Twenty eight years ago, my parents welcomed their first daughter Naomi into the family. As grandparents do, mine promptly made the trip from Cincinnati to Las Cruces to greet the small human. They savored a week or so of squishy baby hugs and probably endured a great many nervous dad jokes, and when the time came for them to depart, they got in their car to head back home. For the record, that’s about a 22 hour drive. Incredulous, my dad asked why on earth they weren’t flying. Because to look at the mountains, my Grandpapa replied, was an act of worship.
Those words stayed with my father, and now, a year after my grandfather’s passing, they’ve been echoing in my head as well. In the summers of my childhood, I felt so lucky that I didn’t go to Disney World or the Bahamas like the rest of my schoolmates. Instead, my father and I packed up his car and went on road trips together. We toured all over Toronto, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and so many other adventures. When I would tell my classmates about those trips, they were always baffled as to why we drove when flying was so much faster. Because, I would tell them impatiently, you see so much more on the road. Stretches of highway through the middle of nowhere led us to some of my most treasured summer memories. Whenever we saw something interesting we’d pull over. We wandered through the Titanic museum, where, he still likes to remind me, I read through every single exhibit in full. We toured Stonewall Jackson’s house and explored forgotten Civil War era cemeteries, marveled as the Bay of Fundy drained and filled at sunrise, ate at diners and spent hours in the cool darkness of a mediocre planetarium to escape the summer heat of the South. But best of all were the people we met. The little old British lady who ran the Fogwitch Inn in Nova Scotia and proudly served us proper jam and tea for breakfast, the construction worker enjoying drinks with his buddies outside our motel in Kentucky who declared (in early July) “That August heat just about durn near kilt me”, the 90 year old mother and 70 year old daughter who made a pilgrimage to the Anne of Green Gables house every single year, and Sal and Denise, the old motorcycling couple with whom we enjoyed Fourth of July fireworks. I loved these encounters, because all of them seemed so special — how each of these characters serendipitously dropped into our day as we improvised our driving routes and left the rest to fate.
Over the nearly two months I’ve spent cycling a route longer than any we ever drove together, the theme of connecting with strangers has held constant. Its nature is different on these roads. As cyclists, we’re almost always on the receiving end of the kindness of strangers. They fill our water bottles, open their homes, provide us with donated dinners at restaurants and check in to make sure we’re ok when we’re fixing flat tires on the shoulder of a busy road. I remember one brutally hot day back in Ohio, when our water jug had run empty and there were no restaurants for miles. A couple of us hopped in the van and drove ahead hoping to find somewhere, anywhere, to fill it, and happened upon a tiny one room church where two women answered our timid knocks. They nodded in polite confusion as we explained that we were cycling across America for charity, and would it be alright if we brought our team in for water and a bathroom break? As we gratefully refilled our bottles we chatted with them; they were fascinated in the trip and awed that we were making such a trek on bikes. Upon inquiring about the delicious lemony aroma wafting through the room, we learned that one them was celebrating the graduation of her daughter from homeschool, and they were there baking and setting up for a party. Finally, after more chatter and lots of water we departed. I thought about how surprised they must have been, minding their own business in a sleepy little town in farm country and having their perfectly normal day interrupted by a gaggle of crazy grease covered college kids cycling across America for a soup kitchen half a world away. With a start, I realized that we were the people dropping into their lives by coincidence, leaving them with a unique memory purely by chance. It was then that I started to consider the act of worship my grandfather had treasured on his trip back home. His was experiencing the beauty of untouched nature. Ours, it seemed, was to be the building of communities on our journey.
Every town we’ve passed through has woven itself into the fabric of a national community. All have been special — being made to feel at home in the house of a perfect stranger isn’t something you ever get used to, and all of them have stories of their own to share with us. They have hosted us because something about our journey spoke to them. Some are cyclists themselves, paying a kindness forward from their own tours. Some are curious, others are similarly invested in social action projects themselves. Many are faith based; even if our own trip isn’t religious, feeding the hungry is a cause they can get behind. But one has been truly remarkable.
The road to LaCrosse, Washington was peppered with clues to indicate that the night’s stay would be unlike any we had experienced. We had 80 miles of wheat fields to conquer, and it was 103 bone-dry degrees. As we savored the last few moments of a break under a rare scrap of shade, a kindly grandma zoomed up to us in a golf cart and exclaimed, “Are you the bikers??” Mind you, this was still 40 miles out from our destination. Yes, we replied, more than a little confused. How did you know? As it turned out, the people of LaCrosse had put out a notice on their local cable station inviting everyone from neighboring towns to come and meet us that evening. She regretted that she wouldn’t be able to join with the wheat harvest approaching, but she invited us into her house for frozen candy bars and a refill for our water jugs. Stranger danger be damned; we gleefully accepted, and got back on our bikes refreshed and feeling cared for.
Hours of hard work later, we arrived. We were to wait with a volunteer for the fire truck that arrived, sirens wailing, a short while later. The town’s children joined us on bikes themselves to ride with this marvelous escort all the way to the community park, where the entire town had turned out to greet us with a banner, a map of our journey, and an entire pagoda full of vegan and vegetarian food — which must not be taken for granted in an area so remote — for us to enjoy together.
We shared that wonderful dinner mingling among the citizens of LaCrosse both old and young, and when everyone had had their fill, our hosts told us to go get changed for the pool party they had prepared, reserving the entire community pool for us. We were to shower afterward in the school next door, where we discovered that the students had prepared a personal card and towel waiting for every one of us in the locker room.
That wasn’t even close to the end of the sheer onslaught of kindness. When we finally arrived at our host Lana and Roger’s home, there was ice cream, pastries, vegan treats that she had spent days practicing recipes for. Aha, so this was why she had been emailing us for weeks in advance asking about our favorite foods! The closest grocery store was a three hour drive away, so she had made sure well in advance to stock whatever we might be craving. We crowded together in their cozy living room, eating and drinking and laughing with them, and when the evening began to wind down they would not hear of us sleeping on the floor as usual; they had prepared beds and air mattresses for all eleven of us.
We had felt welcomed in every town we had been through, but LaCrosse was one where we felt truly loved. As I was getting ready for bed, I noticed on the nightstand a collection of books by Mitch Albom, one of my favorite authors. Lana noticed me picking one up, a sequel I hadn’t known about. She insisted I take it, and she gave all of the rest of the collection away to the other Dreamers for good measure. When I woke up the next morning I wasn’t feeling very well, so I sat out the day and decided to read a bit. As I opened the book, I saw for the first time the inscription she had written for me. “SaraAnn, thank you for sharing your journey with us. What an amazing life-changing event, to cycle across America and end up in LaCrosse Washington where our paths met on this day. When you read this book, you will understand when I say, you’ve changed our lives in such a positive way. Love, Lana, Roger, and Milo”.
This is the legacy of the Dream Project: to bring forth a new community, not just between eleven strangers on a two-wheeled peanut butter fueled social experiment, but across a country, linking people who would never have otherwise been brought together, in the creation of a chain of kindness that stretches from sea to shining sea.