Friday, June 02, 2006

Home at Last?

Well, I made it... I'm sitting in my kitchen with a cup of coffee, listening to music and posting this final blog. Being that this is the final post, I should probably attempt to draw some overarching conclusions about the trip. People expect that sort of thing.

In trying to find one word to summarize the quality of the experience, I am gravitating toward 'diversity'. In crossing the country, I encountered a wide variety of geography and culture. In doing so, I learned a little more about the places and people of the world. The experiences that I have absorbed on the road will, as all life experiences do, influence my perspective of the world around me and of humanity.

We all experience life differently. How we react to, and learn from, new situations and diversity varies among us. When I experience new things, I tend to place myself on the outside of the situation -- processing the experience as more of an observer than a participant. Often, it is not until I return to familiar places and people that I am able to 'experience' whatever it was that I just encountered or did. Sometimes, an experience does not affect my perspective until years later.

An adequate conveyance of my experiences on the road would probably take weeks of writing. It would also require significant passage of time to reflect. And complicating things is the fact that I only scratched the proverbial surface of the North American experience. Although I covered a lot of miles, passing through 13 states (plus Ontario), my route cut a fairly narrow path across the country -- despite the fact that I did not take the shortest path from coast to coast. There is a lot out there that I missed.

What I can comment on, in the limited space and time that I have, is something that I learned about the region in which I currently live. As I mentioned earlier, I often need to return to familiar surroundings before I can begin to incorporate an experience into my psyche. Riding east, there were two moments where I felt that I had returned to familiar surroundings. The first was geographical. The second was cultural.

The feeling of geographic familiarity occurred as I was crossing the border from Kansas into Missouri. I will admit that I am almost completely ignorant of the manner in which the state borders were drawn. But, after riding across a dozen of them, I have to believe that contrasting geographic features played heavily into the decisions. While riding across the country, I could usually tell when I was crossing a border -- just by noting the changes in terrain. Crossing into Missouri, everything had suddenly become green and hilly again. I remember thinking at the time that I had forgotten just how much greenery there is in the Northeast. At that moment, I felt that I was geographically 'home' -- even though I was still about 1500 miles from my house. I could then begin to reflect on the terrain of the previous weeks in the context of 'home'. I began to realize that I had really missed the geography of the Northeast.

The second moment of familiarity, the moment of cultural identification, occurred as I encountered other cyclists about 50 miles north of New York City. Over the past 5000+ miles of riding this year, I have become accustomed to waving to other cyclists. Not a dramatically flailing arm, mind you. Just a simple hand gesture a few inches off the handlebars. Most of the time, they would return the gesture -- excepting the times when they waived first, and I would return the gesture.

After descending Bear Mountain, I passed a few other cyclists -- about 10 minutes apart. I waved to the first guy. No reaction. That's odd, I thought. Oh well, I guess he was focused on the road. Passing the second cyclist, I waved again. Again, no reaction. I guess she was concentrating too. It was not until I passed the third, about 15 minutes later, and received only an icy stare in response to my wave, that I realized what was going on. Things are different in New York. Most cyclists don't wave here. They zip around on their $6,000 bikes neither initiating, nor responding to, gestures of recognition. I had forgotten about that.

To be fair to New York state, this not true for the entire state. My amateur sociological assessment of the situation, based on 15 years of residence here, is as follows.

There are few places in the country where the road between the rich and poor is as long and convoluted as in the New York metro area. The Old Money, various Wall Street heavies, corporate soldiers, me, the local store owner, the college student, and the below-minimum-wage immigrants. We are all neighbors. The long and steep wealth gradient in the area is accompanied by an exaggerated social strata. The social tension here is not limited to rich vs. poor. Social climbers are jockeying for position on a ladder with innumerable, and shifting, rungs. The list of rungs includes: obscenely wealthy, mega wealthy, extremely wealthy, very wealthy, wealthy, well-to-do, etc, etc, etc, all the way down to dirt poor.

In such a socially competitive environment, people often interact in strange and unpleasant ways -- revering (or at least pretending to) those above them in the hierarchy, while dismissing those they deem to be below. Friendly gestures are generally interpreted as a sign of weakness or of diminutive social standing. Being nice at the wrong time can cost you serious points.

My one-sided interaction with the third cyclist brought it all back. I was home. Well, technically speaking anyway.

Photo Journal

A couple of shots from the ride into NYC. The haze was heavier than the point and shoot could deal with, so the day's shots are not so great. I have, however, tried to make up for it by organizing a collection of some of my favorites from the year -- as a kind of photo summary of the traveling that I have done on the bicycle. They are not in any sort of order. Maybe some day, I'll organize them to tell a deliberate story. Or maybe not...

Thursday's Photo Journal

Favorites Photo Journal

Ride Summary

Thursday: 77 Miles from Newburgh to Manhattan (Battery Park then back up to midtown)

Miles this year: 5665


At 6:52 AM, Blogger Bill said...

Congratulations, Jim.

I worked with a bunch of N.Y. folks last time in Gray. Not a bad group, but a little speedy. Come back down some time.
By the way,cyclists do wave to each other on the trail here in Georgetown.


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