Before I delve into my America observations as a whole, I just want to mention that the mere fact I am writing this article is still unbelievable to me. In the abstract, biking across the USA seems formidable, if not crazy. However, even though I’m finished with my journey, I’m unable to comprehend the abstract as reality. In any event, here are my observations about the United States of America:
1. Let’s start off with some high notes. How could I begin anywhere other than the people? As a whole, Americans are extraordinarily generous, helpful, kind, outgoing, and friendly. My Warm Showers experiences capture these characteristics perfectly. For those unfamiliar, Warm Showers is this international hospitality exchange where people from all over the world open their homes to touring cyclists like me. The entire system is built on reputational equity, sort of like eBay. Not only do cyclists receive a safe place to stay, they also receive dinner (75% of the time for me), breakfast (75% of the time for me), and of course, a warm shower (100% for me)—all for free. Most strikingly, my Warm Showers hosts knew virtually nothing about me, knew that they would likely never see me again, but nevertheless opened their homes and hearts to me. These experiences were undeniably some of my most cherished moments of the trip.
2. In order to provide a better idea as to the generosity I experienced through Warm Showers, my hosts in Phoenix, Arizona, for example, permitted me to stay in their vacant home down the street (they were selling it) for two nights. We had a whole house to ourselves! Don’t worry: they still called when it was time for dinner.
3. Or how about the Warm Showers hosts in Langtry, Texas. Despite these folks being out of town for the Thanksgiving weekend, they permitted us to stay in a trailer in which they had provided specifically for touring cyclists. These people opened their doors to us from hundreds of miles away. Incredible.
4. Or how about the two families I met—one in Jackson, Louisiana and the other in Safford, Arizona—who have hosted literally hundreds of cyclists. Specifically, the family in Jackson, Louisiana has hosted cyclists for the past 15 years and averages nearly 300 cyclists a year! Incredible! The other family in Safford, Arizona has hosted cyclists for the past four years and averages 3-4 cyclists per week. Talk about serious generosity! Not to mention, my hosts in Safford, Arizona took me to their church Christmas party!
5. I couldn’t possibly write all the similar acts of kindness from my Warm Shower hosts in a review page. But suffice it to say that these experiences were by far the norm, not the exception.
6. Perhaps Graham Hughes, a Brit who became the first person to visit all 201 countries without a plane, described this generosity best: “I think I also wanted to show that the world is not some big, scary place, but in fact is full of people who want to help you even if you are a stranger.” I couldn’t agree more. Check out Graham’s story here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2239087/Graham-Hughes-British-man-person-visit-201-countries-WITHOUT-using-plane.html.
7. I have a newfound respect for firefighters. I stayed at six fire stations on my trip. At a minimum, each fire station allowed me to at least spend the night. Some even provided a warm shower or fed me.
8. Although I’m obviously biased, I could not imagine a better way to experience the country other than from a bicycle. First, the bicycle permits the rider to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and noises of the environment in a manner not possible from inside the confines of an automobile. Second, and most importantly, the bicycle serves as the icebreaker to many conversations and thus the gateway into understanding local culture. The bicycle intrigues and captures attention unlike automobiles. “Why are you riding?” locals ask. “Where are you coming from?” Frankly, a car, or even a motorcycle, would not have intrigued these folks enough to warrant many of the lengthy conversations I held.
9. People at the beginning of the trip think you’re crazy for endeavoring to bike across America. (Literally, I’ve had more than a few people tell me I was crazy.) At the end of the trip, people still think you’re crazy, but they are impressed.
10. People often ask me where was the nicest place I visited. That’s a difficult question to answer because it all depends by what the person means. Do you mean would I live there? Vacation there? Or does raw beauty suffice? If you mean potential living locations, Austin, Texas and San Diego top the list. Austin and San Diego both exude a young, energetic, and dynamic culture—a great combination for a young professional like me. Moreover, brutal winters don’t exist in Austin and San Diego—another plus. If you mean raw beauty, the Florida Gulf maintains some of the most gorgeous beaches I’ve ever seen. The white sand reflects a brilliant light and the crystal clear water permits seeing your feet in shoulder-deep water. However, the Southwest is beautiful in its own right, with some of the most spectacular mountains I saw along my trip. Ultimately, the “where is the nice place question” is too multi-faceted to merely name a single place absent explanation.
11. However, if one really pressed me to name the nicest place along my entire trip, I would suggest that it was Saint George Island in Florida. Saint George Island is a 28-mile long island located four miles off the Florida panhandle. This place is something out of a movie. Florida’s crystal-clear water laps against the island’s bleached-white coast as the ocean breeze combs through your hair. Look out in any direction (except toward the mainland) and it’s easy to believe that you are alone in the middle of the ocean. If that’s not a great way to falls asleep, well, then I don’t know what is.
