Finally able to climb off his bike, Chris Register took full advantage of the opportunity to sit down and relax at Yankton’s Meridian Bridge Plaza on Saturday afternoon.
It’s a rare chance for some down time for the 37-year-old Texan. After all, he has been on the road for exactly one month — with still hundreds of miles to go before his final destination.
Register, an attorney from Houston, arrived in Yankton Saturday as part of his “Conversations with US” bike tour across the country. He began his 17,000-mile journey — divided into six-week segments — last summer and plans to conclude the tour next summer.
The point of the endeavor is simple: Is America as divided as is often portrayed? Register wanted to know, so he set off on a tour to profile regular Americans for an upcoming series of books he plans to write.
“It was me being frustrated with the narrative I was hearing on the news, that we’re so divided, that everyone hates everyone else,” Register said Saturday during an interview at Meridian Bridge Plaza.
“I just didn’t know if it was true. How could we know?”
With that in mind, Register — a native of North Carolina — sat down and mapped out his 50-state tour. He is currently on his fifth tour (second this summer) which he calls the ‘Prairie Heartland’ tour.
Register began cycling July 13 in Iowa, and then ventured south into Missouri before turning west into Oklahoma. From there, he rode north through Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, and will ultimately finish this tour in Williston, North Dakota.
A monumental task for one person? Sure, Register admitted, but each day of the journey presents a new challenge, He typically rides around 50 miles each day and then finds a place to stay overnight (he stayed in Yankton Saturday night before venturing north Sunday).
“I want to stay random,” he said. “I want most of the places I visit to be places that aren’t well known or aren’t tourist spots.
“That’s what the whole project is about: getting out and meeting people who maybe aren’t heard from.”
Along the way, Register has attempted to sit down and interview people from all walks of life and all classes — black or white, rich or poor, etc. It’s a goal he often thinks about, Register said: Is he truly getting a diverse crowd for his books?
“I’ll always be open to criticism for not getting every group, but it’s important to me,” he said. “I do try.”
During his “Prairie Heartland” tour, for example, most of the people Register has talked with have been white. But that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is the same, he said.
“Just being white is one thing they have in common, but there are so many other things they don’t,” Register said. “That’s something I think about a lot.”
Whether it is a poor black person or a rich white person who reads his books, Register said he hopes it opens people’s eyes to the struggles we all share.
“Hopefully, no matter who they are, they can read this book and realize maybe we share more things in common than they thought,” Register said.
Rather than write one book after his tour ends (with the Hawaii and Alaska trips) late next summer, Register said he plans to write a series of books.
“There’s just too much information,” he said. “The book would be a thousand pages. This tour alone has been so rich.”
The plan for the books include not only Register’s profiles of the hundreds of people he met, but his own experiences — including, perhaps, the evolution of his own philosophy, he said.
To that point, have Register’s beliefs or views of the project changed throughout his travels?
“Most of us, myself included, live in a small bubble,” he said. “I talk to the people that are generally like me and hang out with people that generally have my same interests.”
If that’s the case, he asked, how can a politician make decisions without understanding the country? Or how can a voter truly make an informed decision?
There have been occasions throughout his tours when Register has butted heads with people over political issues, he said. During a visit in Kentucky, for example, he “cleared out a café” while arguing with a man about coal mining policy — the man argued, Register said, that President Obama “single-handily” shut down the coal industry in retaliation for them not voting for him.
“It’s the lack of understanding that worries me,” said Register, who identifies himself as a centrist politically. “A democracy requires people to be serious about it and be informed. Many people think it all ends with their vote, but that’s where it begins. … You have to inform yourself.”
For every frustrating moment like that have come positive signs as well, Register said.
“On the other hand, there are days when I’m really heartened, especially in small communities,” he said. “I can compare towns in this series, and the ones that are thriving are the ones where people care about their communities.”
In all, Register will complete nine tours as part of his project:
• Deep South
• Water, Steel & Grit (Upper Midwest and Great Lakes region)
• American Southwest
• Appalachia & Bluegrass Country
• Prairie Heartland
• New England & Eastern Seaboard
• West Coast
• Big Skies & Rocky Mountains
• 49 & 50: Alaska & Hawaii
With the idea that most people don’t have the capability — financially or otherwise — to organize such a time-consuming expose into American culture, Register said he jumped at the opportunity. It was an idea he first thought of after graduating from law school in Washington D.C., he said.
“I feel like it’s my duty to do it for everyone else,” Register said. “I’m learning a lot myself, but I want folks to learn a lot through me.”
For more information on Register’s tour and to view updates from his experiences on the road, go to conversationswithus.com.
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