Day 29: Reflection on Travel and Motivation, Comfort and Deprivation, Freedom and Frustration

The harshness and discomfort of the road should be softened by short periods of comfort. A single night of sleeping indoors on a pillowed bed, taking a shower with soap, eating a dinner of meat and vegetables rather than the usual rice and beans, drinking good filtered water, and fueling up with a large breakfast in the morning can do much to offset the anemic and ascetic weariness that comes from depriving oneself of those pleasures for weeks on end. All you need is one night to relax and not have to worry about getting what you need. Without this sporadic comfort, you begin to lose sight of your purposes for traveling, one of which was to recover your joy and wonder at life. You get tunnel vision. Before going out on the road, you had worked a menial job, lived a humdrum existence, read books of adventure in your spare time, and hungered for the excitement of travel, the inspiration you’d surely feel, the soulful people you’d meet along the way. Now you just want it to be over, get to the end, be where there is no more road. You hunger to sleep in a warm bed. The road becomes something to complete, the journey something to be finished and done with. The path in front of you something to put behind you.

Besides your thirst for indoor comforts, you want to get to the end partly because you think the end will mean no more feeling like an eternal beginner. To live on the road is to exist as an eternal beginner. The vagabond has no profession to master, no trade to become expert in, or at least pretend to be proficient at. In each new town he wakes up knowing he must start over again, learn anew how to be alive, find some way to make it to the next town. He cannot fall back on old ways. There is no falling back; there is only going forward.

But when the man on the road starts to get tunnel vision, this idea that “there is only going forward” becomes distorted. He goes forward not to grow and be shocked awake by the new but simply to get to the end where he can sleep in peace, where he does not have to work hard for every mile, where comfort is a given, though taken rather than received with gratitude, and does not need to come as some kind of reward. He has lost perspective; he has forgotten that one fully appreciates what one has only after being deprived of it. Compassion comes not through happiness but through sorrow. Connection with other human beings is deepest not through daily and habitual interaction but when it occurs unexpectedly after you have experienced the depths of loneliness and isolation. You take most pleasure in the sweet and simple things of life not when you feel no pain but when pain itself has made your heart soft enough to appreciate those moments when it is full.

The man goes out on the road because he imagines that travel will fill his heart. Then, once on the road, he feels his heart empty, and instead of experiencing this emptiness, he rejects it as not part of his plan and imagines a life off the road where his heart will be full. He feels on the road, more intensely than he ever felt off it, his isolation. People see him riding alone on the side of the highway and perhaps are reminded of their own isolation, which they had tried to repress. They honk or curse or make rude hand gestures. By his mere presence, he has dared to call into question the solidity of their illusions, the unsturdy foundations of their fragile lives, of the fragility of all human life. But the honker is the exception. Most people are easily able to see themselves in the voyager, the pilgrim forced by a heart made restless by the intensity of his longing, to live with no home, close to the edge of being and non-being. Instead of rejecting that what they see in this restless heart is their own restlessness, these people welcome the wanderer as they would their own son. Having experienced his isolation deeply, the traveler is all the more appreciative of this welcome.

Even so, the feeling of rejection that comes when a car honks, as you pedal at a snail’s pace for miles up a steep grade, is enough to cancel out ten occasions of welcome and support. Aliveness quickly becomes deadness, aloneness turns to loneliness, and what had seemed purposeful almost instantly seems purposeless. You wonder what in hell you are doing, where you are going, why you put up with the frustrations that are part and parcel of life lived out of doors. And yet the frustrations are bearable. You chose to experience them when you left the comfortable house, where your frustration stemmed from feeling confined and constricted. Everywhere you go you face frustration. Now, outside the house where there was too much peace, you are frustrated that you can’t find any peace at all, that you can’t seem to be happy even though you are free.

Dreaming of what life could be always makes life as it actually is feel drab, without color, uninspiring. My purpose for living life on the road is to understand, by actual experience, what life actually consists of, what my life means to me. Not what I wish life could be, but what it actually is. To understand who I am, I must  understand what life is. Just as I will never fully understand what life is, I will never fully understand who I am. To become whole is not to understand everything but to have the humility to admit that one does not and cannot understand all, to graciously come to terms with not being all-powerful, to rejoice at not being God.

