Pedalling Kindness: From Boston To Boulder
--Arathi Ravichandran
12 minute read
Jul 27, 2011


[Sometime last year, Arathi decided (its even caught on tape!) to go a bike ride across the country with the conscious purpose of daily acts of kindness.  When she graduated last month, she set off with a friend. Below is a compilation of some of her emails.]

Jun 9

two monks have insisted that i write every day, a ranndom stranger who happened to be an astrologer walked up to me and told me that this ride was going to change my life, a cancer survivor gave me a livestrong bracelet and told me to look at it every morning when i wake up, and the abbot of a zen monestary in mt. tremper new york gave me a bracelet of beads to wear on this journey.  its 10 days into the ride and there are so many stories to tell.  
for the past 10 days, the universe has been hooking us up with opportunities to serve, families who have invited us into their homes, and little gifts of wind and shade that have helped me during tortuous uphills climbs.  we spent the last few days in a zen monestary in mt. tremper, new york, living life as the monks do and learning the zen tradition.  to be honest, not really my cup  of tea in terms of technique, but i enjoyed the experience immensely and was happy to have a moment of stillness within so much daily movement. 
it turns out doing random acts in the US is much harder than one would expect.  i never realized just how transactional things are here, the looks of suspicion and confusion have become commonplace in response to an explanation of what we are trying to do.  a monk gently reminded me that service is more about "being" than "doing" and i have resigned myself to quit the speech about the spirit of our ride and simply help people spontaneously along the way, if the opportunity arises.  i've started making it a point to smile and wave to all that pass by, and the surprised smiles back and happy waves give me much needed bursts of energy during long rides.  
this morning was really tough... we left the monestary and i was feeling like maybe i embarked on the ride without enough preparation, without a stronger community of people around me to serve with.  for about 2 hours i was thinking that maybe the entire thing wasn't a good idea and that i should stop in ohio.  the afternoon was really hot, and we ended up stopping in a tiny mountain town.  while taking a break in the shade a man walked up to us and started chatting.  turns out he had survived cancer and rode across the country at age 58.  he invited us into his home to wait out the storm that had rolled in, and in that time shared his story of surviving cancer and doign the ride.  as we left his house he gave me a huge hug and handed me a livestrong bracelet, and told us that we could definitely do it.  it was really amazing to get such encouragement from a random stranger just when I needed it the most.  
so many stories like that, and the universe is endlessly providing.  am slowly letting go of the anxiety of reaching our destination and starting to soak in the day and face the inevitable physical pain with some grace, although that is still hard :-). 
am sorry i didn't write sooner.  have been thinking of you guys and am hoping to plant seeds of service and kindness with the same integrity with which you have taught me. 

