Pack to School pt. 4

I think of my tour across America in four parts. The first was from San Francisco to San Diego with all of my friends and was the perfect way to kick off the journey. The second part was figuring out the whole solo touring thing until COVID hit in late March. After taking 10 weeks off at home, I left again on the third part of my journey from Texas to Minneapolis and was the loneliest of the trip. The fourth part, however, brought together my collective experience I had learned thus far on my tour which translated to one of the most amazing times of my life. This part covers my travels from Minneapolis up to eastern Michigan.

After recharging in the Boundary Waters with Marco, Robin, and Joey, I repacked my bags and took a spin around Minneapolis before heading east. It was late June and George Floyd had recently been murdered by the knee of a police officer on the streets of Minneapolis. The world erupted in protests due to the injustice, which I rode through on my way to Minneapolis. When I rode through Minneapolis, the buildings were painted with Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe, and Justice for George Floyd. I made my way to where his death occurred, which was now a memorial with the streets closed about three blocks in every direction. It was a powerful experience, to bring the event full circle within my own head. His death occurred a few days before I left Texas and I had been watching the media coverage of the protests during my ride to this very spot. I attended a BLM protest in Cedar Falls, Iowa, to shout back against the authorities that did this. I walked silently around the parking space covered in flowers and signs and protected by red velvet ropes. Messages like “Together We Rise”, “From Tragedy Love Must Prevail Our Cry…Your Tragedy Demands CHANGE”, and “I Am George Floyd” made me question why this happened in our America. As if the systemic racism that perpetuates our society wasn’t enough for that officer, that he had to take matters into his own hands to show how his true colors as he represented the government authorities. The memorial was somber, but lively, as other people were visiting it that day. Black musicians were filming a music video, other travelers walked around in disbelief, and various volunteers were keeping the area clean and peaceful. I continued to reflect on what happened on my ride that day as well as my own privileges as I pointed my bike east to my ultimate destination, Boston.

I followed the Mississippi River for the first few days towards Wisconsin. It’s iconic in America since it’s the second biggest river in the country and geographically divides the country in half. My crossing of the Mississippi River officially put me in the eastern part of the country. My next stop on the tour was Madison, Wisconsin, where I had planned to meet up with my friends Kendra and Anh Bao. My visit coincided with the 4th of July and we were going to celebrate accordingly by floating down the Wisconsin River, drinking a few cold beverages, and tossing a frisbee. If we had floated straight down the river, it would have taken about 2 hours, but we managed to extend this into 6 hours of debauchery. The extra time included a cook-out on a beach, small games of frisbee, and other shenanigans. Kendra and Anh Bao had kindly introduced me to proper Wisconsin cheese curds from Carr Valley which of course made it into the ice chest for this trip. It turns out that Culver’s fried cheese curds (essentially mozzarella bites, don’t @ me Midwesterners) aren’t the only form of curd. A true cheese curd is more like a sponge of cheese and the way you know it’s good is if it squeaks in your mouth as you chew it. The 4th of July is a rambunctious time for most Americans, but this year felt different given the unrest in the Union. One night we walked down State Street in Downtown Madison where many protests were held a few weeks earlier. Murals were painted on boarded windows where business used to thrive. Some were still open, but many appeared to be closed due to COVID (many were bars). Is this the America we’re proud of? One that is so polarized between issues that we can’t even talk to each other anymore? I certainly wasn’t feeling very proud at the moment.

From Madison I continued on to Chicago via Milwaukee. I had decided that I would utilize the Warm Showers network again, but only where I could camp in a backyard. It was a success as my Milwaukee host accepted my offer. We shared a night of salmon sandwiches, local beer, and all the knowledge you could ever want on why a steel frame bike is better than carbon (thanks Russ and Monica!). I quickly explored the city the next morning before cruising the 100 miles to Chicago. I approached the Windy City completely bonked, having battled a headwind and spending lots of time route finding, but seeing the skyline and feeling the energy of the city brought me back to life. Chicago holds a special place in my memory, for reasons that probably warrant another blog entry, but overall I really just love cities. While they may be noisy, filled with people, and have their own set of issues, all of these come together to create amazing places and Chicago is no exception. My friend Joey, whom I had just been with in the Boundary Waters, welcomed me with open arms into his swanky West Loop apartment.

