Reason To Go On A Bike Tour: The World Is Not The Map

Going a long distance on two wheels is a relatively recent human pursuit. Especially doing it for fun. Aside from the two most important modern creations that make this possible – the bicycle, and the road itself – there is another thing we have come to depend on, to make the adventuring safe and successful: An accurate, portable map.

We rely on the map to get from one safe food source and bed to another, with a minimum of backtracking and unpleasant surprises, in environments where those things are rare, or where the signs for them are obscure. It becomes more important the farther we wander from home. We have developed a certain level of trust in the map, and therefore in the people who constructed it: We expect them to tell the ground truth, with no artistic embellishment.

In the middle of long, winding roads through mountain passes, with many forks branching ahead of us, and daylight waning, and just a few hospitable dwellings marked out, our very lives can depend on the accuracy of a map. Guiding us safely and accurately in those situations – and all others – is what the modern map is for.

This was not always the case!

World map assembled by Andrea Bianco in 1436
World map assembled by Andrea Bianco in 1436

Here There Be

In Europe back in the 15th century, maps of the world were not used for navigation, but as propaganda and entertainment.  Large-scale maps were weirdly inaccurate and chock full of exotic labels and figures to stir the imagination — and sell more copies to the curious middle class.

A dabbling dilettante might purchase a map just to pass it around at a social gathering, and inspire their friends to trade rumors and tell outrageous stories:

“Hey, look at this island here – Ewaipanoma.  There are weird headless people on it.  Instead of a head they have eyes bulging directly out of their chest, and a giant mouth in their stomach.  Here’s a drawing; it must be real!”

“And look at this chunk of ocean.  It’s labeled The Red Sea, and wow, it’s blood red!  I wonder what it’s like to sail across that.  Does it stink?  Are there Mer-men in it?  (Excuse me; could you pass the snuff?)”

Detail of Martin Behaim's Globe from 1492, in a facsimile produced in 1908 by the geographer Ernst Georg Ravenstein
Detail of Martin Behaim’s Globe from 1492, in a facsimile produced in 1908 by the geographer Ernst Georg Ravenstein

Map makers of the 15th century were taking liberties with the irregular facts at hand to tell a good story, and sell a few more maps. These creations were works of art as well as reference, and so they embodied both knowledge and attitude, and to our modern eyes it’s also clear that by exaggerating the freakiness of the non-European world they stoked the common racism and religious bigotry of the time. Given that the average person was never going to travel outside their home country, how would they know any better?

If the map maker Andrea Bianco mislabeled an entire continent and made the inhabitants out as monsters, no one could call him on it. Maybe they were all just godless aliens out there, and we should put a pre-emptive boot on them, for our own peace of mind… (And so, 400+ years of colonialism.)

Detail of the Carta Marina from 1539. That’s Iceland, hemmed in by ice floe (long since melted)

This kind of distortion is not just in relics from the past.  It can appear in any art that depicts a far-away place, including very modern media. The line between entertainingly fanciful, and offensively alien, tends to drift as well.

Europe as represented on a Japanese map from 1932. That’s Hitler tussling with then-president of the Weimar Republic Hindenburg in Germany.

Consider our modern obsession with space travel:  We have made a few tentative steps into the solar system, but the facts have been eclipsed in popular culture by Star Wars, Avatar, Star Trek, et cetera.  15th century maps had their “headless men”, and we have our “alien xenomorph.” If we landed a spaceship on some cold moon of Jupiter and found it was teeming with creatures that looked and sounded just like the “xenomorph”, how many of us would freak out and want to kill them all immediately, despite their scientific importance?  Despite the fact that for all of human history up to that point they’d left us alone?

Believing in a universe full of hostile aliens can sound like common sense in any era:  You’ll never be caught with your guard down.  But like most common sense, there’s a blind spot, in this case big enough to fit the whole of the colonial era inside:  Keep your xenophobic guard up and you might be an unwitting sponsor of atrocities against perfectly ordinary people. The more truth – or perhaps just dignity – we gather into our representations of the world beyond, the less likely we are to start a war.

