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On the Road: A UC Berkeley Grad Discovers a Wider World while Cycling Cross Country

Environmentalism looks different in different places

A year ago, I was making arrangements with classmates at UC Berkeley to share one graduation gown. Since our commencement ceremonies were held on different days, it seemed wasteful for each of us to buy a gown that we would only wear for one evening. So four of us split the cost and bought a single gown to share among us. For me, this came naturally. I had just earned a degree in environmental science and had spent four years developing composting and recycling initiatives to move the Berkeley campus closer to its goal of Zero Waste by 2020. The reduce-reuse-recycle ethic was instinctive for me.            

Photo of Fracking in WyomingPhoto by Claire Porter View from the plains of southern Montana, a few days' west of Yellowstone National Park.

I felt proud of what I had accomplished, but also burnt out. The things that had felt so important to me — the environment, and specifically, achieving a society that creates zero waste — seemed abstract. During my last few weeks as a student, I halfheartedly interviewed for positions as an environmental consultant and outdoor educator. I left each interview feeling less excited about the position than I should have. A crazy idea kept distracting me: I wanted to bike across the country. I yearned for an adventure. The long bike trip would have to meet two parameters: I would begin pedaling from my front door, and I would carry everything with me that I would need to eat, sleep, and make repairs on my bike. So on June 4, 2014 I left my front door in Walnut Creek, California, packed with my sleeping bag, tent, bike tools, two pairs of clothing and took off to ride to Chicago by myself.

I have been backpacking and bike camping since I was child, but this was my most ambitious trip yet. After a week of pedaling through familiar California territory, and a second week through Oregon, I entered places where my upbringing and education cast me as an outsider. Along the way I would become far more aware and tolerant of the viewpoints of people outside the “Berkeley Bubble” — that is, the rarified space of political liberalism and environmentalist values. My bubble was about to burst.

As I was riding through rural Idaho, I took a break in a small town and struck up a conversation with a woman outside a book store. Like most of the people I met along the way, she was surprised to find out that I was biking across the country alone. She seemed incredulous and slightly worried for me. When I mentioned that I had recently graduated from UC Berkeley, she instantly spat out, “You're not one of those flaming liberals, are you?” I laughed and responded tongue-in-cheek that my quadriceps were on fire from carrying me over 500 miles from California. But when I asked her to clarify what she meant by “flaming liberal,” the conversation turned to politics. She gave me little opportunity to explain my views, and the exchange quickly soured. As we parted ways, I felt let down that we hadn’t been able to learn from each other.

Photo of Claire Porter Courtesy of Claire PorterClaire and one of her gracious hosts, Alvin Cramer, in South Dakota.
Claire convinced Alvin to dust off his mountain bike and ride with
her to the Iowa border, 2 miles from his front door.

About a week after I’d been dubbed a flaming liberal, I received a second chance to engage with people with different worldviews. I spent two nights in Buffalo, Wyoming at a campsite that served as a gathering spot for the locals. My first night there, I sat at a splintered picnic table with a group of men who had never stepped outside of Wyoming and identified as the “last of the real cowboys.”  I believed them. They told me wild stories from their youth as ranch hands of dropping buffalo from helicopters and getting bucked off of horses. 

When they discovered that I was from California, and that I had arrived in Wyoming by bicycle, their eyes grew wide and they slapped me on the back to express their admiration. “Gus — this girl's got bigger balls than you do!” one cowboy hooted to another.  The group bellowed in laughter, and then they asked me a question that was a hot topic for them. “As a Californian, what do you think of the wolves?” I had seen countless bumper stickers in Idaho and Wyoming that read, “Wolves: Government-sponsored terrorism.” For these cowboys, wolves killed livestock and threatened their livelihood. For me, wolves were a keystone species I had studied in college. I felt that it was important to protect the wolves, but recognized my position as an armchair environmentalist. I responded to the cowboys, “The idea of killing wolves turns my stomach,” and went on to describe how ecosystems are webs, and without wolves, the deer population grows too large. When the deer population grows, the grass that holds the soil together gets consumed and can lead to soil erosion, which hurts the ranchers. They seemed surprised by my response, and responded that if, “more Californians thought like me, maybe they would like more Californians.”

