The past few days had been nothing but narrow-shouldered highways and bumpy gravel roads. Put another way, they’d been enough to make most bicyclists shake their fists at the heavens, said Scott V. Edwards, a professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.
It’s a feeling Edwards had gotten to know well. After all, the 57-year-old ornithologist has been cycling across the nation since June 6 in a trek that largely began as a way to fulfill a lifelong goal but became something bigger as the nation began a reckoning with racial injustice.
The journey started in Newburyport, Mass., after Edwards dipped his tires in the Atlantic Ocean. He hopes to reach the Oregon coast sometime during the second week of August. There, he plans on touching the Pacific. Covering about 50 to 60 miles a day, he’s getting closer every day, but not every mile is majestic. Some are downright grueling.
“I’ve had some great roads with very wide shoulders and few cars,” said Edwards, who’s also the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Curator of Ornithology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. “And I’ve had some roads that make you think you’ve been sent to hell.”
Take the unpaved obstacle course he traversed in western Iowa a month into his journey. That was one of the bad ones, he said. It was narrow, hard to pedal, and the shoulder was nothing but stones. Edwards had to pull off to the side and come to a full stop each time a car or truck passed. And all that with a bicycle that weighed about 100 pounds because of all the supplies on it. “Those are the points where you, kind of, say: ‘What am I doing here?’” Edwards said.
Part of the answer can be read on the signs fixed to his bike. They are in support of Black Lives Matter, Black Birders Week, and #ShutDownSTEM, a one-day work stoppage held in June to spark action against systemic racism in the scientific and academic communities.
Edwards notes that the trip was one he’d longed to make for years. But as a Black birder and a Black scientist, he decided he also wanted to raise awareness of the movements and give his trip a larger purpose as racial tensions across the country continued to escalate. He added the signs a few days after setting out.
“It’s important for folks to see that African Americans do enjoy nature. It’s important to showcase that we like camping and show it’s not just the domain of white people,” Edwards said.
With the pandemic clearing his summer schedule of commitments like conferences or lab work, he decided in the spring it was finally time. He vaguely mapped out a route that would take him from the Atlantic to the Pacific, promised to send his two daughters (one of whom recently cycled across the U.S.) pictures of every dog he met on the way, and set a departure date.
Edwards starts cycling at about 8:30 a.m. every day after having breakfast, usually cereal, and plotting the day’s course. If he’s in a town, he’ll sometimes indulge in some bacon and eggs.
It’s pretty much straight riding after that. He stops every 15 miles or so for a drink or snack. Lunch consists of a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Edward stops at about 4 or 5 p.m. on a good day. On a slow day, it’s not until about 7 p.m. He sleeps mainly at campgrounds. There have been a few homestays, though, and the occasional hotel.
“I’m not like a purist in that regard,” Edwards said. “I’m a pretty regular guy. I often joke that bike touring is the one sport that you can do well and still have a paunch.”