When I started this bike tour, my reasons were simple. It was no high endeavor; there were no power-lunches with sponsors; no reporters were knocking on my door. I just wanted to see the world.
All these foreign places that I had only heard about, and never experienced, during my progressive, yet sheltered, upbringing in Madison – I never felt as though I had a right to share in conversations about them; any opinion I formed would doubtless be wrong, in large part or small. I have always believed in giving the benefit of the doubt – it is the basis of a non-judgemental attitude – and I try never to form opinions based solely on the words or opinions of others. One truth is elusive enough. But at least I can always trust my own personal experiences. So if I could see these places with my own eyes… if I could ride the roads, meet the people, eat the food, experience the troubles and the joys, even for a short time, well then, I would have something to say. Simple. See the world, travel, have adventures. “But why a bike?” is a common question. Don’t ask, ’cause I don’t really know. Maybe it’s too many hours sitting in an uncomfortable car, maybe it’s just a gargantuan Atlas-scoped respect for the simplicity of bicycles, maybe it’s the freedom that comes with bike touring, maybe the ecological impact of driving and flying, maybe the breakneck time-is-money convenience of car culture illness… maybe it’s even just because it’s so much cheaper to travel by bike. Whatever the reason, I always knew it would be by bike. I didn’t think, “Now how am I going to travel the world?” I didn’t start looking for cheap train tickets and flights. I thought, “Now where am I going to ride my bike?” and decided to aim as high as I could – the World. So I left, and my only real plan was to pedal around the world, back to where I started. When I reached the ocean, this plan changed to pedal and sail around the world, back to where I started. And at some point, I started really thinking about what I was doing… riding a bike all the way around the world…. To me it was simple. Natural. “But isn’t this the type of thing that people do to raise money for cancer research?” I’ve never been much of an activist, but this bike tour has a lot more potential than a simple vision quest and epic adventure for personal reasons. Sure, I believe that the best way to make the world a better place is to make yourself a better person – if I elevate myself, my own understanding and values, then everyone around me becomes elevated as well. But even this wasn’t enough – it wasn’t proactive enough, it was happening every day just by pedalling to new places. I started to feel like I was being selfish; that I could, and should, be doing more. So what then? I could pick a charity out of a hat, but if my soul wasn’t in it, it just wouldn’t feel right. I have to really care about whichever cause I put myself behind. “So what do I care about?” I asked myself. There’s leukemia, which has affected my life more than I’d care to admit, and that one might still be on the horizon. But the first thing that came to mind, without any searching or brainstorming, was alternative methods of transportation. Obviously. But how do you ride for alternative methods of transportation? Is there a society set up for it? Okay, yeah, there are probably dozens of organizations and companies making efforts around the world that I could help. But I’ve never raised any funds, I don’t know how to do it. And do I even need to? Since when is money the point, anyway? What is needed isn’t more money for bikes or facilities or whatever – what is needed, in our society of technological convenience, is awareness. Many people just don’t realize what they’re doing, because their way of life has become the norm. That generation that didn’t used to drive cars, the generation that watched the frightening auto-future envelop the world during the industrial revolution, the generation that remembered a simpler time – it’s as if that generation is no more. Nowadays, people know only that cars are everywhere, and to most, it might as well have always been this way. But in fact this monstrosity is extremely recent; so recent that it’s doubtful that even the brightest scientific minds have predicted all the ramifications. And forget the unknown future – there are many proven consequences that even non-scientific minds already know about. Yet society continues shading its eyes, chugging along, sucking the oil from the earth and turning it against the skies. I realized that I already was riding for alternative transport, just by being seen on the highway. I was already leading by example, following Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Even if one person out of a hundred sees me riding on that shoulder and says, “Why is he doing that?” I am making a difference. But I can do more – I can reach more people, open more eyes than just those that see me directly. I decided to contact the press. “I’m Charlie and I am riding my bike around the world – is that newsworthy to you? Oh, it is? Sure, I can meet