2013/07/16

Five Hundred Miles of Midwest: Thoughts on Politics and Religion

Enjoyed 500 miles of Midwest over the past seven days, and arrived in Omaha on July, 15th.

Very sorry for the delayed updates! Between the 70+ miles riding days and the lack of reliable internet access, I've only been writing notes in the small journal, waiting for an all-inclusive update.

The rest stop in Chicago turned out to be six days, reconnecting with friends from last summer, and loading up on fat and protein. Traded the bike trailer for the more compact panniers, and here is the new setup.


As the traveler becomes more experienced and confident, the cargo shrinks and the weight lightens. The process of eliminating stuff is liberating and reassuring.

On July 9th, exactly one month after the beginning of the trip, I left Chicago for the next 2,500 miles of the journey. Knocked on half a dozen doors in the evening, and eventually, at around 8pm, a Mexican-American family welcomed me into their backyard, and fed me Sandwich and fruit. Traveling through the US made me realize the rising importance of Spanish. It is almost the unofficial second language of the US, and is the dominant language of many sub-sectors of the economy, not to mention of many areas of the country. Put learning Spanish on the list.

The scenery along the road could get a little repetitive. Here is a typical view:


You have corn on one side, and soy on the other.


And occasionally, grain elevators and wind turbines.


On the 10th, biked nearly 70 miles against strong, hot wind. So, I was very grateful when the friends in Geneseo drove 30 miles down the road to picked me up, so that I could spend the rest of the day with them. Had some of the most fascinating conversations with Todd, Bill, and their families -- two worldly "Yankee" gentlemen and three gracious Southern ladies.

We chatted about the cultural shifts in the American society over the past few decades, the role of Christianity in shaping the American social fabric, and the perspectives of conservative Republicans. I have always bemoaned the absence of a single serious Republican in the Pioneer Valley, so it was refreshing to hear the thoughtful and grounded views from conservative Republicans.

Many of the view points are very sensible, based on admirable ethics like fiscal responsibility, individual freedom, limited governmental power. Somehow, the national politics seems to have hijacked these good values and turned them into something unrecognizable. On the Democrats side, the honorable intentions of social services, collective well being, etc., also tend to morph into wastes and incompetency of an over-bloated bureaucracy, among other things. How this "metamorphism of individual ethics into collective disaster" has occurred, I still could not comprehend.

In the Midwest, a water tower seems to be the landmark of each small town. You can see it from far away, rising above the corn fields. Like this one. It says "Walnut" on it. Looks to me more like a lollipop.


Of course, a water tower does not stand alone. It needs the company of the Golden Arches and the gas price board.


On the 11th, biked 80 miles, crossing a few landmarks: crossed the Mississippi River, and finished listening to the Old Testament. Here is the mighty river.


The teaching of Jesus Christ is such a breath of fresh air compared to the Old Testament. Although he refers to the "Scripture" and uses the prophecies from the Old Testament, I think Jesus is really "subversive," in the most courageous and righteous way. By any standard, Jesus is a radical, a revolutionary, and one of the most powerful and admirable character, not to mention a brilliant teacher. His life stories and teaching nearly brought me to tears at many point. Whether or not the stories are true, I don't really care. Heaven or Hell or Resurrection, I don't really care. Care even less about the supernatural powers and acts of his. What really matters is his teaching, and the way he lived his life in this world as a human being. It deserves to be set as a role model for generations.

What struck me as much as Jesus' teaching, is the similarity between his teaching and that of the Buddha, of Confucius, and of many other great teachers in history. This realization is nothing new to anyone, but it does not cease to amaze me every time around.

However, there is also crucial differences in the way these teachings are delivered, between the East and the West. I have just scratched the surface, and am struggling to articulate this difference, at the risk of making universal and simplistic claims. But here is a premature attempt:

Jesus is a martyr. He knew his teaching is subversive, and would get himself killed, but he looked evil in the eyes, fought the battle and embraced death as a consequence. Christianity (and the West) seems to have inherited this absolute, unequivocal, "my way or the highway" temperament. Whereas the Eastern saints, like Buddha, Lao Zi, Confucius, are much more round-about and non-confrontational in the delivery of their teachings. The teachings themselves are equally subversive as Jesus', but none of the three Eastern saints got themselves into violent death. None of them tried to spread their teachings in an imposing way, or tried to send "sheep among the wolves" to harvest the fruit of God.

Buddha, near the end of his life, even said, "I said nothing. Do not be attached to the words I uttered." "Even the 'truth' should be let go, not to mention the pseudo-truth." In Chinese, “法尚应舍,何况非法” (出现于《金刚经》). He said things like: "My teachings are like boats for you to cross the river. Once you have crossed the river, you do not need to carry the boat on your head."  Whereas Jesus said, "Heaven and Earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. (Matthew 24:35, KJV)" One can not deny that such differences plays a role in shaping the Eastern and Western cultures. 

