The town of Williams, Arizona was once a primary stop for Route 66 travelers. However, along with many Route 66 towns, the village was tossed into the past with the introduction of Interstate 40. How is it that a highway can have such a profound effect on a town? We had our second to last build day there. Our task, assigned by Habitat, was to clean a graveyard. Due to town budget cuts, it had not received maintenance since Bike and Build had last rolled into town a year ago, and who knows when before that.
Raking through the tombstones, death heavy on our minds, we also combed through our thoughts. The work was methodical, cathartic, and heavy. Tombstones are not memories, they are a memorial intended to outlast ourselves. We weeded through the styrofoam circles with plastic flowers, the faded flags, the flaking crosses, the ponderosa pines shading worn stone faces, blankets of pine needles. We thought about who we were before Bike and Build, who we are in our team, who we would be after.
The neglectful treatment of the dead was sad. But the tombstones reminded me of all the peoples whose lives I have touched without meeting.
The previous build site, refurbishing a home of an elderly woman in Flagstaff, AZ the site leader approached me saying I had a phone call. The woman calling (already forgot her name, though I promised I wouldn’t) had hosted another Bike and Build team and read my blog. She said she had hosted Bike and Build for years, and four years earlier a rider had an accident which kept him in the hospital for a week. She spent the week visiting him. Reading my blog had moved her enough to seek me out and personally thank me. It was astounding to hear a stranger so inlfienced by our experience. I felt like we were, in some ways, making an impact. More than that, the phone call left me with a sense of responsibility.
Much of this route, though, feels as if nothing could change it- tied back in time. We pass through as tourists like dust on a breeze, outsiders peering in. Route 66 has the nostalgic tourist charm that I am familiar with from Cooperstown, NY. But there is a twinge of sadness intertwined, the glory and fame not what it used to look like. It is clear that the advertisements and paraphanial are no longer retro, just retired. The shops smell of mildew, and the signs are missing letters. The Burma Shave signs that line the highways have dark rhymes that no longer read as humorous to those of us who have experienced loss and are acutely aware of the risk we run on the road.
The trip is so loaded in lessons that it is hard to process in the moment, but once again I am struck with the sense that it was “meant to be.” We are simultaneously caught in the charm and horrified by the white-washed, sexist, and very closed-minded mentality of the rural areas off Route 66. In many small towns there is a clear issue with education and poverty. I felt as if people were stuck playing the roles the trickle of tourists wanted to see because it is the only life they knew. Route 66 became a reminder of how America left behind it’s slow moving charm for the fast highways, and left behind the people in them as well. It is good to see the part of America we did not expect to see.
You can look at a group of people and tell right away how, superficially, they are different. We are trained for that since the beginning, just like the ispy in the old Highlights magazines. This picture has a cat in the tree and this one doesn’t. From the get go we had those clear extroverts and the quiet introverts, the competitive and complacent. Less obvious are the ways people process and view the world differently.
We all love the summer sidewalk sits against the host building at night, though. Every time I seek this quiet corner I find that another has beat me there, which, in turn, has lead to thought provoking conversations. It’s the time and place to turn over the rock and peek at critters of someone’s headspace.
A few of these occasions my peers have admitted “I don’t feel like I have changed,” or “I don’t feel the change yet.” Given all the feets we have overcome, it is hard to believe. When so many people are enduring the same trial, it is easy to normalize the experience and be blinded to change.
Grace pointed out that while people work hard to visualize the change they want to be, they forget all the hard work it takes to get there.
A member of our team had to make an early departure, again. The last night, before I retired to my thermarest, I caught her figure, a punch-out silhouette, hunched on the sidewalk of our church, cigarette in hand and a plane ticket. The absence of her vibrant, eclectic personality is a loss, and a reminder, again, to be grateful for the unique characteristics people have to offer.
Just to reiterate- learning is hard.
There’s a constant sense of intense change and I just wonder how I am able to keep responding to that need. It is the trial of Johnstown, PA (our introduction to steep climbing) all over again, amplified ten fold. “Had you asked me before if I could do it, I would have said no.” Yet here I am.
It is also hard to remember to take care of yourself. I confided in Abby on a ride into Kingston, Arizona that I worried I was unable to be there for my team mates as much as I wished to. We had stopped at a field of horses, probably thirty of them. When we ducked under the barb wire they nuzzled for food, and our pause among the heard took us back five weeks earlier, when the trip was in lighter spirits. Abby, always with a clear mind for her friend’s emotions, responded, “Maybe your lesson here was not to take care of other people, but to take care of yourself.”
The lessons do not seem to end, they only become more challenging as they farther leave the physical realm and enter the deeper questions of self, purpose. I think of Kim, our crazy, ambitious friend leaving. Her decisions was one of bravery and maturity. We have realized that what is best for us as individuals may not be best for the group.
Describe to me the Grand Canyon. If you have never seen it, you have a pretty specific image in your head, based on google images, some post card you received, or an old national geographic magazine. You’ll say simple things like “it’s big, it is red, it is deep.” But you just don’t have the vocabulary to portray the soft blue glow of early morning light carpeting the bottom as slowly the tip top rocks glow gold, the hot neon orb climbs the eastern sky. You don’t have the words to convey the sensation of hiking, just you and a friend, alone into the canyon- wind picking up, dust staining ankles red. And then, you cannot speak of the urgency as the sun sets, casting long purple shadows rolling dusk in. Well, now I do.
Similarly, anyone can talk about loss without experiencing it, anyone can imagine a bike trip, speak of the sites we’d see, but phrases can barely signify this greater experience. I have found I am growing numb. I don’t know how I should feel. I am still in it. But I know that this bike trip was never about us.
Andy had a lot to say as we hiked out of the canyon, lit only with the light of a dying cell phone and scrambling in the wind.
“We can’t see it because we are in it, but I am a big believer in positive thinking, and I think that we will continue to be affected by Patrick in positive ways. His lessons are practically branded to us.”
We have so many people invested in us, supporting us, and we have been given a significant privilege. It is our responsibility to be the change we hope for, and to work hard for it.