A brief conversation with my sister:
• I’m really nervous about telling Mom.
– She’s going to kill you.
• What if I throw it in among casual conversation?
– Terrible idea.
A brief conversation with my mother:
• Yeah I need to get back to studying.
– Alright honey, I love you.
• Oh! By the way, I’m going to bike across the country this summer.
– ... ... ...
– No you're not.
During the summer of 2010 I rode my bike nearly 4,000 miles with 32 friends from Boston, Massachusetts to Santa Barbara, California. The trip was meant to be a lot of different things–charitable, a time for growth, an adventure, and for many, a final celebration of youthful freedom. For me it was a break. It would be the first time in eight years that I wasn’t struggling to keep track of a thousand responsibilities. It was, in a sense, a forced primitization. We spent most nights sleeping in churches, averaged 80 miles per day, and ate enough food for a small public school. When your travel depends on the energy stored in your legs, every indulgence feels justified. Approaching strangers became a norm as we always had a new story to tell. Exploring a roadside oddity was as easy as turning my handlebars. Along the way I feverishly chronicled the stories of intense pain, joy, accomplishment, tragedy, and the general invigoration of feeling alive. Both in my journal and through my lens I documented the people I was with, the absurdity of Route 66, and the breathtaking landscapes we pedaled through.
Photography has always been my way of grasping onto what appears to be slipping away in front of me. In the past I documented moments with friends and family that I knew were fleeting. Now I was photographing because, with every rotation of my wheels, I was losing something. The hilarious road signs, the random nap spots, the exhaustive glances when I passed a fellow rider or the friendly smile when I waved both hello and goodbye to a local. We spent, at most, 12 hours in every town we passed through. I found an extreme sense of happiness in this bubble, but nothing felt real. Which is another reason I photograph; a diligent attempt to be present. To shake off those nagging thoughts that emphasize the temporary nature of any great experience. People often say my images are very neat. A geometrically structured memory that masks the chaos of perpetually moving forward. I have never felt my images represent my life, but rather how I’d like to remember it. My images are a construction, a description, and a carefully interpreted memoir. Some might say a determined search for control. This series is a meditative reflection on my life as it was during this short ten-week fantasy.
June 25, 2010
Pittsfield, Massachusetts to Poughkeepsie, New York – 100 miles
When I was in high school and I imagined myself traveling across the country I thought it would be me and my car, taking it slow, meeting strangers and taking their portraits. I would document vignettes of small towns, hotels, and gas stations along the way. I imagined myself as a nomad with no place to be.
This is anything but slow and poetic.
A few hours ago Susan, one of our riders, was hit by a car. I saw the lights of the ambulance in the distance and I remember thinking to myself, “what if…?” As we approached the scene, two of our leaders were standing in the grass and they waved us forward, attempting a distraction, but it was too late. We had seen the damaged bikes. I wasn’t sure what to think as our pace line fell into a deafening silence. Even after we left the busy road, silence. We stopped to eat a snack and some of the girls were trying to hide their tears.
Susan walked away with only a few scratches, but we are all more aware of how our fate rests in the sightlines of the metal boxes that whip past us every couple of minutes.
June 30, 2010
Berwick to State College, Pennsylvania – 96 miles
Backaches, knee pain, hand numbness, chafing, extreme hunger and severe exhaustion. Oh, and a stiff neck. At least there are always rewards. Ropes courses, bowling, ice cream, movies, or simply a shower.
Yesterday during our ride into Berwick a piece of gravel flew out of the back tire of my friend Ryan’s bike and hit me in the eye. I couldn’t open it for the rest of the day. Losing depth perception while speeding down mountains at 40 mph is not the safest way to spend an afternoon. For most of the day I tried to force it open but the welling tears would snap it shut. Eventually Adam tied one of his leg warmers around my head in a makeshift eye patch.
The days are sort of a blur when you spend ten hours on the seat of a bicycle. In the morning we sing and play games or tell stories until our voices trail off into the hum of traffic. Every once in a while I will turn my head and glimpse something beautiful or hilarious that encourages my legs to keep running in circles. How’s this for a local business: ‘Once Upon A Tile.’
July 12, 2010
Bloomington, Indiana to Sumner, Illinois – 92 miles
Normally in my life there is no stopping for writing or reflection. One thing to the next. This is what I’m doing, this is what I want to do, this is what I will be doing. Now is the first chance I have had in years to look at my life and analyze what makes me happy.
A car goes by after every five sentences I write. There’s a strange amount of traffic for such a small place. The headlights cut through the fog and turn slow at first but move quick just before passing.