Jun 14:
its about 9am in the morning and we had been riding through traffic in pouring down rain right outside syracuse, ny.  i'm already so tired and its only been 1 hour since we started.  as we rode out of the city, the all too familiar picture of run down houses, boarded up windows, closed gas stations, and grey buildings line the streets.  this part of syracuse is particularly dingy and the grey skies and rain don't help.  we make it through a pretty busy intersection and pull into a hess gas station asking for directions.  this is what seemed to be the 100th time that i've gotten off of my bike with my lungs and legs aching wondering why I decided to do this trip in the first place.  we get into the gas station and ask the woman behind the counter for directions to rochester, ny.  another woman comes in as we are asking for directions, and within 10 minutes she is telling us the best and least busy routes heading north.  another 10 minutes and we are in the back of her car, heading to the grocery store to help her recycle the bottles and cans in her trunk. and 10 minutes later, we end up going back to her house and help her clean her tables, and listen to her story of her youngest daughter committing suicide and her husband struggling with dimentia...  the day goes by, and we spend our time listening to Valerie's story.  we learn about her 8 brothers and sisters, about her husband's alcohol addiciton, and about her lonliness and heart ache over her daugher's death.  we bare witness to her suffering and try our best to help her clean her apartment.  
she drives us through the rain for almost and hour and a half to rochester, just so that we don't have to bike in the rain.  although most of the day was spent listening to her problems, i realized, as i have many times through countless interactions with strangers, just how important a listening ear can be, and how something as simple as a bike trip has opened the door for many people to come and talk to us, and be gracious around generous enough to share their stories with us...  what is it about a stranger that allows for that trust? it is through these conversations, especially through difficult and at times tedious conversations with people like Valerie, that I've reflected on how difficult an open, honest, and non-judgemental ear is to develop...
we have had conversations with many gun owners and proud hunters of moose and deer, individuals who before I think i'd judge, or choose not to speak with.  they have helped us with our route, they have showed us so much kindness, and i have left so many conversations ashamed at my pre-judgement.  searching for random acts has automatically shined a light on my sometimes stagnant states of unkindness...
since we have chosen to lay out our own path and not use any previously laid out bicycle routes, we are really at the mercy of the universe, and i am slowly slowly slowly learning to embrace uncertainty in a way that i've never experienced.  i absolutely have no idea where i will sleep, or if there will be a grocery store, or if the road will be hilly or flat.  its become easier as the days past to have trust in the powers that be, and lo and behold, the powers that be are delivering in ways that i never thought possible.... 
some pictures :-).  these are signs that we put up in valerie's house to help motivate her to move and a note that she wrote to herself on her take out box after eating breakfast together (and a very long pep talk from me andd voop, the girl i'm riding with)
sending love and blessings from buffalo, ny!
Jun 27
if you look too far down the road, the back of your neck begins to hurt, you start to squint your eyes, and you miss the cracks in the pavement that lie immediately ahead.  those cracks cause the bike to tip and fall over, scratching up your legs and arms, leaving blood and tears on the hot black asphault.  if you don't end up falling, after 20 minutes of looking too far ahead, your hand inadvertently begins to rub your sore neck and back... you scold yourself.  stop looking so far down the road.  pay attention to the road that lies immediately ahead.  see that crack.  watch that stone.  remember to wave to the farmer that is getting his mail from the mailbox.  remember to feel the wind as it cools your hot forehead.  you drop your head and feel immediate relief as your strained muscles relax.  you pay attention to your breath and keep riding, keeping your head and your eyes on the road immediately beneath you.  until you forget, and look up, and fall again. 
we are well into the middle of our journey and just pulled into louisville, kentucky.  our random acts have been so random. we cleaned someone's harley, weeded a bunch of gardens, cooked a few meals, and patiently listened to life stories.  we have asked so many people how we can help, and instead they offer us their backyards, their food, their warm showers and warm hearts.  we gratefully accept these gifts and the line between giving and recieving is further blurred.  a few days ago, riding through central ohio, we came across a beautiful flower garden of a woman's house in the middle of miles and miles of farmland.  i smiled and stopped, and started taking pictures of the garden.  The owner, Gale, came outside and sweetly offered us rasberries freshly picked from the rasberry bush outside her house.  in the middle of our conversation, a policeman drove by and warned us that a storm was commin in.  sure enough, in the distance over thousands of acres of golden wheat fields and green corn fields, we saw dark, ominous clouds and heard the unmistakeble rumbling of thunder.  we smiled at the police officer and looked at each other with concern, wondering where we would find shelter.... Gale, our saving grace, immediately invited us to stay with her, and we pitched our tents quickly in her back yard while she told us about her children and her love of cooking and baking for her church friends.  we all sat together under her porch and watched the storm rage around us.  the rain fell in sheets and the thunder and wind seemed to shake everything.  after 20 minutes, the storm dissapeared as fast as it came, and we slept happily under the stars, our stomachs full of Gale's delicious food and our hearts content after an evening of heart warming conversation.