12. Texas was definitely my favorite state. Although it’s almost laughable how much Texans are obsessed with their state, I have to say, I get it (well, as much as cycling three week through the state permits). Texans were some of the most hospitable, welcoming, and fun folks I met along the way. Not to mention the barbeque was fantastic.
13. My favorite region to cycle through was Texas Hill Country. The open, undulating terrain struck a great balance between rigorous climbs and scenic lowlands. Texas Hill Country marked the spot where I could finally relax from the congested roadways of the South.
14. Speaking of Texas, Davey Johnson, the former Washington National’s manager, has a brother who lives in Texas. I know because I stayed with Fred Johnson. Thanks Fred and Janice!
15. Florida maintains the best roads. Louisiana maintains the worst roads with California duking it out for second worst.
16. Nearly half of my trip could have served as a case study for trickledown economics, particularly the stretch between west of Austin, Texas and east of San Diego, California. Certain industries—namely, railroad and mining in the Southwest and timber in the Southeast—unilaterally built and support many of the local towns. However, the implosion of some of these industrial operations—most notably, the railroad in the Southwest—has produced devastating consequences which have rippled through the local communities. Ghost towns serve as memorials of a town that once was. By the way, ghost towns are pretty creepy.
17. America’s wealthy generally live in one of three places: (1) urban centers or the close outskirts, (2) very, very select places along the coast (e.g. beach houses), (3) very, very, select places in the interior (e.g. ranches).
18. One might ask, “Cities, coasts, and the interior—where else could one live, Kyle? Of course the rich live in one of these three because these options practically exhaust the alternatives.” Fair enough, but understanding America’s layout provides greater clarity as to what I mean. America’s layout consists principally of thousands of small towns separated by 10-30 miles (east coast towns) or 20-100 miles (west coast towns). By “small towns,” I mean anything from 12 people to 5,000 people. The distance between these small towns shrinks as one approaches a city. Cities maintain the typical concrete, development, and commerce one would expect. But cities comprise only a fraction of America’s geography. After leaving a city, the small town layout quickly reemerges. In fact, many city suburbs are quite small, and it is not long before housing developments transition into rolling farmland. Mindful of this layout, America’s rich do not live in these many, many small towns. Instead, the affluent opt for (a) city life near urban centers, (b) the sprawling farms/ranches in between the small towns, or (c) vacation homes along select coastline.
19. America’s layout is not by coincidence. Cheap oil has connected small, scattered towns by reducing the cost of travel in between. Cheap oil has permitted towns located over a two hour drive(!) from the closest grocery store to survive. Cheap oil has countered the economic inefficiencies created by a sprawling infrastructure and utility network.
20. Not only does cheap oil affect where we live, but it also affects how we live. With more land available outside of city limits, Americans are able to build sizable single-family homes on property with equally sizable yards. And a bigger house means more room to store belongings. If you aren’t wealthy enough to afford a home with a walk-in closet, many houses maintained a barn or some type of storage unit.
21. By far the most common vehicle I observed was the pickup truck. Even the rich drove pickup trucks. More specifically, aside from urban areas, the rich were likely to drive expensive pickup trucks (e.g. Ford F-150 Platinum) or push luxury SUVs (e.g. Cadillac Escalade) rather than buy a foreign luxury car. Bigger cars = more oil.
22. Perhaps the biggest factor in determining where and how Americans live is the United States Interstate System. I’ll admit, the interstate system is a modern marvel, shrinking the time gap between virtually every major US city. But again, the entire interstate system is predicated on cheap oil. Who is going to travel hundreds of miles at $8.00 a gallon gasoline? Nobody. Reading about the effect of oil is one thing, to observe it firsthand was another.
23. The political hot-button topic of the trip: corporations. Not racism, not violence, not poverty—corporations.
24. Think the Rio Grade River serves as a border between Mexico and America? Well, you’re only partially correct. You see, there is no more water in the Rio Grande River. This brings us to a more general issue: where did all the water in western rivers go?
25. I was continually surprised by the abundance of undeveloped land in America. Farms are everywhere, including areas immediately outside of many cities. For example, Austin, Texas maintained vast swaths of farmland a mere 30-45 minutes from the city limits.
26. An abundant supply of undeveloped land equates to cheap land prices. Outside of Phoenix, for example, I saw offers to buy a two bedroom, two bath single family home for $45,000! A similar house in the DMV would probably fetch $350,000. It’s incredible how far a dollar will stretch in parts of the country, and nice parts at that.
27. I met a touring cyclist in Tallahassee, Florida who treated hygiene as a joke. “No shower, no problem” was his motto. But sweating for 6-8 hours a day breeds (literally) health problems of its own. Cycling reminded me that not only can showers be a luxury, but they are a necessity for personal health. Let’s just say there were stretches where I had to go without a shower for several days and the results were…itchy.