If only you understood them, you could avoid disaster… (Alien Legacy, 1994)

And so, better maps make better neighbors. Instead of believing the world is full of savages that need colonizing, we learn that the world is full of people, and the colonialism is the savagery. Xenophobia inspired by artistic license slowly loses ground to the need for navigational accuracy.

The Shrinking Stage

In 1570, when William Shakespeare was 6 years old, the first book of maps was published.  Reflecting the culture of the time, this book – effectively the first ever world atlas – was titled “The Theater Of The Lands Of The World.”  It aimed for something more serious than middle-class entertainment:  A truly accurate geographical representation, suitable for outlining an actual ocean voyage.  The world remained a theater but now it was one that real people might act upon.

The Greek peninsula, according to the Orbus Terrarum

Ten years after that first edition (the first of many) was published, Sir Francis Drake returned from sailing around the globe – the first Englishman to do so – with a hoard of gold, silver, and spices he’d plundered along the way.  The treasure was so great (and he’d been gone for so long) that after he dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor, he had to wait quietly on his ship until midnight, and then send a small anonymous party ashore to find out if Queen Elizabeth was still in power and could still provide protection while he unloaded his riches.  The success of the journey was a huge surprise, and fanned the flames of the public obsession with the uncharted world past the horizon.  The world was full of mystery and monsters, and it was also full of treasure, and real men had sailed out upon it and brought some back.  Perhaps anyone could.

An Orbus Terrarum sea monster

Twenty years after that, when Shakespeare’s company was popular enough to commission its own theatre space, what better name to seize the imagination than  “The Globe”?

The globe theatre, as depicted in an engraving by I. Hondius in 1610

As maps became more accurate, the globe became more accessible, and less terrifying.  In our modern age we’ve taken this about as far as it can go:  The entire Earth is a pale blue dot on the screen of a smartphone, easily covered with the palm of one hand — yet anyone can use their fingers to zoom the image continuously down to the individual trees on the street outside their house. If we can see the people on the opposite side of the planet just like the people living on our own street, we are less inclined to demonize them and more inclined to collaborate, and a vision of the human race as a single tribe spanning the globe is within reach. That is a fantastic development.

At the same time, this increase in accuracy has increased our tendency to substitute one scale for another. It becomes very easy to believe that all movement is the same regardless of scale, and that all places in the world are equally well known — because they’re all on one map, and everyone uses the same map, aside from some tiresome arguments over border lines and labeling. Through that we developed an unwarranted sense of familiarity.

Human brains evolved to keep track of about 100 personal relationships and a few square miles of land in detail at most, and brains haven’t changed in the face of this new technology.  To conceive of the entire planet as one place, we have to skip over a literally inconceivable amount of detail.  We reduce huge chunks of territory and uncountable numbers of people down to a photo, a paragraph, or an icon beneath a finger, and let the rest blur into mush.

Affordable, decentralized communication has made the whole world more familiar, but it has also made the world seem smaller and much more consistent than it really is.    

How Americans view Europe (courtesy of Ducktales)

Play’s The Thing

I can flick the screen of my smartphone, scrolling from my home town over to the Great Pyramid of Giza and “see” all the terrain between, thanks to satellite mapping.  I can board a plane, spend 17 hours napping uncomfortably, pop out next to the pyramids, walk all around them, and then fly back home, all in a few days.  I was here; then I was there; then I was here again.  The dot on the map tells me so.

Everything I skipped over is just a gradient between the familiar experience of home, and the foreign experience of the pyramids, and since there are no big fancy icons on the map in between, I haven’t missed anything important, right?  I can look out the window of the plane and see the terrain scroll by just like on my smartphone.  Looks about the same.

This is what travel is for us now. Even when we would rather move slowly and see the land between, we are thwarted by the need to get back to our job and other obligations — and so we rely on the dot and the map to tell us that yes, we have really gone somewhere.  

Everything looks so flat from up here...

We instinctively know that we’re missing something.  We instinctively know that when Shakespeare wrote “the world is a stage,” he was getting to something important.  In airplanes and trains and cars, we can skip around the globe like stones across a pond, but traveling that way is the equivalent of sitting down for Act 1 of Hamlet, hearing a few of the opening lines, and then suddenly it’s Act 5 scene 2 and everyone is scattered around dead, and Horatio is all, “What is it ye would see?  If aught of woe or wonder, cease your search.”

