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A Bicycling Pilgrimage across the United States

Rev. John Beach
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By The Rev. John Beach

   It is with excitement and dread that I look forward to a bicycle pilgrimage this summer from Seattle to Saugus. This has been a long time in planning, and I have come to realize that the years I have available to do this have become few in number. Though I have never been much of an athlete, I find that the exhilaration of biking has contributed significantly to my physical and emotional well-being. The connection between body and machine has allowed me to see the world very differently.

  My reasons for embarking on what some would view as a foolish enterprise are three-fold.

  First, bicycling over an extended period of time becomes a contemplative activity. This is due to a combination of silence, elevated heart rate, and the removal of external stimuli (it is not only unsafe to listen to headphones while biking, it also clutters the mind). Having time alone with my thoughts allows me to discern between the neurotic and the meaningful. It is a prayerful exercise in which I become aware of voices which are not of my own fabrication.

  Secondly, it allows me to be in communion with surrounding geography.  Ernest Hemmingway stated, “It is by riding a bicycle that you can learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”

  Driving in a car is like being in a hermetically sealed cocoon which removes you from the sounds, smells, and tactile sensations of the world around you. The feel of the wind in my face, the smell of the vegetation unique to every location, making eye contact with people who have lives very different than mine, allow me to participate in something much larger than my own small life. Watching the road before me change from urban centers into towering mountains and later into open prairies offers a glimpse into the riches found in this amazing country. A pilgrimage is a journey in which you move simultaneously geographically and spiritually. It is to travel both outside and within. It also cleanses the soul of the more toxic elements of electronic communication.

  Thirdly, this trip will allow me to meet people I would not otherwise encounter over the course of my days. As the poet John O’Donohue writes in his poem “For the Traveler,”

“Every time you leave home,

“Another road takes you

“Into a world you were never in.

“New strangers on other paths await.

“New places that have never seen you

“Will startle a little at your entry.

“Old places that know you well

“Will pretend nothing

Changed since your last visit”

  We are a divided country in many ways. I fear that too many of us have sought refuge in ideological silos and have become incapable of engaging in honest and loving conversations with those who live in situations very different than our own. I am haunted by the comment by Paul Ricoeur: “Tolerance is not a concession that I make to the other, it is the recognition of the principle that part of the truth escapes me.”

  I travel with the desire to expand my own capacity for tolerance and with the firm belief that part of the truth does escape me.

  I am grateful that my wife, Denise, will be joining me for the first part of my journey from

Seattle across the Olympic peninsula in Washington State. She will join me later in Jackson, Wyoming, to explore that beautiful part of the country. The rest of the journey I will travel alone. I have always been surrounded by loving and supportive friends and family. Consequently, I have spent very little of my life alone. I must confess that I find the prospect a bit terrifying. I am challenged by the admonition of the mathematician Blaise Pascal, who once wrote, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet place alone.”

  I am also inspired by the spiritual counsel offered by the economist and one-time General Secretary of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld: “Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for and great enough to die for.”

  I will be keeping a blog site – https://bikepilgrimageusa.blogspot.com/ – for those who would like to follow this journey. I shall be starting on May 15 and plan to reach Saugus by August 25.

  Editor’s Note: The Rev. John Beach has been the priest-in-charge at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Saugus for three years.

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