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Traversing a Foreign Border Domestically

Article Published: Aug. 25, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 6, 2011
Traversing a Foreign Border Domestically

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 Weatherspoon Museum of Art proved to be the largest turn out for any of the presentations given so far during the bike project.

In a legitimate lecture room, the attendees seemed engaged with probing questions concerning many aspects of a project of this nature. Greensboro was a nice change of pace from the experience on the road.

After traveling more than 50 days, it was refreshing to be reacquainted with an old high school friend who generously let me stay with him and his family, my family who came up for the presentation and friends who were able to make it. Familiar faces were great after several weeks where they were few and far between.

Preparing to leave Greensboro on day 56 of TFBD, I noticed a broken spoke on the rear hub. I was getting a late start on the day after riding over to the museum to get some pictures taken, and I decided to take the bike to Re-Cycles to have them address the spoke. As has been a common theme, and since I provided the replacement spoke, they gave me a discount for the labor and sent me on my way.

As it goes, once I started on the road after leaving Re-Cycles, a light rain introduced itself and ended up cutting down the Piedmont's July. Riding through patches of rain all day, I found myself in Eden that night. I was checked into the Eden Inn by a Pakistani man who I informed what I was up to and to see if he had any thoughts on the state of how the war is going. I offered him a card for the project, but he swiftly refused it, not seeming too interested in the project by his dismissive response.

I inquired if there was a password for the advertised wireless Internet, and he said that he wasn't sure if it was working in the room but to come out to the patio in front of the office, where it would work without a password. I asked for it anyway just to try it, and he replied, "If I give you password and it doesn't work, you come back and complain. No password."

Accepting of his interesting perspective, I surrendered, and as I was heading out, he asked me if I had been to Afghanistan. "No, never been over there", I replied.

He said, "There are a lot of crazy people over there. With your beard, you look like Taliban!" with a huge laugh.

Laughing, I said, "Is that right? OK."

Before I started the project, I knew that I would let the beard be a marker of time, so by day 56, it was obviously bushier than when I had started off.

I went to the room to find that there were no bath towels. Returning to the office, I walked in and said, "The Internet does not work in the room."

"I told you!" he shot back.

"I'm just joking. Joking," I reassured him with a grin.

He laughed as he handed me a few towels and said, "I am from Pakistan. You go over there with me, we go to Afghanistan, and we kill the Taliban."

I said, "Sure! I'd love a tour guide. Let me know when you are going."

He and I and the other two Pakistanis watching television in the living room-style office all began to laugh. Leaving the office to shower up in the room, I thought how I assumed that they were from India, as most of the motel operators that I had encountered along the way were Indian. I felt a bit ashamed, like assuming that a Hispanic person is from Mexico when there is a wealth of other Hispanic cultures out there to choose from. I felt a bit presumptuous.

Leaving Eden, it was amazingly hot and humid. I made sure that I had plenty of water leaving the inn after a big breakfast. Today was one of those days where it seemed like every dog wanted to chase me, so my nerves were a bit on edge. Getting a later start, again, I decided to alter the route slightly to make it to the evening's destination.

Bypassing some of the side roads that Google Maps would have had me on, I routed out a more direct way to ensure that I was not rolling in to Brookneal, Va., after dark. I will never fail to feel counterintuitive to ride into a thunderstorm on a bicycle, but that had to happen once again on day 57. Considering whether or not to stop and wait it out, I kept going, as the lightning did not seem too close.

Riding into Brookneal at dusk proved to be the time of day when flying ants like to hover around the shoulder of the road. Imagine all of the times when an insect hits the windshield of your car on the highway. Now, imagine the windshield is your face, arms and chest. The humidity resulted in plenty of perspiration, and the ants would stick to the skin when they hit. It is not at all entertaining or easy to be brushing of flailing insects from one's body, while maintaining the critical awareness necessary to avoid the grills and quarter panels of the vehicles co-existing on the same roadway.

The small community of Brookneal offered only one place of lodging, the Brookneal Motel. Run by an Egyptian woman, the establishment was very rundown with more near-permanent residents. Luckily there was a room available, and the clerk, speaking very little English, moved furniture around to accommodate the bike, secured the trailer outside of the room for me and insisted that she wash my clothes. I could see the compassion in her eyes as she resorted to charades to communicate when her limited English failed her. She was incredibly sweet, and I left the motel in the morning with a hug.