I would rather be frustrated and free than frustrated and unfree. I would rather make the conscious choice to live on good terms with deprivation than take a lack of deprivation for granted. I must come to terms with all sides of myself. I am as much the cursing, pickup-truck-driving honker as I am the caring widow who shelters me for the night and cooks a hot meal for the two of us as the cold rain pours down on the roof. I am as much the hateful excluder as I am the peaceful protestor.

All that I experience must become my teacher. There will still be plenty of times that I don’t like what I’m experiencing and wish it could be different. I’m rather be warm than cold. I’d rather be connected than isolated. I’d rather be intimate with another than lonely. But on the road my resistance to what I experience does not have the same feeling of futile and hopeless rebellion. There is no sense of, “I should not be feeling this way.” The choice to go out on the road is the choice to put myself at the mercy of Life, and there is little point in resisting what Life gives me. When she opens her hand, why should I close my heart? When Life opens her hand, something new comes into the world, and I am on the road to come into contact with the new. Not only to come into contact with the new but to embrace it, to open my own hands in a posture of surrender and reconciliation and let Life put what she will into them, for embracing what Life places into my hands places me in the hand of Life, the only place where I will ever know what it means to be alive.

 

 

 

 

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November 20, Day 23 on the Road: Riding a Train Across Texas

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On the train the beauty of the setting sun and the rising crescent moon, of the open fields and the pecan groves, of the swampy forests and the rolling hillsides, feels somehow less deserved. The train passes by the world outside the window; the world passes you by as a ballgame passes before the eyes of a spectator, or a spectre, half-seen but never wholly appreciated. The train moves as you sit still. It is harder to feel moved. In order to feel a part of life’s movement, it seems necessary to move oneself. You can pass over a river a thousand times, see it from out the window of your car or train twice each day on your way to and from work. The real work begins when you set your kayak in the water and begin to paddle.

On the bike, you move through the landscape. What you see and pass through does not remain out there; its beauty penetrates deeply. It comes to you and through you unobstructed. Nothing separates you from it. There is no need to interpret it to fit your previous worldview. You are in the landscape, a moving piece among moving pieces, moving towards wholeness amidst what is already whole, and your view of the world stands in front of you, uninfluenced from your past views of it. Yesterday has passed but did not pass you by. All was new then and all is new now.

On the train, you sit amidst the other sitters, onlookers, bypassers. Together you sit and watch the world pass by. People read, eat, drink coffee, chat, find some way to keep busy, keep from being bored. And yet boredom comes anyways, despite or because of our many attempts to avoid it. Boredom comes on the train just as restlessness comes off it, when you hear the train’s whistle, and feel as Steinbeck felt the desire to roam.

This desire to travel is different from the traveling itself. You desire the feeling that thinking of travel gives you; you do not desire the reality. Or, in a deeper place, reality is all you desire, but you cannot access that place in dreams. Only by experiencing what is real can you begin to understand your desire for what is real, and seek reality. So, because you cannot access what you truly desire, you dream. You dream of the feeling of awe that will overtake your soul when the lounge car in the train is empty before dawn and you are up, more awake than you’d dreamed you’d ever be, the train you are on rolling with speed over the Mississippi River, heading west. You dream of the woman who will enter the train just as you get up to leave, how you will remain instead, though you’ve passed what you’d planned to be your final destination, how in her presence you will lose all your fear of people, all your resistance to everything outside the self, how your heart will open up like the sky in the desert on the first monsoon of the season.

Your desire for the road is like an amnesiac, making you forget past experiences you’d labeled as negative, neglect the fact that those very same experiences are sure to return: the cold and lonely November nights, the constant consumption of cheap food that your body finally rejects, the repetitive movements of putting one foot in front of the another, or pushing down on the pedals for one more revolution, how the monotony finally becomes terrible.

