Another long journey

It’s already obvious that I am pretty obsessed with bicycle touring.  As time and funds have permitted in my life, I’ve taken longer and more complicated trips, the longest being about two months. Occasionally I hear about other bike tourists who are so hardcore and obsessed that they have cycled across entire continents or even around the world. That idea has always felt bold and intimidating, but not for me. The last time it came up was seven years ago, and it dropped into the back of my head and percolated there until I forgot about it.

Fast-forward a bunch of time, to 2018. Last year, I was feeling stagnated in my job, tired of my living space, and bored with the geography of the Bay Area. I’d been obsessively playing the computer game Civilization V, and the art deco monuments and colorful pastel mountains and rivers had colonized my imagination. The world was full of light and conflict. I’d just finished a loopy sci-fi novel by Stephen Baxter about spacefaring Roman legions and moon-dwelling Incan tribes, and though the premise was absurd, the collision of remote culture and high technology was inspiring. It came up again in a surreal novel by Dan Simmons: Quantum technology and the siege of Troy, on Mars! My mind was an avalanche of sandstone and granite ruins knotted with ivy and wildflowers, teeming with people in exotic clothes, trading or fighting or building together.

I was seized with the urge to take a vacation, and go far out into the world and touch the artifacts of history. But while I was still working, it would have to be a typical Silicon Valley “get away from the desk” vacation, and I knew how those usually went. I’d be in a rush, moving between various modes of transport, skipping across thousands of miles to hit a packaged highlight reel of well-traveled attractions, trying to use the experience as a hammer to smash some dents into a brain shaped by months and months of software engineering. The vacation would not be for its own sake, it would be to prepare me for another six months back at work.

I knew that would not do. These ideas were calling for a bigger change. I spent several weekends biking around and sketching in the beautiful Mountain View cemetery at the end of Piedmont Avenue, enjoying the fresh air and the quiet, sun-warmed granite monoliths. I began browsing around in Google Earth, tracking down the cities I’d conquered and the wonders I’d built in Civilization, and reading about the history and geography of far off places. Samarkand… In the first edition of Civilization it’s the seat of power of the Mongolians. In Civilization V it’s a powerful, independent city-state usually located in desert. Where is it really? Here it is, in Uzbekistan. There’s a country named Uzbekistan? Wow, I didn’t even know that. How could there be a country that I do not know the name of, at my age?

I started thinking a lot about my picture of the world, and how much of it was based on unverified assumptions, convenient metaphors, current political fashions, and apocryphal stories. I felt intensely ignorant and confined. I needed to break out of my routine, and experience the world outside in a direct and personal way. I needed to crowbar myself out of an existence that was too comfortable. If I didn’t have the means now, when would I ever? Suddenly, the idea of a long-range bike tour popped up from the depths of my mind, threw confetti in my face, and said, “hey idiot, remember me?”

At first I didn’t know what to do. The idea was equal parts enthralling and terrifying, giving me a sense of ambivalence, but it was also sticking hard in my brain like a flyer glued to the windshield of a car. A real long-range bike tour means leaving the Bay Area for a long time. It means spending my savings, and it means I need to rent out my current place to help pay for the house, otherwise my savings would vanish immediately. It means quitting or renegotiating my job. It means being away from my friends and family. Most important of all, it means not having a significant other, because what girlfriend in her right mind would actually be interested in a crazy journey like this?

For a while I hoped the idea would diminish, as it had before, so I wouldn’t have to confront its practical details. But it just set up camp and grew larger and rowdier like a Greek army laying siege to the city of my mind. Eventually, during an intense discussion where I felt encouraged to take risks, I spoke out loud about the idea for the first time.  It was like opening the city gates.  As I heard myself describe it, trying to convey the intensity of it to another person, the Greek army rushed inside, and suddenly I no longer belonged to myself.  I belonged to this journey.

So. I intend to begin a long bicycle trip carrying all my gear, starting in Iceland, with a destination of England. Perhaps by then I will be sick of traveling. Perhaps I will settle in England, or return to California. Or perhaps I will continue on, through Spain and France. Perhaps I will circumnavigate the planet. Who knows?

The tentative departure date is 100 days from now.

This raises a lot of questions, like “Are you crazy?” and, “How long will this take?” and, “Are you aware of these things we have, called cars?”, and of course, “Do you know how dangerous this is?”

I’ll answer that last question up front by saying, yes, this is dangerous.  In the coming months I’m not going to talk about the danger much, because it’s not something I want to dwell on, but I should at least say that if I do end up frozen solid in a snowdrift, or dead at the bottom of a ravine with my equipment scattered around me, or – most likely – squashed flat by a truck like Wile E. Coyote in the desert, that this is something I accepted as a possibility when I started.  And I chose to do it anyway.

Yes, it’s a fatalistic attitude.  But in the time leading up to this journey I have become so obsessed with the idea of attempting it that it has started to feel like an inevitability.  Like a part of my identity.  If I was any less obsessed maybe I would choose to stay at home. Keep circling in that worn-down trench between house, workplace, and supermarkets; maybe take a series of smaller risks. But I honestly feel like I don’t have that choice any more. The Greek army has plundered the city, and is running it now.  If I am fated for the snowdrift, or the ravine, or the logging truck, then so be it!

There’s also the possibility that I will grow to hate this journey after I embark. After three or four months on the bicycle, toiling up hills in the middle of nowhere, I may suddenly snap, dump my equipment in a pawnshop, and buy a ticket back to the states.  That is an acceptable outcome.  But I’m also pretty stubborn, so — we’ll see!

We must, most definitely, see.

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