Old Man and I were both rather disillusioned with the state of affairs in our country and our fellow man when we departed on our bike tour last March. As I am sure everyone vividly remembers, the 2016 presidential election cycle was the longest and ugliest on record. Even after it was over the ugliness fervently continued on both sides of the aisle. We were sheltered from many of the outlets of vitriol: our household did not have cable television or ever tune into network television, and mostly listened to CDs or audiobooks when in the car. However, we did seek out news online for current affairs and frequented social media accounts, namely for keeping tabs on family and friends, communication about our kids’ extracurricular activities or groups, and neighborhood-related forums. Social media alone overloaded us with the overwhelming sense of division and discontent present at every level in our country. Our limited face-to-face engagements with strangers often involved first facing a yard sign, a t-shirt, and/or a derogatory-named hat, that in the context of such a cripplingly toxic divide, prohibited ease with or approachability by anyone with remotely divergent thoughts. The walls of self-selected bubbles hardened, social tension was palpable, the white noise was loud, and it was everywhere. We had a multitude of motivations to check out for a year on our bikes, but we became more eager to escape all the political noise, both literal and figurative, as we got closer to the departure date. Thank goodness we did, because we are better for it, but maybe not in the way you would expect.
Prior to our bike tour we were both present on Facebook. It was a great tool for staying in touch with our families and military friends scattered far and wide, and those connections in turn helped us when settling in new locations: both to combat the senses of isolation and loneliness, and as sources of knowledge about our new location. Curiously, despite Old Man and my large overlapping group of Facebook friends, our newsfeeds could not have been more incongruent. We were each presented exclusively with an opposing political narrative, which made getting onto Facebook to check in to our various groups a chore. I never once posted a preference for either mainstream candidate. Yet, a woman I knew all during graduate school and maintained contact with for years afterward, wrongly assumed my vote against her candidate and un-friended me because of it. Our friendship boiled down to this one issue after so many years of knowing each other.
Sissy’s Girl Scout troop was warned to brace for blowback at the cookie booths because a Girl Scout troop marched in the Inaugural Parade. People, grown adults mind you, might demand an itemization of all the cookie sales’ proceeds or inform the scouts of their political reasons for not buying cookies. Really? These are ten and eleven-year-old girls. They did not vote, they did not march, and they had no say about the troop that did. Likely, the troop that marched in the parade was slotted to do so regardless of the victor, and few kids would pass up an opportunity to be on television. So grown adults, who did or had the option to vote, were expected to vent their political frustration on non-voting children who want to earn a bit of money for their own troop’s activities and local charities?
Neighborhood forums, specifically our local Buy Nothing group and Nextdoor.com, became political outlets. I utilized Buy Nothing extensively to unload our excess during our pre-move purge and to acquire some things we needed while in transition or for the bike tour itself. We utilized Nextdoor.com to advertise our kids’ lemonade and cookie stands, find baby-sitters, yard sales, and to discuss neighborhood news or concerns. Both forums are intended to bring together local communities, to act as a medium for neighbors to meet and get to know one another in our indoor, behind-the-screen digital age. And yet, a tension fell over both as political hysteria rose. Many ‘neutral’ Nextdoor.com discussion threads devolved into politically-charged name calling. The Buy Nothing Group on occasion became a venue to promote a political ideology or to self-affirm a moral high ground, which as a byproduct of doing so through a screen silenced those who did not share the same worldview and built a taller fence between neighbors. While Nextdoor.com was the worse offender of the two, neither was fulfilling its objective of fostering neighborhood cohesion.
What Old Man and I loved about our military life was the sense of community. We both grew up in the military and dedicated the majority of our adult years following Old Man’s military career. Maybe it was the unique combination of schools we attended, but we have never seen such elective mixing of race, socio-economic, or personal interests outside of military populations. Even among young soldiers you see walking down the street on a military installation, one may be wearing skin-tight Wranglers and a Stetson next to a guy in baggy urban clothes, and another one looking like he came from the cast of Jersey Shore. My theory on why these individuals with glaringly different backgrounds and styles mingle in ways not often seen off post is that we all want friends. We feel better with someone at our side to help us navigate new terrain or to whom we can go to with a problem. Even as adults, the military community served us well. We were on a rinse and repeat cycle of starting over completely every few years—researching schools; securing housing; finding doctors, summer camps, preschools, sports teams, and most importantly, friends. By living it, our military peers understood the challenges, and they helped ease the process. Sissy was passed around a cul-de-sac of families while I was in the hospital bringing Otter into the world, and nobody sweated the burden, timeline, or logistics. Many post-partum meals were brought to us by people who barely knew us. I had an emergency appendectomy while Old Man was traveling, and my neighbors and friends rallied to care for Sissy and Otter until he returned. We were welcomed to friends’ holiday meals. I was included in a neighborhood baby-sitting co-op to ease the challenge of childcare needs and expense that come as a result of not having family nearby. That sense of belonging and assurance that others will gladly help if needed gave us a highly valued sense of stability in a transient way of life. When faced with true social isolation—being somewhere entirely new, possibly in a foreign country, and not knowing anyone—the need for human connection overshadows the triviality of our skin color, fashion or music choices, or who we voted for in the last election. We did not have the luxury of perpetuating a social bubble of exclusively verified like-minded friends. We reached out to strangers.
With our time in the military over and our formal transition into civilian life upon us, we resigned ourselves to the loss of that sort of community. All we read about in the news was social discord, racial tensions, and political divide. Most of what we encountered on social media and in our daily urban life confirmed those assertions. The bike tour was to serve as a break from the self-imposed middle-class family grind, all the noise, and a time for personal and spiritual growth. Perhaps with some quiet and cultivated grit we could better face the onerous task of starting over from scratch, expecting that this time, by all media accounts about the state of our country, we would be truly on our own.
