Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Between Solid Lines: Food Cycles in Review

Well, what a ride it has been. We set out to pedal ourselves from Oregon to Boston, our  mission to empower others and ourselves to eat locally. We took just our tent, a bag of food, some tools and a camp stove on the racks of our trusty Trek 520s, Cynthia and Edith. It was quite the route to take on - down the west coast, across the southern states and up the east coast, beginning in the dead of winter and riding into a wet spring. We saw ourselves as snowbirds, setting off on a long migration in pursuit of the foods that sustain us. And long it seemed - 6,000 miles, up and down mountain passes, through cities and deserts. When it was all said and done, though, a strange thing happened. The country actually looks smaller now than it did when we set off. 

You've already guessed by my long silence on this blog that tying up the loose ends of this trip has not been easy. Between family emergencies, we've plunged straight into the summer growing season determined to plant and harvest so that we may live and eat locally. But I do feel like I owe you guys at least a retrospective. I mean, you've been through a lot with us, don't you think?

You started reading this blog nine months ago, watched us fundraise, plan our route, and launch our journey in December 2012. Together - us on saddles, you on screen - we ventured down the west coast, wringing our socks when it poured down rain and wringing our hands when we got up close and personal with Big Agriculture in those fertile California valleys. 
The Land of Milk and Honey took us at least six weeks to travel through - our longest state. Skirting the coastline, we got a view of the state that most don't, and found that even along the rocky crags of Big Sur and the wasteland of Malibu, food production thrives and local flavors meld. 
In San Diego, we explored the world of suburban fruit trees while enjoying a week off at my friend Hilary's house. Cynthia and Edith finally got the chance to dip their rear tires in the Pacific Ocean. Then, on a drizzly day, we turned to the east with nervous legs for the big climbs ahead and curious tastebuds for the unknown local foods of the desert. 
By February, we were crossing vast hot, sandy expanses, relying heavily on our dried food supply and toughening up fast. If you felt a sense of gratitude once or twice in that period when turning on the tap to drink clean water, that's how we felt every time we reached the next town with our empty canteens. 
We rode over the continental divide in New Mexico on our longest day in the saddle - over 90 miles ridden, the last part after dark, careening down the other side of the pass as the temperature dropped to 26 degrees Fahrenheit. The next morning we awoke in a loft full of giant puppets. It was snowing. We spent three days in Silver City and learned something very important: We are not the only 20-somethings taking radical action to reinvent our relationship with food and our communities. 
I had no time to blog about Generation DIY at The Bike House; it was off to Las Cruces and then Texas. Dreaded Texas, the state we were told would drive us to boredom that would put an end to this crazy adventure, or at least have us hailing a ride to the Louisiana border. 
When attempting to accomplish a goal that sounds unattainable - say, bike across the US - it helps to set smaller goals and meet them first. So our goal was never to get across Texas. It was to get to Alpine, a charming little town in West Texas. Thanks for our knack for creating rainstorms in regions that receive less than 6" of precipitation per year, we had to hitch a ride to do it, but we reached that goal and then some. 

The rest of Texas was scenic but not overly inspirational in the realm of local food - unless your diet consists entirely of beef. In Austin, a stop along what one of our hosts called the "hipster Silk Road" stretching from Portland, Oregon to New Orleans, we again became a little disillusioned by our generation. The hum of the city's farmers' markets, intrepid bicyclists and thriving food cart scene was drowned out by the trying-too-hard faddism of all of it. Like a fussy baby, I got hot, tired, and overwhelmed. 
Luckily, Hannah was there to talk me down, and so were you, our faithful blog readers. Your comments and phone calls bolstered our spirits and reminded us of the changes we were making all around the country just by sticking with this crazy adventure. So we did the only thing that we could do next: Keep on pedaling. 
A week or so later, our pedaling paid off when we crossed the border into Louisiana. The first sign we were getting close was a billboard advertising alligator steaks at a local restaurant. While the number of churches we spotted along the roadside didn't begin to diminish (45 on that particular day), we started to feel like the communities we were riding through held interests beyond Guns and Jesus. 

In the Deep South we experienced a little culture shock. Who are these people who eat tiny shellfish boiled alive, spread out on sheets of newspaper? Then we showed up at their gardens - and you did too in our photo albums and blog - and realized we're cut of the same hungry cloth. With a passion for their cherished cuisine, Southerners are a little bit more aware than the average American about where food comes from and why we have to protect the land (and waters) that provide it. Still, we didn't see farmers' markets and restaurants touting local food in the numbers that we did in cities like San Francisco, Austin and even Phoenix. "Sustainability" was definitely a left-coast word, and when I offered up the cilantro seeds that had been received with such enthusiasm in the western states, people seemed uncertain. They'd never heard of the stuff before.

It would only become more radically different. The southeastern US - Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas - reverses the scarcities and abundance we're accustomed to out west. Lots of water, but little arable land. The marshes and swamplands of the southeast made great rice paddies at one time, but today have found a higher economic purpose as shipping ports and tourist resorts. On the other hand, where willing people, decent soil and cash flow came to a confluence, food flourished - as we found during an idyllic week at Coldwater Gardens, a market farm in the Florida backwaters. 

Hannah's mom Brenda and her sister Sarah surprised us by the highway just under a hundred miles from the Atlantic coast. We took a few days off with them, which in one sense recharged our batteries and in another made us go a little wild-eyed to get home. It wasn't until we experienced the comfort of being around people we're familiar with that we realized the stress that accumulates from always camping or staying with perfect strangers, not knowing where we'll end up the next night, or what we'll be dining on. Of course, we stayed with some wonderful people who are now new friends, and we pitched our tent in some beautiful and memorable places (like behind a plantation house that was both a Revolutionary and Civil War battleground). 