your reporter…” That’s how it started. It created a conflict within me. My modesty battled with this new power. I don’t care about being famous – I could happily cycle the entire world unnoticed, I’m sure – and actually I have never bought into the whole “famous for famous’ sake” thing. But now I had to use myself, my achievements and my opinions, my virtues, my very personality, to sell something. I felt like I was pimping myself. And even with something as pure and true as bike philosophy, I wondered if I had a right to publicize my beliefs to such a degree. I don’t like making people uncomfortable. What’s more, I knew that the bike-riders, the recyclers and the organic farmers, the already-aware of the world – the people that would say “right on” – they don’t need to hear my message. It’s the people that think it’s impossible to ride your bike back home from a big grocery run, and the people that haven’t even considered the possibility of cycling to work, that would be my target audience. The ones whose perspective I want to change are of course the ones most deeply addicted to their cars and their convenience. The ones that think people on the highway riding bikes are crazy…. Despite the daunting emotional wrestling and potentially adverse reception to my ideas, I continued trying to publicize my tour. It’s worth being famous if I can get more people on bikes. But something my eco-guerrilla friend Derek told me in Florida, during my mission to find a sailing boat across the Atlantic, when I was psychologically battered and considering giving up, kept coming back to me: “It’s the critics that you need to convince, and if you take a plane or a motorboat across the ocean, that will be all they need to discount you completely.” Yes, riding my bike such long distance is impressive, but he was right – if someone wanted to ignore me(car addicts are often intimidated by me), they would find it easy to do as soon as they learned of the smallest little discrepancy in my principles. At this point, starting my international press exposure, I had already stuck it out and succeeded in sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, using wind power. But once again, I knew I could do more. My integrity, and subsequently my message, could be stronger still. Deciding not to get into cars or trucks or trains or buses was easy – I already did a whole year boycotting in 2006, and I do have a bike, after all. In Ireland, after the ambulance and the bus and all the rest of that difficult compound-fracture compromise, I swore off all motor vehicles, citing not only their ecological impact, but also their social degradation. “Cars cause loss of trust.” No more side trips in cars, no more cross-town jaunts on public transport, no more down-time speed. A world bike tourist is one thing, but a world bike tourist that won’t even get into a car? Now that’s news. The real difficulty is traveling over water, and I admit I made some compromises in this area. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, Christmas is simply not the season to go sailing, though I tried my hardest to discover and convince hardcore winter sailors. It was a no-go, unless I wanted to spend the rest of the winter waiting. Could I have done that? Sure – somehow – but in an all-around sense, considering everything, not just my mission to raise awareness and the health of Mother Earth… would it have been best? My friend Robino might say, “Hold to your principles, but not too rigidly.” Balance, in all things, even this. I am rigid about motor vehicles: so much so, that I can actually sense an acute disconnection, a widening chasmic distance, from car commuters or airline patrons. I am finding it harder and harder to remember what it’s like to live with petroleum fuel, the longer I separate myself from oil culture. Maybe this is unbalanced; maybe this constitutes “too rigid.” But I’m not so fame-hungry that I’ll let myself be driven to depression or insanity by some strict boycott in the name of publicity. In the end, as in the beginning, I just want to see the world. By BIKE!
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4 Comments on Selling the Bike Philosophy: advocacy evolution
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I love you charlie. we are both feeling the wintery winds of spain and i hope yours are at your back… mine are on the nose. I’m sailing right past you and trying to move along.
I’m so proud to know you charlie, I’m still riding my bike:) will write soon. x
We got your post card today. I remember reading the article in the Wis. State Journal at your departure and thinking, “That kid went to the school where I teach!” Even though I didn’t actually get to teach you any of your French I’m proud that you’re an East Side High graduate and that you are pursuing something that is so important to you. We’re sharing the post card with our current students to make sure they know that the whole world really is open to them if they care to take up the challenge.
This truly inspires me. I want to be able to write as amorously