Trip Log – Day 116, 117, 118, 119 –Dupont, WA

Screen Shot 2015-08-29 at 1.34.00 PMAugust 29 to September 1, 2015 – Rainy, 65 degrees

Miles Today: 7

Miles to Date: 6,283

States to Date: 22

IMG_3760Vacation is not only doing something pleasant; it’s doing something different. So, after riding my bike for over three months, I took a four-day vacation. I visited my niece, her husband and their three boys in DuPont. I hardly rode my bike; I scarcely went outside. We watched The Lego Movie and built our own Lego creations. Ate dinner out and ordered pizza in. Three boys can keep three adults amused without any other diversions. I like to think that I helped my niece around the house, but mostly I just took it easy and enjoyed my extended family.

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The Question I Carried

This essay was published in WBUR Cognoscenti on August 21, 2015

Stone Soup is a folktale about a wanderer who comes to town and proclaims he can make soup from a stone. He convinces townspeople to heat a cauldron of water and places his stone inside. Then he stirs expectations: ‘a slice of carrot’, ‘a pinch of sage’ or ‘a bit of meat’ would make the soup even tastier. He cajoles locals to toss in all sorts of ingredients, and by supper they share the soup all around. Everyone is amazed that such tasty soup comes from a stone. After the feast, the drifter pockets his stone and proceeds to the next town.

0820_bike_trip_cog-592x324I consider that fable as I bicycle across the 48 contiguous United States and ask the question, “How will we live tomorrow?” In the past thirteen weeks I’ve pedaled over 5000 miles and visited tewnty-one states. I have thousands more miles and a full turn of the seasons before I complete my circuitous route. My odyssey is rooted in a desire to explore this country in a visceral way; my question provides structure and purpose to my wanderings. It also stimulates a deeper level of conversation among those I meet.

Every day I engage at least one person I don’t know in conversation and ask them my question. Several times a week I visit companies and institutions to discuss tomorrow. So far, I’ve talked with organic farmers and fast food executives; hospital CEO’s and family constellation therapists; chiefs of police, IT programmers, inventors, professors, and minimum wage workers; Muslims, Catholics, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Jews; and immigrants from Lebanon, Somalia, India, Norway, and Cambodia.

Some people respond to ‘How will we live tomorrow?’ by describing what they’ll do twenty-four hours hence; others talk about colonizing distant planets. Many respond from a global perspective, others answer in the first person singular. Quite a few rephrase the question to how should we live, or how they hope to live tomorrow. One man, a Navy veteran who offered me lodging for the night, told me my question was too broad and diffuse. Then the next morning he said, “I’ve been thinking about your question: We will live tomorrow in the memories of those who love us.” Hardly a standard military response.

My project is inherently unscientific. I am a slow slice of space and time cutting through our land, haphazardly hitting and missing people and events. Still, a guy on a bicycle with two saddlebags and a question learns quickly that people are kind and good. I’ve suffered two mechanical failures and one serious tumble. Each time strangers came to my aid, offering transportation and iodine. I originally intended to stay in local motels, yet half the time strangers who’ve heard of my adventure invite me into their homes, make me supper, give me a bed, cook me breakfast, and send me on my way. All I offer in exchange are stories of the road and my question. Yet we both find it a satisfactory exchange.

People hail me down to give me cold water, buy my lunch, offer me money, and give me fresh produce. I turn money away, but I’ve learned to accept food and drink as tangible ways for people to participate in my adventure. As one staid businessman said, “You’re living the dream, man. You’ve got to let others join in.” More then stuff, I appreciate how people display their concern for my quest and 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 yellow-clad creature crawling across a continent abuzz with hard steel vehicles, I am grateful for all protection.

Loveland-Pass-592x444On my longest day so far, crossing the Continental Divide in Colorado, a seasoned cyclist overtook me outside of Denver. I gave Mark my card and asked him my question. He said, “I’ve got lots of ideas for tomorrow, but today I’m looking after you.” Mark accompanied me for eleven-hours for the seventy-mile climb to Loveland Pass. Near the top he said, “You may be the only man who ever topped Loveland on a heavy steel bike with saddle bags and tennis shoes. You are one weird cyclist.” Then he rolled back east while I continued west.

