Sunday, December 20, 2009

Kids Got Future

Last Monday, I spoke with students at Tanglewood Elementary School about the cross country journey. The teachers (my mother being one of them) and students had been tracking my progress with the use of a large map and push-pins on a hallway bulletin board. The 114-day trek happened to coincide with the fall session, so ending the year with a fun show-and-tell presentation to the second, third and fourth grade classes seemed to be a great idea, and an invitation impossible to decline. The kids were excited, and wanted to see me and the bike that had ridden adventures throughout the semester-long story.

After rolling the bike and bags of gadgets in for display, Mrs. Barkley helped out with the last few arrangements as the kids began to fill her library. It wasn't long before the floor was warmed with perfectly behaved fourth graders. With about an hour set aside for each grade, I talked to the students about how fortunate we are to have the freedoms and way of life that we have in America. How some of us grow up and decide to be soldiers that dedicate themselves to protecting and preserving these freedoms. And how important it is to help and support those soldiers that have made such a commitment to their country – duty as the price of citizenship. They listened quite intently.

I then introduced them to the bike and the gear – the means to achieve the dream. With tools and know-how in place, we went on our slide show journey, starting in Seattle and photo flashing our way across country through 13 states. The rest of the day flew by in similar fashion with good questions asked from each grade and plenty of enthusiasm along the way. The pictures of puppies, horses, dinosaur skulls and Texas longhorns seemed to be all-around favorites. I liked those things too when I was in their shoes.

There were a few drifting moments where I traveled back in time to my own days as a student in Tanglewood. And though more than twenty years separate this present from that past, many of those memories still resonate with amazing clarity. More than the cafeteria smells, or sounds that echo the same down those long, tiled hallway walls, I think it was having a few familiar faces there that gave the spark, and re-ignited new life to those childhood memories. Mrs. Stephens, my fourth grade teacher, was one of those faces, and a big reason why that school has been, and will always be a very special place in the hearts and minds of the students that sat in those classrooms. She, along with several other teachers have established a lasting tradition of educational excellence and instilled a quality not found in direct text. It is an influential quality of encouragement to go beyond the common, whether that be personal achievement or pursuing the greater good that guides our hopes and active aim towards the better future....And for that, I tip the proverbial thinking cap to my Tanglewood teachers and to all the others around the world that make a positive difference in the lives of their students, and ultimately, our global community.

After all, kids are the future. They are the ones that help to expand our selfish time horizons beyond questions of whether or not we'll have comfortable retirements. They will either flourish from our successes or struggle to deal with the results of our shortcomings. And despite the fact that you never know what will happen from one generation to the next, they deserve our best – not massive debt, endless conflict, nuclear threat or many of the other numerous problems that beset this nation. Our “best” has been too inconsistent for too long. We have got to act with more smarts, try harder, and learn to compromise instead of balk and despise. Otherwise, the prospects of better days will surely begin to fade.

Surrounded by questioning second graders, I wondered about that future. But when one little girl said that she now wanted to walk across the state of North Carolina for the hungry people, those negative uncertainties seemed to vanish under what I guess to be the lingering light of hope and how you just never know.

Friday, December 11, 2009

To find your quiet corner

Everyone needs time alone. Even if you are the type of person with the filters and focus to write dissertations amongst mosh pits, having at least a small portion of each day to your own thoughts, in some safe haven that's conducive for contemplating and occasional creation can (in my opinion) yield infinite potential benefit. Whether that benefit is simple mental health or devising the next best master plan, it usually takes the right time and place to break from "the noise" and / or life's lovely distractions.

The fractured modern conscious is old subject matter: stocks tick; iPods click; cars, planes and trains whiz all simultaneous with computers computating every inch under orbiting satellites - so what. The world spins, humans rarely flinch. And though we barely dot the geologic time line, we are phenomenal adaptors. Despite our expanding abilities to take on the exponentially increasing external flux, most real, adaptive progress comes from our ability to wade through the madness, and carve enough of an uninterrupted time interval to narrow-down the necessary productive focus. It takes a lot to engineer these new super-colliders or defeat the best chess computers - but we do.

