Almost There…

In about 42 hours or so we will be on our way to Wilmington, and I am so freaking excited. We’ve had quite a memorable time here in Myrtle Beach living with our friend, but it is time to roll out. We don’t have a house secured in Wilmington yet, but thanks to an amazing friend that we met via Couchsurfing (we live in a wonderful time y’all) we have a place to sleep for a few weeks while we shop around. This is the first time my partner and I are going to truly be living in a house and city of our own choosing, and I feel like a child waiting for Christmas morning. So. Fucking. Excited.

So, what am I excited for? Many things. Here is an incomplete list:

  • A backyard that I can sunbathe nude in, have a fire pit, meditate, put up a swing, and practice fire dancing (maybe poi instead of staff?), compost, and a vegetable garden
  • A kitchen where I can experiment with food
  • Storage space for bulk food items to save money, extra bikes for guests, and to build up some Playa gear for Burning Man and festivals
  • A spare bedroom for our friends to visit and to return the love we received from strangers on Couchsurfing and Warmshowers
  • An office area to work, create art, write, read, and brew beer
  • A master bedroom to sleep in, have foursomes, and get kinky in
  • A living area to host parties in (dinner, MDMA, brunch, board games and/or D&D, New Years, etc)
  • A city where I can get back into yoga (and get into acroyoga), bike to the beach, volunteer with organizations I care about, go to festivals and events, make friends that I won’t need to leave after a year, take classes, get into therapy, and is centrally located to visit Charleston, Savannah, Richmond, and Asheville

What it really comes down to, is this is a new chapter that is so wildly different from the last two years of my life (and my relationship with my partner). It is a new adventure with new challenges and new rewards. I’m just excited. I feel in control of my life in a way that I haven’t really ever felt. Since joining the Army I haven’t really lived in one place for more than a year or two at a time, there was no opportunity for community or the growth that requires deep roots. I wouldn’t change my past at all, it brought me to my present (which is awesome) and opened the door for the future.

I hope everyone reading this blog comes and visits us someday. Seriously. Our door is open for you.

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On the Road

I just finished “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. This novel, which is probably one of the most famous American novels of the era, is the true stories of Kerouac (as Sal Paradise) as he takes four trips across the United States in the late 40’s and early 50’s. I really enjoyed the book and, in several ways, I could relate to a lot of what Kerouac experienced in terms of environment, people, and the spirit of travel in this country. Though, the times have certainly changed in the last 75 years.

I don’t know of Kerouac’s spontaneity was common back then, but if it was then times really have changed in spirit. He and his friends were willing to hitchhike, take buses, and do whatever was necessary to get where they wanted to go. They wanted to get from NY to SF, so they found a way. They rarely had money, so they just figured it out as they went along. They lived in a time when clean water was not readily available, cross-country communication was expensive, money took time to be transferred, and cars were unreliable, but they did what they desired despite the dangers. It is ironic that we currently live in the safest, most stable time in human history but people are more afraid than ever. It has literally never been easier to go on an adventure but people crave security over liberty, even though security is less needed.

Maybe Kerouac and his crew were an exception to the average person living in post-WWII America. Just like some of the people we meet on the road are the exception to modern Americans. Maybe in all generations there is a stable percentage (1%? 5%? 10%?) that have an insatiable drive to explore, experience, and wander, even at the expense of their sanity or their lives. I think we need this crazy ones, the ones who explore the depths of our mind and spirit, the Earth and the heavens. They help push humanity forward, as painful as that journey can be, it is necessary to find new barriers to blast all to hell.

Or maybe I’m missing the whole point of “On the Road”.

I’m going to re-read this one soon. It had so many beautiful passages that articulated the extreme emotions you can experience while wandering North America. I know that this book had a huge impact on the Beat Movement (something I know nothing about) and I want to read more of the books from that era. Luckily, Kerouac has given me a cast of characters who mostly all wrote books during that time that I can dive into. All in all, it was a good read that I finally got around to. In some ways I wish I would have read this sooner, but in other ways I’m glad that I finished it when I did. Books seem to come to me at just the right moment in your life, and this one was no exception.