We know some important changes have happened.  We can see the evidence all around.  Based on what we see, we can assemble the story of Hamlet like so:  A bunch of people were alive, then they fought and almost all of them died.  That summary would not be wrong. But of course, there is so much more.  It’s all there, in the terrain we skipped; the scenes we didn’t watch…

The Unbroken Line

What if you could leverage the modern map to travel safely and accurately, but also experience a story that plays out across this world stage, with no interruptions?  What if you could move through the scenes and have the time to notice all the details that haven’t been granted a symbol on the global map?

What if you could establish a truth inside you as a counterpoint to the gridwork of flight-lines that link monuments and urban centers:  The entire world as a continuous place, every corner of it real, every person on it part of the play? What is it like, to be in those in-between places long enough to know them as their own?  To breathe that unbroken channel of air that is split aside by the plane, or the train, or the windshield of the car?

With a bicycle, you can find out.

It's not very direct, but it sure is pretty

The maps available in this modern age are exquisitely, astonishingly accurate, and are no longer full of headless men and blood-red oceans, and can be mined for information in ways that were unknown just half a generation ago — or even just a few years ago.  With a smartphone in your hand, you can see your exact spot on the globe, inspect the terrain ahead, find a place to stay, find food and water, book transportation, locate supplies… And beyond the map, you can see weather predictions, manage your finances, contact emergency services, practice speaking and reading a language, and call up someone you know to ask for guidance. And the device you do this with fits perfectly on the handlebars of a bike, and the battery lasts all day!

Our modern maps can guide you safely, because they are no longer infested with artistic embellishments like “here there be dragons”. But nevertheless, the regions they cover are full of adventure and surprise, as they always have been. From the seat of a bicycle, you can discover it. The possibilities for lightweight, independent, flexible travel are far, far greater than they’ve ever been in history.

All you need is the inspiration to think outside of the literal box: Why buy a tour package to some big-name destination, and sit on your ass in a series of metal boxes that haul your body across the space between, rendering it intangible and irrelevant, when you could have a continuous sensory experience, breathing the air, hearing the wildlife, seeing the terrain unmediated, feeling the rain and wind and sunlight, knowing the change of the land with your own muscles?

You can do it! Go on a bike tour!

Enjoying the windy road.

The crawl to Shattuck

Today would be a long day — way longer than we thought. We didn’t know that setting out, which is why we lingered in town and had a fine breakfast.

We're pretty sure no one in a wheelchair needed to get by us. But yeah, we should have geared up somewhere else!

Actually found some good snacks in this town!

Around us the town hustled and bustled!

There was a “Museum Of The Plains” just north of the hotel that we should probably have checked out, but for some reason it didn’t feel inspiring.

I invite you to make up your own caption.

We rode due east all day, ranging away from each other for most of the afternoon, then bunching together as evening approached. We reached the edge of the Texas panhandle and entered Oklahoma around 6pm, stopping for snacks in a tiny town right on the border.

THE QUOTABLE NICK, #8

Nick:
“Why did I put a cookie in this pouch? That was stupid.”
Me:
“What happened?”
Nick:
“I put a cookie in and it got all mashed up. What did you think happened?”
Me:
“I think … you need to clean that pouch really thoroughly.”

Night fell, and the clouds thickened into a blanket and erased the stars. The wind began to push at us from the right side of the road. To keep our legs moving we paired our headphones and listened to a selection of Braindead Monkeys tracks, finishing up with the interview with Pavel Zmiewsky.

First sight of Shattuck.

Hey! It’s HAY!

Packing went quickly, and we were out and pedaling long before checkout time, like a couple of seasoned pros. On the way out of town we stopped for snacks and Nick got into a conversation with a local resident. When she learned that we were traveling to Shattuck to explore our Russian German ancestry, she declared that she too had Russian German roots, and we were probably all related in some way.

Nick reported: “Apparently there is a parts shop on Main Street in Shattuck, where a guy who is from a family that has been there forever lives and he might be able to tell us if he knows any Birkels.”

