Friday, April 26, 2013

Roots and Wings: The Conundrums of Bicycle Migration

Camping behind the firehouse with a new guardian.It started out as a typical evening. Seeing the sun low in the sky and feeling some sluggishness in the legs, we started looking for likely places to settle for the night as we passed through the tiny village of Waverly, Georgia.

At the familiar sign of the fire truck, we pulled into a huge circular driveway and scoped out the scene. The firehouse was brand new and surrounded by a rolling green lawn, a rare open space in the midst of the thick pine forest. The building's tall garage doors were open, which meant someone was there. Perfect.
Fire stations are the best free camping spots, offering protection from the highway, a water spigot, grass, and the security of an institution that local hooligans will not mess around with. Firemen tend to be welcoming but too busy to waste their time and yours fussing over you. Sometimes they offer use of their shower, kitchen, bathroom, etc.
We leaned our bicycles against the side of the spacious garage. There was nobody inside except a dog guarding the smaller doors that led to the firemens' inner sanctums. He barked a few times. Warily, we stood back. Then he trotted up to us and we realized that he was just a puppy, all sad grey eyes and wagging tail, not a fierce guardian after all.

Once extricated from his cave, the fireman on duty said he didn't see why not. We picked out a camping spot on the grass around the back of the building and the pup hung around as we pitched the tent and arranged our gear, playfully snatching a shoe or a glove to be chased in a circle. When I walked back to the front of the building to fill up our water bottles, I asked the fireman what the dog's name was.
"Either Rambo or Napper, we're not sure yet. He just showed up a few days ago."
That explained his uncertain alliances. The rest of the evening, we had a friend. As we prepared our dinner, he helpfully rustled through the bushes to find scraps of bread and old food. In return, he got some of our chips and bits of leftover pancakes.
Puppy: You must be referring to the beggar behind me?Sitting in the grass eating chili, trying to avoid the puppy's longing gaze and the sand gnats' stinging bites, we saw a truck pull up at the front of the firehouse. A young man and woman got out, he in full tuxedo and she in a flowing white dress. Hannah observed that they must have just gotten married.
"Congratulations!" I shouted over the lawn, waving and beaming at them stupidly.
"It's just prom!" They shouted back. I laughed it off, a little too loudly.
Hannah teased me. I defended myself. Prom is our culture's practice-wedding, a young woman's special day of glamor followed by a romantic evening that traditionally culminates in sex. The fact that white prom dresses are acceptable proves my point. Maybe one day they'll appreciate the subtle irony of my comment.

After the prom couple left a few other firemen arrived and they got down to the business of grilling burgers and dogs on their fancy gas grill. Typical men, we thought to ourselves. And they didn't even invite us.
I noticed one of the firefighters walking back and forth to a far corner of the lawn. Later, after the men retreated to their sanctums, presumably to watch football, pup and I checked it out. I could hardly believe my eyes. One of these charred-meat-eating, fire-extinguishing, pickup-truck-driving tough guys was growing vegetables. A few five-gallon buckets filled with dirt held young squash and tomato plants, and tender sweet peas grew up out of a window box set up against the edge of the woods.

Georgia fire station garden
Things aren't what they seem, was the lesson of the evening. A prom is not just a prom, man's best friend (and cyclists' worst enemy) can change his mind about who's worth guarding. Homegrown tomatoes, it seems, hold a special place in the heart of Georgians. We slept well with our new friend curled up outside the tent - our fuzzy alarm system.

Nights like these are bittersweet now. We're on the last leg of our journey, leaving the Deep South behind for New England. We talk a lot about how we can make the lessons of bicycle touring last, how we can transition back to a stationary life without taking things for granted, without accumulating all the unnecessary stuff that seems to come with sleeping in the same place every night.
Living out of four panniers is so simple. We carry just the food we'll eat in the next 48 hours (plus some staples), a stove, a couple of dishes, bedrolls, a couple changes of clothes, and our tent. Of course we have some optional items as well - phones, iPad, books, journals. Forty pounds of gear each. We could carry it on our backs, but we prefer to let Cynthia and Edith do the heavy lifting.
It's not just the simplicity we'll miss, though. It's the constant movement, discovering something new every day and watching the landscape change slowly before our eyes. Any traveler knows that there's a strange kind of comfort in leaving the familiar behind day after day.

Facing the reality of our bicycle tour's final days, we awoke grumpy. Grumpily, we
had breakfast, packed up, said goodbye to the puppy, and for a change I was ready before Hannah and started down the highway first. We were headed north, now, toward Savannah. A swift headwind picked up out of nowhere, but grumpily unwilling to give up my lead, I plunged into it. A few miles down the road, I gave up. Certain habits do become comfortable in this life of constant change; letting the one who seems impervious to headwind lead the way is one of them. In Hannah's draft, I can ride all day. Wind in my face, I am a wimp.
We ride on. Traffic is busy for a Sunday and a deeply grooved rumble strip hogs the narrow shoulder. The highway turns due east through a marsh, and I spot an elegant tall bridge ahead to our left. That is also the direction the wind is coming from. Like a girl at prom who sees the fat kid coming toward her and knows she will have to dance with him, I know we will have to cross the bridge. It's fate. Still, I'm not above whining as we approach.