Inspired

While on the bike ride we get approached by curious people a lot. These people tend to fall into two categories, either they tell us they wish that they had done something like this while they were younger or they are in the process of doing something like us. To be honest, it is sometimes hard to be generous to people in the former category. While it is true that our bodies age and time passes us by, it seems like a weak excuse to say “well, if only I were younger”. I am all for people taking advantage of their youth, but that age doesn’t mean you are forced out of an active life. In fact, being active is key to living a longer and healthier life. Just ask Charles Eugster or check out the Blue Zones research.

The latter group, the people who we talk to who are doing things similar to us, are the ones that inspire me. They are rarely young, wealthy, or particularly fit, but they are pursuing their dreams. Just yesterday we ran into a group of veterans who are doing a cross-country charity ride and many of these veterans have physical handicaps. One of them only had the use of one arm and she was peddling across the country on a hand bike… with one arm. Another was riding a tandem bike with his son who has Down Syndrome.

Inspirational figures are not limited to physical feats. There are people bucking the system and doing life their own way, just look at the participants of Praxis. The greatest limit on accomplishing our dreams is our own mind. We are capable of accomplishing, overcoming, creating, and exploring so much in this world, if only we give ourselves permission to be great. It is easy in today’s world to be comfortable, but comfort doesn’t bring fulfillment. You won’t be on your deathbed looking back at your life and think “Wow, I’m really glad I was comfortable” but you can look back and say “Damn, that mountain was tough to climb but it was totally worth it” or maybe “Ugh, I spent a year writing that book but what a feeling to see it finished”. We have an eternal capacity for love, creation, and exploration, if only we let our selves accomplish it.

No Plans

When we left Mobile, Alabama this morning we didn’t know where we were going to be sleeping tonight. This is fairly common for us. I have an Excel document with our route plans and some notes, but more often than not in the “Sleeping” column it just says “Off Road”. Which basically means “fuck if I know, I’m sure something will work out”. Tonight, like 99.9% of the time, something worked out.

As dusk was approaching we biked past a woman who was walking on the same trail as us. She was probably in her 60’s or so. She flagged us down and asked about our ride and, after a little bit of small talk, she said that we could camp on her land. Her father just died and she is in the process of selling all of his belongings and preparing the house for someone else to live in. We chatted with her a bit before she left us alone with the house, giving us free reign to shower, power our things, use the kitchen, and sleep.

If we decided to plan every moment of our ride we would miss out on these serendipitous moments. If we stayed in hotels or reserved camping spots, then our rides would be about travel instead of adventure. Our decision not to worry about little things like where we are going to sleep or how we are going to get where we want to go have allowed us to live fuller, richer lives filled with interesting people. And, I like to think, by living a little unconventionally we add something to other people’s lives as well. Life cannot, and should not, be planned too strictly. Sometimes it is best to just walk out the front door and see where your feet take you.

Prelude: On The Mountaintop

What follows is my first draft of the Prelude for my upcoming book, tentatively titled “Mostly Flat: <something something something>”. If you have any thoughts or recommendations about clarity, grammar, etc please feel free to email me at pjneiger@gmail.com or Facebook message me. I will add chapters as I produce them and then, after some editing and such, make my book available to purchase. 

 

It started on a mountaintop in Afghanistan, as these things often do.

I guess a mountaintop in Afghanistan is specific to me, but the planting of a seed in the mind needs fertile soil, and fertile soil is often found in those moments of peace and serenity amidst chaos. When the mind has been occupied and the body afraid there is no time to think or plan or dream, but when the fear of imminent death slides away you can take stock of your life and how short it is.

My mind turned towards the future as I was laying on that mountaintop, my automatic rifle laying loosely on my lap, my helmet on the ground, and my eyes closed as the summer sun tried to pierce my lids. The men around me, my brothers, were discussing the same things we always discussed when we had spare time in a warzone. We chatted about the food we wanted to eat, the beer we wanted to drink, and the girls we wanted to sleep with. On that final point I had little to contribute, I was a virgin at the time and had sworn to my God to wait until I was married before bumping uglies.