That’s pretty cool. We start a conversation with exactly one person in the area, and she turns out to be a semi-distant relative.

Today would be a day of riding through flatness, and checking out the growing things on both sides of the long, straight highway.

When I say the roads were straight, I am not kidding.

Did I mention that these roads are long and straight?

They also provided no cover. Which makes it a bit weird when you have to pee. But we were effectively in a private space — not because there were walls around us, but because we were just so far from anyone else that even if they were looking straight at us, they wouldn’t be able to tell what we were doing. Unless they had a telescope. But then they would be the weirdos, not us.

Pee break on a long long road.

The weather was magnificent, and though the wind wasn’t being helpful, it did bring us all kinds of interesting smells.

Leftover cotton from the harvest.

Every now and then we’d pass through a cluster of buildings, usually next to a massive grain elevator. Out here there’s a strange mixture of structures in constant industrial use with other things that are clearly abandoned.

Yes, that's a boxcar integrated into the structure of a building.
These towns are so small and remote that even vandals don't bother visiting.
When a new grain elevator replaces and old one, the old one just hangs around.
Texas likes to put stars on everything.
Now that is a great name.
HEEEEY!!!!! It's hay.

The few people we did encounter were friendly. I like to think we were making their day a bit more interesting too.

Friendly farmers, doing the work of hundreds of men thanks to fancy machines.

On we went for big chunks of time, bracketed by pee breaks, grain elevators, and interesting plants.

Nick catching up.

Almost caught up!

In the tiny “town” of Waka, I came across this imposing structure:

Dangerous things happen in Waka.

Nick figured it out after just a few seconds of looking. It’s a pumping station, for a pipeline used by a nearby refinery, and it’s well protected because it can potentially spew hydrogen sulfide gas in lethal amounts. Don’t mess with it!!

Grain forever!

It's still intact, after days of riding! Drying out a bit more though.

The day wore on, and we were treated to the sight of massive flocks of birds making their way from horizon to horizon.

Lots of birds around here.

In the evening we arrived at the day’s goal: Perryton, the so-called “Wheatheart Of The Nation.”

First and only order of business: Procure lots of food. We threaded through town and located a sushi restaurant, the “Ninja Sushi Steakhouse.” Perfect! We hadn’t seen sushi in quite a while.

Much evening snackage ensued.

This is the internationally recognized I GOT SUSHI! face.

We’d made good time despite the headwind. One more day of riding before we get to Shattuck. Hopefully the sushi will propel us!

Seeing Spearman

Today was another day off, and well-deserved since we’d gone 90 miles the day before.  I needed to lounge around and catch up on work anyway.

He was going to keep napping, but I mentioned coffee and snacks. Up in an instant.

In the mid-morning we went riding in search of food but didn’t see much.  The cafe at the end of the street was still closed.

The Spearman train museum.

This is a coffee shop. It even has a drive-by window. Wouldn't be out of place on a San Francisco street. Awesome.

On the far side of town we found a restaurant and got a meal while sitting outside.  Four of the restaurant staff came outside to gaze at our bikes and ask questions, which we gamely answered.  The other patrons were friendly but none of them were wearing masks.

On the way back to the hotel I stopped at a market for miscellaneous snacks while Nick rode ahead. Then I briefly explored the big Spearman tourist draw alongside the highway: The outdoor windmill museum.  Pretty neat, actually.

Lots of innovative windmill designs.
The J. B. Buchanan Windmill Park entrance.
Contributors and sponsors for the museum.
Lots of proud sponsors.

Nick worked on college stuff for a while and did his own exploratory ride, then disappeared into Star Trek and memes for the evening. 

At the hotel I ran a load of laundry, checked in at work again, and made travel plans for the next week.  Hotel rooms, truck rentals, train tickets.  Once we got to Shattuck we would be able to stay there for at least three days, recuperating and looking around, and then we’d ride one town over and grab a U-Haul the day after.

Twilight with Spock

In the morning I discovered that Nick was up early, finishing a meeting with a co-worker.  Afterwards he announced that he’d completed work on the feature he was co-developing.  Awesome!

As usual, the grain towers are the highest buildings in the town, by far.

Coffee and noise canceling headphones. A perfect combination.

