Taking time for fun

I have met some of the most amazing people during this trip, as I have indicated in earlier posts. I have decided to share their stories, as they become inevitably influential and intertwined with my own. I have learned a lot about myself, and about the world during conversations I hold with these individuals. There are some who have never left the comfort and safety of the town that they grew up in, there are some who have been transients living on the road for years, and there are many in between those two extremes. 

Today I approached an older gentleman. He pulled up to a coffee shop wearing large rimmed plastic eyeglasses remiscient of decades long passed. The worn red bicycle jersey he was wearing is a testament to the longevity and resiliency of the human body to outlast manmade fabrics. The jersey was not the only indictor of a veteran cyclist; his strong trunk like legs carried his torso into the coffee shop. All the while I sat observing the situation, determining whether or not to approach him. I felt drawn towards him for some reason and I decided to ask to sit with him, as he had just taken a seat outside in the sun. I got up from where I was sitting indoors, and asked if I could sit with him. He immediately responded positively and we chatted about each others place in this current place and time in the world. His name is Tom and he is a history professor from Asheville, North Carolina. I inquired about his profession, and about what he was doing in Damascus, VA. He comes to ride the Virginia Creeper Trail, a multi-use trail that supports the town of Damascus by bringing in around 200,000 tourists to the area a year. It is a beautiful gravel trail that parallels a river and is lined with lush green forest. We then started speaking about my goals of raising money for Save the Children, and for interviewing people about their opinions and views regarding refugees and immigrants. I spoke with Tom about traveling through many small towns, where industry has dried up and jobs are scarce. We spoke about how it takes an immense amount of privilege to be able to hold a physical or emotional space and observe ones health or happiness when one is struggling to put food on the table. It makes sense that many rural Americans respond to many situations with fear, specifically with regard to outsiders (refugees and immigrants) when they are struggling to survive in their small towns that are no longer able to support them. 

I spoke with other locals about how meth addicts had taken over their town as well, in Wytheville, VA. I think it is important to try and understand where these complex viewpoints arise from in order to increase understanding and compassion, and work together, trying to bridge the deep political, ideological, and emotional divide that currently exists within our great country. 

While we may not all agree on how to best solve these complex issues, we should at least be able to communicate and empathize with each other as fellow human beings who have the amazing capacity to respond with compassion.  

I also met two younger gentleman who are 25 years of age and who are also biking across the country. I stayed with them in a cyclists hostel in Damascus. Their names are Lincoln and Jordan. They are kind individuals who have embarked upon what they call “The Freedom Tour”. Interestingly, they too are concerned with what really unites us as a country. Before even telling them that encouraging dialogue between opposed inviduals was my goal, the said that their mission was to unite people within our country and encourage communication between typically opposed individuals. 

From the first time I met them, it was clear that they are also about having fun. They continually cracked hilarious jokes throughout the time I spent with them. It really made me realize how serious this last year has been for me since graduating college and moving home to help my mother and stepfather during their recovery from my mother experiencing a stroke last December. It also made me feel a little bit lonely, wanting to have another person along to make the trip a little more light hearted and to share incredible experiences with. They reminded me to enjoy this experience and have a little more fun rather than be caught up in my own mind thinking of serious existential crises this whole trip and missing the beauty and joy of nature and companionship that surrounds me. 

Here are a few photos:

Yours,
Matt

Birthday Musings

I am sitting in a coffee shop in Lexington, VA, a historical small town. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are buried here and their memory lives on in various ways. Although the Civil War is over, the subversive ideological carry over from their contentious stance on politics and human existence are still rooted deep within the soil. 

I came here this morning after spending the night behind a graveyard at a location off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I spent the previous few days in Charlottesville, VA with a wonderful family who welcomed me into their lives for a couple of days. During these two days in Charlottesville, I toured a vibrant cosmopolitan city bustling with history and college students. I made friends with a local man experiencing homelessness, and a man who was selling imported goods from Tibet. I also was able to speak with all of these folks about my cause, and why I had decided to bike across the country to fundraise for Syrian refugee children. David, my host, and I spoke about the complexity of the issue and how difficult it is to bridge the gap and begin possibly difficult conversations with someone of a differing opinion. 

I have yet to speak with someone of differing opinions than my own admittedly progressive stance on refugees and immigrants being admitted into this country. I feel bad about this, but I committed to challenge myself to compassionately engage in these conversations, so I will do so. 

The riding has been difficult but beautiful. I can feel my legs getting stronger after everyday of rest, but I am trying not to overdo it. I have cycled through some amazing scenery. Virginia is an absolutely stunning state full of lush green forest, most of which has a rich understory. I have observed many different species of trees, birds, plants, animals and insects as I bike along the rolling hills of various back roads my map guides me along. 