Your dream of the road is not the road, for the road is reality and includes what you’d rather reject, and your dream is illusory and occludes all except what you readily accept and rejoice in. The road is about rejoicing in and welcoming what you previously rejected, ignored, and denied. If you denied your frailty and helplessness, be on the road long enough and you will be forced eventually to confront these aspects of yourself. You’ll run out of food miles from any town; you’ll drink some bad water and be sick for a week, unable to keep any food down. You will be helpless to cure yourself, too frail to move and too sick to enjoy your rest. You will need to have the patience to wait, weak and weary, to be healed. If you’ve denied your power and capability, you will have no choice but to remember that you are powerful, capable of biking over one hundred miles in a day with eighty pounds of food, water, clothes, and shelter on the back of your bike, supporting yourself and your journey, carrying everything you need by your own power. If you have denied the support of others, rejected the fact that you are at the mercy of the goodness of other people, you will be at the receiving end of gifts and have to make the choice between open-hearted gratitude or stomach-twisting guilt.

Your dream of yourself is not who you are. Just as the road is no comfortable bed to dream upon until night turns to dawn, the self is no comfortable cocoon that you settle into to dream of who you could be when some rare red dawn magically transforms you into your dreamed-of self. The night cometh without doubt, but now it is day, and there is time to live while there is still light, and to live means to exist outside the cocoon, not to dream of paradise but to live in reality. What is reality?

What is Truth? asked Pontius Pilate, before he washed his hands of the matter and watched Truth be crucified. I sit on this train across Texas and watch the world go by. There is no dirt under my fingernails. I got a hotel room last night in Deming, New Mexico, took a shower this morning. My hands are clean.

I sit on the train and watch the sun go down. Distant shades of fire. I feel like I am, a spectator rather than a participant. Not in the fire. Detached, separate. The window is in the way. But I hear the train horn and feel the tingling run through my body. My restless blood, coming alive. I’m exhausted, strung out from three weeks on the road, in which I’ve biked close to 1,500 miles. Half the length of the country. So why do I still feel as if I do not deserve this beauty, this sky full of fire? As if anyone could earn such a free gift. What is given must simply be received.

I want to look out the window at this sunset and at the same time feel the same fierce burning in my heart. “Look at the sunset,” a woman behind me tells her companion. “Look how pretty it is.” Her companion looks and agrees. We are spectators on the train; we look and agree. The sky is pretty. And then we go right on complaining about how no one understands us, no one listens, no one cares. No one, I trust, cares less than the sun, which shares itself so freely, is as beautiful going down as it is coming up. May my life, the ending of which is so final, so definite, so unalterable, be an altar where I kneel down to the rising sun and offer my daily bread of beginnings.

Begin, begin, begin again. Rise in the morning and ride until I find a purpose to my riding. Aim until then only to enjoy my aimlessness. Let the simplicity of life on the road settle deeply into my unsettled blood. Let what I am become clear, or remain a mystery. Let what is meant to be come to be. May it bring me joy, or may it bring me sorrow. May I feel it, what is and what will come to be, as deeply and completely as possible. May reality itself make me real, myself, the person I am meant to be. I seek an unshakable faith, not in myself but in the ground I walk upon. I seek to walk upon this ground, to stand and to walk, trusting that every fall will be followed by a rise, every barren winter by a remarkable spring.

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November 17, Day 20 on the Road: Waking Up to Raccoons at Midnight in Eastern Arizona

 

 

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It’s 4 a.m., and I’m in the bathroom of Roper Lake State Park, outside of Stafford in eastern Arizona, sheltered from the cool desert night, taking what little comfort is available from the lukewarm showers here. I’ve got a cup of hot coffee beside me, in the same stainless steel cup I had at Legacy. I was a client there from February to June of 2016. Next week it will be Thanksgiving 2017, eighteen months later. I couldn’t sleep, raccoons kept coming into my campsite, trying to get at the food in my panniers. I’ve been on a bike tour for the last two and a half weeks. I’m living the adventurous life that legacy helped inspire me to live, but it’s not all warm showers and hot coffee.