We also talked about home and the places we wanted to go. This conversation required the help of a translator due to the regions of the US that were represented on that mountaintop. On one extreme we had Gagne, a young boy from rural Maine. Slim in stature and prone to embellishment his excited tales of his time in Maine were some of our favorites and always brought ruckus laughter. We knew his stories of competing in destruction derby’s or driving a car without a windshield or hood so that he could pour oil into the engine while he drove were likely not true, but they made us cry with laughter every time he told them. I like to believe they are true.

Gagne, being ever the story teller, was the polar opposite of Harding. Harding is a southern-boy from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and he fit every stereotype. He was big, both in height and weight, and spoke slowly with a deep southern drawl. He rarely spoke except to ask what Gagne was saying, the two couldn’t understand each other, and because of this I became the default translator. My upbringing on the west coast and neutral/boring accent allowed me to understand and translate Yankee and Redneck.

Discussing the all the towns we came from planted a seed in my mind. This seed was to see the country that I was fighting for and, in a way, pay tribute to my unit, the 82nd Airborne Division, the All-Americans[1]. Seeds in the mind are tricky things. They aren’t like physical seeds you get to plant a garden, they don’t come cleanly labeled with species and growing instructions. You may have a general idea what a mental seed will look like but as it marinates in your mind, just below the surface, it mixes with other ideas and evolves into something you couldn’t predict. Then, when the time is right, it springs forth from your mind. It may be months, years, or decades later, and you may have forgotten that the seed even existed. For me, that season for growth started when I attended Burning Man for the first time in 2011.

Burning Man is hard to describe because it isn’t one thing. At its foundation it is a community of people who gather together for a week to build a society based on 10 Principles[2]. The beautiful thing about these principles is that people apply them in different ways and to different degrees, and everyone is accepted as long as they don’t harm another person. The biggest influence for me was meeting people who had taken charge of their lives. They had decided they didn’t want a normal, stable, monotonous life, and they took action. I camped with entrepreneurs, artists, and adventurers. It was hard not to be inspired and, during a particularly pleasurable night of rolling on Molly and exploring The Playa, the seed that was planted in 2004 started to bust forth.

When I returned to DC I tried to ignore the plant that had sprouted forth. It was easy at first, it was small and existed only in my periphery. But as time went by the plant began to grow. Ignoring it became more difficult. The beauty of the idea took up more and more of my mental space and I found my mind wandering to the plant as I worked. In many ways it was like a mirror, showing me how unhappy I was living in Washington DC, working 40-50 hours a week, and buying into the system. I tried to make changes in my life by working from home and taking on hobbies, but the idea kept growing and as it grew it began to take a more solid form.

Not only was I going to explore the United States, I was going to do it by bicycle, and it would start with a solo cross country ride.

Eventually, I got to a point where I had to make a choice. The idea could not be ignored any longer and I either had to destroy it or I had to embrace it. Destroying it would have taken mental effort, but it could have been done. There were all the logical reasons in the world to destroy it. I had a good job with a bright future in an economy that was weak and I had loads of debt. There was no job waiting for me on the other side of the country. I knew nothing about cycling long distances or bike maintenance. It was a crazy idea to abandon all stability and cross 3,000 miles of unknown land on two wheels. I didn’t destroy the idea, it was too beautiful and inspiring to destroy.

Instead, I destroyed all the poisonous things in my life and used them as fertilizer for the idea. My job, stability, the doubts from friends, and my inexperience all became strengths. I quit my job, bought a $100 bicycle at target, strapped everything I owned onto the back with bungee cords, and hit the road with one paycheck in my bank account. I knew there was a good chance I would fail, but damn it, I was going to try.

 

[1] What is now the 82nd Airborne Division received the nickname “All American” from Major General Swift because it had soldiers from every state at the time.

[2] The principles are Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommidification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy. You can find out more at burningman.org/culture/philosophical-center/10-principles/

Home town

While sitting at a gas station in rural Louisiana we were approached by a man getting gas. He was curious about two raggedly looking white people were hanging out in the parking lot next to two fully loaded bicycles (we don’t always stand out for being white, but in this town we did). He asked us what we were doing and where we had been. When we told him the places we had been in Louisiana he commented that we had seen more of the state than he had, and he had lived in that area his whole life. This was not an uncommon sentiment, in fact, we had said the same thing before to people visiting our previous “home towns”.

