WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. – Three-thousand miles in 60 days – by bicycle – to learn about how to bring America together again.
That’s the mission of four millennial voters, who pedaled through Williamstown and stopped overnight Sept,. 9 just three days into their quest to help Hillary Clinton be elected president -- and learn something about their fellow citizens in the process.
“Riding Hills for Hillary,” or “bikingforhillary.com” for short, is the name of an expedition launched by two former employees of a Williamstown-based outdoor-adventure outfitter – one 26 and one 23 -- and two other 23-year-olds. Three members of the foursome just graduated from The Colorado College.
The instigator of the trek is Meredith Bird, 23, who grew up in Andover, Mass., and now lives in Boston. A Colorado College graduate she also worked two seasons for Overland as a trip leader.
“Our main goal is energizing people and encouraging -- especially millennials but everyone -- to vote and get excited about this election and to emphasize how important it is,” says Bird. “There are a lot of people who I have met in our generation who are opting out of voting.”
Bird says the point of the trip is not to prostelytize for Clinton, but to listen and write about what they learn.
They're website will chronicle their daily conversations with the public as they camp, accept overnight accommodations from friends, and spend some time in so-called “battleground” states canvassing or making phone calls for the Democratic presidential nominee.
Bird says a second goal is to meet people in places she doesn’t know very well. And a third mission is to understand – and perhaps help mend – what’s dividing America.
Breaking the “themification” syndrome
“There is a lot of "themification" in this country right now -- I know that is not a real word, but it's a real concept,” says Bird. “It’s the idea that we increasingly succumb to an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. So I see this bike trip as our own effort to do what we can to break that pattern -- to find the ties that unite us, not the misperceptions that divide. We want to understand and report on what is taking the country apart, and explore solutions for bringing it back together again.”
The foursome are far from the first people to bicycle across America, or to push themselves to do so quickly – averaging 80 miles a day, with a large share of 100-mile days along the way because of stops for interviewing and politicking. What’s unique about this trip, however, is their commitment to listen to the nation’s political pulse, encourage millennial voters to turn out, and do so with the capabilities of social media.
- A Flickr.com page will accumulate still phones and videos of what they learn and who they talk to as they pedal. There's also an Instagram account.
- A Facebook page will include ongoing updates.
- And the bikingforhillary.com blog will have longer stories, a link to map showing their up-to-date location by satellite locator – and also a place to donate to the Clinton campaign
Another goal of the cyclers is to be approachable to people with all political views and to not to push a point of view if people aren’t receptive or open to listening.
“If people confront us, our method is just going to be opting out of that conversation,” says Bird. “The ride is definitely not about trying to convert Trump supporters. It is more about reaching young people and Republican women who are open to discussion about the need to vote and to vote for Hillary. It's about being available for a conversation, not pushing anything. I don't think forcing it is going to do anything for our cause.”
The size of the trek may grow.
“Right now we know of friends who will be trickling in for a few days at a time,” says Bird. “But if our blog and other media outreach connects with people and the trek grows in size, that might be OK. I think it would be awesome if we got a day of 100 riders from one city.”
The first couple of weeks of the trip are already mapped out. The team started on Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H., and was taking two days to campaign in Concord, N.H. From there they were overnighting in Brattleboro, Vt., before passing through North Adams and overnighting in Williamstown on Friday. Then it is off along the Erie Canal across upstate New York, south to Pittsburgh, and west to Columbus, Ohio.
From there the exact itinerary is still being mapped out. The foursome plans to post their progress regularly, to try and encourage media coverage in communities they reach, and they might even invite additional bicyclists to join them along parts of the route.
Bird is no stranger to travel. She won a prestigious Watson Fellowship upon graduation from Colorado College, enabling her to spend a $30,000 grant and 12 months studying food systems in nine countries around the globe -– an extension of her college major work. She traveled and wrote about in Spain, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, India, Napa, Ireland, Norway and Martinique. The Watson rules require travel independent of any organization.
Others on the trip
Bird is joined on the trip by three other friends – two fellow graduates of Colorado College, and a former fellow employee of Overland Summers Bike Trips and Tours of Williamstown, Mass., although the trek is unaffiliated with Overland.