It was becoming obvious that the environmental topics that had consumed me for the past four years were not even on the radar of most Americans. Recycling didn't exist at all in Idaho. Nor could I find any recycling bins in Montana, where I lugged my empty peanut butter jars and glass bottles for more than 70 miles in search of a recycling facility. Finally, a kind old lady at a gas station took them off my hands when I asked if there was recycling in the area. She shook her head No, but promised to take them with her to the city where recycling did exist the next time she went there to visit her grandchildren. I wondered if she would tell her grandchildren about me, and if she would refer to me as a flaming liberal, or just a crazy young woman riding her bicycle across the country alone.

I quietly began to accept the reality that recycling didn't exist — nor, it seemed, did smog checks — across most of the country. I grew accustomed to tossing recyclable cans into trash cans, and accepting plastic grocery bags, which made me fear that my environmental principles were getting soft. While in South Dakota, I met a family who invited me to spend a night in their guest room after hearing that I spent most of my nights camping in my tent. I was more than happy to accept their offer (a hot shower is priceless while on the road), and they seemed entertained by the stories I told them late into the night. The next morning, I woke up to the smell of bacon and coffee cake. I grabbed an empty plate and the father gestured towards glistening strips of hog meat. “Take some bacon,” he said, “it fuels your body just like coal at a power plant!” This was meant to serve as encouragement, but as a long-time vegetarian and an advocate for renewable energy, I cringed inside. I decided not to tell them that in college I had lived in a vegetarian co-op and had protested against mountaintop removal and coal mining. I slowly ate the pieces of what was once a living creature and filed this experience away in my mental library. I didn't feel like less of an environmentalist. Breaking my eight years of vegetarianism was the compromise I made for the experience of sharing a meal with kind strangers, and I didn’t feel it was a blow to my environmentalism. I had sacrificed nothing, and gained  new friends.

On one of the loneliest stretches of highway of my entire journey, I met a kindred spirit. Highway 44 begins in the Black Hills of southern South Dakota and ends at the Iowa border. In between there are steep hills, cornfields, nasty headwinds, and a spirit camp where Lakota tribal members are challenging the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Along this road I met Keith, one of the leaders of the resistance, one serendipitous afternoon. I hadn't seen a soul on the road all day, when my thoughts were jolted by a honk and a dust-caked truck on the shoulder ahead of me. The man who stepped out of the car had a long black ponytail and asked me if I had ever heard of the Keystone XL pipeline. I responded that of course I had, and after a brief conversation he invited me to visit his spirit camp 15 miles up the road. When I arrived at the camp about an hour later, there was Keith — sitting at a plastic table inside a large tipi with his face illuminated by the glow from a laptop. He was cradling a phone on one shoulder and swatting a fly with one hand. Banners protesting the pipeline reminded me of similar protests at UC Berkeley, but I had never before seen a tipi circle or sweat lodge. As soon as Keith hung up the phone he apologized, and explained that he was working with a team of lawyers to fight the construction. I learned that the tribe's strategy to block the construction included tactics that ranged from praying in sweat lodges to taking legal action. When I left the camp and pedaled 30 miles down the road to camp at the banks of the Missouri River, the sun was low in the sky and I felt incredibly lucky to be alive.

I never could have predicted the impact the bike trip would have on my life. After four years of studying how the avarice of powerful corporations fuels environmental destruction, I felt frustrated towards society. The trip restored my all but forsaken faith in humankind — the kindness of strangers was beautiful and endless like the Montana sky, from the family who fed me in South Dakota, to a veterinarian I met at a grocery store in Wyoming who gave me his iPod full of music. People who didn't recycle and who ate meat from factory farms made my trip incredibly meaningful. I had initially feared that eating meat or throwing a glass bottle in the trash would make me less of an environmentalist. But I realized that, having spent my whole life in the Bay Area, my environmentalism was facilitated by the preponderance of vegetarian restaurants, recycling facilities, and public acceptance of climate change. My bike trip showed me firsthand that these were not characteristics of much of the country, and I realized that being an environmentalist looks different in different places.

Now, when I look at a map of the United States, I no longer see a vast empty space but a place I feel connected to. I am so glad that I took off after college to ride my bicycle across the country, and I look forward to my next trip, which begins in August. I will be tackling the 2,700 mile Great Divide mountain bike route from Canada to Mexico. I can't wait to see who I’ll meet along the way. 

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