To sum up my untested hypothesis: each religious tradition is deeply influenced by the "personality" or "temperament" of their founder; the religion then shapes the temperament of that part of the world. Imagine if Jesus and Buddha switch their personality and their methods of teaching. How different would the world look like today.

But, maybe I have the chicken and the egg reversed: the saints' personality might be determined by the regional culture, which then reinforces the cultural preferences through religion. More to ponder for the next 2,500 miles.

There's the philosophical excursion of the day. Back to the chronological report: on the 11th, stayed with the well-traveled Cummings family on the farm, who let me sleep indoors, and use the wash machines. I'm almost spoiled! Very grateful for all kindness and generosity of every one along the way.

The 12th is a day of hot rolling hills. Who said the Midwest is all flat?


Or this one. The wind turbine is spinning fast, and my wheels are spinning slow, for the same reason.


Or this one, on gravel.


Over the past few days, I have done some of the most difficulty hill climbing on this trip, in Iowa! So, the Midwest is NOT flat -- especially if you are on a bike!

On the 12th, during the day, got chased by big dogs twice. In each occasion, for a few seconds, I was almost certain that those dogs would bite me. So when I saw a "Military Surplus" store on the side of the road, I stopped to see if they have bear spray. A strange old man, looked like he walked out of the movie "Lord of the Ring," with a thin pony tail and owl-ish beard, said to me, "If a dog chase you, shoot it." I said I carry no weapon. "Then sue the owner." I ask him if he has pepper spray. He took out a taser, pointed it at me and turned it full on. I felt my hair stood up. I promptly thanked him and left his shop. Better be bitten by dogs than tased by a weirdo.

In the evening, a farm family kindly let me sleep on their couch.

On the 13th, 70 miles of rolling hills, rewarded by a most enjoyable stay with a family on an organic farm, with 10 dogs, at least 8 cats, parrots, peacocks (!), sheep, horses, corn fields, among other things. A pleasant surprise to come upon such a cool family in the middle of Iowa. The father Jay was a true hippie, listening to Beatles as he talked about sustainable farming and Dutch-belted cows. Eye-opening conversation about IT in healthcare, and life in general. They even invited me inside to sleep on a bed.

On the 14th, 75 miles of even more steep hills. But the views are beautiful. Like this one, hay barrels on the hills, marshmallows for the giants.


And little towns like this one, showing off all what they've got:


Around noon, finished listening to the last chapter of Revelation, so the entire King James Bible on audio book came to an end. Over the past month, I've been listening to the Bible almost nine-to-five. It has become a part of breathing. The sudden end of the book left me almost a bit lost.

In the evening, a wonderful family with two young boys let me sleep inside with air-conditioning, and let me eat all the pasta in their fridge. Went with them over to the grandparents, meeting more of the family, and had a pleasant chat, all things considered. In the morning, they sent me on my way with a bag full of trail mix, and a warm heart.

On 15th, arrived in Omaha, at the home of new friends'. Being treated so well that I hope I won't abort the journey. Walked around Omaha after dinner, and was "captured" by Omaha police.


Chatted with Officer Keenan, who is riding his police bike. He took a "mugshot" of me with his police bike, and posted it on the Omaha Police Department Twitter account. For future criminal or recreational references.


First it's Facebook, now Twitter -- so far, I've had the best luck with the police!

1 comment:

lichiness said...

Hey Zilong - great post! (^_^) Glad you ran into a Spanish family. The language is very much the fastest growing unofficial language in the US. I remember a few years ago in a debate with Hillary Clinton, she said: the reason we cannot make English the "official" language in the US as opposed to just the "national" language is because they won't be able (for reasons I don't understand) print materials (like Hospital pamphlets) using federal money.

I liked your question about whether our deities influence our social and cultural beliefs, or if our social and culture beliefs create our deities. I read in an Economics book of all places (Wolff and Resnick) that when capitalism exploded in the US, so did Christianity. Both based on the individual!

I'm also glad you had a chance to speak with honest Republicans as it's important to be intimately familiar with both sides of the debate. My only qualm with most Republicans is that some base their beliefs on biblical teachings as oppose to "good for goodness sake." Hope this is clear. The idea is far more complicated, but I won't bog you down with the details over this medium.

About the dog problem... =) From my experience, they usually don't have the intention of biting. They're just excited because you're a swift moving thing! One quick kick to the snout should do it! No long-term damage unlike pepper spray may do.

God speed,
Alicia