Thousand-Mile Reflections

It's been one thousand miles. Almost one third of the journey. In the good Hampshire College tradition of "mid-semester self evaluation," here are some observations and reflections from the first 1,000 miles.

1. Lawn mowing

After passing by hundreds of American homes, there are two activities that stand out as truly, uniquely American: lawn mowing, and yard sale.

Lawn mowing seems to be the No.1 obsession of American home owners. I have seen more people mowing their lawn than those who are just simply relaxing on their porch.

Lawn mowing embodies the American attitude toward nature and its sense of affluence.

American families want "nature" to surround their house, but only "nature" in its subdued and commodity form, instead of its natural state. They want lawns, bird feeders, flower beds, etc -- all as a tribute to the owner of the house -- an extension of the ego, instead of a part of the natural environment. They pour chemicals on their grass, use weed killers, waste a ton of water, and burn much gasoline, spewing toxic fume for the passing bikers to inhale.

After mowing the lawn, they go back to work to earn money so that they can pay for the lawn mower and weed killers, having no time to enjoy the lawn. And of course, every family must have their own lawn mower, in the truly American individualistic and self-sufficient way.

There is a whole industry around lawn mowing and keeping, as consumerism creeps into every corner of the American life. A home owner throw in money, time and resources on one end, and a perfectly green lawn pops out on the other end.

That's why Hampshire College deserves great credit for transforming lawns back into meadows.

What defines a perfect lawn also bears the imprint of the Western aesthetics and ways of thinking. You can find Euclidean geometry, linear shapes, hierarchy, and uniformity in a lawn.

Let's compare the Eastern and Western art as a influence on people's view of their dwelling place and nature. Need I say more?

However, today's China seems to have forgotten its philosophical heritage, but have fully embraced a materialistic way of life.

2. Yard sale

The American homes themselves are peculiar creatures. They stand out from nature, instead of disappearing into nature. Each American home is like a "city upon a hill." I suspect that just as men build temples to glorify God, we build our homes to glorify ourselves -- the Gods in our own home, the kings in our own castle.

Given the huge size of most American homes, people tend to fill up the empty space with stuff -- lots of useless (or under-utilized) stuff. That brings us to the second most popular obsession of American homes: yard sale. 

I have seen more yard sales than house parties or yard BBQ. The yard sales feature all kinds of worldly possession. No doubt that most of those stuff are made in developing countries, most likely in China. So here is the message: Yard sale is the sale of the graveyard. Those cheap plastic toys and clothes are not mere objects. They are the fossilized labor and youth of poor, young workers in many less fortunate parts of the world. They contain shattered dreams of under-aged workers in a Chinese factory, devastated families as victims of building collapse in the Bangladesh sweatshop, and irreparable damage to people's health and the environment. 

Now, these imported products are sitting sadly and quietly, wasting away in American garages. Can you feel the weight, and taste the tears of the stuff in your yard sale? Each yard sale is a sales from the graveyard of labor and dreams. On display at each yard sale, is not wealth or well being, but the insanity and injustice of our time, of one species. Each full garage or basement is a cemetery of imported souls and untold miseries. And is your family sleeping next to one?

3. Biking traveler vs. traveling biker. 

On this long bike ride, many people ask if I am a long-time biker. I never considered myself to be a biker. I haven't done any training on bikes or practice rides before I departed for this trip. 

In China, bikes are necessity, and a mode of transportation, whereas in the US, bikes are luxury items for those who can afford the time and money. 

Biking travelers are different from traveling bikers. The former regard the bike as a means to an end. The latter has more fetishism of the bike itself. It is so easy to get sucked in to the consumerist culture of spending money on bikes, and equipping the bike with fancy gadgets. Many web forums and bikes shops stand ready to help you squander cash. It takes some conscious effort to fight against that urge, keep the worship of the bike to the minimum, and focus more on the travel and the experience. Keep being a traveler, not a traveling consumer. 

4. No big deal. 

Biking across the US seemed to me like an overwhelming project before I started. Now, one month into the trip, it really became a daily routine -- no big deal. I am almost humbled and surprised when people find my journey impressive, because I know how simple it actually is. 

Nothing I do is difficult: cook meals, wash clothes, read maps, knock on doors, pedal, pedal and pedal. What makes it a big journey is that all the small pieces are guided by one vision, adding toward one direction. The concentration of effort takes one far, not the difficulty of each task. 

This experience made me realize that all "big deals" are made of mundane, if not boring, "small steps." Even the greatest man have to do the pettiest tasks. The difference is that one should keep the big picture in mind, cut out all distractions, and never turn back. Make sure everything one does -- down to the washing of bike shorts -- goes toward one single goal. That would eventually add up.

5. Listening to the Bible

Listening to the Bible has brought many epiphanies -- not (yet) in the sense of spiritual enlightenment, but in understanding the Western mentality. The Bible influences the western mode of thinking, and contains the archetype of many characters and stories in Western literature. Now, I am finally getting closer to the root of it. 

But then, where does the Bible get it "archetypes"? Why is it different from the Eastern traditions, like Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism? Much more fun pondering for the rest of the journey!

