I biked across the country this past summer.
No, I didn’t actually bike across the country this summer. But it felt like I was there. A friend of mine, a close pen-pal, was the one doing the biking. Every once in a while I would receive updates from a letter describing the places my friend had biked to and her thoughts on the adventure. If I was on the biking journey this summer, it was only vicariously, through her letters.
It wasn’t necessary to receive these letters in order to learn updates about my friend’s biking adventure. After all, she openly posted photos and statuses about her journey regularly through the democratic medium of Facebook. I followed along closely the progress of her and her partner’s trek. Add in electronic communication through email and text messaging, and I had all the modes of contact I could possibly need to stay in touch right at my fingertips. Why then go through the archaic effort of writing letters, especially when I’d be mailing them to a moving target?
In defense of the waning art of letter-writing, there is something incredibly personal and amicable about receiving a hand-written letter. There is something transcendent about it that quick and easy electronic communication can never replicate. A letter is a physical token, something tangible that puts weight in your hand. Even though far apart, the letter is something that both friends have touched and felt and handled; it’s an object that you both have shared in, that bonds you together. The scrawled handwriting on the pages is unique—artistic forms that can never be duplicated, stemming from the very hand of your friend themselves. Though the physical letter has little extrinsic value in itself, the intrinsic value it delivers is priceless.
Each letter received is a gift. Though you can anticipate a letter’s coming, you can never know exactly when it will arrive. Daily you may check the mail, waiting for the surprise delivered by the postman which brings with it a kind of fraternal pleasure. This hand-written letter, addressed exclusively to you, is a conversation between you and your friend alone. Unlike social media posts which have an extensive audience and beg for viewership, the personal letter has become subversive in our culture. It pronounces that some correspondences are meant to be kept private; some conversations are not meant to be laid out open for the wide world to see. And there is something incredibly special about a friend choosing words to write just to you, personally. Even though the content of my letters is nothing incriminating, nothing risqué, it nevertheless feels like they must be kept private to save the mysterious allure of the written conversation. The bulk of my mail correspondences are of absolutely no interest to the general public. But I like that. I like having people write to me and include in their curation of all the possible topics to write about, those things that they thought would interest me. It is their selection—for me.
I have a handful of pen-pals with whom I keep a semi-regular correspondence. Not all of them bike across the country. In fact, most of the time they are doing quite unimpressive stuff—the ins-and-outs of daily life: discussions of work duties, of visiting friends and of making food, of trifling hopes and dreams, of random thoughts. Though their correspondences may not regularly tell of events on the impressive scale of a cross-country bicycle journey, the content they write is nonetheless the fodder of an impressive life-journey lived by every one of my friends. No matter how quotidian the content of the letters may be, I still live vicariously through those words. My friends may benefit from hearing about my own journey which has taken me to many different places and through many different jobs (and I get a lot of feedback that people wish they were doing the things I’m doing). Still, the reverse is also true: my friends who are more settled, though they may not travel as much as me, are nevertheless leading lives that are incredibly interesting to me. They write about things that I too would love to be doing, if only I had the benefit of a stable household: beer-brewing, wine-making, gardening, home improvement projects, community formation. There are many different lives to lead, but not enough time to live them all. My friends are out living some of those lives, and I am out living others. With each letter I receive from my friends, I feel a bit more like I’m there alongside them sharing in the experience of all those different lifestyles, lifestyles that I too wish I could participate in.
Because I travel around as a transient, I don’t get to see a lot of my closest friends in person. Sending and receiving letters through the mail is one small way that we can physically interact via a shared object, something more physically expressive than mere words alone. And since my postal address changes every few months, those who put forth the effort into tracking me down and sending me a piece of mail are truly great friends. The thought and time put forth into writing each letter, despite the inconveniences, makes me value them all the more greatly.
So this summer, I got to experience a cross-country bicycle trip. I was there for the high hopes and growing pains at the start on the Olympic Peninsula. I felt the anguish and the subsequent relief after climbing up and over those grueling snow-covered mountain passes in the northern Rockies. I met good-hearted and welcoming families in our nation’s plains states. I was there through the forests and lakes and mosquitos of the Midwest. I felt the pressure of the trip through the monotonous crossing of flat Ontario, and then knew the relief at seeing mountains once again in the Adirondacks. Eventually, I got to experience the joy of reaching Maine and seeing the bicycle trip to completion. And I did all this without ever leaving Massachusetts.
You see, I value my friendships and still seek to deepen them even when we are apart. Perhaps I may never get to bike across the United States, or perhaps I never will live permanently in a place of my own. That’s OK. Through my friends, and our letter-writing experiences, I feel like a part of me has been along for the experience of it all.