There is an earnestness to Seth Gottesdiener's voice that is rather disarming for those who actively wonder how united our states really are.
As if the pandemic, racial reckoning and a pending general election aren’t enough, the political fallout from Friday’s passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presents yet another opportunity for our division to be showcased on cable news.
Yet despite a summer of conflict, the 33-year-old gym owner believes we are more together than we are apart. To prove it, he is traveling cross country from Los Angeles to Washington by bicycle, accompanied by a group of documentary filmmakers, to interview Americans from all walks of life in hope of capturing the country outside of the partisan bubble.
“I have been leading some protests in Silver Lake since George Floyd,” said Gottesdiener, adding he would bike long distances as a way to decompress. “One day in July, there was one really heated protest where we stopped traffic and brought Sunset to a complete halt. There was this one white woman in an Audi, and she was looking really panicked and said, ‘I'm with you guys, but this isn't the way.’ I was like, ‘OK. What is the way?’ I was thinking about that a lot on my ride that day.
“I realized we're forcing all these messages down people's throats. I realized that throwing that message on a cardboard sign could be much more effective if you actually turned it into something bigger and not just this one myopic opinion. Because as much as I hate to admit it, my way isn't the only way. And I thought, well, what if we have a whole bunch of people kind of expressing how they are feeling in order to bring this chasm that has become America in 2020 together?
"I feel like this is the most divided we have been in my lifetime, and I think that a lot of people would agree with that. It's said that a third of Republicans and a quarter of Democrats think the opposing political party is actually the demise of America. And that's just not true.”
That’s when he came up with the idea of using his meditative bike rides to show disagreements do not have to escalate to demonization. Among the places Gottesdiener plans to visit are Sulphur Springs, Texas; Jackson, Tenn.; Cumberland, Md.; and Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Not exactly liberal hotbeds, which is precisely the point. He’s been using social media to find as many varying voices as possible. Each person will be asked the same 10 questions. The interviewing ends when he and his traveling companions reach Washington on election day. The goal is to have the documentary completed in time for the inauguration.
Gottesdiener has participated in the AIDS/LifeCycle fundraiser— a seven-day bike ride between San Francisco and Los Angeles — but that’s only 420 miles. This is an 11-state, 45-day, 4,000-mile behemoth designed to hold a mirror up to a beautiful nation currently wrapped in a great deal of ugliness.
Gottesdiener teaches cycling at his gym and has logged countless miles in preparation, but pedaling may be the easiest part.
“I would see somebody's Instagram post, for instance, a friend of mine's mother got naturalized and in one of the cities that we’re going through,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this would be so cool to talk to her [about] becoming an American citizen during a pandemic in 2020 and now you can vote' and [ask] 'Who are you going to vote for?’ Because you never know. Things like that just happen kind of organically. We have a website, www.thegreatamericanbikeride.com, and the map is on there and people can schedule an interview.”
Gottesdiener, along with director Tina Vaden and producer Nicol Biesek rented an RV that will function as a hotel, hospital and editing suite. Much of the cost is coming out of Gottesdiener's pocket, although the team is fundraising via the website as well.
The writer in me got excited as he talked about all of the wonderful stories he and the team will be able to capture and share. The parent in me worried for their safety. Turns out, I was not alone.
“I had a mixture of emotions when he told me,” said Marsha Faith, Gottesdiener’s mother. “Of course there was pride, but also fear. He’s very strong physically and emotionally so I know he can do it. I also know he feels very passionately about Black Lives Matter and doing what he can to fight for equality. He’s always been like that.
“But he’s also going into unknown territory. And maybe this is some of my own prejudices coming out, but I fear for his safety. I’m aware of all the craziness that’s going on in this country and so who knows what he might encounter on the road.”
Faith said she wants her son to text every night so she knows he’s all right although “that might be asking a lot … he is very independent.
“My mother was first generation [American]. My grandparents are from various parts of Eastern Europe and my husband’s ancestors had also fled the Holocaust … so we’re not that far removed from being immigrants.
"We understand that journey very well. … It would be wonderful to have one more way to show people that really we’re all the same under the skin. We all want the best for our family and loved ones, we want to be able to feed them and house them and hopefully there is room for happiness in there.
"I know it sounds corny, but people are amazing.”
She’s right, that does sound corny.
And we are amazing.
It’s just sometimes when we are besieged with fear and that fear morphs into hate, we forget just how beautiful life can be when we’re good to one another. That’s what I found so intriguing about Gottesdiener’s story. Yeah, the ride itself will be an incredible testament to his mental and physical fortitude. But it’s the hope that placed him on this path in the first place that lured this cynical moth to his inspirational flame.
“I see this project as an opportunity to create empathy,” Vaden, the documentary's director, said. “I think that’s what is being lost in 200 characters on the internet.
“I remember growing up in a pretty conservative city in California and having friends whose parents were Republicans but there was still civility and we could find commonality. And while we may disagree on some points, we generally want to build a good place together. I feel like what has gotten lost is that we’re all still those people. ... We just have to be reminded.”
So, after Gottesdiener and his family concluded Rosh Hashana festivities over the weekend, the optimist and his small band of filmmakers set out to do just that, remind us of the good in the world. Hard to imagine a better time for a spiritual reawakening than the start of a new year.