The cicadas are buzzing and the house across the street echoes the noise of teenage disobedience. I am sitting beneath a light in the middle of a one street town called Sumner. I’d like to climb to the top of the water tower and yell. I would probably wake up the entire population. Down the road our group rests in humidity and exhaustion on a small patch of grass watching a movie projected onto the side of a building. Soon the couples and non-couples will stumble back–the former together, happy, lost in the satisfaction that emanates from a little touch or that cute smile you give one another when you finally discover that your feelings are mutual. Tomorrow we travel again. More pain, more aggravation, more ecstasy, more ice cream, more exhilaration, more moods turned than I could ever keep track of.
July 17, 2010
Owensville to Lake Ozark, Missouri – 62 miles
In my head I know how America shifts and changes as we move west. I have developed a mental image based on everything from clipart maps on diner placemats to the stereotypes presented in Disney movies. Now I am actually seeing it. The northeast until Ohio all felt the same. Once we crossed under the “Gateway to the West” in St. Louis everything changed. We are currently on Route 66 and our conversations often drift back to the country’s history. What were the pioneers thinking when they saw the landscape steadily dry up into desert? We feel a strange connection to those people as we struggle with every passing mile. These days, every inch of road is surrounded by a barbed wire fence, so we are discovering ourselves more than any patch of soil.
July 21, 2010
Joplin, Missouri to Vinita, Oklahoma – 80 miles
This morning at breakfast we gathered as a family to digest some sobering news. Paige Hicks, a leader on the Providence to Seattle route, was killed by a truck yesterday afternoon. Our leaders were straightforward but the delivery of tragic news is not something anyone is trained for. I’d like to say I was able to handle it smoothly or that I understand that what we are doing is “inherently dangerous,” as Steve put it. But I still don’t handle death well. Less than an hour after breakfast we were expected to hop on our bikes and proceed 80 miles to our next destination. The only moment I had to myself lasted about a minute as I went to fetch my bike from a backroom in the church. I took a deep breath, swallowed my throat, and blinked away any moisture. Besides, sunglasses hide emotion pretty well. We (and I mean the greater “Bike & Build” we) lost an incredible life that could have been any one of us. What hits me hardest is that our fate is placed in the hands of drivers. All we can do is strap on our helmets, hug the shoulder of the road, and pray for a smooth ride each and every day. Still, every time I hop on my bike I can’t stop thinking about it.
July 26, 2010
Yukon to Cordell, Oklahoma – 84 miles
Today was tough. We have reached an awkward stretch of land that tessellates off into the distance, every mile precisely like the last. It reminds me of cycling in a gym. You pedal and pedal but don’t move an inch. Cordell, Oklahoma appeared on the horizon like a mirage. The road dead-ended at the Washita County courthouse that rose out of the center of town like a lighthouse emphasizing to travelers that yes, life actually exists out here. Tonight, like many nights of the trip, I took an hour to detach myself from our traveling commune and explore the city streets. I have slowly learned what I should expect on these outings–a water tower, a volunteer fire department, a few bipolar cats. Locals will give me a quizzical stare and I’ll gape in awe at the survival of the small town newspaper. Then there are always the local shops that sell a wide array of products that can only be summed up as ‘stuff.’ When I was on my way back to the church I noticed a train had been abandoned on its tracks just a few blocks down the road. While I took the detour a pickup truck pulled up behind me and I wanted desperately to build a giant brick wall to stop the vehicle from continuing on its way. The family inside had faces that were begging to be photographed. They were classic, piled into the front seat like an image that only exists in your imagined history of the United States. Sadly, they drove by me as I stood in silent wonder.
When I finally circled the block back to the church I couldn’t help but take a moment to appreciate the wonderland we have created on this journey. It was that perfect time of day, just after dinner but too soon to sleep when we all finally have a moment to breathe.
Everyone was settling down and I felt like I was viewing life in montage. As I walked up to the front door I passed a group lying on sleeping bags patiently awaiting the stars, while another pair exhibited desperate attempts to remember and execute classic yoga positions. There were a few loners strolling slowly down the sidewalk speaking with loved ones and attempting to recall their daily routine. When I opened the doors I was hit with the sharp twangs of popular country music. Two of our riders were trying to coax the church ladies out of the kitchen so that they would join in on the ‘Boot Scootin’ Boogey.’ Another group was playing cards at the kitchen table while one of our riders setup a projector to watch Jurassic Park. Walking down the hallway I could see people passed out in various places–the nursery, parlor, a few classrooms. I eventually walked in on Gillian, one of our leaders, playing the piano in an empty sanctuary.
July 30th, 2010
Amarillo to Hereford, Texas – 52 miles
Last night I was already standing when I woke up in the pitch black of a basement to the sounds of a girl screaming at the top of her lungs. I didn’t know reflexes worked like that. In the darkness I could hear growling and I grabbed my phone to shed some light on what appeared to be a massive dog standing next to me. I tried to push it away but wasn’t awake enough to make sense of the situation. Was it a stray? How the hell did it get inside? I stumbled over to the light switch and almost immediately had a flashlight blinding my eyes and a gun pointing at my face. A few men appeared in the doorway and they all yelled for me to get on the ground. In my exhausted state of confusion I dropped to the floor and shut my eyes. Someone flipped the light switch and I realized there were four police men in the room, who all seemed to have no idea what was going on. Why were there dozens of young people sleeping in the basement of an office building?