Google took me down two different dead end roads, which at one time must have continued on. I met a farmer on one of the roads, near Bull Hill Farm, and we had a long conversation about traveling on the road and the war. He advised me on a better way to go to where I was headed rather than continuing to blindly follow Google's supposed wisdom.

I had to ride through two different thunderstorms on the way to Amherst, Va. Virginia Highway 29 was an intimidating opponent, but with a generous shoulder it eases some of the tension that comes with biking along a two- or three-lane highway. At one of the funnier moments of the trip, on the other side of the medium, traveling in the opposite direction in an SUV with a kayak strapped to the roof, the driver hung out of the window and rang a cow bell at me with a huge grin on his face. That was an unexpected welcome into Amherst.

From Amherst, it was off to Louisa, Va., and to the Small Country Campground. The route taken on day 59 was a beautiful, scenic, heavily wooded ride, which provided much appreciated shade and made the stretch cool and enjoyable. That is except for one instance when I was descending a steep, windy road, moving fast around a sharp curve to the right, when a medium sized black dog ran out barking. I glanced over at it and almost biked into a large ditch on the side of the road at an estimated 25-30 miles an hour and would have landed head first beside an aggressive dog.

I was able to pull away from the side of the road, avoiding both the dog and the ditch, but that was on of the closest calls so far, as far as my safety was concerned.

A few minutes later I pulled over to relieve myself and found a generous patch of wild blackberries and spent the next five to 10 minutes eating to contentment.

At Small Country Campgrounds, I met one of its managers, Brian Andrews. He was very accommodating and generously let me video his thought on the war. The neighbors at the campsite offered steak and potatoes, a welcome alternative from yet another granola bar and whatever other nonperishables I had stuffed into the trailer.

The neighbors provided great conversation about the war, international politics and, as these conversations had a tendency to do, back to domestic issues, like the current state of the economy.

The next morning, I met Ruth Smalls, the owner of the campground with her husband, Bill. It turns out that they built the campground in the '70s, after purchasing the land off of a book that Bill wrote, which later turned into a textbook on the environment, called "Third Pollution."
Next stop: Washington D.C.

Day 61 was very hot, with the heat index was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This kind of heat wipes you out quick, and the 69 miles of road seemed to drag on forever. My uncle, aunt and cousin are D.C. residents, and I had arranged to stay with them for the couple of days that I was there. I had a presentation at the D.C. Museum of Contemporary Art to prepare for. I do not get to see these relatives often and was pleased to be able to spend time with fellow artists as they are.

When I arrived in Alexandria, Va., on the other side of the Potomac River from D.C., I called my uncle, and he suggested an alternative route to get into D.C. I followed his advice, which meant biking on U.S. 1 past the Pentagon. It had crossed my mind that passing the most heavily monitored buildings in the world and, in the heightened state of alert that our country consistently finds itself in, there was the chance that I could be questioned if the trailer seemed to be suspicious enough. In some way, I was hoping that this would happen, as it would have added another element into the narrative of the work .

This was not a friendly or spacious way to bike into D.C., but I was somehow in the right mindset to literally fight the cars on the road to claim my rightful space along side of them. U.S. 1 spits you out near the National Mall, and I could not resist getting some shots of the bike and rig in front of the Capitol building. There were a number of Tibetan monks enjoying the sunshine in the mall in addition to the softball tournament taking place. It struck me as an interesting juxtaposition of mentalities between the monks - a calm, compassionate, anti-materialistic bunch - and the members of Congress and the Senate who project to be anything but the above-mentioned qualities. It turns out that my relatives live in the highest point in D.C., so biking from the mall to their house was lengthy in its short distance and in the sweltering heat.

I dropped the bike off at Revolutions Cycles for its last tune up of the trip. They generously addressed the issues that the bike had and only charged for the parts, no labor at all. I was able to update the visuals for the presentation at MOCADC. As it turned out, the available time and day to give the presentation did not lend itself to attendees. No one but my uncle and the museum director were there, so it was a bit underwhelming and resulted in a far more informal presentation, a conversation really.