It was going to be another long day or riding, possibly into the night.  We packed up and I decided that I needed even more calories for the road, so I gave the remains of my chocolate shake to Nick and then got a donut on the way out of Dalhart.  Nick took the chance to grab a cup of coffee.

We were both in good spirits as we threaded our way to the main highway and turned the bikes due east.  The land was flatter here, making progress more consistent, but the wind was being less predictable and gusted around us.  We passed a chunk of hours listening to The Worst Hard Time and watched the fields roll by.

The combination of sun, soil, flatness, and heavy machinery made for some astoundingly productive land.

Inspecting roadside foliage.

Old corn cob by the roadside.

Grains by the roadside.

We're road warriors and whatnot.
I had to get a shot of Nick enjoying his sausage snack.
Notice the cool new grain accessory on the bag.
Giant rolls of cotton ready to be trucked out.
Taking the opportunity to poke at the largest cotton bail he'll ever encounter.
That flag on the right actually says "ALL ABOARD THE TRUMP TRAIN."
Grain drying and storage facility.
This is an actual town in Texas, yes. You etter check it out.
Local farmer makin' bales.
Another town, another massive collection of grain elevators.

After a while we passed a dairy factory farm on the left, and the sheer size of the installation compelled me to just stop the bike and stare for a while.

Then we passed through the town of Cactus, which was dominated on the west side by a meat packing facility.  Out of curiosity I switched to “satellite view” on the phone and looked at the place from above.  A tangle of piping and big rectangular boxes next to bare-dirt holding pens with many hundreds of cows milling about, a couple of square lagoons as big as football fields, a feeder line into the railroad that passed through the town, and a giant parking lot full of truck trailers.   A massive intersection of power, water, and transportation, preparing meat consumed by millions of people a year.

We stopped for snacks and a bathroom break.  Nick was worried about how much ground we still had to cover.

THE QUOTABLE NICK, #6

Nick:
“Seeing as the next town doesn’t have anything in it, what do you think about hitchhiking?”
Me:
“Sounds like a great way to end up biking very late at night.”
Nick:
“Won’t we end up biking later if we don’t?”
Me:
“You’re assuming that standing by the side of the road waving our thumbs for several hours of remaining daylight would result in a ride.”
Nick:
“I thought we may be able to get a ride while we’re still moving. Perhaps with a little cash clutched in hand.”
Me:
“That’s … An interesting idea. I’ve never even heard of that working.”
Nick:
“I was thinking maybe a 10 or a 20. That would get the message across combined with the classic thumbs up at passersby.”
Me:
“Sorry, I’m not willing to endorse this plan.”
Nick:
“I’d put up half of that since it’s my idea. It would more than cover their gas given the prices around here!”
Me:
“Uh, I guess you can try it if you want? Assuming your mom doesn’t reach through the internet and kill me?”
Nick:
“Well I wouldn’t want to do it without your approval.”
Me:
“I’m not saying I’d prevent you.”
Nick:
“Nah, I would hate to leave you alone here. So I’m going to tough it out with you.”
Me:
“Aww. Thanks man!”

We continued due east, eventually reaching the town of Sunray.

So that's where Zoe keeps her stuff!

Nick found a convenience store and purchased a selection of canned items.  After he went in, I made him guard the bikes and got some snacks of my own.

When I came out, Nick was chatting with a guy who’d been in the store ahead of me.  The guy was telling a story about how his grandmother was driving too fast on a highway nearby, and t-boned a cotton harvester that was entering the road from a field, and died on the spot.  He finished his tale by admonishing us to be careful on our bikes.  We said we would.

On the way out of Sunray we turned left, going east again.  The sun had set and the wind was dying down, and the sky was going through that deep indigo transition marking the final stage of twilight.  Stars were appearing.  I paired our headphones together and started playing a selection from a playlist I’d made, aptly called “Twilight.”  It was perfect for the moment.

