The shoulder of the road I traveled was not as narrow and treacherous as I was led to believe. In fact in most places it’s wider and no less safe than any other shoulder I have encountered on my journey. “Wait till you get to Canada.” “Hope you make it across alive.” “Look out for those cowboy truckers!” These are things I heard day after day as I made my way counterclockwise around Lake Superior on my bicycle. I’d set out to complete the 1300-mile ride in 15 days, stopping for 13 musical performances along the way. Each show was hosted by a different environmental group specific to each town (or provincial parks, for my stops in Canada). Some of these organizations were focused directly on the lake itself, some on the surrounding land. In addition to performing, I acted as a Charter Bearer to the Great Lakes Commons, a Canadian group I discovered when planning the trip. I was drawn to work with them upon reading their written charter, which focuses on telling a new and improved story about the Great Lakes and the importance of freshwater in our culture.
Early on in my trip, in the evenings at my performances, I took to asking people for advice, intel, and thoughts about the next day’s potential routes. I quickly stopped doing this. For some reason, it seemed everyone was determined to scare me. If I’d listened and taken their cautions to heart, I’d never get out of town, much less make it across Canada. But for a short time, those warnings worked. I questioned my own sanity in deciding to make such an ill-advised trip until it hit me: very few of these people had ever ridden a bicycle outside their own cities and states, let alone across the country.
And so, I put an end to such conversations. I no longer asked for advice, choosing instead to embrace the unknowns in the route as part of my journey. In the event that someone offered an unsolicited, negative forecast about my next day of riding, I’d say (both to myself and to them): “I rode the Mississippi Delta. I will be fine.” Usually, this sufficed to end the dialogue. But when the time finally came, and I crossed the river into Canada, I was scared, expecting the worst with all those early warnings still in my head. I braced for the truckers blazing past, straining my eyes ahead, anxiously awaiting this crumbling nonexistent shoulder of which I had been forewarned.
Surprisingly or, more truthfully, not surprisingly, I found no such worrisome conditions as I made my way. I wasn’t surprised, not really, because in those first few miles into Canada I remembered something. People love to give you their opinions and advice about things, and there almost seems to be the same equation: the less someone knows about something, the more they will warn you away from it. Remembering the truth of that, I was reminded to claim this adventure as my own. I hadn't set out to have someone else's experience, anyway.
When I was growing up, my mom nurtured my desire to make music and art. She signed me up for painting classes and guitar lessons. She let me wear paint-covered clothes to school and didn’t object when I grew out my hair and dyed it in an attempt to match Kurt Cobain. But all the while, she tugged my sleeve to cultivate some “other” skills, too: a job, she meant, something as back-up. Even when she wasn't directly saying so, her implication was clear: being an artist is not an easy life. It is hard.
When I think back on these conversations, after having supported myself as an artist for some 15 years, and now that I’ve just returned from circling Lake Superior on my bike (carrying the tools of my trade as an artist, my guitar and banjo, on those same wheels), I realize that my mom knew nothing more about what it would be like for me to be an artist than my audience members in the UP could know what it would be like for me to ride the Trans Canada Highway. How is being an artist any harder than being a single mom raising three kids on a substitute teacher’s salary? And why is the fact that it might be hard a reason to not follow the calling? Why should riding the Trans Canada Highway be any different than riding highway 558 from Big Bay to Marquette in the rain, as mining truck after mining truck rumble past?
How is being an artist any harder than being a single mom raising three kids on a substitute teacher’s salary? And why is the fact that it might be hard a reason to not follow the calling?
I decided a long time ago, around the time I was in middle school, to follow the voices in my head — to write songs and poems and draw pictures, and to make my living from making things. I decided to put my faith in the power and promise, rather than the peril, of the unknown. I remember looking at my close family, my mom, dad, aunts, and uncles. Although I loved them, I saw them as trapped people. They seemed to me people who had lives consisting of very little I identified with or found meaning in, committed to a certain story about how life needs to be. The more I observed the confines of that story, the more I resented them. Rather than security, I saw oppression — oppression rooted in the need for all the material things and ideals that represented that security. To me, it’s that exact story that threatens to choke all the creativity out of life. It’s a cautionary tale that makes a wall the spirit can’t pass through. I saw it paralyzing people all around me; it’s the extinguisher of awe, adventure, and wonder. It’s a story whose power lay in what it threatens to take away — none of which are much included in the things I want, anyway. I resolved, a long time ago, to forge a different path for myself, to tell a different kind of story with my life.
The most profound (and I have to admit, unexpected) experiences I’ve had this summer pedaling around Lake Superior have been seeing the direct impact my trip has had, not for the sake of the water, as I’d thought, but in the people I encountered on the way. They said to me: “I have been so burned out. I had forgotten why I was working to fight for water and land. Thanks for bringing light, a new perspective and a renewed sense of urgency. Thanks for reminding me why I do this.” Hearing these sorts of responses, night after night, filled me with so much happiness. It served to vindicate an absolute truth for me: not about me as an individual, but about my place as a part of a larger community, about the role of all artists. Just my being there — riding my bike with my guitar and banjo, singing songs, reading poems — gave people an occasion to think differently about what is possible. Talking to them, I’ve begun to see and understand that, if we are to heal the water, we will first have to heal ourselves. We have to start telling new stories.
Here’s mine: An artist is a person who believes in the impossible. They are the representatives of awe, the kinds of people who set off into the storm with no matches. Artists are the ones who lay down on the ground and wrestle with the wolves, metaphorically and sometimes literally. Artists keep the truth of a spirit breathing, constantly in pursuit of an energy, a source, a language larger than the sum of our petty concerns. It’s about reciprocity, a way of listening and sharing, observing and making for more than oneself. The artist makes visible for a moment the potential of the human spirit for those who may not otherwise be able to see it.
As I continued to talk with people through my trip around the lake, I was reminded again and again how essential it is that we live creatively and, more to the point, that we as artists work to inspire that kind of living in others. Maybe not every person will paint pictures, make films, music, or dance, but a life that makes room for a sense of wonder and mystery is in everyone’s reach. Artists are the ones best equipped to nurture this kind of living. And as artists, it’s our duty to help spread that truth wherever and whenever possible.
I do not pretend to believe that the world can be saved simply by quitting our jobs and making art, but I’m confident we stand a much better chance of dreaming up new stories and preserving life on this planet if we invite people to be brave enough to embrace a more expansive way of living — one that makes space for serendipity before security, awe in place of certainty. In the end, it is not the earth that needs saving. It is us.
Related information and performances:
Ben Weaver will perform at Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis on Saturday, October 3 at 7 pm for the Surrounding Water “Welcome Home” show, along with Canadian hypno-folk duo TWIN. For tickets and more information, visit the Cedar’s website.
Ben Weaver is a songwriter, poet, letter press printer, bicycle advocate, father, and human being. He travels almost exclusively by bicycle and, since 2010, has been working to establish tour routes following or surrounding bodies of water. Ben's work uses poetry, song, and bicycles to initiate and inspire audiences around issues concerning fresh water. More info about Ben and his adventures, including his 2014 ride from Saint Paul to New Orleans along the Mississippi River, and his 2015 Surrounding Water circumnavigation of Lake Superior can be found at http://www.benweaver.net/