Back on May 18, nine cyclists left their homes in Seattle and headed out for a bike ride. The thing is, these cyclists are still on the road. They have gained a few more team members since they began — cyclists from 11 other states have joined in — and they just arrived in the nation's capitol.
The riders are young activists on a Trek to Re-Energize America. This week, they are meeting with members of Congress and calling for strong, immediate action on climate change.
"We started out saying we were 'building a movement from the seat of a bike,'" said Jolene Brink, the lead Minnesota Trek Organizer.
"What this has turned into is recognizing the movement that is already growing in towns and cities across the country, and the desire out there for change."
Over the past two months, the Trekkers have gathered hundreds of stories from American cities and towns about sustainability, climate change, energy and the future of life in America. They have found that Americans from all walks of life are ready for a clean, green economy but that they need more government support to make a full transition to a more sustainable future.
The riders are now taking that message from the Main Streets of America to the halls of Congress.
When JP Kemmick, one of the Trek's main organizers, rode into Kokomo, he found a city fearing it could lose its main industry — making transmission parts for Chrysler. Kokomo was hit hard by the economic slump, as transmission orders sank and a stream of layoffs ensued. Rather than get stuck in the past, however, Kokomo began working to reshape itself into a new, greener hub of innovation.
Kemmick toured the city's new sustainability initiative, a biodiesel facility that turns used vegetable oil from local restaurants into public and government fuel. The project began in response to climbing gas prices last year and stuck as residents reaped the benefits of a local, inexpensive fuel source and less waste in their sewers.
The city is now developing a blueprint for a sustainable economy and future, with residents and officials planning a transformation into a center of green innovation in the Midwest.
"The new green economy is coming. Towns like Kokomo, unafraid to be the first to experiment with new methods and approaches, are also going to be the first to see the benefits of going green," Kemmick said.
Minneapolis and St. Paul
In Minnesota's Twin Cities, the Trekkers found another community searching for a clean, sustainable way forward.
The Summer of Solutions is comprised of high school students, college students and recent college grads who are experimenting with sustainability solutions on a variety of scales with targets ranging from urban agriculture to making neighborhoods more efficient to tackling green jobs and green manufacturing opportunities.
Kemmick sat in on one of their green jobs brainstorming sessions and was struck by how intrepidly the group explored the process of transforming a Ford plant into a green jobs manufacturing center and what such a change could mean for the community's future. The energy in the room was palpable as the group discussed strategies for success, Kemmick said.
Innovators like these would go farther more quickly, he said, with stronger support from the federal government for research and transformation.
Kayford Mountain, West Virginia
Further east, mountaintop removal activist Larry Gibson hosted the Trekkers at his home on Kayford Mountain, a site his family has lived on since the 1700s. The area around Gibson's home has been devastated by mountaintop removal coal mining, a process that is literally leveling chunks of Appalachia, filling valleys with debris, and polluting the streams that area residents and wildlife rely on.
Amid the hardship found in so many communities, the Trekkers noticed a passion for innovation and sustainability, said Lucy Richards, Colorado Trek Organizer.
In Washington, D.C., this week, the group is taking that message into meetings with more than 30 members of Congress. They're sharing the stories of the American towns and cities they visited, and they're asked the federal government for strong, immediate action on climate change. Supporting clean energy innovation that can take the place of destructive and climate-changing fossil fuel use is a step in the right direction, Kemmick said.
"We let them know that all across the country, ordinary people are working in their communities to ensure a better, more sustainable future for everyone, and they need the federal government to get on board."
(Photo: Paul Baker)