Why this blog?

Yonah Biers-Ariel refused to have a Bar Mitzvah. His parents insisted on an alternative rite of passage. In order to avoid leading a half-dozen prayers and dancing with his grandmother at his Bar Mitzvah party, Yonah pedaled a bicycle 3,804 miles—San Francisco to Washington DC—joined by his parents and little brother. Along the way, the family collected thousands of signatures on a global warming petition calling for the United States to undergo an energy rite of passage moving from our dependence on oil to a non-carbon energy future.

99 GALLONS OF GATORADE is the father’s memoir of this ordinary family’s extraordinary journey.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chapter 4 - Training

I taught at a high school 13 miles away and commuted by bicycle. Many weekends included a 50-mile bike ride. So I was more or less trained. Djina took a spin class a few times a week. Spin? It’s a class where twenty stationary bicycles are crammed into a space the size of a living room. Instead of windows and fresh air, there are industrial fans. Instead of birds tweeting, Green Day, Rolling Stones, and other such truck blare over loudspeakers while an instructor, who makes Arnold Schwarzenegger (circa 1975) look like a pussy, screams, “Push it!” (If spin were an option at Abu Ghraib, there would have been significantly less waterboarding. No more lycra! No more Mick! I'll talk! I'll talk!) So Djina was more or less trained.

The boys played sports and rode their bikes to school, but their in-shapeness to ride across the country was the equivalent of being ready to pilot a jetfighter after mastering the art of folding a paper airplane. Our initial ride was 13 miles to Winters. After six miles at a poky 12 mph pace on a flat road and carrying no gear, the boys were kaput.

"Are you kidding?" I didn’t try to mask my irritation.

"I'm really thirsty," Yonah said.

"I'm hungry," Solomon piped in.

"Yeah," Yonah agreed.

While they took ten minutes to rest, eat, drink, and complain about how hard it was, I calculated. We needed to cover 60 miles a day. At this pace, plus gear, plus mountains, Greenland would be exporting pineapples by the time we'd roll into Washington DC. This was the reality check that we had bitten off too much. Way too much. There was no way. We had to amend the trip. San Francisco to Los Angeles was a legitimate long distance route, and at 400 miles, it might be doable. Yet to change the trip would be to admit failure, and all the naysayers who pronounced, “No way!” when we told them our plan could now crow, “See, I told you you were crazy.”

It wasn’t optimism that said, “Don’t give up, we can do it.”


We told everyone that we were going to ride cross-country, and—damn it—no matter what, we would stick to the plan because pride was at stake.

Pride is often given a bad rap. But it is the great motivator. Without it, our species might still be swinging in the trees. So I kept quiet, and after a few more grumbles, the boys mounted the bikes.

Two more trips to make Winters without stopping. We weren't breaking any speed records averaging 12 mph, but by the end of training, I figured we'd be at 15 mph. That would mean four hours of actual bike time to do the daily 60 miles. This would allow time to indulge in Djina’s pre-trip fantasies: eating at Rotary Clubs' pancake breakfasts, swimming in lakes, and taking in matinees to avoid the midday sun.

After Winters, mileage increased to a 40-mile loop around Lake Solano. Two months into training and it was hill time. Going coast-to-coast is over 150,000 feet of vertical climbing. That's thirty miles straight up, high enough to wave to the Space Shuttle. We live in the Central Valley. It is an ancient seabed. Our hills are the freeway overpasses. Cantelow Road is the only local topography. It is relatively steep at about an 8% pitch, but it’s short. It takes an average rider six minutes to get to the top. Nevertheless, it was our training mountain. It took Solomon and me 20 minutes to struggle up it. Average speed: 4.3 mph.

"Well," I said, "if we need to, we'll just get off and push the bike up the steep roads. No shame in that."

The next step was to add the panniers and trailer, and ride with weight. At this point, the tandem’s metaphor, a Ford F350 truck, was jettisoned and replaced by the bike’s true name, The Beast. If it was on the heavy side without panniers, there are no adjectives to describe it fully loaded. The tired allusion of Sisyphus did not do justice to peddling the fully-loaded Beast up Cantelow. It was more akin to peddling through seven-inch-thick, newly-poured cement. We crawled up Cantelow at 3.2 miles per hour, the same pace of my 80-year-old mother’s daily constitutional. The silver lining: we didn’t have to get off and push.

