After cycling 2,500 miles, conducting 100 interviews, and fixing five bike breakdowns, award-winning journalist Michael Comerford has arrived in Santa Monica. With him he carries a one-of-a kind oral history record of how Americans across the country are living through the pandemic.
Comerford set out from Chicago in late February swaddled in a winter jacket and riding a Craigslist bike he guesses is around 40 years old. Toting only as much as his saddle bags could carry and often sleeping under the stars, he journeyed the length of Route 66 taking video interviews of the strangers he encountered.
His project, dubbed ‘The Story Cycle’, captures the beliefs, prayers and practices that Americans from all walks of life are using to navigate the trials and turbulence of Covid-19.
This ambitious endeavor is a form of ‘slow journalism’, a movement that strives to counteract the weaknesses of the click-driven breaking news cycle by taking the time to delve into stories the mainstream media misses.
As a veteran journalist, Comerford noticed that the majority of Covid-19 coverage focused on death tolls in hard hit urban centers, and neglected to investigate people’s pandemic experiences in the rest of the country.
“It occurred to me that most people are not dying of Covid; they are living with Covid,” said Comerford. “They are adapting to a worldwide pandemic, as they have throughout human history and they are adapting in ways that are astonishing.”
From fatalism to folk wisdom, conspiracy theories to church services, and science to superstition, Comerford discovered a vast range of ways people are coping with pandemic life.
He met a rancher who drank cattle dewormer to cure Covid-19, a hotel housekeeper who found god in quarantine, and a fully vaccinated member of the Sac and Fox Tribal Nation who lost 19 family members to Coronavirus. Each of these interviews provide a look inside the current American psyche that cannot be seen through statistics or obituaries.
Comerford is a big believer that where you stand on things depends on where you’re standing. By sharing videos of people speaking on their own turf, he hopes viewers will get a better understanding of why people believe unbelievable things.
“I want them to see where these people are coming from and why they feel the way they feel,” said Comerford. “I want people to hear the inflection in their voice and see their eyes and know where they’re speaking from.”
Over the course of his 75 day journey, Comerford has been sharing interviews to ‘The Story Cycle’ YouTube channel through a partnership with The University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. This summer he will be producing a documentary and book using his footage.
Having arrived on the Santa Monica Pier on a balmy overcast Monday morning, he’s not currently sure what conclusions he will draw from the project. The people he interviewed carried such varied perspectives it will take time to gather all the threads together.
“There’s knowledge in just knowing the way people feel and think, but what this all means I can’t tell you yet,” said Comerford. “It’s like the old saying that life has to be lived going forward, but can only be understood looking back.”