6. Frequently asked questions on the road.

People are curious, and sometimes, we are curious in the same way -- proceeding in the same thought process. So, over the past four weeks, I have had the same conversation for many times, when people ask me about the bike journey. So here is a FAQ sheet, in the sequence in which the questions are usually received =)

What are you doing?
I am biking from Massachusetts to San Francisco.

By yourself?

Why are you doing this?
Just feeling like it. It's about time. I just graduated college, and am heading to San Fran to start work in the Fall. Also want to see America, and to go on a spiritual journey.

How long does it take?
Around two and a half months.

How far is it all together?
Around 3,500 miles.

How far can you ride in a day?
Depending on the elements (wind, heat, rain, elevation, road surface, etc), anywhere from 30 to 80 miles a day. But 60 on average. I start riding between 8 and 9 am, and stopped between 6 and 7 pm.

Do you know people along the way?
Every 500 miles, I have a place to stay with friends. In between, no.

Where do you sleep at night?
Before sunset, I knock on people's door, and ask if I could camp in their backyard. I have tent, sleeping bag, stove, pots, etc. Quite low maintenance.

You just knock on strangers's door? Do people say yes?
Yes, I knock on the door of people I don't know. Many times people say no, but I only need one yes per day, which is not hard to come by. More often than not, those who say yes would let me stay in their guest room or on the couch, feed me dinner and breakfast, and let me use the shower, laundry, and internet.

Have you met any bad people yet?
No, not even one. Some trucks do comes quite close by on the road.

What do you eat?
Oat meal, peanut butter, tuna, and granola bars. Oftentimes, people who let me in their house also feed me dinner and breakfast.

Have you figured out your whole route?
No. I focus on one day at a time. I don't know where I will end up at the end of the day.

How do you figure out your route?
I buy a state map, and try to go on the smallest road visible on the map. Take back roads and county roads. I also ask people along the way for suggestions.

What do you do when you bike?
I listen to the Bible (as audio book on MP3 player). After that, I will listen to Moby Dick and the Quran.

Are you from the United States? (They actually mean: you don't exactly look like you are from here.)
I grew up in China, and came to the US for college.


lichiness said...

Zilong - this was (again) a great post. I really liked that you did the Q&A section at the end of the entry. I had been wanting to ask you for some time how the conversations go. Specifically though, when you knock on a door and a person answers, what do you say exactly? "Hi, my name is Zilong, can I camp in your backyard?" =)

A few thoughts about lawns and yard sales. In my family, we never kept the lawn perfectly pristine unless we had to. Sometimes neighborhoods will be managed by an association and they require that you keep your lawn a certain way. "Unkept" grass is simply associated with poverty from my experience. Another reason why people keep the grass short is so that wild life (like garden snakes and ticks/fleas) don't hang around in your grass. It's safer for children and dogs. One thing I've never understood, however, is why people blow the cut blades off the grass. It disappears in a few days because it's decomposed into the grass which works wonders for the soil! In short though, I agree with what you've said about the fetishization of lawns/grass.

Okay, so yard sales... You're absolutely right about this one. I've had a yard sale once in my life and it was for two reasons. First, I didn't want no longer needed belongings (went from a large apartment to a subletted room) to go into a landfill. So, why didn't a give them away for free? This leads me to point two: when I give stuff away online, I only attract scavengers who take my stuff to the flea market for resale. SO! Instead, I packed up my things and took it to my friend's house who lived in a poor neighborhood and sold them for next to nothing. To give you an example, I sold side tables for $3 each and nice picture frames for a quarter. I also gave away arts and crafts to the neighborhood kids. My point is that some "yard sales" are not what they seem. =)

Be well, my Chinese friend. (^_^)

Joseph Steig said...

Nice post! Be well!

eoin said...

I've got Moby Dick on my iPod too - its a good listen - also "Mayflower" by Nathaniel Philbrick - the story of the Plymouth landing of the Puritans, quite different than the 4th grade version.

rivlarwriter said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us all! I don't know about other states, but sometimes it's a law to keep your lawn at a certain height. One of our neighbors moved and city employees had to continue to mow their lawn. Some of their reasoning may have to do with what an above commenter wrote. But yes, it's interesting why this is also more aesthetically appealing in the U.S. and how much we subdue nature to make it "livable" for us. Depends where you are though. I feel like you're definitely going to see that more in the suburbs, where people can afford to really get into it as an upkeep (and expensive) hobby.

Anonymous said...

Great to read your thoughts Zilong, good luck with the rest of your trip and stay safe!

Omar Dahi

Anonymous said...

Zilong--you are an inspiration. And as the old saying goes: May the wind always be to your back!


Mary Fahey said...

Nice post Zilong. I am glad things are going so well for you! Keep writing-your reflections and perspectives are really interesting.

Oko Oko said...

"However, today's China seems to have forgotten its philosophical heritage, but have fully embraced a materialistic way of life."

Indeed... It seems China is now making a mess of things in ways the westerners never dreamed. It's terribly sad!

Oko Oko said...

"However, today's China seems to have forgotten its philosophical heritage, but have fully embraced a materialistic way of life."

Indeed... It seems China is now making a mess of things in ways the westerners never dreamed. It's terribly sad!