It was common for me to remark on this when I lived in tourist traps like DC and Los Angeles. I never really explored my town unless people were visiting me. Instead, I would spend years in the same city and go to the same places each weekend. The same bars, the same bike routes, the same restaurants, varying only occasionally but not really going much beyond my neighborhood. I never explored my own towns until I was leaving.

It is a shame. Many of the places I lived had amazing sites and experiences just outside my comfort zone. DC is a prime example. You can take a bike trail from DC to Pittsburgh, but I didn’t realize that route existed until I left. There was even free camping along much of the route. There were cool little towns with quirky coffee shops and restaurants. I could have abandoned the terrible swamp town that is DC and been in small town Maryland within a few miles along the bike trail, but I never did that.

When we settle into a new town after the bike ride (probably Baton Rouge at this point) I want to make a point of exploring more. You can find a lot of hidden gems just by opening Google Maps and typing in “camping”, or you can use ReserveAmerica.com to find local campsites. Then, when you find a campsite just plug in biking directions from where you are and take off. Just about anyone can find a campground 30 miles from their home and make a weekend trip out of it. You leave Saturday morning, liesurely bike 30 miles with your gear in a backpack, and then camp. On Sunday you reverse the trip.

I’m sure there are other things to do besides camping. Most cities have museums, tours, botanical gardens, and parks to explore. Or you can find rivers to raft, intramural leagues to join, or vineyards to visit. Every town we visit has amazing things to do, and every town we visit is someone’s “home town”. I wish I would have realized the potential of my home towns before I left.

It’s All Been Done Before

I remember the feeling of disappointment the first time I met someone who had done a cross-country bike ride. I was only a few days into my own DC-LA ride, and there I was camping with someone who had done it all before. I knew on an intellectual level that I was not the first person to ride across the US, but before I met this man (I have forgotten his name) I was able to keep that knowledge at bay. I felt like an adventurer, like Lewis and Clark or Magellan, it felt like I was doing something revolutionary. The sense of newness, of exploration, was one of the things that motivated me, but that soon deflated.

The truth is, basically everything has been done before. Humans are naturally adventerous, curious explorers. We see a mountain and want to climb it. We see an ocean and want to dive into it. We see a new planet and want to visit it. We wonder how far we can get into space before parachuting to the ground. We build supercomputers and try to beat them at games. This drive to be the first helps move our species forward, we continue to look for new frontiers to explore. And, as is often the case, when we start exploring a new frontier we discover we were not the first.

Since starting my current bike ride I’ve met someone doing the exact same thing (visiting each of the lower 48 states by bike) and many others who are doing cross-country tours or living on the road. Thanks to the power of the internet I’ve connected with people who are on world tours and who have visited hundreds of countries by bicycle. If I try to compare myself to these people I feel a bit like a slacker. Is it really impressive to spend four years in the US when people are biking from Alaska to Argentina?

Yes, yes it is. Because my measure of success has nothing to do with what other people are doing or have done. I am no longer in this to be the first person to do something, I am doing it because I am the first me to do it. It may sound selfish, but I’m in this for myself. I want to know what it feels like to spend all day climbing up a steep road to watch the sunset over the Montana mountains. I want to see the stars in the deserts of Arizona a hundred miles from any city. I want to check state after state off my list as I bike across borders.

And, someday, I will do more things that have been done before. We are talking about biking around Australia. I want to skydive over every continent. I want to sail around the world. I want to have a farm with chickens and goats and a pig. I want to write a book about my adventures. I want to explore sex more. I want to climb mountains. I want to hike trails. I want to live in cities and countries around the world.

The frontiers for humanity are currently out of reach for people unless they are very specialized (though, this may change when we start sending people into space for tourism and colonization), but the frontiers for the individual are literally endless. There are uncountable things I haven’t done yet… places I haven’t been, words I haven’t written, experiences I haven’t had, people I haven’t been intimate with, businesses I haven’t started, drugs I haven’t tried, lifestyles I haven’t lived, sports I haven’t played, etc etc etc.

Damn, I am excited to make a small dent in those “nevers”. Even if I’m not the first person, my experience will still be unique.