Rediscovering America

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Rediscovering America

By Mick Elmore

   I gave Hell a miss. Heading south toward the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor I saw a sign: Hell 5 kilometers. I stopped and thought about it. Going to Hell to send postcards with a unique postmark was enticing but not why I was pedaling down a country road. I pushed on.
   An hour later a middle-aged couple struck up a conversation with me at a café in Dexter, 15 kilometres shy of the day’s destination. Steve and Katherine loved motorcycle travel and my bicycle caught their eye. After an hour discussing the open road, they invited me for more conversation, dinner and a spot on their porch for the night. Meeting people was why I was on my “little” journey back to America.
   In 1987, I moved to Australia and 33 years and many countries later in August 2020, I returned for a rediscover America trip. In my years away much had changed and I wanted to know what and how. 

   The plan was a loop through the lower 48 visiting every region by bicycle. Cycling takes you far enough each day to be somewhere else, but slow enough to see, hear and feel your environment. Strangers treat you better, too. It also has minimal environmental impact.
   New England, the South, the Midwest and other regions retain much of their unique characteristics and idiosyncrasies, but mass migration within and into the country changed a lot of that individuality.

   A 53-year-old native Floridian said his state had about five million people when he was a kid, now it was more than 22 million and he wanted old Florida back.
   The journey is not a race; so, days off and side trips have been common, including 45 kilometres early one Sunday morning to Green Bay’s Lambeau Field while the Packers trounced the Detroit Lions 42 to 21. The Packers are one of the original eight National Football League (NFL) teams and the only one owned by shareholders as a non-profit. The other 31 teams are owned by very wealthy people. I wanted to interview Green Bay fans about that, but found only one car in the vast parking lot; a police car enforcing a pandemic lockdown. 

   The trip was often Covid interrupted and by October 2020 the pandemic was so bad I pedalled to my childhood home Richmond, Indiana, where I waited out the worst of it. After getting vaccinated, I hit the road again in April 2021.
   On an April 4, 1968 campaign stop in Indianapolis Robert F. Kennedy learned Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. He improvised one of the most poignant political speeches in American history. Years later, the Landmark for Peace Memorial was built where he gave that speech. I wanted to visit.
   Approaching from northwest Indianapolis, I asked some firemen directions. “Oh, you don’t want to go there. Those are some bad neighbourhoods. A lot of gangs, a lot of drugs. Guns.”
   ”Bad” neighbourhoods seem to be part of the American experience, and I was determined to go.
   “Well then, just keep riding, don’t stop,” one said.
   “On a bike? I can’t roll up my windows and drive away.”
   They suggested the busier roads “where there are a lot of people around” - so safer.
   The park memorial is a worthy reminder of two men who eloquently spoke of peace and equality and what Kennedy called the “mindless menace of violence in America”. Both were murdered in 1968.

   Monuments, historic buildings and markers dot the America landscape. The National Register of Historic Places founded in 1966 has more than 90,000 sites recorded and there are countless roadside markers along America’s extensive road network. The country seems fixed on recording its history at the same time the nation is searching for who they are. George Orwell’s 1984 quote, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,” should be kept in mind when studying history. An historical marker in Wisconsin about the Treaty of the Cedars mentions a “spirit of mutual respect” between the settlers and the Native Americans who sold their land to them then moved. The marker was written in 1958.
   In Memphis, one marks where in 1866 “mobs of white men led by law enforcement … killed an estimated 46 black people.” A block north is where Martin Luther King was murdered 102 years later.
   History is important, but it can be interpreted different ways.

   Pedalling Highway 50 along the Ohio River, it’s easy to miss the signage for the Anderson Ferry which is odd considering they probably want the business. The family-owned company started operating in 1817 and Brenna Karst is the second female pilot since service started 205 years ago.
   She was qualified with a 100-ton masters license, then applied and got the job and has been piloting an average 64 river crossings each day for four years now, she said. 
   “It took me a while to get it down all the way, but after you do it so many months, it just comes naturally,” she said.
   Before motors it was a paddleboat ferry. “Horses were on a treadmill like thing. The treadmill like thing made the wheels turn.” 
   Bridges have put most ferry services across America’s big rivers out of business.
   Rockwood, Pennsylvania has seen a lot of business change. Local high-school sweethearts married 54 years, Terry & Judy Pletcher, ran a strip-mining operation for decades. Coal was good to them, Terry said. Then the surface coal ran out, and they have been running a hostel and restaurant more recently. Power production has shifted from coal to windfarms with two of the monster towers on their land paying them rent. We love windmills, Terry said. Next, a 36-hectare (223 rai) solar farm will be installed on their land. We love the sun, Terry said.
   When pedalling you get up close and personal with the environment, and one constant has been trash. Roadways are lined with it. Roadkill is another.
   Random acts of kindness are common, also, from a postal worker handing me an ice-cold bottle of water as I struggled up a steep Rhode Island hill and simply saying “you look like you need it more than me,” to sisters not allowing me to pay for lunch at a cash-only café in West Virginia.  
   In Washington DC, I watched workers installing little white flags in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Each flag represented one American Covid death, the installation artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg said. The work titled “In America: Remember” had more than 700,000 flags.
   Standing in that sea of flags she said it was important people remember the dead.

“I wanted to help people understand this tragedy, the real devastation,” she said. To do that she wanted people to visualize it. It worked. The enormity was powerful. Some of the flags had personal messages on them.
   My little journey is often fun, sometimes not, but always an education. On Christmas Eve, I pedalled into New Orleans and had a coffee outside a French Quarter bar. Music drifted onto the street. It was Herman’s Hermits “I’m Into Something Good”. 


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