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.

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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.

Cycling the South

Things have been getting progressively more difficult for us. The rural midwest and the southern states have proven to be incredibly difficult to cycle through, and the deeper into the south we get the more hostile the culture is towards us. One exception to this is Louisiana, everything that follows really doesn’t apply there. Louisiana has a very unique culture and doesn’t seem to fit the patterns of the south or rural midwest.

I realize that our life is relatively unique, but if a place is hostile towards us it is likely hostile towards others. The way these areas are set up are going to deter people from moving to them and bringing in economic opportunities.

Part of this bike ride is figuring out where we want to move next. If a city doesn’t even have sidewalks, much less bike lanes, then they are disqualified. I know that not many people view bike lanes as important (though, commuting by bicycle is becoming increasingly common), but if a city doesn’t have sidewalks and their infrastructure doesn’t allow for people in wheelchairs it is going to prevent certain people from moving there. Also, places that don’t invest in infrastructure that encourages outdoor activities will likely see higher rates of obesity and other health problems.

Culture is also important and, unfortunately, much of the culture we have encountered is openly hostile to progress in all forms. There seems to be a vein of conservatism down here that values being contrarian over an actual belief that conservative values are valuable for society. There is a “if it is new it must be bad” victimhood mentality. Having solar panels, being vegan, travelling by bicycle, and working part-time are all seen as attacking the conservative way of life. There is no analysis about what is actually better for an individual, it is all simply seen as bad because it is different than how our grandparents live.

The conservatism down here feels like an old cornered bear. It is lashing out violently at everything, even shadows, because it realizes it is dying. I can partly understand the reaction, but that doesn’t mean it is the right reaction. It is the reaction of an animal, not a thinking person. And the reaction is only going to speed the destruction (revolution?) of the south.

We have stayed with many people our age throughout this region and they universally want to get out. They want to take their money, their entrepreneurship, and families, and go somewhere where they won’t feel hated. I don’t know what the south can do to save itself, it seems to be a dying culture that resists change simply because it is change.

I want to visit more of this region, but the we can’t. The environment is too dangerous. We need to pass through as quickly as possible.

The Law of Large Numbers

As the sun began to set on our first day back on the road we were feeling beat down. We had hit terrain that slowed us to a snail’s pace and it looked like our goal of getting to the state park to camp was going to be impossible to reach. Then, while taking a short break to eat an energy bar and turn on our lights, a man approached and offered us help. He was a local cyclist and volunteered to drive behind us as we rode to protect us from traffic. Was this divine intervention from Jesus, like many of my family members would say? Was this the universe guiding us along our destiny?

No. This was simply math.

While many of our interactions on the road may seem designed, they are really just a consequence of us being out in the world a lot. We’ve been at breweries at the same time as someone who saw us two days earlier. We’ve left REI right as a cyclist is leaving and offers us a place to stay. We’ve pulled into a park right as a storm starts to rain down on us. It seems that fate/god/whatever is pulling for our success and safety.

But, we’ve also left a town right as a windstorm stops us in our tracks. We’ve arrived at a city just in time for the 4th of July festivities that fill the campgrounds and leave us nowhere to sleep. We’ve had three tubes blow in a three block radius. We’ve biked on the hottest day of the year and arrived at our scheduled water point to find the water is contaminated and had a boil order… meaning it was undrinkable and we were out of fluid. It seems that fate/god/whatever wants our ride to fail or us to die.

Nope. It is just math.

When you spend 10-12 hours a day biking in new places you interact, however passively, with thousands of people each week. It is incredibly likely that some of these people will be friendly, share your interests, and be able to help you. It is also likely that you will get rained on sometimes or reach shelter just in time to prevent getting wet. Sometimes the rest area has functioning water and sometimes it doesn’t. The more new interactions you face the greater the likelihood that rare events will happen.But, you don’t need to be on a four-year bike tour to experience this. Just look at how my partner and I met.

We met for the first time at my going away party in Washington DC. She was there visiting her college roommate who was also my coworker. Any number of things, big and small, throughout the Universe’s existence could have prevented her from being there. If she had a different roommate, went to a different college, the sperm that created her wasn’t the first to the egg, our mutual friend didn’t take the job with SFL, etc. And, on the other side, are a near infinite number of things that could have prevented that party from happening or me being there. And, even more things that could have made our personalities incompatible. So yes, it is true, the chances of my partner and I getting together is incredibly close to 0%, but the chances of each of us finding someone who we are compatible with is incredibly close to 100%. The thousands of people we meet connect us to thousands that they know and they connect to thousands of other people.

