Why I'm Going By Bike

Miles so far: 200 (Charlottesville- Rixeyville VA 60mi- Harper’s Ferry WV 70mi- Shepherdstown WV 15mi- PA 55mi) DONATE HERE to No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes): https://www.youcaring.com/nomoredeathsnomasmuertes-776276 These first few days have been exhausting, lonely and physically painful— long stretches of quiet country roads under a big sky, a rumbling thunderstorm with splintering rays of lightning cracking overhead, a thick rainbow smeared across the horizon like a sunset in every color, and in between slowness and doubt. I have been reluctant to write in evenings of tired sadness, but all day have criss-crossed trails with people of this land who were much more deeply unsure of how they could make it, and where they would be tomorrow— immigrant laborers beginning construction on the Chesapeake and Ohio canal for trade west before being overtaken by the railroad, people who had been enslaved leaving Virginia to seek work in Washington and Pennsylvania, confederate troops marching towards the carnage of Gettysburg, all followed the same paths I’ve ridden. And I’m mindful all along of the uncertain journeys of immigrants today for whom my ride is dedicated. I’m reminded that like any land, this land (that which I’ve seen these past four days, and that which I’ve never seen but carry in my mind) is the home of many journeys of length, purpose and doubtful hope. 

As I slugged along in frustration on a too-hard rear cassette gearing, I had plenty of time to consider why I’m going by bike:

1/ Fuel

I really think it matters the choices that individual people make. I know that biking releases less fossil fuels than driving, flying, or riding the train, and I had space in my life to make that choice, so I did.

Joanna Macy names The Great Turning ‘the essential adventure of our time’— the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization. And it's such an adventure! On this adventure, I want to make choices that allow me self-respect and fill me with hope. In doubt on Day 1, I remembered a quote I wrote down awhile ago: ‘Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like the roads across the earth, for actually there were no roads to begin with but when many people pass one way, a road is made.' (Lu Xun 1921, quoted in Lappe, Hope’s Edge)

I want my tires to pack down the routes that need to exist— dedicated bikeways, local bike shops advocating for alternative transportation, local businesses I can hop off to support, people seeing bikes on the road, people learning about adventures, people finding hope.

Right now, these routes are at a crossroads to the highways streaming in and out of DC, both geographically and symbolically. I spent a whole day in northern Virginia without seeing a gas station or food store, getting confused among winding roads not marked as unpaved on GPS. This is what it is to seek another way.

 

The fuel I consume is food. By one estimation, for the energy I require (through food) to travel 25 miles by bike, a car running on gasoline can travel less than 1 mile. Still, on average in the United States it takes 10 units of primarily fossil fuel energy to produce one unit of food energy, and about 14% of economy wide CO2 emissions in the United States result from food production. 

The fuel I'm using for this journey is intimately bound up with my fundraising for No More Deaths. According to the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey, 78% of farmworkers in this country crossed a border to get here, and over half of hired agricultural laborers are undocumented immigrants. This means that the fuel that will propel me towards New Hampshire literally comes in large part through the labor of recent immigrants. 

In this way and others, the cost of my travel reaches beyond what I can know. Phenomenal time-space compression gives me the option to choose to fly or not, and to feel the lives of people far away bound up with the objects in my gut. Doreen Massey describes an uneven experience of contemporary senses of place, and further convinces me of the significance of individual choices:

‘Every time someone uses a car, and thereby increases their personal mobility, they reduce both the social rationale and the financial viability of the public transport system— and thereby also potentially reduce the mobility of those who rely on that system. Every time you drive to that out-of-town shopping center you contribute to the rising prices, even hasten the demise, of the corner shop. And the ‘time-space compression’ which is involved in producing and reproducing the daily lives of the comfortably off in First World societies— not just their own travel but the resources they draw on, from all over the world, to feed their lives— may entail environmental consequences, or hit constraints, which will limit the lives of others before their own. We need to ask, in other words, whether our relative mobility and power over mobility and communication entrenches the spatial imprisonment of other groups.’ (Doreen Massey ‘A Global Sense of Place’ 1994)

2/ Land ‘Everything in US history is about the land— who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained its wildlife, who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity broken into pieces to be bought and sold on the market.’ (Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States)

I wanted to travel over land and learn what stories I found. In the academic history context, there is much discussion of what happened ‘on the ground’ (as opposed to what?). But I’ve never before travelled across ground in this way to learn stories. Car and air travel allow me to feel that Virginia and New Hampshire are two completely separate places, and I want to instead knit them together in continuity. 

My route is also an acknowledgement of my free movement between these places. I’m freely crossing borders that not long ago separated the United States of America from a separately declared nation, the Confederate States of America. On my first night, Kathy hosted me in her farmhouse which had served as a Civil War hospital in Culpepper county, what Robert E. Lee called the most devastated county of the civil war, and Kathy felt that destruction viscerally. On my fourth day I passed through the Antietam battlefield in Maryland, where 23,000 soldiers died on one day in 1862 as confederate forces moved north. I rode along the C&O canal towpath, used to convey bodies of the dead. 