28. If you want to lose weight but find dieting challenging, bike across America. I ate between 4,000 – 5,000 calories a day, which was a challenge in and of itself. Everyday I ate king-sized Snickers bars, ice cream, and 99¢ convenience store cinnamon buns and still lost weight. Not to mention, I drank more soda (not diet, either) in two months than I’ve drunk in the past two years. Staying full was a full-time challenge, but it is a challenge I miss. Back to salads, I suppose.
29. Hanging out with a homeless guy for a day revealed how little one actually needs to live. Sure, he was homeless, so he didn’t have a mortgage to pay. But the dude survived on $20 a day—just enough to buy himself some food, water, and beer. Any excess money he saved for his weekly laundry expenses. If he can live on $20 a day, how much more should we be at ease from the fear of a job layoff? Jobs paying $40,000 a year job are available. Although these jobs and salaries may not be ideal, the point is that losing your current job is not the end of the world. After all, $40,000 a year equals much more than $20 a day. Stop stressing.
30. Modern technology has clearly permitted society to inhabit otherwise uninhabitable areas. For instance, without air conditioning, 1.5 million people would not be able to live in Phoenix. The 130-degree desert summers would simply be otherwise unbearable. The same can be said about virtually any desert town in the Southwest and west Texas. In addition, I was previously clueless as to how problematic mosquitos are in parts of the country. For example, I cycled through Florida during election season, and a major plank in many of the candidates’ platforms concerned the extermination of mosquitoes. “Are the toxic chemicals more dangerous than the mosquitoes themselves?” the inquiry goes. Regardless of the answer, what’s clear is that without pesticides, it is impossible to enjoy life outside of a walled or screened-in building. That’s why many Louisiana parishes have opted to spray pesticides in order to combat the mosquito population—just another example of technology beating back nature.
31. Speaking of technology, it’s amazing how modern technology has shrunk the space-time gap between locations. For instance, it took me 6.5 hours in an airplane to cover the same distance it took me to cover 2 months on a bicycle. During my flight home, I couldn’t help but think after every 30-second interval, “Well there was one day in the saddle.”
32. Living in the concrete jungle of Northern Virginia—and even central PA to some extent—has fostered the perception that human preeminence dictates nature’s relationship with mankind. In other words, it’s easy to subscribe to the idea that mankind reigns dominantly on Earth while nature exists placidly around mankind. But this perception is the exact opposite perception I had on my bike trip. The vast swaths of nothingness slapped me with the realization that mankind is infinitely small. It slapped me with the realization that mankind is not the rule and nature the exception but rather that nature is the rule and mankind is the exception. The humility that results from this latter perception can be easily lost if all one knows is the industrialization of developed society.
33. “What was your biggest surprise?” you ask. Without a doubt all the poverty I witnessed. I know that the majority of Americans are considered middleclass, but if “middleclass” is what I observed, then middleclass has taken on a whole new meaning for me. For example, I observed Americans mostly living in quaint, 1,500 – 2,000 square foot, ranch-style homes. Often there was a 10 to 15 year old beat-up pickup truck parked in the driveway.
34. I saved the worst for last. By far my least favorite insights concerned the racism I encountered in the South, including, and most notably, Louisiana. Although the Emancipation has long since passed, the spirit of Jim Crow is still alive and well. To illustrate the severity of this racist sentiment, consider the racial tension in the North. Although the North maintains its fair share of racism, much of this sentiment is taboo and lurks underneath the surface. Most racist Northerners are not willing to explicitly pronounce their prejudice against the other race. But there is nothing subtle about the racism in the South. From my experiences, many white folks make it clear that they do not like black folks—very clear. However, the racism is not limited to whites against blacks. The racism is very much black against white as well. Several times I stopped in an all-black community in the South to resupply. Gauging from their reaction, you’d think that the white devil just entered. I wanted to shout, “Relax, everyone. I’m not even from around here, so give me a break. I just want to buy a soda, ok?” It was very much an “us vs. them” mentality on both sides of the racial divide.
35. Perhaps a trans-America walker who I met described my feeling toward this racism best: “Dude, I was so tired of the racism in the South that I couldn’t wait to get out of there.” I think his observation is spot on: the racism in the South was literally fatiguing both from an emotional standpoint (i.e. terribly depressing to witness) and a physical standpoint (i.e. required extra consciousness due to safety concerns).
36. My least favorite state: Louisiana. In large part because of the pervasive racism. But also because the (a) road conditions were terrible, including little to no shoulders and ubiquitous potholes; (b) I received more middle fingers and horn blasts in Louisiana than every other state combined; and (c) unless you like eating fried food for every meal, dining options are severely limited.