Sticking around

“Much in the universe baffled me, yet I knew I could pry the answers out of books if I lived & studied longer. Geology, for example. Just how did these ancient sediments & stratifications get crystallised & upheaved into granite peaks? Geography — just what would Scott & Shackleton & Borchgrevink find in the great white antarctic on their next expeditions … which I could – if I wished – live to see described? … As I contemplated an exit without further knowledge I became uncomfortably conscious of what I didn’t know. Tantalising gaps existed everywhere. … What of the vast gulfs of space outside all familiar lands?”

H.P. Lovecraft, describing why he decided not to commit suicide as a young man.


“It’s not that plotting the whole journey is undesirable.  It’s that it’s impossible.  When you’re at the beginning, don’t obsess about the middle, because the middle is going to look different once you get there.  Just look for a strong beginning and a strong ending, and get moving.”

Chip & Dan heath, The Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

A Touring Bandana

You need to protect your head

People with lots of hair don’t need to worry about the sun burning their heads. I’m not one of those people. I began losing my hair in high school. By the time I was in college it was easier just to shave it all off and be bald.

DCF 1.0

After college I got a series of jobs with microbiologists. They encouraged me to learn about DNA and genes. I also learned about the way ultra-violet light works to damage DNA.

Think of it like a hailstorm. Direct sunlight rains down on your skin, and little bits of UV light knock into the DNA inside your skin cells and warp tiny pieces of it, like hailstones putting dents in a roof. It has nothing to do with temperature! It can be a cold, windy day, and the heat from the sun might feel great on your limbs, but that hailstorm is still happening, knocking DNA out of place.

The cells in your body are also filled with tiny little repair robots. When UV light breaks things, they find the little broken bits and repair them. When you’re young they work pretty fast, which is why kids can go running around in the sun for hours and the robots will keep up with the damage. Even so, if the sun is really intense, the damage will accumulate anyway and you’ll get a sunburn.

When you’re older, the little repair robots wear out, just like everything else. If you make them do lots of repairs, their decline is even faster. Your skin starts getting dry. Little spots appear, and cuts and bruises take much longer to heal. The key things is that it’s cumulative. You may get plenty of sunlight for years and look fine, and then one year you’ll discover that you’re crossing a threshold where all the little repair robots can’t keep up with even limited exposure, and damage will appear and then stay there, while more appears on top of that. The decline is not reversible.

Too much sun does terrible things, kids.

Since I only have one “hairstyle” for myself at this point, and it depends on the skin on top of my head, I’ve become paranoid about covering my head (and to a lesser extent my chest) with something that physically blocks UV light whenever I’m outside for more than a few minutes. I’ve been paranoid like this for about 15 years, and it’s paid off. I know people the same age and skin tone as me, who’ve been shaving their heads and then walking around outdoors for years, and their heads now look permanently like fried chicken.

I fully admit it: It’s almost entirely vanity that makes me do this. But there’s also a little part of me that knows I’m reducing my risk of skin cancer, and that part is grateful too. Thank you scientists, for compelling me to learn about this! My hat’s off to you folks! (WAIT, NO IT’S NOT.)

Anyway, the point of all that is: Covering my head is important to me, even when I’m wearing a bike helmet that’s full of holes. It’s especially important on bike tours, when I’m out in the sun for entire days, back to back.

So why not just buy a bandana?

Just about every bandana out there is good for filtering dust and maybe holding water, but is terrible at filtering out UV light. If you have one around your house, take it outside and hold it up in front of the sun. The sun will still be almost too bright to look at directly though the bandana. Put that on your head and you’re basically walking around wearing tissue paper. The thread count (the density of the weave) of your average bandana is 100 per inch or less — usually 75.

You don’t need something that completely blocks light. Something that scatters it will do fine, because the UV spectrum will get mostly absorbed in the process. The higher the thread count, the more scattering. For example, pillowcases usually have a thread count of at least 300. Hold one of those up to the sun and you’ll see a glow rather than direct sunlight. (In general a pillowcase would make a poor bandana because a 300+ thread count is not very breathable, and the tiny threads don’t hold water well.)

