In January of 2019, I began my position with the US Peace Corps as a development partner. For my two-year assignment, I was sent to serve in the Ecuadorian Amazon to lead sustainable development projects in education and tourism.
Due to lack of reliable transportation, I spent a lot of time cycling to different work events and exploring communities and touristic attractions in the Amazon Basin. While cycling in Ecuador I was constantly presented with obstacles such as, but not limited to: getting bitten by street dogs, dodging unpredictable traffic, and fixing broken bicycle parts. Despite the challenges, I fell in love with the sport and was able to build camaraderie with my neighbors during group rides around the Amazon.
This past spring, I was evacuated from Ecuador and furloughed due to COVID19. I had difficulty processing the abrupt evacuation and felt guilty for abandoning people that had grown to be my biggest support system and my best friends. During the time of the evacuation, I was also faced with the untimely deaths of my father and partner. The events of spring 2020 left me with a sense of urgency to accomplish personal goals, as I had seen how easily a life can be overturned or taken by unforeseen events. The anxiety that came from COVID19 and the passing of my loved ones had implored me to do what I had not yet had the courage to: a solo cycle tour.
With a lot of passion (and extraordinarily little experience in cycle touring), I decided to set out on a journey from Seattle to Central California on a bike that I had bought secondhand from Craigslist. I strapped a tent and sleeping bag to my bike’s pannier rack and hoped that two bungee cords were strong enough to hold my belongings together for 1200 miles. I did not know what to expect, nor was I sure if I was prepared. I swallowed my fear and cycled out of bustling Seattle to the quiet islands on its outskirts, passing port towns and tourist destinations until I reached rural western Washington. I had never felt more empowered; everything I needed to survive was on my back and every mile was a huge accomplishment. I was motivated by artifacts that other cyclists had left behind on the trail: written words of encouragement on traffic signs, stickers in roadside bathrooms, and books.
In southern Washington, I found myself cycling through a wounded forest that had battled years of timber harvesting. I felt tension in depressed logging communities that were fighting against a dying industry and private land acquisitions or “land grabs”. From the perspective of someone who works in timber, environmentalists have tried to undercut the industry by competing for land rights and advocating for policy change. However, it seemed like most of the land was acquiesced by private companies, not environmental agencies, for development.
On First Nations’ reserves, empty forests and dry rivers showcased the negative impacts of poorly regulated commercial logging. The dilapidated buildings and needles discarded on the roadside reflected the lack of opportunity in the area.
While meandering down the Oregon coast, a couple of locals took me out to breakfast and explained how vacation home development was outpacing the community’s effort to fight against the gentrification that displaced many community members, driving them to move further inland or into destitution.
A homeless woman, with her knives displayed proudly on her belt, rode her bike with me from the border of Oregon to California to make sure I was safe, because “it’s rough out there for us girls”.
After being trapped in a food desert in rural northern California while sustaining an injury, I experienced how the lack of access to public transportation lends a hand in creating forced communities that are bonded by poverty instead of by common interests.
In Humboldt County, I became weary of the “missing person” fliers and received many warnings to stop cycling alone. I was made aware of the concept of truck driver trafficking, a practice where individuals are picked up hitchhiking or just kidnapped on the side of the road due to lack of reliable public transportation.
Humboldt County made me realize how interlinked environmental crimes are with human trafficking on marijuana farms. Many come to work on these farms, are forced into labor, and do not return home. According to the fliers that I saw, a lot of the missing are young women who were last seen near farms with little to no environmental or legal regulation.
This cycle tour provided me with the opportunity to develop a more well-rounded perspective of environmental and social risks in rural communities throughout the Pacific Northwest (PNW). Even as an environmentalist, I found myself empathizing with loggers and recognizing how diverse social issues in the rural PNW are.
I am now a better environmental ambassador because I am aware of the environmental justice issues that communities in this region face such as: lack of access to public transport, inadequate healthcare, gentrification, food deserts, changing microclimates and their effect on air and water quality, unsafe infrastructure, and vulnerability among the homeless population.
In the PNW, there is a clear relationship between community identity and the forest. Communities that self-identify as “logging towns” take pride in their work to the point where a decline in the timber industry does not only result in a career change, but also a total loss of community identity.
When economic decline occurs faster than a community’s ability to adapt, community members are left in poverty and forced into profitable criminal activities like illegal timber harvesting, wildlife trafficking, human trafficking, and narcotics.
These experiences inspired me to redesign my career path in sustainable development. With a strong interest in the intersection of organized crime and environmental regulation, I hope to focus on environmental policy and environmental and social governance (ESG) risks in supply chain. My career goal is to lead community reinvesting programs to support rural zones in need of economic development and community resilience.
Other than giving me the confidence that I need to move forward in my career, this trip helped me build a deeper connection with our natural world and gave me a more comprehensive understanding of rural community culture in the PNW.