10,000 Miles: Episode 2
Mile 1362: Austin, Texas
The morning of July 4th — day 2 of my journey — I celebrated my country’s independence day by going to the Beavercreek Walmart, to pay my respects to the late John Crawford III.
I saw the video of this police shooting recently, and it really resonated with me. We have all seen the videos of the police killing innocent black men, especially these past few weeks with the shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana. Here in Austin, the US and Texas flags outside the State Capitol building, fly at half mast for the lives lost in Dallas.
John Crawford III picked up a BB gun off a Walmart shelf and carried the toy gun to the dog food isle. While perusing the different brands of dog food, he chatted with his girlfriend on the phone. The police, responding to a wildly inaccurate 911 call, came rushing down the aisles of Walmart armed AR-15s and without warning — no “drop your weapon” or “get down on the ground” — the police shot the unsuspecting John Crawford dead. The cops that shot John Crawford still serve on the Beavercreek police force today.
I won the privilege lottery: I am a lily-white, well-educated, affluent, cis-gendered white male. Almost every interaction I have with law enforcement ends with a smile and a, “you have a nice day, now.” Police brutality is not a part of my world. Every time a Tamir Rice or a Trayvon Martin is killed I read the stories and watch the footage and think “oh how terrible! This country is shameful!” and then place it in the file cabinet in the back of my brain marked “horrible things that have happened in the US” along with other dusty manila folders labeled with titles such as, race based chattel slavery, Wounded Knee, My Lai, Kid Rock, etc.
But watching John Crawford’s death brought this issue to the forefront of my mind because I saw myself in John Crawford.
I have done all the things John Crawford did before he died: I’ve purchased a BB gun from a Walmart, I’ve chatted with my girlfriend on the phone while perusing an aisle of a supermarket. And it was these events that led up to John Crawford’s death that really shocked me. It made me realize that at every moment of everyday, no matter how mind-numbingly mundane the activity, a person of color in this country is under constant threat of police brutality. And for the first time, the black lives matter movement became all too real to me.
The Beavercreek Walmart is like any other Walmart in America — which made the experience that much more uncanny. Aside from the absence of BB guns for sale, nothing had changed. The gun counter was exactly the same as it was in the video showing John Crawford’s death, two years ago. A Walmart customer can purchase the same brand of gun used to kill John Crawford almost as easily as buying a bag of dog food.
I spoke to a young black woman who worked as an employee of this Walmart, Aliesha. She told me she had never heard of John Crawford.
“But didn’t you think it was a little weird that they don’t sell BB guns at this Walmart?”
“Not really, I just started working here. So I didn’t think about it. But now I know — wow it’s just really crazy. I just didn’t know.”
And no one would know that an innocent black man had died in that Walmart, because there is nothing there to signify this tragedy. That is the crux of what really struck me about visiting the Beavercreek Walmart: John Crawford’s death has been scrubbed from collective memory. I won’t point the finger because I’m not really sure who or what to point to, but an erasure has happened, and a tragic death is being forgotten.
Cycling through the US has made me feel like a woman: biking with my whole life strapped to my bike incites a lot of unsolicited attention. People see my anomalous appearance and decide it is an invitation to speak to me, or yell at me, or whistle at me, or honk at me, wherever whenever: in gas stations, restaurants, public toilets…
In New Madrid, Missouri, a guy looked up from his webber grill to shake a greasy spatula at me and yell, “Hell yeah! Keep on going, you crazy son of a bitch!”
In Palestine, Texas, a man who introduced himself as Kyle Willoughby decided that the gas station parking lot was a perfect place to preach to me about God and Jesus and Morality, while I sucked down a Dr. Pepper slushie, trying to stay cool in 100+ Texas midday heat.
But on July 4th the unsolicited attention came in handy. About twenty miles outside of Dayton, heading towards the Indiana border, my inner tube exploded, ripping an enormous hole in the tire. I was only 150 miles from where I had started and I was already big trouble. I was miles from the nearest bike shop, where I could buy a replacement tire. Even if I did get to a bicycle shop, it was July 4th and every bike shop in the country was closed. Luckily a fellow cyclist, Jim, rode by and offered to help. He rode home, fetched his car, and drove to the Walmart, the only place for hundreds of miles around that sold bike tires and was open on July 4th, (Please take a moment for the irony to sink in.) and purchased a new tire for me.
