|Clements & bike, circa 2001|
Mostly, however, whenever I examine why I love to cycle, I come back to its fundamental essence. It’s fun. Flat out fun. Kid fun. I feel terrific when I ride. My spirit soars. I smile. I know I look goofy, but I just smile and am full of joy. I feel fully alive. And I know why, too. It’s because riding a bike is elegantly simple, and thus wildly liberating. It was true when I was six and learned to ride a J.C. Higgins two-wheeler on Juniper Drive in Levittown, PA, and it’s true now when I ride across campus or across our country. It’s fun; it’s free; and its vital.
But that’s me and riding in general. More specifically, I want to talk about something else this morning, about one particular bicycle ride, a ride I’ll remember forever. This summer, Peter Clements and I took a long bike ride. Peter and I left Melanie Clements here in Jersey last summer, rented a car, slapped our bikes on board and drove that rental car to Pensacola, Florida, where my Mother, Pete’s grandmother, lives, dropped off the car, and pedaled our way home.
|Father & Son, circa 1990|
I learned a lot on this trip home. Our ride was a trip through an extraordinary country, not much of it like homes I know, or you know. After we dipped our wheels in the gulf salt of Pensacola Bay, we headed east along the coast, then north to Alabama, through drought-ravaged farm land staggering in the heat, past handsome farms and sharecroppers’ shacks. Along an old Indian path we rode the highway north through Tuskegee and Auburn and Opelika, and on to Georgia and more red clay and pines and desiccated fields. Past Atlanta, the shimmer of road heat rising from the macadam between county seat and county seat took us into South Carolina and the friendly folks of Pickens.
We rode north again and climbed the first wall of the sharp edge of the Appalachians, up into Asheville, North Carolina, and then up again and over the spine of Carolina into Tennessee, and then north east along the Lee highway into the great long valley running the Western edge of Virginia, and we rolled onward for a couple of hundred miles in rain and amongst clouds through soft farms and towns carved into the valley, heading north, through Seven Mile Ford and Roanoke and Stuart’s Draft, finally crossing the Blue Ridge again, aiming east this time, into the foothills of Charlottesville, and then on through the rolling richness near Washington.
We rode through the city again, fighting interstate suburban sprawl on into Annapolis, and then east once more into the emptiness of the eastern shore, across Maryland and Delaware, and then ferrying over to the bottom of New Jersey, and rolling up old Route 9 all the way to home. We rode through country that lived off the sea; we rode through farmland with thick black dirt and farmland thin and blasted; we pedaled through mountains lush and moist and dripping; we rode through the homes of millions of folks.
Mostly we met folks relentlessly friendly, always eager to help, and, except for two small crummy moments on the same day when someone treated us mean, everyone we met on the road treated us wonderfully. We were offered food and prayers by strangers, some of them poor folks who looked at the bedraggled pair of us and thought we must be really poor, reduced to riding bikes, and needed a hand. We were treated to a full catered Sunday brunch by a couple who’d stopped to give us a hand with a blown tire; We were honored and respected by drivers of logging trucks and pick-ups and Harley-Davidsons. Rich folks, poor folks, black folks, white folks, city folks, country folks. People in a Washington ghetto and an suburban Atlanta gated community were awfully nice, as was every single person working in every Waffle House we saw.
I heard stories about how some southerners in pick-ups (not the term used by the speaker) would just run us off the road, how some “African-Americans” (again, not the term used) in the laundromat over there would make us feel unwelcome; how those Northerners (again, not the term) were just not friendly folks and we should watch out. Everything everyone said about those other folks was not true. Everyone (except those two knuckleheads that one day) was just wonderful. What was true was that almost every wonderful person warned us about the next folks down the road. “We’re nice to travelers here, but you be careful when you get to Tennessee…. And then in Tennessee they said, “We’re glad to have you here, but you be careful when you further down the road on into Virginia. Those folks…
I learned a lot on this trip. Much of what I learned came from watching the land and meeting the people, from trying to get a feel for how lives lived changed from community to community, depending on myriad factors. The nearest Baptist church and the color of the dirt, and the distance from town, and the finances of the county, when it last rained, and how far upstream you were, how many books the neighbors read, how smooth was the road – all these figured into making sense of what we saw. We learned too that armadillos haven’t figured out how dangerous roads are, and they all get surprised, and killed, just alike: of the hundreds of armadillo road kills we saw, all except maybe two were run over just alike, 8- 10 inches from the white line. We’re safe up here in Jersey for now, though: not one armadillo has made it further north than Lafayette, Alabama.
|Clements (top left) with the 2001 Prinicipio group.|
I learned lots of other things too, must mostly I learned from two sources: all the Principio kids whom I didn't see or talk to the whole trip, and Peter Clements, whom I did see and talk with the whole way. I thought often of the students with whom I’d worked for two years, and I imagined them all scattered over the hemisphere, on their adventuresome, stretching summer projects, and I tried to draw an imaginary line from me to each Principiate out in the world. Because I could not have predicted the details of our own trip, what was about to show itself around any next bend, I realized I could not even imagine what their experiences were. Thus the imaginary strings kept vanishing, since that’s what supposed to happen when fledglings go, when kids take off into the world and leave their teachers behind.
