Wednesday, August 16, 2006

So why are you doing this?

  • OK, I promise to write more about all the farms I'm visiting because I've visited about 10-15 that I haven't even talked about yet. That said, this wil be the last super personal e-mail for awhile. One of the remarkable things about this trip is the complete unmasking I've experienced. All those internal fears of my past mistakes, and future failings have dropped away. I'm actually less afraid to write about my personal experience than about my farm experiences because each farm deserves so much attention, accuracy, detail, it is hard to do them justice with the time that I have. So here is a little insight to how this trip came to be. A future installment will better describe why the farming theme is at the center of this.

    There is rarely a day that passes without someone asking me the question, “So why are you doing this?” I suppose it is reasonable to expect someone who has abandoned home, comfort, safety, and shelter to ride their bicycle 5,000 miles from one ocean to another, to have a half decent reason to do so. As I’m now nearly half way into the trip (I’m in Kansas and at about 2,000 miles now), I’ve developed an array of answers to this question, and different occasions call for different answers. The initial stirrings of my heart came from some unusual places so here is a rather personal account of how this journey came to be.

    It should come as little surprise, that prior to this journey my life wasn't going too smoothly. After returning to graduate school to pursue a Masters Degree in river ecology, things had gone all topsy turvey. My quality of life fell about ten notches, my peers consisted primarily of egocentric academics, my major professor had left his wife and taken a sabbatical to live with his girlfriend (his student from the semester before my arrival), and I myself had fallen into a relationship that spelled doom from its very beginnings. The situation as it stood looked bleak, and I knew that it was time to step back, take stock and consider some changes. And yet, there is a strong compulsion in graduate school to simply grit one’s teeth and bear it. I however, was literally grinding mine right out of my head; my dentist diagnosed me with “bruxism” and recommended I wear a mouth guard during my sleep. This was getting ridiculous. Life has a way of reminding us to seek guidance from a place more reliable than ourselves and our surroundings, and my instincts led me to prayer.

    One day I was sitting on a park bench outside of the University Library reading a book by a female buddhist monk. I hadn't entirely ruled out the possibility of heading to Asia to study Buddhism; so if you thought riding a bicycle across the country was impractical and idealistic, just imagine if I had shaved my head and taken a 6 month vow of silence instead. I was only skimming the book when a couple of paragraphs leapt from the page. This Buddhist woman described how she had made a decision that anytime she planned on visiting a community to offer services to them she would travel there by bicycle. She discovered that by arriving this way she was much better prepared to understand the community she was visiting. By observing and absorbing the context of the community, the topography, the sights, smells and sounds, the type of work being done there, and the surrounding villages, she felt much more connected once she arrived, making it much easier to relate to the people.

    I don't know why, but upon reading this story, I was filled from head to toe with exuberance, peace, energy and hope. Positive emotions such as these had abandoned me for much of the year. In an instant, one that I may never fully understand, I knew that a bike ride was in my future. Such an idea had never occurred to me before. Perhaps, it wasn't the bicycling aspect of the story that caught my attention; it was that sense of connection she described. A sense of place, a sense of purpose, and how these ideals were held within the culture and the individuals of a community; that is what captured my interest.

    For hours, then days, then weeks, everytime I thought about that initial revelation, I felt a peace and a tugging that would not go away. For whatever reason, something had clicked inside of me, and the sufferings of my current situation hadn’t the sting they once possessed. I had been given some hope.

    Of course, my problems didn't just go away. As my frustrations rose, my options seemed difficult; should I grit my teeth or walk away. They both seemed rather extreme. Come Thanksgiving I was ready to take a break and visit my family in Birmingham. After the break, as I prepared to head back to Athens and face some major decisions, my mind began to turn over all the difficulties I faced. The drive between Birmingham and Athens is about four hours long, and my brain didn't stop churning for the entire distance.

    For months I had been curious about a certain radio program on NPR called This American Life. I had only heard the show a couple of times and had enjoyed it, and for some reason I kept thinking, “I should really start listening to that show.” After hours in the car of nothing but anxiety ridden worries, I decided to turn on the radio. Upon turning it on, and without even changing the dial an episode of This American Life was tuned right in; the program just beginning. Not only that, but it was their ten year anniversary show, and as a retrospective they had decided to re-air their very first program. The name of the show was “New Beginnings.” The theme seemed to speak directly to my own heart. Here was the story.

