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Traversing a Foreign Border Domestically

Article Published: Jun. 9, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Traversing a Foreign Border Domestically

After his custom-made trailer suffered a broken axle, Joe Bigley replaced it with the next best thing.

Photo submitted

Editor's Note: On May 12, Boone artist Joe Bigley commenced his most ambitious project yet: Traversing a Foreign Border Domestically. Having mapped a course in the continental U.S. that follows the border and contour of Afghanistan, Bigley will bicycle the entire length of the Afghan border - 3,435.5 miles to be exact.

"Essentially, (the trip) is to highlight the peculiar nature of political boundaries," he said.

Along the way, he'll record dialogues with those he encounters and deliver presentations at various contemporary art venues. Bigley is also submitting his travel experiences for publication in The Mountain Times, and they'll appear regularly as they arrive.

After the long day leading me to Loganton, Penn., and having the luxury of the cabin offered up by Anne of Holiday Pines Campground, they offered me to stay another night in the cabin to rest.

Overwhelmed by the generosity, I respectfully declined, but she insisted in sending me off with some food for the road. Anne also suggested a bike trail that would lead me close to the day's destination of Wellsboro, Penn. Her emphasis on the density of large truck traffic on the route that I was originally going to take persuaded me to heed her advice.

It is called the Rails to Trails, an old railroad line track converted into a hiking and biking trail for the public - a beautiful trail. although the constant rain that day made it dreary. It winds through a very isolate part of Pennsylvania's backcountry. Travelling 50-plus miles on Rails to Trails on a rainy day resulted in seeing about four people in about six hours.

The next morning at the historic Wellsville Diner, I was interviewed by a local reporter for the Wellsville Gazette. The throwback diner proved to be an interesting backdrop for such an occurrence.

I made it to Westfield, Penn., later that day with few notable experiences. Luckily, it was the first more or less dry day since I left Manhattan. Right away, I stopped in at the Bear Track Tavern for a meal and beer.

As soon as I sat down at the bar, Paul Hillman was intrigued about the bike and trailer sitting out front of the tavern's entrance. About five minutes into our conversation, he offered me to stay at he and his wife's cabin, in their spare bedroom. How could I turn that down, considering I had not secured a place to sleep yet.

Luckily, Paul had a truck, so we loaded up my stuff and went up to his place. A cabin that he and his wife, Mary, had build with their own hands 15 years prior proved to be yet another unexpected pleasantry. Raising goats and chickens along with an apple orchard and garden seemed to be an ideal backdrop to raise their children, who have since went off to college or given the Hillman's grandchildren.

The next morning, Paul generously cooked up some homegrown eggs and drove me to the edge of town to start towards Alfred, N.Y., where I coincidently studied for graduate school.

It was in Alfred, N.Y., that I was hoping to get a specialist, Peter from "The Bicycle Man," a renowned bike dealer to take a look at the trailer to see if there was hope in salvaging it after an axle broke. I made it to Alfred with enough time for one of Peter's workers to give the bike its first tune up of the trip and for Peter and I to schedule to meet again on Monday morning, the day after next. It was good to see the buildings and old friends of Alfred again.

As Monday morning rolled around, after a well-needed day of rest (the first one of the trip), Peter and I met up at 7 am to get to work on the trailer. After about 4 hours, I decided that it didn't seem like it was feasible to get the original trailer rebuilt, so I ended up purchasing the only trailer that was in the shop. Intended to cart children around, the new trailer was not exactly ideal, but it served the purpose and allowed for the project to continue, the ultimate intention behind the efforts. I left Alfred in the rain and made it back down to Pennsylvania to continue heading West.

Plenty of farmland and backroad led me the rest of the way from upstate New York through Pennsylvania and into Ohio. On the way into Youngstown, Ohio, I had another flat tire. This time it was the rear tire on the bicycle. This would be the first time that I changed a rear bike tire and had to learn by the handbook that I brought along on the proper way to approach such a procedure.

Just as I was almost done, a woman with her young daughter stopped to see if I needed help. She luckily had an air compressor at her house and, since the roadside bike pump cannot reach the adequate tire pressure, I took her up on her offer to get me to her house and use the compressor to get back going - yet another case of the generosity of strangers. The woman, Bobbi, and her father, husband and son had all served in the military, and she had very strong view in favor of our involvement in Afghanistan.

I made it to Youngstown after meeting several interesting and generous people. An old and somewhat struggling steel mill town, Youngstown proved to have a blossoming cultural scene in its newly regenerated downtown district.

I gave the first presentation on Traversing a Foreign Border Domestically in conjunction with the McDonough Museum of Art at the Lemon Grove Cafe. Although the turnout was not huge, the talk went well, considering I had only the earlier part of that day to get everything together and prepare.

