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