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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Twenty-five Years Ago Today

Twenty-five years ago today, I turned an important corner, not only in my life, but into a geographic realm beyond my imagination. My physical body crossed from Wisconsin, where I had spent many years of my life, into Minnesota along the shore of Lake Superior. It was a moment that stands apart from time. This change of course, from heading pretty much due West, swinging North, by Northeast along the North Shore of The Greatest Lake, made me aware of my anonymity as well as my infinite spirit. Leading off into the distant future was a path that was both undeniably my own and intimately entwined with each and every other organism that lives, has lived and will ever live around these inland seas. I was barely a week into my Great Lakes Bicycle Tour, but my young body had already turned from a tentative young man into a stoic and experienced traveler. I was shedding pounds and lightening my panniers with each meal. As I entered the North, the scars of extraction were all around me. Heavily silted waterways, deforested areas that stretched for miles, heaps of acid mine waste and open pits that might never again support life were all around me. The mining and milling industries that built the great fortunes of city dwellers far far away had left scars so deep that after one hundred years, the ugliness of them remained, spread out across the landscape. Plainly visible for anyone to see, but understood by few, if any, of those who were speeding by on the highways at breakneck speed.

I had rested up for an extra day in Superior, Wisconsin enjoying some down time after pushing though the pain of hundred mile days. In that first week, I had experienced snow, sleet, rain and one crisp night that froze my tires to the ground so thoroughly that leaves, dirt and pine needles stuck to them and created a funny sound as they swished past the frame on each revolution. I was happy and sad, tired and energized, but the overarching goal of making my way around all five Great Lakes just got that much closer. I was as far away from home as I had ever been, yet I felt as one with the earth as ever as well. I could feel the Living Earth, cheering me on, the wind, finally, at my back and the freshening breeze bringing the warmth of spring to the region. As I passed the Viking ship in Duluth, I felt the presence of my ancestors, buoying my energy reserves and keeping me aware of the deeper meanings behind any pilgrimage. Losing one relationship between who we thought we were and who we may find ourselves to be is part and parcel of any voyage. Rather than crossing the great water as my viking ancestors had, I was circumnavigating them, finding my way with a series of maps that were more or less handed down to me from wizened old travelers and mapmakers of high repute. rather than seeing images of maps and having to infer what must be there, i was seeing what was actually out there and condensing that knowledge into the lines and color fields that I had in my pocket.

The ultimate shift in my course was to switch from thinking that I had power to change the course of history to wanting to change myself. the only thing I have absolute responsibility for and dominion over is, in fact, my own self. how that shakes out amongst my fellow humans is for them to determine and amongst their own lives they must take responsibility for their own part in making the world better as they see fit. My own ego had been trying to stay in charge, but as I was finding, powers beyond my comprehension were at work in my days, my nights and even those beautiful moments in-between the two. I began to feel a deep connection to the waters, the rock and the thin soils of the area, working my own special magic wherever I stopped to honor and respect what I would find there, what I took away from them and what I left behind. At this point, making my way up the shore toward the border with Canada, any demons that had led me to question my ability were vanquished, any doubts about my convictions evaporated and the truth of my own message, which I shared with others each and every time I stopped , stopped being just words, but a reflection of the voices of the trees, the water and the very wind which I was becoming one with. I seriously questioned whether I would be able to be clear about my mission, adept at bringing salient information to communities that I had not lived amongst for very long and if it would be possible to capture the imagination of those I would meet along the way. What I was beginning to find is that more often than not, my message was not only received, but shared and welcomed by both individuals and the news outlets that I provided with interviews. As I skirted the shoulder of the Canadian Shield, riding near the border between land and the lake, every turn revealed a more beautiful sight. Except for the areas that had been poisoned by mining, each cascade was more wonderful than the previous one, each tiny hamlet and locality was more picturesque. Each settlement was more focused on the values and approaches that we would one day call sustainable.

What I was seeing reflected in both the people and their passions was an undying commitment to one another that is exemplified in nature. Just as the tree falling in the woods feeds the soils that will provide a footing for another generation of trees, the falling of the great extractive economies of the past has given rise to a new way of life that respects the Earth, cares about water, and has learned some of the lessons of taking without giving back, grabbing the money and running and the responsibility we all have to one another. I was turning onto a new road, into a new culture and finding my true self, free of the limitations that I had placed upon myself.

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