I could end my odyssey today and consider it a success; I have countered my concerns about our vast country and its myriad problems with examples of abundant generosity. But I can’t stop yet. I have many more miles to pedal, states to visit, and people to meet. In every town, I ask my question, people toss their ideas into the mix, and savor our conversation. Then we part, like the stone soup vagrant and the townsfolk, mutually satisfied.

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Trip Log – Day 115 – Seattle, WA to Dupont, WA

Screen Shot 2015-08-29 at 1.34.00 PMAugust 28, 2015 – Partly sunny, 65 degrees

Miles Today: 50

Miles to Date: 6,276

States to Date: 22

 IMG_3730Much as I enjoyed Seattle, it felt great to climb on Surly, pedal down to the waterfront, weave through the container port, cross over the West Seattle Bridge, and log some distance. Five low mileage days made me antsy. Even though today’s route wasn’t difficult, it was more than mere commuting.

IMG_3731I climbed through West Seattle and descended to the Vachon Island ferry port. Ferries are an integral part of Seattle’s transportation infrastructure. Still, I was surprised how many people and vehicles took the twenty-minute ride midmorning. Crossing Puget Sound with ferries, pleasure boats and freighters all in view, I recalled how water used to connect us. Before railroads, before roads, rivers and bays were our thoroughfares.

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Now, land connections dominate and water connections are weak bonds. Vachon Island is a separate world a mere two miles from the City of Seattle. It reminded me of Cape Ann in Massachusetts – varied terrain with lush greenery, well-kept vintage houses and a quaint scale. The grocery store where I stopped at noon was crowded and inefficient but no one seemed dismayed or rushed. Island time exists wherever water surrounds us, even if we’re only 15 miles from Amazon headquarters.

IMG_3737The ride after lunch only got better. Sun streaked through tall trees and illuminated mounds of fern and moss. I descended into the village of Burton. Magnolia Beach opened before me, an arc of fine sand beach and frame cottages. Seagulls lofted above. The sweet scent of salt air rushed my nostrils. All at once I was back home. Then it struck me. How far I’ve come. Until that moment my journey from Cambridge to Seattle had been measured in time and distance. A single jolt of sea air clarified my emotional distance. All the months I’ve traversed farms, prairie and mountains I never thought about the sea. But one waft from the opposite coast made my heart pulse a homesick beat. The world is not just round in shape. Memories retrieved mark the cycle of our growth. Like rings of a tree. Or seagull squawks that echo true on either coast.

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IMG_3739 imagesI took a second ferry from Vachon to Tacoma, a short ride full of chatty passengers. The mainland greeted me with a great beer sign and blocks of amusingly tacky houses. Tacoma must have boomed when the bi-level was king, board and batten siding in vogue, and contrasting paint motifs all the rage. Baby blue with chocolate brown. Lemon with rust. Each house, identical to the next, screaming to be unique.

IMG_3740I passed the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, sight of one of the most famous civil engineering disasters of our era. Not the bridge I saw, which stands firm, but the one that wobbled in a 1940 gale and came crashing down. Beyond the bridge, I rode for miles along the bay. Hills, mountains, and sky all muted against the overhead sky. It started to rain – just barely. Puget Sound is like Ireland. Rain enhances the place.

IMG_3747I arrived in DuPont, where I will spend a few days with my niece and her family. When I stay with warmshowers hosts, I typically leave a calling card and a box of Altoids as gesture of appreciation. But my nieces rank flowers. I love riding with a bouquet popping out of my backside, proclaiming to everyone that, though I travel light, I still have space for something as ethereal as fresh flowers.

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Cycling the U.S with a question: How will we live tomorrow?

HWWLT Logo on yellowThis opinion essay was published in The Seattle Times on Thursday August 27, 2015.

I am cycling toward Seattle at ten miles per hour, fueled by 5,000 calories a day and a question. Since May, I’ve logged 6,000 miles, traversed 22 states, and 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 here. For me, Seattle is a turning point, the place I stop moving west and start heading south. Seattle marks only the third point in my objective to pedal and pose my question in the 48 contiguous states. Still, reaching the upper left corner on the map is a significant landmark in my journey.

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I undertook this adventure because I love to cycle and wanted to see America at an intimate scale. More importantly, I am concerned about the negative tone of our national conversation. I’ve no confidence the 2016 election cycle will rise above partisan discord to generate the thoughtful debate we deserve. So I decided to generate my own discussions, one on one, with people I meet riding a bicycle.