The goal of a 15 mph average was discarded like a banana peel on the side of the road. 12 mph was the new goal, but probably not doable. 10 mph seemed more likely. Six hours of actual riding time. With breaks and everything, probably on the road eight hours a day. In other words, good-bye to those matinees. I didn’t care. Most summer movies suck.

While both Djina and Yonah's bikes worked like the well-tuned machines they were, The Beast—well—I was not as right as I could have been about buying a tandem on eBay. This bike had been some couple's workhorse for twenty years and was tired and ready to go to pasture. Components failed on a regular basis. I replaced chains, shifters, cables, and reconfigured the brakes. And still it got grumpy at times.

"You can still get a new bike," Djina offered.

And admit I was wrong? Hah! Let facts dictate behavior? Never! Sure the bike wasn’t perfect, but what did she expect? It wasn't new. It just needed a little TLC. It was still significantly cheaper than a new bike, and it rode pretty well except for the problems that brought me to curse it and get busted by the family's language cop. Solomon’s mission was to stamp out curse words. If someone said, "Damn!" "Shit!" or other non-synagogue word, he shouted, "Checkmark!" hoping that through his intervention we would clean our diction and substitute approved exclamations such as "Gosh darn!" But when you strain up a hill at 3 mph, and need one entire breath for every single pedal rotation, and you can't take your hands off the handlebars long enough to wipe the sweat stinging your eyes, and the hill becomes even steeper, and you steel yourself for more pain as you shift into the lowest gear you have, and the chain decides at that moment, that very moment, to jump off the chain ring and wedge itself between the chain ring and the frame as if it had been superglued into place, and your pedals come to a dead stop, and so do you, and you fall, and your knee, hand, and shoulder get bloodied, and all those part replacements and adjustments you made over the last month prove themselves worthless, then "Gosh darn!" or even "Jeez!" just won't cut it. The only words to act as balm are, "Goddamn motherfucking piece of shit!"

And then standing above his sprawled out father is Solomon, hands on hips, "Checkmark, checkmark, checkmark."

The Beast’s most significant problem was its cluster of three chain rings. The largest diameter one was for going fast. (Used every third blue moon.) The middle one was where the chain lived 80% of the time. Then came the small ring, actually it was tiny. It had to be. There was no other way to get The Beast up a climb. Unfortunately, the chain ring was so small that the space between it and the middle chain ring was wider than on most bikes. Occasionally the chain shifted too far and wedged itself between the chain ring and the frame. As a devotee of Murphy's Law, the chain only wedged at the worst of times. To free it meant yanking it with both hands, in conjunction with a good strong oath, and then repetition of these two steps until the chain, satisfied that my hands were sufficiently blackened with grease, relented.


1. Why isn’t spin registered as an enhanced interrogation technique?

2. Should Matt have jettisoned The Beast in favor of a new bike, or is character building more important than having proper equipment?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Chapter 3 - Equipment

At the top of the list: bicycles, those technological marvels that can move a human being four times a walking pace using one-third the energy. A human on a bicycle is more efficient in terms of calories per mile than any other mode of transportation. Though hard to believe for one living in the United States, it is the most ubiquitous form of transportation in the world.

Yonah had a cheap, hand-me-down bike, so we bought him a new one. He was a bit wobbly at first because he was used to his old bike, but it didn’t take more than five city blocks to adjust from the biking equivalent of a 1993 Ford Fiesta firing three cylinders atop four bald tires and lousy brakes to a new Toyota Camry Hybrid.

Djina already had a bicycle, but it was a racing bike. If Yonah's new bike was a Toyota Camry, Djina's was a Porsche Boxster. To the untrained eye, it looked like a touring bike, but while Yonah's was made of steel, Djina's carbon-based graphite frame could be lifted with an index finger. Unfortunately, Djina's bike would not be unencumbered as we pedaled across the States. Loading this bike with mundane items such as sleeping bags and tents would be no different than hitching Seabiscuit to an ice wagon. Still, if you had the choice of hitching Seabiscuit or a nag to the wagon, you'd take Biscuit.