Living on the road, I increased the length of those focused time intervals in the cool, comforting confines of America's public libraries. Seeking safety from the sun, wind, and ranging temperature, it quickly became part of the loose, but consistent routine throughout much of the journey. Especially in the smaller towns of rural regions not known for extravagant attractions, I would define a very good day as waking early, enjoying and mentally recording along a 5 or 6 hour ride, making it to the only town for miles around, securing food, shelter, and then silently settle in a peaceful quiet corner of the local public library. The absolute best example of this occurrence was my most desolate day from Delta to Milford, Utah. After a long, sun-scorched ride with nothing but distant mining pits in between, I found the quaint little Milford library to be a desert treasure.

In general, the library, much like a church, is a sanctuary of sorts - a designated place where simple house rules help define a certain setting. It is the library that provides a refuge within the dirty disturbing urban, and it is the special environment to enjoy the world of books, indulge the imagination and seek out self-educating enrichment. There's no better way to take a passing sample of town than this true community center, where under one roof, at any given time, you might have children learning to read, students collaborating over group projects, or a homeless man knee-deep in a book of philosophy. A town is not a town without one, since not everyone can afford their own bat cave.

After all, it is the concept of each individual finding his or her own bat cave - whether that's a quiet corner of the public library, or making that special place within your own private dwelling: a crafty wood shop, a cool music room, a tooled-up garage, a back-room study, or chef-ready kitchen - all places where you can churn butter on your own terms. If it turns out good, consider sharing your creation. Homemade butter is hard to beat.

Salt Lake City Public Library

4th Floor SLC Public Library

Eugene, Oregon Public Library - Guggenheim Design

Baker City, Oregon Public Library alongside The Powder River

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Good Family Finish

If you've been to Sunset Beach, NC, then you have driven across the old swing bridge that floats over the inter coastal waterway, connecting the mainland to the barrier island. It is the only one of it's kind in operation on the entire east coast. For those who know it, this bridge is a symbolic gateway to a calm, relaxed style of vacationing. Each side takes their turn crossing the single-lane wooden plank pontoon, and when the clock strikes the top of each hour, both sides wait while boats and the occasional barge pass through. No one resumes until the old man in the control house brings her back around. If you're headed to the beach, it's the point where you realize the rush is over; it's time to take a moment, put it in park, and maybe hop out of your jeep or SUV to greet a stranger and smell the salty summer air. A fish market and a deep-fried-Calabash-style restaurant to your left, a putt-putt course and liquor store on the right! As for the sun burnt souls leaving the island, it'll be their first, post-vacation chance to exercise patience before returning to our hurry-up-I-needed-that-last-week-working-world.

Happy Parents

(the evil, new replacement bridge in back)

So yesterday, waiting before that bridge were my parents, grandparents, Aunt Jonnie, and Uncle Darryl. Mom and her binoculars spotted me first - her unmistakable whistle piercing the swirling December sea breeze. All the soreness and pains immediately vanished with their healthy dose of hugs and laughter. Eager to finish, I saddled up for one more ride as they followed me across the bridge with that last mile, and to the exact spot where our family taps in tent stakes each and every year. For such a cool, gloomy December Tuesday, yet another warm memory was etched in our sands of time as I pedaled my poor man's chariot into the ocean spray and fizzle white foam that stays long after the last wave breaks. It would not have been the same without them.

Me and my Favorite Machine

And as I have mentioned before, it would not have been possible without the help of so many of all you good folks out there, from Seattle to Sunset, and the 5,283 miles in between. To you, my new extended family, I am forever indebted, and can only hope to one day, have the chance to fill your water bottle in your passing strive for adventure, discovery, excitement, and better life in this universe. Expect a note from me soon.

