Over the past 12 years, Ken Foster has been our “visionary” blogger! But Ken is opening up the blog to include other voices. At Terra Nova, we hire visionary people to work for us, and they have something to say, too. In this post, meet Neale “the Wheel” Inglenook. In future blog posts you’ll hear from Ken again on sustainable landscaping subjects, as well as from other staff and friends.
Neale Inglenook maintains landscapes by bicycle with Terra Nova’s Tread Lightly Maintenance Service. He and his brother chronicled their Trans-America bike trip on the blog nealeanddave.blogspot.com. More of his writing can be found at digital-material.net, and in the forthcoming issue of the literary journal Dark Mountain.
By Neale Inglenook
On August 8th, 2010, my brother and I pushed our bicycles through the sand on the Oregon coast and dipped our rear wheels in the surf. A day of mist that wanted to be rain, the breakers rolling in gray from the west. Our panniers ponderous with everything we thought we would need for the coming journey, our handlebars aiming east, we were thrilled with uncertainty, trepidation, and explorers’ excitement.
Ten weeks later, our front wheels met the Atlantic on a South Carolina beach. We had traveled 4,000 miles; crossed mountain ranges, high deserts, rolling prairies that stretched to the horizon; endured summer heat that felt like breathing in an oven, mountain sleet that chilled our hands numb, deluges that pummeled our little tent; learned to love weak roadside coffee and canned chili; rarely slept in a bed, but more than once in a graveyard; shared almost everything we had between the two of us.
Much of the trip was not what is usually called pleasant. We battled brick-hard headwinds with aching legs; torrential rains soaked us to the skin; we woke some mornings shivering and unprotected to oatmeal going cold. Most days we ended bone-tired, caked in salt from our sweat; I was so starved for it once I licked it from my shirt. We sometimes went weeks between showers. All through Nebraska we slept by rail lines where coal trains thundered and blared their horns every quarter hour, the earth quivering under our thin mats.
The discomfort could lead to an uneasy sense of vulnerability we tend to push to the margins of our minds when we can: the feeling that we are small, at the whim of greater forces, with nothing but ourselves to fall back on.
Throughout, many people we encountered expressed disbelief that anyone would undertake such an endeavor voluntarily – indeed that it was even possible. A woman in West Virginia stood gaping at us when we told her how far we’d come. “You came all the way from Oregon?” she asked. “On them bicycles?”
We gained things from the hardship and exposure, though, more than we gave up. I have never felt better physically than during those ten weeks, aching muscles and canned chili aside. Generosity followed on the heels of disbelief, as people all across the continent opened their homes, let us pitch our tent in their yards, gave us directions or made us a latte.
One time in West Yellowstone, a thunderstorm bore down on us like a tidal wave, nearly knocking us flat, soaking us, felling trees in our path. We made it to town and found a pizza joint with big bottomless mugs of coffee. Hearing about our undertaking, the young workers gave us a pizza for free. Sitting inside with the big mug filling my hand, watching the clouds scud over the mountains, I have never felt warmer or safer.
Whether with people we met, passes we climbed, weather that descended on us, what we gained was contact and experience. Every moment our senses were filled with the wild landscapes we traversed, impressed into memory I still carry with me.
We might have taken a week or two to cross the continent by car. But whether traveling thousands of miles, or merely around town, the experience is qualitatively different on a bike. In a car we are enclosed, our contact with the greater world attenuated by glass and steel and climate control, and the ability to command speed simply by pressing the gas. We are often wrapped up in our thoughts as we rush to our next engagement. The bicycle, by contrast, demands our bodily effort, a consciously steady pace, and an openness to what’s around us. We take in the light through the cypress trees, hear the growl of traffic and the call of the red-shouldered hawk, and breathe the air, with its tastes of ocean spume and car exhaust and soil in the sun.
It is easy and conventional in our culture to disconnect from and disregard non-human things. To this, gardening and bicycling can be antidotes. If we are doing our work well and paying attention, both activities ask us to engage with our landscapes and their features, small and large. With that engagement comes an almost implicit care for places and things.
This is why we chose to cross the continent by bicycle, and why I’ve come to work in the mode that I do. In the end it is not such a hardship or deprivation – our landscapes are made more healthy and our lives better, and we are left with potent memories.
This week, working in a garden, I was savoring the sea wind blowing in at the front of the coming storm – heady, salty, humid – and I thought of a day, almost a decade ago now, when the wind was laying the grass flat on the Wyoming plains, and massive storm clouds marched stately on the horizon, trailing dark rain. That day the breeze was at our backs, and it carried us over rolling hills, as though we were light as birds.