Colorado To Ohio Page 9

Packing Up The Bike

The key to taking apart a bicycle is to have one of these on hand. It’s a tiny adjustable wrench, small enough to carry in a toolkit and lock nuts in place, and just big enough to remove the pedals from a bicycle.

And, of course, you need a variety of hex wrenches!

The key to transporting a bicycle once it’s in pieces is to use a sturdy box. After sinking a big chunk of money into the recumbent itself, I figured I could justify spending a chunk to get it home safely. I chose the Crateworks “tandem”-size box.

It’s freaking enormous. 70 x 11 x 32 inches. Even so, it was just long enough for me to fit the main boom of the recumbent in diagonally. Around that I packed almost all of my gear – three of the bike bags, the clothing, the sleeping bag, the tools, the spare tire, and some remaining food. The fourth bike bag remained outside, so I could use it as carry-on baggage for the plane ride home.

Recumbent disassembled and placed into a Crateworks long-style box.

It took most of a day to break down the bike and install it in the box. The end result was close to 110 pounds, the ceiling for cross-country oversize shipping at the local FedEx depot.

The box is clearly labeled with arrows indicating “this side up”, but as far as I can tell, FedEx employees totally ignore these. When it arrived in Oakland six days later it was upside-down in the back of the truck, and the delivery agent dragged it out and lowered it by turning it end-over-end, leaving it upside-down on the sidewalk in front of me. At least he helped me carry it into the house.

Interestingly enough, due to the seasonal discount on my plane ticket, it cost just as much to ship a 110-pound box home in a week as it cost to fly my 180-pound ass home in 12 hours.

Post-trip ruminating

Oakland has its appeal, and for all the danger and grime I actually enjoy living there. But I hear stories about bears wandering along the shores of San Francisco Bay and I have trouble picturing it. They were all long gone before I was even born, and it never even occurred to me that they had been there.

I was thinking about it, and I started to wonder:

How much more can we lose, from generation to generation, and forget about, before we actually start to suffer, irrevocably, from the cumulative loss? Will we eventually reach a point where we will live our entire lives without ever seeing animals other than pets and livestock? The very idea of animals surviving independent of humans will seem absurd, since all the independence was bred out of them years ago.

What will we miss? Can it be described? What will each of us do?

I imagine one of my grandchildren standing in a grassy field. There are no birds, so to relieve the silence, she plays some music on her phone. There are no animals to encounter, so to relieve the loneliness, she starts texting one of her friends. All the plants look like the plants everywhere else, so to relieve the visual boredom, she starts playing a puzzle game. “Nature is boring, granddad. Why were you so into it, anyway?”

On being back

Part of me is trying to take my routine from the road and cram my “real life” into it. One obvious reason why it doesn’t fit is, I just have too many possessions. They’re stacked around me. I need multiple rooms to hold them all.

And yet these are all needed for a typical life in one place. They save time and money. They’re valuable. Right now I am seeing them from a strange perspective. They remind me of the heaps of trash I saw on the lawns of the houses in small Kansas towns. Lives destroyed by poverty and methamphetamines. What good did their possessions do them?

Actually, let me pull the brakes on this whole train of thought, and grind it into reverse. Let me ask, “what does all this introspection and writing do for me?”

We both die, after our singular and cosmically ineffective lives, me and the tweeker with his garbage on the lawn. I am taking my own tendency to take things seriously too seriously. Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson from this trip: All of our lives, even the most important things we can identify in them, are transient.

I look around here at the environment I left behind, and I remember how I felt inside it, and I think, “It could be like the trip never happened at all. Here’s all my old stuff, and all my old unfinished business.” But I can now see the ways in which this old life chafes me, like a badly tailored suit.

So much activity – so much thought and observation – was crammed into every hour on the road, and I now feel a kind of revulsion at the slowness of life before it. Did I really spend entire days indoors, reading web pages and moving files around? Did I really consider a bicycle ride to the supermarket across town, less than two miles, to be too difficult? Too time consuming? Too much hassle? I just spent the last month riding 50 miles every day of the week, with 50 pounds of ballast, through wind and thunderstorms, and all it did me was good.

