Traversing a Foreign Border Domestically
By Joe Bigley
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.
Getting to Ground Zero in Manhattan was a reality check to the scope of this undertaking.
Just shy of 10 years after the attacks on this site, the enormity of the continued clean up and approved restoration efforts have rendered the site still wrapped in orange construction fencing and a palpable sense if loss.
The scale of that event and the current state of the site reiterated the uncertainty and potential risk that lie ahead. Setting off from the former World Trade Center site was rather intentionally unceremonious.
A long-time friend, Eric Easton, pilot out of Houston, had the means, interest and generosity to accompany me to the start of "Traversing A Foreign Border Domestically" (TFBD).
After taking a moment to gather my thoughts for a final time prior to taking off, I simply set off North on the Riverside park bike trail towards the George Washington Bridge (GWB). This well-manicured and lightly travelled trail proved to be one of the more lenient portions of not only that days' travels, but of subsequent days leading up to the time that I send this initial update.
Getting to the GWB was easygoing with ideal weather conditions. After crossing the bridge, the roads and traffic of New Jersey proved to validate prior concerns to biking across this particular state. Inadequate or non-existent road shoulders coupled with aggressive drivers resulted in hostile biking conditions. The abundance of potholes rivaled the number if cars on the road.
Since I am traveling this very specific route of the shape of the Afghanistan border, a necessity to meander to stay as true to the shape as possible is required to actuate the project. To achieve this end, it was decided to print out each day's specific route, road by road, laminate them and insert them into a quarterback play calling sweatband that I wear to be able to read while pedaling. This has proven effective, but the precision of course has brought me onto roads off the beaten path and highly residential.
The first day's destination was Caldwell, N.J., the neighboring town from where I was raised for the first five years if my life. I rode into Caldwell without a notion of where I might be staying, strolled into the public library to inquire about a potential camping spot and was subsequently offered to camp in a backyard. This sign of generosity was foreshadowing of a constant and humbling offering by strangers that I am glad to be able to announce in time when bad news seems to be the norm.
The following night, having just made it over the Pennsylvania line after nightfall was more of the same. A complete stranger allowed for a pale green tent, bicycle and aluminum bike trailer to take up residence in their backyard for an evening.
It is at this point when the hills of the Poconos and a constant rain begin to enter the picture. Biking through the Delaware Water Gap of Pennsylvania is grueling at best. Turns out most of this beautiful state is of a similar nature. Unfortunately, the enjoyment of gorgeous mountain landscapes or quaint farmlands is weakened by pouring rain, head winds and incline, while sitting atop a bicycle saddle. Although, it never gets old to see the perplexed expression of most livestock, no matter what the weather, when one cruises by on a bike.
The fourth and fifth days of the project where similar in so far as the rain was consistent, the terrain was hilly, and the heavy fog was unsettling on already concerning roadways. Signs that read "Aggressive Driver High Crash Area" are even more ominous in low visibility, not to mention on a bike. These kinds of less-than-reassuring visuals or visceral reactions to situations are balanced out when a stranger is willing to let you sleep in a spare bedroom, offer food and even send you out with a raincoat. As is what happened in Quakake, Penn., when I was so fortunate to encounter George, an avid cyclist on the road.
Biking through the coal region of Pennsylvania had a sobering reminder of the effects of industry on impoverished areas of this country. In this state in particular, it was first over run by the lumber industry, then the awful effects of the coal industry and, if that were not enough, the natural gas industry is sinking its teeth into this locale, which has proven from my perspective to have no shortage of human kindness as an abundant resource.
Day 6, May 17, was full of rain and hills, par for the course in Pennsylvania. As it turned out, these two variables set me behind to the campground that was pre-arranged to stay in that night. I was trying to make up time when I hit a mountain with an aggression like no other that I had the privilege of attempting to pedal over as of up to that point.
Finding this climb at the 65th mile of an exhausting day was too much. I pulled over in a random driveway (this is on a backwoods road, mind you) where the inhabitants were on the front porch. I asked them how much farther the climb was, they chuckled and responded, " You're about a quarter of the way up."
They followed that up by offering to take me the 12 miles or so left of mostly uphill to make it to Buttonwood Campgrounds. Seeing that it was after dark or close to it and I was physically and mentally exhausted, I took them up on the ride. Luckily, they had a pickup truck and opinions that they were willing to share regarding the conflict in Afghanistan.
Collecting a wider public's view on the war is the crux of the project after all. Upon arriving to Buttonwood, they offered for me to stay in a rental cabin, on the house, to rest in a real bed. In about an hour, the experience turned from having to pitch the tent in the woods on the side of a mountain, in the rain, to sleeping on a mattress under a roof. The generosity and care of strangers is a powerful source of reassurance and new found drive to carry on.
The following day proved to be no less wrenching. The inclines were numerous and generous, the rain was relentless. The only time that it let up enabled me to conduct an interview over the phone with a Cleveland based newspaper on the side of the highway, which is equally as bizarre as blogging in a tent.
Around 3:30 p.m. or so, I pulled into an impressively small Pennsylvania community called Laurelton. I stopped into the grocery store/restaurant/gas station for a hot meal.
When I came out, I noticed that one of the wheels on the trailer was bowed inwards, so I gingerly pulled on it to try and straighten it out. In doing this, I broke the axle of the trailer in two, the trailer and the bike crashed over, further encouraging the inhabitants of Laurelton to stare in wonderment at what the hell I was doing there in the first place.
I thought the project was over right then and there - 18-plus months of planning, preparation, mental and physical training wasted because I thought of tugging on that wheel. The only mechanic in Laurelton was located across the street, and he was willing to take a look at it. He was able to resurrect it enough to carry on by using parts from a little girl's bike wheel axle, a little ingenuity and arc welding. Leaving the mechanic's garage demoralized, concerned for my own safety (because if that thing falls apart when I'm whipping down a hill, then I'm hitting the pavement), I immediately encounter an absolute downpour, a muddy gravel road and inclines through Bald Eagle State Park.
I'm sure that under most circumstances its scenery would have been lovely; this was not one of those circumstances. Twelve miles of road tires slipping through wet muddy gravel, mostly up hill during dusk, in the middle of unfamiliar woods is not an ideal way to follow jeopardizing a project that I have so much conviction about. It was this conviction that fueled the drive to get off and lush the rig over the steepest parts when the bike would spin ineffectually.
Finally - and thankfully - making it through Bald Eagle State Park, I came into Loganton, Penn., a farming community I would assume does not have an abundance of spandex-clad cyclists pedal through. At about 9:30 p.m., I knock on the door of the Fire Hall, thinking it is a fire department where there might be some folks sitting around playing cards on call. Turns out, it is a little bar. I walk in, absolutely drenched, wearing skin tight biking shirts and the raincoat donated by George, sit down and have a beer.
The locals are curious, and when I explain the project their curiosity is amplified. One guy named Art drives me up to the campground that I am to stay that night. They, too, on their own accord, offer to put me up in a cabin for free, instead of sleeping in a tent in the rain. People really seem to open up compassionately for solitary traveler.
It has turned out to be an eventful first week. People's thoughts on the war are far ranging, but most folks do not hesitate to proclaim their support for the troops. There is an understanding and fascinating reluctance for people to speak their mind in front of a camera. The support for the project is incredible.
Thanks to Boone Bikes for their generosity in support of TFBD both with supplies and advice on such an undertaking. You can follow daily updates as they unfold at http://www.travfbd.com. I have traveled right around 900 miles as this is being written and am over two weeks in. More updates to follow.
For more information, visit http://www.travfbd.com and http://www.joebigley.com.