Miles so far: 490 (Charlottesville to Rixeyville VA 60- Harper’s Ferry WV 70- Shepherdstown WV 15- Carlisle PA 55- Reamstown PA 64- Warrington PA 68- Trenton, NJ 26, East Harlem NY to Cornwall on Hudson NY 47- Millbrook NY 47- Great Barrington MA 38) DONATE HERE to No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes): https://www.youcaring.com/nomoredeathsnomasmuertes-776276
This past week of cycling I’ve found water in many of its forms— crusty snow, soft mist, plopping rain, prickly sleet, slushy ice, puddles and mud, creeks running by roads, into roads, waterfalls and drainages, all collecting in great rivers that form this land— Shenandoah, Potomac, Susquehanna, Schuylkill, Delaware, Hudson.
Water goes first. By bike, I travel like the water that went before me to soften bedrock into curves— falling with gravity, leaning into contours, sailing down the flats. To seek smooth riding, I’ve ended up going where water goes, along creeks and rivers, and in between I cross hills separating great watersheds. This is a pace and way of travel that marks how people approached this land for a long time— people follow where water has gone, and go where water goes.
I had the good fortune of visiting Carlisle, PA on the same night as Winona LaDuke (environmentalist, economist, writer and most recently prominent organizer in the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline). The setting was poignant, the town of the Carlisle Indian Industrial school, a model for the many Indian boarding schools with the purported purpose of ‘assimilation’ which had a devastating impact by separating families and communities. Through removing children from their native culture, these constitute an aspect of Native American genocide. When the school was formed, the Office of Indian Affairs was part of the US Department of War, and the school has been closed to the public since 9/11 since it’s inside an army barracks in Carlisle. LaDuke told us she had found her grandfather’s records at the school earlier that day.
LaDuke had such an invigoratingly blunt tone— I’m a cool fun person, and I just want to do cool fun stuff, I don't want to be sitting around talking about a pipeline that goes from nowhere to nowhere, that’s not a cool idea. What’s a cool idea is how we’re installing solar on White Earth Reservation. It’s not going to get better unless we do it ourselves...Like that.
What was most striking seemed so simple. There is no new water. The water that we have now is ancient, and we live on ancient land.
The Potomac, which I crossed to get to Carlisle, gathers water from the western hills of Pennsylvania, and the water flowing down the far side of those hills runs into the Ohio. I learned recently that along a tributary of the Ohio is the Meadowcroft Rockshelter, the largest archeological site in eastern North America, dated to 14,000 BC, built by folks who probably survived on mammoth, mastodon, camel and moose. It’s so much more fascinating, apart from being more true, to stop thinking of this as a new world. Leaving Carlisle, I crossed through Harrisburg, PA and the Susquehanna en route to Lancaster county, in Amish and Mennonite farmland. The Lebanon Valley towpath was still covered with snow, so I meandered towards an unexpected route and found a woman waving vigorously from the side of the road. I pulled over at Middle Creek wildlife preserve, and it was Julie who just happened to be passing and who I had arranged to stay with that night! As we were about to pull out, from the marsh lifted a cloud of thousands of migrating snow geese, who began sailing in enormous circles and breaking out into complex Vs. A rare and magical spectacle!
Just as the catchment areas of these rivers are wide and hint at something greater, I began to enter the enormous catchment areas for Philadelphia and Manhattan. After days of quiet farmland, I didn’t mind some business and ugliness, and wanted to see the land change. Part of the business is that the suburban sprawl is a place of passing through. But this land too wants no less to be seen and represented and known.
Near the crossing of the Schuylkill, I stopped to warm up at the Crooked Hill Tavern, where I met a local couple on their weekly Friday lunch. They were so proud to tell me that they lived downstream near Valley Forge, where Washington wintered his troops in 1777, and impressed with my ride, they paid for my bowl of chili. It was notable to me how this landscape is etched with stories of Washington’s movements during one fight— that against British forces. Perhaps even more significant was (is?) a simultaneous and much longer fight against the nations native to this place. In the mid-1770s, ‘George Washington wrote instructions to Major General John Sullivan to take peremptory action against the Haudenosaunee [in now NY state], ‘to lay waste all the settlements...that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed.’... Sullivan replied, ‘The Indians shall see that there is malice enough in our hearts to destroy everything that contributes to their support.’ (Dunbar-Ortiz, 77) I read about this history on the Manhattan subway, passing Columbus Circle in the Empire State. While in New York City I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time, a spectacle of movement and commerce over the East River, the Statue of Liberty in the distance. Whitman crossed this river by ferry:
What is it then between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day among crowds of people sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night or as I lay in my bed they came upon me,
I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution,
I too had receiv’d identity by my body,
That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.
Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (first version 1856) A plaque memorializes Whitman on the bridge, as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It was a forum Whitman used to comment on identities of bodies, complicated in relation to his poetry but with the same fierce energy. During the US-Mexican war, Whitman proposed stationing 60 thousand US troops in Mexico to establish a regime change; ‘We pant to see our country and its rule far-reaching. What has miserable, inefficient Mexico...to do with the great mission of peopling the New World with a noble race?’ (Dunbar-Ortiz, 118)
By this I mean to say that, in beginning to re-teach myself histories of the land that I occupy, the undercurrents of stories and sides not before known to me become harder not to see. It is all the more poignant to be moving at a human pace through land I thought I somewhat knew, which has become unfamiliar and enthralling. So much colludes to normalize the settlement of this land in this way, and normalize the safe passage and free movement of certain individuals. But the border is here too.
As I cycled from East Harlem north along the Hudson, Dar William’s lyrics thrummed through my ride like a prayer to the river: The river roads collect the tolls/ For the passage of our souls/ Through silence, over woods, through flowers and snow/ And past the George Washington Bridge/ Down from the trails of Breakneck Ridge/ The river's ancient path is sacred and slow
Water is so plentiful in this season and region that I’ve had the privilege of trying at times to avoid it. This is present for me since one of the primary forms of humanitarian aid that No More Deaths volunteers provide is backpacking water into the desert in a punishing landscape in which many migrants die of dehydration.
This journey has been plentiful in more ways, not least in the grace that I feel has accompanied me. I’ve been overflown by the kindness I have found from friends and strangers and feel grateful for the opportunity to channel some of that towards No More Deaths. Ahead still I have my steepest hills, a snowstorm, and a few more double mitten days as I approach the Connecticut, my last great river to cross.
DONATE HERE to No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes): https://www.youcaring.com/nomoredeathsnomasmuertes-776276
Resources I’ve appreciated this week: *Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States*
‘Neither superior technology nor an overwhelming number of settlers made up the mainspring of the birth of the United States or the spread of its power over the entire world. Rather, the chief cause was the colonialist settler-state’s willingness to eliminate whole civilizations of people in order to possess their land’ (96)
‘The conquest of the West was not guaranteed by defeating the British Army in battle in 1815, but by defeating and driving the Indians from their homelands’ (quoting Grenier, 100)
Toward Right Relationship with America’s Native Peoples, a Quaker project through Boulder Friends Meeting led by Paula Palmer
A great document of Towards Right Relationship resources
A mapping resource on US invasions
The video Silenced Voices, produced by Migrant Justice/ Justicia Migrante, a Vermont organization advocating for human rights and food justice