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Traversing a Foreign Border Domestically

Article Published: Jul. 14, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Traversing a Foreign Border Domestically

Home at last - almost. All the same, Bigley couldn't resist giving a 'rebel yell' upon crossing the North Carolina border.

Photo 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. Bigley is also submitting his travel experiences for publication in The Mountain Times, and they'll appear regularly as they arrive.

The artist's talk at Wonder Root in Atlanta, Ga., went very well. There was a great conversation that followed, and everyone had interesting things to say about the project and good thoughts on the war in Afghanistan.

As Murphy's Law goes, this is the presentation that I failed to video tape for the archives. C'est la vie.

Much to my surprise, an old friend from grade school, Duncan Lyon, who recently moved to Atlanta, showed up. A friend from Alfred University where I attended graduate school, Michael Montane, came to the talk, as well. Being on the road for shy of two months at this point, it was really nice to see familiar faces again.

The morning that I left Atlanta, I went by a bike shop to get a tune up and new tires for the trailer, as they were noticeably feeling the effects of 1,500 miles of road. There were added expenses, such as a new bike chain that further cut into an already dwindling budget, but it would be foolish to cut corners or ignore necessary upgrades. After the tune up, I headed east.

Going into Atlanta, I was not looking forward to the traffic, having recalled how much I was not fond of even driving through this city, let alone cycling through it. Heading in a few days before proved to be not as hectic as anticipated, but leaving was just that.

Biking through Decatur, Ga., and Gwinnett, Ga., saw extremely heavy traffic with no road shoulder to speak of; they clearly were not thinking of cyclists when they designed the road and thus conditioned a driving culture that was not fond of bikers being in their space. Honking and screaming profanity was not uncommon from some of the folks passing me using combustion engines.

About half way through Gwinnett, I had stopped to honor the authority of a red light. Across the street was a cop. The light turned green, and I proceeded following the rules of the road. As soon as I began to pedal, the cop turned on his siren and lights, pulled a U-turn and pulled me over.

The comedic nature of this situation struck me right away, and the temperature was in the 90s, so I was not really pleased to have to stop to soak in the sun and the heat without the breeze of moving forward. The first thing that the cop said to me was, "You are doing everything right."

Knowing this already, I was curious as to why he was wasting my time, his own time and taxpayer money telling me that I was following the law. He went on to say, "Two other squad cars were looking for me because multiple people had called in saying that I was on the road and with the traffic, they, including the officers, were afraid that I was going to be killed."

In a genuinely concerned manner, he asked me where I was from and where I was going. I told him about TFBD and said that I was headed to Monroe, Ga., about another 45 miles or so down the congested highway. He sighed, knowing that he couldn't stop me from proceeding, because I do have a right to bike on state highways no matter the conditions.

It was approaching 5 o'clock, which would add more cars coming home from work, which concerned him further. This was a variable that I was fully aware of and was already biking with added defense and caution. He was a nice guy, mentioned that he is into cycling and that he wished that he bought the brand of bike that I was on, not the one that he chose to go with. I gave him a TFBD card, thanked him (somewhat sarcastically in my mind) and kept going. Little did he know that I had already biked through New Jersey, and Gwinnett was only a mild comparison.

The rest of the ride proved to be equally nerve-racking and not particularly enjoyable. The good folks at Simmeron RV Park in Monroe were anticipating my arrival and were cooking up chicken wings and green beans, which was all the motivation I needed to plow through the Georgia heat. When I arrived, I was greeted very warmly and shown my campsite. They very generously offered up the chicken wings and a few Natural Light beverages, and I was able to shower up and talk about the war with some of the folks who ran the place and were patrons to the park.

We built a campfire at my site, and two guys allowed me to tape their conversation about the war that included plenty of domestic issues, as well. Since they were also getting acquainted with Natural Light and margaritas, they were primed to talk openly and forcefully at each other. The conversation lasted over an hour and ended with one storming away and the other chasing after him wanting to fight it out, literally. Luckily, it did not come to that, but I thought that it was a fascinating and telling way in which the country is divided right now on such important issues.

The night's sleep at Simmeron Park was a rough one for whatever reason. My body ached more than usual, back especially. It is very hard to be hunched over a set of handlebars with a huge crick in the back and aching body. Recognizing this, I decided to cut the day a bit short, stopping in Athens, Ga., to get a room where a mattress would improve the chances of a good night's rest.

Arriving in Athens in the early afternoon would offer a chance to discuss the war with the public, the major part of the project that I was hoping to ramp up anyway. In the name of preserving physical function, I felt that it was justified to alter the shape of the route, as it would be foolish to jeopardize the project and my attentiveness on the road by being distracted with aches and pains.

Unfortunately, finding people to discuss the war in Athens, on camera at least, was nonexistent. The common trepidation of speaking on camera surfaced regularly. But the mattress resulted in a recharge to my physicality, and I was glad that I made the choice.

