Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review -- Free Country: A Penniless Adventure the Length of Britain

George Mahood is the sort of chap you'd like to have a beer with. Actually, I think he's the kind of fellow you'd find yourself buying a beer for after just the briefest of conversations. I say this having never met the man but I feel like I've just had the adventure of a lifetime with my new pal after having read his very funny and surprisingly inspirational book Free Country.

Free Country tells the true story of two young men, George and his friend Ben, who decide to cycle the length of Britain from Land's End to John O Groats. While this ambitious journey has been undertaken by many others, none have done it in quite the same way as George and Ben. Because, you see, they begin with nothing. Well, not quite nothing, they each have a pair of Union Jack boxer shorts (and George later confesses, a camera, a notebook, a pencil and stack of cards containing the words "I am OFFICIALLY a very nice person.")

Over three weeks in September, with a vow to spend no money, they wander their way north like the maddest of monks on the most quixotic of quests. What they find along the way is a country filled with very interesting people, a great number of whom are very nice. Ben and George manage, through charm, wit, fast talking and willingness to do tasks ranging from cleaning, to loading onions, to singing for their suppers, to acquire clothes, food, bicycles and someplace to sleep every night. It is a wonderful adventure and very, very funny. George is a great observer of life and a very witty writer and he and Ben bicker throughout the journey in the way that only true friends can. A few quotes will give you the flavor of this delightful book:

‘Yeah. There’s a place called Neilston in another ten miles.’ ‘Ten miles? Are you kidding me?’ asked Ben. ‘Err, no. It doesn’t look like there’s anything else before there anyway. We’ve done really well today. I reckon we’ll have done over 90 miles.’ ‘WHAT? My god, you are such a slave driver. If I’d known we had done anything near that much, I would have stopped for the day ages ago.’ ‘I know. That’s why I didn’t tell you.’


Before eating the sandwiches we tried a rendition of Silent Night in German that I could still remember from primary school. A guy on a bmx, in his mid thirties, approached with a small paper bag from Greggs. ‘Hi guys. You can have these two donuts if you promise to stop singing.’ ‘You’ve got yourself a deal. Thanks, mate,’ I said.


The descent from Kirkstone Pass was undoubtedly the fastest I have ever been on a bike. It was possibly the fastest that man has ever travelled, in any form of transport. If The Falcon had had wings, I swear she would have taken off. It was one of the scariest, but most exhilarating things I have ever done. Braking wasn’t really an option for me, as The Falcon’s brakes only had any slight effect when travelling at a ridiculously slow speed, or uphill. I just gave in and let The Falcon do what she was best at doing - not stopping.


We explained our challenge and asked if there was anything we could do in exchange for some free food. ‘Oooooh, what do you reckon, Jan? Should we give these two strapping young lads any food?’ she said to her colleague. ‘Yeah, why not. If that one with the skimpy shorts shows us a bit more leg,’ she laughed. ‘That’ll be you then, George,’ said Ben. This was a new low. I was being made to flaunt my body in exchange for food. I felt used. I felt cheap. I liked it. I lifted up the side of my skimpy blue shorts, and exposed my flabby white thighs. ‘Phwoooooaarr,’ said both ladies...


If a nutritionist had analysed what we ate during the bike ride, I think they probably would have concluded that we should not be alive, let alone fit enough to cycle. I read somewhere that beige food is bad for you. Almost everything we ate was a shade of beige; bread, pasta bakes, chips, pasties and bananas. Anyway, all I’m saying is that peas and carrots taste unbelievable if you only eat beige food for 17 days beforehand. Give it a try.


Free Country is one of the funniest books I've ever read and it is a book that celebrates the tremendous kindness that exists in the world. George and Ben completed their journey thanks to the kindness of strangers, but after reading the tale of their journey, I feel that I owe them much more than the meager cost of this book for the laughter and wisdom I've found in its pages. George and Ben, if you ever make it to Issaquah, look me up. I'll make sure you've got a good meal and a place to stay.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Chile to Kili (with a stop in Issaquah, Washington)

On Monday I met Elvis Munis, a young Tanzanain ecology student who currently cycling around the world, unsupported, to raise funds for education for his fellow Tanzanian students. Elvis is currently in paused in Issaquah, and next week Vino Bella, a lovely little wine and espresso bar just two doors south of the Bicycle Center where I work, is hosting an event where Elvis will show slides and videos and talk about his journey and his cause. The event is a fund raiser and as I talked with Elvis and his friend Garth, I became more and more impressed with this quiet young man and his work. I told Elvis I'd do what I could to get the word out.

That is why I'm posting this here. The best tool I have at my disposal is this blog and if you are anywhere near Issaquah next Wednesday, I strongly urge you to come to meet Elvis and hear his story. Below are the details from the announcement on Facebook.

Chile to Kili, Issaquah WA

Meet Elvis Munis, the amazing Tanzanian ecology student who is cycling around the world, unsupported, to raise funds for his education and fellow Tanzanian students.

