Environmentalism in small-town America

Alan Winslow, BA '07, and Morrigan McCarthy bicycled 11,000 miles across America as part of Project Tandem.

Published April 21, 2011

Sitting on his front porch one day, Joe is approached by two strangers on bicycles. They strike up a conversation. A factory worker from London, Ohio, Joe says he’s concerned about being laid off from his job making replacement vents for Ford and Chevy vehicles. He lives in the house he grew up in, and talks about how the neighborhood has changed over the years.

“Cycling is a great way to see the country at 10 mph. You’re forced to look at everything and observe everything.”
Alan Winslow, BA '07

Asked to share his views on the environment, he says he doesn’t have any. Eventually, he opens up about how the factory he relies on to earn a living is the top polluter of the local waterways.

Then there’s the woman fishing in Saratoga, Wyo. She walks to her job in town, and hunts and fishes for the majority of her food. She, too, insists she doesn’t have much of an opinion on environmental issues, but later says: “It doesn’t matter what you eat, it comes from the earth. It doesn’t matter what you wear, it comes from the earth.”

These are just two of the many people UB alumnus Alan Winslow and his partner, Morrigan McCarthy, encountered in 2008 on their 11,000-mile bicycle journey across America documenting the views of ordinary folks about the environment. Many of the people they spoke with shared the same sentiments as Joe.

“He, just like many other people, told us that they’re not ‘environmentalists’ and they would never be labeled ‘environmentalists.’ But they are concerned about global issues and the things that they can impact,” Winslow says.

Winslow and McCarthy shared their adventures with an audience at UB last month, and have put together a multimedia exhibition, called Project Tandem, featuring photographs and audio interviews with their subjects.

The pair’s visit to Buffalo was sponsored by UB Green, the Interdisciplinary Degree Program in Environmental Studies and the UB Environmental Network, with support from Buffalo Big Print, Buffalo CarShare, Merge Restaurant and the Elmwood Village Inn.

During their trip across the country, the pair encountered some surprises—among them trying, unsuccessfully, to outrun a fierce hail storm in Nebraska.

Most surprising, though, was the fact that while many of the people they interviewed and photographed shared concerns about their natural habitat, many—even those who by their actions appeared to be stewards of the environment—refused to be labeled as environmentalists. It seemed to be a bad word.

Winslow and McCarthy were living in Brooklyn when they got the idea for Project Tandem. Initially, they planned on driving across the country, but McCarthy’s father suggested they ride bicycles instead. From Brooklyn, they ventured up to Maine, then down to Florida and across the southern U.S. to San Diego, then up to Seattle before zigzagging their way across the Midwest and back home.

Most of the trip was improvised. Other than following a cycling map, “nothing was planned,” says Winslow, who graduated from UB in 2007 with a BA in environmental studies and photography. “Everybody that we had met, we met in passing and just started chatting with.” Winslow and McCarthy asked their subjects if they could photograph them and record their interviews.

The pair never stayed in a motel, opting instead to camp out, asking permission to set up for the night on farmers’ fields or in homeowners’ back yards. “The generosity of people around the country was absolutely amazing,” Winslow says. “The entire trip, we got turned down twice for a place to stay.”

It was an eye-opening experience, and they believe bicycling made it more fulfilling. “Cycling is a great way to see the country at 10 mph. You’re forced to look at everything and observe everything,” Winslow says. “The culture in these small towns is so much different. It was just a really fascinating experience to see what’s important to people.”

Bicycling across the country can be an unforgiving experience. Winslow’s bike weighed more than 100 pounds fully equipped; McCarthy’s about 80. And then there was the weather. “The biggest mistake we made on the trip was that we rode through tornado alley during tornado season,” McCarthy says. She recalls trying to outrun a hail storm in Nebraska. “It turns out, you can’t do that.”

Adds Winslow: “We researched what to do if a tornado hits and everything told us to get under a bridge. We didn’t see a bridge for the entire time that we were in tornado alley. The only thing we could do was jump into ditches when these hail storms came by.”

Many times, though, compassionate souls reached out to help the travelers. Tammy, a single mother from Kentucky, saw Winslow and McCarthy standing outside in a cold rain. She told her young son to invite them in.

“She told us all about her life, gave us a ton of Gatorade and then we left. It was just one of those sweet moments on the road when you realize just how wonderful people can be,” McCarthy says.

To view photos and listen to audio from Project Tandem, visit the Project Tandem website.