Liberal Andre Block and conservative Jonathan Williams are biking a 3,200-mile Unity Ride across America

In Cover Stories, Outdoors by Mike Gibsonleave a COMMENT

It stands as probably the most awkward moment to date on Andre Block’s cross-country Unity Ride bicycle trek. He and fellow cyclist Jonathan Williams had stopped at an old ranch in the scorched earth of the So-Cal desert, and Block found himself on the receiving end of a paleo-populist diatribe delivered by the curmudgeonly Republican rancher.

“I told him about how Jonathan and I had opposing political views, and that we were doing this ride to show how people with different views can come together,” Block says in a recent phone conversation, during a Unity Ride stopover somewhere in the Midwest.

“And then he started into it. ‘If you want to get people to unite, then you tell them damn Democrats that they need to back Trump.’ It ended up being 15 minutes of him talking about how dumb the Democrats are.

“But I just smiled and listened; I let him go on as long as his heart desired. If that’s the worst thing that happens to us, then I’d say that’s not too bad. So far, it’s been a beautiful trip.”

So what is the Unity Ride? The short answer is that it’s an idea so naively optimistic and endearingly corny as to be utterly irresistible—an ebony-and-ivory-style utopian flight of fancy wherein liberal African-American Block and conservative white-guy Williams undertake a 35-day, 3,200-mile bicycle trip together, from Oceanside, Cal. to Washington, D.C. In keeping with its spirit-of-America subtext, the trek began on Memorial Day and ends on the Fourth of July.

In the meantime, a film crew is following the duo in an old camper, recording the trip for a documentary, supported by pledges and an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign.

“We’re still not sure how we’re going to distribute it, because we’re newbies at that part,” Block says. “But we want to show people the beauty of this country, and to inspire them to put aside their differences and love the world we live in. As we travel, we’re reaching out to people, to town officials and mayors. We’re asking people, ‘What are you doing to promote unity, to make your city a better place?’

“In the places where they seem to have it together, we want to ask them, ‘What is it that you’re doing right?’”

A downtown regular with a foppish fashion sense and an irrepressible smile, Block says it was only in recent years that he discovered his heart for service and his love of cycling. It all began in 2010 when, through a weirdly serendipitous chain of mishaps and misfired plans, Oklahoman Block ended up moving to Lynchburg, Va. to help an economically disadvantaged family there shore up their dilapidated home. Some weeks later, a local shop owner took note of the newcomer’s daily morning strolls through town, and gave him an old 1984 Raleigh 10-speed bicycle, the better for getting around.

“My first trip on that bike, I got to going so fast, I fell in love,” Block says. “Lynchburg is full of hills, and those hills used to kick my butt when I was walking. So I started challenging myself, to where I was going to conquer all of those hills on the bike.

“The whole experience—the trip to Lynchburg, helping the family, getting that bicycle—it marked a big change in my life. It set me on a path of travel and volunteering that I’ve followed through on ever since.”

Shortly thereafter, Block undertook his first long-distance charity ride on a lark, after a buddy casually suggested a cross-country trip.

“He was actually making a joke, because at the time, my bike kept breaking down, and we were sitting around the shop waiting for it to be fixed again,” Block says. “He didn’t mean it, but he sparked me anyway. He turned on a light that I couldn’t turn off.”

Courtesy of Andre Block

Block made plans for a bicycle sojourn to visit his young son in St. Louis, and used the trip as a means to raise money for a free medical clinic in Lynchburg, advertising to would-be donors through a crowdsource funding page.

The ride also introduced Block to Knoxville. His original route plan was a straight shot from Lynchburg through the rugged highlands of West Virginia. But a friendly local motorcycle enthusiast, familiar with the way and fearing for his safety, convinced him to a take a more circuitous path. “She said there were certain people I should worry about in those hills, and that if I took that route, somebody was going to knock my black tail off a mountain. And that would be the end of me.”

She set out a course that roughly followed Highway 81 down to Interstate 40 before heading west for Missouri. Block took her advice. But upon stopping over in Knoxville, he realized he’d left his wallet at the home of a family with whom he had stayed in Bristol.

Resigned to pitching a tent under a North Knoxville bridge while his wallet came overnight, Block spent his remaining cash on a beer and a sandwich at Downtown Grill and Brewery on Gay Street. He ended up befriending the bartender and several of the brewery regulars; they took up a collection and sent him to the nearby Crowne Plaza for the evening.

“I fell in love again,” Block chuckles. “After that, I really wanted to get back to Knoxville. I felt something inside that there was something for me that I needed to do here.”

And get back he did, a year or so later, at the conclusion of another impromptu good Samaritan project, this time in Atlanta, Ga. But now Block was looking for real roots, not just a quickie stopover. After couch surfing for a few weeks, he landed a job downtown and started calling Knoxville home.

In the meantime, Block undertook a second charity bike trip, in the form of the even more ambitious Karma Ride from Scruffy City Hall on Market Square to Venice Beach, Cal. The 2015 jaunt raised several thousand dollars for Lupus research, a cause Block took up as a means of fulfilling a promise to a Lynchburg benefactor who suffered from the incurable autoimmune affliction.

It was during his preparations for the Karma Ride that Block met Williams, a local business owner who volunteered to help him organize the 2,000-mile-long fundraiser.

“At some point, Jonathan suggested we do a ride together, and make a film out of it,” Block says. “When we realized that we leaned different ways politically, it seemed like a great way to highlight the things we wanted to accomplish with the film and the trip.”

Now, the duo having pedaled their way cross-country at a brisk clip of 100 miles a day for some weeks now, Block says the Unity Ride has been every bit the spiritually rejuvenating, faith-in-humanity-restoring, once-in-a-lifetime Holy Grail of road trips he’d hoped it would be.

“We just came through the Rockies, and over Wolf Creek Mountain,” Block says. “That was something, because that was the biggest climb either of us had ever done. Coming down the other side of that mountain was glorious.

“But the best part has been meeting America, the mom and pop shop owners, the beautiful people, the jewelry makers and other random folks on the side of the road,” he continues. “We went through Monument Valley, for instance, and it was gorgeous. Absolutely mind-blowing. And then this little Asian lady stops to check on us. She took care of us, gave us cold water and fruit. It was the sweetest thing ever. Those are the kinds of people we’ve met along the way.”

Block and Williams will travel through Knoxville June 26, where they plan to meet with local bicycle enthusiasts for a 6-mile nature ride beginning at 6 p.m. on Market Square.

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