Solomon and I needed a bicycle built for two, a tandem, and they were not cheap. A decent one was $3,000-$4,000. I was never much for tandems; this ride would be a onetime thing, so I refused to pay retail.

Djina recommended, "Buy a new one, and then if you don't want to keep it, sell it."

I replied, "Why buy a new bike when I can get a used one on eBay? It’s better to reuse than buy new, and it’s common knowledge that tandems are bought by guys who want their significant others to get into biking. The guy buys a $4,000 bike, and then they go for the first ride. She doesn't like that most of what she sees is his back, and she's hoarse from screaming at him to slow down. And while he gets to smell all the good nature smells, she smells smelly him. But she's a good sport and goes out with him on Saturdays for a month. On the fifth Saturday she refuses to mount 'that thing.' He argues, but she tells him the only way he is going to ride that tandem is if he finds another woman. So after 335 miles, the tandem is retired to the garage. One year later it’s moved up to the rafters. Five years later, she makes him sell it, so they can buy a bike trailer for the baby. And then I buy it cheap."

“I'd buy a new one."

My thought bubble chuckled, "I'll show her."

As it turned out, the tandem was not a single mouse click away. There were lots of guys looking to get their significant others into biking, and those bastards were too cheap to buy new, so I learned eBay strategic bidding which is to hold off bidding until the very last moment. Unfortunately, there are others employing the same strategy, and as a teacher, it’s hard to do personal business from school.

“…and the reason the theme of my short story is loss of innocence is that when I was six, my dad left us and…”

“Paul, can you hold that thought for a second? I just have to do something real fast.”

I lost three sweet bikes to final buzzer bidders.

After the third one, Djina reiterated her "I'd buy a new one" mantra.

My thought bubble could barely contain itself. “I’ll really show her!” it screeched.

And then I discovered Esnipe, a service that automatically slips your bid in thirty seconds before the auction closes. Pay a nominal fee, tell them how high you're willing to bid, and—voila—you’ve got a new—well—used bike.

A Burley tandem came up. It looked good in the picture. The seller, however, didn't know anything about it. He couldn't tell me the year or model. But that hardly mattered. In fact, it was better because it proved he didn't ride it. It had been mothballed in the rafters since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Lots of people wanted it and the bidding war was on. I contacted Esnipe, observed from the sidelines, and four days later received the "You're a winner!" congratulatory email.

The bike arrived and looked fine. Perhaps it had a few more than 335 miles on it, but that baby was solid. If Yonah had a new Toyota Camry and Djina was cycling a Porsche, Solomon and I were going to cross America in a good-condition 1985ish Ford F350 one-ton pickup.

"See, Djina," I crowed.

She smiled, but her thought bubble was easy to cipher, “I would have bought a new one.”

* * *

To carry gear and food, some transcontinental cyclists have a friend or family member follow in a sag vehicle to haul everything. Since this defeated the low carbon footprint message, we had two options: panniers (saddlebags) or bike trailers. For panniers, a bicycle needs brazons, a threaded nut in the frame that a bicycle rack can be screwed into. The panniers then attach to the rack. Racing bikes don't have brazons, so Djina got a trailer. We put panniers on the other two bikes because a trailer might be too difficult for Yonah to handle, and a trailer on the back of an already stretched tandem, would make it longer than an actual Ford pickup.

Now the gear itself. The plan was to camp most days, so it was to REI for lightweight camping equipment. There was a 3 pound, 11 ounce tent for $168. For $329 we could get a 3 pound, 3 ounce tent.

Me: Let's get the $168 tent. (I had already put it in the cart.)

Djina: 1/2 pound is a lot of weight. (She put the other one in.)

Me: That's like five Clif Bars. And it's $160 more.

Djina: Trust me, every ounce counts. It's not that much money to save your knees.

Twenty more minutes of arguing discussion, and like Solomon’s namesake, we cut the baby in half. One $168 tent, one $329 tent. (One month later, still two months before the trip, the $329 tent was on sale for $159.)

