Photographer reaches East Coast
October 6, 2005
“There is a new America every morning when we wake up.
It is upon us whether we will it or not.”
– Adlai E. Stevenson
The ride from D.C. to New York left me with scars.
Not the quaint dermal remnants considered fashionable on the elbows and knees of an elite road cyclist. I would have preferred those. These scars were left on the inside.
A kind of post-traumatic cycling disorder that left me springing bolt-upright in the middle of the night, clutching for my brake handles.
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I’d been warned. The day before I’d slipped a map in front of a local bike shop owner and asked him for the safest route into the nation’s capital. He scoured the map for several minutes and slid it back.
“I don’t know what to tell ya,” he said blankly.
This was not the answer I was looking for. I forced my hand.
“Let’s say someone was holding a gun to your head and you had to, which way would you ride?”
He paused for a moment and replied, “I’d tell ’em to shoot me.”
Unfortunately I couldn’t find anyone around with a gun so the next morning I pedaled up an on ramp onto Interstate 66. It was there that I caught a glimpse of what was before me – a stretch of gridlock five miles long and eight lanes deep. No sweat, all I needed was the shoulder.
As I cheerily rolled past the morning commute, drivers began to scowl. Some grimaced, others simply held their heads in their hands.
As I scanned the line of vehicles parked on the roadway I pondered the plight of modern man. Could it be that we had evolved from a hunter-gatherer society only to sit inside a long line of metal boxes and suck exhaust fumes.
That’s how it seemed. Continually passing the long line of cars I smilingly made eye contact with several occupants. They stared back as if they were about to explode. Soon they’d have their revenge.
Somewhere around Manassas, someone or something removed the vehicular plug.
It was as if someone opened the doors to an insane asylum. Drivers gnashed their teeth and stomped the gas as if preparing to rocket through 15 inches of solid concrete. Others looked as though they were about to jump the width of a small desert canyon.
Wide-eyed truckers throttled big rigs that ripped at my eardrums. This was not a highway, it was a war zone.
A continuous carpet of freshly broken glass, shredded fan belts and steel-belted tire shrapnel attacked my bike. After 4,000 miles of trouble-free riding, I got my first flat. Then a broken cyclocomputer, then another flat. Shortly after that, my bicycle-trailer malfunctioned. That was followed by a broken chain, a worn out tire and a third flat.
I’d entered the Bermuda Triangle of bicycle breakdown.
Later that afternoon, jittery and completely stripped of any sense of well-being, I pulled up to the Capitol Mall. My recent trauma was about to be put in perspective.
Limited by time, my plan was simple: breeze through a handful of exhibits, take a few pictures and move on.
It would not happen that way. I came upon the Vietnam War memorial and something within me sunk. As I slowed my pace, an upwelling of emotion came over me. I ran my eyes over name after name. I tried to imagine each person, each individual, each precious life. I had been a child during this war and to this day it still does not make sense.
My gaze was stopped by a man on his knees staring at two names. As I stood in silent witness, he reached out as if spanning the gap between heaven and earth, and touched the names. As he wept, I bowed my head and silently did the same.
I left the memorial lost in thought, and continued up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Standing beneath Abe’s mammoth gaze, I turned toward the reflective waters beneath the Washington Monument. A woman elbowed a friend and pointed near my feet. There, carved in marble, were the words, “I have a dream.”
It was the exact spot where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his speech in 1963.
I looked out over the mall and imagined Dr. King., the crowd, his dedication to non-violence and the subsequent shift in the nation’s consciousness. For me, his words held the promise.
They were the seeds of America’s next conscious evolution away from the habit of war. I left the mall that afternoon deeply moved.
My last day brought an important engagement and, as usual, I was late. Pedaling furiously from Alexandria, I dashed past the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol.
When I entered, I smiled nervously at a pair of security guards staring curiously at the clips of my bicycling shoes on an X-ray screen. Moments later, I made my way upstairs to a room where I waited with nearly 60 others to meet Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
Minutes later he walked through the door. He greeted the crowd one by one. Then he walked up and said, “Hello,” shook my hand, spoke a few sentences and walked away. I tried hard to hide my disappointment.
I’d cycled 4,000 miles to be here, all I wanted was a moment of his attention. I wanted to tell him what I’d seen – the greatness of America. But he was a busy man, with more to think about than a boy and his bike.
Then, something unexpected happened. When I stood next to him to have my picture taken, he leaned over and whispered, “Isn’t there something about you and a bicycle?”
I was taken aback. “I biked here sir,” I replied.
“From where?” he inquired.
“San Francisco,” I said triumphantly.
He elbowed Congressman John Ensign standing next to him. Ensign let out an ear- piercing whistle that grabbed the attention of the muttering crowd.
“How many of you are tired right now?” Reid asked with zeal. A few nodded, and some raised their hands.
“Well this guy just bicycled in from San Francisco!” he said into the crowd, and I smiled with quiet redemption. Something within me was completed. I set out the last 300 miles with a new sense of satisfaction. Those last miles were not easy.
Just as I settled into the whimsical pace of the countryside in Pennsylvania and Maryland, I would be faced with the stand-up and sprint-for-your-life combat riding within the ghettoes of DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Camden.
Just as they’d done across rest of America, my spinning tires seemed to sow a whole new crop of friends. They included Jeremy and Faiza David in Philadelphia, Eric and Kane Paulson in Pennsylvania, and Paul Inglese and Mindy Hui in New Jersey.
Their welcoming kindness remains in my heart and will not soon be forgotten.
On the last day of my journey I pedaled from the Jersey shore and boarded a ferry bound for New York City. An hour later I unloaded my bicycle from a boat under the watchful eye the Statue of Liberty. With a broad smile and giggling heart, I pedaled into the heart of the city.
I’d come 4,330 miles since I’d left the Golden Gate Bridge.
I’d seen a little of it all – the oceans, the deserts, the rivers, the mountains – I’d ridden across America. Pulling from the lower town traffic onto the Brooklyn Bridge, I reached my final destination.
There I saw the most beautiful sight of all. The loving arms of my father, who was waiting on the other side.
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles submitted by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn chronicling his two-year bicycle journey around the world, while raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read more of his journals and see more of his photos, go to rickgunnphotography.com.
Where in the world in Rick Gunn
When: Sept. 15-28
Where: Washington, D.C., Baltimore Md., Philadelphia, Penn., Monmouth Beach, N.J., New York
Mileage log: 3,900-4,300
Elevation: 100-800 feet