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Day 15: An Incident & a Conversation

Today was a hard day. In fact, it may have been our low point on this journey so far. This post has a content warning: racism and implied threats of violence. We both spent the entire day of riding thinking about something that happened first thing this morning. We’re going to try to write about it as a conversation, because we’ve had lots of them since. It’s Sara writing right now. Here’s what happened...

So, as you may recall from yesterday’s post, we spent last night at the (quite pretty!) camping grounds of an RV park called Pioneer Village in Max Meadows, VA. We’d gone what was, for us right now, a long distance and (yet again) finished off with some big hills — including a frankly ridiculous series of gravel up-and-downs that took us all the way down to the campsite and, frustratingly, meant that we had doubled back along our actual riding path. We had to push our bikes up these last gravel inclines, and the idea of having to haul ourselves out again the next morning was — well, we didn’t want to think about it at the time.

But we camped next to a lovely wide creek, and, looking at the map, it occurred to us that we could in fact just ford this creek in the morning and walk the short distance right back out to the main road. Hooray! After a good night’s camp (more rain, but we handled it; and we finished Watership Down! Which, I have a few more notes than when I read it in sixth grade, but the end still made me cry), we got up, packed up, and successfully got our bikes across the creek. We walked across a field behind some houses and then were coming up to the main road up a little stretch of driveway when a man came out on his porch. We were in his driveway. He was shirtless, with a gut. He looked complacent.

“You know,” he said, “the only thing that saved your asses from gettin’ shot is that you’re white and not black.”

I think the word “Well,” came out of my mouth — but nothing followed it. Neither of us stopped walking. I heard Beau say, “I appreciate your not shooting us.” If the man replied, I didn’t hear it. Beau said, “We’re just trying to get to the road.” And by that point we had almost pushed all the way past. We got out to the main road and got a little ways away. We didn’t talk for a while. Then we talked a little. Then we rode. I knew both of us would be thinking about nothing else while we rode.

We’ve met some wonderful people so far, and I think we always knew there would be other kinds of people too. But what made me feel so sick was that this man didn’t feel like just one horrible guy to me. I mean, he was and is that. But we’ve been riding past driveway upon driveway of Trump signs. They just keep coming, and they’re nauseating. And this guy, standing fat and shirtless up there on his porch and not even choosing just to say, “Hey kids, get off my lawn!” but specifically choosing to tell us that he A) Would shoot another human being and, B) We’re not that human being because we’re white — it was like: This is what’s empowered, what’s in power, right now. And we (Beau and I, every white person) are the beneficiaries of it, even when it sickens us. We’re safe. We’re okay. We’re able to move through the world—bike through this country—without literal targets on our backs. I don’t think I could do this trip if I weren’t a white person — at least, not without a huge amount of very real danger that has nothing to do with bicycling for 4,000 miles. That’s privilege, and it’s shameful. And what do we do with it? Beau, I remember you saying once that privilege is like a different kind of wealth: even if you don’t have material wealth, you can have another kind, and you have to decide, as with real money, how to responsibly spend it.

Beau: I think I still stand by that, though privilege is more nebulous than money — most people can find an angle on their own conditions that shows them as having a little less, or as having gone through more adversity than someone. It seems like a mental equation that’s usually enacted in reverse: if I feel a responsibility to the world and the other people in it, then I can see and feel my privilege. If I don’t feel that responsibility, then I tend to be more focused on how tired or poor or scared I am. I focus on what I don’t have, or on what I’m afraid to lose.

And I don’t think people are one or the other — I think sometimes we’re all a little too scared or tired or angry. So our awareness of our privilege and our responsibility is moment-to-moment, though we can cultivate consistency. I think our culture — the culture you and I participate in, made up largely of artists and the arts-adjacent, often well left of Biden — is good at reinforcing this consistency.

So good that for a while we’ve left off talking about privilege or politics. These topics dominate our conversations, but we didn’t want them to dominate our blog — reading about a cross-country trip in 2020 could easily be a recitation of the privileges involved (of which there are many) and the horrors encountered, or a survey of who did or didn’t wear a mask. We didn’t want this to be that, but we also knew we would come around to these topics a few times.

You got a better look at the guy than I did — I heard him first, and when I knew his message I looked mostly straight ahead. I didn’t even realize he was shirtless. After I spoke the first time, he repeated himself nearly verbatim, emphasizing that if we were black he would have shot us.

I’m trying to remember how scared I was. Scared enough not to challenge the guy, not to just say, “Why?” But we didn’t run or flinch, we just got calmly the hell away from there. And I remember instantly thinking that, if I were black, I wouldn’t have been there in the first place: I wouldn’t have forded the stream or crossed the guy’s driveway. I would’ve walked my bike up those shitty gravel hills instead. And then I quickly realized (which I’d thought about before, but not so viscerally) that I probably wouldn’t be doing this at all if I was black. And then I think I thought, Jesus, did he really just say that?

We’ve both been talking about and unpacking this for a couple days now, but you said something immediately which has probably been the basis for our conversations, which is that we’re supposed to use our privilege for good, but what could we do in that situation?

Sara: I don’t know. I don’t think, when people talk about the responsibility of having the hard conversations—of challenging a harmful comment or stance—they’re necessarily referring to times when you’re alone on foot with a stranger in the middle of unfamiliar country. This man isn’t a relative or a co-worker that we can maybe have a meaningful dialogue with... He’s a threat. A bully. Someone who came out on his own porch to draw lines and cause fear. But still — it felt shitty just to walk on. To know we could walk on because, on some level, even though we’re bike-riding liberal hippies or whatever, that man considers us on His Team.

Beau: And he wanted us to know it. Which I guess is why this branches out beyond him to all the yard signs we’ve passed and will pass. If it is our privilege to take this trip, it is also our responsibility to… I don’t know. For years I’ve taken it as my responsibility to write fiction about the challenges we face as humans trying to be and do better. In doing so, I’ve actually avoided including many truly shitty characters (I’ve written one that I’d describe as such), because I don’t think they illuminate much about the human condition. But this guy was 100% shitty and in real life. And there’s no arc, no lesson, no knot at the end.

But we’re 100% not on his team. I guess that’s part of it, too — moving forward, into whatever terrain or types of people, we have our values and we stick to them.

Sara: Which doesn’t, I don’t think, mean starting a fight with this guy or any of the world’s thousands of trolls. It means riding on — but in a purposeful sense, not a frightened one. It means not letting this guy or anything he stands for sit heavier in the scales than all the awesome people who are fighting good fights, everywhere and on every level. It means doing what we can to keep learning and unlearning. It means not despairing. (Or getting cynical. Which is despair's fashionable, high-functioning cousin.) It means voting!!! Even when it’s disappointing or imperfect or compromised. It means not stopping with voting. It means trying to build small worlds that that are joyful and open and anti-racist and anti-Capitalist and then trying to make those worlds bigger.

Beau: Yes, please! And not just the anti's, but all the pro's: pro-gender and -racial and -economic equality. Pro-art, pro-environment, and pro-responsibility. Pro-future.

Sara: Thank you for talking about this with me. In real life, and on this blog.


Also: Later that same day, we made a donation to the Roanoke Community Bail Fund — an organization close to the area we’re riding through that does the hard, good work. Then we found a campsite and got some much needed rest. Wishing that to all who are reading this, too. Rest so you can keep going. The Revolution will be well-rested.

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