Filming across America and asking, why do I love this country?
That is an honest question that I have asked myself over and over again recently. I have been asking it because I am currently crossing the country documenting a cyclist's ride from San Francisco to the Chesapeake Bay. The ride itself has involved a series of tough challenges including fires and floods, and those challenges have brought clarity to the question. They have also highlighted the main reason for my love for this country.
Almost two years ago, Zac Bookman, CEO of OpenGov.com, came to me with the idea of a coast-to-coast biking trip. His goal was to connect with small governments and local officials to better understand the people who help run this country. Since then, we've crossed over a pandemic and watched the country become divided in ways that pain me. Now some two years later, and 1500-miles along the way, we have crossed California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, and are currently in Wichita County, Kansas, filming his experience (watch, OpenGov Across America).
The departure out of San Francisco on August, 21.
We had planned to depart San Francisco on Saturday, August 21, heading east towards Lake Tahoe, but before we could turn a peddle or roll a tire, the California fires were on the news. Concerned for the region as well as our own health. Zac cycled into the Sierras just west of Pollock Pines before running into a roadblock that prevented us from going further. Ahead of us, the town we were to sleep in that night was literally on fire. We retreated to lower ground in Auburn, California, for the night (see news coverage: Caldor Fires).
Smoke-filled sky in Reno, Nevada at 4 pm.
Waking up the next morning, we decided to drive out the distance to fresh air and headed east towards Nevada. With burning eyes and sore throats, we watched, as the cloud of thick smoke blanketed the region from Lake Tahoe to far beyond Reno, Nevada. Driving into the night we slept in Hawthorn, before continuing on to a small desert town called Tonopah, some 300-miles from where we were forced off the course (watch, Tonopah).
Climb out of Tonopah towards Rachel, NV.
Back on course, and with improved spirits, we started crossing the wide-open spaces of Nevada along the Extraterrestrial Highway and Area 51. Casting our view some 15 miles ahead into the distance, we could see a random assortment of dotted homes nestled in a massive valley of nothingness. We inched forward and soon arrived in a fascinating place with the most unique people. We couldn’t help but notice that these people were totally isolated from society as we know it, far away from what we think of as the modern world. I started to recognize something special about their culture.
Far from the noise of society, these people typically gathered around a fire pit to talk about the day and watch the sun go down. Far from media, TV, and social-sound-bites, these people were communing, and something about it was very attractive. Surrounded by alien iconography and a collage of UFO photos from around the world, I found myself in awe. Here in the wilderness, I’d discovered a place where the value of community still exists, and I wanted to be a part of it. We watched as they sat and enjoyed life together. I knew what was happening between them was something valuable and I wished I could take it with me.
Outside the Little A'Le'Inn in Rachel, NV on the E.T. Highway.
Going forward from there, we headed towards Utah, the next state on our itinerary. Zac pushed on over mountain after mountain and valley after valley until the valleys turned to canyons, and those canyons were spectacular. Deep between towering walls of red desert rock, we continued forward. Then with little warning, it began to rain, and rain and rain. Drenched and worn out from the day, the team pulled into a little hotel in Hanksville, Utah, and ran across the street for lunch.
Halfway through our meal, our waitress rushed over to point out the flash flood that was hitting the hotel just across the street. Realizing that the doomed hotel was our hotel, our crew raced out the door to salvage what they could. Bikes, electronics and clothes were all floating in their bags atop the rising water.
As we rushed to get the car to higher ground, the first set of keys went tumbling into two inches of muddy red water on the hotel floor. With precious seconds passing, Zac went scrambling through the bags to dig up the spare. Seconds later and with water now ankle-deep, Zac's father jumped into the car to drive it to higher ground. Every second that passed brought another inch of water, and by this point, the vehicle was slogging through more than a foot of it, which quickly rose to two feet and more.
Then the unthinkable happened. With only 20 yards to go to reach safety, the engine stalled. Fleeing for his life, Charlie — Zac's father — bailed from the car and ran to higher ground (see the news story with Zac here).
The OpenGov 'Cloud Cruiser' submerged in 4 feet of water.
Having personally missed that heroic attempt, I returned to the course 10 days later. Seeing the aftermath, I was in awe as I stood across from the hotel where Zac and his father had escaped. Now full of mud and overrun with water damage, the place was a complete loss. However, there was a positive side to all that had happened. As we stood there surveying the destruction, we heard a voice yell out from across the street. I watched as Zac ran to embrace a local man named “Superman” Dan Thatcher, who'd helped pull them out of the mud with his 4x4. Dan was on a long list of local people who'd dropped what they were doing to help the community and participate in salvaging their lives together.
Standing there, looking on, I listened as Dan shared how the local government and community rallied together to clean up and get people back on their feet. I was again reminded of the value of community and that small group of people at the A'Le'Inn back in Rachel, Nevada, who appreciated what it meant. Hearing how people sacrificed their own self-interest for the interest of others inspired me. Knowing that strangers pulled together to lift others out of the mud brought a sense of hope in humanity for me. And for a moment, my worries about the division of the country that I have seen in the midst of a global tragedy went away.
Wichita County Line.
Since then, we have traversed out of Utah, through Colorado, and into Kansas. Thankfully we have avoided further natural disasters. However, one thing continues to come up in every town I enter across this amazing land. That thing is community. Everywhere I go, I meet people who pass along the same love of their community, a love that outshines the division that we so often hear about on TV. Observing the acts of goodness in small towns across this land provides the answer to why I love this country.
Footnote: we have now biked and filmed into the middle of the country. We will be returning to the course in two weeks and traveling through the Midwest, heading towards the final destination on the East Coast. And it appears that the car may actually recover from the flood. We are waiting for the final word on that. Once we’ve crossed the nation, we will be creating a series of short videos for OpenGov and a full-length documentary of the experience. You can stay tuned by following us on the social links below.
Filming in the Nevada desert.