turns out, riding on perfectly sunny days is not all that great.  the bits of shade, change of colors and temperature that clouds and wind and rain provide are tools that help me experience my surroundings more thoughtfully.  6 to 7 hours of riding on a perfectly sunny day usually mean that my mind wanders, despite my most earnest attempts.  throw in completely flat land, or a steadily downhill sloping road, and i'm fighting to remain present, fighting to pay attention... its those hours that are unbearably hot, or windy, or rainy, when i'm fighting with everything i have to not quit, when i'm really learning.  its during those times when i realize that i'm much stronger than i ever thought i was.  i have no chocie but to really relax into what i'm experiencing at the present moment and trying not to fight it at more subtle and subtle levels.  i often find myself saying, there's just no point in worrying, there's just no point in being scared.  the road is making me increasingly vulnerable to the earth and all the elements that I encounter on a daily basis.  sometimes, i don't handle it well.  i get frustrated.  i have to fight to calm myself down.  i'm so sleepy, i'm so tired, i'm so this, i'm so that.  always complaining, always telling myself some story.  but i have no choice but to get over it and keep riding, so thats what i do.  and there is always the reminder of being kind to myself.  paradoxically, i'm finding some stillness in movement. 
a few conversations with individuals [and with the girl that i'm riding with] have inspired a deeper reflection on the connection between compassion and tolerance.  at a recent stop, the girl i'm riding with had a bad experience with the owner of a restaurant attached to a hotel.  she promptly complained to the hotel manager about how poorly she had been treated by the restaurant owner, and told me later that she thought that complaining about the service was a great random act of kindness.  when i heard the story, i have to say i was pretty upset.  i thought it would have been kinder to express her feelings to the restaurant ownder herselff, instead of doing something to risk loosing her job..... was that really kind? was that a compassionate action? was my reaction to my riding partner compassionate? we have disagreed numerous times on the trip, mainly on our ideas of what compassion and service, and on broader topics.  i am growing in tolerance, and finding that its easier to nodd and hold my toungue.  learning tolerance is an important part of learning compassion, and i'm getting a workout in learning tolerance every day.
random thoughts from the road! am riding for 16 more days.  our trip is officially "from boston to boulder" instead of across the country.  i got a job that i'm pretty excited about before leaving.  will fill you guys in on the details soon enough.  hope you are all doing well. 
lots of love and blessings,
Jul 4
As a volunteer park ranger at Yosemite National Park, Jeff spent his summer hiking the beautiful trails of the Sierras and braving Half Dome.  One day, he walked by a piece of trash on a trail.  He thought to himself, if there is trash on this trail, in one of the nation's most famous national parks, think of the trash there must be around the country.  He then thought, wouldn't it be amazing to walk across America picking up trash? 
And so came the birth of the idea for Pick Up America.  Jeff returned to school as an undergrad at the University of Maryland and shared this idea with his friend Dave.  Dave, a fellow environmental activist, and been inspired to action after a highway was built through this community, turning the waters of his favorite childhood stream black, and contributing to suffocating air pollution in his town.  After graduating, this dynamic duo set off, walking across America, picking up trash, and educating people on climate exchange, zero waste, and the horrific impact that the over consumptive behaviors of the American population is having on the environmental health of the planet.  
We met Jeff by chance in the middle of a cornfield in Illinois.  At 9am, I already had beads of sweat running down my forehead and was nervous in anticipation of the rough and very hot day of riding ahead.  Sprawled out on the side of the road with my maps in front of me, I was busy concentrating on our route, when I looked up and saw a huge green bus coming towards us.  The bus stopped and Jeff popped out and said hello, and invited us to pick up trash with them that day.  We immediately said we'd love to and rode 30 miles to Salem, Ilinois, to start picking up trash along with their team of 8 amazing volunteers, and the town mayor.  
The afternoon sun was absolutely relentless as everyone moved slowly down the highway, picking up plastic bottles, plastic food containers, and plastic bags.  After one hour of working, I was exhausted, but inspired by the Pick up America team and just kept going.  Two hours later, I could barely move, and still, the team kept chugging along.  They spent 7 hours picking up trash in 110 degree heat, and smiled the entire way.  
We were so inspired by the Pick Up America team that we put our ride on hold for two days and have spent the past 48 hours picking up trash, and learning so much about the zero waste movement.   This is their second year of walking, and in total, they have walked 1050 milesacross america and picked up 112,000 pounds of trash.  I feel honored to have spent this time with them and have so much respect for what they are doing.  They are living off the kindness of others in towns that help out with food and hot showers, they make no money, and they are relentlessly dedicated to this cause.  
And, they are looking for people to join the movement!  They are in Salem, Illinois right now and will continue west until November when they take a break for the winter.  If you're interested in dedicated a week, or a day, or know anyone along the way (Kansas is the next state they are walking to) or anyone that can help out with hot showers or food, please let me know, I'll put you in contact with the Pick Up America team.  
Happy Fourth of July :-). 
lots of love and blessings, 

Posted by Arathi Ravichandran on Jul 27, 2011

4 Past Reflections