Header image: Jay Barlow (right) and our Airbnb host, Grigol, coast towards Jvari Monastery outside of Tbilisi
[My friendship with Jay Barlow was forged over the preserved carcass of a fetal pig, in the chaos of a freshman biology lab. Over the years that followed, we shared a bench in 6 different lab classes (by my count; our major was lousy with them), were both casual members of the cycling team, and, upon graduation, turned our attention to climate and energy issues. This fall, Jay will be finishing up a master’s degree at Colorado State University, where he researches renewable energy engineering. He came to visit while I was passing through Tbilisi, Georgia, and he brought with him some questions about the tour. He worked up this piece based on those questions–Ed.]
During an idle moment at a laboratory bench three years ago, Forrest first mentioned to me the idea of traveling to Asia and riding his bike home – to Oregon. And though the start of 360 By Bike came as an impressive surprise, the mindfulness of his subsequent work was exactly what I had come to expect of my friend and lab partner. A year into following his writing and photography, I was eager to turn the lens on Forrest. How does the narrator of 10,000 km of climate change stories describe what he is doing, and how is he holding up? Here’s a partial transcript of our conversation from when we met up in Tbilisi, Georgia in July.
JB: Two years ago, you took your first bicycle tour from Walla Walla to Palouse Falls. A year ago I got the email describing your plan to ride around the world and document the human story of climate change. What happened in between?
FW: That’s something that really surprised me about starting this. Before graduation, I never really thought about a career or anything more long-term, I was just focused on learning what most interested me. At the time, I was thinking about fundraising, maybe writing to promote those efforts, and building my intuitive understanding of climate and energy issues from real-world experience.
My senior year, I was in a Spanish class based on the dissertation work of a new professor, studying stories of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, stories that were the equivalent of Chaucer for Spanish literature. There were all these stories of well-educated and intelligent people, philosophers, kings, who would then go out on a boat across the Mediterranean and make absolute fools of themselves, make mistake after mistake. But at the end of their travels, they would return and be wiser. That got to me. At that point I’d had all this time in the classroom; I also wanted to get a better intuitive sense of the world.
I didn’t start out with a fully-formed concept for the project, it absolutely evolved along the way. It was really over the year that I was in China that I developed the idea for the project. I kept rewriting and rewriting the About Me section of the website and trying to figure out exactly what I was doing. There’s no linear trajectory from where I started to where I am now, but I’m glad I had the free time while I was teaching in China to think through the project and figure out what direction I wanted to take. And as I gained experience with certain aspects of what I wanted to do, it became clear what would work and what wouldn’t.
JB: Now you’re a year in, what mile are you on?
FW: [Some math] 9,300 km. [UPDATE: 10,310]
JB: How are you holding up?
FW: Fine, you know. The hardest cycling was in Tibet. It was just 1000-m to 1500-m passes every day, up and up and up and up and up. The elevation, the cold of the descents, I’ve never had the fatigue just build up like that over a period of weeks.
JB: Seriously, how are you holding up?
FW: Fine. I mean I was getting visas in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for two weeks. And that was good. I wrote and walked around the city but didn’t really do much physically. Those extended periods off the road really make a difference.
I think the hardest part these past few months has been the heat. There were days in Kazakhstan where I’d wake up so overheated that I felt like I couldn’t breathe, jump out of my tent to get to fresh air and break everything down so I could start riding. Then it was just a flat horizon and a straight road all day, with highs in the upper 90s, occasional stops to fix a puncture because my inner tubes kept melting and springing leaks. It was manageable because there were nice roadside cafes where I could stop in the hottest part of the day and nap, but I was sort of glad that the visa timeline forced me to take a train on out of there and get a flight to Baku.
JB: Do you have a daily routine, and if you do, what does it look like?
FW: It really depends on where I am and what kind of a day it is. Where camping is possible, I have a normal work week but instead of working I’ll cycle all day, and instead of having a weekend I’ll stop and work. I‘ll spend one or two days doing research in a place with internet and resting. It’s a good ratio that helps me keep going.
On a cycling day I try to get up early, with the sun. I’ll get out of camp, break everything down right away and eat once I’m on the road. There’s just so much stuff to do all the time, and at the end of day you’re just tired. I have to break things down into easily manageable tasks like “step one: put the tent pole through the tent,” so that I’m mentally capable of doing what I need to do.
Being on the road helps with the writing process. If I have an idea for a piece I’ll write about it one day, let it stew for a few days while I pedal, and then a few days down the road I’ll start from the beginning and write the piece again.
JB: You’ve just followed an ancient cultural route, the Silk Road. From what you’ve seen so far, is there one image or story that encapsulates the human saga of climate change?
FW: No. I don’t think so. Part of what attracts me to climate change is that it’s so complicated. So many different externalities, moving parts, downstream effects, that you can’t really sum it all up—what it really means to be a human in a human-altered climate–in one little narrative.
There are times when you get close. I remember cycling through Gansu province in China. It’s a place where there are coal mines directly to the east, and that coal is heading west to more remote areas, where many of the most polluting industries have been moved. At the same time, in this same place, there is oil moving east, from the biggest oil reserves in China to the big population centers in the east. And the province is one of China’s main centers for wind and solar generation, because it’s this huge open space, with low population density, and that isn’t exactly common in China. And then even beyond that, this is an arid area that is increasingly under water stress, with the reliability of the water supply being tied to snowmelt from the glaciers in the mountains. It’s on the same plain with population centers that are going to be increasingly water stressed as time moves on. You get a kind of collection of images from one place that describes a lot of what’s happening with climate change.
