Sarah Connette cycled, with a team of two, from East Coast to West Coast while raising money for a Housing First project in Charlotte, NC. Her team called their project and the resulting documentary “The Homeless Cycle.”
Vickie Ly cycled, with a team of two, from West Coast to East Coast while working on a multimedia project that uses sound and story to connect the changing landscape and voices of the United States. Her team called their resulting project “Seeds to Cities.”
These two recent college graduates cycled across the country (albeit in different directions) while thinking about larger social issues. Misadventures connected the two for a “double interview”…in other words, a conversation about life on the road. Read on to learn about prophetic corn dreams, suspected cowboys, and being moved to tears by the American landscape.
V: Maybe we can start with you talking about your project a little bit, The Homeless Cycle?
S: Sure! It came about through a service experience that Jon [the other cyclist on the trip] and I were involved in. We led an “alternative spring break” trip to Washington D.C. On the trip, a group of students sleeps on the streets for a few nights and experiences what it’s like to be homeless. It was a moving experience for us, and we starting talking about how to create a project to further engage with the issues we were exposed to.
After getting back to campus, Jon said, “Why don’t we bike across the country, raise money, and make a documentary?”
The idea snowballed into The Homeless Cycle. Our community service office gave us a grant, and we decided to bike from Annapolis, Maryland, to Anacortes, Washington. We raised money for a Housing First project in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is outside of Davidson. Housing First is a permanent housing model for the chronically homeless. The model basically promotes the idea that if people have a place that’s stable and safe they know they can go back to–from that point of stability, they can work on other issues such as unemployment or addiction.
We stopped in four major cities and interviewed organizations, government agencies, and individuals experiencing homelessness, and we made a documentary. We tried to engage with that issue across the country and bring it back home and really engage the student body with what’s going on in our own backyard.
V: Was it mostly homelessness in cities, and did you find any issues with homelessness in rural parts of America?
S: We were mostly looking at urban homelessness since people seem to travel to cities because there are more services and facilities. However, one time in Montana, we stayed with a pastor of a church and it was right on the edge of a Native American reservation, and he was telling us about issues of hidden homelessness within the community. People double up with families in their homes rather than being out on the street or left with nowhere to go.
V: While traveling cross-country on a bicycle, my two friends and I pretty much felt homeless a lot of the time.
S: Yeah, an interesting aspect of the trip was rolling into a town and not knowing where we were going to stay. It made me feel privileged, because we would just find the closest church and say, “Hi, our names are Sarah, James, and Jon,” …you know, really Biblical-sounding names. We’d tell them what we’re doing. They’d see three young, white college students. Nearly everywhere we went, they said, “Sure, you can put up a tent in our backyard.” Some people let us stay in their homes and were incredibly gracious and hospitable. It made me think about how most people who are homeless would not receive this kind of treatment, or would only in rare cases.
V: It is something funny about traveling on a bicycle because, as three women traveling, we were received (as some people described us), as “wholesome.” I think that’s the best description we got: people would say, “You are such wholesome girls.” And I don’t know if we’d describe ourselves as that, but we’ll take it! [Laughs.] People trust you so much more when you’re on a bicycle.
S: That’s true. I wonder if they’re realizing that bicycling across the country is a really difficult challenge that we set ourselves up for–to use your own two legs to pedal yourself across the country is hard! Maybe people are wanting to be a part of the whole experience too and say, “Remember the time that those crazy kids on bikes came by and stayed in our living room?”
S: Where did you all mostly stay?
V: We started on the West Coast going East, so opposite of you guys. We started in Oakland, California, where we were all living. We headed up north first: to Washington. Then we headed east across the northern states. It was a hodgepodge, because coming together with our project was really a task in itself. After finishing the trip and having almost 5000 miles to reflect upon, Carmen [another cyclist] decided to call it “Seeds to Cities” because the trip centered around trying to understand how we build our environment from a seed to a city.
We traveled through and thought about all the farms, the ex-urban places, and the urban places (and all the transition area in between). We were able to reflect about the realities that we create for ourselves.
In the beginning, we set specific destinations where we wanted to travel and people that we wanted to meet, like the farmers involved in the Seed Savers Exchange. That was a really important point for us–to meet people who do so much seed work. After a while, we started to listen to people telling us to go to other people, (like farmers telling us to visit other farmers or people in cities telling us to visit other urban planners in different cities). Suddenly, we were on a goosechase.