The tire Jim purchased for me was like most items for sale at Walmart, too crappy to be of much use. Two hours later, the shoddy tire continued to collapse under the weight of my panniers, thereby puncturing all of my spare inner tubes, and I had run out of puncture patches.
I had brought about my own undoing. I had departed without any idea about how to take care of my tires or how many spare parts I should travel with. But this was why I started my trip in the US. I could have a safety net of frequent bike shops with mechanics, who are fluent in my first language, while I worked out the logistics of cycling halfway around the world. But when I started out I was naive in thinking that everything would have a way of working itself out (n.b. refer back to the part where I wrote about how privileged I am). July 4th was the first day of what was to be a week long lesson about my trip: from now until Patagonia, Murphy’s Law holds sway over my life. I must be prepared for everything that could go wrong to go fantastically astoundingly devastatingly wrong.
So it was late afternoon of July 4th and I was sitting on the side of a busy two-lane highway in the rain, on the phone with AAA trying to convince them to give me a lift to yet another Walmart so I can buy patch kits, patch up one of my swiss-cheese-esque inner tubes, and then limp the next fifteen miles to the nearest bike shop in Richmond, Indiana and wait till the next morning when it opened, when a man approached me.
The man looked like he had walked right out of the lyrics of a Bruce Springsteen song: worn brown leather cowboy boots, jeans, a denim shirt with the sleeves cut off to reveal weatherbeaten arms covered with tattoos, a grey beard and ponytail. I braced myself for a dressing down, a who-the-heck-are-you-and-why-the-heck-are-you-standing-outside-my-house-in-very-revealing-spandex-shorts. But instead he said his name was Tom and that I should, “Get the fuck off the side of the road and have a sit on my porch. The sky’s starting to spit, and you look pathetic out here.”
After a strong cup of coffee, Tom and his girlfriend Cynthia insisted on driving me the fifteen miles to the nearest Walmart to get me my patch kit and deposited me safe and sound in Indiana.
I started off my July 4th disillusioned with the state of my country. But by the end of that day I was grinning with joy given to me by the kindness of strangers. Strangers who are fellow Americans acting purely on selfless generosity. And they had saved my butt and for that I give them my everlasting gratitude.
But as I pedaled onward through the ever expanding fields of corn and soy, I could not help but mull over the pernicious thought — would these people have helped me if my skin was a different color?
I chose my route because it was flat and safe, which proved to be true and, more often than not, a bit uneventful. To see what I’m talking about here is some shoddy iphone footage of me plodding along a road that looked almost identical to every single road I plodded on while cycling through the US heartland:
Although I had stopped in Indianapolis to exchange my poorly made Walmart tire with some more durable tires, my ride through the rest of the midwest was still plagued by flat tires. After the twelfth flat, I realized that my back tire problems were not going away anytime soon, so I made a detour to Paducah, Kentucky (with the help of Randall and Brenda Questelle. Thank you guys so much! You are amazing!) to yet another bike shop, to get some help from the man, the myth, the legend: Z.
Z figured out the problem. I had punctured the metal rim of my tire, which was cutting into my inner tubes. He then taught me how to prevent it and has been my R2-D2 to my Luke Skywalker ever since. Whenever there’s a problem with my bike that is befuddling me, I call Z and he walks me through it. And after dozens of really bone-headed mistakes which Z has helped me undo, I’ve become a halfway-decent bike mechanic.
Aside from almost getting struck by lightning, in a down poor of Old Testament proportions outside of Cairo, Illinois, the miles flew past as I zipped across the Mississippi and started to head into the south via southern Missouri and Arkansas.
In recent US elections the phrase“real america” has been tossed around a lot. Well, I’m pretty sure it does not get more real-er than rural Arkansas.
I counted the number of confederate flags I saw while cycling from Ohio to Austin. The final count is seventy-nine, about sixty of which were in Arkansas. In Bradford, Arkansas not only were nine confederate flags on proud display, but one home owner was flying the KKK flag atop a twenty foot flag pole on their front lawn.
I was peddling on a back country rode outside of Malvern, Arkansas. The land in Arkansas was starting to look a lot like Texas: widening fields of prairie spotted with long horns, red iron-rich dirt, tall cedar trees, cactus and armadillo roadkill lining the sides of the road, and heat that made me feel like a thick slab of bacon sizzling in a pan, etc.
