Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Change in Direction - Lessons from the Pacific Coast

Comfortably situated here in San Diego, a city built on borrowed water in the middle of the desert, we are trying to prepare for what is ahead.
Already, our bodies are feeling the difference between where we've come from and where we are now. Our skin and lips are suddenly dry and cracking; we wake up in the night needing to drink half a bottle of water. Like lizards caught in the midday sun, we look around for shade and find none.
This is our predicament until we reach the other coast. In the meantime, Texas stretches before us: 1,000 miles of oil fields and cattle ranches, or so we're told. To get there, first we need to climb the 6,000-foot mountains just east of San Diego and a few smaller ranges in southern Arizona and New Mexico. And lord knows what kind of fried substances will be presented as "food" in this unknown territory.
Needless to say, we're a little nervous about the next couple of months.

Which we shouldn't be. Yes, cycling through the southwest looking for fresh produce after riding through California, the antioxidant capital of the world, will probably be a shocker. As a team of two, we'll be seeing a lot of each other through this unpopulated region, and we'll learn lessons on patience, navigation and logistics that will seem painfully obvious after the fact. Change is hard.
But we also know that our fears will be proved unfounded. Over the past five weeks, as we rode down the Pacific Coast, we learned from the locals of the challenges ahead that constitute cyclist legend. They became larger than life as we approached: Leggett Hill, the four-mile, 7-percent-grade climb; Big Sur, the overcrowded stretch of uninhabitable coastline between Monterey Bay and San Luis Obispo; Los Angeles - enough said. Then there were the hazards that made doubters of people who don't know us very well: rain, cold, wind, strangers. We rode through it all (okay, we hitch-hiked Leggett) and survived miraculously unharmed.
And we didn't ride it alone! As we passed through San Francisco, our friend Bryce, who toured from the East to West coast last summer, joined us for the day. He dutifully complimented our weirdly bulging legs and rode with us to Half Moon Bay, our next stop South, where we had beer and sandwiches and heard his tips on pitching tents in strangers' yards. (Here's one: If you're going to ask for permission to camp, you must also ask for permission to use the rest room.) In the Santa Ynez Valley, Rich rode with us to the next town and an excellent bicycle shop that fixed my bent rear derailleur hanger, eliminating an irritating grinding noise that had been trying my nerves for days. Both of our hosts in the LA area escorted us through hairy traffic and confusing bicycle routes, saving us time, headaches and arguments.

Best of all, we found Southern California a rich place for food, despite the vast stretches of concrete. Like the freeways that pile up like spaghetti around the cities, the factors that allow many Californians to live the locavore's dream and also prevent millions of others from accessing any kind of nutritious food. It seems like we pull out from the pile one solution - say, backyard vegetable gardens - and it comes out with a knot of obstacles - "but that's where we have barbecues", water is expensive here, nobody has the time. The temperate, warm weather is ideal for food production, but farmland in California's exclusive communities is beyond unaffordable, so farmers must cut costs elsewhere - like in wages. Anyone who's ever bent in half to pick a strawberry, dug a hole for a fencepost or moved irrigation pipes can imagine what it would be like to do that all day for eight or nine hours in the summer time. Farmworkers should be earning a wage that compensates them for doing the hardest kinds of labor, but instead they make less than the meter maid.
We can't make fresh, sustainably produced food that was grown within 100 miles available to everyone unless we have farms. We also can't have healthy communities unless people know what it takes to produce their food and are willing to pay to make it a good bargain socially and environmentally. Without the space and the skills to do it in, no one can be empowered to grow their own food, no matter how much money it will save them and how much better they'll be eating.
This is not to be down on the prospects of rebuilding our food system on a local scale. We have seen some incredibly positive things happening. The poorest and most urban parts of the state are where it's easiest to see the green vines creeping up between the cracks in the cement. In Long Beach, for example, we stopped for a day and learned about urban farms happening on private and city property and a grassroots-powered effort to become "the most bicycle-friendly city in America".

As we travel into a sparser landscape - food-wise, people-wise and water-wise - we're hoping to discover more creative approaches to re-localizing our culture. In any case, at least we won't have to worry about being overwhelmed by foodie attractions. With an extra gallon of water on the rack, a fresh supply of nuts and lentils, and some practice in asking strangers for help, we're prepared for anything,

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