and see how they feel about genetic engineering. It looks like everyone here is quite supportive, judging from the never-ending fields. The amount of monoculture is overwhelming. I wonder what this place looked like 300 years ago?   

Friday, September 9, 2011

Badlands, Bison & Big spiders

I have started a YouTube channel!

Video from the trip will be posted to this channel each time I post pictures and new blog.  There are over 20 clips so far, most under 1 minute in length.  You can access my channel by clicking on the permanent link on the left side of the page, or you can click here.  

9/7/11 Day 60: Badlands National Park to Belvidere, SD: 72 miles

When a grasshopper hits you in the face going 20 mph, it doesn't feel very nice. The plains are absolutely brimming with grasshoppers this time of year, and they hop all over me as I'm riding down the side of the road. I don't even bother trying to avoid squishing them anymore, because swerving out of the way of one just means that I'm going to hit another. There are at least 4 different species of grasshopper that I've noted, without taking too close a look. They come in all sizes and colors, and they jump all over the place. I am still very surprised and a little freaked out when they land on my bare skin with their hooked claws, and then give me a little squeeze as they jump off again. They are my constant companions.

Yesterday evening, as I rolled into Badlands National Park, I could have sworn I was on African safari. The wide, grassy canyon which held Sage Creek had bison browsing all over the place, including one right in the middle of the road as I was making my way to the campground. The trees were low and scrubby, the hills soft and dry, and the streams meandering and brown.

I had left Rapid City that morning after a very pleasant, if short, night with another couch-surfer named Michelle. She was also hosting another guy, Brian, whom she'd met through couch surfing several years earlier, and they have become good friends. Brian has been traveling on a motorcycle all over the world, and is originally from the UK. The three of us shared a simple dinner, and then I ran off to the grocery store to restock for the next portion of the trip. The next morning, I took my time packing up and cleaning the bike, and departed rather late. Rapid City has a bike path running almost the length of the city from east to west, following Rapid Creek. I pedaled through city parks, golf courses and past a farmer's market on my way out of town. In the afternoon, I took a long break to cool off in the Cheyenne River.

That night, I camped with a young couple from Pennsylvania who are in the process of moving to Seattle. Ian will be attending Graduate School for something along the lines of community and environment. Victoria, his girlfriend, had just attained a degree in assistant dentistry, and hopes to be able to do something like “Dentists without borders.” They were immediately very friendly, and welcomed me to share their table and space at the campground, which was full when I arrived. The campers next door gave us some home-made baked beans that night, which were delicious, and some donuts the next morning. Ian & Victoria were very pleasant company, and we may run into each other again.

This morning, I got an early start and pedaled my way through the main section of the Badlands. The Badlands are a very picturesque array of towers and canyons made of soft sediments which are eroding away into the White River, a few miles away. Fairly young formations, they are estimated to be completely gone in about 500,000 years, eroding away at about 1 inch every year. Alternating layers of red and white sediments make up most of the craggy mounds, with some yellows and purples mixed in here and there. I wished that I had gone through the main area the night before, as the sun was setting, because I think the lighting would have been much better for photographing them. In the middle of the day, they look hot, dry, bright and unrelenting, but still quite dramatic. Because they erode so quickly, and receive very little precipitation, the formations support almost no vegetation. Most of the park is prairie, though, which supports a huge amount of animal life.

I was stopped by a herd of what must have been nearly 1000 bison about 30 minutes into my ride, and had to wait for a break in the line of beasts crossing the road before I could continue. They are definitely frightened of a guy on a bike, as are many animals. They don't seem to care about cars at all, but they were quite startled every time I moved. The small herd of bighorn sheep that I came across about 5 minutes later was nearly the opposite. They started popping up onto the road out of a canyon about 50 feet in front of me, and spread out all over the road. As I rolled slowly toward them, having no other option, they barely moved out of the way as I went past.

The ride through the Badlands was full of ups and downs, with stops to look at ancient fossils of animals long extinct, as well as several amazing viewpoints. Many people asked about my trip. I finished the day with 40 miles of riding along a service road that parallels I-90 through grassy plains of emptiness.