I spent all of yesterday Vikings across the Blue Ridge Parkway, a road that was constructed as a WPA project during the depression years. A riding partner provided me with local knowledge about the history of the parkway, along with the factoid that the Dogwood tree is the Virginia’s state tree. I was wondering what the beautiful white blossoming tree was that lined the parkway. Here is a picture of the Dogwood in bloom:

He then informed me that unfortunately a blight had struck and killed a majority of the trees that were not in direct sunlight a few years ago.
Overall, it has been a wonderful trip and I am excited to share my concern for the future of Syria and other countries around the world with others who may not initially recognize our interconnected destinies. 
Here are a couple of photos taken on the Blue Ridge Parkway:

I hope to channel enough compassion and courage to be able to continue the important conversation surrounding Syrian refugee children and immigrants and refugee in the United States.
Thank you for reading.
Yours,
Matt

Chance Encounters

What an interesting last two days. Who knew it was so difficult to get up to Yorktown from Norfolk, VA? I had to illegally cross a couple of bridges and hitchhike across the James river bridge to arrive in Newport News, where I biked the rest of the way to Yorktown. As I was headed north, I was met with 10-15 mph wind and 80 degree heat in direct sun. It was so great to be able to push through. It’s all about the journey. Jane, the woman who decided to give a lift to the lobster looking sweaty white guy sticking his thumb out with a tee shirt that says bimbo on it, is a wonderful woman who makes creams and salves out of beeswax for a living. We got to talking as I took apart my bike to fit in her smart car sized vehicle. She then invited me to wherever she was going for a beer, saying she would buy me the first one. Little did I know it would end up to be a strip joint. It was my first time in a strip club. How interesting. She bought me a beer and proceeded to show me photos of beautiful murals artists were painting at her farm where she has 17 bee hives. In her former lives she was an exotic dancer in Iowa, Minnesota, and North Dakota. I then explained what I was doing there on my bike and she so graciously gave me three dollars to donate to the organization I am fundraising for. I thanked her and we parted ways. Earlier that day, I had to take a ferry from Norfolk to Portsmouth to get to Yorktown, and I pulled up to the dock just as the ferry was pulling away. I saw another dapper looking gentleman sitting on a bench and decided to strike up a conversation. Turns out he missed the ferry to and is on his way to a conference in Portsmouth on drug addiction and mental health. He is a senior pastor at a Baptist church in Richmond, VA.  We talked about what he was doing, and I told him about my trip as well. After arriving in Yorktown that evening, I found a place to lay my air mattress down in a small patch of woods and slept. When I woke up the first order of business was to get sunscreen. After that I biked to historic Williamsburg via colonial parkway. What a wonderful ride compared to the prior day. I then stopped in Jamestown and filled up my water bottle when I met another Pentecostal pastor named Jeff and his wife Renee from New Jersey. They were very kind people and we had a wonderful conversation about their faith and mine. I told them I was biking to Oregon and they didn’t believe me at first. After explaining to them that I am fundraising for Syrian children, they decided to graciously make a donation as well. I am now sitting at a lunch pavilion charging my phone and taking a siesta. I will try to make it to Charles City by tonight. Here are a couple photos of the Yorktown Victory Monument early this morning:


First Day

I flew into Norfolk yesterday around 2pm. I proceeded to walk from the airport to “lions foods”, a local chain of grocery stores. While I was in line, a wonderful woman insisted that I go in front of her, on account of the fact I only had a few small items to purchase and she had many. I told her it was my first time in Virginia and she welcomed me and inquired about where I was from and what I was doing. I told her a little bit about my bicycle trip and that I was fundraising for save the children. It was a nice way to come into an unfamiliar place. I ended up taking public transit and meeting another fellow who was on his way to class. He was a 58 year old man who was trying to get his cdl to get a job as a tractor trailer driver. What incredible individuals. I then took the bus to arrive at the residence that I stayed at last night. I met my host from warmshowers.org and she was kind enough to make a wonderful dinner for me. Today I am making my way to Village Bicycles in Newport News to pick up my bike. This morning I borrowed my host’s bike and went down to a harbor area where I got to take a look at the USS Wisconsin. I didn’t know this, but Norfolk is home to one of the largest naval bases in the US. It was cool to learn a little about the history of the area and to meet a couple of more people along the way. 

Cheers
-Matt

TransAm Trail

Established in 1976, the TransAmerica Trail is an extensive network of trails and roads spanning the entire United States from coast to coast. The trail starts at the Atlantic Ocean in Yorktown Virginia and crosses Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon before reaching the Pacific Ocean at Astoria Oregon. The route passes through the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. The four largest cities on the trail are Eugene Oregon, Pueblo Colorado, Missoula Montana, and Carbondale Illinois.