Chile to Kili was conceived by 26 year old Tanzanian student and naturalist Elvis Munis, a member of the Conservation Resource Center and ardent conservationist and cyclist. As many of you know, Tanzania is a beautiful country filled with unique and wonderful natural ecosystems, but many of these ecosystems are being threatened. Protection and proper management of these systems is critical to not only the plants and animals but to the Tanzanian people who depend on these ecosystems for their livelihoods, from food, wood, and medicine to supporting the tourist industry that provides so many jobs. Elvis identified one of the major problems in conservation in Tanzania: the lack of opportunity for Tanzanians to obtain education necessary to manage wildlife and natural resources.

Elvis started his amazing endeavor in South America in January and since then has cycled 11,000 miles, making his way to the Pacific Northwest. We are glad to host Elvis here in Issaquah and welcome you to hear about his journey.

The event is hosted by Vino Bella Wine and Espresso Bar and will include:
- Slide show and videos from Elvis' travels
- Music by Michel Gotz
- Silent auction and raffle

We wish to help Elvis' goal of raising fund for conservation education scholarships. We believe that we can raise $5,000, which will allow Elvis to get his first degree in Conservation Biology as he continues to cycle and raise funds for other students. By supporting education for Elvis and his peers, we will be helping to fulfill their dreams and support critical ecosystems of Tanzania.

Date/Time: Wednesday November 14, from 6:30 to 8:30pm
Venue: Vino Bella. 99 Front Street, Issaquah WA 98027.

I'm helping Elvis out by donating this lovely old Nishiki to his cause:

I wrote about this bike a few months ago, noting that "now I just need to find somebody who needs a good old bike." What we are going to do on Wednesday is raffle the bike off. It'll work like this. We'll have a jar and slips of paper. For $5, you get to print your name and contact info on a piece of paper that goes in the jar. If you pledge $10, two pieces of paper with your name go into the jar. You can pledge as much as you want and every $5 earns you another slip in the jar. At the end of the night, Elvis will pull a piece of paper out of the jar and if your name is on that paper, you win the bike. All the money in the jar goes to Elvis and his fellow students at the Conservation Resource Centre in Tanzania.

Christine and I will be at Vino Bella Wednesday night November 14th to hear Elvis talk about his trip and his work. I hope you can join us and help Elvis keep rolling.

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Of Bridges and Herons

I don't know what on earth I was thinking when I agreed to this. I might have been imagining how beautiful it is out on the Olympic Peninsula, how wonderful it would be to spend ten days with Kent, riding our bikes on roads less travelled in early fall when the weather is cool and the leaves beginning to turn, camping by the water in our excellent little tent and watching beautiful sunsets every night. But when Kent suggested we ride to Seattle from our home in Issaquah instead of taking advantage of the bike racks on Sound Transit, and I agreed to try it, I don't know what I was thinking.

Yes, I knew it would involve a long and arduous climb. I knew I'd be riding in a lot more traffic than I am used to. And I knew that there would be bridges to cross, most notably the long I-90 floating bridge that links Mercer Island with Seattle. But I was feeling brave and adventuresome, and I agreed to try it. Now that I have survived the long ascent out of Issaquah and the harrowing descent of Honda Hill and we're making our way along the trail through the Bellevue Slough, I am well aware that I am already very tired and there is some very hilly terrain ahead, and I have used up whatever bravery I started out with going down that hill with trucks roaring by, and the dreaded I-90 bridge is still to come. Of course there is a smaller bridge to cross before this, and as we start to roll across it, I am tense and seriously worried that I have bit off more than I can chew. And what I am thinking is, can we maybe catch the bus with bike racks at the Mercer Island Park & Ride?

Suddenly Kent calls out from behind me. “Look, a heron!” I stop on the bridge, and sure enough, there it is, a blue heron standing still at the edge of the water on its long legs, searching for signs of living things moving in the depths.

I have a sort of history with herons, odd as that sounds. Years ago, living in White Plains, New York and raising two small children, during rare hours of time to myself I'd wander over to a small pond not too far from where we lived. There was a heron who fished there, standing very still in the water, waiting, its beak occasionally darting at amazing speed beneath the surface. I'd sit on the grassy bank and watch the water, watch the heron, watch the clouds, reveling in the peace and quiet, coming back to myself within my days spent as wife and mother. When we moved to Issaquah, I knew I would miss that place, and I would miss the heron. But a salmon stream flows through the center of Issaquah, and one morning as I was walking to work in the early darkness, I saw a tall, slender distinct bird-shape, motionless in the moving water. I stood on the bridge over the creek, quiet and delighted. The heron looked up at me, and returned to its fishing. I came to look forward to seeing the new heron on my early morning walks, and I often did. I would stand for awhile on the bridge, cherishing those moments of pre-dawn companionship, listening to the sound of the creek and looking up at the stars while the heron fished for its breakfast.

