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Essay

Flying on two wheels: Travel in coronavirus lockdown

Reflections on biking 1,000 miles, but never far from home

This weekend I topped 1,000 miles ridden on my bike since the lockdown began without leaving Tucson. After 500 miles, I named the bike Rocinante after Don Quixote de la Mancha’s faithful horse, for no other reason that I found it amusing. Later it occurred to me the real reason was that I wanted to occupy that place between delusion and idealism, a place where I would take myself a little less seriously.

Perhaps here, or so goes the reasoning, I could garner the optimism and conviction that the pandemic could indeed usher in something new.

Like so many others, everything cancelled for me in March. I was about to go on a second leg of a book tour for "Empire of Borders," a book of investigative journalism that looks at the expansion of the U.S. border around the world. I lost events at libraries, at universities, at conferences. The loss of engagement at an important if not fledgling moment of a new book has been a painful void.

But the cancellation that saddened me the most was a two-night train trip I was going to take with William, my four-year-old, to Portland in early April. I was excited to show him that there were many ways to travel besides flying. I didn’t really care about the potential that he’d be, at times, a royal pain in the ass.

To excite William about our trip, I relayed memorable moments from other bus and train trips in my past, from Buffalo to Guadalajara, from Managua to Tucson, from Tucson to New York City. I told him about when I woke up on a Greyhound bus in a swathe of Redwoods in Northern California. The bus left Oakland the evening before en route to Coos Bay, Oregon. When I opened my eyes, I saw the giant trees woven into the dawn fog through the window.

It was like I woke up into a great work of art, the beauty and grandeur were that astonishing. And that was not all. Maybe it was simply the early morning, the dream-state, or the fact that I had been on the bus since Buffalo, but it was their faces.

Not human faces, but faces of wrinkles and wisdom on the trunks that left me humbled, as if I only knew a fraction of what was going on, and I was only a fraction of something much bigger.

I had waited years for this trip with William. My hopes were almost Quixotic. I wanted it to be a pilgrimage, in the most traditional sense, where we entered one way and left another. I took the cancellation hard.

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The thousand miles on the bike — the equivalent of going from Tucson to LA and back — certainly began from the mourning and melancholy caused by the pandemic, but there was also something more to it. It became a pilgrimage in its own right.

Maybe by not being able to travel at all, I could learn to travel again.

Which brings me to the hawk.

When the hawk first landed I thought it might be a pigeon, a morning dove, a finch, sparrow, a curved bill thrasher. Then I looked up. It was about 5:45 a.m. in mid-April, there was a dreamy dawn sky and birds had begun their song. I had just turned off the radio which had only news of the plague. I was hungry for a new perspective, new thoughts, a new angle.

And I looked up and saw that the bird that landed was a hawk. I first thought to identify the hawk — a Cooper’s, maybe? — but its curious, tender, beautiful face overwhelmed me for the briefest of moments before it turned more concentrated. Then it swooped down to the ground into a bush and after a pigeon, though I’m not sure, since I only heard the commotion. I had seen hawks fly around the neighborhood, but never one that landed this close, this early, as if in a dream.

I’ve noticed that through the pandemic, I have been learning to listen in a number of different ways. I have been trying to listen to what the virus has to say and, subsequently, what death has to say.

But I also have tried to listen to the look on William’s face when he wonders why he can’t go on the train or play with his friends.

To listen to not only people’s words, but also gestures, faces, tonalities, and other layers of language, especially as so many wear masks. And to listen to the protests against the lockdown, but not the surface level spectacle of guns and flag waving cacophony associated with Donald Trump, though that could be amusing or terrifying depending on the mood. I’ve tried to listen to the pain, not of a “divided country” but of a more profound dissatisfaction.

In one photo of one such protest in Phoenix I focused on a man with a sign that said “I want my job back.” I knew nothing about the man, but he was not waving a flag, flaunting a gun, gesturing at the camera, there was no Trump photo, it was just him and his sign and a simple message. The virus, if you listen, exposes everything, and reveals a complicated crossroads of deep aching needs in this country and the world.