S: For us, it was a beautiful thing to see how generous people can be. I was thinking about the meals people invited us to, or the spaces–we stayed at a lot of churches, and sometimes they would let us stay inside and play basketball in their gym, or shower!
V: Yeah, showers!
S: Did you carry all your gear?
V: We carried all our gear. Just stacked it up.
S: That’s hardcore. We had a support vehicle.
V: [Laughs.] It was funny, because in seeking to learn about how we build our societies, we learned so much about ourselves. More than anything, the trip became a coming-of-age for each of us and a becoming of ourselves. You really start to notice things about yourself.
For example, Carmen started collecting books. People kept giving us all these books! But she’d keep buying books, too! And I kept on collecting random things…we loved stopping at garage sales and thrift stores. I don’t know what it was…I guess it was comforting to be think, “Look at these things that we could have if we had a house!” I was carrying a troll, and a giant stuffed dog, and a lot of weird items we found on the side of the road, like boots…and I was waiting for opportune times to give them as gifts to people we were staying with, you know?
S: I’m imagining you guys slowly collecting more and more things and needing to pull a wagon along behind you with all your stuff.
V: We thought of so many flip-book cartoons that could’ve illustrated our ride– we wanted to call one of them “When Our Bikes Became Our Homes.” And then we’d be biking and slowly everything gets bigger and bigger around us and swallows us. The last page is just a mountain of things with little wheels.
V: So how was that process of filming everything?
S: James, our friend who was the driver of the support van, was our main camera guy. By the way, I think he had the more difficult job of having to drive across the country in fifteen mile increments to wait for us. We were really grateful for his patience, flexibility, and guidance.
In interviewing people, especially with the people we talked to on the street, we tried to be unobtrusive and very respectful. We were trying to get their stories through conversation and put a face to homelessness. We heard a lot of moving stories and made a lot of good connections. I think the interviews with the organizations were harder to line up, because we went through DC to Chicago to Minneapolis/St. Paul to Seattle, so we had to arrange those ahead of time and commit to being in the cities on certain days. That meant our travel schedule had to be tight to make sure that we’d actually make it to the city by that point. It ended up working well.
I’m not sure how many hours of footage we ended up having, but it was a lot. We edited it once we got back and showed the documentary at our school. It was a really neat way to share what we learned. It was more of an informative documentary about the issue of homelessness and less about ourselves.
V: Was there one city or place that stuck out in your mind?
S: Seattle was the culmination of our trip. We stayed in a tent city there: Tent City 4. We met a wonderful woman named Linda who worked as an accountant, and through a series of crises, she lost her job and her home. She was so strong, talking about how she does believe she has a right to housing, and that homeless people are everyday people like you and me, they’re not crazy–they’re not people who should be marginalized and thrown to the outskirts of society. Hearing her say, “Yes I do believe I have a right to housing,” was so powerful.
What about you all? Did you have any particular stop along the way that gave you more insights or was particularly moving?
V: Ending in New York City was incredible. I had never been to New York City until then, and I think entering a city on a bicycle is something that I will never forget. Especially that city. We crossed the GW Bridge and saw the sun setting on the Hudson. When we rolled in to the place we identified as the end of our trip, we thought, “Oh my God. We are here. We made it.”
And we thought, “Well shit. Where do we go?” We had some friends that we were going stay with, and we had no idea how to get there, and we see this guy with Spandex on and a fast little Bianchi. He asked, “Are you guys lost or something?” He led us through the city, and we were tossed like hot potatoes from one biker to the next.
We spent so much time out of cities, too. Did you feel that way too? When you’re biking, you realize that most of the US is not a big city–there’s only a few of them.
S: Between Minnesota and Montana, it’s one tiny town after another.
V: We ended up cutting down to South Dakota instead of North Dakota and going a little farther south than your route, but we still hit Minneapolis and went down to Iowa. We didn’t go up to North Dakota, like you guys. People were warning us about fracking there, actually.
S: We went through Williston, North Dakota, and we stayed on a fairgrounds that was pretty empty and desolate. I read an NPR article a year or two later that was talking about how that area had exploded because of all of the fracking, and people were moving in for jobs.
V: Everyone in Montana said, “Don’t go to North Dakota because it’s really dangerous for women right now.” They were talking about how these boom towns are exploding and attracting a lot of male workers who have…umm…an unsure agenda, I guess, with women. One of my friends is a musician who’s touring the US by bicycle. After he went through North Dakota, he sent me an email about not going there. It’s crazy how fast things can change.