Even though Joey and I have spent a few days together every year for the past six years on our camping trips, there have been very few times that just the two of us hung out. My first interaction with Joey was email debating the scope of our first camping trip to Thunder Bay, Canada. Joey wanted to set up a base camp and do day hikes from there, but I was more interested in doing a longer loop, moving camp everyday. We eventually settled on the base camp method and a few months later I met Joey in person as we hopped in a car with Marco and Robin and drove the 7 hours to Thunder Bay. Needless to say, I might have entered the car a bit bitter at Joey since my idea was shot down (and has been every trip since). Joey and I’s relationship has followed that trend since the beginning – debating with each other on what we should do for the camping trip. However, since it was just us hanging out together in Chicago, I got to learn more about Joey than I had than ever before. Over turkey burgers, vegetables, and a few local IPAs, I learned more about how and where Joey was raised in Minneapolis and the things in life he had already experienced from living in an “inner-city” atmosphere. I saw and put together how his current lifestyle of discipline, working out regularly, eating healthy, and enjoying life along the way is drastically different than how he was raised. My respect for Joey was only solidified more through our interactions and can’t thank him enough for letting me sleep on the most comfortable couch in America.

From Chicago, I carried on my way around around Lake Michigan, crossing through Indiana and spending a night with my old friend Matt D., and eventually into the state of Michigan. The east side of Lake Michigan is characterized by sand dunes and I rode through the newly established Great Sand Dunes National Park and spent the night at Warren Dunes State Park. After a dip in the lake, I headed back to my campsite for one of the hottest nights in the tent. A storm was coming through that night so I had my rainfly on waiting for it to hit. In the meantime, the temperature hadn’t dropped yet and I sat in my 85 degree sweat box wide awake till the storm finally came through around 2 in the morning. Water and sand don’t necessarily mix well in terms of comforts since the water can drain so easily through the sand and the rainfall causes sand to splatter everywhere. I woke up to a soggy bottom and most of my tent caked in sand. I was able to break down camp during a short break in the rain and proceeded east across Michigan through a wet and wild day.

Eventually I came to my host’s house for the evening, an organic farm in Leonidas, Michigan. The weather had cleared up by the afternoon and my WarmShowers host welcomed me into their home with open arms, even with the pandemic situation. I had originally planned to pitch my tent in their yard, as I had been doing with the other hosts I had interacted with, but this family followed a philosophy that they would get it if they got it and didn’t want to live their life in fear of it. I obliged to their gracious offer of an air-conditioned room and comfy bed after the previous sandy night. They treated me to a home-cooked meal that literally came from their backyard which included fresh vegetables, free-range chicken, and home-brewed kombucha. Afterwards, I got a personal tour of their 40-acre arm, which was between acres and acres of cash crop corn. Dwight had to finish off the chores for the evening, which included feeding the chickens, moving the chicken coops which were converted school buses, and rotating the lambs in the field. Dwight gave me the run down of the processes that were going on and how the chickens and lambs naturally fertilized the grasses and next year the chickens and lambs would switch fields to mutually benefit from each other. We picked the eggs out of the chicken coops, which he was going to sell at the farmers’ market the next day. Before we headed back into the house, he told me about a grass that used to grow all over the plains in this area until the cash crops wiped out most open fields. He had a plan to regrow it so his lambs could feast of it but he still needed to develop a strategy to cut them off at the right town. They love the grass so much that they’ll eat it down to the nub and it won’t grow again after that. He had to design a way to let them access the grass for a short period of time while still maintaining his current field rotation process. I never knew so much thought went into farming but Dwight was a true engineer in the game. We walked into the house after barely wiping our bare feet off that had just walked through poop-filled fields. Needless to say, I slept well that night.

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