By Paul E. Fallon
It took over 100 days for me to cycle from Boston to Seattle. I took a circuitous route that covered 6,000 miles and traversed 22 states, fueled by 5,000 calories a day and a question. Along the way, I asked hundreds of individuals, organizations and companies, “How will we live tomorrow?”
Seattle is a key terminus for many cross-country cyclists. More than half of the riders I’ve met start or end there. For me, Seattle marked only the third point in my objective to pedal and pose my question in the 48 contiguous states. It was a turning point, the place I stopped moving west and start heading south. But this region is important to my trip in another way, as I will take a long break visiting my niece and her family in DuPont.
I undertook this adventure because I love to cycle and wanted to see America at an intimate scale. I’m also concerned about the negative tone of our national conversation, so decided to generate my own discussions, one on one, with the people I meet. But an important personal objective was to visit my twelve nieces and nephews, now in the 20’s or 30’s, spread across seven states, raising families of their own.
A guy on a bike is like a woman in pearls: my accessory earns me special attention. I supposed that people would be inclined to talk to a cyclist, but underestimated that by a wide margin. People love to talk to a guy on a bike. They seek him out. They open up. The bike sets me apart, and triggers unconstrained responses to my question.
I appreciate strangers who engage in lively discussion, but I marvel at the private audiences I’ve earned. I’ve discussed tomorrow with Chiefs of Police, scientists, cattlemen, futurists, oilmen, shaman, museum directors, farmers, and executives. I’m not a credentialed journalist, just a good listener in yellow spandex. Sometimes I ask my interviewees why they offer me their time. To a person, their answer is, “because you’re on a bike.”
Some people respond to ‘How will we live tomorrow?’ by describing their plans twenty-four hours hence; others talk of space travel. Many respond from a global perspective, others answer in the first person singular. Many rephrase the question to how should we live, or how they hope to live tomorrow. One man, a Navy veteran who put me up overnight, told me my question was too broad and diffuse. But the next morning he said, “I’ve been thinking about your question: We will live tomorrow in the memories of those who love us.”
Retirees give me cold water along the road, truck drivers buy me lunch, mechanics offer me money, and gardeners give me produce. I turn down money, but I’ve learned to accept food and drink. As one collared businessman said, “You’re living the dream, man. You’ve got to let others join in.” Strangers invite me into their homes, make me supper, give me a bed, and cook me breakfast. More then stuff, I appreciate people’s concern for my safety. Nuns give me blessings; Buddhists give me Karma; Native Americans give me talismans. Evangelicals pulled me into a prayer circle in a McDonald’s. As a tiny creature crawling across this huge continent, I’m grateful for all protection.
One recurring theme of my conversations is what constitutes community. We can reach billions of people by a few clicks, yet we are more physically isolated than ever before. Community can center on our nuclear families, our neighborhoods, our coworkers, or our Facebook friends. One elderly woman in Montana said, “The community I am concerned about is the entire world.” A few days later, an Idaho mother said, “We as a family plan to live tomorrow more self-sufficient. That’s why we raise chickens and grow vegetables.”
These conversations have helped me understand my own need for community. I am Facebook friends with my nieces and nephews, we text and email each other. But the opportunity to sit at their kitchen table and talk without an agenda is rare, and worth the miles it took to get here.
I celebrated my arrival in Seattle, a milestone in my journey. But I will relax in a more sustainable way in DuPont, in the comfort of family.
Follow Paul E. Fallon’s journey and respond to his question at www.howwillwelivetomorrow.com.