S: Did you feel unsafe during any other point in the journey?
V: I don’t think so. Most of the time I felt really safe. I don’t think that traveling as women made it unsafe. In ways, it made us more safe because there were so many people who wanted to take care of us [laughs]. But I think that’s the nature of seeing people on bicycles. It’s non threatening, almost like a kid on a bike.
Somebody in northern New York told us that there are three ways you can make friends: you can get a dog, you can have baby, or you can have a bicycle.
S: I was just thinking about our group dynamics. After spending so much time with two other people, we developed our own language and alter egos and all these little jokes that were so bizarre to people outside the group.
V: That’s so true! …One thing that I thought about while riding was all the smells. It was such a sensory-based way to experience a place.
S: Doing a road trip in a car, it’s gorgeous, visually, but you miss out on the sounds and the smells. I remember little things, like stopping in Maryland and getting some strawberries from a farm right there on the side of the road, and some place in Ohio, Jon got some eggs from an Amish farmer. Jon had a pretty developed beard, so the Amish guy thought he was a local.
Did you guys get to go through Glacier National Park?
V: We scooped underneath it. We were so close–only a day or two away.
S: We were lucky to be able to go through there. I remember gliding down Going to the Sun Road. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever done. I think both of us had tears streaming down our faces, and we were passing by these little waterfalls and looking out on this whole expanse of lush, verdant mountains and glaciers. You can’t experience things like that when you’re just puttering along in a line of other cars.
V: Similarly, I was rereading my journal and I came upon when we were in Lassen Volcanic Park when we were in the Sierras. I read through the description of smelling all of the trees and feeling the little bugs that would zip around us. On the day we were climbing Lassen, we climbed up and up and up and up. We got to the summit, and there was so much snow. Our friend had convinced us that we had to bring a bunch of Coors beers, so we shoved those in the ice of the snow. After a while, we took them out and we shotgunned the beer. We flew down the hill for half an hour. And I don’t think I’ll ever forget that mountain rush.
S: You should’ve recorded that–it’d be a perfect commercial for Coors.
S: There’s something so beautiful about those moments.
V: Yeah, those moments when you’re in complete wilderness. I usually experience those places in a car. On a bike, you get the feeling of being so much more immersed in that environment and that setting…
S: …feeling alive…
V: …So alive!
S: Did you guys get to ride on any Rail To Trail projects?
We rode on them more on the East Coast, when we were on the C & O Trail and the Great Allegheny Passage. Those trails were gorgeous–going through the forest on our bikes. Our bikes were built for both trails and road cycling, so it didn’t do damage to our tires. It gave us more of a way into the wilderness in those areas.
V: I wished so many times that I had a mountain bike on this trip. I would find out that there’d be good trails nearby, but they wouldn’t be good roads for our road bikes. We often found ourselves on those trails on accident, especially when we were going through Washington, Idaho, and Montana.
I remember in Montana, we got lost somewhere and we decided we’d take backroads. The roads were really deep gravel that was so grainy that the road would swallow the tire. The tire would be trying to move through but the gravel would be caving in on both sides.
And then I remember hearing something, and saying, “Oh my God, Koko, did you hear that?”
And then she was said, “Dude, GUNSHOTS!”
And we were were like, “COWBOYS! They’re coming for us!”
And we were trying to pedal faster but couldn’t wheel through.
S: That’s one of those moments where it’s terrifying at the time, and then later, you can laugh about it uncontrollably.
V: Later you realize that it was probably just half of a day of struggle…
S: In Indiana, we had a patchwork of routes from GoogleMaps. Some of the roads we thought were there weren’t, or they were gravel roads that were so strenuous to ride on. Also in Indiana, we were chased by a lot of dogs. I don’t know if we set any records for fastest miles per hour there, but we definitely had some good sprints against the dogs.
V: Yes, all of the dogs across America that chase bicyclists! We had a lot of dog chases in Montana. It’s funny, because it’s such a hilarious scene to picture: a pack of seven dogs chasing cyclists.
S: We didn’t really have any problems with wildlife, otherwise. Though, on one trail in West Virginia, I ran over a snake. And I was terrified that it was going to get wrapped up in the wheel and flip up into the air on top of us. Nothing happened. I wish that I had done something dramatic, like cut it in half….