The other items weren't any easier. Titanium or aluminum pots? This time the difference was 3 ounces and $30. We went titanium. Then the stove. There were twenty stoves from which to choose. Djina liked a particular MSR stove. It was light and dependable, but it required a special fuel canister. I was skeptical about finding one of those babies in Kentucky, but the salesman assured us, “You can buy MSR fuel canisters everywhere.” So it went into the cart.

The camping equipment was rounded out with stuff from home: sleeping bags, ensolite pads, matches, sporks (spoon/fork/knife combination utensil), bowls, cups, and our friend Ken Giles' special pencil gift: a number 2 pencil wrapped with duct tape.

Me: Gee, Ken, I hardly know what to say.

Ken: You’ll see. It’ll come in handy. Duct tape can fix anything.

Me: Uh, thanks.

Other equipment included my Leatherman, a Swiss-army knife on steroids. With its pliers, knife, and 13 other gadgets of which I hadn’t the foggiest idea of their uses, we were covered for exigencies such as opening beer bottles that weren't twist-offs.

I bought a bike tool. It had tire irons (for removing the tire from the wheel to repair flats), assorted wrenches, screwdrivers, and a chain link remover.

"A chain link remover?" I asked incredulously. "Why would I ever need that? I've been biking for over forty years, and I've never broken a chain."

"Well," the mechanic at B&L Bikes said, "if you do happen to break your chain in the middle of the desert, it'd be good to have."

"Whatever," I said and he rang it up.

The final piece of equipment was a set of Adventure Cycling maps. This organization produces ten or so map sets that crisscross the United States. These maps are genius. Each one covers between 300-450 miles of roads that avoid heavy traffic and big cities. In addition to giving the safest, most scenic route, the maps provide elevation profiles and locate campgrounds, grocery stores, hotels, libraries, and bicycle shops. Yonah and I pored over them and made an itinerary based on mileage, elevation changes, and campgrounds. We figured 63 days riding plus 6 rest days.

The sleeping bags and tents went in the trailer. The two other bikes had eight panniers distributed between them. Four small ones for the front, four larger ones for the rear. Each person had a large one for clothing. The small ones would be for equipment and food.

The equipment was set. Next, training.

Questions to comment on: 1. Some husbands claim that the secret to a happy marriage is to always agree with one’s wife. Agree or disagree.

2. Predict what foreshadowing was present in this chapter.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

You Can't Bring Your Gameboy

Now that we decided to bike across America, was it possible? 10 weeks of summer vacation to cover roughly 4,000 miles. Throw in a few rest days, and it’s a 60-mile daily ride. The farthest Yonah had ever biked was 25 miles, an all-day extravaganza with innumerable rest stops. Even if Yonah could manage the mileage, he'd have to do it with camping equipment and food strapped to his bike. Instead of riding a 25-pound bike up the Rocky Mountains, he’d be lugging an additional 25 pounds of gear. And even then, so much could go wrong. Bust a wheel in the Nevada desert and it’s days waiting for a new one. Midwest thunderstorms could force us to hunker down for a week. And if either of us got even a cold, the delay would sink us. Though no bookies would give even odds, it was worth a try because like that poem in the Reform Judaism prayerbook, it’s the journey not the destination that counts.

“And if you don’t try, you never know what you are capable of. Anyway, if we need to, we can leapfrog Kansas and Missouri by bus. I mean, how much corn do you need to see?”

“Can we leapfrog the Rockies?”

The plan of the two of us biking across America by ourselves lasted until Solomon walked through the front door. Son number two at eight-years-old was too young to ride across the country, but upon hearing the adventure, there was no way he was staying home due to Little Brother Rule #1: Anything big brother does must be done by little brother. Impossibility of task adds to the allure.

“Solomon, we’re going to be on our bikes at least four hours a day.”


“That’s going to be boring for you.”

“No it won’t.”

“It’s going to be really hard. I don’t know if Yonah can do it, and he’s four years older. I don’t even know if I can do it.”

“I can do it.”

“You can’t bring your Gameboy.”

Long pause. Deep swallow.

“If Yonah can do it, I can do it.”

So Solomon, who recently had been passed by a 75-year-old jogger while riding his bike to school, was coming.