What were you thinking, previous me?

You must have been really twisted up inside yourself to see things that way.

Being unemployed has given me plenty of time to think but it has turned into a poison. I need to hammer at the dream of society building again. It’s time to get things done.

Colorado to New York, one year later

Erika asked me recently:

I am interested to know how you feel now, about everything you were riding toward and away from last fall.  How did the ride change you, what are your thoughts about the entire adventure now, what have been the long-term effects of the trip, and where are you in your life now?  Also – would you do it again?

It’s hard to know where to start in describing this…  I’ve been sitting here for almost 20 minutes trying to find an angle on it, and utterly failed.  So instead I’m just diving in, saying whatever appears in my mind.

A long solo bike trip is a combination of exposure to strangers and the unknown, and long stretches of peaceful, private time.  I remember the trip as much for the books I “read” and the self-absorbed notes I took as for the things I saw and did.  New feelings and ideas came from everywhere.

It sits in my mind as a mountain range sits on a landscape, dividing my unhealthy, upset past from my more balanced, secure self.  I remember the turns of the pedals and the sweat and the vitamins and all the protein I tried to stuff into myself, and how my body seemed to change shape as the days passed, and how surprised I was that such a change could still happen … That I could, indeed heal.  That I could indeed burn off the constant stress and fear and misery, that I could actually come to terms with leaving a job that I had staked all my pride in, not by feeling content with the outcome, but by wringing the feelings out of me, leaving them on the road, expelling them in each breath.  By outrunning them, and by staking a new identity in a fresh terrain, with a reclaimed store of energy.

When I arrived in New York I was an almost completely recycled person, seething inside the same skin.

There was still a big problem though: I didn’t have a plan.  I finally had a handle on my health, and an idea about where I wanted my career to go, but the sense of clarity that I’d been hoping for in my romantic and emotional life just hadn’t materialized. With so much experience already behind me, what would catch my interest now?

The trip also beat some perspective into me about ambition.  My ambition to be a good contributor to the world and to society and community was not, I realized, a typically male motivation in a career.  I was not interested in power or rank, not particularly interested in high pay or prestige or appearing authoritative.  I also realized that my mode of interacting with people was not typically male either – it spread further across the spectrum.  I was interested in cooperation, rapport, empathy, egalitarianism, reassurance.  When I combined that with my very strong history of nuts-and-bolts software engineering, it led directly to a key phrase that popped into my head somewhere around Indiana that made everything clear:  “I like helping scientists.”

As an aside, it also laid the foundation for another realization that happened post-trip, that was so novel I was shocked that I hadn’t realized it before:  Just about every woman I’ve seriously dated or fallen in love with or even had a short fling with, has had a strong bisexual side.  I could go right down my dating history from beginning to end, and whenever there was mutual attraction, it was with a woman with some bisexual traits, whether it be a sexual history with women, or an assertive masculinity to her personality.  I finally had a pattern to work with that wasn’t based on something so arbitrary as hair color or ethnicity or height. That knowledge enhanced my sense of peace with who I am.

Even now, a year after the trip and all those long thoughtful days, I can still pull fresh ideas from the experience. I also make regular use of the equipment I had to purchase; for example I wore my rain gear three times this week – pants, jacket, and hood – and stayed warm and dry for my daily office commute. Ripples from the event seem to echo perpetually across my life. Sometimes just being out and about on the recumbent will naturally lead back to the trip.

For example I was out earlier today cycling between the UPS store and the office, and I stopped at a red light, and a tall black man with a graying beard, carrying a bag of groceries, ambled over to me from his spot on the crosswalk and gave me a fist-bump, and said, “Nice wheels, man! Where you riding to?”

“This is just how I get to work, nowadays,” I said. “But I did ride it across the country once!”

“Whoah!” he said, and laughed. “Hell yeah, now that is some serious riding!”

Then the light turned green, and we each took off.

Around town, I’m probably known more for the recumbent than for my face. That was true all across the country, and it remains stubbornly true at home. There is an endless supply of people who have never seen a recumbent before. Thankfully their approach is very civil – they don’t see me as some kind of space alien, like people in Missouri did. … And I still remember being stopped by a cop in the middle of an empty Kansas highway just because I was an anomaly and he wanted to – I quote – “make sure I was okay.”