JB: Apart from the Tell me your story about climate change sign, how do you find and decide what people to talk to?
FW: It really depends. I try first to make local contacts, I try to look for people that might be interested in the idea behind my project, so there’s a kind of a personal connection from the start, and then also people who are knowledgeable about organizations or individuals in the area. A lot of times approaching communities if I just look up the people that I want to interview I end up missing out on a lot of the greater context or on interesting interviews, because people aren’t necessarily online or looking for publicity. If someone comes up on a Google search, it might be because other people have already covered that in the past, and it might be more valuable for me to go look for other people. In the Philippines, I met with a community of artists working on social change, and the people in that community suggested working with artist communities, because they tend to overlap with activist communities and be on the more progressive edge of that place’s cultural norm.
JB: Your work strikes a balance between expository journalism, activism and art. How do you describe what you’re doing to people you meet along the way?
FW: I usually try to keep it simple, because I think you have to be able to explain the project concisely but also feel out your audience and figure out what aspects they would be most interested in. I usually just tell people that I’m cycling around the world to collect stories about climate change. And then if they seem interested I talk a little bit more about the specific components: solutions to these problems, how community-scale projects can affect larger issues like climate change, and how journalism or reporting of those efforts can further the efforts themselves, not just through exposure but through evaluation.
JB: How did you develop and define your writing style?
FW: My training is in BBMB [Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology] and Spanish, but my writing really comes from my family. My great-great-something-grandfather was the editor of a small town newspaper, and that skill has been passed down. My mother and her father are the ones who really taught me to write. All the way up through high school, I would show my mom essays that I was writing for school, and she would read them, tear them apart, and help me put them back together. It helps to be able to look at your writing dispassionately and keep the things that are uniquely yours, that are actually valuable, and be able to recognize when it’s just a little too indulgent. I’m still working on the more creative aspect of this non-fiction writing, being able to craft writing for an audience that is much broader than the academic context I’m used to and that does not necessarily have an assumed interest in the subject.
JB: Hope is a recurring theme in your writing – what gives you hope?
FW: Climate change is a very twenty-first century problem: so disconnected and decentralized and complicated and nuanced, it’s hard to wrap your head around. It’s not like the economy, where you have more jobs or you don’t, or you have a better value for your currency or you don’t, etc. That kind of primary hope doesn’t satisfy climate change, because we’ve never been this way before. If you’re just going to look for your hope in international agreements, or in any one source, you’re going to end up being disappointed. This is such a big issue that addressing it from that central-control kind of perspective…maybe doesn’t really work in a way that will completely address the problem. That’s why I’m taking this orientation towards communities and smaller-scale hope. You can try something out and see if it takes hold.
JB: A few superlatives: hardest day on the bike?
FW: Any answer to that question—and this is probably true for any bicycle tourist—would stray into poop stories, and I find those are best told in person.
JB: Most uplifting story about climate change?
FW: The ones that most affected me were in the Philippines. These are not so much stories that give me a lot of hope for solving our energy crisis, but they are stories of recovery from Typhoon Haiyan, of the communities that were the most affected and two years later were waiting to receive housing. People are waiting in temporary housing, where they were told at the beginning “if you enter this housing now, you’ll have permanent housing in six months”. Then six months passed, then a year passed, and now two years, and most are still waiting. The government says it wants to “build back better,” so that these communities avoid similar loss in the future, but there’s a clear line between that hypothetical hardship and what’s happening now, today.
Humans of Climate Change: Michelle Ignacio, Tacloban, the Philippines
As much as it’s a story of people losing things, it’s a story of people’s strength, people’s ability to hold on and rebuild after major, major crises that killed family members and friends, wrecked livelihoods, leveled homes. Even people without any sources of capital are rebuilding, starting their own businesses again, and not just surviving, but getting closer and closer to living the life they want to live. That’s a source of hope too. Not just that the future will be better, but that we’ll be okay, no matter what happens.
JB: For those living your activism vicariously, what can your readership do for you in return?
FW: Honestly, the biggest thing is just participating. Comments mean a lot: feedback, what you find interesting, what you want to hear more of, constructive criticism, that type of thing.
The absolute best thing is, even if it’s once every few months, just sitting down and composing a thoughtful response.
That is absolutely the most meaningful thing to me. Letting me know that you’re reading, who you are, and what you appreciate.
7 thoughts on “On Tour: 12 Questions for Forrest Watkins, 360 By Bike Founder”
Your mother has been a wonderful doctor to our two sons and I am friends with her on FB which is how I see your posts. I am really enjoying your sense of artistry with your photos and your words. I’ve been resharing your posts. Thanks for your courage and adventure.
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Thank you! My mother’s going to be joining me on the road for a bit in the fall, so look out for photos/words from her as well!
Hi, I’m Eleanor, a friend-of-a-friend of Jay Barlow. Kudos to you for your creativity and drive to share the human impact of climate change! You inspire me because I, too, graduated college with a bike, a Spanish degree, an interst in climate change, and no clear idea where I was headed. Thanks for showing me how much one can do — and how far one can ride — with those simple ingredients.
Hi Eleanor, good to hear from you! Does that mean you’ll be getting out there and traveling by bike?!