“I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”
Day 399 – 33,673km
We all have a preconceived idea about a country before we visit – perhaps it’s also hopes, expectations and apprehensions. These stereotypes can be positively affirmed upon arrival while providing pause for thought if the reverse transpires. As humans, we can attempt to taper the impact of these stereotypes but they are an unavoidable reality.
This leads me to America and what our image of the country is. Rightly or wrongly, we all have an idea of what America is and what it represents.
America is the largest economy in the world. By population, it is the third largest country. By size, it is the fourth largest. It ranks number one in terms of military spending. It also incarcerates more of its population than any other country. It has more guns per person. It consumes the most calories per person per day. It spends more money per capita on healthcare. It also has the largest income inequality in the industrialised world.
America is a land of extremes and contradictions. It views itself as the symbol of freedom and liberty. It continues to build, innovate and influence while simultaneously being corrupt, divided and ostentatious. There is Hollywood, great music, enterprise, iconic architecture and inspiring political leaders. There is also huge poverty, crime, drug addiction and wealth disparity.
I have visited America a number of times but had a feeling this would be a whole different insight to the Land of the Free.
The past year has provided moments of undeniable beauty. When it comes to scenery, America has certainly had more than its fair share. There have been plentiful moments where I was filming and photographing incessantly in an attempt to record the experience. Yet this desire to share the trip with others was also matched by some things that cannot be accurately represented by a camera lens.
The lens can show steep rock faces shoot up majestically in Yosemite National Park. The lens can give an idea of desert expanses in Nevada and Utah. The lens shows the unearthly colours, the wildlife and the geysers expelling their contents in Yellowstone National Park. From the uncompromising Sierra Nevada Mountains, deserts, ancient river valleys, cornfields, cities and autumnal colours over the Appalachian Mountains, I have seen a range of temperatues, altitudes and tectonic formations.
There is, however, an enormous amount that is omitted. Despite what I share on Instagram, some things on an adventure can’t, and in my view often shouldn’t, be shared.
It’s hard to convey the calm of riding through Wyoming with the silence interrupted only by a gentle river through a giant canyon. Beyond being out of breath or sweating, my physical fatigue never really shows. The mental fatigue from cycling bullet-straight roads directly into a seven day headwind, flanked only by cornfields, doesn’t quite translate. There is the difficulty of hauling my heavy load up another long ascent while temperatures upwards of 40 degrees diminish my water supplies and raise my core temperature to an unmanageable level. I found myself almost unable to express the undulating splendour of mile upon mile of autumnal colours across the forests of Pennsylvania just as the mighty clouds that enveloped me in Nebraska seemed too vast and imposing to accurately depict.
But what a fortunate problem to have. In terms of scenery alone, America has surprised me, brought me to tears and left me utterly astounded.
I was constantly bemused by roadside flags, banners and signs. Anything from the ominous conversation: “We Need to Talk – God” to tractor pulling contests, hay festivals, Amish horse and carriages, Confederate flags, anti-abortion graffiti and anti-Obama posters. There was something for everyone. The propensity of “Thank a Veteran” or “To the Heroes who are Keeping our Nation Safe – We Salute You” was a positive, albeit occasionally excessive, theme. A usefeul selection of time zones, state boundaries and continental divides gave pleasing checkpoints along the 3,500 mile trip. Small businesses, legal advice and medical treatment posters were bizarre, sometimes informative and usually inclusive of an airbrushed individual with a trusting smile or authoritive stance – the glistenning teeth were a given.
It was, however, the people I met who gave a far greater insight. It is easy from the outside to construct a narrative prior to visiting based on political leaders, voting trends or recent headlines. I can say, for example, that the Brexit debacle, in and out of Parliament, is far from representative of what the people in the UK are actually like. Of course it’s divisive and, of course, rarely portrays our country in the best light. As with Brexit, Donald Trump is also divisive and often portrays America in an unfavourable light. I wanted to further understand this and meet people on both ends of the scale rather than simply passing judgement based on a few tweets, the odd gif and a well-crafted YouTube compilation.
After a couple of months here, I am pleased to leave with a far greater insight and perspective into Trump, the people and politics of the country. It’s an omnipresent subject wherever you go, dissimilar to the UK in that so much of people’s opinions are transparently shared for all to see. Similar, however, in that the political situation in the country, for better or worse, is at the tip of everyone’s tongue and nobody is short of an opinion. On this subject in this country, I often just sat, listened and processed rather than engaged in debate.
