This southern tier trip was transformative and traumatic and wonderful for me. So much of life isn’t just one word or two but not every period we go through is transformative.
When I entered Arizona cycling over the Colorado, I saw the Arizona flag and got transported back to my twenties and being at Arcosanti and the pair of running shorts patterned with the AZ flag that Richard gave me back in the way beginning of our relationship. Arizona for me has become a dependent clause in the story of my life — Arizona where I went after Binghamton (undergrad years) to go to Arcosanti, city of the future, and where I went to graduate school for my masters. That had been Arizona for me for years now until I crossed back into the state.
I had forgotten the details, the scent of the desert, the names of the cacti, the intensely dry air. I had forgotten the sunsets and the sky. I had forgotten the 22-year old who went to Arizona as her next adventure, who thought life would be just one adventure into a different world and experience one after another. And life was a big adventure after my almost four years in Arizona, but it was a 35-year old adventure. The adventure of marriage and motherhood and a career that I was passionate about and a deep attachment to my community.
At a rest stop in Arizona, the picnic tables were full, so Fuat and I sat down on the other end of a table were two men sat eating their lunches. As ACA leader, I was supposed to ride sweep and allow the last rider to have “his or her own ride,” but from the first day, it became clear that Fuat, a quieter and more reserved guy, didn’t really want to ride alone. He lives his life quietly building boats in the Adirondacks and growing much of his own food. He signs up for organized rides because he loves bike touring and he wants the company of others. With me riding sweep, he got not only me but the varied people I would strike up conversations with during the day.
That day on that I-10 rest stop (out west on the Southern Tier, the route takes you on the interstate in empty areas where there is no other road), a small conversation about the delicious homemade food the two men were eating led to a taste of the food and an encounter that will stay with me a lifetime. Kousay Al-Ani was the talker of the two. His friend, a cousin’s husband Rasoul, had immigrated from Denmark he said. He didn’t look Danish and with a few more moments of conversation, we learned that he had been in Denmark for several years, but he was really an Iraqui refugee who had found refuge in Denmark and was now resettling in Kansas City. Kousay, on the other hand, had immigrated to the US from Iraq over twenty years ago. He is an engineer and clearly an experienced U.S. contact for many family and friends, close and distant, coming to the US from Iraq.
We talked some more about places we had in common. I told him about my friend Hadeel and her son Ahmed, a twenty-six year old, who we had just had over for dinner back in Athens. Hadeel is a super education, modern Iraqi women, with a masters degree in plant and pest management. She had to escape her cosmopolitan life in Baghdad because agricultural research work she had done had been funded by the US and now she was seen as a collaborator. Ahmed is one of he last of of Hadeel’s children to have gone through the refugee resettlement program. All her children are super educated. In Athens, he is attending my old workplace, Athens Technical College, and driving for Uber on weekend nights.
And I almost forgot a most important connection — so much happened during the time I was away that the more recent memories of the trip have blocked some of the earlier very significant ones. The group met officially on a Sunday, but starting Friday some of the riders had already started arriving in the hostel. That Sunday morning, though, I had another important event — Anne and Abdelatif were having a lawyer and city clerk sign their marriage papers. The process had been going on for months it seemed and involved layers of bureaucracy. In September there will be a large wedding celebration, traditional Moroccan style and we will all be there for it. The civil union took place at Abdelatif’s family home, with lots of family delighting in the union and dancing about. Clare and Alessandro in Paris, me in San Diego, Richard at home in Athens, and my sister Rosemary all were present at the ceremony on IMO, an international version of SKYPE with each of us in our own square on the screen. I told Kousay about this and wrote down the word “Congratualations” in Arabic for me to share with the newlyweds.
Kousay and I exchanged contact information, and I told him if he were ever in Georgia, he could stay with us. We are Warmshowers hosts for touring cyclists, but I extend the same invitation to many people I meet when cycling. Kousay and I had the same level of enthusiasm for this chance encounter. We both wanted to take photos and had big grins on our faces. Rasoul’s English was limited and so though he was quite sweet, he also couldn’t quite understand the conversation. I’m not sure what Fuat thought at this point, his first encounter with my random but special conversations with people on the road. He seemed to like it but not with the same wide smiles that Rasould and I had.
There is something about traveling that makes it easier to encounter other people honestly and share moments and kindness and laughter with them. During the trip, I realized that this ability to make these kind of connections with strangers is a gift that I have. It wasn’t something that everyone has. It’s not something that I have to try to have. It is just there. It is the same thing that connected me to students from all sorts of backgrounds during my community college career. It’s what made each day on my Northern Tier trip special and kept me from ever even thinking about being lonely. It’s what enabled the encounter with Irene working in the children’s bookstore at The Louvre that led to sixteen-year old Clare spending two weeks with her family in Paris. It’s why the cashier and owner at the Sandy Cross convenience store back past Watson Mill Bridge State Park asked me what they could do for cyclists and planned a tentative bike ride during which cyclists would stop at their restaurant for chicken salad sandwiches.
With Kousay and Rasoul, I couldn’t help thinking how people’s fear of others from foreign cultures and nations is so sad. They miss out on so much, and in too many cases, this fear leads to prejudice and violence — sentiments that seem to abound since the Trump election and presidential victory.
I am going to write more about this trip. I didn’t get to write like I did on the Northern Tier, something I missed but something there was little time this time across the country. The demands of tour leading were more intense than I expected and much different than what the the Adventure Cycling Tour Leader Training and manual laid out. There’s much more to say on that, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. That’s the traumatic part of this trip. I never want to lead another tour for Adventure Cycling, and the tour director there never wants me to do one either, though I had very few conversations with the man himself.
For me to write about that experience will take time and much of it will be private for the time being. If I didn’t have the confidence in my own abilities to lead groups of people and my years of excelling in the workplace, from being a waitress to a teacher to a dean to involved community member, I would be devastated. Instead, my ego, my honor and my integrity have been been bruised and seriously so, but there’s no doubt in my mind and heart about who I am and my competence, intelligence, and abilities and no doubt that I will recover completely and be more wiser about how the world works.