Travels with Stephen
Over the hill and across political divides: A Reno man goes in search of America from the seat of his bicycle
I was a kid of 12 or 13 growing up in Connecticut when I first fantasized about riding my bicycle across the United States. That was a half-century ago, and I loved to take my 26-inch, turquoise-and-ivory Columbia “balloon-tire bomber” on long rides in the hilly country around the Naugatuck River Valley. That bike probably weighed twice as much as a modern mountain bike, but it had compensating features like white-wall tires, chrome shock absorbers, decorative pointy tits like the ‘55 Cadillac, and a cable-driven speedometer that would register 40 mph in the 35 mph zone coming down Shepperdson Hill.
Thanks to retirement, I was able to realize that dream this summer, pedaling 3,380 miles from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.—from the Golden Gate to the Capitol lawn.
The ride was sponsored by Global Exchange, an international peace and justice organization based in San Francisco. There were 10 riders—eight 20-somethings, a 42-year-old, and the old guy, me, whose age in years matched the length of the trip in days—63. Each of us raised about $4,000 in contributions to Global Exchange, and we paid our own expenses on the road.
Global Exchange contributed a rental truck supply-and-gear wagon that we took turns driving. GX also arranged for housing, meetings with community activists, and opportunities for community service along the way. We slept in school gymnasiums and church meeting halls of just about every denomination; we camped in public parks, a motel side yard and a KOA; we sorted vegetables at a food pantry in Colorado, painted a youth-camp boathouse in Indiana, scrubbed floors in a low-income housing project in Ohio and picked up highway litter in Pennsylvania. Along the way, we were able to talk to Americans with vastly differing politics, incomes and opinions on the state of the nation.
In addition to simply wanting to complete the ride, I modeled my personal goal after John Steinbeck who, in Travels with Charlie: In Search of America, “lit out"—he in the company of a poodle named Charlie, I on a bike—to take the pulse of the country. I also set as a goal trying to sketch the sights rather than to use a camera. I feel that drawing, along with pedaling the land, gave me a closer-than-tourist understanding of my experiences.
Global Exchange set two official themes for our trip: fair trade (seeing to it that people at the bottom of the economic ladder receive a living wage for actual production) and sustainability (the concern that those currently alive not deplete the Earth’s resources for the following generations). I had previously read a good deal on these problems, starting with E. F. Shumacher’s groundbreaking 1973 book, Small is Beautiful, but biking the breadth of the United States brought these issues home.
We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge June 12 in glorious San Francisco sunshine and headed east across California through Sonoma, Granite Bay, Nevada City and Truckee. Our weather luck failed us on Donner Summit, where we hit snow, sleet, hail, ice and rain. After swooping down Spooner Summit to Carson City, we tackled Highway 50, the loneliest road in America, across Nevada and then into Utah. Again we had bad weather luck in the form of a stiff southeast wind that had us pedaling even on the downhills, plus slippery moments as we encountered and rode through a march of Mormon crickets on the highway near Eureka.
Global Exchange had arranged for us to stay and meet with leaders of the Fallon-Stillwater, Duckwater, Ely Shoshone and Ute tribes. In Austin, we met with Maurice Frank and Mitch Maes of the Duckwater tribe, who spoke with us in English and to each other in Shoshone about the problems facing Native Americans. They described alcoholism and poverty in detail, these the lingering effects of the cycle created by the white invasion of Indian territories in the 18th and 19th centuries.
These tribal leaders stressed that Indian youngsters are pulled by two cultures. One is the video game- and TV-driven, beer-and-broads culture of contemporary America. The other culture is Native American. As several elders told us, the kids too often don’t seem interested in the traditional ways and regard study of spiritual traditions and the native languages as irrelevant and even boring. The pressure on reservation kids is worst in the public schools, where they want to fit in but don’t, where education holds out a promise of success through an American dream that doesn’t seem to work for them (or their parents).
As a former educator, I asked, “Might you be better off if you controlled your own schools?” Nobody wanted to go back to the old model of Indian schools taught by white civil servants, and nobody really saw much potential in my simplistic bright idea of developing schools that would start with Indian culture and, through interdisciplinary, project-driven education, position Indian young people for successful life within but independent of the dominant culture.