9/9/11 Day 62, Pierre, SD

Couch-surfing once again with good people. A young couple from Wisconsin, Adam and Becky both work with children, and we have that in common. The ride yesterday was hot, dry and windy. I was glad to arrive here, to take a cold shower, and to watch the Packers game with a couple of die-hard Wisconsin fans. The lack of shade in the plains is unforgiving.

Yesterday, when I woke up in the hay field I was camping in, I found 3 garden spiders had woven their webs attached to my tent poles, and 3 more webs were attached to my bike.  The spiders looked fat and healthy, so I wasn't too worried about pulling my things away.  As I was preparing breakfast, a farmer pulled up in his truck to load up some hay bales, and was perfectly OK with my having camped in his field.  Good thing.

Tomorrow, I will begin a 5 day ride which will put me at my first long-term destination, Chanhassen, MN. There, I will attend the wedding of my friend Greg K, take a rest, and somehow make my way north to Togo, MN where I will work for a Wilderness Therapy program for the next 2 months. It hardly seems like I've been on the road long enough to be taking a break, but I will be glad for the time to renew my motivation and enthusiasm for cycling.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Leaving, learning, living.

Notable Statistic: I have passed 100,000 feet of vertical ascent!  See more Statistics in the "STATS" colum to the right.

9/4/11Day 57: Hot Springs, SD to Hill City, SD: 40 miles

I have reached the point where I am starting to feel like this lifestyle is now my norm. I hang out in a town for a couple of nights with a newly made friend, or some old ones, or both. I restock on groceries, post pictures and writing, and I get back on the bike and move on. At least that much of my routine remains fairly constant, though the actual amount of biking from day to day, and the activities that I engage in in each town have been somewhat different. I am camping alone tonight, away from any other people, off of a random dirt road in Black Hills National Forest. It is the first time I've done this since my first night in Montana, over a month ago.

Two days ago, I dropped below 4000 feet for the first time since entering Glacier NP. The mountains and high plains have been good to me, and I find myself often wondering what they are like during the 8 months of winter that most of these places go through.

The grass is surprisingly green here in the Black Hills of South Dakota, much more so than I would expect at this time of year. I am wearing my warm clothes tonight, including my warm hat for the first time on this trip. Autumn is already approaching in this part of the country, and the grass seems to still be green from a long, wet spring. The seasons here definitely play out differently than in California.

It has been 4 full days since my last writing – the longest I've gone on the trip so far. In those 4 days, I finished off Wyoming with my first true headwinds, flowers the color of fire growing on the roadsides, a great surf on a couch in Lusk, and a “real fruit smoothie” from McDonalds. It had been nearly 4 years since I'd spent money at a McDonalds, and I tried to convince myself that this time, I was voting with my dollars to change the type of food that mega-corporate fast food restaurants serve by choosing a healthy, fresh item on the menu. I also used their bathroom twice and their internet for an hour.

My final couch-surfing experience in Wyoming was at the home of Brooke H, who works for an electric utility in Lusk. She and her 11 year old son, Pason, welcomed me into a well-loved home that reminded me of being 11. Pason has 3 snakes, one of which I was allowed to watch eat 2 earthworms in less than 5 minutes, swallowed whole by a rapidly growing garter snake. We dined on a hearty helping of spaghetti, and some warty local crook-neck squash that was seasoned deliciously. Brooke and I spent several hours talking about travel, family, and life on the edge of Wyoming and Nebraska (the border was 20 miles away, and her family is there). In the morning, I helped with pancakes, and said goodbye.

I passed through Buffalo Gap National Grassland on my way to Hot Springs, SD. There was a lot of grass, and a fat flock of sheep, which at first I mistook for rocks, all with their heads down, munching contentedly. I arrived at the home of Jennifer D in Hot Springs at around 7, and she was busily tidying up the house, preparing for Shabbat. Jennifer runs a ministry in the town of Manderson, SD, which is in the middle of the Lakota Indian reservation, about 1.5 hours from Hot Springs. She is an active, energetic and positive person with a thirst for right-living and spreading love in the name of Jesus. After a shower, I jumped right into the kitchen and helped to prepare dinner. We ate a splendid spread of lamb chops, potatoes, fruit salad and another salad made from a base of a green leafy vegetable called lamb's ear, which is a relative of spinach, and grows well here without much maintenance. We had good conversation, and talked about many of her previous couch-surfers, who seem like a varied group of likeable characters.