While Solomon would add fun to the trip, he would make it significantly more challenging because it meant he and I would ride together on a tandem bicycle. Tandems are notoriously difficult in hill climbing, and we were not just negotiating hills, but mountains: the Sierras, the Rockies, and the Appalachians. If a tandem with two strong adults is hard going, how about one with a middle-aged man sporting chronically sore knees seated in front of a third grade graduate? For those unfamiliar with young boy energy as played out on a bicycle, it goes like this: Thirty seconds hell-bent sprinting to the finish line of the Tour de France followed by ten minutes of recuperation while naming his favorite baseball players and reciting their statistics before another thirty seconds of sprinting. Repeat until sixth grade.

When Djina came home from work, I announced, “Yonah wants to ride cross-country. Solomon’s coming too.”

“Are you crazy? There is no way!”

“We looked at the maps. It’s possible, but it’s going to be tough. It’ll be like Theodore Herzl said, ‘If you will it, it is no dream.’”

“I mean there’s no way I’m letting you take them on your own. I’m coming too.”

Despite my perfect record with Solomon on the changing table, Yonah’s diaper debacles still weighed on her mind. But to be fair, it was more than about her progeny’s safety. Djina loves cycling and adventure. But there was a timing obstacle. I'm a teacher and share summer vacation with the boys. She's a midwife. She can't say to a eight-month pregnant woman, "Can you put off pushing until—say—Labor Day?" Like Solomon, Djina would not be deterred. She went to her colleagues, they made a coverage agreement, and the whole family was signed on.

* * *

Biking across America would be an extreme physical challenge. But would it be sufficient for a rite of passage? Most synagogues do not consider leading a religious service adequate to complete the Bar Mitzvah. There is usually a social action element such as collecting money for food banks, working at a homeless shelter, taking part in a river cleanup. Yonah needed something too. He suggested tackling global climate change. Every other issue paled in light of rising water levels, mass extinctions, and the whole panoply of requisite disasters that comes with atmospheric carbon dioxide buildup. And wasn't cycling a carbon-free way to travel? Even if we only made it as far as the Sierras, we'd be an example for others to view biking as a legitimate means of transportation.

The idea was simple. Write a petition. Gather a million signatures, present it to the White House and Congress, and watch the country suddenly become carbon neutral and lead the world toward a green future. As a humble family, we did not expect a ticker-tape parade, but if the President insisted...

The petition focused on ideas that had to be practical. While arguably the best action an individual can take to arrest global warming is dig a hole, drive his car into it, and then fill the hole, this idea would not win the day. Our ideas focused on improved gas mileage, decreasing car trips, and creating a green energy industry. The petition would be a kick in the pants for our country to stop dragging its humongous carbon footprint and show leadership. I imagined a media field day as we would pied piper-like lead thousands of cyclists into Washington DC to converge on the White House and deliver half a million signatures, climb back on our bikes and ride up Constitution Avenue to deliver the other half million to Congress. The glacier of American lethargy on global warming would melt. Angelina Jolie would hand us frosty smoothies with organic fruit, and George Clooney would present us keys to a brand new Prius.

If he could make it, riding coast to coast would be Yonah’s rite of passage moving him from child to adolescent. On a larger scale, the petition could catalyze America and her inhabitants to undertake an energy rite of passage from our petrochemical present to a non-carbon future. Like riding across the country, changing our energy usage will be difficult, but a rite of passage is never an easy undertaking.

Collecting signatures would be easy. Besides a few troglodytes, who wouldn’t sign? No one wants malaria mosquitoes in Alaska or tour New York City via a submarine. But how to gather so many signatures? No problem. The Internet. Just turn the petition into an electronic format and glom it onto an already existing organization's website. How about the Sierra Club?

"Yes!" their media guy exclaimed enthusiastically. Unfortunately, President Bush kept the Club’s fingers engaged in plugging up the dikes protecting ANWR and the Endangered Species Act, and they didn’t have time.

How about MoveOn.org? Aren’t they the voice of liberal, grassroots electronic organizing? While they never have a problem getting in touch with me with their weekly action updates, try and contact them if you're not Al Gore. I combed through their website. No contact info. I called 411. "I'm sorry but we have no listing."

A few days later the phone rang.

"This is David Henderson from MoveOn.org..."