Startoucher25:03BiospherePatashnik
Memories Fade (DJ Fixed OVA Rip Mix)1 of 12:54CorneliusGhost in the Shell Shin Gekijouban OVA
Surveillance (DJ Fixed Half-Edit)3 of 103:34Noise UnitVoyeur
out of body29:35InnersphereAmbient Soho Vol 1
Sputnik Sunrise10 of 134:56DesolateLunar Glyphs
The Third Planet10 of 138:31BiosphereTrance Europe Express 3
Nightstalker7 of 111:45Kenji KawaiGhost In The Shell OST
Mir65:19BiospherePatashnik
Bardo Thodol5 of 95:35Demdike StareTryptych: Liberation Through Hearing
Sunspot8 of 116:49MobyPlay: The B Sides
Three Years3 of 145:48PlateauWild Planet
Trust (Jealousy Mix)2 of 167:36MicroglobeEl Mondo Ambiente
Time Reflects (excerpt)1 of 114:59Mick ChillageSonitus Liberabit Vos
The End (Remix)7 of 118:15ScornMacro Dub Infection Vol. 1
Silver Rain Fell (Deep Water mix)9 of 125:25ScornA Brief History Of Ambient Vol 4: Isolationism
Novelty Waves (Biosphere Darkroom Mix)3 of 57:03BiosphereNovelty Waves (2-Disc Single)
Modring_intro1 of 105:16S.E.T.I. (Lagowski)Temporary Distractions
Signals42:47Brian EnoApollo: Atmospheres & Soundscapes
35.7c14 of 171:47Yoko Kanno (菅野よう子)Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex OST 3
Decription35:52BiospherePatashnik
Download11 of 1111:40Skinny PuppyLast Rights
Gebirge2 of 521:26Biosphere + Pete NamlookThe Fires of Ork

To keep us both moving I unwrapped a chocolate bar, and as we drifted past each other on the road I held out pieces to Nick, which he grabbed and chomped.  With this pleasant combination of cool air, music, and chocolate, we passed well into night.

THE QUOTABLE NICK, #7

Nick:
“I finally have a stable rhythm and my knees are in equal amounts of pain!”
Me:
“Hooray…?”

Eventually we stopped to take a break from riding, and let the circulation adjust in our bodies.  We’d been doing the equivalent of sitting in recliners for most of the day so it felt good to just stand for a while.  I busted out the remains of the Chinese food and chomped it.  Nick said he wasn’t hungry.

The entire time we stood there, we were passed by only one vehicle — a giant truck, which we saw approaching from miles away.  Excluding that, the highway was entirely ours.  It was cool with a mild breeze, surrounded in all directions by fields of long grass shining faintly blue in the moonlight filtering down around the clouds.  With all the heat in our bodies and the layers of clothing, we felt absolutely no effect from the cold.

I recognized the moment as one of those fairly unique to bicycling.  We were on a random patch of road, but between the darkness and silence and insulation, and the convenient collections of useful stuff kick-standed nearby, the spot felt more like the living room of a house.  A private spot to relax — one that we’ve been to a dozen times before and might wander into again later.  Except in reality, as soon as we put our feet back on the pedals and cycled away, the spot would be gone forever.  We’d never return for as long as we lived.

I got the impression that Nick was subconsciously getting this and enjoying it, even if he didn’t quite have the words.

We moved on, leaving the spot in the past.

After a while we hit highway 207 and turned northeast.  Vehicles began to pass more frequently, though still at a rate less than one every ten minutes or so.  One of them turned out to be a police SUV, which activated its lights and pulled over about a hundred feet in front of us.  The officer got out and chatted with us.  “Just wanted to check in and see if you were okay,” he said.  We thanked him and he drove off.  We were probably the weirdest non-illegal thing he’d seen in a week.

With about five miles to go, Nick cued up an episode of classic Star Trek on his phone, and we paired headphones again and listened to it together.  It was “Spock’s Brain”, the one where aliens physically extract Spock’s brain and replace it with a remote control device.  Goofy, anachronistic, outrageously sexist, and full of cantankerous Kirk-McCoy-Spock bickering.  It carried us all the way to Spearman, where we checked in to our room for the night.

Preparing for another expedition into a snack store.

Nick decided it was time for Second Dinner, and turned the microwave area into a laboratory.

Combine all the canned things into one vessel, and dinner is served!

In what new and exciting way is the interface broken on this particular microwave?