My Trek 520, Being Sent Home
“Apartment complex warns residents about clown trying to lure kids into woods” -CNN, August 29, 2016
“Teen who disappeared during Spring Break raped and fed to alligators” -TIME, August 29, 2016
“Port Jervis man charged with firing shots in Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot” -Times Herald Record (my local newspaper), August 29, 2016
There’s a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called "The Birthmark." In it, a brilliant scientist marries a flawlessly beautiful woman. That is, she’s almost flawless. The scientist cannot help but focus on the one thing that keeps her from being a perfect specimen: a tiny birthmark on her left cheek. The more he thinks about it, the more it haunts him, until it becomes mentally tortuous.
His loving wife, seeing the distress it causes, agrees to let him try various experiments to remove it.
If you haven’t read this story, the end is painfully obvious- but I’ll spoil it anyway: she dies.
Because he cannot bring himself to live with an imperfection- an imperfection that is there to stay no matter what- the scientist dooms himself.
I left Virginia in late June with very few expectations as to what would happen along the way to California. The only thing I knew for certain was that I would make it.
What I didn’t know at the time was just how unimportant that goal would become.
One of the Usual Comments I heard on a nearly daily basis was a variation on “Be safe… There’s a lot of dangerous people in the world.”
You see, “a lot” is a relative term. And after interacting with hundreds- perhaps thousands- of people over the summer of 2016, I met exactly zero that I wouldn’t mind seeing again. Even the antagonists- like Old Man Warner or Mrs. Bates or (I can’t believe I’m going to say this) that lying bastard Joop- They’re not bad people.
Of the tens of thousands of cars, trucks, and RVs that passed- do you know how many I had a problem with?
That ain’t a bad percentage.
One day in Nevada, I had a particularly nasty experience where a tractor trailer honked its horn behind me, and then very intentionally ran me off the road.
I have the GoPro video to prove it. License plate and everything.
I wrote a whole blog entry about that jerk. And as I edited the video, ready to publish it… ready to instill a bit of outrage from anyone willing to read or watch, it occurred to me that I was staring at America’s birthmark.
Over the last 4,000 miles, an incredible amount of traffic passed me without incident. Hundreds upon hundreds of drivers and passengers gave “hello” waves and cheered me up mountains. Many pulled over to offer food, water, and kind words.
And I’m going to let an entire day be defined by one rare asshole?
Instead, I rewrote the post and kept the video to myself.
The thing is, I didn’t do a great job on the rewrite. As I'd already invested a couple of hours into a draft that I scrapped, I rushed through the new one, and tersely wrote “[Nevada] sucks” without much elaboration. I shoved my feelings about a few bad seconds into those two words.
A few days later, I received a lengthy, eloquently written e-mail from a native Nevadan whom I had met in Baker. After our encounter (which involved a wonderful night of star gazing at a meteor shower), she’d read my blog thoroughly and completely from Day 1. She quoted me on several entries, complimenting my writing style and my apparent appreciation of the country before pointing out that my assessment of her state was bizarrely out of character.
She noted that the person who wrote that entry was not the person she’d met.
What she doesn’t know is just how many times I reread that e-mail, and that it caused me to realize I had forgotten about my true goal: To appreciate what is blatantly in front of me.
The subtext of her message was clear: Jim… you might not have mentioned the truck incident, but you did indeed stare at America’s birthmark. You looked past everything wonderful about this state and instead focused on the ugliness that you have to go out of your way to find.
It’s so damn difficult- perhaps impossible- to avoid negativity. I can’t always do it. And I’m envious of those who are able.
But I’m trying a helluva lot harder now.
This summer, I unintentionally evaded news headlines for two whole months, and I don’t feel a bit less informed.
Does it make you a better person in any way to know that a girl was raped and fed to alligators? That a guy shot up a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot? That an apartment complex is behind haunted by a pedophile in a clown costume? No. Rather, these stories feed us poisonous doses of mistrust and outrage. They serve to fuel stereotypes and racism while shrouded beneath a translucent veil that claims to be helpful to our society.
Don't let it fool you. American news loves to stare at American birthmarks.
I think I’ll stop watching CNN for the time being.
And don’t tell me I’m “burying my head in the sand” by ignoring the issues. First of all, I don’t take advice from people who speak in cliches. And secondly, unless you’ve dedicated yourself to advocacy, I’m willing to bet that I’ve done just as much as you to help cure our society of its warts:
By not being part of the problem. By not spouting off cruel generalizations, and foregoing support for those who do. By striving to judge others based on character. By sympathizing and empathizing with victims of our societal flaws.
Don't get me wrong- I'm not patting myself on the back. I'm laden with my own misgivings. That stuff I just mentioned? That's normal human behavior.
A destitute road crew celebrating as I reach the top of a mountain in a thunderstorm, and offering me a cold drink in the rain: This is my America.
Three women applauding my arrival from an 85 mile stretch in the desert, and who invite me to stare at the night sky with them: This is my America.
A postal worker who leaves water for me at various mile markers while I am cycling in 110 degree heat: This is my America.
Jamie Norton, Tracey, Andy, Sabrina, David, the Fizers, the officer who gave me a ride in Missouri, park rangers, women’s festivals, the kid who let me ride his horse, the people who set up bicycle rest stops, the girl who offered marijuana when I was soaking wet (Why? Because it’s what she had to offer…), Elizabeth who asked me to camp with her and then cooked for me, The King family who saw me off, Kathy Garry and her husband, impromptu tour guides like John Birge, the irresistible Valentine, the dogs of Kentucky, Maryann Peak who opened her bike shop on a Sunday to make free repairs, three kids who joyously ran to fill my water bottle: This is my America.
Nevada with all of its flaws… just like any other state: This is my America.
And it’s your America too if you choose to look at it. It’s right in front of you, like the mustard you can never find in the fridge.
A teacher friend of mine once told me that he celebrated the New Year in September- that the year’s official start in January was meaningless.
Now is the time to make the resolutions. I mean, don't we all pretty much consider the ninth month the start of something new?
I can promise to cycle more… I’ll probably stick to that too. I can say that I’ll plan my lessons better and be more organized… I try that one every year. I can vow to drink less beer... and totally set myself up for failure.
But if I had to pick just one, I am going to do my absolute best to stop staring at America’s birthmark.
Do it with me.
It's going to be a great year.