• Richie Crowley

The Truths Uncovered When Riding Your Bicycle Across America Alone

This summer, I rode my bicycle across America, unsupported and alone.

I left Boston on July 20th, and 65 days later arrived in Santa Monica. Coast to coast, from my childhood home to my current. I rode 3,904 miles, climbed 138,436 feet, and had 281 hours of riding time.

That’s 149 marathons, 4 ¾ Everests, and 35 8-hour workdays. In a row.

The ride also raised and distributed 2,436 meals.

I rode my bike across America because I wanted to. I have admired those who embark on personal pilgrimages: Noah Yuval Harari, sits in silent meditation for 60 days each year, over 20,000 have completed the Appalachian Trail, and hundreds walk the Camino de Santiago across Europe to Northwest Spain each year. A pilgrimage is a journey, often into an unknown or foreign place, where a person goes in search of new or expanded meaning about the self, others, nature, or a higher good, through the experience. My pilgrimage was to ride my bike across America.

I wanted to educate myself on the attitudes towards health and wellness across the country and discover the barriers that prevent many Americans from being in good health.

Having received higher education and lived in US coastal cities, wellness has been accessible to me my entire life. From my privileged window, I didn’t understand why some would choose not to participate or invest in their own health and wellness. It seemed too easy to not. And, the more I wrote, spoke, and shared my views on health and wellness, the more pushback I received. Wellness, must not be as accessible as I thought. I’d offer affordable grocery lists, highlight free meditation apps, share the economics of sleep, and encourage natural movement, but still, something was missing. If I wanted to advocate, with such conviction, for health and wellness, I needed to experience these barriers first-hand.

I found them, and so much more.

I found that money is not the biggest barrier to wellness.

Once the Impossible Burger went national with Burger King, I found solace in ending some of the harder days with one. As I’d eat, I’d witness customers spending $12 — $15 on Whoppers, Fries, Drinks, and Apple pies. I even asked a few people, as they waited for their order to arrive, why Burger King, and why not somewhere healthier, or even cook at home? It was only 7 pm.

“It’s convenient”, “It tastes good”, “What would I cook?”

Reasonable answers. I even find it fair and an individual’s right to spend their money how they want to. But, knowing how unhealthy we’ve gotten, and the relationship that fast-food has to this health decline, these responses were concerning. Our conversations would continue and I’d share why I was riding across the country and I’d ask about their health and wellness. Most wished they were healthier.

Here we were, in a Burger King, having just spent $12 on food that isn’t of ideal nutrition, wishing for better health.

There was a disconnect.

Admittedly, these Burger Kings were in more rural parts of the country where there wasn’t a menu of healthy alternatives, but I couldn’t help but smirk at the contradiction. I know how much damage I could do in a Walmart produce section with $12.

Wait, what did I just say?

“There wasn’t a menu of healthy alternatives.”

This was it!

If most people have $50 to spend on groceries, and even a desire to be healthier, why are they not making better food decisions?

Convenience and a failed education system.

We are not taught the truth about food. Our schools allow Got Milk? advertisements, despite the dangers of dairy, and in Health class we watch outdated videos. Most students even graduate high-school or college without ever having had to cook or learn to cook. And it’s not the student’s fault. To compound this void, even those with education don’t have the options.

Many of the places I rode through were 30 minutes to 1 hour away from a grocery store, or any alternative option that had produce, grains, or bean and legumes for purchase. And that time of travel is only one way. Imagine having to drive 2 hours each week just for food?

This is not sustainable. This is not convenient. This is not accessible.

In the absence of these options were Subways with cookies at the register tempting your sugar addiction, and Gas Stations that are stocked with 52 grams of sugar Gatorades, Starbucks bottled Sugarcinnos, I mean Frappuccinos, and 24/7 access to hot n ready pizza and donuts. For fuck’s sake, even Dollar General could opt to make a difference and at least offer some healthy options to combat their aisles of low priced sodium and sugar.

Beyond the abundance of these options, consider convenience and its relationship to time of day. For individuals that hold shift work positions, it’s not reasonable to ask a person to sustain the discipline to cook for themselves at 6 am after an overnight shift, or at 11 pm when leaving the evening shift. What is available to them though, flashing tall bright welcoming signs, are the unhealthy options.

Healthy options aren’t accessible, and unhealthy options are. That sums up the problem.

Jumping back to the conversation at Burger King, suppose a person in this environment, with these working conditions still does want to eat a healthy diet. They have yet to be educated how. If instead of meals, we donated shelf-stable items like rice, beans, onions, and sweet potatoes, with fresh tomatoes and avocados, would a recipient know to make Gallo Pinto? In order to make wellness accessible, we must not focus on cost as a barrier, but direct our attention to increasing convenience and supporting this effort with education.

During this ride, the social impact portion was donating meals. We raised 2,436 meals which were donated to organizations feeding and educating those who are currently less fortunate in Brooklyn, Cleveland, St. Louis, Denver, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.

This felt good.

But, now having had time to digest the ride I question if this made the greatest impact.