Nature needs no windsock to tell you which way she would advise you to travel if wind is a concern. The small park next to the bridge where we stopped served the same purpose: Palm trees head-banging to the gusts, a fountain flowing horizontally over a pond. A lone soda can whipped out of the window of a car at the crest of the bridge and sailed toward us, bouncing effortlessly down the road and still gaining speed as it passed.
We gathered our mettles. I shot a video for posterity. We reminded ourselves that if we must die, this would be the best way to do it. Following a dream, each day feeling more and more in our element.

What is about that element? I wondered as I ponderously echoed Hannah's slow pedal strokes up the bridge's steep grade. For most of human evolution, we were a migratory species. It's only relatively recently that we invented agriculture and settled down. The instinct to follow the herds - and the sun - with the changing season is as basic as our continuing habits of living in familial groups and selecting a mate based on physical characteristics.
Migration has its benefits. Those who walk frequently leave a smaller footprint. Even if a traveling group of humans were to use up all the resources in a given area, the ecosystem would have a chance to recover once they'd moved on. Any waste left behind would be removed by sun, wind and rain.
That process would have had benefits for our migratory ancestors, too - they weren't living in their own filth. On their feet for most of the year, they would have been much healthier than we are today. Socially, they were probably better off as well. Imagine the time they would have had to think, talk, invent culture and pass it on to the next generation.
Of course, there are too many of us now to return to a migratory past. Then again, we have instinctively found ways to work migration into our daily lives.
I watch the cars and trucks whizzing by me, impervious to the wind which grows stronger as we climb. Every day most Americans migrate to work and home again, to soccer practice or school or doctors' appointments. After that, we jog or walk the dog or watch the travel channel on television. When we get a vacation, what do we do? We board an airplane or hop on a bicycle to temporarily relocate ourselves. Retirees are also notorious for their migratory habits. Like us, they see the benefit in following the sun from the northern climes to the south, then running off again when the heat gets too much.
Almost everyone has experienced how the physical experience of movement - even from behind the steering wheel - holds a special connection to our mental state. Thoughts seem to move best through my head when pavement rolls beneath my wheels. Countless songs, books and movies have been written about being on the road. When those ancient tribes adopted the plow and the ox and settled down, they clearly didn't do so without reservations. We carry those reservations with us forever.

Have I hit upon the true cause of road rage? If so, I wish I could explain it to the drivers behind the wheels of the 5,000-pound death traps now hurtling by us and convince them to slow down and enjoy the ride. We've finally reached the crest of the bridge.
The one concession the wind has made us up to this point was to hit us directly in the face at a constant speed. But the structure of the bridge throws us a curve ball. At the top are two fat trusses, and the wind rips around them at an angle so that suddenly we are hit with a side gust that nearly sends Hannah into the lane of traffic. Still, we are okay, and I unglue my eyeballs from the road to sneak a peek at the Atlantic which lies beyond the marshy St. John's river. It's a lovely view. And now we start down the other side.

With the help of gravity, we double our speed at least six miles per hour. Our wind combined with what is already coming at us is enough to lift Hannah's mandolin, which is strapped to her load with a bungee cord through the handle on the case, clear up into the air. It looks like an oddly shaped black fin. It's one of the few superfluous possessions we've acquired in our five-month journey, a reminder of all it attempts to replace - the piano, the record collection, evenings spent with good friends playing music together. Yes, we have enjoyed our migratory interlude. We are also looking forward to getting home.

Nothing is what it seems. A calm morning can give way to a stormy afternoon, a deserted firehouse can be the social gathering point for a rural community. In our oil-addicted culture of lost hunter-gatherers, I see potential. Mass bicycle migrations, old folks and babies and musical instruments in tow, following the harvests across the continents instead of making it come to us on refrigerated trucks. It's never too late to go back to what works.
As for Hannah and me, we'll be riding until summer peeks over the edge of the Pacific Northwest. That sounds like a good time to travel home.


  1. I have really enjoyed reading your blog and following your travels. What an adventure! This post offers some particularly interesting reflections--lots of food for thought.

    1. Bones - Thank you! For more fun, check out our Flikr photostream (just click on the changing picture in the upper right hand corner of this blog).

  2. Love this post --- however, I would be remiss if I didn't point out another "things aren't what they seem" moment: football is nowhere near in season this time of year. If they were watching sports, they were watching hockey playoffs, basketball, baseball, golf, NASCAR, or ugh bass fishing. :)

    1. Ahhh, you're right! Probably the fishing, lots of rivers in this part of the world.
      Thanks for reading ;)