Greetings from Buenos Aires, Argentina, where over the next month, I will be bicycling from mid-Patagonia down to the southern tip of the island of Tierra del Fuego.
At the commencement of 2019’s “53 Across Vietnam, the 6th Annual Carolyn Held Bike Ride”, the $50,000 mark was met for total funds raised for a cure for cancer, benefitting Mayo Clinic. What an amazing thing! I thank all of you who helped me achieve that.
Later last summer, I was visiting with Pat Held, and I asked him if these rides should continue. I had never really asked that question before of him. After that first ride in summer 2014 across the US, retracing the route from Seattle to Boston that Carolyn had ridden in 1988, I had been “bit by the bug” of long-distance cycling, and I had taken it for granted that, each summer, when I had the time off from a busy musicians’ schedule, I would organize another ride for a cure. Pat’s response was: “you have done more than enough to honor my wife. You don’t need to continue these rides, as you have done quite enough.”
I accepted his answer, but I still felt the urge to ride. These rides had evolved into something else. But what?
By the time I was ready to decide on the third Carolyn Held ride, I had turned 50 (each ride’s number is the age that i am at when I do the ride), and I was getting an itch to start bringing the bicycle into environments that would challenge my views of the world; of culture, customs, language, artistry, and socio-economic outlook. I wanted these environments to start affecting my composers voice. How could they not?
It seemed that Iceland, my first of three “big islands” I have ridden across, was a natural choice to challenge me in all those things, and thus 50 Across Iceland occurred over a five week period the summer of 2016. I was joined by a young creative photographer friend named Grant Brooks, who seemed to relish every centimeter of every kilometer we biked that summer. His Icelandic portraits adorn my computer’s desktop to this day, and I am reminded of the incredible moments he and I experienced on this journey, and of the things we learned about weather, glaciers, volcanic vents, and wild women who run horses across the Icelandic interior during the summer. Amazing memories to look back to, each of these!
While at a campground in Hofn on the east coast of Iceland, I met another fat biker, a Siberian Russian named Michael. Both he and I got into a conversation about Beethoven that night and, under the midnight sun, a bond developed. “Where are you bicycling next year?” he asked. I had no idea. “Join me as I bike across Sri Lanka” he invited. “Where’s Sri Lanka? I said…
And so, a year later, the Russian and I set out from Negombo, Sri Lanka on our fat bikes for a circular 1400km “51 Across Sri Lanka” journey crisscrossing this south Asian country located off of the tip of India. We plugged along in equatorial heat, through elephant country, through tea country to the civil war-torn northern half of the country, where we bicycled through cities that had only recently opened up to Western tourists after a long, bitter civil war. Buddhist temples, monkeys, “rez dogs”, beep-beeping tuk tuks, and Sri Lankan children enthusiastically chasing us down on their bicycles were some of the memorable moments etched into my head from that journey. That, and a Russian I nicknamed “Bulldog” because of his tenacity in cutting through bureaucratic red tape that was far more efficient than my “Minnesota nice” when it came to troubleshooting certain road blocks. Michael and I still stay in touch. He recently sent me a painting of his, he being one of the most creative men I have ever met. Michael biked across half of Cuba last summer, and he is returning this summer to complete that adventure. Part of me wishes I was there to join him.
On 50 Across Iceland, at the same campground that Grant and I met Michael, we also met Benjamin, a RAF helicopter pilot from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ben, in turn, helped me out at the tail end of my ”52 Across Newfoundland” journey (the 2nd of my large island journeys) by being the end recipient of my fat bike case that I had shipped ahead from my starting point in St. John, Newfoundland. After a 1,000km ride across that rustic, windswept eastern Atlantic province, and after an overnight ferry ride for me and my bike across the North Atlantic to Nova Scotia, Ben (showing up in his Royal Air Force helicopter pilot jump suit) deposited my bike case at my airbnb in Halifax, and then took me out for dinner that night. What a way to come full circle.