I’ve grappled with this question a lot in the two months since ending the ride and my answer is no. Providing meals did not have the greatest impact. In truth, it now feels like these meals were a form of enablement disguised as empowerment. Yes, these meals fed over 2,400 less fortunate people who were hungry, a very acute impact, but true empowerment would have been building infrastructure, or a framework for finding health. In some rare moments, I’d be able to educate the families receiving the meals about the nutrition in each meal and the affordability of eating mostly plants, but the conditions that most of these individuals, our fellow Americans, live in are so dangerous that their focus is simply, to eat. Worrying about the quality of food, sourcing ingredients, and cooking, if they even have a kitchen, is beyond a reasonable ask. I know the organizations we donated meals to do a fine job in educating the thousands they serve, and I trust they will continue to do so, but this reflection piece is meant to be written with integrity, and a transparent, difficult admission of this is necessary. The meals made a difference, but they fished for the person, I didn’t teach anyone how to.

I guess that’s the beauty of hindsight, it offers clear insights, while the lenses of foresight are filled with roses. And it’s through hindsight that I was able to see that a longer-lasting impact was made.

These meals were a symbol.

Each meal may have only fed a person once, for one day, but they let the person receiving the meal know that they were cared about. Each time a person was given a meal, there was a message communicated with it.

That message:

Thousands of people from across the country wanted to provide you this meal, you are not alone.

And that is something I am proud we created. You created.

The other truth about this ride was guns.

Yes, gun, the weapon.

Two weeks into my ride there was a weekend of violence. In an El Paso Walmart, 22 people were killed by gunfire, 24 more injured, and that night in Dayton 36 people were shot in 32 seconds, 9 of whom were killed.

I rode through Dayton 10 days later.

I rode to the Oregon District to pay my respects. Here, I mourned shoulder to shoulder with friends and family members of the victims, and citizens of Dayton, at a temporary memorial decorated with flowers, photos, and a sign that read “Forgive others not because they deserve forgiveness, but because we deserve peace.”

Four days after visiting Dayton, I rode through Illinois. One evening I was confronted by a thin older man, sleeves cut from his shirt, eyes bloodshot, who asked me what I was carrying. I told him about my tent, my sleeping bag, my air pad and as I was going to share the contents of my wardrobe he stepped closer and interrupted me. “No son, what type of weapon you carryin’?” I told him I wasn’t carrying anything besides the Swiss Army knife a friend had gifted me the week before I left Boston. I realized my mistake as soon as I said it. Why would I admit I was unarmed?

That night at 1 am, from inside my tent (I camped at the nearby fairgrounds) I heard the sound of tires on gravel. It was hot that night so my fly wasn’t on and I could see through the mesh lining of my tent that a man on a bike was 30 feet away from me. He stared at me for 15 seconds. I was silent. He rode away. Nothing happened but I was spooked enough to pack up and find a motel.

Three days later I spent the night on a stranger’s couch in a town on the border of Missouri. Before lights out I noticed a shotgun leaning against the couch. “That isn’t loaded, is it?” I asked. “Course it is” laughed its owner, my host. I asked him to move it because I didn’t want to accidentally hit it with my foot when I was sleeping and shoot myself. I know nothing about guns. He laughed and moved it, but it led to a larger conversation.

I admitted I didn’t see the value in keeping guns, nor the utility for citizens to arm themselves with one when grocery shopping or going to a movie, and that in general, I blamed a lot of the tragedies of gun violence on guns. He shared that he grew up hunting, believed in taking 2 bucks each year for population control, and his fear of the rural crime in these parts. “These parts”.

His response was a clear representation that what we don’t know, or what we are unfamiliar with manifests as fear.

All my life, I’ve lived in cities. I am familiar with the urban crimes of drugs, stabbings, or gang violence. My parents work in a Boston hospital, sometimes covering overnight shifts, and I hear the gruesome events that took place when I slept. Still, none of that scares me, nor do I feel threatened. But semi-automatic weapons, rifles, shotguns, and hunting I am not familiar with and that explains my fear of them.

We fear what we don’t know. Rather than maintain a default of curiosity, or seek to understand what is different than us, we almost instinctively allow the absence of knowledge to manifest as fear.

Yes, having these encounters and riding through dirt roads in middle America where neighbors live miles from each other yet still have barbed wire fences and “Trespassers will be shot” signs at the end of their drives, was unsettling. And being pushed off the road by white pick-up trucks that blow black smoke from dual-exhaust pipes that sit underneath a 6-foot bed that flies an American flag and a 2020 Keep America Great flag, instills fear in my fucking bones, but I couldn’t allow my lack of knowledge to become fear.

I believe in the good in people. I believe no car wants to hit a biker. I believe no person wants to shoot someone who walks in their yard. But I was challenged. Each day we have the opportunity to suppress our fear, lead with love, and move through life as curious beings, carrying an attitude that invites.

When I started the ride, I didn’t do it with the intention to challenge my body. I simply wanted to gather information and offer some type of solution. I think I did that.

Inherent in personal pilgrimages is the time you will spend with yourself. The conversations, the dreams, the ideas, the characters you create to keep yourself company. This ride granted me the opportunity to move through each of these, and I feel closer to myself because of it.

During this ride, I was at the will of nature, and her elements became my biggest challenge. Some days were simple, eat, drink, ride, and sleep, while others stripped me of who I thought I was, and at one point I completely lost my wellness.

That’s part 2.

Richie. Human.


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