More often, however, my focus was on Peter, my riding partner. Soon into the trip the father/son things pretty much disappeared, at least from my perspective, since we had no structural father/son roles to play. We rode together, cooked for each other, traded novels to read in camp, and mostly dealt, exactly equally, with whatever the weather, the road, and the physics of wind and gravity all required. The world treated us the same, and we started to also. This shift in role happened early, and, like most good things, it happened almost unnoticed.
For the first few days, I rode the lead most of the time, especially mornings. Peter was polite and deferential and didn't chafe at my pace, since we knew we were learning our rhythms. About four days in, however, during another brutal afternoon of riding on 120 degree roadbeds in the Alabama sun, my body started shutting down on me. We were nowhere, some 20 miles south of Tuskegee, Alabama, and with every stroke I was going slower and slower, and after each little hill I had to holler up ahead to Peter so I could pause and recover. After yet another of these rests, Peter let me pass to the lead, and then took up a new position on my rear wheel, quietly pedaling slowly, but just as fast as me. I finally realized what he was doing: we’d shifted roles and was taking care of me, making sure I didn't topple over, a real worry that day. He didn't say a word, and made what he did seem invisible. Then, after we figured we were only two miles from Tuskegee, he invisibly took the lead again, and visually pulled me forward, silently helping me pick up my pace just a bit and change my attitude.
I knew things were different between us forever, and he never said a word. I thought that I’d seen Peter grow into a new level of confidence, into another level of wisdom and action. When we arrived in Tuskegee and found some rest in the cool of the college buildings, I thanked him for his leadership, his quiet help, and his patient kindness with me. But later, a couple days down the road I realized that I was wrong. Peter had not made some giant transformation that day on the way to Tuskegee. I had, but it took me a while to see it. He did not change that day an much as my limited vision of him had. I thought this was one of those coming of age trips, but I was wrong in thinking that it was about Peter’s coming of age. I had it backwards. We rode together, made decisions together, even giggled about how great it was to crawl into our sleeping bags at summer dusk with a book, a flashlight and the hope we might get three or four pages of reading in before we bonked in that delicious fatigue that long, healthy outdoor work creates. We took enormous pleasure in comfortable shade, good cold water, and the exquisite beauty of gentle downhills.
We knew we were having a special time together, making memories, and living with each other in a way that we’d probably not have a chance to again. And after we left Annapolis and crossed the eastern shore, we both silently picked up the pace, heading home a little quicker. As we reviewed the last leg on our maps, Peter’s suggestions about how far we might ride rose and rose, and we seemed to fly up old Route 9 along the Jersey shore. We’d had a great trip together, in the large home of our country, but we were eager to return to the home of our family.
I am proud of what Peter and I accomplished, but the accomplishment of the ride is rather small. We just pedaled, though for a long time. How hard is that? I am moved that we did this together. How lucky am I to have had this chance, huh? Most of all though, I was awed by the power of home and love, no matter where we were. Often my heart just swole as I rode behind Peter, just watching him spin, wondering what a man our child has become, amazed that I came to know this anew through such a simple child-like activity, riding a bike. I was moved by how powerful home is for people. We visited with children under the trees of their tenant farm home, and it was home; we talked with an old couple near the mountains of Hungry Mother State Park and learned how much they loved their home there in Virginia; we stayed at the Danishes’ home in Washington and the DiCensos’ in Annapolis, and reveled in their sharing of home and hospitality. We were two sweaty guys on the road, and everywhere we looked, it was someone’s home, and everywhere we were, people we met shared what they had.
I've driven by many of these places before and sneered at the glitz and the schlock of suburbia, at rundown ramshackle country cabins, at yuppie rowhouses, at trailers and RVs, at fancy digs on the bay. Riding my bike far from home taught me how condescending and self-belittling that judgment about other folks’ homes is. Riding with Peter taught me how I’d misperceived how he has grown; riding far from Melanie taught me how much I love her. In short it was a wonderful ride. The land we live in is magnificent; and our land’s people are even more gracious and magnificent than the land they share; and we all are terribly provincial, though kind, when we stand still. Most of all, however, I learned again, and need to keep learning over and over, that though fundamental truths may not change, they’re always true in a different way than I had thought before. Like how much fun it is to ride a bike.