"Did you say MoveOn.org?"

"Yes, we are starting a campaign..."

"I've been trying to reach you guys for months! Listen to this amazing idea [five minutes of blather about trip and petition]. Who do I contact about getting the petition on your website?"

"Well, uh, I don't know. I'm just sent information on the various campaigns on my computer. I've never spoken to anyone either."


"Would you like to get involved with the campaign to..."

"Maybe next time. Bye."

Finally, after trolling the internet a few more weeks, we found Cool Capital, a consortium of environmental, business, and other Washington DC groups dedicated to greening the nation's capital. We e-mailed them. The next day the executive director called and said that she was so moved by our trip that tears splashed onto her keyboard. Not only would they set up an electronic petition, but they would host a blog, and help organize the thousands of riders who would converge on DC the day of our arrival. Our dream was actually going to become reality. I suggested Yonah start writing the speech he'd deliver from the Capital steps. I went to the Prius website to look at car colors.

Alas, Robert Burns put it best when he wrote,
"The best-laid plans o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain
For promised joy."

Here's a translation for those whose 18th century Scottish-tinged English is rusty: “We plan, and then through no fault of our own, we fail. And then we cry.” An old Jewish adage puts a different spin on it: “Man plans, God laughs.” An atheist might venture: “Man plans, and maybe another man plans against him, or maybe a hurricane comes, or who knows what, but the plan won’t work.”

The point is that the director at Cool Capital assigned an intern to coordinate everything. The intern had other plans and did nothing. By the time we realized this, the director, who had earlier been moved to tears, had moved to a new job, and we were left adrift, alone on a piece of melting arctic ice. But the petition would not be abandoned. If the glacier would not go to Muhammad, we would go to the glacier and collect the signatures ourselves on the old standby, paper.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Genesis of an Atheist

It didn’t begin as a sudden inspiration. I didn't leap out of bed, wake Yonah, and holler, "Son, we’re biking across America! Fill your water bottle! Pump up the tires! Grab an extra pair of underwear! What are you waiting for? Let's go!"


It began with a conversation the two of us had when he was in kindergarten. We were finishing dinner when little Yonah asked, "Daddy, what happens after you die?"

I remember scant little from Yonah's early childhood except for the times when I caused him bodily harm, such as walking through a low doorway with him sitting astride my shoulders. While changing his diaper, I almost sent him to the emergency room, twice. Once I shishkabobed his delicate baby's butt with a safety pin while pinning his nappy. I pushed and pushed trying to get the pin through the thick, unyielding cotton. And then it was through, and I closed it. He didn’t make a sound at first, but his face had a strange look of surprise, and I knew I done a bad thing.

A few months later, I asked my smiling infant, "Where did that penny go?" I had given him a penny to play with, so he'd stop squirming while I cleaned his tush. It wasn’t in his hands; it wasn’t on the changing table; the carpet was bare.

“You didn’t…no…don’t tell me you…your mother is going to kill me.”

For the next two days, Djina and I went through his poop to make sure the penny passed. If it didn’t, it would be a possible surgery and a probable divorce. Fortunately it passed.

With a father like me, no wonder the five-year-old was curious about death.

I am sure that Yonah's first words, his first steps, and the first time he slept through the night are stored somewhere in my brain, but I cannot access those memories. But that question, the question that launched a thousand religions, I remember it as if it were ten minutes ago. I remember thinking that this was the essence of fatherhood: conversing with your child on issues of truth and passing wisdom from one generation to the next.

I said, "That's a great question, and the truth is that no one really knows what happens when a person dies because no dead person has ever come back to tell us. But there are at least three ideas that people have. The first is that the part of you that makes you you, your soul, lives on after you die. It goes to a place like heaven or to somewhere else and lives forever. The second one says that after you die, you are reborn into something different. It's called reincarnation. Maybe you'll be born as another person or maybe as an animal. What kind of animal would you like to be reincarnated as?"

"I like cheetah-birds," he replied.

"That's nice. The third possibility is that when you die, nothing happens. When you die, you're dead, and that's the end.”

The third possibility sounded harsh, and I didn’t want to burden a young soul with existential nightmares, so I softened it with, “It’s like being asleep."

