Few among us ever achieve a glimpse into the heart of rural America as broad and comprehensive as the one Nathan Winters experienced in the summer of 2009. Weary dairy farmers in Wisconsin, big cattle ranchers in Montana, corn growers in you-name-the-state.
From left-leaning young farmers in Vermont to right-leaning ranchers out West, every type of American farmer was among those Winters came face to face with on his 4,300-mile cross-country bike trip that summer.
What did he find? Rural America boasts a community of quality people concerned with our food production. And despite our individual beliefs and circumstances, we all might have more in common than we like to admit.
During a conversation with a Montana cattle rancher, Winters remembers the rancher mentioning that it’s fairly easy to get a hat from China, but not a steak from down the road, and how that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
“I think everyone across the country (thinks) we don’t need to be importing and exporting all this food. We’ve got plenty of it here in our own country, and we need to slow things down and get back to the basics. I think that was something everyone across the board was onboard with,” says Winters.
He also encountered that same local-centric emphasis throughout the northern states of the country.
Pushed by recession
Prior to embarking on the ride that undoubtedly exposed him to new perspectives, Winters worked as a software developer in Southern California. The recession of 2008 left him without a job, and, discussing it today, he calls it the best thing that ever happened to him.
After a trip to Thailand and backpacking in Southeast Asia and living in Southern California, Winters – who grew up in a small town – realized that throughout his travels, he had missed out on a portion of rural American culture and locations similar to where he was from in the Northeast United States.
Setting up his trip so he would navigate some of the regions he’d never visited, Winters decided on a route from Belfast, Maine, westward through Vermont, the Midwest, Northern Plains and then on west over the Cascade and Rocky mountains, ending in Bellingham, Washington.
From May 9 to October 5, it was Winters with his bike and camping gear, and plenty of characters who make up the fabric of rural America.
Using a keen aptitude for social media – Twitter (@follownathan) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/follownathan), as well as YouTube – Winters shared his journey.
On his website (www.FollowNathan.org), you can see video interviews with people like Art Thelen, proprietor of Wild Rose Dairy in La Farge, Wisconsin, and a dairy farmer with 1,000 dairy cows to milk daily around the clock, who encourages whoever will listen to come to his farm and look at his operation. As transparent as his insistence on the quality of his dairy, Thelen is equally transparent in his reverence for his predecessors in keeping the family farm alive rather than pursuing other vocations that would result in higher income.
“I farm because it’s my passion, and I have a certain dedication to my father and my uncle and my employees that I’m not going to pack up and leave and leave them in a lurch,” Thelen says in a video interview on Winters’ website. “I’ll go broke before I sacrifice my employees.”
Winters speaks glowingly of his experience in Wisconsin, and he was even tempted to move there after the trip. Instead he settled in the state of Vermont – which was both closer to home and another state he loved travelling through – two weeks after the cross-country bike ride.
Along the way, Winters casually encountered good folks who would put him up, let him pitch a tent in their yard, or put him in contact with someone who could help him with his situation. It was a recurring theme throughout the trip, from sleeping on a pool table in a biker bar to staying in guest bedrooms. He woke up one morning to find that the homeowner had gone to work and had left a note that breakfast was in the cupboard.
He never had a timetable for staying in one location, just however long it took him to get in touch with the farmers, food producers, and regular small-town folks he set out to encounter.
That’s not to say the trip wasn’t without its rough patches. The Finger Lakes region in New York, he says, consisted of “irrational terrain” – 40 minutes uphill, 40 seconds downhill, and then again and again.
Then came the day in South Dakota when Winters almost quit. Traveling east to west, he was riding into 40-mph headwinds, and it seemed impossible. He entertained the idea of paying someone to drive him to the nearest airport, where he’d hop a plane with his bike and go to Seattle, then bike back to that same spot, just to go west to east and ride with a tailwind.
He says the South Dakota winds were the most difficult aspect of the journey overall.
Remembering his late paraplegic father and how he went to work every day, cooked and cleaned for himself, and seldom complained, inspired Winters on at least one day in that South Dakota wind and reminded him that he didn’t have it all that bad.
A stretch of Montana highway was 80 miles between towns; and during the heat of summer, if a heatstroke came on, it could be a significant while before help would arrive.
But his trip, listening to Winters talk, seems to come back to the farmers and the good folks of rural America.
“It’s pretty much no-man’s-land, but I met some really great people along the way who took care of me.”
Good people, from east to west, it surfaces many times in even a 30-minute conversation with Winters.
Getting in touch
In addition to farmers like Thelen, Winters conducted an interview with Gene Baur, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary based in New York, who spoke with Winters about issues ranging from the importance of being a vegan to reducing our footprint on the planet.
Cattle ranchers in Montana first poked a little fun at the idea of riding a bike across America, yet after a little small-talk, they sat down over a drink and shared their frustrations about how nonsensical it can be that our food travels so far.
A local-centric attitude reverberated throughout those 4,300 miles, an attitude that seemed independent of region and maybe even politics.
“Somewhere between the belt buckles (of Montana cattle ranchers) and the dirty organic dairy farmer’s cap in the Northeast, there’s a lot of common ground that people don’t know about,” Winters says. “People are sort of afraid, or too stubborn to admit it.”
As a result of his cross-country experience, Nathan A. Winters wrote a manuscript about his journey, The Unconventional Harvest: A Journey That Yields a Fresh Voice for Farming, Food and Tomorrow, that he is currently working to publish.
Just for fun – the best of the northern states:
Best Food – Tantré Farm in Chelsea, Michigan. Homemade flatbread pizza with veggies from the garden and local meat and cheese, which was “purchased” by bartering with vegetable produce.
Most Local Food Culture – Vermont. Other areas along the way, particularly near academic presence – Ann Arbor, Michigan; Ithaca, New York; Missoula, Montana.
Landscape – Driftless Area in Wisconsin. Southwest Wisconsin was “absolutely gorgeous.”
Friendliest People Encountered on Roads – Wisconsin
Overall trend as you travelled west – “It got a lot more wide-open. When you’re in the Northeast, you’ve got these little villages all over the place. As you went west the landscape really opens up.”
PEOPLE OF THE Heartland – “The nicest people you’re ever going to meet. Good folks, good people. People working and trying to do good.”
Caleb Regan and his wife, Gwen, live in rural Douglas County, Kansas, where they enjoy hunting, fishing, and raising and growing as much of their own food as they can. Caleb can’t imagine a better scenario than getting to work on a rural lifestyle magazine as a profession, and then living that same lifestyle right in the heartland of America. Connect with him on Google+.