The friendships from these journeys will be many of the most long lasting elements of my adventures; friends from different cultures, religions, viewpoints and languages, all from different countries. How can I not step back and try to see the world and its events through their eyes as well? Can you imagine what a great gift that that is? To be invited to sit down in the sand with a group of Muslim fishermen and hear about their craft, their stories of how they coped with their civil war, and how they value their families and want to peacefully live their god-given religions; to interview and record artists in Newfoundland share on how their innovations in the arts are helping to turn the economy around for fishing villages economically effected by the collapse of the North Atlantic fishing industry; to be invited to sit down at dinner on traditional home-stays with numerous Vietnamese families (as I did on 53 Across Vietnam in 2019) and to have their young children practice their English with me, or to be driven indoors by a horrific lightening storm and then find myself at a tea table next to a former officer from the (North Vietnamese) Vietcong who made no issues about me being an American? Who gets to do things like this? Who gets to filter the truth from the horse’s mouth better than an artist on a bicycle seat?
My dad surprised me on my birthday somewhere in the early 1970s with my first “brand new” bicycle -a gold-speckled Huffy from SEARS with the banana seat and the gear shifter between the knees on the up tube (I walked in on him assembling it in secret in his garage one day). What a ride that bike was! In honor of my dad and of the bike he first gave me that turned me into both a speed demon and an adventurer, I’m repainting my “48 Across the 48 and 53 Across Vietnam” Surly Straggler the same gold color of my first new bicycle. It just won’t have that banana seat. But I’ll ride it with the same kind of love that I have for my parents (and Benedictine monks at Saint John’s University ) who taught me (inadvertently or deliberately) how to meet others on their own “ground”. I don’t intend on ever losing that gene or perspective.
Speaking of meeting people on their own ground, I have arrived at the moment in this narrative where I now step up onto my soap box. To be fair, in tradition, when people who wanted to preach or provide advice to people in a public place they used to stand on a wooden (soap) box to raise themselves above people to be heard and seen. You DO have the right to tell me to get off of my soapbox. I welcome that discourse. Meanwhile, this is what I have to say:
I detest the nationalistic and tribalistic rhetoric so present in the US and elsewhere nowadays, if only because it can never or will never take account for the “humanity” we all share together on this planet. It is short sighted, fear based, manipulative, and those who partake in it’s ideology end up on the short end of the stick when it comes to truly understanding this world. What a loss. We need to keep our virtual and other borders open. Not to do so renders us all victims to a catastrophic loss of shareable wisdom.
My bike rides put me in situations where I experience no barriers. No windows to roll up to lock out or filter sound or air. No speeds attained that take away from my ability to pay attention to detail as I ride slowly, deliberately. And because of these efforts to experience the world on a bicycle, I have seen SO much more than a FOX News or CNN ticker tape, a sophomoric tweet, or a tantrum can ever dissuade me from.
The real world is out “here”, experienced from the set of a bicycle, or a piano bench. It’s not on your news feed, in your in-box, or rehearsed from the lips of your favorite talk show host. Its unfiltered and waiting for you at the end of a driveway as you pass it.
“The problem with righteousness is that it isolates you from those who are less righteous, which is okay if you’re self-sufficient and living in the woods but if you depend on others, you need to cut corners. When I was 20, I looked down on people who hadn’t read the right books, but then one day you need to call a plumber and your world starts to broaden.”
So…how can we experience the real world? Well, for starters, ditch your social media. Pick up a book. Get into a conversation with your Somali or Ethiopian Uber driver while you have that precious “beach time” together on the way to your destination. Dust off your bike. Life is short, and its getting shorter by the moment. Test the ticker tape, the tweets, and the tantrums against what REAL people share with you at intimate moments of their lives. The digital will prove to be false. Only the analogue can detract you into rethinking what you think you may know. Swear off the “like” button.
And if you discover this to be true (it is) then PLEASE change your rhetoric and your mind.
This all said if you have the time, I invite you to follow 54 Across Patagonia for the next four weeks as I share yet-to-be-discovered stories, histories, viewpoints, and vibes as I bicycle from Coyhaique, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina on a fat bike that has trod the glacial interior of Iceland, cruised along mine-swept fields of northern Sri Lanka, and has blasted into the interior of Newfoundland’s rich Atlantic culture. In this post, I have tagged the names of the many who have changed my life because of my chance encounters with them from the seat of a bicycle.
Glaciers, ice sheets, Andean mountains, and more await! Oh my!