Call It Good

The ride may be over, but the journey continues (as will this blog). After passing enough mileposts along our highways, collected thoughts connect to form related motivations - again, wanting to start where it all began, and that's at the local, hometown level: mapping safe bike routes in and around town, improving signage, markings, and laying a few basic blueprints to incorporate more bike-friendly provisions into the city's long-term development plans; talking with kids and encouraging them to break away from television and grasp a new, real world of possibilities propelled by the power of self, realizing the simple, but transformative capabilities of a healthier, better-connected community; and sooner than later, finish filtering and distilling the most relevant thoughts, observations, and ideas about our country into a constructive letter to our dear President. Just the visible part of the iceberg for now, at least until my road weariness wears off, this will serve as a decent set of starting points.

Hot Chocolate with Pop

Last but not least, I want to thank all of the thousands of drivers that didn't maul or kill me over these last 114 days. We had a few close calls here and there, but it seems we both got to where we needed to. Please continue to drive safe, maintain awareness, and share the road. Bicycles belong.

Stay tuned...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

One more day

Only 70 miles away now. In my tent, 5am, I'm pitched snug tight against a fire station side wall, a small alley patch of grass between this station and the church next door here on Main St, Johnsonville, SC. After talking with the police chief and the pastor, this seemed the best spot for me, as there's no suitable park or campground nearby, the only motel 7 miles in the opposite direction. A tall box wood hedge and illuminated plastic nativity disguise the better part of my encampment, which, would have otherwise been completely exposed to the small town passing traffic. The three wise men have been my glowing friends throughout the night, as I can't see baby Jesus or Mother Mary from this angle. The police department is directly across the street, a Mexican restaurant next door, nice sidewalk lights, and a fairly soft and quiet scene in all - small town America. I thank the pastor and chief for letting me bed down for the night, but everything around me now screams the need to finish this: a beat up water bottle, the journal's last pages, the tires on my bike, the cold air that turns my knees into rusty hinges...

Closer and closer now.... a dog's ability to find his way home doesn't amaze me anymore. There are familiar sights, sounds, and smells to be found: the food, the forests, the coastal flats, and people's accents. About 17 more miles up ahead, there is a bridge that spans the Little Pee Dee, which is fed by none other than the black waters of the good ol' Lumber River. More so than the mighty Columbia, the carving Colorado, or big Mississippi, I look forward to crossing that bridge, seeing those waters and knowing the source and path it has traveled from my homeland.

I'm ready to see my family. They'll be waiting at the old floating bridge that leads across to Sunset Beach, where 25 years ago, we began an annual summer vacation tradition. So many fond memories: my Uncle Gary lunging to save the little blow-up boat that held me, my brother, and my cousins Lee Ann from a monster rogue wave that would have wiped us out, and easily washed us away; my Uncle Darryl, his great big fireworks, and the fat cop that stopped us; fierce volleyball matches; big family meals; time under the tent, relaxing, just watching the waves crash and return....Just 70 miles separates me from those same sands, as it was there, that this idea came to be - there, where I want to complete the journey.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

And the War Continues....

30,000 more.... I hope all breathing, conscious viewers of Obama's speech the other night made the connection that some of those cadets in the audience may possibly lose their life or become severely wounded in the escalating war over Afghanistan. And not just our fellow Americans, but more of our allies and many more innocents in this effort to exterminate the extremists. We all wish that the current circumstances over there were different. We'd pull our soldiers out of there tomorrow, and immediately stop the killing. In that utopian world, humans would learn to value life, value each other, our similarities, and differences - putting an end to our civilization's history of hate, humiliation, cruelty, violence, and horror. For all our "progress", how far have we actually risen above our beastly ancestry?

What's the best scenario? We snuff them out, eliminate their leadership, permanently debilitate their infrastructure and networks, the Afghan government stabilizes and develops the capacity to handle their own domestic problem people, we (US & allies) team with them to establish a tradition of growing grassroots ambassadors that incubate institutions of education, health, and economic opportunity equally across gender, religion, race, ethnicity.... And then, once we have accomplished all those costly improbabilities, will we find ourselves repeating the seemingly endless battle in Yemen, Somalia, Iran, or the numerous other countries where their cousins live?