You can buy bandanas that claim to have a thread count of 300, but they’re always a polyester or cotton-polyester blend. I’ve found that if I sweat in any polyester thing for more than an hour, I start to stink. So those are no good for me.

For a while I thought the solution was to buy a cotton cloth dinner napkin and wear that like a bandana, but I tried a few and realized that the cloth was uncomfortably thick, and they were usually too small. What to do?

Time to make my own!

I went to a fabric store, and bought several yards of thick, supple cotton cloth. Then I walked across the street to a tailor and asked them to cut it into 22×22-inch squares and sew the edges with an “overlock” stitch pattern. (A simple job for any tailor.)

I came back two days later and picked up a pile of bandana-sized cloths.

The tailor on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland

Then it was time for the fun part: Coming up with a design to put on them!

I wanted all these things:

A general theme of “maps”

I’m fascinated by the work of early cartographers. After a lot of searching, I found this fanciful map of an Egyptian “labyrinth” at Hawara.

Created by Athanasius Kircher in 1670, by engraving on a copper plate.

It’s supposedly based on a description of a real place by the Greek writer Herodotus, but I like it because it’s a beautiful example of how ancient maps were primarily artistic works, drawn from a culture’s collective imagination.

I’m tickled by the idea that I’m taking an ancient map, which claims to be accurate but is really almost total fantasy, and literally cloaking my head in darkness with it. Plus I like labyrinths.

An inspiring quote

I’ve seen lots of clothing and tattoos that take words personally meaningful to the wearer and then obscure them in some cute way, usually by rendering them in another language that most people (possibly even the wearer) can’t read.

For many years in my home town there was a plague of young English speakers getting tattoos made of fake “Chinese” characters that supposedly meant “power” or “wisdom” or could even spell out the bearer’s name when strung together. All completely bogus, of course, but most people didn’t read enough Chinese to call them out on it — or those that did just silently scowled and looked the other way. I wanted to pay homage to that in an even stupider and geekier way: By pointlessly embedding a pithy quote into a QR code, only readable by a machine.

There are QR code generators online, so making one is easier than you’d think. Here are some test images I made:

The embedded quote is, “Sometimes you cannot find the truth unless you reach for it.” Hold your phone camera up to either one and chances are it will automatically appear!

Art from my favorite computer games

Since the Egyptian labyrinth drawing is divided into convenient squares, I decided to add pieces of maps from computer games I played as a kid.

They blend in pretty well with the diagrams of fictional walls from 350 years ago.

Useful encoded information

What if I’m in the middle of some foreign country and my bicycle gets stolen, along with everything on it? And what if my phone and my wallet are on it too?

Chances are I’m still wearing my bandana. Written along the corners I’ll find useful things, including contact phone numbers for my relatives, an obfuscated credit card, and the encryption key for my backups.

Everything combined

After a bunch of Photoshop work, I had something pretty good:

The inspirational quote in QR code is different from the one I used for testing. Hold your phone up to the screen and see what it is!

With a good design in hand, it was time to get it printed onto the bandanas. Early experiments with a mail-order screen and my own ink were okay, but not great.

I decided to reach out to a local print shop called The Grease Diner. Could they make me a silkscreen big enough to fully cover a 22×22-inch bandana? Yes they could! I contacted JonJon and worked out an order for a large screen and some time on their press.

In a few days it was ready, and it looked beautiful.

JonJon helped me get everything aligned perfectly and I did six bandanas.

We pressed the printed bandanas in an iron to set the ink, and then JonJon gave me the stencil for safekeeping. Without his advice and help I’m sure I would have made a mess. Hooray for the Grease Diner!

The result was a bandana (plus a few spares) that blocks UV light, holds water on hot days, and is durable and soft. I’d happily wear it all over the world.

It's useful AND mysterious!

Are you trying to prove something?

In conversation with myself.

