The Hussin brothers cross their motherland on recycled bikes for new film, America reCycled, and discover an America that feels like home
The American Dream we inherited seemed simple enough: go to college, build a career, pay the mortgage, send the kids to school and start filling the kitchen and living room with a baffling array of gadgets, upgrading as necessary. It was the gift of the Second World War to a nation eager to prove itself through unprecedented comfort and security. Play by the rules and persevere, and one day you might just proudly put that last coat of bright white on a picket fence neatly dividing your little piece of America from the neighbour’s.
As two brothers growing up at the end of a cul-de-sac, we watched it all unfold from the inside, but the dream so fervently pursued by our parents’ generation only seemed to alienate us – and we had a deep suspicion that its roots had begun to rot. Reading Kerouac and listening to Dylan as another pair of disaffected teens, we fantasised about one day taking to the road to live out a different kind of dream. Through his rambling romanticism, Kerouac made The Road into a proper noun, worthy of capitalisation like any city or country and a respectable place to call home.
Determined to find fresh alternatives to an America quickly going stale, we built bicycles at a local cooperative, digging our hands through bins of old, greasy parts with volunteer mechanics to assemble the machines that would take us across the country. After saying goodbye to our new friends, we surrendered ourselves to an indeterminate and unpredictable affair with The Road. It offered almost effortless rebirth, each day presenting a blank slate and revealing new voices to guide our journey. Before long, we found ourselves surrounded by teachers who ambitiously declined a life of material comfort for simple freedoms like building and farming with their hands, sleeping under the stars, scavenging dumpsters, and picking away at a banjo on a sweltering summer afternoon.
It soon became clear that what bothered us about our country wasn’t its people, but our disconnection from them. As the United States industrialised and suburbanised on a mass scale, Americans slowly began to lose a grip on reality – literally. We no longer produce our own food or even know the people who do. Art and music come to us as electricity, and we’re unable to even look our favourite artist in the eye. As nutrition and psychology are whittled down to sciences, heart disease, obesity and mental disorders rise to historic highs. It seems the American Dream simply hasn’t lived up to its promise, but luckily we weren’t the only ones to notice – an entirely new America is being built right under the old one’s nose, and we were riding our recycled bicycles straight down its spine.
The Road led us to squatting anarchists and desert-dwelling libertarians, ageing hippies and homesteading hipsters. Moving and living slowly, we felt every mile and lived with every community as we documented them. We witnessed the satisfaction of eating a meal harvested and cooked by hand, and shared the joys and sorrows of intimacy as we all swam against the current to see life as a group effort. The spirit of this new America slowly revealed itself in all its subtle shades as we weaved ever closer to the Pacific Ocean.
We found people of all persuasions pining for basically the same thing – a little locality and simplicity back in their lives. Some still live on the land of their family, nostalgically looking back to a country blanketed with small towns and family farms rather than strip malls and subdivisions. Others, like us, severed their roots to start afresh, travelling great distances to nurture intimate communities and cultivate land. We found Americans everywhere seeking ways to wrestle back control of their lives from increasingly indifferent systems of commerce and government.
Every day was a new adventure. But with time, life on The Road became as ordinary as any other routine, stretching into a soft and numbing blur, one day fading into the next and the sting of leaving one community muted by the warmth of discovering another. After two years carving our bicycles across 5000 miles, nothing seems more exciting than the nuances of a life rooted in land and community; it’s precisely this outlook that the subjects of our story embody with such vigour, and exactly what inspired us to leave our own lives for a taste of theirs.
The Road is a worthy home in its own right, too often derided as mere distance between two points. It can lead you to yourself, but it’s a double-edged sword; get too caught up in distance, and you never stay still long enough to discover depth. A generation of young Americans may have viewed Kerouac’s words as a foundation for new ways of life, yet Kerouac receded deeper into himself. Bitterly decrying the counterculture of the 1960s, he ultimately died young, and mostly alone, after a life characterised by alcoholism and restlessness. He helped pave the road that brought droves of people back to themselves, back to the land, and back to each other, but it never brought him peace. The Road swallowed Kerouac whole.
We can all benefit from The Road’s wisdom, but only through deep, sturdy and well-placed roots do we develop our own. As we reflect on our bicycle journey and the experience that movement allowed us, we also look forward to building our own homes – homes vastly different from the one we grew up in. The Road has given us the strength and confidence to risk climbing out of our comfort zone, and the skills to make real change in our lives. Although we leave it now, it will always be waiting for us when we need its guidance again, stretching far beyond whichever horizon we set our eyes on.
The Hussin brothers are now in the process of producing a feature-length film and book about their journey, entitled America reCycled.