Yesterday morning, we packed lunch, jumped in the car and headed toward the church than Jennifer attends. There, we picked up a load of food, including a 30 lb venison meatloaf, to bring out to the reservation. We also picked up another passenger, Peg, who is also a member of the church, and volunteered to help out with what Jennifer had going on that day. As we made our way through the low, grassy hills and deep into the reservation, we stopped at a church along the way to use the restroom. It was locked, but Peg happened to know the lady in charge of that church, who lived in a trailer next door, so we knocked on the door and were kindly allowed to use her facilities. Our next stop was at Bette's Kitchen, a small restaurant and bakery run out of the home of an elderly Lakota woman. There, we picked up some frybread, which was fresh out of the fryer, and still warm. It was my first time eating frybread, which is basically a large, plain donut without the sugar or glaze on top. It was tasty, but certainly felt heavy by the time I had finished.

Jennifer had spent the entire previous day cooking food to bring to the funeral of a Lakota man who had recently died. She expected his funeral to be the next day, and we were going to drop food off with the family of the deceased. When we arrived in Manderson, however, we found out that the funeral was in progress. After a quick stop at the home of some children that Jenn sometimes takes care of, we ended up bringing the food into the gym of the local school, where the ceremonies were being held. As we walked in, there was a man speaking to a crowd of 120 (my guess) people about land rights, values and making change. He seemed somewhat upset.

In the gym, a tipi had been set up, with the deceased, George, on a raised bed inside. Behind the tipi hung a row of beautifully colored quilts, some of which bared his name. Vases of flowers and photographs filled a row of narrow tables between the quilts and the tipi. Along one side of the gym, several large tables held about 40 cakes that had been brought for the occasion. The rest of the gym, facing the open door of the tipi, was filled with folding chairs and a row of bleachers 6 or 8 benches wide. Peg and I found a seat in the bleachers while Jenn said hello to several people she knew, and started preparing some of the food for serving. Peg and I were 2 of perhaps 8 white people in the place. I certainly felt nervous at first, unsure of whether I should be there or not.

Several more people spoke about the George, and also about diabetes, horseback riding, and other tribal issues. The sound system was not high-fidelity, and I had trouble understanding much of what was being said, even when they were talking in perfect English (though about ¼ of what was said was in Lakota). At some point, a procession of people started going into the tipi to view George, say their goodbyes, and then shake the hands of or hug each of the family members, who were sitting in the first row. George had been killed in a car accident, and though he was 61 years old, the death came as a shock and surprise. He was a well-known man, in and outside of the reservation. A line started to form, leading into the tipi and back out. The looks on the faces of the people leaving the tipi showed genuine sorrow and grief. I felt for them. Peg, Jennifer and I joined near the end of the line, and each took our turn viewing the deceased in the tipi, and shaking the hands of the family.

George was then taken out of the tipi, and loaded into a pickup truck, where he was driven to a hillside with a nice view for burial. I could not hear most of what was said at his grave site, but I watched as handfuls and shovelfuls of dirt were thrown on top of his body, which was covered with a buffalo fur.
Children rode horses decorated with painted hand-prints, rifles were shot and two men who were visiting from other tribes held fur-covered staffs decorated with feathers.

Back in the gym, we helped prepare all of the food that had been brought for eating. Other than carrying a box of food into the gym in the morning, the only work I did all day was to carry some 5 gallon insulated water containers from one end of the school to the other. Jenn did a good job of making me feel as though I had been useful. We ate a main course of fried chicken. Other dishes included some pasta and meat, potato salad, corn soup & corn on the cob, watermelon, and a berry pudding for dessert. Meat and white flower made up 80% of the meal – which was hearty and probably had a good variety compared to what most people ate day-to-day. I was not surprised that many people were getting diabetes. Almost everyone I saw over the age of 14 was overweight.