This is one of my all-time favorite comics.  Credit to Nathan W Pyle

Do you think that a bike tour is the gateway to a more interesting life?

Do you think that the interesting things you can see from the seat of a bike make up for all the time you spent at your job, staring at screens, shut inside yourself? Staying up late because you felt unsatisfied at the end of another day spent working, saving up money so you can have an adventure?

Sure there is adventure, and good conversation. Stories to tell, fresh air, exercise, good food. Always a new thing rolling down from the horizon. There’s no denying that a bike tour could bring happiness. But why this particular choice? Any why persevere, through the hard parts — the inevitable rain and cold and hunger, the long empty patches of road where there is no one to talk to, nothing to chew on but your own curious thoughts — and the times when you’re deeply uncomfortable, when you wish for the chance to simply stop and put down roots somewhere, with an urgency that belies it as a human need like food and company… What compels you to spend your limited time on Earth doing this thing?

Is it ego? Are you trying to prove something to yourself?

Imagine you’ve already met your goal; made your journey, and you’re back home in your daily routine again. What have you proved except that you can exploit the available technology in a somewhat unconventional means, to go on what most everyone around you will see as a weird extended vacation? One that most people would not choose for themselves, and would not be able to relate to? Because really, people do not like riding their bikes as much as you do. They will not get it. You seem like a nut-job more than an adventurer, placing yourself in danger on the road, especially when everyone around you is “getting there” faster in a car.

People smile and say “that sounds cool,” and sincerely wish you luck. But make no mistake: They don’t relate. What you’re doing isn’t cool.

Likewise, you can’t be in it for the rebellion, for the “coolness points” of doing something different that sets you apart from others. There’s no happiness in competing for novelty — only a caustic version of pride. No matter how interesting your bike tour actually becomes, there are people all over the Earth who have spent their time doing far more interesting things, far more often, and being so dang humble about it that you don’t even know they exist unless you blunder into them and talk awhile. You will probably meet a bunch of them as you go.

No, if happiness does emerge from this journey, it comes from meeting your own personal expectations.

What do you expect?

What sets those expectations? You weren’t born with them, you learned them. Where did they come from? Consider your personal history.

You grew up playing adventure games, traveling far away in your imagination — and surrounded by the redwood forest, deep and quiet, blurring the line between your imagination and real places. You grew up riding a bicycle, and have come back to it in adulthood, integrating it with your daily life, working against the car-focused environment and economy surrounding you. Visions of far away lands have been brought to you by the internet, and a flood of practical information as well. This age of scientific wonders, and the accumulated toil of countless generations before it, has knit the world together with roads and airlines and shipping routes, and the gear to explore them is affordable. It’s all there, visible online.

You see a goal within reach, but not too close, like a mountaineer scheming to reach a summit “because it’s there.” Just how far could you ride? Just how far could your mind range? You calibrate your expectations and your happiness based on what’s available. You make it up as you go along, and perhaps you’re even conscious of how arbitrary that is.

It feels like these threads have been converging over years, over decades even. How much of your life, in retrospect, has been about this idea?

But then again, how much of this is just selective remembering — a story you’re making up about your distant past to justify your actions? A lot of it, probably. Why make up the story? Maybe it’s not your past but your present life that holds the answers.

Lately you’ve been spending way too much time immobilized behind a desk. That desk is the centerpiece of a routine you follow almost every day. It goes: Get up, ride to work, stare at screens, talk about programming and science with nice people, eat some food – hopefully something nourishing – spend a little time with loved ones, read a book or watch a film, run a few basic errands, and then go to bed for a night of unquiet dreams. Then start the routine again.

It’s not a bad routine. In fact, it’s a routine that most people on Earth would happily assemble and roll with for their entire lives. There are undeniably good things about it; things you cannot pack up and take with you on two wheels.

