Pedaling Across the Country for Peace

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During summer break, most people spend as many days as possible basking in luxury and laziness. Not Emily James. She spent the summer of 2015 riding her bicycle across the United States. A grand total of 4,600 miles, in fact.

What would drive the Colorado-native to take on this feat? Well, she’d considered doing a cross-country bike trek in the past but never quite had the courage to commit. The summer of 2015 was different though. There was a purpose behind her ride, and that purpose was peace.

When Emily was attending school in Kansas in 2012, a friend of hers named Paul Ziegler was hit by a car and killed while riding his own bike. Paul had dreams of spreading his message of peace far and wide by going on a cross-country bike ride. When his life was taken from him much too soon, Emily decided to help Paul’s parents in any way she could to keep his dream of peace alive.

“His death really struck me because he was out riding roads that I ride every single day, and there’s really no reason it was him and not me,” Emily explained. “It made me very aware of how short and vulnerable we are in life.”

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After his death, Paul’s parents started a fundraising campaign called 3,000 Miles for Peace to raise money for an organization called On Earth Peace. That’s when Emily decided it was time to take on the challenge of a cross-country bike ride, and she would carry out the journey in Paul’s honor. Her ride became an extension of the fundraiser. The money raised would go towards supporting conflict management and mediation training for inner-city youth.

Emily, who now lives in Logan and works at Utah State University, utilized an organization called the Adventure Cycling Association. Emily explained that they encourage bicycle travel in the United States and have several different cross-country routes for cyclists to take. They also publish maps that list all the towns you go through along with the services available. Emily decided on the TransAmerica Trail for her own adventure. Established in 1976, the trail runs coast to coast from Yorktown, VA to Astoria, OR.

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It took Emily 68 days to complete her ride on the TransAmerica Trail. This gave her a lot of time to reflect on the concept of peace and brainstorm ways she could live a more peaceful life.

“I think a lot of people think peace is the absence of violence or the absence of anger. For me, peace is the process of feeling those things, and recognizing those things, and then coming up with an alternative solution. For me, it’s very much something that first has to be accomplished personally and then it sort of grows from there,” the cyclist said.

The long bike ride didn’t always provide the most peaceful environment. Emily encountered bad weather, bug bites galore, fatigue, dehydration, and challenging terrain.

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“The first two weeks were probably the hardest physically and mentally,” Emily admitted. “The Appalachians, they’re not very high but they’re really steep, are at the very beginning of the ride, so you’re not in as good of shape and you’re not used to all the weight that’s on your bike. Maybe on my eighth day I had this moment where I’d been riding alone a bunch of days, I was tired, and I hadn’t had enough to eat. I just sat on the side of the road and cried.”

Emily went on to say the most difficult moments were when she either didn’t have enough water or food.

“It makes you appreciate why people who don’t have enough food and water get so desperate and get so violent.”

Emily was actually a vegetarian prior to her ride, but she realized she wasn’t getting enough sustenance from vegetables alone. And aside from that, grocery stores were few and far between. Most of the services available were gas stations. Her eating habits quickly became drastically different from that of her normal diet.

“I ate pretty terribly. I ate all sorts of things that I would never eat in my real life. You know those Little Debbie gas station pastries? I would eat two or three of those a day. I would drink those huge 44 oz things of Dr Pepper when I never drank soda in my life before,” Emily said sheepishly. “You don’t have to calorie count and you still lose weight.”

Emily said another challenging part of the journey was sometimes having unpleasant encounters with people. Drivers often passed her and other bikers to closely and yelled at them. However, the positive interactions with others far outweighed any negative.

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“The ride definitely restored my faith in how nice people are. Not that I didn’t think people were nice before, but I just think that I have a much greater appreciation for how nice people can be if you’re open to it.”

Emily was amazed by the people who opened up their homes to her and other cyclists, offering them warm showers, a place to sleep, and food to eat. A woman in Kentucky had 13 cyclists over for dinner and fed them a huge homemade meal. She also watched as a family in Colorado stopped their car to pick up a cyclist who was having mechanical problems with his bike. One family in another area fed Emily fresh tomatoes from their garden . . . the first bit of produce she’d had in over a week.

Emily said one of the most significant things from her experience was getting to see the transformation in Paul’s parents. She started the ride from their home, met up again with them in Kansas, and then they welcomed her at the end of the trail. She remembers them being very different people during each of those three instances. She said it was a joy to be a part of their process of healing.

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Despite the hardships from her journey, Emily stated it was wonderful getting to spend so much time on her bike, meeting new people, and experiencing her own personal growth. While the summer bike ride has impacted her concept of peace and how she interacts with people, she wants others to know that they don’t have to do anything drastic to discover their inner-peace.

“Everyone should contemplate how they can be more peaceful in their life. You don’t have to ride your bike across the country to make the world more peaceful. Choose to not yell at the person who cuts you off or be a little more patient with your kids. It’s those little things that really make a big difference,” she concluded. “Oh, and you should ride your bike more.”

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If you want to know more about Emily’s adventures of pedaling across the country, click here to read her blog. You can also visit the 3,000 Miles for Peace website to learn more about Paul Ziegler and how you can help add to the movement.

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