Oh boy, I'm pretty antsy right now. In just a few days the loaded Surly and I will set out on a 1,950-mile bicycle journey through the American Southwest, the third of nine U.S. regional tours that will make up the Conversations with US project. I’ll start pedaling straight out of my driveway in Houston, Texas and won’t stop until I'm defiantly shaking my gloved fist at the buzzards circling overhead in Death Valley, California, some 38 days later.
The Southwest is a storied, formative place; a fundamental pillar of the American ethos. At the same time, many of those stories were born from people who had no notion of a United States of America; indeed, from a time before anyone had even begun to consider the concept of our young nation. The first people to start etching their stories into to the juniper-covered mountains and rusty canyons were, of course, the myriad groups of Native Americans whose connections to the region ebbed and flowed for thousands of years according to the vagaries of climate, water, game, crops or war. But many others also made their marks before America did: vaqueros, rustlers, Spanish adventurers, Franciscan missionaries, ranchers, drunk prospectors, Mestizo farmers …along with an attendant crowd of rogues and scoundrels. And then came the postwar schemers, the German and Czech settlers, the cowboys and oil barons. Its history makes the Southwest a veritable nursery of stories.
Most of us have some idea, probably a little bit romantic, of those old stories from the American Southwest—but what are the stories that are being created today? I will explore that question over the next few weeks, 50 miles at the time. It’s exciting to be putting the finishing touches on what should be an epic, seminal, ride.
What is it that makes this particular tour—the third one—feel so important?
Five years ago, when CWU first began to coalesce, it could have been (and probably was) said that the inagrual tour of the project was fueled by idealism and, especially, naivety. It could easily fail before it even got started. I had never toured before, never interviewed anyone before, never been to most of the places I would be visiting, and had no one traveling with me or showing me what to do. I calmly understood that most of those to whom I first broached the idea thought I was slightly insane. Nevertheless, I successfully completed that first tour through the Deep South but, shortly thereafter, virtually abandoned the project when work and life demanded my full attention. When I finally began seriously considering a resurrection of CWU late last year, it was perfectly clear to me that the second tour, if it ever happened, would serve largely as a test. Did I really have it inside of me to step away from a nascent career and a fairly stable lifestyle? Even if I did, could I still hack being alone out on the bike for weeks on end, pedaling 50 miles a day, every day? Was I growing too old for these types of idealistic adventures? It was a decision I wrestled with for months. On the night I finally said ‘I’m going to do this’, I drafted this short essay as a way of announcing it to the world. I was resolved to put myself back in the saddle, but feeling only a middling confidence that things would work out.
My apprehension turned out to be misplaced; the Water, Steel & Grit tour of the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes was phenomenal. And so, even before returning home from route #2, I began considering the logistics of route #3. I think this is why the upcoming tour through the Southwest seems, in many ways, like the most important of all. By setting out a third time, I am confirming to the world (and, more importantly, to myself) that this project is not an impulse, not a whim, not a pipe-dream, not something fun to do while I figure other things out. My decision to continue pedaling for thousands more miles alongside thundering 18-wheelers and texting teenagers is no longer grounded in my ignorance of the very real, depressing, risk that I am taking by doing so. I can now recount in detail how a pelting rain, relentless sun, steadily dropping temperature and incessant headwind can, sometimes all in the same day, gnaw and scratch at one’s resolve. And on those nights lying in my tent, stiff and dirty and exhausted from a day spent fighting for my strip of asphalt, I will await with stoic resignation the creeping arrival of that dull loneliness, borne by the sleep-shattering blast of a train whistle, or stirred from the darkness by a nearby rustling of unknown intentions. I do not choose to pedal on because I am unaware of the difficulties ahead. Instead, I cocoon them in optimism and the determination to press forward in my search for America, and to share what I learn with all of you. Knowing that others value the project and what I am doing is what pushes me up the steepest of hills. I hope to see you following along.