The flow of people and resources across this area now is so continuous, it’s possible to completely forget these were borderlands, apart from the heritage markers that punctuate the landscape (and make it seem this land only had something called history in 1860-65). Yet the areas I'm traveling between declared themselves separate nations more recently than the US and Mexico. ‘Mexicans continue to migrate as they have for millennia but now across the arbitrary border that was established in the US war against Mexico in 1846-8’ (Dunbar-Ortiz) in which the US gained over half the territory which had comprised Mexico. We should not assume that the borders we see today are inevitable, just or fixed.  

I left Charlottesville in the shadow of Jefferson’s Monticello; in 1801 he had hoped, ‘it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole northern if not the southern continent with a people speaking the same language and government in a similar form by similar laws’ (Dunbar-Ortiz). This is the dream of a colonist in an expanding empire. In myriad ways, this dream has come to pass, and immigrants from Central and South America who arrive in largest numbers also come from countries suffering punishing imperialist policies from the US which disadvantage farmers and others and force immigrants to seek a living elsewhere (Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, see a NYT chart here/ this phenomenon is the argument of Juan Gonzalez’s Harvest of Empire).

This is what is between Virginia and New Hampshire— borders, tragedies, farms holding on, people and land with stories, movement and exchange. This is what has accumulated in these places, and by bike I’m not permitted to forget.

3/ People

I have been under the impression that I need to fly to faraway places to have unpredictable adventures, meet people strange to me, see new plants and animals, and learn about unknown histories. This is patently not the case, and makes me notice the connection between US people’s long-distance travel, and our lack of understanding of habitats near to us. Being on an adventure is truly a state of mind— a willingness to seek kindness from strangers, show curiosity and humility, request directions, ask for water, ask for a place to sleep. It’s my impression that many people really wish to give what they can when the need is before them, but so often the need feels so far away. In going by bike, I am able to enter into a gift economy in which I can reciprocate through providing company, attention, and one day paying hospitality forward. I go slow enough to either say hello or choose not to but each time not saying hello is an individual choice and I must think about why. I read historical markers and hear the full length of bird songs and know which way the wind is coming from.

The geographies of this country have been built around people wanting to meet each other, or, more often, not. Virginia governor Spotswood put together a pioneering expedition in the early 1700s called the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe to investigate the exploitable resources which could be stolen from this region, and one of the land plots claimed became James Madison’s plantation Montpelier. The farmland I traveled through in northwest Virginia was settled by German indentured laborers who, upon completing seven years of servitude, were given European permission to squat on Indigenous land. They were ‘given’ plots on the ‘wild’ frontier to serve as a buffer between English settlers in eastern Virginia and Indigenous nations westward of the Shenandoah valley. The houses that I stayed in along this route were in their particular places because of someone’s fear of frontier, border, otherness, and contact. Biking leads me to make continuous choices about how my personal geographies intersect with those of settlers and indigenous people different from myself. 

Finally, meeting people is a lesson in magic. There is still magic in this country. As I ride circles in glee in the West Virginia twilight with my new rear cassette that Scott helped me fit by his wood stove, there is still so much magic. I share a chili dinner on TV trays with two who took me in, who I just met, with Cricket the beagle at our feet. We watch NBC news covering the political dramas of unrepresentative legislators obscuring today’s earth and climate disasters, punctuated by advertisements for foods and pills which further distance us from our places, and an ‘inspirational’ news story of propaganda for Chevron on its dedication of a memorial park bench for a heartbroken father so we forget it was oil that fuelled the weapon which killed his son (a car). And still, in our sad and overwhelming state, people are such magic to each other. 

By bike, I want to take stock of these places, this country, right now, up close. 

‘The right scale in work gives power to affection. When one works beyond the reach of one’s love for the place one is working in and for, the things and creatures one is working with and among, then destruction inevitably results. An adequate local culture, among other things, keeps work within the reach of love.’ (Wendell Berry, ‘Out of your car, off your horse’)

Learning resources: Juan Gonzalez, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America (2nd ed. 2011)

Rodolfo Acuna, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos (8th ed. 2014)

Bill Bigelow, The Line Between Us: Teaching about the Border and Mexican Immigration (http://www.rethinkingschools.org/ProdDetails.asp?ID=9780942961317&d=toc)

Arturo Perez Torres, Wetback, The Undocumented Documentary (film)

Zinn Education Project: Teaching A People’s History (https://zinnedproject.org/) Recent work from No More Deaths:

http://forms.nomoredeaths.org/peoples-power-campaign-to-resist-trumps-deportation-schemes/

‘By dropping food and water along migrant trails and by providing legal counsel to undocumented community members, we resist border militarization, deportations, and policies that contribute to death and disappearance in the US–Mexico borderlands.’ Sources for food systems statistics:

http://css.snre.umich.edu/sites/default/files/U.S._Food_System_Factsheet_CSS01-06.pdf

https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2010/september/fuel-for-food-energy-use-in-the-us-food-system/

DONATE HERE to No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes): https://www.youcaring.com/nomoredeathsnomasmuertes-776276