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A New Year and a long-ride on the road to a better America

I am not overly inspired to write right now and I am not 100% sure why. It's not writer's block. I am not being lazy. And I do have things to share. I think it’s because I’m still exhausted from 37 days of accompanying a guy for more than half of his nine-week bike ride across the country. Mental exhaustion aside, I have some things to share.

I don't know about you, but as the year comes to a close, I can't help but think that 2021 felt like an escape from 2020. I’d needed to put some space between myself and all that first Covid year encompassed. And in some ways maybe that's what joining this bike ride across America was about for me. Physically moving away from the past and crossing the country to find a better future.

The bike trip I am talking about was one I shared in a previous blog (read Filming Across America). This trip was born out of an idea by CEO Zac Bookman to ride across the country on a bicycle to raise funds for the Sandra Day O'Connor Institute for Democracy and to evangelize how his company, OpenGov, was changing the face of government. Midway through the year, Zac invited me to support and film his bike ride across America. The concept was exciting, and I quickly signed on. Little did I realize what I was getting into.

Right to left: Riding the Extraterrestrial Hwy., filming in Nevada and the flash flood in Hanksville, UT.

The show must go on.

After several months of conversation and a couple of months of prep, the day of departure came, and on August 21, we set off to cross this country. The course was a combination of two bike routes that intersect in Pueblo, Colorado. The first was the Western Express, which starts in San Francisco and crosses California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. The second is the Trans-America route, which was commemorated during the bicentennial of American independence and travels through Virginia to the coast via the beaches of the Chesapeake Bay. We picked up the Trans-America in Colorado and rode it through Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky before the final state and finish (see our route here).

During the first half of the trip, from San Francisco to Colorado, we encountered forest fires in California and a flash flood in Utah that destroyed our support vehicle (news coverage of Zac's experience). This event greatly changed the course of the trip and shifted the morale of everyone. Processing the loss of the car and our forward momentum, I had thought this was the end of it all. However, Zac did not, and after a 10-day regroup he returned to the course with more resolve than he had started with. We pushed on, with a white U Haul rental van as our support vehicle for the rest of the trip.

By late September we found ourselves in western Kansas with a little more than half the country to cover before winter. The clock was ticking and Zac needed to stay on the bike even when he might have been better off recovering. It was in this section that more experienced bikers assured us we would at some point question why we were out here, and we did, after a near-death experience in Missouri.

Crossing the Great Divide, Kansas sunset, and the hills of Missouri.

The grim reaper himself...

On any given day, Zac would have cars, trucks or a semi ride up too close, but this time he wasn't on the bike. I was driving and he was riding shotgun as we rolled up on his starting point for the day. With a massive blind spot in a van that I was not accustomed to driving, I pulled out on what seemed to be an empty country road only to note seconds later that it wasn't. Adrenaline spiked and both our pulses shot up as a black Jeep with tinted windows passed mere inches from our front bumper. It was as if the grim reaper himself had come flying by just close enough to say hi on his way to visit some else. I hit the breaks and turned my head to watch the vehicle skip through the dirt of the ditch at 80 MPH, avoiding a full-on T-bone collision in the driver side door.

I pulled off the road to pace back and forth in the dirt, contemplating my mortality and thinking of aborting the ride altogether. In a unique moment of friendship, Zac rubbed me on the back to assure me it was going to be ok, and I started to calm down. An hour later down the road, I was stopped in my tracks again as a black hearse and a procession of cars turned left into a cemetery. It was clear to me then and now that I was lucky to be alive. Shortly afterward, I kissed the ground, thanked God, then pulled out the camera to start filming.

The farmland of middle America, a roadside stop with the Uhaul, and the open roads of western Kansas.

Kansas isn't flat and Middle America ain't so bad.

What surprised me most was that the route across America does not actually get easier as you go east. After the hot deserts and long climbs of the mountains in the west, it actually gets harder. While, for me, it was merely pushing a gas peddle and running around filming, for Zac, it was working his tail off with arduous climbs over hill after hill after hill. If anyone tells you Kansas is flat, they are lying. It is not flat. And while you know that Missouri is not flat, with its Ozarks and whatnot, there is some deep woods stuff happening out there, which is very deep woods. At one point, while setting up a shot, I was chased away by a local who may or may not have been wielding a shotgun. I wasted no time picking up my tripod and moving on.