What grace a heron has, to venture on slender legs into deep waters, to wait, still and patient, as water swirls around, scanning the depths, perpetually seeking. And yet in flight, they are magnificent, their extended slender bodies, long beaks, and wide blue wingspan evocative of prehistoric ancestors as they soar. Our four-year-old son, in a stage of fascination with dinosaurs, once saw a heron in flight and pointed excitedly. “Pteranodon!” His dad said gently. “No, Peter, that's a heron.” But Peter remained convinced that he had seen a pteranodon, and I'm still not sure he was entirely wrong.

A few years ago, I had ventured out into deep waters of my own, exploring a sense of call to ordination in my church. It is a lengthy and arduous process, which involves evaluation by committees and commissions and boards and so forth at a number of distinct stages. Many questions are asked, and one that was asked of me was: “Are you willing to drive?” What might have been a no-brainer for most people was deeply challenging for me. Having lived car-free with my husband for over two decades, I had to ask myself if that was something I was willing to change, and it was not a small question.

I am convinced that the ways we choose to get around in the world are deeply formative for us. They shape how we experience the world, and how we experience ourselves in the world. They dictate the pace at which we live our lives, they expand or limit our range, our options, and our vision. At least as significantly, the choices we make impact and shape the world around us, for good or ill. Even if we fancy ourselves drivers, we ultimately are all passengers on this fragile blue-green world that sustains our lives as we travel around our star.

I mulled the practical questions. How would I visit hospitals, respond to midnight emergencies, visit people in their homes? In theory, a church that pays significant lip-service, at least, to the responsibilities of environmental stewardship should not be adverse to hiring a walking, biking, public-transportation-using priest. But those ways of getting around, at least on the average, take significantly more time than simply hopping in the car. If I am accustomed to a slower pace of life, the average parishioner today is not, and I suspect that most would not be willing to adjust their expectations for response time to their pastoral needs, especially if they are paying for that time. Of course, Jesus did not drive, and except for a few journeys in boats and a notable ride on a donkey, spent his entire public ministry walking from place to place. It strikes me as odd that people talk a lot about emulating what he did, but not the pace at which he did it, or the mode of travel that enabled those life-changing personal encounters with a woman who reached out to touch the fringe of his garment, a blind man that cried out to him in passing, or a short tax-collector who had climbed a tree to get a better look at him. Paul did not drive either, and managed to spread the gospel throughout the then-known world, covering over 10,000 miles between his own life-changing encounter with God on the road to Damascus and his martyrdom at Rome. In fact, for the vast majority of the church's history, people have celebrated, preached and attended worship services, and have been baptized, counselled, married, and buried without the involvement of the automobile. But a sense of history is a rare thing these days, and as I say, expectations have changed. The work I hope to do is work to which I believe I am well-suited and called, and driving is something that most people would not think twice about. Maybe I need to be more adaptable in order to get where I hope to go. Yet I have never believed that the end justifies the means; I find it much more likely that the means determine the end, and I'm not convinced that our collective reliance on automobile transport is achieving more good ends than otherwise.

I think about the life Kent and I have shared, the many ways we have chosen to live simply and travel slowly and the relationship forged over decades by those choices. I know many couples live happily even as one person drives while the other does not. But I also know that there are threads you pull that can unravel fabric faster and more irrevocably than one intends, bridges we cross that lead to places we only belatedly realize we did not want to go. I do not doubt that we would continue to love one another. But if I were to decide to drive, our relationship and our lives would be changed more fundamentally than by any choice we have made yet, except for the decision to have children. To at least some degree, we would travel at different speeds, in different orbits far less synchronous than the ones shaped by our very real but complementary differing interests and occupations. One can love a comet that passes every few years into one's view in the night sky, but that kind of love does not sustain a life together on the earth. How can I place at risk the most precious thing in my life?

I have been pondering the “Are you willing to drive?” question, and all that hinges on however it will eventually be answered, for weeks. I am turning it all over again in my mind as I wander home from work on a partly wooded trail, when a sudden stunning cry fills the air and a streak of blue wings fills my vision. The heron soars past me, so close I could reach out and touch. Awestruck, I follow his flight with my eyes, my own heart soaring as he turns and ascends on the wind, disappearing over the tops of cedars, flying back towards the creek. I would have missed this, is the thought that comes to me unbidden, and there is no longer a question. I know that I will not drive.

It was probably a thread I pulled that began the unraveling of my ordination process; I will never know for sure. Eventually, I turned aside from a path that promised to become increasingly adversarial, fraught with misunderstandings and dictated by an agenda that had nothing to do with who I was or what I had to offer. I got a green bike and headed out on another road.

All this I am thinking, all of it brushing my mind as swiftly as wings, as I stand on the bridge over the Bellevue Slough, watching the heron scanning the depths of the water. I know that eventually, he will find what he is seeking, or something better. And what I am also thinking now is that yes, I really can do this. With a last glance at the heron, I smile and get back on my green bike, heading across the bridge with Kent for the great I-90 floating bridge, Seattle, and points beyond.