The wind didn’t want me riding into it.
The rain didn’t want me under it.
The trail didn’t want me on top of it.
The car didn’t want me next to it.
The adversities of this ride that I had been unprepared for.
I’ve been racing storms for the past week. Storms that come with 1:56 AM Tornado Sirens. Storms that sweep away bridges on the Katy Trail. Storms, that flood streets. These storms are magnificent to watch as they roll into sight at speed. Skies darkening, thunder booms leading me right into the red radar screens. I’m racing for shelter.
Each morning I check the radar and map my route. I’ve already addressed my body, distance estimates, and food, now I look at what may delay me. Most of these storms hold off until I find shelter, but this past week we’ve raced to my destination.
And I’ve lost.
When I’m 5–10 miles away from my endpoint, they begin to play. They soak me, shake me, whistle and sing to me, as if to remind me, I am no match for nature and I am unwanted.
The Fire Department didn’t want me on their couch.
The Church didn’t want me in its pews.
The pool didn’t want me in its water.
The people of Marshall didn’t want me in their homes.
I arrived to Marshall, Illinois while the sun was still high. I was riding deeper and deeper into rural Illinois and wasn’t ready to chance it, so this town of 4,000 was going to be home for the night.
When I get into a town my first priority is shelter. Am I camping? Am I couching? Am I in a home? I’ll pop into local shops, bars, cafe’s, I’ll talk with the police and fire departments, putting feelers out to anyone that may want to shelter me for the evening.
In Marshall, I was unwanted.
And I get it. I’m a complete stranger asking to stay in their home on a weeknight. I’m unfamiliar to them. My personality, my language, my mission. It’s all foreign.
In Marshall though I was the one with fear.
I had visited a bar inside of a liquor store that also had a drive-thru, and was delivering my spiel. “I’m biking across America and looking for a place to stay the night.”
It was 6 pm and a few locals had slow eyes with redness. They were on their way to being drunk. Or high. The bartender and store manager confirmed this to me later on.
They all asked me what I was carrying. I told them clothes, chargers, food, tent, and a sleeping bag.
“No son, carrying, what you got for protection?”
Fuck, why would I say that out loud to a group of strangers.
They sipped away and warned me that “these parts have a lot of folks on meth and I should want to be protecting myself.” They also stared at me before their finals sips and laughed as if they drew pride or joy from instilling fear in me, even if it was untruthful.
“Them men like to tell tales” the bartender told me after they left “this is a safe town, just don’t go up the road to Paris.”
What happened the rest of that night is unimportant and since I am writing this you know I am safe. But that experience did surface a truth:
Fear comes from the unfamiliar.
On the first day of severe rain, I ducked into a factory to wait out the storm and the receptionist asked me if I had been scared at any point on this ride. I knew where I was, Southwest Illinois, and I told her the truth.
I’ve ridden through North Providence, New Haven, Harlem, The Bronx, East Brooklyn, Newark, East Philly, Akron, Southeast Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Indianapolis and St. Louis and the place that has scared me the most is rural America.
Rural America. Where there are more guns than deer, more beer than water, more keep out signed driveways than cars pulling over to offer help. Where there is more corn for cows than corn for people, but the people keep the cows, and two American flags fly off the back of pick-up trucks that exhale black smoke.
It’s here, at the end of these driveways that have two dogs barking, and trespassers will be shot signs that I am scared. I am an American, the roads I bike on are public, but I do not trust what that Flag stands for as I ride past it, and I don’t trust the person who flies it.
This is where I feel scared.
As fear is just excitement without breath, fear can also be discomfort. Where I have been uncomfortable during this ride, are the places that are unfamiliar to me.
I’ve never been in a state where open carry and concealed carry are legal for anyone 19 years or older, with or without a concealed carry permit. Now I have.
I’ve never slept on couches across from loaded shotguns. Now I have.
I’ve never seen so many confederate, Trump 2020, and American flags flown together in yards. Now I have.
I’ve never had to ride from dogs. Now I have.
So many experiences that have brought me fear because they are unfamiliar to me. I’ve grown up in different places and what is familiar to me, may create fear in another.
That’s what I’ve realized.
When I speak of life in Boston or Los Angeles with folks in the Midwest they ask about gangs, drug violence, homelessness with a tremble of terror in their voice. I smile in my response. This type of living doesn’t scare me because I am familiar with it.
Fear comes from the unfamiliar, and we must not forget this. It must motivate us to lead with kindness and inclusivity and acknowledge that though we are all human, we all have different experiences.
Fear may come from the unfamiliar, but love is familiar, and we can all choose that.
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