"In a pocket of the country strange and new, distant and odd to me, I felt like I belonged. We were not alone in the west, nor in this country, but rather a part of it."
Take a pulse on world events and it’ll likely reveal the fragmentation of the United States. Though this is nothing new. In a country already divided politically and increasingly economically, the sense of community, camaraderie, and togetherness seems antiquated.
There’s no We anymore. Rather, I and You are different. And in this separateness, disagreements stew into dislike and empathy disintegrates in the mix. Almost weekly acts of violence blare across the news, as relentless consumerism corrodes the very earth.
Some regard this as a dark time. But despite this bleakness, or maybe motivated by it, I set out with my boyfriend, Taylor, to cycle across the expanse of the U.S. to see what we could of the country we hadn’t seen yet. To experience our country from the slow speed and inherent vulnerability of a bicycle seemed the perfect way.
Cycling in South Dakota
By the time we make it halfway west, our bikes and bodies are worn down by the road. We stumble into a corner store just outside of Rapid City, SD as the unrelenting sun bakes our skin and boils our water. The Black Hills and heat are kicking our butts. While we gorge on the AC and refill our water bottles, the woman behind the counter eyes our loaded-down bikes. “How far ya goin’?” she asks.
“To Seattle,” Taylor responds with a laugh. It still sounds so ridiculous.
“I can’t ever understand what makes someone decide to ride that far,” she says.
The motivation seems so obvious to me. It’s hard to fathom why anyone wouldn’t want to do it.
We continue chugging our chilled water. I pace about thinking about the next leg of our journey. The elevation change looks like an EKG reading. And with a potential hailstorm on the horizon, and no definite place to camp for the night, worry invades my mind. As we’re walking out the door, the woman calls out to us. “Where you guys headed tonight?”
“Ehh, somewhere around Custer probably. We’re not sure with the hills,” Taylor says.
“Oh that’s where I’m from!” she says and waves him over.
Taylor returns with a yellow Post-It note in hand. On it written in cursive is her name, phone number, and address. “If you guys don’t find a place to stay, give me a call,” she says. “I have a spare room in the loft and you’re welcome to it.”
Needless to say, after cycling miles of roller coaster ups and downs and waiting out one of South Dakota’s staple hailstorms in a park bathroom, we took her up on the offer.
Kindness of strangers
This wasn’t our first encounter with selfless strangers either. A mother and daughter treated us to ice cream on a hot day in a town so small that no sign was even telling us the name on our arrival or departure. We’d been offered bottles of water from truck drivers in the middle of nowhere. And since the east coast, countless drivers had honked their horns in encouragement as they passed us by.
Across the state’s 383 miles, we met almost no one who shared lives similar to our own. Political views, careers, hobbies—almost every element of life seemed novel, if not refreshingly different from our own. But despite the lack of similarities, we were met with curiosity, selflessness, and an eagerness to help.
When Taylor broke a spoke rendering his wheel nearly useless, a doctor picked us up and shuttled us all the way to the closest open bike shop, some 200 miles away in Sturgis. While waiting for the tire to be mended, I made a peanut butter sandwich, sat on the curb, and watched the black clouds of an impending hailstorm blanket the sky. Despite my disheveled appearance and the smell of too many days on the road that preceded me, the nearby tattoo shop owner offered me shelter from the storm. We shared a beer on the house with the bike shop owner. And a young farmer we met explained the hardship all the rain had caused his hay harvest.
Foundations of community
Though our differences far outweigh our similarities, this matters little. It’s not the external elements of sameness that build the foundation of community. It’s also not the differences. Rather, it seems the human condition is the inherent rallying point. It’s an understanding of suffering—empathy that really precipitates the soothing balm of selfless compassion and generosity.
Throughout our journey, countless others went out of their way to help us, expending time, energy, and sometimes money—all commodities in too short supply these days—to help two strangers on bicycles.
In a pocket of the country strange and new, distant and odd to me, I felt like I belonged. We were not alone in the west, nor in this country, but rather a part of it.
Author - Kelsey Quinn
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