V:…hold the head in the air…
S: …and eat it for dinner!
V: What was your favorite region that you went through?
S: Maryland was really gorgeous. I was thinking it was going to be the Cascades out west or Montana when we first started–and those are still some of the most breathtaking places we were–but I was surprised by Maryland’s rolling countryside. Also, Eastern Washington, Idaho, and all out in that Northwest area. Gorgeous.
V: How did you guys decide to end in the Northwest?
S: We were looking at some different routes that Adventure Cycling Association had. We wanted to hit specific cities for interviews, so we were looking at DC, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle, and it worked out that way to connect the dots. We pulled out a map in one of our earlier discussions, and we but a big X through Kansas. We didn’t want to go through Kansas!
S: What about you all? Did you have a reason for your route, or did it evolve as you went?
V: It evolved as we went, and the northern direction we originally took was trying to beat out a little bit of the heat, even though we got hit pretty well. It was a good temperature most of the time. I really enjoyed the Midwest, actually. There’s a part called the Driftless Region, where the states of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois intersect. There are beautiful rolling hills out there, and such warm people.
S: I’d love to go back and do a little more in that area.
Going west to east, like you did, was smart because of the wind.
V: Did you guys get hit by the wind?
S: Yeah, especially in North Dakota, we felt it as a huge force, and it was a real struggle. Every time we passed cyclists flying by in the other direction with the wind at their backs, we thought we should have gone the other way!
V: South Dakota was actually the hardest for us, too. We were getting lots of headwinds. Maybe there are some weird wind currents in that area because it’s so flat. Who knows.
S: [Laughs.] Each of the Dakotas have headwinds in every direction.
I want to hear more about your project and takeaways–the things you learned about Seeds to Cities.
V: On our trip, we met gems of farmers and gems of permaculturists.
One of my favorite people that we met was Dave Christianson. I’d heard his name first in Oregon, from another seed grower. He told us to find Dave Christianson if we were going to go to Montana. As we got closer, his name was repeated by different people.
He turned out to be the nicest guy who’s breeding plants and corn specifically for aspects of climate change.
So, the background story: When Dave was 16, he had a vivid dream in which he was walking to the supermarket. He comes to a bin of corn, and he sees two stalks. He peels back the two stalks, only to reveal that they’re both made of just black kernels. Just solid black kernels. And he thought, “What? I’ve never seen this type of corn, ever.”
And so he decides that he’s going to dedicate the rest of his life to breeding this type of corn.
He spent years of his life on different Native American reservations to learn about all the varieties of corn he could grow. The dream he had when he was 16 was recurring, and he started trying to mimic the corn he dreamed of, all the way down to number of rows and columns on the corn he dreamed about.
As he experimented with corn, he also realized that his environment was changing. Big Timber, Montana, where he lived, was already a dry place, and now, water was becoming more scarce. He started adapting his corn to be drought resistant. Now he is spreading his seeds to countries all over the world so that others can grow these North American varieties that are drought resistant and nutritious.
That was the beautiful thing of meeting people that are starting with a seed of an idea. You’re able to see how they are observing their changing environment. You see how they can make the seed fit into the environments rather than trying to change the environment around the seed.
So many people were inspirational, like the urban planners in Portland and Minneapolis. But the overall takeaway is that we as humans designed these environments. We design farms that grow food. We design cities. We design everything in between. We have a power and responsibility (as Spiderman would say) to work toward our dreams and make…black kerneled corn [laughs]. It’s an inspirational thing.
S: It’s incredible that Dave is devoting his life toward this, and he has the energy, the experience, and the knowledge to pursue this passion.
S: Did you guys ever have any issues with your bikes, maintenance or otherwise?
V: Not so much! Once I had to switch out a cassette. There was one time, though, when I tore part of my tire, Coco’s rack fell apart, and the Carmen had three flats, and all of this happened in three hours when we were a couple miles from our destination. When it rains, it pours! But it turned out to be one of the funniest things, you know?
S: Yeah, I’m glad it wasn’t more serious than that!
V: Yeah, other than that, my bike shorts were really funny. By the end of the trip I was wearing holes into the bike shorts. But then I found this American flag on the ground (and I know it’s illegal) but I cut it up and patched my shorts with it. So that was pretty funny.
S: The most patriotic shorts!
V: Yeah. patriotic pockets.
V: Did you guys have any mechanical issues?
S: No, we were lucky the whole time. And then the last day we got one flat tire.