    A man named Kevin Kelly, while in his mid twenties, had opted out of college and had instead decided to travel extensively throughout Asia. He had trained himself as a photographer and was hired to travel all over the world taking photographs of religious ceremonies. After having been on this assignment for some time, he began to examine within himself those truths by which he defined his own life. What did he believe?

    His next assignment carried him to Jerusalem to photograph the celebration of Easter. Returning to his hotel late one evening, he found the front gate locked and no way to get back in. With little other choice he began wandering the city, filled with wonder. As the night grew chilly he sought shelter at one of the few places you can find open at that hour; a church. The church sat upon a hill, and was believed to be the site where the crucifixion of Christ occurred. As the night wore on, Kevin fell asleep upon the alter of the church.

    The next morning he awoke to the sounds of worshippers coming in to celebrate the resurrection. It was Easter Sunday and he made his way into the street where a procession of people were walking towards an area believed to have been Christ’s tomb. As he stood there with those believers, and after years of inner searching; all of a sudden he simply believed. He believed that Christ was indeed the son of God, had died for the sins of humanity, and arisen from the dead. All the questions he had been asking, this long dilemma he had faced, suddenly came to an end.

    But, what was he to do with this life altering discovery? Was he supposed to don a robe and sandals and begin walking the earth professing the faith? After careful consideration, he decided to make a rather unconventional commitment. He decided to live the next six months of his life as if they were the last six months of his life. After all, it was entirely conceivable that he could die at any moment. Such things happened all the time. How would he live if he knew that he only had six months to live?

    Well, he returned home where he got to know his parents, gave away his earthly possessions, made amends for past wrongs, and then decided to visit his five brothers and sisters that were spread out all over the country. And so, he decided to visit them by bicycle.

    As Kevin Kelly spoke those words, they bathed my heart in a kind of certainty that I’d never felt before. And like that, a strong suggestion in my mind had become a conviction in my heart. There was some reason why I was supposed to take this trip. The lives of a Buddhist monk and the first few steps of a young new Christian were guiding me towards an experience that I knew would change me completely. And then I started thinking about farms.


    · 8/16/2006 8:20 AM Autumn Daily wrote:
    I am so proud of you in so many ways. Soul searching is a part of your journey. And there were three things you told me what you have learned from Virginia to Kansas...
    1. To have no fear
    2. There will be one disaster every day
    3. You couldn't have gotten thus far without him.
    So...I leave you with a quote...

    "[What people fear most is] taking a new step or uttering a new word."
    -Fyodor Dostoyevski

    Thank you Justin for taking that new step and uttering new words. Keep digging....keep writing.... and above all, keep him close.

    We will all be amazed at the new man that shows up in Oregon on his bike.
    Autumn Daily (Newton, KS)

    · 8/16/2006 12:37 PM Jamie wrote:
    Hi Justin -

    This is Jamie from REI. Just wanted to check-in with you to see how that new frame is holding up. I'm also keeping up with the blog and have really enjoyed it. My best friend, Rod, is preparing for his 3 year Buddhist retreat, and I agree with you that something truly compelling about it.

    I also enjoyed your recent post about Mitch. I knew Mitch and Elizabeth in my Berry days, and they are both such gentle spirits. Not sure if they remember me, but I think fondly of them. Maybe I could talk them into coming to our organic farming clinic when you return? That would be a great night in the store.

    Let me know if I can help in any other way.

    Safe and happy riding!


    · 8/16/2006 1:28 PM Chris Mayo wrote:

    Your desire to get the most out of life is inspiring. I can only imagine the great memories you are making on your trip. I can't wait to hear the stories!

    Get home safely,


    · 9/3/2006 2:00 PM Corrie wrote:
    Justin, I love what you are doing! I'm a bit jealous........... You have reminded me that if I want change and stay open, a path will come. Thank you! Pedal on.........

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