The atmosphere on the reservation was tense. As if everyone were just waiting for someone else to explode at all times. It probably didn't help that as we were driving, Jennifer told me about the rampant poverty, violence, alcoholism, neglect and malnutrition that left many people hurt, sick, abused and dead. I felt like I was in a third world country. The laws are different, the communities are isolated, and the people seem to be struggling against each other toward different goals. Garbage lines the streets, and too many people are crammed into each house. One elderly gentleman, as he was speaking at the funeral, exclaimed his disgust at watching young people who's only priority was money, like the white man. I overheard a conversation about a boy who had committed suicide – at age 8. I felt fairly useless in the face of the thick emotion that hung in the air. I did my best to be respectful and positive while I was there.

As we left that day, we brought two young Lakota siblings with us, Andy and Patricia. Jennifer has been spending time with them, taking care of them and providing a safe place for them for several years now. She took them to church on the morning I departed, and will take them back to the reservation Monday morning.

Jenn and I had discussions about demons, hell and family. I had a hard time understanding how she could be so sure of some of the things that she had seen, done and felt. But that did not diminish the fact that she was sure about them, about what they meant, and about why they happened. The one thing that she kept saying was that as long as you are coming from a place of love, then you are doing good. And I can agree with that any day. Staying with Jennifer, and going with her to the reservation was perhaps the greatest learning experience of my trip. I am thankful for the opportunity.

This morning, I passed through Wind Cave National Park, and took the “Fairgrounds” tour. Based on estimates from air-movement calculations, the NPS believes that only 5% of the cave has been explored. A young limestone cave in an arid region, wind cave has no stalactites or stalagmites, but instead, contains “boxwork.” Boxwork consists of calcite formations which filled cracks in ancient limestone beds long ago, and stayed where they are while the limestone eroded away. The results are quite spectacular, and the photographs I took show some of the most interesting formations. It is very difficult to get proper perspective inside of a cave, giving many of the photos and eerie, alien-world look, which is very fitting, because that is often how the cave felt. The tour was quite worth the time and money. On my way into and out of the park, I snapped some photos of prairie dogs and bison.

9/5/11 Day 58: Mt. Rushmore

This morning, I pedaled 14 miles through the Black Hills to Mt. Rushmore National Monument. The Black Hills continued to surprise me with their beautiful pine forests, verdant meadows, and lakes tucked into steep valleys with soaring granite formations in the background. They remind me very much of the Sierra Nevada at the same elevation (5000-6000 ft.).

I found Mt. Rushmore quite satisfying. The heads themselves, set on a scenic mountain-top, are a little too far away to quite get the scale of their enormity (Lincoln's head is over 70 ft tall). The visitor center, however, is well-stocked with video and photographs detailing the concept, design and construction of the massive work of art, as well as the yearly maintenance. Photos of people hanging off of the giant faces give a much better idea of their size. I also borrowed some binoculars from a ranger to get a closer view. I didn't even have to pay an entry fee, because they only charge for parking. Now, I am at a coffee shop in Keystone, heading to Rapid City for the night, to stay with another couch-surfer.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Fun in Jackson, frying on the plains of Wyoming.

In addition to this weeks photos, I have posted an album of photos from my phone which span the trip.  You can see the album HERE

8/28/11 Day 50: Jackson, WY to Dubois, WY: 87 miles

There is a theme beginning to develop on this trip. To little time, too many places. I left Jackson today hesitantly after 2 wonderful days off the bike. My time there was filled with friends and colleagues of years past, celebration, summer sun and lots of fantastic new people. If I was not on a time-line, I certainly would have stayed another day, perhaps 2. I might even have tried to find work and stayed for several months. I had a great time!

Not including Brad and Doug, with whom I was staying, I ran into no fewer than 5 former colleagues from Wilderness Ventures and/or NAL with whom I spent time and had good conversation. Eric D-F is now working at Great Harvest Bakery, and gets nearly as much free bread as he can handle every day he works. I definitely benefited from this, as well as a great party that he and his housemates put on during my last night there. I met so many cool people that night – it made me wonder why I was leaving.

