In Search of the Real America • Summer 2017 • Day 1

- by Fred Schlomka -

The America I knew is collapsing - folding in on itself and apparently reinventing the very basis of its existence. The man in the White House is rocking the world. Regardless of what anyone says, Donald Trump’s stunning victory will forever reshape the political landscape in the USA. I resolve to examine the underlying social fabric that led to this situation.  A cycling tour is my preferred tool.

Day 1
Saint Paul to Hampton • Minnesota - 36 miles (57km)
cycling usa, American culture, Trump, Fred Schlomka
It is a dreary and unseasonably cool June morning in Saint Paul Minnesota - and perfect for cycling. Sunita is off to a harp conference. I say goodby to my friends Neal and Sandy, load up my new bicycle, key in my destination on Google maps, and I’m off.

The past few days have been spent visiting family and managing the final tweaking of my new rig at the Hub, a cycle cooperative, owned by the workers. For the past six months I worked with Jody to design and build a sturdy steed that will become my cycle for the Americas over the next few years. My trusty Oxford Bikeworks cycle will remain based in Israel and used for my adventures in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

The bike is awesome, a Cadillac of cycles, complete with a Rohloff hub gear system, Gates belt drive, hub dynamo and a few other bells and whistles built around a Surly Troll frame. The Brooks leather saddle sits atop a Cane Creek Thudbuster that that softens the impact of the bumps on the road. The saddle will have a padded lambskin stretched over it by the end of the week. Truly a machine to be proud of.

cycling USA, American culture, Surly bicycles, Trump, Fred Schlomka
I meander through South Saint Paul getting used to the bike and easing into the rhythmic cadence that clears the head and quiets the soul. I need it after the fast-paced activities of the past few weeks. It’s a Sunday morning so the streets are quiet. I didn’t pack water so I stop at a petrol station and fill my bottles. The bike gets admiring glances from people so I’m glad of the super steel locking system for security when I have to leave the bike unattended.

There’s nice cycle trails out of the city. Better than I expected. I had basically just entered my destination into Google Maps and am following the little blue arrow on the screen, past the Saint Paul Downtown airport, and on to the trail that angles off along the Mississippi River. Although still in a suburban zone, there’s a protected area on either side of the river, full of trees. I pass Pigs Eye lake and Inver Grove Heights. It’s a lovely stretch.

cycling USA, American culture, Surly bicycles, Trump, Fred Schlomka
Then I am on a ‘frontage road’ and there in front of me is a sign which says ’Schlomkas Vac Truck Service Inc’. I’m finally in Schlomka country. My distant cousins who moved here from Europe in the 19th century are kings of the septic tank and porta potty business in this part of the world. Behind the fence there’s a huge warehouse and a line of truck tractors with all kinds of exotic trailers behind them, designed to deal with the unmentionable business that most of us never think about. It’s Sunday so the gate is closed. I move on.

Neal had told me that there were little or no ‘back roads’ to my destination, only the main road. He was wrong. I discover all kinds of trails and dirt roads en route to Hampton. I do have to go on the main highway, route 52, for a wee while, but then I am off on secondary roads, passing lush farms full of young growing corn and interesting animals.

cycling USA, American culture, Surly bicycles, Trump, Fred Schlomka
I visit with wooly cows reminiscent of the Highland Cows I saw a couple of weeks ago in Scotland. I chat with a fine looking horse and marvel at the apparent prosperity in this corner of America. I don’t see any of the rural poverty that I keep hearing about. These folks mostly live in fine sprawling frame homes with 4-car garages and huge barns, surrounded by acres of finely mown lawns, mature oak trees and late model trucks and cars. The American Dream realized.

Hampton approaches - population 689. Neal said it was little more that a crossroads with a post office. Wrong again. There’s a fine looking Catholic Church, and fine looking people going about their business. I pull over to people watch for a while. One or two pause for a moment to admire the bike and chat. Flags are on most homes and businesses. There’s an air of subdued affluence about the place. But not really affluence. I hesitate to call it smugness but it’s there, an ethos of self satisfied social cohesion and community stability. It’s in the air. This is the soul of America, right in front of me. These are the proud people who are the stalwart backbone, who send their sons to fight the country’s wars, pay their taxes, live frugally, and support the right to bear arms. Salt of the earth. Who did they vote for in the last election? I didn’t ask.

Just a few more miles to Hank and Carol Schlomka’s log cabin, set in the ubiquitous few acres of lawn and trees. Several large barns houses Hank’s collection of about 50 classic cars, a lifelong hobby. Hank is a distant cousin, the descendant of a branch of my venerable clan that emigrated to the US from Germany in the 19th century. I have never seen him wear anything but denim farming overalls, even when he visited in Europe. Salt of the earth. Who did he vote for in the last election? I didn’t ask.

Hank and Carol take me out to their regular Sunday dinner spot in a nearby hamlet. Then back home to a welcome bed.

I take the next day off from cycling.

Hank and I are up at 5am, the usual time for both of us. At 6 we drove
to ’Schlomkas Vac Truck Service Inc’ that I passed on the bike the day before, and had a pancake breakfast in the company kitchen with his son Donny and the crew. This is a daily ritual - a father and son routine that has been going on forever. A passing of the mantle. The table banter is light and friendly. We spin tales of things we’ve done and people we know. Hank and I wax nostalgic about the ‘old days’. I’m told that Donny could strip an engine at twelve years old, and assemble it perfectly. Now in his 50s, he’s the owner and lead mechanic of the company, founded and built by Hank, more years ago that he likes to admit. The crew is comfortable with a boss who still gets dirt under his fingernails. Despite the million dollars worth of trucks and equipment surrounding the warehouse Donny is still grounded in hard work and family values - still one of the boys. Hank is retired yet still comes for breakfast with the crew, probably will keep doing so till he keels over. It’s a family affair. I am honored to be their guest.

Whatever is going on in the US right now, my distant Minnesota family, and the communities surrounding them are at the core of this society and are rock solid. They ain’t going anywhere. If anyone can save American from itself, it’s these folks - not the progressives I tend to identify with.

Back to the house. I work all day, digesting all these experiences, writing, and catching up on the work of the Collective. Then a nap.

That evening I attend Sunita’s harp concert in nearby Northfield. She was invited by the American Harp Society to teach and perform at their regional conference at Saint Olaf’s College.
- Fred Schlomka is the CEO of the Green Olive Collective. He spends months adventuring on the road with his bicycle each year, while managing the organisation via phone and laptop. - 


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