I was encouraged, however, at a Ute pow-wow in Ft. Duchesne, Utah, where we bikers, conspicuously not members of the community, helped prep the grounds by picking up two cultures’ junk—old beer cans and wrappers from Indian tacos. At the evening dance competition, I was impressed by the number of young people who know the dance traditions and had spent hours and dollars on their costumes, in particular, by a girls’ dance team representing a public high school that cares enough about Indian kids to include their interests in the curriculum.
But as we left “Indian territory,” we riders were discouraged by the depth and complexities of Native American issues. Like many concerned people before us, we were not able to imagine solutions to problems that were generated by a colonizing and occupying force. The implications for current U.S. actions in Iraq were not lost on us.
On the road
We left the friendly confines of the Great Basin as we rolled into Colorado, where the Rockies loomed large, especially in the imagination. We puffed up a 14-mile climb through Rabbit Ears Pass and over the continental divide, where a tall-tales teller assured us the ride would be downhill all the way to the Mississippi—just follow the water! We rode out of the mountain passes, but eastern Colorado, Kansas and Missouri were anything but flat.
We camped out at several organic and community farms as well as at the Land Institute (a sustainability project in Salinas, Kan.) and a Wiccan commune in Missouri. We slept in the bunkhouse of a Colorado cattle ranch. We pedaled through lovely if occasionally monotonous acres of livestock, hay, corn, wheat, soybeans and crops we city slickers didn’t recognize.
Our Colorado ranch host was Don Brandin, a small man, weathered and rock hard, in jeans and a cowboy hat. Judy, his wife, plied us with great down-home cooking, including a couple of special dishes prepared for our vegan bikers and multiple-choice desserts for us mortals. The Blandins had experienced several years of drought. In a good year, they told us, they were sustainable, breeding 200 head of cattle and feeding them on hay grown on their own acreage. In drought years, they had to cut back on the size of the herd and import $30,000 in hay from wetter regions. Judy was thinking about retirement but was holding onto her job in town at the school district offices to help make ends meet. Don showed us a half-million dollars in specialized haying equipment in his barn, much of it sitting idle. The Blandins have been approached about selling out to some of the large-scale factory ranches that are taking over in Colorado.
“I’d have to be broker than I am now for that to happen,” Don said.
The Blandins are hanging on, as are many of the farmers we met, because of their love of the land and of growing things.
We began to notice dying, or, more euphemistically, “economically troubled” towns. Once more or less sustainable as farm communities, they were losing their critical mass due to the decline of the family farm. St. Francis, Kan., used to have competing pharmacies and hardware stores but is now down to one each, with dusty rental signs in the windows of the others. There, the manager of a co-op grain elevator (himself a former farmer) told us that farmers nowadays have to cultivate 10 times the acreage their parents did in order to make a living. We watched from his control booth as a truck loaded with wheat stopped on the scales, submitted a sample for quality analysis, dumped the load into the elevator, and returned to be weighed empty. Kansas was suffering a drought, and yields of wheat were down from 30 or 40 to 10 bushels per acre; and due to vagaries in the international markets, prices for those bushels were also down to the point that farmers could barely afford to harvest them, much less consume $2 plus per gallon for fuel to deliver them to the elevator. The manager joked with the driver, who turned out to be his brother-in-law, then gave him a credit voucher.
“He has to take what I give him,” the manager told us. “It’s a hard thing for me to do.”
As we crossed the Mississippi into Illinois, then Indiana, we noticed the frequency of commercial signs posted in the fields—Ortho, Cargill, Monsanto, Pioneer. A growing number of farmers and corporations are opting for the “big is better” or “big is necessary” approach: farming larger acreages, using more chemicals, producing monoculture crops on a scale that can produce a profit. The seed-and-chemical giants are omnipresent in farm country, supplying hybrid (and sometimes genetically engineered) seeds, then selling herbicides and insecticides tailored to the crop and the territory, catering to hands-off, chemically intense farming from costly, air-conditioned tractors.