Heading out of Athens, it was rainy, which was welcomed because it neutralized some of the brutal heat of the last two weeks. The humidity was not so welcoming, though. Biking through Georgia back roads, heading toward South Carolina was pleasant, and I was able to meet some really kind folks in the little town of Ila, Ga.

At about 6 p.m., I stopped to fill up the water bottles in an abandoned gas station parking lot. I still had 25 miles or so to go, and I was getting tired of racing against the setting sun, preferring not to bike in the dark for obvious reasons.

As I was filling the bottles, a bus pulled into the lot to turn around. The side of the bus read "Calvary Baptist Church." The driver was its only occupant, and he stopped next to me to say something like, "Looks like you are on a trip."

Needless to say, I went into describing TFBD, and he agreed to have his thoughts on the war taped for the archives. He got out of the bus and insisted on practicing his monologue prior to me cutting on the camera. This sparked an hour-long discussion on the nature of good vs. evil in the world, centered on a Christian view.

He believed that instead of invading Afghanistan, the U.S. should have sponsored a boatload of Christian missionaries to go over there to "ask them why they were mad at us and to convert them to Christianity."

This is a strategy that I had not encountered before, and the absurdity of it, considering an obvious lack of understanding the nature of the conflict, left me puzzled and disappointed, but maintaining a neutral stance within the context of this project, I forced myself to nod along.

The conversation was heated at times, discussing the proof of evolution vs. the proof of the existence of God. When he questioned my neutrality, I admitted that, of course, I have my own views, but I am suppressing them when talking to people as to not tarnish the way in which they interact with me.

To this, he exclaimed, "OK, so you do have opinions! So, shut up, get off your bike and stop talking to people. You're not doing a bike ride for abortion or anything!"

When he said that he felt sorry for anyone that was not a Christian, I terminated the conversation, citing that it was past 7 o'clock, and I had about two hours left to bike. He was driving the bus for a Christian Children's camp in Georgia for a church based out of Indiana and invited me to come to the camp and stay the night where there would be good music, and we could continue to talk about God and the Bible.

I respectfully declined, and we parted ways pleasantly, both parties looking skeptical at the other.
The next day was pretty uneventful, other than the typical dog chase that quickly raised the heart rate and blood pressure. I have become conditioned to scanning upcoming houses for dog houses, tie lines and "Beware of Dog" signs in yards. This is a real concern, and I have become jumpy at slight sounds, such as a leaf scrapping the pavement, assuming that it is a dog with bad intentions.

Only spending a single night in South Carolina, I was eager to pass into North Carolina to soak in the familiarity of the state. About 10 miles south of the N.C. border, in Pumpkintown, S.C., a huge thunderstorm was expected to hit.

A woman in a white car pulled beside me to notify me on the storm and that it was due to hit at any minute. I found shelter to wait it out, frustrated that I was so close to North Carolina, only to be sitting under an awning waiting for the weather. The storm, although audible, ended up only grazing Pumpkintown, and I decided to head out in the rain, because the signs of lightning had disappeared.

It was a thrill to see the "Welcome to North Carolina" sign after biking up a decently sized mountain heading toward Flat Rock. I felt compelled to give out a rebel yell while pedaling across that arbitrary state line. It was nice to be back in the N.C. mountains, and I was greeted by the most striking sunset of the trip so far.

The next day, I found myself in Asheville early on in the afternoon. Nancy Sokolove of the Asheville Art Museum tracked down a place to put me up, a guest apartment in downtown Asheville a stone's throw from the art museum. With the recent expenses put into the bike, the free accommodations and location were a fortunate turn in the narrative, not to mention that it is a really beautiful apartment with a great art collection in a historic building.

I somehow arrived in Asheville a day early and was pleased to have a day for rest and preparation for talks to be given at UNCA and the Asheville Art Museum. It was nice to be in an academic setting at UNCA again. The summer sculpture class, run by Mark Koven, was a good bunch and had good responses to TFBD.

The talk at the art museum had the largest attendance so far on these talks, which were included in the museum tours. Leaving Asheville, my legs were really stiff from the few days off. It took longer to get warmed up, and the hills of the Asheville region coupled with stiffness was an added challenge to getting started. Biking through Saluda, a quaint mountain town, I stopped at a produce stand. The owner was part of the Agricultural Development Committee of Polk County and said that she could set an exhibition of my work at the center in the future. It is funny how chance meetings work out sometimes.

I made it to Silver Creek campground of Mill Creek after racing down a very steep mountain road with severe switchbacks and, at the bottom, followed a river through equine country. This was the most enjoyable stretch of the pedaling so far. The downhill and scenery with agreeable weather was uplifting, and I road this stretch with a smile on my face.

Leaving Mill Creek, I was to dip into South Carolina again to follow the imaginary Afghani border outline as it sat where I chose to put it on the U.S. map. The day got hotter and hotter as it went on. It gets tiresome biking through upper 90-degree weather and high humidity, resulting in saturated biking gear and constantly drinking water and taking breaks to cool off.

