Friday, November 17, 2006

Mission Accomplished - The Big Wrap Up

The Source of Sustenance

My coast to coast bicycle journey in search of how to preserve America's family farms has successfully been completed. After having a few pictures taken of dipping my front tire in the Pacific Ocean I arrived in Astoria, OR on Friday, October 27th with a big smile on my face. Riding a bicycle from one ocean to another, across ten states, covering 5,000 miles, visiting nearly 80 farms over the course of four and a half months is not an easy experience to summarize in a few words. The first word that comes to mind is “fortunate.” I was fortunate that God put into my mind the desire and the conviction to carry out such a thing, and that I was physically and mentally capable and determined enough to complete the effort. My final day began with a walk along a secluded beach, listening to the sounds of the ocean and filled with a rising sense of thankfulness. I never went hungry, I never suffered injuries, was never harassed (save the occasional honking of a horn), and was never turned away when in need of assistance or a place to stay. Perhaps calling it “good fortune” minimizes the significance of my well being during these last months to a sort of cosmic fluke; an uncanny roll of the dice. Perhaps a more accurate description of how I'm feeling at the end is superbly blessed.

The final dipping of the tire in the Pacific Ocean at Cannon Beach. (Goonies rock in the distance)

The accomplishment itself, of overcoming all the psychological and physical obstacles and completing a hard won goal, has strengthened my faith and confidence in my own abilities. This is a new perspective for me, and one to be cherished. About two-thirds through the trip I began hesitantly mentioning to people that I wanted to write a book, but I wasn't quite sure I could do it. “If you can ride your bike across the country,” they responded, “you can do anything you set your mind to.” That statement coupled with a now tangible achievement has lifted the limits I formerly imposed on myself. When plagued with doubt I can always remind myself, “If you could ride your bike across the country, why not this?”

I have never learned more in a shorter period of time than I have these last few months. First and foremost, I will never be able to look at food the same way again. All food has an origin, and I will enjoy food best when I have an understanding and a respect for those origins. There are lots of ways to raise cattle, to grow an apple, to plant and harvest wheat, to operate a dairy. All food is not the same; there is a story behind our sustenance. A farmer's philosophy, practice, and knowledge greatly determine the nutrition of the food, the well-being of the animals, the integrity of the landscape, the character of the family, and the culture of the community. When we buy food at the grocery store we rarely know any of these things. In the midst of our so called “information age”, we have never known less about the origins and the impacts of the food we consume everyday. If my journey was in part a search for more enlightened living then my next steps are too seek out locally produced foods, indeed, even encourage them. My food dollars spent at the grocery store just don't support the things I care about anymore.

To say that I've developed my interest in agriculture the long way around would be an understatement. I grew up in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. I'm certainly not ashamed of my roots, but I also recognize that city life deprives the human spirit of a deep understanding of the source of all things. For the urbanite, our sustenance in the form of food, water, and even fresh air is generated in some mysterious manner on lands unknown. We take for granted the processes of nature, or the labor of our fellow man that keeps us alive, and as a result we make poor decisions. These decisions have had consequences to the health of our bodies, and to the health of rural communities.

I am grateful that after so many years, my ignorance about food and how it is produced is slightly less complete. The ground feels a little more solid beneath my feet as a result. But it has been the means by which I have acquired this knowledge that I now recognize as so unique. How fortunate I've been to study one of the most basic aspects of our daily nourishment; not in a classroom, not from a book, but directly from the farm families whose very lives provide something for the rest of us to eat. I witnessed hundreds of little snapshots of mankind's relationship to the land. As I learned about wheat, or cattle, or peaches, it was always within the human context of an individual, a family, a farmhouse located in a particular valley, situated in a particular state. As I roll over the trip in my mind, each farmer had a unique story to tell, and because I was looking, some wisdom to share. Before the printing press, before radio, before t.v., and before the Internet, our knowledge of the world was exchanged orally, directly from individual to individual. This form of communication differs from the others in that it requires no technology, it is direct, it is personal, it is interactive, and it is relational. In the process of my search for knowledge and understanding, I ended up gaining friends.

It hardly seems possible that in the course of a few hours I would make such strong connections with total strangers. I think it had something to do with the bicycle. A bicycle traveler is easier to trust. If we were up to no good, we sure hadn't devised a very good get away plan. And because of our vulnerability, the human heart is called to assist. By riding thousands of miles on a bicycle to see them, and asking them sensible, important questions, I often sensed my hosts rediscovering the significance in the way they lived their lives, and the value of their contribution.

“So what is it going to take to keep farmers farming?” This was but one of many ways I asked the question at the heart of this trip. An easy answer never materialized. What did materialize, in my heart and mind, is a deep appreciation for the land and the beautiful way in which God and nature have allowed us to provide for our own nourishment. The diverse, and often inconsistent answers to my question may come from farmers themselves, from more enlightened consumers, from farmers markets, from alternative food sources, from public policy, or from rural communities that can take charge of their identities and their future. But the starting point for such grand undertakings are simple enough. Each individual will have to pause a moment, examine their life, and make a conscious decision to rekindle a relationship with the source of their own sustenance.

Thank you to everyone who has experienced this journey along with me. I received so much support and encouragement throughout the adventure, and as a result I never felt alone. It also inspired me to push on during the rough patches. Without the prayers, the kind words, and yes, the donations and t-shirt purchases, I don't believe that this trip would have been the success that it has become. I owe an impossible debt to a great many generous souls out there. My only hope for repayment is to continue down the strange path of discovery I've now found. I promise to share some stories along the way.

I think this has to be my favorite photo from the trip. It's me and Susana Lein posing American Gothic style in celebration of our efforts to rescue her delicious Bloody Butcher cornmeal corn. Our tools were simple....stakes, twine, and a small sledge. Doesn't everyone use these tools when growing corn? One of us is taking our re-enactment a bit more serious than the other.

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