Yonah digested it all. I could sense his frontal lobes cogitating. When he finished, he looked into my eyes and announced, "I'm the kind who thinks that when you're dead, you're dead."

He climbed off his chair and skipped to his room to play with Thomas the Tank Engine. I sat dumbfounded because my five-year-old was more definite about the nature of life than I was at thirty-nine, for I was a liberal Jew who had some amorphous faith in a god or higher power imbuing the universe with meaning. I also believed, or at least wanted to believe, in the immortal nature of the soul. But here as I sat at the dining room table cluttered with plates smeared with the remains of spaghetti and pesto, newspaper innards, junk mail, and mismatched dirty socks, I witnessed the genesis of an atheist.


Not only are we Jewish, but I went to graduate school at Hebrew Union College to study the Bible and its commentaries. I did not come from a religious background. My family went to synagogue twice a year for the High Holidays where I sullenly sat, watching the prayerbook’s page numbers slowly trudge to the end of the service. Whenever the rabbi mercifully skipped thirty pages, my heart leapt, and it sank when, in a fit of sadism, he sent us back twenty. Passover was a week of choking down stale matzah sandwiches and scrubbing bright red lipstick from my cheeks after being kissed by relatives as old as the children of Israel themselves. For three years I suffered in Hebrew school and had a Bar Mitzvah. Following that day when I became a man in the eyes of Judaism, I vowed never again to step into a synagogue.

So how did I wind up in a Jewish seminary?

As a young man, I travelled to Israel to work on a kibbutz, a collective farm, partly due to socialist leanings, mostly in order to meet blond Scandinavian volunteers. One day in Jerusalem, I happened upon a poster featuring a bagel smothered with cream cheese and lox. Underneath the bagel was the message, “Is this the culmination of 3,500 years of culture?” No doubt about it, that poster perfectly captured my relationship to Judaism, but it gave me pause. 3,500 years. That's a chunk of time. Could there be something more to my heritage than smoked salmon? After all, while Jews number less than one-hundredth of one-percent of the world’s population, 20 percent of Nobel Prize winners have been members of the tribe. Maybe it was worth giving it one more chance. I enrolled in a yeshiva, a religious college, and spent two months studying the Talmud, Judaism’s sacred post-biblical text. Though I was a UC Berkeley graduate, I had never found more serious students than the ones arguing over these ancient books. And there was wisdom. I had fancied myself an environmentalist, and here was Yahweh, 2,000 years before the first Earth Day, proclaiming, “Take care of My Creation, for if you destroy it, there is no one to clean up after you.”

I became religious, returned to America, and enrolled in Hebrew Union College, a liberal seminary. Following grad school, it was fifteen years in Jewish education. I became known for Jewish environmental and wilderness programs and co-wrote a Jewish naturalist guide. Turning my hand to fiction, I penned three books of Jewish short stories. Christ, you couldn’t be much more Jewish than me. But as Yonah approached age thirteen, his Bar Mitzvah year, the joke about the shoemaker's shoeless son became personal. Yonah refused to go through the Jewish rite of passage ceremony because if he was only theologically opposed to immortality at age five, by twelve he had developed a severe loathing toward religion.

Djina and I spoke of Judaism as more than a religious belief. We explained that Judaism could be thought of as a culture, an ethnicity, a civilization. Plenty of Jews have little patience for the religious doctrines but are proud of being Jewish. Yonah had none of this. He saw religion as a way to dumb people down; he believed religion to be the root of the world's conflicts. I felt he was rejecting a child’s version of religion. The Judaism he rejected was the one of that long-bearded, grandfatherly, muscular God painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I, too, had rejected that God and his religion. For me religion meant community, beautiful stories, and a taste of the spiritual world. It was not a dogma of rules and rites; rather, religion was a conduit to find meaning in life. Yonah’s rejection seemed like a Christian rejecting the fellowship and charity that come with Christmas after discovering Santa Claus didn’t exist. But nuances and paradoxes are difficult for young teens. The bottom line was Yonah had no desire to be a Jew.