- Michael Bienkowski, 26, from Lexington, Mass. He has been a team leader for Overland and taught at the Salisbury School, a private boarding school in Connecticut. He has crossed the country two or three times already.
- Jamie Daudon, 23, of Seattle, the second Colorado College graduate, whose interdisciplinary major was in politics, philosophy and economics. Since graduation, he has worked in Nepal, creating a youth after-school program.
- Benjamin L. Feldman, 23, of Oakland, Calif., spent the last year as a Foodcorps volunteer in Clear Lake, Calif. Foodcorps is part of the federal Americorps domestic public-works program. It helps bring healthy food from farms directly to schools. At Colorado College, Feldman’s interdisciplinary major involved psychology, sociology and philosophy. It was called “The Origins of Motivation.”
Each cyclist will carry about 30 pounds in rear saddle bags – a combination of tents, sleeping bags, minimal clothes and enough food to get through a day or two between rest stops. There will be a few tools and a spare tire or two, one cook stove, and a few pots and pans for when they have to camp. At various points, family or friends may join with support automobiles – especially crossing the Nevada desert in late October.
“We will resupply as we go along,” says Bird. “Most days we'll drive by bike stores or grocery stores. We'll carry what we need. Family members may catch up with us at a few points and provide auto support.”
The team thinks it will cost about $1,500 each for food and accommodations to complete the trip and they are fund-raising some of that via IndieGogo.com. “We appreciate that we are privileged to be able to take time to do this, so we are mostly asking for help from family and friends, not the general public,” says Bird. “The website link to political contributions will go directly to the Clinton campaign fund, with a tag allowing us to know how much was raised through our effort.”
Although the trip was planned by the foursome as an independent effort, they were able to purchase matching red bicycles – used – from Overland.
The process of documenting their conversations will evolve, says Bird. “We hope we can share meals and casual conversation with all sorts of people -- to take the pulse of the nation's thinking about the upcoming election. We're not trying to publish journalism so it won't be pristine. We'll be shooting pictures, too, and perhaps a little video.”
Bird got the ball rolling for the trip because of what she describes as her nervousness about the November election. “We view it as becoming a great victory for progressive policies -- or a disaster for this country and its international reputation,” she says. “We want to something creative and fun -- a way of getting other millennials enthusiastic, because they are key to this election.” For that reason, they are making sure to cross so-called political “swing states” – New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada – ending in San Francisco right before Nov. 8.
Bird says the appeal of the cross-country bike tour is not entirely political or ethnographic. “I’m looking forward to waking up every day and knowing exactly what I have to do and having a very tangible goal. it is a very meditative process. I think motion in general is very meditative. I find it in walking and running and even driving.”
Feldman says he’s motivated to bike for Hilllary because his parents -– both architects –- were hikers and gardeners and encouraged a concern for the natural world. Feldman sees political action as a way to promote health and the environment.
“I’m very, very concerned about he outcome of this election. I think it is the most important election of my lifetime,” says Feldman. “Rather than being stationed in one particular location, I am interested in traveling across the United States and meeting people and connecting with people from coast to coast.”
From fear to excitement
Feldman says he has been scared by news reports of how some people are behaving at political rallies and events. “It makes me concerned our country is not the place of tolerance and opportunity that I was raised to believe," he says. "The bike tour is not just to do something for Hillary’s campaign but to restore my faith that we are in a country where people take care of each other and are tolerant of different points of view.”
Feldman says he knows Clinton has a reputation of being somewhat of a boring policy wonk. “This tour has at least in some way the potential to fill a void of excitement and provide some youthful energy.”
“At a time when politics are so contentious, we hope this tour will give us a sense of what Americans really value,” says Feldman. “I want to meet and talk to people and hopefully confirm that America is a place where people look out for each other, even if they are different from themselves.”
What part of trip will be the most challenging? Feldman grew up on the West Coast, went to school in the Rockies and has never been in the nation’s Midwest prairie. “I think politically and culturally it may be the most foreign area for me – and also the most intriguing and challenging,” he says. “And we may encounter some tough headwinds.”