On my second night in town (of 3), I went out with Zach, who is Brad & Doug's housemate, and some ladies who flew in from DC, one of whom is Zach's friend from college. We watched the last hour of a live Grateful Dead cover band (the Deadlocks) playing in the town square, and talked about climate change (all 3 of the ladies are environmental consultants in DC). Later on, Brad came out after work, and I also met Mandy, the volunteer coordinator for Habitat for Humanity in Jackson. Mandy and I got along very well, became quick friends, and I ended up volunteering at their job-site the next day. I spent most of that day hanging dry-wall in some low-income housing near a park. It was interesting to be on a construction site again after not having worked in construction for nearly 8 years. My skills were a bit rusty, but still useful. We wrapped up early due to some dark clouds and thunder that were moving in, and had a bar-b-que next to the park, where I tossed around a frisbee and ate a well-grilled veggie burger with some local micro-brew. An altogether great day.

Today, I got more than I bargained for. I knew that I would have to go over some mountains to go east, but I did not expect what I encountered. The first 30 miles of my day were heading back into Grand Teton NP, where I got some more great photos of the Tetons from different view points. I then turned east and headed toward Togwotee Pass, which I had been told was very beautiful. After another 10 miles, a gradual slope started, and I downshifted. A huge chunk of the hill had been stripped of pavement for repaving, and since it was Sunday, there was no one working. It was bumpy and rough, but the slope was quite manageable.

I figured that the pass would be somewhere between 7200 and 7700 feet, seeing as that is the height of the Yellowstone Plateau, and most of the passes are not much over 8000 feet. 7700 feet came and went, and I took a break at around 8400 feet to eat something and take some photos. While I was stopped, another cyclist came by with a detailed topographic map. It turns out, the section of highway I traveled today is on the American Cycling Association's “Transamerica” cross-country route. No wonder people seemed familiar with how to handle a cyclist on the road. The guy with the map, in his late 50s, told me that the pass was 9650 feet, and that the forecast was for severe thunderstorms. He was planning to camp at the next campground, 9 miles away. I had originally planned on going another 40 miles, and I had taken an extra day in Jackson, so I didn't want to wait out a storm which would put me behind schedule. Sure enough, the nice cloud cover that had been blocking the hot sun all day soon became dark, and rain fell for several hours. Meanwhile, I kept pedaling uphill. My rain jacket provided all the extra warmth I needed with such a continuous climb, but the skin on my legs, hands and feet were a bit numb from the cold rain. A couple miles from the summit, the pavement ended again, and I found myself pedaling up a river of mud. Thankfully, it was well packed, and everyone who passed me was very respectful. I got offered a ride again, which I declined.

I stopped a few hundred feet down the road from the summit to put on more layers for the downhill. My gloves were soaked, as were my shoes and shorts. Already, in just the few hundred feet of descent, my wet hands got cold in the wind. I threw rain-pants on over my wet shorts, put on a long sleeve shirt and my rain jacket back on top. Thankfully, the rain had petered out, and I didn't get anything else wet while digging through my bags for my warm clothing. The downhill was perhaps the nicest I have experienced yet. A gentle, continuous slope for at least 20 miles before the first little uphill. I got cold on the way down, but warmed up quickly pedaling back uphill. The rest of my ride into town was smooth and gently sloping downward. The scenery was relaxing – a lazy river meandering back and forth across the valley floor, dotted with log cabins and grazing cattle. Aspens shaking their fresh, green leaves in a gentle breeze. Snow-capped peaks in the distance. An excellent way to end a tough day.

Tonight, I am staying in the community room of the Episcopalian Church in Dubois. A young woman who called herself “Sprout” at the party last night, who has also done a cross-country tour by bicycle, clued me into the fact that they let people camp here, so I came and asked around, and a nice lady let me inside because she said they were expecting rain, and the sprinklers come on early. It is warm and dry and welcoming after a wet, cold day.

8/31/11 Day 53: Casper, WY to Ayer's Natural Bridge, WY: 51 miles

I am in the midst of having an experience of the type that I had hoped would happen more often on this trip. I asked Lou, the guy who I stayed with last night in Casper, about Ayer's Natural Bridge, and he recommended it highly. It is just a little blip on the map about 5 miles off of interstate 25, and I didn't know if it would be worth the effort. Lou did me a good one, because this place is a gem. Green lawns and big, beautiful old deciduous trees line the canyon bottom where the natural bridge straddles a big stream. The canyon has layered red-rock walls, reminiscent of those in Zion NP, and are quite a striking backdrop for the green trees and grass that fill the area. My plan was to stop here for an afternoon break, take a swim, a nap, and then move on, but I discovered that there is a free campground here upon my arrival. A quick loop around the place revealed several families having fun in the water and on the grass, a fisherman trying his luck in the stream, and the kind elderly care-takers being mighty friendly. These factors, in addition to the fact that my original destination for the night would have taken me 15 miles in the wrong direction (it was the only camping I could find on a map) made it an easy decision to stay for the night. This is the kind of thing I wish would happen more often – I'd meet a local who had a tip on the cool, out of the way places to visit, and I'd arrive to soak it in with time to spare. Thanks Lou!