By the time we reached the Mark Twain forest, you could sense that it was official; we were very much in the middle of America. It was here that I started to fall back in love with the country. It may have been because it reminded me of the simplicity of my childhood in the farm country of Michigan. Or possibly, it was just because it felt so far removed from the narrative that the media so often tells about this country. Whatever the case, it was refreshing. In town after town, we ran into simple, hard-working, polite Americans. Mile after mile clicked away as we stopped into shops and restaurants, connecting with the locals. Each time I was reminded of how many good people there are in this country and how little division actually exists when you're crossing at the speed of a bicycle.

The cafe owner at Rico Cafe, a roadside flag in Kentucky, and a shop owner shaping a Christmas tree.

Wearing down and burning out.

Time flew by faster than the miles. When we finally reached the Virginia state line, the Trans-America biking season was over. We needed to finish for many reasons. Zac's schedule was filling and work was backing up. Mine was too. This meant we no longer had the luxury of stopping for anything. Worse, the weather and seasons were changing. October rains were upon us and leaves were cold and colorful, but no matter wind or rain, we still needed to move forward. At this point, we needed to push out an average of 100+ miles every day. This meant 10 hours per day of biking, not as painful for me as for Zac, but still tiring, as I was driving and filming the entire time.

Now some 3000 miles into the ride and Zac was reaching his breaking point. On the inside he was wresting with the pain, and at times, his exhaustion was apparent on the outside. He was less engaged in the filming, had less time for conversation, and was more emotional when we made an error in our course or calendar. I was getting tired too and did not want to pull off on a side street, driveway or random spot to get out the camera for another shot. It felt like I had done it 1000 times and my creative energy was drained. I continually had to remind myself that I would eventually want this footage to tell the end of the story, but sometimes I would break and just pull over and shut down (what my life looked like, LinkedIn Post of capturing a shot).

Crossing the Mississippi, arriving late in Virginia and the Thomas Jefferson Forest.

Hypothermia, NBC News and the finish.

Closing in on the last days, we were absorbed by the Smoky Mountains and those clouds that give it its name. For Zac, however, it was not all romantic. Rolling out of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he yelled out, "Stop!" When I pulled over, he jumped in the van. His fingers were frozen, his toes numb, and he was soaked to the bone from the light misty rain. Shivering uncontrollably, he was on the verge of hypothermia and needed to strip down to dry clothes and recover. He was also painfully aware that he had to keep moving. He had an interview in two hours with NBC 29 in Charlottesville, Virginia, 30 miles away. I turned the heaters on full blast, and he dried up, warmed up, wrapped up both feet in plastic bags, and pushed on. We made it in time (see the interview here).

On the final day, Zac rode into Yorktown and biked the final five miles to the Chesapeake Bay. We arrived at the beach as the sun was setting and traversed across the sand to the water. In the background we could hear a local fife-and-drum band marching through town, evoking the days of the American Revolution. The whole experience was surreal. Between us we had covered some 3400 miles, and between the two coasts, we'd seen innumerable national parks, forests, rivers and lakes. We'd visited small towns and city halls. We'd met public officials, mayors, and town managers. And we'd seen some of the best parts and people that America has to offer. The whole experience left me with a renewed faith in this country (see the fife-and-drum finish).

Shivering with hypothermia, biking the Blue Ridge Mountains, and finishing at the Chesapeake Bay.

Reflections on a 'better union'.

Now the trip is behind me and the year is behind us. Ahead is a new year, which will bring new challenges and opportunities. I want to do more to highlight what we have in common. I want to tell more people about how the American spirit of kindness and love for thy neighbor still reigns supreme. I want to talk about what is good about who we are and what we're doing to help one another out. My hope is that you will too. Together we can move one step closer to a 'United States' of America.

Filming in Colorado, Utah and rainy Virginia.

*Look for the documentary on the ride across America coming soon!


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