But after a dog bite incident in a residential area of South Carolina, I just continued following Google's directions towards Shelby, N.C.

From Shelby, I was off to Maiden, where the Corner Stone church had granted me permission to camp behind their building and shower up. I got in and went right to the Brookstone Restaurant, as the day's biking had left me famished. The folks at Brookstone were interested in the project and gave me the meal on the house, inviting me back for breakfast in the morning.

Returning to the church, I showered up and got to know the secretary, Tracy Keller, and her husband, Mark. Strolling around Maiden that late afternoon and evening, I met a man named Donny Truelove who offered up admirably candid and thorough thought on the Afghani war. His mother and wife sent me off with peaches, cucumbers and a cantaloupe, which they were selling from their front steps. The next morning, Mark Keller woke me up minutes before the alarm clock was due to sound to take me out to breakfast unexpectedly. Back to Brookstone, I was greeted as if I was from Maiden, and the generosity of people I have had the good fortune to meet during this experience continues to be a humbling and inspiring experience.

From Maiden, I was due to cross Lake Norman on the Saturday of the Fourth of July weekend. I knew that the traffic would be thick, and I was right. All of the folks out towing their boats behind American trucks made it harder for them and me to feel truly comfortable with my presence on the road. Passing through Mooresville, I was off to Cleveland, N.C.

Arriving in Cleveland and not having a campsite set up in advance, I came to understand how small of a community it truly was. I noticed three cops out from of the station having a smoke break and chatting. I biked over to them to ask if there were any campsites in area. They gave me convoluted directions to a site 10 miles away in the wrong direction to where I was headed the next day. I told them about the project and gave them each cards.

With the distance to travel to a campsite from Cleveland and Salisbury being about the same distance and in the direction that I needed to go, I headed toward Salisbury and got a room for the night. A typical highway-side cheap motel offered the usual franchise eating establishment options, and I defaulted to Applebee's. It seemed more appealing than Hardee's and the like. Sitting at the bar, a guy about my age sat next to me, and we struck up a conversation. Turns out he is an Appalachian State alumni, was roommates with some people who I knew at ASU and used to model for the art department, and there is a change that I might have sketched him before.

He had through hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Rim Trail, published a book on the former, so he was able to appreciate and relate to what I was up to. He bought a round of Yuengling and insisted on donating 20 dollars to the trip. I have tried to decline donations for some reason, but with the finances eroding quickly, I accepted thankfully.

The next stop was Greensboro. TFBD had pushed me over the Facebook edge as my Luddite tendencies had me dragging my heals about the social networking giant. Through Facebook I connected with one of my favorite people from high school, Moe Strickland, who is now living in Greensboro.

He had been following the project on Facebook, and, when he heard that I was stopping through, offered up a spare bedroom in the house that he bought, where his wonderful mother lives on the second floor. It had been seven years since I had seen Moe and twice since I had the pleasure of spending time with Momma, so I was excited to get reacquainted with them.

Leaving the Economy Inn in Salisbury, I noticed that the Afghani pendant necklace that I have put symbolic significance on was not around my neck. Glancing in the rearview mirror attached to my helmet, I saw a woman in a car behind me running her hand along her necklace chain, which prompted me to do the same to check for its presence. I pulled a U-turn immediately to head back to the motel to look for the necklace.

After spending a good chunk of time looking for this thing, I resigned to the idea that it was gone, and I was gearing up to head out when I saw it dangling from the side of the trailer, in the same place I had put it when I was applying sun screen prior to leaving. This set me back from my time of departure and delayed making it to Moe's house by a considerable amount of time.

I got into McLeansville, just east of Greensboro, just as it was getting dark. My tardiness kept Moe, Momma and Steve, her man, from eating supper, which they had prepared for my arrival until about 9:30 p.m. It was sweet of them to wait, but I felt bad to keep it from them. It was really great to see these folks again. It is comforting to be around an old familiar laugh again.

Aas I type this, the project is in its 54th day, and the bike has seen 2,910.3 miles. I am due to return to New York City on July 19, leaving about two and a half weeks to wrap things up. I could not have imagined the generosity extended by strangers and friends along the way. I am extremely grateful to those who have offered up anything from a handshake to a spare bedroom and food. It is their generosity and compassion that has not only enriched the project and my experience, but has truly made it possible to execute.

On this Fourth of July it, seems appropriate to be doing a project of this nature. Reflecting on the history of this country and its foreign and domestic concerns, hoping that the intentions in Afghanistan are pure, resulting in a sovereign state, is about all one can do from a civilian's perspective.

My interactions with the public have proven themselves to be fascinating and varied with an overall sense that this particular war as been wasteful and without a lack of domestic responsibility in the sense that how the expenses of war may have affected the economy here at home.

Tomorrow, I give a talk at the Weatherspoon Museum of Art on the UNCG campus. It is expected for friends and family to make it to the talk, and I am looking forward to seeing all of them, hearing their input on the project and a nice big ol' family dinner afterwards.

For more information on TFBD, visit and

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