It was good to have another day or two of rest. Cycle Sales Co. of Youngstown generously serviced the bike completely and set me off with four new inner tubes, all on the house.

Going from Youngstown, it was mostly Ohio farmland on a hot day that led me to North Benton, Ohio. On the way, I saw a farm where, in the same field, were long-horn steer, horses and camels. Camels would have been one of the last animals I would have expected to be on a farm in Ohio.

With limited options in the small community of North Benton, I somehow stumbled upon Bandy's Campground along Berlin Lake. A private camping establishment, once they understood the nature of the project, they let me camp there, in a trailer for free and offered biscuits and gravy and a healthy offering of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I refused neither.

Marcy, the owner of the campground rode me around to some of her friends in the campground to meet them and discuss the war. I was able to collect many interesting and diverse perspectives on the tender subject.

The next day was Memorial Day. It seems appropriate to be executing this project on this National Holiday. As I was biking through Edinburgh, Ohio, I stopped and asked a family waiting for the parade if there was anywhere to eat in the area. Although there was not, I found out that the father of the family had the responsibility of arranging for the rights of the bodies of soldiers returning from the war(s) in body bags.

We briefly discussed the added stress that small towns feel when one of their own returns from war dead - a poignant and sobering interaction to have on Memorial Day, especially when he mentioned that a man from Kent, Ohio, a neighboring community, was just killed in Afghanistan, and his body was en route.

The next few days were thankfully dry but rather hot and mostly through Ohio farmland country.
On Day 21, going from Tiffin, Ohio, to Lima, Ohio, heading out towards the first 90-plus mile day, the first 60 miles of riding through farmland were a constant battle against a strong and constant headwind. I was thinking that a headwind on flat ground is much more demoralizing than going through a hilly region.

Ascending hills on a bike, one understands that they are supposed to be riding slowly; flat land with a headwind, on the other hand, proves to be much more frustrating when one can only muster 7 miles an hour, knowing that double that speed would be the norm otherwise.

Battling through the headwinds and sheer isolation of the Ohio farmland countryside, I made it to Lima. I had already travelled 95 miles and realized that the day's original destination of New Bremen, Ohio, was still another 27 miles away. I stopped on the side of the road to weigh my options and harness the power of the iPhone to see what accommodations were in the area.

As I was on the device, Don Kennedy stopped with his dog in the car and asked if I was all right. Exhausted, I told him that I was looking for a place to stay. He offered for me to stay at his and his wife, Kathy's house for the night. They were just a little ways down the road. It was already dark, and I couldn't turn that down, preferring to take up Don on his offer than to spring for another motel room; money was and still is an issue. Don and Kathy preserved this project as yet another kind and generous act by strangers to a lone traveller. They let me shower up, a well needed thing after biking in the headwind filled heat, and fed me, as well.

Leaving Lima, I headed toward the fifth state on the trip, towards Muncie, Ind. This part of the country is known as the "Black Swamp," and the ditches on the side of the road are deeper than usual as a result. Coincidentally, a friend of mine from graduate school, Victoria Bradbury, is now teaching at Ball State University, located in Muncie, and I had arranged to stay with her that night. It is amazing how knowing where you are going to sleep offers up a security in heading to any given destination. Made it to Muncie with no problems, another hot day. From Muncie, it was off to Indianapolis, the first major city on the trip. I had another speaking engagement at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (INDYMoca) set up and was excited to experience a city that I had not been to before.

INDYMoca had set me up with a hotel in a great location, right across the street from the museum in the heart of the art district, know as Fountain Square in Indianapolis. The presentation, which took place on June 4 went well, as I had more time polish it up, update the visuals and prepare. That night, there was a very strong thunderstorm, making those in the area concerned of tornadoes as the conditions seemed right for one, and all of the tornado outbreaks in the recent weeks had them in the forefront people's minds. It was nice to have another day of rest, as I tweaked a knee biking from Muncie to Indianapolis, so the day of rest came at a good time, plus the days leading up to Indy were a 100-plus mile day, followed by a 90-plus mile day, followed by an 80-plus mile day, and my knees could use a day off.

From Indianapolis, I made it to Cloverdale, Ind., a quant little town with a nice downtown area, but other than that pretty typical. I have since arrived at Terre Haute, Ind., where I sit and type this from the Vigo County Public Library.

The third talk of the project will be given on June 7 (tomorrow as I type this) at the Swope Museum of Art. I was given a tour of the Museum today - a beautiful space with a great permanent collection.

Their work tends to side on a more traditional mindset of artistic practices. The work on display consists of a lot of regional artists, many of whom focused on regional landscapes, including Edward Hopper and Thomas Hart Benton, so I think that tomorrow presentation will prove to be an interesting blend of the permanent collections' backdrop to a more contemporary artistic practice that is Traversing a Foreign Border Domestically.

A big thanks to Boone Bikes for the material support and advice going into the project.

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