Saturday, 25 August 2012

The hare and the turtle

I suggested to James that we could write our own perspectives on what riding with the other person was like. He said that he thought I had a pretty good idea of what he was thinking so here goes.

The hare and the tortoise. They both got there. That's the point surely. For those of you who know us well, you'll know that James and I are good at different things. I'm good at organising fun, history, cooking and talking to people. James is good at cycling, fixing things, maths and making people laugh. When you decide to spend a year cycling together you spend a lot of time in one another's company.

James is definitely the hare. I am less the tortoise, more the food obsessed, break fixated and expert faffer. I can extend any one minute break into a good 15 minutes with the mere click of a camera, the opening of a cereal bar or a quick sun cream reapplication.

When we stop James will ask himself 'Why am I still waiting whilst Mari ...
a) cycles up this hill?
b) rummages in her bag?
c) looks at a map for the 50th time when we already know where we're going?
These are all unanswerable questions.

That said we have found a happy medium. I generally set the pace, we chat and we get there at the same time - both happy that we have done it. We also stay off highways and take the hills slowly meaning James knees will be stronger not blown out. We meet more people and the sum of our bicycling partnership creates more of an adventure. Today on the flat bicycle trail - the Katy trail that follows an old railway from St Louis along the Missouri river we made good time and I genuinely did try my hardest - peddling harder when I fell behind. We managed 75 miles in 7 hours of cycling. And there was a bistro with a live band, a special of ribs and home made baked beans and wine at the end - result. We are camping in a bandstand in this small town, Hartsburg near Jefferson, Missouri.

The trail follows the route of Lewis and Clarke. They were sent by Jefferson to 'explore the West'. The native Americans who lived there were obviously familiar with it as were the French who owned the territory before they sold it to the American government in the Louisiana purchase. A huge chunk of the states was sold by the French for 11 million franks. The trail is interesting as it points out how Lewis and Clark were helped by the native Americans to survive in this new environment. One thing I have noticed is that when Europeans came into contact with the native Americans there was a strong sense of dependency. It is when people do not make connections and think of people as 'the other' that they are willing to treat the inhumanly. This reminded me of the Milgrim experiment

Stanley Milgrim was at Yale university and began his experiment in 1961 to test human being's willingness to obey instructions. A year after the trial of Adolf Eichman in Jerusalem, he wanted to test whether then perpetrators of the Holocaust were just following orders. In the experiment all volunteers were willing to administer electric shocks to others and 60% were willing to administer lethal shocks in the name of science. His experiment also found that people were more willing to hurt others if they were telling someone else to do it. If you believe all human beings are the same you cannot do anything but treat them with love. *

The Katy trail begins in St Louis. Finding the start trail was not easy. We were cycling through Forest Park, the second biggest park in the States when a fellow spandex-clad cyclist came alongside us and asked us where we were heading. Wesley very kindly took us all the way there via his friend Marvin's house who supplied us with Gaitorade (the American equivalent of Lucozade) and stories. There is something about the kindred spirits you find in cycling. Good people. Wesley had met his wife in Forest Park. She was cycling. He asked her 'Do you want to race me?' She replied, 'Sure, on one condition - if you win - you wait for me.' He did and the rest, as they say, is history.

So the trip is more than just the cycling and ultimately our duo together is more than it would be if we were alone. It might be slower, longer, more calorific and slightly delayed but hopefully we will make more connections, enjoy the shared experience and develop greater tolerance of each other.

The first night camping in the Shwamae forest, Illinois, we had an almost disaster. James had said to me his stomach did not feel right. We were nearly at the camp site but it was very hilly. He said he might have to stop at the side of the road. He was a little way ahead so I looked out for him as we passed a small town. No sign. I continued, then the bike route was sign posted to the right. No sign of James. We have a rule - you never turn off without the other person. No James. I continued up the road to see of he had missed it. I flagged down a car to ask them to look out for him as I wasn't going any further. I went back to the turn off point. I cycled toward our final destination. I cried and sang Bonnie Tyler's 'I was lost in France...' Even though I wasn't in France perhaps because she's from Swansea it felt comforting. Eventually I found James who had stopped off in a church to use a toilet and so I'd gone past him. Like the prodigal son I was just delighted to see him again. With no phone, tent, money or passport - would not have been a great solo trip.

That night we were looked after by a Christian ex-prisoner living in a caravan next to our tent who printed T-shirts qnd grew his own peppers. He made us coffee in the morning and was incredibly hospitable.

We have just enjoyed our second rest day in St Louis. We were really lucky to stay with Rich and Julie. We arrived late after a 104 mile cycle into the city. Rich is a keen cyclist and an English teacher. Inspired by our question 'If you could teach the world one thing, what would it be?' He asked his students to answer the question. The 19 year old students gave the responses ranging from the profound to the practical. My favourite was 'you can't change people and if you try you force them away'. I am guessing this was the response of a love burnt teenage experience.

Rich and Julie made us feel hugely welcome with a whole basement to ourselves, washing, breakfast and a great dinner - Julie cooked clam linguine. They invited three friends round for an impromptu dinner party - Christine, Angela and Steve who were also great fun. Julie is one sixteenth Cherokee, Jewish and the rest somewhere between Polish and Italian - very American to have such diverse roots. Enthusiastic Democrats, Julie's mum was a life time campaigner and was stopped from riding the Freedom Rides because she was pregnant. Those were the buses that activists rode to make the point that black and white people could sit on the buses together and the world wouldn't end. This reminded me of a clip I had seen of a white guy being beaten up from being a Freedom rider.

Jim Zwerg was a white guy from an ordinary Christian white family he ended up going to a college in where he shared a room with a black guy and saw him suffer discrimination so he made the decision to apply to a black college in Nashville. He got very involved in the civil rights movement and started doing crazy things like going to the cinema with his black friends. The Freedom Rides were organised to challenge segregation on interstate buses. Federal law said segregation was illegal but state law said differently. Jim risked his life on many occasions to stand for a principle but on one occasion when he was being beaten by police and was saved by a black passer by. Zwerg recalls: "There was nothing particularly heroic in what I did. If you want to talk about heroism, consider the black man who probably saved my life. This man in overalls, just off of work, happened to walk by as my beating was going on and said 'Stop beating that kid. If you want to beat someone, beat me.' And they did. He was still unconscious when I left the hospital. I don't know if he lived or died'*

So as we follow the Katy Trail on the route of Lewis and Clarke who navigated the Missouri river to find new lands and explore the Western territories I am mindful that in fact there is more depth to people in your own place. We may have different customs - the Americans find it weird when I say half past 8 not 830 but that is as different as many other cultural differences that develop over time. People are fascinating and the minute you think there is a simple way of understanding them - be it ethnicity, nationality, gender or age then you immediately limit your own understanding.

Like the tortoise, people take time to understand.

(The reference to the turtle by the way was because we have seen two on the road)




  1. Hi Mari

    Great post! There's always a shake-down on trip style when you're riding with someone else, you either sort it out or ride alone... Sounds like you're moving to the former :-)

    I am a keen cyclist and also web manager at the TSN/TSC. Could you drop me a line I'd like to feature your ride on our site as you go, have a few ideas but need your ok obviously!!!

    Happy riding


  2. A belated thanks Allen. Love what you have done with the site. Next blog imminent. Mari