I had Nevadan cowboys telling me, “Donald Trump is just trying to make the world a better place, people are just too stupid to realise it.” In amusing contradition, the next person would happen to say, “The issue with Trump supporters is their ignorance and stupidity about the world.” The division and derision is very real. A sigh of despair from some would be equalled by proud celebrations from others about a man, “Who finally speaks our language and understands what it means to be American.” This was according to a couple – both school teachers – I met in Iowa. Often a conversation about Trump would be followed up with, “So, what’s the deal with Brexit at the moment?” My turn for a sigh of despair.
Kindness of Strangers
What I can say with total sincerity about my ride across America is that I have been swamped with the #KindnessOfStrangers from the first day to the last. Whether it be a Utah cafe owner giving me a free coffee to a commuter buying my lunch in Iowa or a young Mexican man giving me a bag of crisps on my first day out of San Francisco. It almost became the norm when I was sat in McDonald’s to be randomly asked what I was doing, where I was from and then to wish me luck and safety. Always positive, always kind and always helpful. It was the firefighter giving me a high five as I pedalled through the notorious Chicago suburbs. It was the couple who stopped to give me water in the Californian heatwave just as much as it was the cowboys ordering me drinks at a bar and letting me stay at their ranch in Nevada.
A beauty of foreign travel, especially over an extended period, is that it provides perspective. By that I mean a chance to reflect upon people, friends, cultures, customs, quirks, joys and flaws of the life you left behind. It can sometimes be disheartening and disappointing but truly uplifting and re-motivating at others.
The general openness and willingness to engage with others, irrespective of whether that positivity is maintained over time, is something that, as a visitor to America, was a blessing. Often I just want to be ignored with my own thoughts but every brief conversation I had with a stranger, however many times I’ve copied and pasted the same answer, is something that, consciously or subconsciously, gives me a boost. That, amongst several other reasons, is why my mood has been upbeat over the past few months; it’s hard for it not to be.
I’ve used Warmshowers more in America than anywhere else. This reciprocal hosting website designed specifically for cycle touring is wonderful. It is based on trust, empathy and kindness. Some people don’t get it and wouldn’t do the same and that’s fine. But for those that do, either as a host or guest, we usually acknowledge it is an odd but special thing. I’m not going to list all the people I’ve stayed with. They know who they are, what they’ve done to help me and the impact of doing so. All I can really say is a truly heartfelt thank you.
Big City Life
When I arrived in New York, I debated with a couple of friends about the heart of America. Is it a location, landmark, city, person, culture, physical setting or none of the above?
What is the heart of America? In fact, what represents the heart of your own country? I know, having now spent over 400 days away from home, that my heart belongs in the UK but a harder question is what that actually represents.
I feel having gone across the country, and visited it many other times, while acknowledging my ignorance for many places I haven’t been, that the heart is not a clearly defined thing. The heart of America is in fact the very idea of America. That is what all these different cities, landscapes, monuments, movies and slogans are representing. They are often appealing to a non-specific notion of what people believe America is, or at least what it is aspiring to be.
And that heart is also an amazing one. From the libertarian feel of San Francisco to the simplicity of the Midwest, the skyline of Chicago and the chaos of New York City. That heart is the reason for the polarising extremes in all facets of the country: geographic, political, social and economic. That heart is also the reason it is such a great country to cycle across. Those contrasts, that openness and the sheer diversity of language, lifestyle, culture, scenery and perspective has made me feel all of: a foreigner, a tourist, a stranger and totally at ease.
The heart of America is a torn but strong one. The people have been good to me on all ends of the spectrum and for that I am enormously grateful. I’ve had “Cycle Across America” on a Bucket List since I was a teenager. It seemed such a big adventure across such an iconic country. I am pleased and relieved that it matched all my expectations and hopes.
The Big Apple, the Concrete Jungle, the City that Never Sleeps. It seems fitting to end America in New York, the site of so much early settlement; this end contrasting with that beginning. The bright lights, sirens, yellow cabs and crowds are, of course, at odds with my life on the road. And yet the buzz, excitement and hope feels strangely relatable. In some ways, that contrast represents different sides of my own character just as much as it shows different sides of this country.
This trip is almost at an end now. I fly to Lisbon shortly and begin my ride through Europe, back into France and finally to London. I guess it’s an odd thought but equally one I’m ready and excited for.
Thank you once again to everyone for following the trip, reading this blog and giving me such continued and appreciated support.
And thank you as well to my friends who have hosted me in different cities across the country. Laura in San Fran, David and Catherine in Lake Tahoe, Matt and Brendan in Chicago and then Duncan in New York. Absolute legends the lot of you.