For the last 3 days, I have been making my way across the flat lands of Wyoming. 3 days ago, I started my morning in Dubois at nearly 7000 feet, and it took most of a day to get down to 5000 ft. in Shoshoni, 95 miles away. The next day, I did 105 miles from Shoshoni to Casper. Wyoming is empty, and when the sun is shining, it's hot & dry. I couldn't seem to drink enough water to keep my mouth and throat from feeling dry, and it always caught up with me by the end of the day. The wind, which blows constantly, was thankfully with me, coming from the Southwest, but it ensured that whatever specks of moisture hung in the air were swept away promptly after the rain stopped falling. And rain it did, ever so slightly, almost every day. In this part of the country in the summer, the sky seems constantly filled with big, puffy white clouds which, in an instant, can decide to drop some moisture on the ground or not. Some other constants are sightings of Pronghorn scampering through the hills (they outnumber people in Wyoming), and wild sunflowers lining every roadside.

At one point a couple days ago I was feeling the heat of the sun quite intensely (I got pink yesterday, after 50 days of sun and a serious tan!), so I jumped into a reservoir which had a convenient recreation area right off the highway. The water was cold, and took my temperature down quickly. As I changed back into my bike shorts, my hair dried almost completely, and I got back on the road again. I followed a dirt road along an irrigation canal for a short while past some wild horses. As soon as I got back on a highway, there were dark clouds in front of me, reaching their smokey gray tentacles to the ground, as well as lightning striking in the distance. I rode on, and turned a corner onto the next road on my route, heading straight into the storm. The wind picked up, raindrops fell, and I put on my rain jacket to fend off what was now a cold, wet wind. Looking back at where I had just been, it was a beautiful, sun-lit valley with a lake and farms and fluffy white clouds all lit up in bright sun. Ten minutes later, the rain had stopped, and it got hot again. Craziness.

Three young ladies on touring bikes passed me going in the opposite direction just outside of Crowheart. We stopped and chatted for a while, took some photos, and wished each other luck on the way. They had started in Virginia, and were following an Adventure Cycling route into Oregon. You can see their blog HERE

I stopped at Hell's Half-Acre, a sight to see along the way. Actually 320 acres, there is evidence that this geologic sink was used by Native Americans to drive Buffalo into, and slaughter them when they broke limbs and/or couldn't find a way out. It was very much like looking into a miniature Bryce Canyon, with hoodoos and alternating red and white sediment layers. Lou told me that the movie “Starship Troopers” had been filmed there, and that the studio left a bunch of junk in the bottom of the formation, which people had then started climbing down to retrieve, so now they've fenced the whole thing off.

A dog chased me for about 100 feet, but I cranked on the pedals and outpaced it almost immediately.

Bunnies are eating the lawn in front of me.

Casper, where I spent last night, is a booming town despite the current state of the national economy. The energy industry here has provided more jobs than there are people to fill them. Wind farms, Coal plants, and large underground reservoirs of natural gas are the reasons for this. 2 of the 4 people who I met in Casper work in the energy industry, including Lou, at who's house I spent the night.

I met Lou through another couch-surfer, Monica, who was the only person of 4 who responded to my requests to stay in Casper. Monica was unable to host, but she invited me to an Ultimate Frisbee pick-up game, where I met Lou, and he graciously offered me a spare room for the night. Not enough people showed up for a real game, but we tossed discs around for an hour or so. Lou is an engineer working with oil-drilling companies throughout the mountain west. From him, I gained a very detailed and precise description of how directional drilling works, and he also offered me samples of two delicious beers and some home-made pasta sauce with prong-horn sausage. It was quite tasty.