But there were more familiar folks ahead - good friends we hadn't seen in a while in Baltimore and New York, including a middle school teacher who was excited to have us come talk to her classroom of Bronx kids. Brenda and Sarah took their leave, we snapped photos of ourselves on the Atlantic shore, and once again it was just Hannah, Tuula, Cynthia and Edith, pressing on up the coastal backroads toward Boston.

As we paused for a couple of days in Charleston, South Carolina, we planned out the last thirty days of our trip. We knew it would go faster than we wanted it to. We decided to savor every moment, prepared to stumble upon the abundant sights, smells and flavors we knew were ahead.

Somewhere between the two Carolinas I got a phone call from my brother and our trip took an unexpected turn. My dad had suffered a stroke and was in the hospital. Three frantic days followed, days I don't remember very well. I tried getting a clear picture of what had happened and how he was doing over the phone, but no family members were there with him to explain things to me. Finally, in Wilmington, I got a call from a family friend that convinced me that I needed to be there in person. For the first time ever, my dad expressed pride in how far I had come and urged me to finish the journey. But I knew that there was only one thing to do, and it was the same thing my dad would do for me if I needed him: To be there. 

Our Warmshowers hosts Kat and Brooke were incredible in helping Hannah and I find a suitcase for me and a bike box for Cynthia, giving us space to cry and mini bottles of hard alcohol to feel something other than grief and disheartenment. Hannah always knew she would go on if I ever dropped out of the journey. I'm not so sure I could have if our roles were reversed. I flew out of Wilmington on May 4th, after riding 5,600 miles, from one ocean to to the other and then some. 

Riding in an airplane in the opposite direction, undoing five months of work in just a few hours, was disconcerting but also perspective-building. I thought - and wrote, a lot - about how this is the way most of us see our country. Like in Google Maps, which we spent a good deal of time squinting at on my iPhone screen, the country as a whole looks vast and impenetrable from a distance. There are large expanses of nothingness, crossed only by the solid lines of the freeways. 
Our country is fractured by these solid lines, and easily taken apart. We have the west coast, and then the southwest, the south, and the east. Or, from the airplane traveler's perspective, fly-over states that look flat and deserted, and the coasts with their spiky cities and rows of backyard swimming pools. 
Then you zoom in, and you start seeing more lines - highways and county roads. You find the small towns, each with their own reasons for existing, no matter how remote the region or challenging the terrain. 
Our freeway-level perspective creates national illusions. That land is flat. That places are unoccupied. That distances are short. Not only are they short, they're pretty much inconsequential. In this frame of mind, it's easy to understand the point made by an agribusiness employee we met back in California: If we can put food on a truck and take it from here to Pennsylvania in four days, what's the point of growing it in Pennsylvania? 

Looking at things from the seat of a bicycle, the country appears a whole lot different. It's made up of people, mostly good and honest, if a bit skeptical of two women from Oregon who say they're pedaling 6,000 miles. There are no empty spaces. It's all something, be it desert, swamp, or concrete jungle. To someone interested in providing for his or herself by growing food, each space presents its own advantages and challenges. 

That's what I mean by the country appearing smaller after being traversed at our snail's pace. It's like just going for a bike ride every day and then, a week later, you're in another state. And by meeting folks along the way, we also found the philosophical distance between everyone to be much shorter than most of us imagine it would be. When it comes down to it, we all need the same basic things - food, water, shelter and each other. All of the young and old folks we talked to knew someone a generation or two ago who grew most of their own food, or built their own house, or dug their own well, and some of them are even doing these things today. All across the country, we saw a turnover happening - people wanting to get back to these basic skills to improve their lives and make a more secure future. 

Going back to the basics is easy when you're on a bicycle. We carried less than fifty pounds each, and learned that to have a comfortable night in our tent, all we really needed was a safety factor (camping away from prying eyes or in a safe zone like outside a fire station) and a source of water. Realizing this gave us an intoxicating sense of independence, but also a humbling awareness of our absolute interdependence. Truly roughing it would have been to try to take a bicycle across Antarctica or ride a human-powered rocket into space (it would have also been way, way more epic). Our trip was possible and wonderful because of the people in it, from the hosts who took us out to eat locally grown pizza to the guy at the fire station who said sure, you can camp, and feel free to use the shower, too. 

Back to that agribusiness employee who asked why any region would attempt to grow all of their own food when California can do it for them. I want to answer that question because it so beautifully sums up what we learned in our cross-country travels. Not just about eating locally, but also about the rewards of human-powered transportation. 

Why do it? Everyone we met had their own reasons: To feed people, to give them a reason to move, to empower them with self-reliance. To find common ground between people of different races, economic backgrounds and generations. To improve economic opportunity, to beautify the landscape, to bring people to Jesus, to keep teens off the streets, to fight childhood obesity, to improve health for all. To simplify life. Whether it's by eating what grows in your backyard or by parking your car and getting on a bicycle, simplicity is the greatest reward to be gained. It's what allows us to fit our lives into two panniers and pedal off to discover the worlds between the map's solid lines. 


  1. What a wonderful wrap up to an epic journey. I was, truly "with you all the way", and rootin' for ya too. I never had a doubt. Such a nice blog, and well written, and wonderful photos to live it all again. Keep on riding, food (and soul) searching, and blogging .... you'll always have a reader here!

  2. Thank you for the nice summary of your journey. What an adventure it was and how enlightening for all of us avid readers of your blog(s). Keep up the good work and write a book! Cheers!