The farmers who are successfully exploring sustainable options are fewer in number but sophisticated in their operations, having learned to focus on specialized foods, often organic, carving out niche markets based on sustainability, community involvement and an enormous amount of entrepreneurial hustle.
Yet, the sustainability model isn’t working for all. I met a former farmer in western Pennsylvania who had given up on organic farming as a last ditch effort to keep his farm going. “It was just too much trouble, too uncertain,” he said. And in western Maryland, I talked with a man who had successfully marketed hydroponic tomatoes to groceries and restaurants until some of the “big guys,” the supermarket chains, became interested in “the product” and forced the price down by 40 cents a pound. This fellow is now making his living as an auctioneer.
In our bicycle roundtables, both among ourselves and with farmers and ranchers, we often discussed the tenets of free-trade advocacy. If the decline of the family farm is to be reversed, the rest of us will need to raise our consciousness about where our food comes from. We’ll need to choose more selectively, and—here’s the kicker—we’ll have to be willing to go the extra expense and trouble of making the rounds to farmer’s markets and specialty groceries, forgoing the convenience of the big-box supermarkets, even those that modestly cater to customers who buy organic foods. We’ll need to understand why “fair trade” agreements like CAFTA and NAFTA push substandard wages abroad and flood the market with food that will underprice that produced by living-wage farmers and employees at home. The issue is further complicated by the “sustainability” of current U.S. farming practices, often based on under-the-table low wages paid to illegal immigrants, without whom even our large-scale agriculture operations might fail.
Out of gas
The central issue of the sustainability movement is the depletion of natural resources. Evidence of the problem is everywhere. In eastern Nevada and western Utah, we talked with people who outspokenly oppose the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s proposal to pipe hundreds of thousands of acre feet from the “rurals” to slake the thirst of MegaVegas. The locals were deeply concerned about the old maxim that “water flows toward money,” that ranchers will be subject to enormous pressures and lucrative proposals to sell off their water rights. At the Utah/Nevada Bordertown gas station on Highway 50, I was assured by a cashier that the ranchers will never sell, but she added that the rural folks will need a lot of help from outside if they are to resist. (As a Nevadan, I was grateful for the work of organizations like the Sierra Club and the Nevada Water Network for voicing strong opposition to the SNWA “water grab.")
On the other side of the country, as we rode the endless roller-coaster hills of the Appalachians, we were puzzled by bumper stickers that read, “Almost Flattened: West Virginia,” a turn on John Denver’s declaration of West Virginia to be “Almost Heaven.” These stickers voiced opposition to the growing practice of mountaintop mining in West Virginia (and western Pennsylvania), where, to reach coal formerly too costly to access, the mining companies simply blow the tops off mountains and scoop out the black gold. They “reclaim” the land, as per law, by simply pushing back some of the dirt and letting Mother Nature recover in her own time. The remaining waste soil is dumped into valleys, frequently blocking or polluting the streams that carved those valleys.
Coal mining is receiving a huge boost from the Bush administration, which sees it, as well as Alaskan oil refuge drilling, as a solution to our Middle East oil dependency. The environmentalists I talked to argued that this policy is disastrous, a non-sustainable, short-term solution that will, in fact, provide an incentive for nuclear development once the local coal and oil reserves have been destroyed.
Meanwhile, alternative energy programs limp along, partly because exhaustible fossil fuels still remain affordable (Will $3 a gallon prices set off a revolution?), partly because so much infrastructure in the energy business is dedicated to the status quo, and partly because we seem to have blind faith that science and technology and American know-how will, when needed, figure out a solution to our growing energy needs.
The fixes and cures—as we know from the negative example of Yucca Mountain—are complex, costly and unpredictable. In Pennsylvania, I was impressed by the Water Institute of Melcroft, which has staved off the development of landfills in its neighborhood and generated grants to dewater mines and purify streams in the Indian Creek watershed. But the reclamation projects cost millions, and there are thousands of sites where reclamation is needed.