It turns out the policemen were pursuing a burglary and were sent to this area of town hoping to catch the missing suspect. We were sleeping in the basement of the local Habitat for Humanity office, whom we were volunteering for the following morning. When the policemen checked the office door and realized it was open they released their German shepherd inside to investigate. The dog discovered Kristine and immediately attacked. I suppose they are trained to hold a person in place, so when Kristine woke up and attempted to wrestle free, the dog only bit down harder.
Kristine was airlifted to a hospital a few towns over because there is air in her veins and damage to an artery in her arm. I remember when they lifted her up off the mattress it was stained with a massive pool of blood. I called my Mom this afternoon to let her know and all she could ask was, “Does this mean you’re coming home now?”
August 2nd, 2010
Roswell, New Mexico – 0 miles
In Hereford, Texas the cows outnumber the people and as you approach the city limits all you can smell is manure. If you complain to the locals they argue that it “smells like money.”
In Portales, New Mexico we met a man whose yard contains over 80 windmills. That night the mayor proclaimed a town holiday in our honor and gave us a police escort on our way out.
In Roswell, New Mexico we met Rita, a local whose husband passed away and left her a fleet of antique muscle cars. She let us drive them around town while pretending she was an alien.
August 6th, 2010
Pie Town, New Mexico to Springville, Arizona – 71 miles
After I left Pie Town I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a mirage. It is one of those communities that, even while you’re standing there, feels like its existence is impossible. The “town” is nestled on the Continental Divide, over 100 miles from the nearest grocery store. There are houses, a campsite, a community center, and, of course, a pie shop. But that’s all you get. I cycled up the one and only street and kept my eye out for “The Toaster House.” No address–just “The Toaster House.” I was getting a little worried until I saw a tornado of various cooking appliances swirling around the entrance of a quaint little home. I was exhausted. The life of a traveler left me feeling free & defeated all at the same time. The Toaster House was a makeshift hostel. A place for people biking, walking, or simply passing through the mountain ranges without a place to stay.
After so many hours of sweating I could feel the salt grind against my forehead as I released the clasp of my helmet. My head took a deep breath and I collapsed on the sofa. In the living room I began to notice the heartwarming details that made this a special place. Everyone that passed through had left a dot of sharpie on the globe, indicating where he or she came from. The wallpaper was a homemade mix of travel snapshots, Polaroids, and road maps left behind. Who needs maps anyway?
I walked to the kitchen and laughed. There was no toaster. I opened the pantry and found a wealth of 1/2 eaten granola and almonds. There was fresh fruit and Oreo’s: The entire traveler’s food pyramid. I opened the drawer and found a log of special meals. On May 12, 2007 Bobby and Drew from South Dakota made vegetable lo mein. On December 10, 2008 Cathy and Gerald made a hearty beef stew. I couldn’t imagine this place in winter. On July 18th, 2009 Andrew & Patrick made a soufflé. Somebody’s fancy. And yesterday, Susan made oatmeal. I thought I could still smell it.
I always think you can feel when a room has seen a history of love. Most people travel only with those they care about deeply. I wondered how many hands were held here as the water boiled? Who shared a surprise kiss after splitting dessert? Maybe someone finally said I’m sorry while the chicken roasted.
That’s the best part of cooking. There is so much time where all you can do is wait.
I unpacked my backpack and made a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. Does that count as cooking? I wondered allowed. I opened the book and wrote Michael George, peanut butter and jelly, August 5th, 2010. And then in parentheses: (ironically, not toasted).
August 14th, 2010
Grand Canyon South Rim to Williams, Arizona – 59 Miles
While passing through Sedona, Arizona we took a detour to climb Bell Rock, part of a particularly dangerous series of vertical red cliffs. One we reached the summit we noticed a small metal box across a large gap, sitting atop a further spire. Steve and I decided to clamber over and wrench it open.
On the inside we found a large pile of crumpled letters and a weathered journal. All of the entries were from people who had survived the trek to the top. I felt a bit sheepish when I turned the page and saw that a little girl had written, “I’m eleven and I made it!” The entries were a mix of triumph, personal reflection, and good will towards other hikers. People seemed to climb to the top in times of trouble, for celebration, and simply to marvel at the views. There were little drawings, poems, and even some religious praise. As we looked through entries as far back as 2005, we could tell that each word was written from the heart. It was a pile of a hundred diaries hidden in the heavens.
