On six-week jaunts over several years, Charlottesville’s Chris Register crisscrossed the country on his bike, interviewing people for his book series Conversations With US: Two Wheels, Fifty States, Hundreds of Voices, One America. The first volume, published in early 2019, is based on his 1,916-mile trip through the Midwest and Great Lakes states. Here, he offers a personal account of his journey and mission.
When I graduated from law school in Washington, D.C., in 2009, partisanship and political bickering were the worst I’d ever seen. I thought it would be cool to get out there, talk to people, and find what’s really going on. I did my first tour in 2010, nearly 2,000 miles, interviewing at least one person a day about their views on America.
After that tour, I took a break to work and save up my money, always knowing I’d get back to my tours and writing. In 2015, I quit my job and started my second tour. That’s recorded in the first volume.
I’ll write about Charlottesville in the book that covers what I call Appalachia and bluegrass country. I remember coming down out of the Shenandoah mountains and riding straight to the Lawn. I interviewed two students—one of them came to the book-release party. That was cool. The next day I rode up to Monticello and spoke to Linnea Grim, the director of education and visitors’ programs. I ended up settling down here.
In all the ground I’ve covered, two stories really stand out. One is about the vastness of this country, and the other is about learning to walk in another person’s shoes.
I’m 39, so I grew up well after the civil rights movement. Most people my age or a little younger haven’t actually talked to someone who had to sit at the back of the bus. But when I was in Elgin, Illinois, I interviewed Ernie Broadnax. Ernie was the only black player on his debate and basketball teams in high school and community college. He told me, after a win, his white teammates would celebrate at a restaurant, but one of them would have to bring his meal to him on the bus. That upsets me. It gets me in the gut.
The other story unfolded at the Grand Canyon. I arrived at dusk. There was a full moon rising. After I set up camp on a rock outcropping at the edge of the canyon, I looked down and thought I saw the haunch of a large, brown animal that had moved around a rock. An hour later, after sunset, the moon was bright. I stood up and was looking out over the canyon. There was a sort of gray-blue hue to everything. I was soaking it all in. It was beautiful, an endless view. I looked to my left and saw bright flashes, like Morse code: dot, dot, dash. I finally realized what it was—a mountain lion. It had looked right at me, and the moonlight reflected off the lenses of its eyes. I never saw it again. If he wanted to get me, he would have. But he didn’t.
Ultimately, I’ve learned that I can do more than I ever thought I could. I climbed 12,000 feet to Independence Pass, outside Aspen, Colorado. My bike and gear are 125 pounds in all, and the oxygen gets kind of thin up there. I pressed on slowly, and I made it. Writing is like that, too. If you just keep going, you can do anything. Determination is the most important factor in success.
—Chris Register, as told to Joe Bargmann
6,307,600 crankshaft revolutions
355 days on the road
47 flat tires