July 26, 2008
22,000 miles on a scooter -- for peace
Racine has a spot on the largest peace sign ever created.
Alix Bryan, a young activist from Charlottesville, VA, has nearly completed a journey she began last summer, to trace a huge peace sign on a map of the U.S. That sounds easy, but she's doing it the hard way: driving more than 22,000 miles around the U.S. on a small motor scooter, talking about peace whenever she stops. When she's done, her route will indeed look like a peace sign superimposed on the map, stretching from coast to coast and north to south.
She stopped in Racine this weekend, staying with a local scooterist (me) and having dinner with members of the Kenosha-Racine Matadors Scooter Club, on the final leg of her journey. She has about 1,500 miles to go, expecting to finish on Aug. 8 exactly where she started on July 15, 2007: at the White House.
This all started when Alix -- a slim, tousle-haired young woman with a gap-toothed smile who turns 34 on July 29 -- attended a traveling exhibit of Beatle John Lennon's artwork, and came across a quote from him: "If a billion people were thinking about peace, there would be peace in the world."
"It was a eureka moment," Alix said. "The quote struck me and gave me the chance to contemplate what peace means to me. I've been involved with the social justice movement for a long time, and I thought, 'Most people don't have a working definition of peace."
Peace means a lot of things, she said.
"For myself, peace is how I take care of myself, and my community and my environment. At least every day, I'm working towards improving them."
Alix's eureka had a second component. She wanted to elevate discussion of peace, and encourage others to think about it, too. She also wanted to collect one million personal definitions of peace. As a scooterist -- she had a 49cc Honda Metropolitan at the time -- she decided to travel around the U.S. and literally trace a peace sign with the scooter's itinerary. Keep in mind that until that moment, the longest scooter trip she'd made was 30 miles.
And so the planning began. Her trip began in earnest when Phil McCaleb, owner of the Genuine Scooter Company in Chicago, responded to her request for a discount on a 125 cc Buddy scooter by giving her a scooter, and promising to cover any repairs needed throughout her trip under the scooter's two-year warranty. She named the scooter "Audre," after feminist activist Audre Lorde. It has a top speed of 55 miles an hour, gets 85 miles per gallon of gas, and is decorated with a custom-made, colorful peace sign seat cover and appropriate stickers with messages like this one by Ben Franklin: "There's never been a good war or a bad peace."
Last summer, Alix and Audre covered 11,000 miles, drawing the vertical leg and the two "arms" of the peace sign, as she drove from the White House to New Orleans, to Salina, KS, North Dakota, Seattle, down the west coast, through Crawford, Texas, where President Bush has his home, and back through Louisiana. There's some back-pedaling along the route; it's not a straight shot. This summer, again, starting at the White House, she is drawing the circle around the country's perimeter, touching a total of 32 states in the process.
It hasn't been an easy trip. She's run out of gas and had breakdowns -- Audre is on her fourth engine, which Alix ascribes to mechanic errors (all covered under warranty).
But mostly it's been a trip of contemplation (while in Madison, she attended the Dalai Lama's lecture), of conversations, of insights shared. "Throughout the journey, I randomly interview people that I come across, asking, 'How do you define peace?' It is a fundamental truth that we must know what something means to us before we can work towards it."
And it has been a trip of private moments, like the point in Nebraska early in her journey, when she reached 3,070 miles on the day U.S. casualties in Iraq hit the same number. "It was on Highway 15, 30 miles north of Seward. I said a prayer and spent a few moments in meditation, did a geocache, read a Martin Luther King passage. It was in a cornfield patch but I saw a mailbox across the highway, so I wrote down what I'd done on one of my trip postcards and put it in the mailbox."
She recalls another moment, this one in Kansas, where she ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere and "Farmer John" came to her rescue, saying, 'This is how I'd want my daughter treated.'
"He gave me gas. We had a complete difference of opinion, but a pretty friendly discussion. Because he was placed in the role of helping me, he let his guard down when we had a political discussion. More people need to strive to have conversations with people they disagree with. More people need to step out of their safe zones."
"It's been wonderful to see my philosophies put to the test. This was an abstract thought in my head, but after a 400-mile day, you haven't eaten, it's really hot and you're in Nebraska and the person you're talking to has a kid in the war. Remaining outgoing, pleasant... it was a test, not to judge people."
"A lot of people couldn't agree more with this effort. Peace is the litmus test in this country. There are a lot of very reasonable people in our country, and I'm not sure why we live in such unreasonable times." Alix encourages the people she meets to write their names and messages on Audre, to become part of her trip in a way. "The peace sign reflects community all around the country. People are sharing their stories and feelings."
Alix, who has a degree in political science, women's studies and non-profit management, tries to make it clear that hers is a "pro-peace event," not to be confused with the anti-war movement. "My challenge traveling has been to separate peace from politics and religion." She notes, "My Mom's not going on an anti-war march, but can't we agree on what peace is?"
If she's had one major disappointment, it is that most peace and anti-war organizations she's contacted have been indifferent to her journey. ""They haven't responded to my letters for help, or cross-promotion, facilitating activities, hosting me, or helping with the media. I was really foolish; I thought the antiwar movement would be supportive of this peace ride. But although we're two sides of the same coin, you can't see both at the same time."
scooterists have put her up, taken her around their cities; she visited the lakefront, the Johnson Administration building and Monument Square, among other places, while in Racine. Local scooterists sometimes ride along for short stretches of her journey. In many places she's stayed, Alix has also managed to do volunteer work to help others. "I've served a lot of food at homeless shelters. (She tried to volunteer at HALO, but schedules didn't mesh.) I worked at a recycling center in New Orleans, helped pack disaster supplies in Lake Charles, LA." She had hoped to raise $22,000 in donations -- $1 per mile -- 40% to cover her trip costs and 60% split among the Peace Alliance (an organization campaigning for the creation of a Department of Peace within the U.S. government), Scootin' for a Cure (Vespa owners raising money to fight breast cancer), The Last Mile (an end-of-life hospice charity) and an environmental organization she hasn't yet chosen. So far, however, she's raised just $8,000, and took out a $6,000 loan to pay for the trip.
Right now, as the journey nears its end, Alix is fighting what she has heard called "get-there-itis," the point at which someone completing a trip like this focuses on its aftermath, and thus gets sloppy and accident-prone. "The challenge I face right now is to stay in the present moment, stay careful," she says. She's added safety gear -- like Kevlar knee pads -- as an extra margin; she's also shipped some of her gear -- like the tent she carried for camping out when necessary -- to lighten the load on Audre.
For now, Alix is focused on finishing her trip -- "You can make your dream come true," she says. "The only limitation is your own mind." --and trying to organize an event outside the White House to mark the trip's end, hopefully with representatives of some of the peace organizations she's talked with. There's also a reception scheduled Aug. 9 in Richmond, VA, connecting scooterists, peace and anti-war groups. And she plans to keep her website up indefinitely, continue blogging and collecting definitions of peace, hoping to reach her goal of one million of them.
Alix Bryan's website is HERE.
Coincidentally, this is the peace sign's 50th anniversary. It started out as the emblem of the British anti-nuclear movement, utilizing the semaphore signals for N (nuclear) D (disarmament). The BBC's story is HERE.