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves at the Grand Canyon, which looked like a hologram and left me with an arresting feeling of vertigo. While standing on the edge I kept imagining myself falling into it. How long would I fall? Would I do a backflip? Could I survive? How many times would I bounce? Would I be scared? Would my arms flail? I kept looking sideways to the other canyon walls where curious tourists would scooch on their bellies to the very edge. I would cringe and turn away knowing that if I continued to stare I would be scarred, standing their as I helplessly watched their final moments after they accidentally slipped and plummeted to the rocky wasteland below. After successfully ratcheting my adrenaline up to an uncomfortably high level I walked back to the campsite and made myself a s’more.
August 18th, 2010
Searchlight, Nevada to Baker, California – 102 miles
I think my feet are dead. At least they look dead. The skin is crumbling away into flecks of dark hard flesh. I don’t really know what to do other than smear them with petroleum jelly and hope for the best. Regardless, my feet are a good representation of group morale lately. A few days ago we entered the Mojave Desert and since then, rides have been terrible. The road is like a furnace waiting to cook our skin every afternoon. We actually fried an egg on the sidewalk yesterday. To make matters worse, we have also been camping or sleeping in buildings with no air conditioning. It doesn’t help that with the desert comes the feeling that all of this will soon be over. Nobody’s talking about it but I can sense it when we’re all together and people show a quiet smile of contentment that says, faintly, this is perfect. We were granted access to the local community pool, so a group of us biked there once the sun began to set. I could sense it there as well. That itchy thing that brings people together when they know they are about to part from one another. It was in the air but you couldn’t see it. You could just feel it in the laughs and jokes that rose out of the pool and dissolved like all of the vapor that succumbs to the deathly heat of the Mojave.
August 25th, 2010
Santa Barbara, California – 0 miles
Yesterday we arrived at the Pacific Ocean. When we rolled up on our bikes, stripped off our clothes, and sprinted into the ocean I was ecstatic with accomplishment but also felt incredibly empty. As each rider, friend, and family member sped past me and crashed against the ocean waves I imagined our bodies bursting through the walls of the utopian bubble we’d slowly created over the past few months. No longer were we safe in this traveling pod of people where everyone knows you, everyone is interesting, and everyone cares about others. Many of the rider’s family members and friends gathered with us on the beach and it immediately felt different. We were no longer Bike & Builders. I was Michael George, the student who lives in New York City and has a life full of responsibilities to return to. There was no adventure waiting for me the following day. No more discovery. No more perpetual novelty. I was no longer biking across the country. I had officially biked across the country.
The next day I was detaching, like we all soon would. I could see the holes in our bubble but it wasn’t destroyed yet. We had a perfect day off with a nice dinner and a thousand retold stories. It already felt like a reunion. I had been so consumed by these people that I had almost forgotten about my previous life. This was all I knew, and it was about to disappear. I tried to pinpoint when in the past I’d felt like this. When I went to high school? When I lost my Dad? When I went to college? All major senses of loss, but nothing had ever felt quite the same. I think it was, once again, because I knew this experience was impossible to capture. It was special. We were blessed with a near perfect group of people, countless days of beautiful weather, and we’d arrived safely. I started to remember why I embarked on this trip in the first place. It was the first time in five years that I hadn’t had to worry about money, my food, my friends, and my future.
The goodbyes were strange. They came at random times. It felt, like someone said, “they had just gone to do laundry.” They would be back any minute. But they wouldn’t be. I said goodbye to one of my best friends at 2:30 in the morning. Goodbyes are easier when you’re exhausted. When I woke up the next morning and it was my turn to hop on a plane I felt like you do when you leave the house and immediately spin on your heels because you’ve forgotten something of vital importance.
I packed what was left of my stuff into my little white plastic bin and taped it shut. My friends Steve and Courtney were there to see me off. I kept telling myself “you will be fine, you will be fine, you will be fine” as I waddled to the bus stop with my bin, peering backward to see Steve and Courtney waving their arms. I turned the corner and at 6:50 in the morning on a terribly foggy day in Santa Barbara, California I dropped my bin onto a bench and couldn’t help but cry. Not the kind of scrunchy face, woe is me, life sucks, cry. But the kind of cry that forces out tears because your body is so swelled with memories that it knows no other way to deal with them. When I got on the bus a few people asked me why I was carrying a big white bin. I told them I had been living out of it for two months. I told them I had biked here from Boston. I told them I was about to board a plane and return to New York City. I told them stories from the trip and I felt like I was reading from one of the wildest fairy tales ever written. I felt like an old person who, in the last stretch of their life is asked a simple question and then won’t stop talking because recalling memories is the only way for them to connect themselves to a place and time that they know is better than anything they will experience in the future.
I wonder if it is possible to ever live somewhere amongst a community like those I lived with this summer. Kelsey, one of our leaders, on certain wild days would exclaim, “This is not real.” But it was, if only temporarily.