I have decided to follow this route for a number of reasons. The TransAmerica Trail (AKA the TransAm Trail) goes through a large variety of states and in some ways allows for individuals who are following my blog to reflect on what it means to be a United States citizen and how that relates to current political discourse surrounding refugees and immigrants. During my journey, I will be interviewing various individuals of all backgrounds about their opinions related to refugees and immigrants in the United States today and the complex origins of these opinions. In some ways, the TransAm Trail is a historical reminder of a deeper connection and identity that we all share as United States citizens, a geographical representation of interdependence and common cultural identity. When the TransAm Trail was established in 1976, the United States was celebrating it bicentennial. 200 years of existence. During this historical bicentennial, many individuals throughout the country reflected upon how far we have come as a group, the historical high and low points of our great country.

I would like to rekindle this powerful and useful tool of self-reflection in an attempt to encourage open and honest dialogue among individuals of differing backgrounds and opinions. I would like to lead by example and seek to understand, learn from and love those who hold different opinions than my own, rather than be constrained by rigid identity walls of fear and misunderstanding. I will post interviews I hold with various individuals on this blog for others to learn from. I will be asking them questions about their own views and opinions surrounding refugees and immigrants in the United States along with presenting information about Syria in an attempt to spread awareness about the suffering many are experiencing there. I will also be fundraising $10,000 for Save the Children by August 30th. It is with these thoughts that I move forward with upmost compassion in beginning my journey.

I will arrive in Yorktown, VA this Tuesday May 2nd to begin at the start of the TransAm Trail. This will be the first day of a journey that will last around 3 months, taking me 4,225 miles across the United States. I will post updates on this blog with my location along the route every fews days.

Here is a map outlining my route:

transamerica_trail

 

Posted below is a link to more specific information regarding the Adventure Cycle Association TransAm Trail:

 

https://www.adventurecycling.org/routes-and-maps/adventure-cycling-route-network/transamerica-trail/

Greatest Humanitarian Crisis Since 1945

 

Syria is not the only country that is struggling in this region of the world. As you may or may not have read in recent news, many countries in Eastern and Northeastern Africa are plagued by a terrible famine. The ongoing wars between certain groups in the region have prevented the UN and many other aid organizations from successfully implementing relief and aid programs. According to the UN, around 20 million people within the countries of Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria all face the risk of starvation due to food insecurity if they do not receive aid. This situation has been labeled the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945 and national news in the United States is virtually silent regarding the matter. This is a terrible crime, while the average US citizen wastes around 30 percent of the food that is produced, according to the USDA.

 

I wanted to post this information to keep people updated on what is happening to other people around the world. It is very easy for us to be concerned with trivialities of everyday life. Please be grateful for all you have, and consider donating to my fundraiser for Syrian refugee children.

 

 

I would also like to remind anyone who is located in Eau Claire, WI that I will be hosting two events at the Volume One Local Store on April 7th and 8th from 8:30 to 6:30pm. Friday night will be a silent auction. There will be food and live music. Saturday night will be a film screening. Everyone is invited, as these events are free to attend. Please invite your friends.

 

Thank you for taking time to read this post, and I encourage you to take action to make a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate, whether that means volunteering in your local community, or donating to my cause at the link posted below:

 

www.savethechildren.org/refugee/thoughtforfoodtour

 

Yours,

 

Matt

 

Sources:

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-39238808

 

 

https://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/faqs.htm

A Call to Action

What is going on in Syria?

If you feel the need to help after reading the following blog post, please consider donating by following the link listed below. Thank you.

http://www.savethechildren.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=1091398&supid=442767175

In this blog post, I will try to give a short summary of the Syrian Civil War and explain why I am supporting Syrian refugee children through Save the Children.

Key Points:
  • Peaceful protests in 2011 lead to Civil War in Syria after 15 kids were detained and tortured (among many other human rights violations by Syrian President Al-Assad Bashar and his oppressive regime) There are also many other complicated factors leading up to this conflict. For further reading, follow links at the bottom of this post
  • There are many religious and ethnic minority groups involved nationally and many countries involved internationally, but the main two national groups are Pro-Assad military/government troops and the Free Syrian Army rebels (who are fighting for a more democratic government)
  • It is total war with many groups involved, many Syrians have been killed (the death count is currently around 450,000) and there are currently around 13.5 million people displaced within Syria

The Syrian Civil War began in 2011, growing out of the Arab Spring protests. In many countries in the Middle East (Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq), populations within each country held protests, demonstrations, and eventually revolutions that were both violent and nonviolent at times as a mass movement towards a more democratic and representative form of governance for the people. The protests and revolts were borne out of oppressive authoritarian governments fraught with political corruption, unemployment, economic decline, and human rights violations.