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; I 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.

imagesI 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.

I could return to Massachusetts after I reach Seattle – most transcontinental cyclists are one-way travelers – and count my journey a success. Not that I’ve solved our nations’ problems. Rather, I’ve countered my worries with example upon example of personal generosity.

imgres-1But I won’t dip my tire in Puget Sound and head home. After Seattle, I want to ask my question in San Francisco and Fresno, El Paso and Tampa. Everyday brings fresh responses and fresh energy. And often, a savvy local exposes the real purpose of my inquiry. “You know, the answers aren’t all that important. The important thing is asking the question.”

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Trip Log – Day 114 – Seattle, WA

Bothell to SeattleAugust 27, 2015 – Sunny, 80 degrees

Miles Today: 5

Miles to Date: 6,226

States to Date: 22

I started the day with a quiet visit to Steven Holl’s chapel at Seattle University, a contemporary building with many references to LeCorbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp.

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I quit that solitude for the frenzy of Rem Koolhaus’s magnificent Seattle Public Library, where I had two interviews about tomorrow.

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One of the cyclists I met on my way to Seattle told me, “Being a cyclist is as close to being a celebrity as I’ll ever get. Everyone wants to talk with me.” I had one of those celebrity moments as I left the library and a passerby recognized me as the author of today’s op ed in The Seattle Times. Like actual celebrity, it was both gratifying and creepy. I didn’t actually see the piece until late afternoon. After lunch at the Pike Market, I returned to my favorite Seattle haunt, Elliott Bay Book Company, for a writing break. The hyper-skinny Seattle cafe habitués bemoaned summer on this sunny, perfect day.

No time for fame to go to the head of a guy who pedals for a living. Tomorrow I quit Seattle and head south.

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Trip Log – Day 113 – Seattle, WA

Bothell to SeattleAugust 26, 2015 – Sunny, 65 degrees

Miles Today: 14

Miles to Date: 6,221

States to Date: 22

IMG_3701I woke up to a Seattle panorama this morning. My host said, “Lots of people in Seattle have good views.”  The fact that its shared does not distract from its magnificence.

Seattle is a joy in every respect. It’s the first city I’ve been in that treats cycling as a legitimate form of transportation. The bike routes are well marked and connect places of work as well as places to play. Bike lanes are robust and vehicle drivers treat cyclists as equal participants on the pavement.

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Seattle is also growing – fast. I don’t know if the city invented the Lego style of mid-rise condo development with boxy pop-outs of varied cutouts and materials, flat roofs, and angular surfaces, but they are everywhere, and more are under construction.

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I had a series of interesting interviews today that took me to several different neighborhoods: Atlantic, Belltown, North Queen Anne, and Capitol Hill. My routes went through Seattle University, past the Gates Foundation Building (very elegant) and Gehry’s Experience Music Project (everything but elegant). Thank goodness for my granny gears – the gradient of many Seattle streets is steeper than any US Highway.

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My warmshowers hosts were a delight. They topped off a great dinner with molten chocolate cake that was so rich I had a difficult time getting to sleep. Or maybe it was because I only rode 14 miles. Or maybe it was because I am a city guy at heart, excited by the pulse of this place.

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Trip Log – Day 112 – Bothell, WA to Seattle, WA

Bothell to SeattleAugust 25, 2015 – Sunny, 65 degrees

Miles Today: 25

Miles to Date: 6,207

States to Date: 22

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The bike trail into Seattle from the north is a terrific path with gorgeous views along the top of Lake Washington, along the lake’s west side, and into the city. I meandered through University of Washington, descended into Montvale Playground and then ascended up to Interlaken Park before wending my way to Elliott Bay Book Company, where I spent the afternoon absorbing Capitol Hill’s vibe. Seattle is full of thin androgynous people. All that coffee, all those grey skies, all that progressive thinking blurs lines in every direction.

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I got lost getting to my warmshowers host. When I finally arrived, she explained that Seattle is divided into nine quadrants, each with its own system of streets and numbers. 9th Street has no relationship to East 9th Street. 12th Street is numbered up to 2300, and then starts over at 100 when it becomes N. 12th Street. It is a challenge my mathematical mind embraces, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

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