V: Only one?
S: Yep. Only one flat tire on the whole ride.
V: That’s crazy! Wow! That has to be a record.
S: I guess so! The tires were thicker than typical road cycle tires, so that probably helped. The only other thing–we were in the middle of random Minnesota countryside, and there was this huge viking statue that said “Birthplace of America.”
And so we said, “We have to take a picture with that!”
So we went over and lifted our bikes to the top of the statue and were taking these posed pictures where we were acting strong and mighty. Then I dropped my bike off the statue, and it got scraped up a little bit. Luckily it wasn’t worse than that. I would have been pretty humbled if the viking statue had messed up my bike.
V: The birthplace of America!
S: What about most interesting place you stayed?
V: The one that sticks out first in my mind was one in South Dakota called T-34. Because it’s a T (like, an intersection between two streets) and I guess it’s the 34th one? There was nowhere else we could sleep because we were surrounded by ranches and private property. There was a bar at T-34. We asked the bar owner if we could sleep outside. And he said, “Yeah, I guess…” So we slept in the bushes there.
V: What about you guys? What was somewhere interesting that you slept?
S: One time we stayed in a funeral home. It was a seventh generation family business. Their last name was “Slate,” or something else that was very tombstone-y. They lived above the funeral home and had the business downstairs. I remember watching NBA basketball with them in their funeral home-home. Bodies downstairs…ehhh.
Also, staying in Glacier National Park was really awesome…being able to hike around there and camp out. The funeral home may have been the weirdest, though.
V: We stayed with firefighters at a firehouse once in Mentor, Ohio. We were trying to hit up firehouses after that one time. They were so funny! I didn’t realize that firefighters have the funniest stories because they get called for the most random things. Most of the time they’re not actually fighting fires–or at least those firefighters weren’t.
S: Now we know! Next cross country ride, we’re checking in with the firehouses.
V: Maybe we could think of last notes of advice to other female cyclists (or cyclists in general)?
S: I’d say that sometimes thinking about a cross-country ride, people might be intimidated or think they can’t do it because it’s too hard or they’re not fit enough or whatever it may be. But I wasn’t a serious cyclist before this. Biking across the country in 60 to 80 mile increments is possible. It’s an adventure of a lifetime. You’re going to meet so many fascinating people, and like you said, learn so much about yourself. So many of those experiences are seeds that are growing whether you see them or not. And it’s important to always be grateful for the blossoms.
V: The hardest thing is starting. Just ride. I think another good piece of advice is that it’s okay to be vulnerable and to trust. When you trust, you’re able to fall back and people will catch you.
S: And to be open to being outside your comfort zone. Also, to not have any expectations about where you’re going to be the next day or night, or who you’re going to meet. It’s always a surprise, and there’s always somebody to learn from. Some unexpected conversation will totally turn you in a new direction. I was thinking about James [the driver]. We stayed at a Catholic Worker House in Winona, Minnesota. It’s a hospitality house where people can stay for a certain amount of time, and they have group dinners and activities. James loved the experience so much that he decided to be a volunteer there for two years after graduation. Stopping in that small town put him on that whole new track.
V: It’s important to know that you can always ask people. Asking is so important to traveling in any sort, but especially by bicycle.
S: It’s true! People are happy to help out. And do more than you expected, you know? You end up asking for directions, and they offer you a place to stay.
V: Right, yeah. There’s a woman I remember, I think somewhere in Pennsylvania. We were at a stoplight and she said, “Oh my God!”
(You get used to hearing the exclamations after a while, especially at the end of the trip.)
And then she said, “Where are you girls going?!”
And we said, “New York.”
And she said, “Oh my God! Where did you come from?”
And we said, “California.”
And she’s said, “Well, aren’t you SCARED?!”
And we said, “Um, no, not really.” And she said, “Well I’d be scared.”
And I said, “What are you scared of?”
And she said, “Well, EVERYTHING.”
I think it’s important to be open to being scared, but it’s also important to know that there’s not that much to be scared of. Because people are people, and most people are good people.
When you let life surprise you, you can surprise yourself. We’re all planning to move to Iowa. We’re going to be working with Seed Savers Exchange and with this farmer who does really amazing work with heirloom varieties.
S: Wow, that sounds awesome!
V: You should definitely visit! You could bike there, or you could take another mode of transportation. I won’t tell anyone. I probably won’t bike there.