Wearing a mask in almost all public outings, I’ve thought quite a bit about what the Zapatistas have to say: we wear masks, they say, in order to be seen. If you listen, in all its tragedy, the virus also brings a poem.

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So I wondered, what did the hawk have to say?

I was reluctant, but I did a Google search on “hawks” and “meaning.” It felt kind of cheap at first, like I was looking for some sort of pat Internet answer that surely would be inadequate or unsatisfactory. And although it was just that, I liked the answers. I learned that hawks were seen as messengers from the spiritual world. If you saw one, it was calling for you to use “intuition and higher wisdom.” The universe, another page said, wanted you to expand your “knowledge and wisdom.”

I clicked off the computer, that was enough for now.

Like most, I have barely left my house for months. But when I do I am biking in places I never knew existed in the very city where I live.

I’ve ridden along the Santa Cruz and Rillito river banks from the south to the north and to my surprise found a grocery store that I only knew how to get to by car. And that’s just the beginning. I’ve gone south to Valencia Road, and then had no desire to stop and ended up in the empty parking lot at the San Xavier mission on the Tohono O’odham Nation.

That day, if I’m to be honest, I could’ve kept going. I could’ve biked to Mexico.

Another day I followed a path to the expansive southeastern parts of Tucson where suddenly there was a rattlesnake bathing in the sun that I swerved to miss. I stopped, turned around, and watched the snake for a long moment move its gorgeous coil across the path with a sort of levitated, graceful concentration. In the words of Irish poet John O’Donahue, “Indeed, it is often the whispers and glimpses of beauty which enable people to endure on desperate frontiers.”

A few days after the hawk landed in my back yard, I was cruising on the Santa Cruz bike path. My one-and-a-half-year-old Sofia was behind me on the blue seat, and William was on a cushion in the hooptie.

We all saw the hawk lift off next to us at the same time.

It soared into the sky, then flew along our side, parallel, as I peddled faster and faster creating a sensation that we too were lifting off, that we too began to soar. I expected the hawk to fly off but this kept going on, so I wondered if the hawk actually was accompanying us for a luminous moment?

For it too felt like our heavy, orange semi-delusional bike had wings, as we passed mesquites, barrel cacti, and palo verde trees lit up by yellow flowers. We all started yelping with a gloriously absurd bubbling joy. Sofia pointed up to the sky with her index finger. William yelled that it is with us! It is flying with us! The hawk is coming with us!

He yelled so loudly and with such happiness that a woman on the path in front of us turned around and gave us a broad smile. Then she looked up into the blue, huge sky and saw the flying hawk with us and smiled again.

I don’t know what else to say about this, but for one moment we were one with the hawk. It didn’t matter that we literally were not. Physiologically we were flying. However fleeting, we had wings, we had claws, we were soaring, until the hawk curved off and disappeared into another layer of sky.

Perhaps I was in that place I wanted from naming my bike Rocinante to begin with—between delusion and idealism, hardly taking myself seriously. Perhaps this was the pilgrimage I wanted with my children, the train ride with William. Perhaps it was my way of dealing with the pandemic and thus the unknown (and hence death), only to find that all this horror was also brimming with life.

This, too, was a gift of the virus, if I could only bring myself to listen. As we enter the crossroads, my perspective has formed wings and claws. And is now informed by many messengers.

Todd Miller has researched and written about border issues for more than 15 years, the last eight as an independent journalist and writer. He resides in Tucson, but also spent many years living and working in Oaxaca, Mexico. His work has appeared in the New York Times, TomDispatch, The Nation, San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Guernica, and Al Jazeera English, among other places.
Miller has authored three books:  Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World (Verso, 2019),  Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security (City Lights, 2017), and Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security (City Lights, 2014).

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