Hypothetically thinking, what if the tables were turned, and we were the ones that had foreign armies waging war on our soil, destroying our towns, fields, some of our women and children in the process of rooting out our radicals.....Would we not fight back? Would we ever stop fighting?

For every philosophy of non-violence, there is a philosophy of war.

After all the reading and thinking and talking to dozens of veterans, soldiers currently serving, lawyers, professors, doctors, farmers, mothers, fathers, and all sorts of strange or common Americans across this country; I've tried to make sense of this war; to draw an informed, better understanding; maybe a few loose conclusions to improve personal actions.....

At least pertaining to our President's speech the other night, and the difficult decision to send (and shift) thousands more, I support him. I think that Obama is the type of person, and more importantly, the type of leader, that tried to find every possible way to save lives by getting out, but the facts of this disaster didn't add up to doing such.

As for Dick Cheney..... His comments prior to the speech do nothing but further solidify his reputation as a primary detriment and source of destructive hypocrisy to our country. You can't call yourself a true Republican after shooting your friend in the face. Just another accident to add to all the other mistakes. He ought to be fitted with more than a muzzle. I reserve further comments.

No Rain

A common question I've gotten from people along the way is, "What do you do when it rains?" It's hard to believe, but I didn't have an answer until Jackson, Mississippi, where it finally rained during my ride (still managed to get in 55 miles before the first drop that day). Until then, my reply was that I had rain gear, but haven't had to use it yet. "You mean that you've made it all the way here from Seattle without getting rained on?" Then, looking for some wood to knock, I would affirm the question.

The Long Drought Route

Divine providence, a new meteorological phenomena, one huge slap-happy stroke of luck - I'm not sure, probably a little bit of each from those three. I can't speak for God, or any kind of cosmic luck karma, but the summers of the northwest and fall for most other areas across the country are typically more dry than the other seasons. Also, getting full value from our vast and varied American deserts helps support a partial explanation. From the time I crested the Cascades in central Oregon until leaving the west Texas scrub and sage, that's roughly 3,000 miles through arid American land, where the people, and especially farmers know a thing or two about water management. Still, overall, a great roll of the dice.

Sunny Skies Across the Continental Divide
Sailing into Silver City

Rain, in moderation, is a refreshing rejuvenating treasure. Sometimes there's nothing better than a good shower to clean and clear the air, washing away that dust funk or clogging, polluted residue that seems to accumulate and stagnate the porous breathe of both plant and animal skin. The southeast is usually blessed with this moderate mean, but others are less fortunate. Most of the soaking qualities are obvious, but it's that slight change in the actual air that is there to test and taste with a curious sniff...

...The dryness of the desert over time gradually delivers a dull death. In Seattle, the dark, damp, vitamin D deluting drizzle proved too long and drawn out for me and my genes (personal weakness). A quick flee to Puerto Rico was pineapple sweet, but the lack of temperature-changing seasons and powerful tropical storms presented a uniquely different extreme. A few fearful moments for Katrina and I, sweltering within a shaky, plywood, Caribbean jungle shack that sat atop our small island's ridge line - swallowed by several successive September tempests.....days where the tropical air was truly tropical. This is the same air that brings inches upon inches of heavy, sporadic, ground-pounding rains. The low cumulus clouds blanket beyond all horizons and the winds swirl inside this covering so that no consistency can be found in vegetation sway. This combined flux of phenomena possesses a wild energy above and beyond the sum of each element's basic kinetic strength - it's a crazed atmospheric excitation that distinguishes this tropical character among all others...

Needless to say, I haven't missed the rain during this journey, but as the current storm has me restrained for a few extra days here in Atlanta, I'm reminded how there are times, where nature or life may seem to restrict, but in turn, often offers hidden gifts. A cliche of some sorts, one that most of us have heard or experienced before. I can say that it has been one of the most important things I've learned out here. Being exposed to the whims of the road has revealed countless incidents of how the transformation of energy and effort is unpredictable, and may not immediately bear the fruit your desires anticipate, but will almost always manifest itself in the form of delightful surprises that beat even the best Christmas presents.

Splashing Around the Southeast