While taking in the scenery, my chain derailed. This is not a disaster by any means, and takes about two minutes to fix. I was hunkered over my bicycle, putting my chain back in place, when a pick up truck with big rig exhaust stacks and a confederate flag raised loud n’ proud out of the back of the flat bed came to a halt in front of me (comme ça https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/21/dd/42/21dd42d3dc9f045ac76b8dd90071ef44.jpg).
The gentleman driving the vehicle asked if I needed help and offered me a lift. I looked at his gigantic confederate flag and thought, “I’d rather eat shit than get a lift from a bigot.” I glared at the driver and said a very terse “no.” In the uber-polite south, a “no” without a “thank you” attached is shorthand for, “f^ck-you-very-much”. The driver of the rebel-mobile return my glare. He slammed on his accelerator as he sped away, engulfing me in an enormous black exhaust cloud — an act which is charmingly called “rollin’ coal”.
In the late 1940s, a famous Zen Buddhist scholar was asked how he felt about the atrocities of World War Two. The interviewer mentioned Hitler, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Japanese Internment, to name but a few. The scholar returned the questions with steadfast ambiguity. To continue to paraphrase — the scholar replied to talk about Nazis and Hitler as bad would separate his being from the greater being of existence. To say that the Nazis are bad and therefore he is better than a Nazi would alienate him from Nazis and therefore miss what he referred to as “the fundamental point of being.”
We (humans, you and me and everyone we know, the not-so-royal we, etc.) yearn to assign right and wrong to every event in time. Terrorists are bad, at least I am not a terrorist, and therefore I retain a semblance of good. And for the longest time I too thought this was the way the world worked. Everything existed in this perfect dichotomy of good and bad, black and white, saints and assholes.
A while back, I read short book about Islam and its history, written by Karen Armstrong, a religious studies scholar and author who specializes in compassion. It was written during the 9/11 era as a primer for westerners to make sense of islamic fundamentalism. Armstrong wrote about how fundamentalism is a natural byproduct of modernity. In a world pushing forward towards modernity, there will always be a push-back from people, who feel like they are left behind as the vanguard reaps the benefits.
As I pedaled my way across America, I noticed that there is an enormous portion of the population that feels left out of the social-media-savvy-urban-milennial vanguard, and the push-back is articulated by bellowing, “make America great again!” And waving the confederate flag. And therein lies what I have seen the problem facing this country: there is an lack of connection between people. Both sides — the vanguard and its pushback — can be hateful because the divisions have widened, leaving no space for compassion. I am just as much a part of the problem as anyone else. How can I claim to have empathy with John Crawford III, if I cannot empathize with a confederate flag waving Trump supporter?
I’m about to leave this country for a very long time. And while I’m gone, I urge all of my fellow Americans to (wince) #staywoke, not only by remembering the injustice that resulted in the tragic death of John Crawford, but to do lead by example with empathy and compassion because I have cycled through America’s heart and I have seen that its hurting.
CYCLING THROUGH THE US BY THE NUMBERS AKA STATS-SO-FAR
Miles Traveled: 1362
Number of flat tires: 18
Number of broken tires: 3
Number of broken chains: 1
Confederate flags spotted: 79
KKK flags: 1
Weight lost: 8 pounds
Temperature extremes: 56 degrees fahrenheit (Gambier, Ohio), 107 degrees fahrenheit (Hearne, Texas).
Best meal: A tie between the breakfast tacos at Rosita’s Al Pastor in Austin and the Rib plate with a fresh berry cobbler with a scoop of blue bell vanilla ice cream at The Pharm in Buffalo, Texas. (Honorable mentions go out to breakfast tacos at Taqueria Gueros in Tyler, Texas and the pulled pork at Starnes BBQ in Paducah, Kentucky).
Lonesomest road: the Mo-Ww right on top of a levy in between East Prairie and New Madrid, Missouri, just north of the Mississippi Delta.
Most miles traveled in a day: 126 (day 1)
Least miles traveled in a day: 52 (day 2)
Long-distance cycling tip: If you’re suffering from butt blisters and chaffing a liberal dollop of aloe vera on your down-unders before and during your daily cycle will soothe and prevent the pain.
Well, I’m going to leave it there.
Till next time,