Punk Runner Punked


photo of a young man between clotheslines making a face, US flag in background

Last fall, in the midst of a seriously nutty presidential campaign (“Drill, baby, drill” anyone?), I started feeling a little nutty myself. So I quit my job in Boston and drove 2,700 miles to Arizona in a minivan filled with clothes, English muffins, and my cat, effectively blowing up my life to start a new one out West.

The main impetus for my move was a fundraiser I had organized to support sustainability projects in Phoenix, the city I had left 15 years earlier. Sitting idle in liberal Massachusetts with our nation (yet again) teetering on complete kookiness just wasn’t an option. So I decided to channel my anxiety into energy, specifically in the form of a giant run-protest-philanthropic stunt through my home state.

My plan was to run a total of 208 miles (a nod to the election year) over a span of three weeks to call attention to the lack of renewable energy infrastructure in McCain-land. I wanted to explore Arizona as a way of confronting all the campaign rhetoric surrounding clean energy. I was positive nothing was out there. That is, I knew that in a state known for its suburban sprawl and SUV-packed streets, there was little chance of stumbling upon fields of solar panels.

But that was the point: calling out McCain’s poor record of harnessing Arizona’s natural energy potential. It was a decidedly goofy exercise – lefty jock vs. the longtime senator – but my intent was serious. And the outcome, I hoped, would be good for Phoenix, too. All the proceeds were slated to finance xeriscaping projects and the purchase of bicycles and clotheslines, which I planned to donate to area nonprofits. Just imagine, a punk-ass fundraiser doing more good for Arizona than two decades of McCain’s service!

Unfortunately, things got off to a rocky start. Indeed, from the get-go I was wildly disappointed by the dearth of interest in my cause. Following an intense PR push leading up to the run, only Arizona State University’s student paper ran a story about it. That left more than 20 other regional dailies, weeklies, monthlies, Web sites, and television and radio stations expressing zero interest. Perhaps I should have incorporated a blindfold – now that would be a story.

With next-to-no publicity, my hope to raise $10,000 fell stupendously short. Sure, I was grateful for the support pledged by my family and friends. But in retrospect my aspiration to hit five figures must have been fueled by my runner’s high. In the end, the run brought in $1,380 in pledges. And in failing to reach my goal, I was unable to collect a single cent, per the conditions of the fundraising Web site. The fundraiser officially expired just as I embarked on my adventure. But still I embarked.

In mid-October, I set out to amass my miles with hopes of finishing on election night. Within the first hour of my journey, my pedometer (a device that I had regularly trained with for years) vanished on the streets of Flagstaff. But I persevered, calculating my miles each day using Google Maps. As the days plodded by, the trek became more of a personal challenge – a sort of masochistic “I’ll show them!” As it turned out, lots of folks showed me: Arizona didn’t need my song and dance.

Up north, I took heart in the community gardens, the veggie cars, and the roving fruitcakes with their Obama regalia. The National Park Service, meanwhile, impressed me with its lighting and vending systems powered by the sun. In the city of Cottonwood, I visited one of two solar-installation businesses servicing that modest community. Traditionally buttoned-up Phoenix proved to be the biggest surprise of all, deftly displaying all the accoutrements of modern progressive conscientiousness. Over the course of nine days, feverishly jogging and pedaling throughout the city (I had at this point added a bike component), I marveled at the homemade signs dogging McCain, the bike cooperatives, and the city’s local-food movement. Housed in a small bungalow, the Obama headquarters in downtown was regularly slammed with volunteers. There was even brief noise about the Illinois senator capturing Arizona.

Well past midnight on Election Day, after taking in Obama’s acceptance speech in a rowdy lobby of a downtown hotel, I biked home eight miles, with a belly full of beer, to surpass my goal by 1.6 miles. In a state widely regarded as a virtual desert of progressivism, I suppose that those vying for a different way have to go a little further. Fortunately, even in conservative Arizona, I was far from alone in this line of thinking. And for that, my new home suddenly felt a bit like an oasis.

Andrew Brooks is a freelance writer and musician living in downtown Phoenix. These days, he runs the streets of the city as a means to best experience and enjoy the urban landscape.

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