Conversations With US – Great Lakes States:
Two Wheels, Fifty States, Hundreds of Voices – One America
Chris Register (El Salvador 2001–03)
Spoke & Word Books
Reviewed by Sue Hoyt Aiken (Ethiopia 1962–64)
Conversations with US — Great Lakes States represents the first of a series of books on biking in every state by the author who had a concern about what he was reading and hearing . . . ”that the United States was coming undone.” He decided to “wander” to find answers from “real America.” Thus his first volume comes after his touring every state except Hawaii. This bike ride in the Great Lakes States took place during the time frame from July to September 2015 and covered 1,916 miles!
Although I am definitely not a biker I have been a long time hiker and wondered if I would have been brave enough to hike across several states alone with the goal of talking to strangers! Probably not! However, our author rises to the occasion day after intriguing day riding from one small town to another in the Great Lakes states seeking out strangers to host him for the night as well as other folks to interview them about their experiences both past and present, and also their hopes for the future. Register sought not the famous, the highly educated, the well spoken or well to do, but rather the regular folk hanging out in a roadside bar, tending their crops, driving a truck, sitting on a park bench, among many other familiar places we all can relate to.
His charms are his lack of ego or need to control the conversation, and his ability to listen and follow up within a loose structure of questions he sought to ask of all. Another aspect of his charm is his 100 pound rig that he refers to as “him” or “he,” and which has a mind of “his” own. Imagine pedaling through muck, gravel, and dirt or in fast moving city traffic on a 100lb anything and doing so safely!
People would come up to chat mostly about his rig, which is left in strategic places to be noticed! The rig must have quite the ego by now! There is good humor when author and rig do not agree on how to get onto a train up several steep steps while a non-helpful conductor looks on!
The book is filled with photos of some of the people Register conversed with over many miles. From this he took great delight in sorting through what he was learning about US and each unique vision of America. Perceptions were interesting and diverse and yet offered common threads of hope for the US future and gratitude for what each had in their life.
I asked myself if I had a bookstore where would I shelve this book . . . is it travel, creativity, athleticism, journaling, emotional, thought-provoking? Yes! It is much more than a travel book as there are no recommendations on roads to drive, places to stay or to eat. As his interviewees/hosts (all total strangers) address what they love about America, what they worry about, what they are hopeful about, how they have been impacted by the US, their families and life work and history, Register shares this with the reader and gradually we begin to “see” US through the eyes especially of small town America. Many have lived in the same town or community most of their lives and their families before them. They have roots. People and connections were what mattered. The negatives were the darkened main streets, shuttered plants and schools. Other towns were revitalizing, stable, rooted, and safe as well as a place to which one could belong. The author recounts the conversations for the reader to ponder, wonder and perhaps wander!
Sue Aiken served in the Peace Corps after finishing Colorado College in 1962. She taught English language and literature to Ethiopian high school boys in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (1962-64). She later became a Career Counselor in the San Francisco Bay area for adults in transition and chair of a graduate program at John F. Kennedy University. It is ironic that Kennedy established the Peace Corps just prior to Sue volunteering to join it. She now lives in Santa Rosa, CA. Sue has two adult children, Kelly and Ben, and four grandchildren.