In fact, cycling around Oakland is comfortable in general, and I don’t think I really appreciated that until I rode through a lot of other urban centers. Oakland is very supportive of cycling, and is spending good money to untangle the bike lanes and signals and curbs and increase awareness. Motorists are very forgiving and observant of cyclists, racks are plentiful, and even the school crossing guards will blow their whistles and halt traffic for you if they happen to be around. I recently realized how accustomed I was to this environment when I went on a date with a woman who lived in Santa Cruz.

We were on our bikes, coasting down Piedmont Avenue out of the Mountain View Cemetery, and she said to me, “You know, you just did a bad thing back there.”

“Oh?” I said, stopping at the bottom of hill next to her.

“Yeah, you rolled through that 3-way intersection, right in front of a cop. He looked straight at you. So don’t be surprised if he comes zooming up behind us.”

I stared at her, blankly, for a long moment.

“Ah,” she said, “Right. I forgot, this isn’t Santa Cruz, this is Oakland.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Cops in Oakland have actual things to do.”

A year after the long ride, I’m still fighting the urge to think like a lazy urbanite, and that bothers me. It’s only three miles round-trip to visit the post office, three miles round-trip to the grocery store, four miles to either of the Farmer’s Markets, four miles to work and back. Less than half a mile to eight different restaurants. Even if I hit all those places in one day, it would still be less than a quarter of the typical mileage I covered each day crossing the country. When will I really get the clue? So it’s raining; so what? That’s an extra 15 minutes of prep time, tops, and I never have to worry about the parking lot being full. So it’s blazing hot; so what? Put on shorts and a bandana; stick some iced-tea in the cup holder; off you go. You’ll arrive refreshed and ready.

I’m astounded sometimes when I think about how I owned a bike for almost 15 years and saw it mostly as a toy.

Now it’s also a serious implement, an essential part of my health, a cost-saving device, a wellspring of stories and conversations and community involvement, and the best choice – unequivocally the best – for exploring new parts of the civilized world. If there’s one thing the cross-country trip convinced me of, it’s that.

So. Would I do it again?

Yes; hell yes.  I would leave tomorrow if I had the chance.  All the gear I need is here, arranged around me in the living room as I write this.  It would take me less than a day to tune up the bicycle and load it for bear, and then I could throw together a plan to feed the cat, lock the door, put my foot on the pedal at the edge of the sidewalk, and be gone.

Perhaps I’d ride north, then pull a gigantic S-curve across the entire USA, ending up in Boston or Maryland, and by the time I got there I’d have a berth on a container ship reserved, or my carrier box shipped out so I could stuff the bike inside.  Then perhaps I’d keep going. I would arrive in Spain in late winter, then do another S-curve through Europe, ending up at the edge of Italy in the fall, where a ferryboat can bear me across to the east edge of the Mediterranean, and Turkey.  From there … Russia, China … who knows?

But that’s probably not the way it will happen, if it does happen, because of the lesson I learned on this last trip:  I can only be rootless for so long.  It’s most likely that after reaching the Atlantic, I’d actually be impatient to get home, and work and build and write and hang out with friends.  Then perhaps I’d consider picking up the trip where I left off.

And that also connects with my immediate situation:  If I can leave tomorrow – quit my job and housing search, and take off – then why don’t I do just that?  What’s stopping me?

Essentially, a feeling that what I need next, what I’m looking for, is not out there over the horizon, but is closer at hand.  It’s here, somewhere.  In this architecture, on these streets, in the market stalls, in the minds of the people I talk to at work, and at restaurants and concerts and rallies.  It’s here, I’m almost totally certain.  And I’m just as certain that something isn’t quite aligned correctly in my everyday life for me to pick up the scent of it.  That’s where I’m at in the day-to-day, now.  Something is not quite adjusted right, but I’m narrowing it down, checking old items off the to-do list, tweaking the sails to catch a new angle in the wind and bring it to my face.  What is it!  What is this thing!!!

Let’s find out.