Don’t forget to be there

There’s a wilderness of land and people out there. More than anyone could know. And then there’s this other wilderness, almost entirely decoupled from the first one, that exists in people’s heads. It’s made of shorthand summaries and untested assumptions about the first wilderness, and it’s cramped and twisted like a funhouse ride and teeming with deranged fictional characters.

People who have done some traveling across the first wilderness – especially if it’s for fun – just love to creep into conversations and point out features of the second wilderness, all the time believing they are saying something meaningful, accurate, and wise about the first. They sorely want it to be true. Sometimes, sounding knowledgeable in the power play of the conversation at hand is what matters. We all love to play the wise mentor role.

This is how you get twenty-something know-it-alls at parties who say stuff like:

  • “Seattle is just a worse version of San Francisco.”
  • “People from Missouri are bigots.”
  • “New York is gross.”
  • “Everyone in Paris is so rude!”
  • “There’s more to do in Los Angeles than anywhere else.”
  • “All these new people moving to Austin are ruining the place.”
  • “People in Italy really know how to live.”
  • “Watsonville is full of Mexican illegals and if you go there you’ll get stabbed.”

(That last example may seem especially upsetting, but unfortunately, the inner wilderness is a place that can foster opinions that are not just pointless, but vicious as well.)

I know about this because I’ve caught myself doing it a few times. It’s very tempting to point out some very personal, very subjective chunk of my own second wilderness and declare that everyone else will see exactly the same thing if they just go where I did. I keep trying to rein myself in, and talk about statistics instead, or give purely logistical advice.

But, paving the world around us with generalities and wishful thinking is a very human behavior. We do it to stave off madness in the face of an ultimately unknowable universe, because we are all far less capable of dealing with uncertainty than we want to admit. And sometimes our confidence needs the boost we can get by talking out loud, and we say something at a party like, “Oh I would never enjoy living in Canada.” … Conveniently forgetting the fact that 37 million people live there, and if they have a pretty good time of it, we probably could too. It would be no less honest – but far less flattering – to rephrase that confident statement as, “I’m mostly ignorant of how to enjoy life in a place like Canada and I want to remain that way, because I need to narrow down my choices for the sake of sanity.” I mean, let’s admit it: Learning is work, and sometimes we have to prioritize.

I have to be okay with this, and so does everyone else, because we’re all only human. I really only bring it up because sometimes it’s very useful to recognize that we’re wandering around in the second wilderness – in the funhouse of our own assumptions – and if we just wake up a little and look around in more detail, we can find really useful connections, and gain new confidence. Every new place I go I’m astonished at how poorly I actually see things, and how much I lean on previous knowledge and trust that things will be predictable. I have to stop and go back, sometimes more than once, and ask “What did I just see? What did I just ignore?” and most important of all, “What’s being hidden from me because I’m a stranger?”

If you’re traveling, take a page of advice from a slow-ass bicycle tourist, and slow way down for a bit. Ask yourself a couple of those questions and give yourself time to seek an answer. Chances are, it will lead you somewhere way more interesting than the next picturesque monument on the madcap package bus tour you were offered by the tourist bureau. It was hard enough getting to that new place — so don’t forget to be there when you get there.

Iceland Round 2 Gear And Bike Setup

For my own reference, here is the overwhelming amount of gear I packed for my second Iceland tour, and how I arranged it.

This is what everything looks like packed on the bike. It’s basically the same as my 2019 trip:

Here are the bags without the bicycle:

In the back: Two Ortlieb sport packer plus bags, each with an add-on net pocket and an add-on large roll-top pocket.

In the middle: Two ortlieb recumbent bags. The one on the left has three net bags attached to its underside in a row. The one on the right has a net bag, and then two small roll-top bags attached below, since it hangs over the drivetrain of the bike.

In the foreground: A Kelty Redwing backpack. On the loaded bike, this is placed sideways on top of the recumbent bags, where it fits nicely behind the seat, and is held down with two bungee cords.

All the gear I'm taking with me. Can you believe this all fits on a bike?

This is everything that’s packed onto the bike, including the bags shown above. As with the 2019 trip, the majority of the weight and space is claimed by the sleeping bag and the tent, shown on the far left.

In The Large Bags

These items went into the recumbent-style bags on the rear rack, or into the attached pockets:

In The Small Bags

These items went directly into the sport packer bags below the seat, or into the attached pockets:

The following mesh bags and their contents went into the sport packer bags as well:

The white bag: Assorted USB cables and adapters.

The green bag: Media cards and drives, and the cables for reading them.

The biggest change here is, I left out any kind of multi-port USBC hub doodad. I have wasted money on so many of them, and they all have problems. Some get very hot. Some of them have misshapen connectors. Most of them can’t read from an SD card and a Micro SD card at the same time. And almost all of them have annoying power problems and fail to reliably charge or stay connected to more than one USB device at once.

A pox on the lot of them!

The pink bag: Lens and laptop cleaning supplies.

  • Generic lens-cleaning wipes (For cleaning laptop and camera.)
  • Microfiber cloth (For cleaning/drying lenses.)
  • Extra microfiber cloth (In case the big one is soiled.)

A lightweight power brick with 3 USB-A and 1 45-watt USB-C.

This charger has one fewer USB ports than the one I took in 2019, but it’s a good amount lighter. Like the old one it allows me to charge the laptop and my other doodads at the same time, from one outlet — which in turn means I need only one international plug adapter when I’m traveling.

My Frankensteined portable speakers, and an iPod Nano to drive them.

I use the iPod Nano to play bedtime music. An iPod shuffle is not suitable for this purpose since it has no ability to stop playing! It will always repeat the current playlist forever or until it runs out of power! How silly.

Not that it matters, since all iPods have been discontinued and will soon die out, and we will all be locked into digital subscription services and completely abandon the whole idea of controlling what we listen to without it being mediated from one minute to the next by a jealous corporate overlord in the sky. (I’m not bitter.)

A good wind-resistant microphone for conference calls.

The above items attach to my headphones. The resulting setup works with the laptop and the iPhone lightning adapter, there’s no flaky Bluetooth involved, and it sounds far better than anything else I’ve tried. The strangest place I’ve used this so far is by the side of the road next to a geothermal power plant in the middle of Iceland.

The sport packer bags also hold two SenReal Mesh Makeup Organizer Pouches that contain camera-related gadgets:

In The Backpack

These items went into the Kelty Redwing backpack:

The toiletries bag. Basic stuff for a mixture of hotels and camping.

In Other Bags Or Directly Attached

The following items were attached directly to the bike:

These items went into the Allnice 1L PVC Bicycle Pouch just behind the seat:

These items went into the FastBack NorBack Frame Pack between the seat and the front wheel:

Also in the NorBack pack, my toolkit:

Replaced or Removed

These are items I brought in 2019 but have replaced with newer items for this trip:

These are items I brought in 2019 but decided to leave out entirely for this trip, with no replacements for them. They were just not useful enough.


You already know
What you need to be doing
And it isn’t this

A haiku about self-care


If discontent is your disease, travel is medicine. It resensitizes. It opens you up to see outside the patterns you follow. Because new places require new learning.

Jed Jenkins

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 meal 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.