Before this adventure, I imagined extended hours on desolate, lonely roads getting bored by wind noise, blasted by blowing sand and frightened by the occasional speeding trucker flying past. It was only natural then, right, to tackle the podcast library on the iPhone by loading up on Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Bari Weiss and some mind candy to help pass those miles.
Once on the road, however, I quickly realized that plugging in was actually tuning out and doing both things quite poorly. In my ears I was just hearing what was being said while sort of paying attention to what was going on around me. More than literally blocking my awareness of surroundings, the audio prevented me from experiencing the passing moments.
This journey is not just the intentional act of running from point A to point B. Rather, it is a process of intentional immersion in each experience to maximize the benefit of those personal interactions. I could not expect myself to just turn on and off. I needed to allow them room to actually feel and dwell on these sights, sounds and smells I run across each day. So, those earbuds have, for the last two weeks gradually sunk to the bottom of the Green Guru pouch; getting ever closer to that inevitable envelope of items returned at the next post office stop.
This mental space is one of the appeals to solo travel. The solitude gives the mind freedom to wander, to just listen. How is my spirit being guided at that moment? How am I being directed to move? Where will I end up next?
After being rescued by Henry in the Arizona desert with some much-needed water my body was a mess. I had to lay off the accelerator and mentally recover. So, that Wednesday, I coasted into Holbrook, AZ, a small town built on the legacy of the old Route 66 and its proximity to Petrified National Forest. On its main drag sit an assortment of cost-conscious chain motels. Mixed in is a collection throw-back motels, more than showing their age from the 1950s and 60s.
For whatever reason, at the time, I was drawn to the well-worn 66 Motel. You might have seen similar places. The oversized satellite dish from the 80s is held vertically in place by large, petrified wood stones. You park your car directly in front of your room and walk no more than ten steps to your door. One old kitchen chair with cracked vinyl seat cushions sits tiredly next to each door. You open that door with an actual key and a tag declaring that room number. Inside, the artwork dangles on old wood paneling. For some reason, at this specific time, this felt right.
Behind the office counter sat an older woman in a hoodie who seems like she'd worked there forever. She appeared to be set in her ways. Ignoring my entry, she was diligently trimming the bottom edges of tattered receipts so they all aligned and will fit in some specific place. It seemed kind of quirky, so I just waited.
Eventually, she looked up from her scissors and paper shreds and asks, what for me is now the regular obvious question, "what are you doing on a bike today?" "I'm Dave, riding cross-country for colon cancer awareness. If my good friend Donna can go through chemo, I can handle this."
To help ease the introduction, on the back of generic business card, she wrote her name and "Sikh Awareness" underneath. "Why do you add Sikh Awareness under your name" I ask. For over the next half hour while checking in other customers, Bhagwant Rangi explained just how much those two words meant to her.
Bhagwant has three children, a son who is a pain doctor in suburban Philadelphia and two daughters who also live out east. As her children were growing up in Phoenix in 2001, 9/11 happened. Four days later, Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered outside his Mesa AZ gas station in the nation's first hate crime post 9/11. Bhagwant went into action.
She helped form Sikh Awareness of Phoenix, an outreach program for high school students. For the next two decades she worked tirelessly to prevent others from defining her faith and fomenting hate.
Four years ago, her son had completed med school and was preparing for his board exams. They discussed how difficult these tests could be. So, she wanted to make sure there was a Plan B. "I told him we needed business options if things didn't go well. Not everyone gets through the rigorous test process."
With that, she and her husband drove all over the west looking for good gas stations to buy. "It's not easy to find profitable ones at a reasonable price. We even tried looking here in Holbrook, but I just didn't like the town," she said.
Back in Phoenix, a Hindu friend explained that a person they both knew had passed away and their spouse needed to sell a business in Holbrook. "My husband and I drove up to this place as they were putting up the For Sale sign out front. Something just attracted me to this place. It's an independent location. I don't pay a large company 40% for advertising and marketing. I like the ability to just turn off the light at night if I'm tired and go to sleep."
So at 79 years old, Bhagwant Rangi and her 83 year old husband now had a business to run, just in case.
Why would someone of Bhagwant's age want to start something she had no prior experience in running? She attributes her drive, values and work ethic to her father, a farmer back home in India. "I was the middle child of seven daughters and eventually one son. This was at a time when every family wanted a boy. When a baby was born, the family would look, and if it was a girl, she was ... (Bhagwant tilts her head quickly to the right.)
My family went through this seven times. "The villagers would ask my dad 'Don't you understand? Why do you keep doing this? My father would proudly state 'Where did you come from? That's right, a woman. The woman is the creator. Shis is the one who generates more life."
Apparently at the same time in India girls were not allowed to attend school. That didn't stop her father who just started a school on his own. "It was in an unfurnished small building with a dirt floor. Father would just bring a rug from the house. We would sit on that and do our lessons in the dirt. Once I was done with my lesson, I would wipe the dirt back over it and the next girl could do hers.
So, what is that Bhagwant has learned from her father and worked so hard to reinforce here in America? "We are all under the Creator who makes this all happen, and we just do parts on earth under that. Look, you are Christian. I'm Sikh. We are all under the same Creator. We are more alike than different."
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It's rarely the miles ridden or the mountains scaled that are memorable. Rather it's the people you meet along the journey that highlight meaning.