Leaving D.C., I as able to hit the Chesapeake Ohio Canal Trail, a beautiful way to leave the Nation's capitol. Following what are known at "tow trails," where donkeys used to tow ships along the canal, now used as hiking and biking trails, it is surprisingly scenic, considering its proximity to D.C. Day 64 was the first day with no encounters with dogs that I could remember.

Biking through Gettysburg seemed appropriate for the project. The history of the place and showcasing of military paraphernalia provided good photo opportunities for the rig that I gladly snatched up. The next day brought me through Hershey, Penn. I don't think that there is a better smelling city that I have experienced. The cocoa aroma of Hershey encouraged me to get a dessert as part of my late lunch, which I would later regret after climbing on the saddle again.

I ended up in Reading, Penn., where I got a room since I arrived after dark. The only eating establishments open at that time of night were Applebee's and Hooters. Applebee's it was. It ended up that the bartender had a brother who was about to go on his eighth deployment to Afghanistan and that he was planning on retiring from the military at an early age as a high -ranking officer. He had 11 years to go until he retires. I wonder how many more deployments he will have to make. It is astonishing the amount of sacrifice that individuals and their families make for this and other wars. It has been a common response from the public to question the risk/benefit factor of such a sacrifice.

Heading towards Stockton, N.J., which is right over the Delaware River from Pennsylvania was a beautiful country ride. The old stone houses had me gawking the entire way. Stockton had but one place to stay and, again, arriving at night with no campgrounds in shouting distance, I approached the 300-year-old Stockton Inn. After paying for a room, the owner found me and comped the lodging and personally made me dinner. I was up until 3 a.m. with the owner and some of his employees, including a young man who is an aspiring politician, discussion a range of socio-political issues. The owner offered for me to return after the project was over to stay another night for free.

The second to last day of TFBD rivaled the hottest and most humid day of the trip. I pulled into New Providence, N.J., after dark and stopped at a nicer Italian restaurant prior to finding yet another motel room, as this area of Jersey did not accommodate much camping. The owner of the restaurant saw me bike up, and I did stand out in a biking jersey among the candle lit tables. He said that he rides, too, and that the meal was on him, even the tip to the waitress, and that I could drink all of the wine that I wanted. This was a great surprise to wrap up the project with the last dinner being offered up at no charge. The generosity of the larger public persisted until the very end.

Day 69: The final day of TFBD, and another hot and humid day to be on the asphalt. The confusing nature of New Jersey roadways coupled with Google Maps' tendency of vagueness frustrated me, and I decided to streamline the route to get back in to New York City. I had already passed the actual length of the border of Afghanistan some days prior, and I felt that cutting down a few miles would not jeopardize the integrity of the project. It was a pretty amazing feeling to make it back to Fort Lee, N.J., where the George Washington Bridge links New Jersey with NYC. To find myself back on the same roads that I had left some two and a half months prior, a fleeting but strong feeling of accomplishment began to sink in. I was grinning all the way to the bridge.

As I crossed over the Hudson River and was finally back in NYC, the bridge's walking/biking path narrowed and began to spiral down toward 181st street. There was a family walking up the ramp toward me, and I stopped to let them pass, as the trailer took up a lot of real estate. Feeling the high of about to complete the journey, I was a little hasty to clip out of the pedals and fell over on the bike right in front of the family.

It figures that the only time that I would fall over on the trip was almost the precise moment when I would return to NYC and with a family of four having a front row seat to witness the pathetic display. The husband asked if I was all right, and I replied without even thinking through my embarrassment, "Gravity's working."

I made it to the Riverside Park Trail and began to head south toward the World Trade Center.
Knowing that I had friends and family waiting for me, I decided to stop at the same bench where I asked the first person directions 69 days before. I sat there reflecting on the last couple months, the people and the places and events, while a young man practiced the trumpet along the river within earshot and eyesight. It felt like a soundtrack to my reflection in some way.

A little bloody from the spill on the bridge, I returned to the World Trade Center to a cheering select few who were able to make it to witness the return.

I will be presenting the work at the Turchin Center for Visual Arts on King Street in downtown Boone on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. in the Lecture Hall. Photos, video and conversation will abound.

For more information on TFBD, visit and

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