It’s a long, slow road I’m on, one that often gets lonely. Slow and steady wins the race, I told myself as I pedaled two days ago up route 77, seven miles up 3,000 feet of elevation with 100 pounds on the back of my bike. What race? What victory? It’s hard not to feel deflated and defeated, to feel like a failure in life, to wonder about the futility of your own individual existence, when you wake up at midnight after three hours of sleep to the sound of raccoons scavenging through your food, and you spend ten minutes yelling yourself hoarse at said raccoons, which seem to be totally unafraid and go right on gnawing at the bag of instant rice you neglected to put away, thinking not even the coons would go for that, and now four hours later after being unable to fall back asleep, you take solace in the State Park bathroom, take a lukewarm and soap-less shower, and dry your hair under the hand drying machine, dreaming of sinking deeply into a plush comfy chair beside a wood stove fire and next to a bookshelf with hundreds of books, sipping hot tea and reading of some faraway arctic adventure as you sit in your comfortable home by the blazing fire with your steady, well-paying job and your loving and lovely wife and your sweet and adorable children. Instead, you are alone, a twenty-six year old man without a steady occupation, without a significant other, without a significant sense of your own self, leading a roving existence on the road to nowhere.

But no, every road leads somewhere. The dead end road leads to the wilderness that is the beginning of life. I’m on the road, craving this morning before dawn no longer for the temporary warmth of alcohol, my old and unforgiving mistress, but for the more permanent warmth and comfort of some place I can call my own, that I can call home. I say more permanent, for of course nothing is completely permanent. I’m on the road to recovery, and this road doesn’t end. It’s the road to rest and serenity, the road home. Home must be earned. Recovery is the victory that makes sense of this gnawing sense of defeat. Feeling like a failure precedes the success that comes when you recognize that to fail does not mean to die. You fail, and yet you live. One breath feels like a miracle, the next like your last gasp. And yet you live, and you fail, and you continue down the road.

For the last few nights, no matter how long or far I’ve pedaled, I haven’t slept well. I can’t find rest. I keep waking up, many times each night, wanting the sun to be up, wanting to be on my way. I’ve been averaging around 70 miles a day, between six and seven hours on the bike, at least a couple thousand feet of climbing, and yet I cannot sleep more than five hours a night.

“Our hearts are restless until they rest in You,” wrote Saint Augustine. Indeed. Rest in whom? “Via con dios,” said a Mexican-American from Stockton, California who I met at the Bylas rest area on the Apache reservation. Go with God. “You’ve got angels behind you on both shoulders,” he told me. In a couple hours, light will come, and I will go. With the wind at my back or in my face, with angels on my two shoulders or alone and feeling like the most forlorn wanderer east of the Colorado and west of the Mississippi. I’ll get on my bike and go east towards the New Mexican border. My plan is to go east until I smell that salty sea water again, in the swamps of Florida. And then what? I started this trip a few miles inland from the Pacific, biked seven miles and close to 3,000 feet up route 9, and then down again back to sea level into Santa Cruz. From there I biked down the coast of California, riding through the strawberry country between Santa Cruz and Monterey, climbing high above the cliffs of Big Sur, riding under the palm trees along the sunny coast in Santa Barbara and L.A, and pedaling down past San Diego until I was a few miles away from Mexico. I decided against crossing the border and went east instead, climbing out of the San Diego area, away from the sea, up to around 4,000 feet, and then plummeting back down into the low Sonoran desert, riding beside seguaro cacti, feeling the desert sun hot on my back. From the low desert I climbed again to the high desert, and I’ll do some more climbing once I get into New Mexico. Then I’ll have the confront the gigantic mass of land that is Texas.

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There is much more country to see. I love the southwest, but for now I’m heading east, with all I need on the back of my bike. I may want more than I have, may crave all I don’t have, but in truth I lack nothing. Save the truth that will set me free? No, that is there too. That is here, too, and I’m on the road to find it.

“I think whoever I see must be happy,” writes Walt Whitman in Song of the Open Road. May I sing my song as I ride the open road. May I smell the happiness of juniper trees. May I take hold of this life and make it mine. My road, my life, my heart. I must find my heart, find where it sings and soars, where it weeps and groans, before I can give my heart away. I moan for man like Jack Kerouac. I weep for beauty like Everett Ruess. I’m clean and sober and learning to sing like the wind that brings me home, and I’m riding, yes I’m rolling, on down the open road.

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