In Syria, mass peaceful protests followed a specific event in March of 2011 where 15 boys were detained and tortured for having written graffiti in support of the Arab Spring. The government and President Bashar Al-Assad responded by killing hundred of demonstrators and imprisoning many more (Al Jazeera 2017). By July, military defectors formed the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group with the goal of toppling the Al-Assad regime.

There are many more factors not mentioned in the narrative above that have played more minor roles in shaping the Syrian Civil War. The fact that so many groups and countries are involved makes a solution very difficult to realize. There are many, many complex forces at work.

There are also a number of minority religious groups and ISIS who are all involved in this conflict in one way or another. In order to keep this blog post brief, I have chosen to provide you with the resources and website links at the bottom of this post rather than try and explain each detail.

Why this matters and why you should care

Key Points:
  • 13.5 million people in Syria are displaced, 4.5 million of which are refugee in urgent need of humanitarian assistance
  • Many men, women, and children who are killed are innocent bystanders
  • Men, women and children who do not want to be involved have to choice but to flee, as their homes are destroyed and family members are often times killed
  • Women and children are often times disproportionately the most negatively affected by the war
  • Estimates of around 450,000 Syrians have been killed so far as of Feb. 2017

The point of explaining a little bit of context behind this terrible and violent Civil War in Syria is to show that there are a lot of Syrians who are suffering. They have had their homes destroyed by this war, and have no home to go back to. There are many people who are affected by this war, even though they do not choose to take a side or become violent.

Currently, there are around 13.5 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance inside of Syria. If we do not decide to help these people in great suffering and need, who will? We have a duty as fellow human beings to compassionately give aid to those in need. Think about how you would react if the roles were reversed? I am asking you to empathize with our brothers and sisters in Syria. I am choosing to take action, and to try and raise money for these people who are on the other side of the world because I see their suffering and I refuse to stand by and watch.

Children of Syria

Syrian children are more vulnerable to disease, and malnutrition, especially during winter months due to the colder weather. Many Syrian children who are of refugee status are currently not getting the nutrition they need on a daily basis, and are not attending school. The UN children agency says that this Civil War has reversed 10 years of progress in education for Syrian children.

Source: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/syria-civil-war-explained-160505084119966.html

Here are some more statistics illustrating why Syrians are leaving their homes in search for a better situation:
  • Violence: Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, as many as 386,000 people have been killed, including nearly 14,000 children, says the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The war has become more deadly since foreign powers joined the conflict.
  • Collapsed infrastructure: Within Syria, 95 percent of people lack adequate healthcare, 70 percent lack regular access to clean water. Half the children are out of school. The economy is shattered and four-fifths of the population lives in poverty.
  • Children in danger and distress: Syrian children — the nation’s hope for a better future — have lost loved ones, suffered injuries, missed years of schooling, and witnessed unspeakable violence and brutality. Warring parties forcibly recruit children to serve as fighters, human shields, and in support roles, according to the U.S. State Department.

Syria infographic

What is Save the Children doing to help?

(From Save the Children’s website)

Save the Children has worked in the Middle East for decades. Since 2012, we’ve led a large, complex response to the war in Syria, reaching children and families in besieged areas, refugee camps and host communities. Despite extreme challenges, we’ve helped more than 3.3 million people inside Syria, including more than 2.1 million children.

Thanks to supporters like you, we’re doing whatever it takes to ensure children inside Syria are safe, cared for and learning. In addition to lifesaving services and supplies, we provide child-focused mental health care, such as Health and Education through the Arts (HEART), our innovative, art-based psychosocial program. And we set up safe places for children in crisis to learn, play and socialize, critical for child development.

Save the Children has provided a wide range of care and aid to our brothers and sisters in Syria, as stated above. This care has included reproductive and hygiene health services, food and nutrition services, and education accessibility services. All of these programs continue to aid children across Syria, and also across the Middle East in refugee camps and local communities, establishing child care, employment, health care, and winterization kits. All of these essential services and materials are sustained by donations from people like you.

Please consider donating towards Save the Children by following the link below:

http://www.savethechildren.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=1091398&supid=442767175

Sources:

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/syria-civil-war-explained-160505084119966.html

http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=56923

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26116868

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_Civil_War

http://syrianrefugees.eu/

Learn more about the Syrian Civil War by following the links listed below:

https://www.reddit.com/r/explainlikeimfive/comments/46agig/eli5_can_someone_explain_the_syrian_civil_war_to/

http://syrianrefugees.eu/

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26116868

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/syria-civil-war-explained-160505084119966.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_Civil_War

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring#Causes

http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php