Biking for Breakfast: Two women pedal down MS River, eating eggs and telling stories

Photo by Sara Quinn

Photo by Sara Quinn

If you are driving anywhere near the Mississippi River this summer, keep your eyes peeled. Parked outside of a cozy diner or accidentally thrust upon the interstate, you may happen upon two fast-cycling women, their bikes and a ton of gear.

Two documentarians, Dana Bialek and Sara Quinn, have banded together to document a unique slice of Americana. For a project called Yolks and Spokes, the two are spending their summer biking down the Mississippi River and eating eggs with the people they come into contact with. Along the way, they record audio and video interviews, take photos and write stories about various breakfast habits and the cultures they came from.

Bialek, who serves as the writer and audio storyteller for the project, first hatched the idea after the two met at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in 2014.

“I had this idea of eating with people and documenting it all the way across the country, and then eventually it was breakfast, and I was like it just has to be eggs,” Bialek said. “One of my visions was of a soundscape of a bunch of different people with a bunch of different accents describing how to make a fried egg or something. It was just like, everybody does that.”

The pair first considered biking across the length of the country, but had trouble finding a compelling landscape, so they decided on biking the Mississippi River from north to south.

“Some people go across the country hot-dog style, but we are going hamburger style,” Bialek said.

The idea was to see how the human landscape changes while visibly experiencing shifts in the natural landscape.

“We started at Lake Itasca in Northern Minnesota,” photographer Sarah Quinn said. “It’s the headwaters, and [we] have basically followed the river since then. So we have gone a bit of a windy route.”

In the 1,000 plus miles that they have traveled south, the way people reflect on breakfast has changed more than the items on diner menus.

Bialek said it’s almost mystifying how quickly some people are willing to open up and tell breakfast stories, citing one experience she had at a diner in St. Louis called The Buttery.

“It’s almost strange,” she said. “You go into these places, and you start talking to people, and it’s almost like they feed you all the good stuff immediately. It’s like almost too easy. I sat down with this guy this morning, and he just retired from what he calls 36 years of dedicated service to the U.S. postal service. We have this 5-minute audio clip where he talks about how he is so proud of himself because he poached eggs one time.”

At the same diner, the owner was happy to show off the gun he carried while working. Needless to say, Bialek and Quinn spent a couple days exploring the stories there.

Though some of people they run into seem to be clear representations of their region, others have stories that are more uncharacteristic.

“I think what is really interesting about this is we keep coming across unexpected stories or unexpected people in different places,” Quinn said. “When we were in Fort Madison, we did one kind of like classic story of this Midwest guy, who was like, ‘You know, I just like food.’ But in the same town there was a woman from Japan who really appreciates slow food and fresh food, and they have the chickens out of the community garden that they get their eggs from.”

Considering the meals they eat are all based on one food, the two have come across a huge diversity of people willing to share unique stories.

“Pretty much everyone eats eggs,” Quinn said. “That’s what’s so interesting about it is people are really particular about it. They are particular about their breakfast routines.”

The choice to explore the landscape by bike has served as a benefit as well, though the heat becomes more of a challenge as the bikers head further south.

“It’s a really slow way to engage with a place and actually see the landscape change,” Quinn said. “We are going through every town. We get thirsty. Our water bottles run out. We have to go into a little diner.”

Bialek believes rolling into town on a bike instead of in a car affords a greater sense of equality when it comes to asking people for their stories.

“When you are on a bicycle, you are not riding up in your car and slamming your car door and trying to talk to people,” she said. “There is like this equal vulnerability that we are needing warmth and hospitality, and people have that to offer us. I think as storytellers, I think we get a warmer response because we are on bicycles.”

As they make their way down the Mississippi, Yolks and Spokes continues to gather a greater following with each person they meet. Bialek and Quinn post regularly on their website, yolksandspokes.com, which features an interactive map of their trip.

“I feel like something that has been rewarding is that after we have through a place or after we have done a story with people, that’s often when we get likes and followers,” Bialek said. “People we stay with and people interview will share it on Facebook, and that feels really good.”

After their journey is completed when the reach the Gulf of Mexico later this summer, Bialek and Quinn hope to find a way the thread all the stories together and share their experience on a more widespread level, keeping the project alive in a more stationary way.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.