Further, even in Melcroft, people are divided. An environmentally conscious 40-year-old woman who is contemplating a transcontinental bike ride and baked us a loaf of organic zucchini bread was adamant that wind power needs to be blocked in the region. “Don’t take away our ridge tops,” she begged. As we rode out of town, we saw what she was talking about: huge, surreal, wind turbines, contributing to coal independency, perhaps, but killing birds and blighting the landscape for the foreseeable future.
In that same stretch of travel through West Virginia and Pennsylvania, I met two young men who had, initially with high ideals, worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and had quit, disillusioned. One left because anything in his reports demanding powerful action was red-lined; the other resigned because any minor successes he discovered on the environmental front were exaggerated by his bosses and touted as evidence by the administration that environmental problems are under control.
The road less traveled
In my “search for America,” I did not come up with any easy or bumper-sticker solutions to these problems (though I still adamantly believe in keeping Tahoe blue and that Nevada is not a wasteland). However, in talking to such a range of people, I came to feel that the time is right for nonpartisan discussion of issues. We need to search for non-jingoistic, common-denominator solutions (or, at least, proposals) that cut across party lines.
In Colorado, for example, Don Blandin spoke of the problems that environmentalists and “tree huggers” were creating for him, forcing him to fence off and cement a portion of his stream to protect water sources from his cattle. As something of a tree hugger myself, I at first automatically dismissed his concern until he explained that wild elk also pollute the stream, that they knock down his fences, and that his complaints to various governmental agencies that 600 elk were doing far more damage than his 200 cattle were ignored. Here’s a common denominator issue where new bedfellows—environmentalists and cattle people—can work together (as they are in eastern Nevada in opposing the SNWA water grab).
Further, this anti-treehugger rancher was outspokenly anti-war, which at first surprised us, given some of his “conservative” views. But throughout our trip, we found common denominator anti-war beliefs among conservatives and progressives, blue-collar and white-collar people, albeit for different reasons: humanitarian versus isolationist, the economic versus human costs of the war, pro- and anti-United Nations, and so on. The war was the most obvious of the issues where we found fundamental agreements. Nobody, it seems, is opposed to people’s need and right to feel safe and secure, to earn a living wage, and to control their own destiny without government interference.
At the risk of sounding hopelessly naïve and clichéd, I have to observe that what unites Americans is far greater than what divides us. We increasingly need politicians who can move beyond partisan and bumper-sticker thinking to do real work on the genuine issues that face this country, pressing immediate concerns like health care, race and poverty and long-term issues like health care, race and poverty.
Upon our arrival in D.C., Global Exchange had arranged for us to meet with our aides to our congressional leaders. With Amber Broch, another Renoite who made the trip, I had an opportunity to express some of my sentiments to the aides of Sen. Harry Reid, who listened attentively, took notes, and assured us that the senator shared many of our concerns. (Of course, I pretty much knew the senator’s positions going in and see him as a good model of semi-nonpartisan thinking.) Unfortunately, the office of Congressman Jim Gibbons had no record of our appointment, and the aides were either in Nevada or out to lunch. I can imagine that Mr. Gibbons’ office might have been less receptive to our ideas, though as an exercise in appropriate dress, I had swapped my Birkenstocks for conventional shoes.
The long road home
I also have to add that this wonderful trip reawakened some feelings of patriotism in me. Like many folks who grew up with car fins and balloon-tire bikes in the ‘50s, Vietnam in the ‘60s, and Watergate in the ‘70s, I have grown increasingly cynical about things American—politics, culture, patriotism, the media, junk food, California cuisine. My voyage modified that.
In Illinois, I came across a shed whose shingled roof had been painted as an American flag. I’m pretty certain my brand of patriotism is not that of the shingle painter, but I had to admire the energy put into the project. I have taken that shed roof as a symbol for my increasing belief in the need for nonpartisanship in America, in the need for us not only to listen, but also to pay attention to the voices of others, even those with whom we disagree. As patriotic Americans, we need to fight to understand and act on our common concerns, to hammer out solutions—even partial solutions, solutions in progress—to the nation’s deep ills.
Damn, this is a great country.
If only we could get it together.