The first few weeks of the bike tour were brutal. The weather was exceptionally wet, we were out of shape, and drivers were not very friendly or even safe in some places. We were isolated and out of our element. We were a few days away from crossing into the rain shadow, but things began improving when we stumbled into a grocery store in Stevenson, Washington. A stream of strangers approached us to inquire about our ride and offer local advice about the roads ahead while we waited for a break in the rain. An elderly farmer allowed us to camp in his orchard and shared his history with us. Strangers approached us in a park in Idaho to inquire about our adventure, give us tips on the route, and wish us well. Then came the Warm Showers hosts in Montana. We had written off using Warm Showers as a touring resource, assuming no one would be willing to host SIX strangers, four of them children. We never would have discovered the error of our way had our first hosts not flagged us down on the side of the road and insisted we stay with them. This fruitful introduction to Warm Showers inspired us to seek out other hosts. Our very next hosts were the beloved goat farmers, who have gone above and beyond on multiple occasions to help us and love us. People we had never met emailed us through the blog to offer touring insights about roads, hosts, or just to let us know they were praying for us. The list of kind strangers willing and often eager to help us goes on and on: the remarkable assembly of people, who were strangers to each other, yet still came together to help out an unknown family stranded on the side of the road; someone approaching us at a grocery store to offer us use of his RV overnight; another stranger pulling over to commend us for having guts and to shake our hands; a host calling up friends along our route to offer us mid-day refreshment, horseback rides, or overnight accommodations; a local cyclist tracking us down at a campground to offer use of her lakeside cabin; several people offering to escort us along busy roads or in construction zones; a woman hollering an invitation to us from the front porch for the extended family’s Sunday meal as our lungs labored and sweat streamed down our faces; the mother of a friend picking us up and allowing us an extended stay while our bikes were repaired; a fellow touring cyclist seeking us out inside a library to tell of us about a local church that lodges traveling cyclists; and most recently, inclusion in a small town’s celebration of their high school athletes’ championship. All these acts of kindness listed amount to a fraction of the benevolent gifts we received along the way and were offered to us by complete strangers. Yes, we may appear unthreatening. We were fully exposed on our bikes with little capacity to hide anything. The presence of kids minimizes the likeliness of nefarious intentions. We are a low theft risk given how slowly we could flee a scene and our limited volume and towing capacity. However, even if unthreatening, we were still strange and non-conforming. Yet, all these people were willing to overlook our peculiarities and welcome us into their lives in one way or another and enhanced the joy of our journey exponentially.
By extension, we stayed in the homes of people from all walks of life: people who clean up our messes, deliver our milk, grow our food, help heal our bodies, care for our pets, fix our homes, make necessary parts for our beloved technology, teach our children, coach our youth, plan our communities, prepare and serve our food, advocate for our weak, design and build our commercial buildings, nurture our faith, transport us, and serve in our militaries. Education levels and breadth of domestic and foreign travel were wide-ranging. Political leanings were varied, as were religious convictions. Direct interest in or experience with cycling was often lacking. Yet, conversations abounded. We shared our story and they shared theirs. We got a window into their worlds. We learned one farmer’s perspective on and experience with migrant labor. We gained a doctor’s take on the American healthcare system. We gleaned parenting wisdom from others a cycle or two ahead of us. We received invaluable tips on places to check out and roads to avoid. We discovered that we do, in fact, have a lot in common. Maybe not everything, but we all want good healthcare, we all want a good education for our children followed by career opportunities for them, and we all want safe neighborhoods. We may have different ideas on how to achieve those ends based on our differing backgrounds and experiences, but we do share a lot of common ground with each other in terms of goals and objectives. We crossed into worlds to which our self-selected socio-economic bubbles rarely allow access, and we gained three dimensional windows into topics the media can only cover fleetingly in two dimensions. Personally, I would much rather begin relationships focusing on shared interests than dwelling on our differences. Our differences sell advertising space, but our shared goals and interests build bridges and communities.
We went into the bike tour expecting quiet solitude. Having lived in an urban setting surrounded by so many people, yet engaging so few, how could untethering from a static domestic life, often passing through minimally populated areas, create more opportunity for community? We hoped to grow spiritually through this self-imposed isolation, to give God access to us without the distraction of human noise. Funny how we want God to grow us, but still try to direct how that happens. We wanted to condition our minds and bodies towards self-sufficiency in preparation for starting over again in the civilian chapter of life awaiting us. We prayed that all of these goals and objectives would strengthen us as a family. All of our expectations were blown out of the water. Amazingly, we experienced greater levels of community as transients than we did as residents in recent years. Perhaps community is less about population density or duration of residency, and more about visibility and accessibility. We were not hidden behind screens or tinted windows. We were outside and in plain sight all the time; available to talk face-to-face. God did not speak to us directly. He spoke to us through other people, through their acts of kindness and generosity. He showed us how we as individuals, families, and communities all benefit when we take the time to listen to each other and help each other. Despite our best efforts, we did not achieve true self-sufficiency. So many people helped us along the way. It would be disingenuous to think we accomplished our 8,000+ mile journey on our own. We need each other. We need community. We thrive when we have it. However, community does not exist with depth or substance through screens because they make caricatures of both people and issues people care about. I encourage everyone to reach outside of their established social circles, to not hide behind screens, but to engage people—strangers—face-to-face. If you do, you will undoubtedly, eventually, get a glimpse of God’s beautiful creation, both the landscape and its inhabitants, and be blessed as we have been. We are thankful for this journey, for the people we met along the way, the things we got to do, and the places we got to see. Our family is better and stronger because of it.