But it’s still a routine. And there’s no doubt you would break this routine if you started a long bicycle trip. If you picked yourself up out of your home, moved thousands of miles outside your comfort zone, dropped down in an unfamiliar land with some hardware and a map, and had to contend with the elements and interact with the locals to move yourself across the globe, your routine would be totally demolished. It’s impossible to stay in one place while riding a bike, so a desk is out of the question. (Same with computer screens. Only the tiniest of screens fits on a bike and if you stare at it for more than a few seconds you fly into a ditch.)

You would be forced to witness the world, rather than think about it abstractly like you have for too many years. And perhaps that’s exactly what you want. Maybe it isn’t happiness you’re seeking, or the execution of a grand plan; maybe it’s an intervention. Life in one place has gotten too easy, and you used to have expectations for how it would all arrange itself, but life outmaneuvered and outlasted your expectations, and now you’ve drifted into this weird place nobody warned you about, and been seized by this weird idea as a means of escape.

What do you want?

Is this a “midlife crisis?” What’s your crisis; being bored? If you did exactly what you’re doing now but you were 20 years old, even motivated by the same sense of boredom, would you doubt yourself? Would others?

“Go out there and explore!” they would say. “You’re young, you don’t need to think about anything permanent at your age.”

What about now? Instead they would say, “You’re old. You’re supposed to be settled into something and know what you want out of life.” And “settled in” means, among other things, staying in one place.

You’ve been settled before. More than once.

You’ve managed to work your way into plenty of situations that seemed ideal at the time – jobs, relationships, living spaces – and moved on from them eventually. Your only regret each time was not doing it before things got as bad or as boring as they did. Not everything requires escape of course; some things just require difficult adjustments, and then they continue in another way. But to pursue this particular crazy idea – a long-range bike trip – you are taking apart things in your life that are good as well as bad. That’s obsession. And probably stupidity as well.

People all over the world struggle mightily just to claim a fraction of the resources and connections you have acquired and kept during your life, let alone things that you have accidentally or deliberately wasted. If the extreme good fortune of your position is not apparent to you now, it will be apparent soon, because this journey will put you in close contact with many of those less fortunate. How will you feel then, about what you left behind? How stupid will you look to the people you meet, when you try to explain yourself?

But on the other hand…

What if you don’t have a choice?

Life is full of contradictions and it should not be surprising that something that seems like a really bad idea also seems like a really great one.

You’re well into your forties. By all accounts your life is more than half done. Way more, if you think of it in terms of the aging of your mind and memory. What kind of joke would the back half of your existence be if you spent years on the cusp of a journey that you could quite easily have taken, only to turn around and creep back into your house, close the door, and keep taking the paycheck and eating the fat meals?

Even if it’s a difficult journey to finish, it’s trivially easy to start. Just get on the bike and keep going. People have bicycled all around the world hundreds of years before you were born, and (you hope) thousands and thousands more will during your lifetime and long after. If they can do it, so can you. Do you really need a reason? Ego, identity, change, intervention, escape… Why are you so worried about it?

It doesn’t matter. Possible answers to the question of “why” erupt like weeds – fresh ones every day – and you pull them up, inspect them, and throw them in a pile. The only thing you are certain of is the obsession itself. Unprompted, irreducible, and stubbornly refusing to fade. You’ve spent so long thinking about it, outlining scenarios and testing hardware and saving money, that at this point if you didn’t do it, you might not have much of an identity to fall back on. You’d be some vague person with a job and a house and some good relationships who thought about something really hard for years to the point where it began to seriously interfere with and alter their life … and then dropped it.

Are you afraid of what you’ll learn?  Are you afraid in general?  For how much longer are you willing to put up with the cognitive dissonance of simultaneously preparing to go and planning to stay? The world is absolutely flooded with opportunities to miss. There is no shortage of them, only a shortage of time. Past a certain level of preparedness, the days you spend preparing turn into their own thing. Are you more comfortable with preparing than you are with actually doing? Are you comfortable in purgatory, and questioning your motives so you’ll stay?

Get on with it. Whatever happens – good or bad, or even just boring – it will be your choice. You’d better be okay with it.