Crisp black and white images line the white walls, while people, glasses of wine in hand, cluster and talk. At first glance, the scene at Asymmetrick Arts in Rockland, Maine looks like any other art gallery opening. What gives away that this is something different, besides the myriad regional dialects speaking about their personal thoughts on the environment emanating from the overhead speakers, is the two well-worn bicycles displayed in the gallery’s front windows. This is not just an art show, but also a talk given by Morrigan McCarthy and Alan Winslow of Project Tandem about the year they spent on bicycles, touring the country and gathering these sounds and images.
11,000 miles. 24,200 pictures. Dozens of hours of audio. What we see on the walls and during the slide show is the barest sliver of an adventure that took a year to complete. Alan and Morrigan, both pro photographers, started Project Tandem as a way to open up the discourse on the environment in the US by letting the voices of rural Americans be heard. The project ended up being much larger than that.
Originally, the bicycling aspect was more about fuel-free travel and a way to see rural America from the “ground-level” rather than speeding by at seventy-miles-per-hour. They also hoped that riding up on loaded touring bikes would get people to open up in ways they might not if they stepped out of a car hauling cameras and recorders. It worked. “We never once had someone refuse to let us take their picture,” Alan says. “Everyone just opened up their homes and their lives to us.”
The bikes ended up being the central feature of the project in unexpected ways, however. “People kept warning us, ‘be very careful. There are dangerous people out there,’” Morrigan adds. “That’s not what we saw. Everyone we met went out of their way to be helpful and friendly.”
From there, the presentation about cycling 11,000 miles is quickly overshadowed by the stories of the kindness of strangers. They regale stories about running out of food with the next services fifty miles away, only to have a family stop and give them their last granola bar and mini-bag of chips. They speak of being stuck in a lightening storm and having a single mother and two kids run out into the downpour to bring them into their home where fresh towels and food awaited. A couple living in a dilapidated trailer, living so far from the mainstream they’d never seen a digital camera, cook them breakfast with the last of their eggs. A wealthy ranch owner took them in and fed them beef raised in one of his fields. Alan says, “We got to see the very best of what America has to offer.”
Looking at the map with all of its pins marking their adventure reminds me how far they went, and my relationship to the Project’s beginning. I helped these proto-cycle-tourers find the bicycles that carried them around the US for a year: two Giant FCR-3′s. In a special way, I got to tour with them. Not just following their daily blog, but also, occasionally, giving technical advice over the phone and mailing tools to them in remote locations. For my small part of such an incredible endeavor, I got a special thanks during the presentation. I certainly appreciate it, but no thanks is necessary. It’s been my pleasure to be one of the countless acts of kindness Project Tandem met along their journey.