We left the familiar eastern forests of our childhood and explored unfamiliar lands until, months later, we finally arrived on the Pacific coast. We found ourselves in the Northwest with its fables and totem poles and giant spruce, fir and sequoia. A land of dark, brooding forests and an endless restless sea and in between a thousand mystical visions. The lyrical south with its juke joints and troubled history, the mighty Mississippi, the glacial magic boulders of the Ozark forests, the fertile great American plains of soy and corn rows. Visions, visions, they danced before us as we took the sweeping journey across rural America. The hundreds of little towns and baptist churches and then finally little Alva, Oklahoma, in my mind the gateway to the American west. Afterwords sage and cottonwoods and broad street western towns. And each crossing seeming as if it would never end until now they shrink in the memory. The endless farm roads of Oklahoma are now merely a footnote to the journey. As if the mind couldn’t hold all the memories and visions, roads, trails and conversations and camps, camps along rivers, by bogs and swamps, along the dusty trail, deep in the forests and out in the empty sky desert.
So what does it all mean? Why did we bother to ride our little dirt bikes across the great expanse that is America. Perhaps it reminds us that life is an adventure. Maybe we needed to rekindle a sense of play. Or maybe we needed to relearn a healthy respect for risk, to be able to suffer and accept it, to get out of one’s comfort zone and throw your fate on the mercy of the world and all the good people in it.
And on some level, to try to understand what is America. A vast and contradicted land with a history of suffering, American Indian conquest and the black cloud of slavery but also a land of diverse and amazing people. The eternal optimism of the 1950’s and the American dream still lives and breathes in the lungs of the good people of this land. We believe in freedom and self determination. Despite how confused that idea has been made by politicians and preachers, deep in the heart of every citizen beats an indomitable spirit of individuality. Born from the wilderness of mountains, forests, prairie and desert is a sense of freedom that cannot be stolen for righteousness or politicking. We believe it is a law of nature, that all of us are born free. America still clings to the dream that we tender and desperate souls can live in a republic free of coercion or the abuse of power to pursue happiness.
But I wonder how closely these ideals of freedom and self determination are tied to the land. In a way the American identity, forged through struggling to survive in an unknown place, depends on wild America, without it, the idea is an orphan.
As we traversed America by motorcycle on roads less traveled we witnessed destruction. We saw great forests being bulldozed from Tennessee to California. We saw fracking, drilling, logging, road building, industrial farming, damns and mining. Many of the roads for the Trans America Trail were access roads for some kind of environmental extraction. We saw massive mechanized farms spraying herbicides, pesticides and petroleum fertilizers. We saw huge mines cut into the earth across the entire west and the pollution and destruction they wrought. It was impossible to ignore the collective damage that individual activities are amassing from the Atlantic to the Pacific. America has accumulated great wealth from it’s natural resources and human talent. But in the enthusiastic take all philosophy of capitalism we are failing to fully comprehend the collective havoc we wreak.
I wonder about the fate of American freedom and self determination if we lose the land that created it. When we lose the ability to disappear into the wilds, when the land can no longer support us, when we lose the wild places that define our national identity might our personal freedoms be endangered as well?
We’ve had epiphanies about travel by motorcycle that echo these ideas about freedom. A motorcycle trip is more free than a trip by car or R.V. Out in the open air, free from the confinement of glass and steel. Free to sniff the breeze, to freeze and sweat, to ride into forests on impassible roads and come out the other side, muddy, bloody, torn and grinning. But that freedom, like American freedom, has costs and challenges. It means there is no place to get out of the rain. It means the cold is that much colder and dark nights in the forest are that much darker.
The challenge for America’s freedom might be acceptance. Acceptance of other’s freedoms, acceptance of risk and of danger and the possibility of suffering. The lesson of the motorcycle is that to be free it is impossible to live in an antiseptic world sterilized of hazards, wilderness, the possibility of attack, or radical thought. It is impossible to live free without sacrifice. All freedom, whether straddled over a motor bike or precariously assembled in a republic, must accept the risks along with the benefits. The hard truth is we cannot be a nation of cowards and still maintain our free will. And the American dream, while noble and important, is after all a dream. Our greatest challenge is to make that dream real.