Should Djina and I have pushed the Bar Mitzvah on him as many parents do? Wasn’t there a Jewish teaching: if one acts first, understanding will follow? Though the ritual might be meaningful, it more likely would have bred resentment and fury. Perhaps if it wasn’t forced down his throat, Yonah would find his Jewish soul in his own time, like we did. Still for one year he attempted Hebrew school. He didn't do it out of love of tradition or at the behest of his parents. It was a cold Machiavellian calculation. At age seven, he announced his desire to become President of the United States. Now at age twelve, he understood that Americans would more likely elect a Jew than an atheist because the most disliked people in America are those who do not believe in God. A 1999 Gallup poll found that while 6 percent of Americans would not vote for a Jewish presidential candidate, and 8 percent would refuse a woman, 48 percent would not cast their ballots for an atheist.

So Yonah dutifully went to Hebrew school.

"What have you learned so far?" I asked after a month.

"There’s like a hundred prayers, and they all say, ‘God, you're great!' You’d think if God were so great, he wouldn’t need us to keep telling him."

Yonah also attended religious school and actually enjoyed debating the great philosophical questions such as the nature of good and evil.

Unfortunately, much of the curriculum dealt with the "boring" Jewish laws such as kashrut, and why one must never eat chicken and cheese together. Yonah had been a strict vegetarian since age eight and, without realizing it, had been living a de facto kosher life.

“See you’re more Jewish than you thought!”

“Right, Dad.”

For a year he went and then announced, "No more." The chance to pontificate on a Torah passage in front of an audience held no appeal. The chocolate fountains of the Bar Mitzvah party did not entice him. Even a vision of the presidency didn’t exert a strong enough pull to get him to wear a kipa for a single Saturday morning. His thirteenth birthday would come and go like all his others, and I'd be sad.

The truth was Djina and I didn't need, nor especially want, Yonah to become zealously religious. But thirteen is an auspicious age because puberty dramatically changes both body and mind. While a boy is not a man at thirteen, he is clearly no longer a child. Almost every ancient culture recognized puberty’s importance, but in America it is mostly ignored. We wanted Yonah to mark his 13th birthday with a ritual, a rite of passage. But if not a Bar Mitzvah, what?

I always admired the Native American vision quest or at least the popular impression of it: a solo physical journey into the wilderness with the express desire to experience a spiritual awakening. The fasting boy hikes deep into the wilderness pushing beyond his physical endurance where he enters a sacred space. Through prayer, the boy enters the dream world and learns his true name, the essence of his spiritual being. Upon returning, he is no longer a boy, but a young man.

I was sure a spiritual journey wouldn’t appeal to Yonah, but a physical one might. Physical challenges are important. They allow us to measure our fortitude and spirit. We need to find our limits, push against them, and learn about who we are when the veneer of our personality disintegrates in the face of challenge and danger. Hence, the army, rock climbing, and high school football. Maybe if the challenge was profound enough physically, the spiritual might ride on its coattails. I loved to bike and had some friends who rode across the United States. Maybe Yonah could do that, and I’d join him. It would be a real father/son bonding experience. Besides being a physical challenge, it would be eye-opening for a blue-state, West Coast kid to experience the heartland of America and go beyond the stereotype of its gun-toting, pro-lifers who think Darwin should have burned at the stake along with his satanic book. It would be like exploring a foreign culture without having to learn a new language.

“Are you kidding?” he said.

“I’m serious.”

“It’s like 3,000 miles.”

“Actually, because you take backroads instead of freeways, it’s more like 4,000.”

“There is no way.”

“C’mon, you’re an American history buff. Here’s a chance to see the places where history was made. It’ll be fun and a challenge. It’ll look good on your college application, and you’ll probably be like the youngest kid ever to do it.”

“Bike riding’s boring.”

“Did Mom tell you her idea? Going to Israel and visiting the holy sites like the Western Wall…”

“Definitely no!”

“Got any other ideas?”


“Okay, then it’s back to Hebrew school.”

“No, no, no! That bike thing sounds okay.”

So in order to avoid a single day of chanting a small section of Torah, leading a congregation in a half-dozen prayers, and dancing with his grandmother at his Bar Mitzvah party, twelve-year-old Yonah Biers-Ariel, an ambivalent cyclist, decided to pedal a bicycle from San Francisco to Washington DC with his dad.