Fate doesn’t bring people together into close relationships, math does. We naturally disconnect from people we aren’t compatible with and draw close to those we are compatible with. We filter out hundreds of thousands of people until we find someone that is good enough.

So yes, we have some crazy things happen to us but that is simply because we left our town. Crazy things are bound to happen when you go to new places, meet new people, and try new things. Get out there and do enough stuff and you are virtually guaranteed to experience something that is unlikely and unexpected but, if you stay in the same place, see all the same people, work at the same job, vacation at the same places, watch the same shows, etc then you will never experience anything new, much less experience anything unique.

Privilege

A conversation today got me thinking about my privilege. It is no surprise that as a white, hetero-passing, young(ish), male who is of average attractiveness I am treated differently than someone with different traits. Our success in life is not solely a result of our hard work, the way we are treated by others based on nothing but appearance can change the outcomes of our lives. Generally, in my life, it is very minor things, but one area where my privilege was obvious was my first bike tour.

In the summer of 2012 I rode my bike from Washington DC to Los Angeles. I was alone for most of those two months. During that 3,500 mile ride I was never afraid that a stranger was going to hurt me, rob me, or rape me. When I rode my bike down the center of rural towns that had Confederate flags in the windows I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t make it out alive. When I walked into grocery stores I wasn’t afraid that I’d be kicked out. When I needed help or shelter I was reasonably sure that the random farmer, car driving by, or firefighter would say yes. There are a lot of opportunities that I have in my life simply because of where, when, and to whom I was born.

Wherever I go I am generally treated with respect. I don’t think I deserve less respect. Rather, I think everyone should be treated equally and with respect. There are enough things about life and nature that are hard and prohibit us from doing things we might want to do, we shouldn’t put up other social barriers against others. I wish everyone could follow the path I did and could save a little money and bike across the US if they wanted to without fear of harm, but that simply isn’t the case. Depending on your race, gender, or sexual orientation you could become a victim easily.

To be honest, I don’t know what to do about it. I can recognize (to an extent) my own privilege, and alter my own behavior to make sure I am not hindering the opportunities of others or treating others unfairly, and I can keep looking for other privileges I have not noticed before. But, I have no idea what to do next. I have no idea how to effect change.

The End of the Ride

In an effort to improve my writing I am participating in a free Coursera course “Writing for Young Readers”. Writing for children isn’t a particular passion for me but I figured it is good to do more writing and have others read what I wrote. What follows is my first assignment for that class. Due to the assignment limitations (500 words) the story is a very short version of the true events, but I’m writing a book about my cross-country bike ride and the final day will be explained more extensively in the book. Any comments or advice would be appreciated.

I awoke to the sound of lawn sprinklers dangerously close to my tent. In my hazy, early morning daze I knew something wasn’t quite right but my mind was moving too slowly to figure it out. Then it hit me. Literally. Water began to blast into my tent, soaking through the thin nylon and creating a growing puddle around my sleeping bag. The sun was barely coming over the hills and I wanted nothing more than to curl back up and go to sleep, but that wasn’t going to happen. Besides, this was my final day and I should be excited.

Over the last two months I had been riding my bicycle across the United States. After over three thousand miles and countless memories I had finally made it to my final day, the day when I would see the Pacific Ocean and start my new life in Los Angeles. I was happy and excited, but I was also a bit sad to see this journey come to an end. A part of me wanted to keep riding forever and neglect the responsibility that came with adulthood. It was easy being on the road with no concerns beyond finding a place to sleep or grabbing a meal. That leisure life of cycling had come to an end and ahead of me was the unknown. I had no job in Los Angeles, all I had was a friend who was willing to let me sleep on his couch until I got my life together.

So, I grudgingly got up and got ready for the last hundred miles. I went through the morning routine of coffee, breakfast, and packing that had become second-nature to me. Most of the day went by as a blur, a collection of faded memories that blended with the rest of my ride. At some point every farm, every town, and every road starts to look the same. Even the photos I took barely remind me of what I felt at that time. That changed once I got onto the final trail before I hit the ocean.

I rode that trail almost as if in a dream. My mind was unable to comprehend that the moment had finally arrived. Seeing the ocean had been something I had played over in my mind hundreds of times over the previous months. This moment kept me motivated when my bike broke down in West Virginia, when I faced 50 mph winds in New Mexico, and all the other times that I broke down mentally and doubted myself.

I can still picture the ocean coming into view, taking my breath away. Tears streamed down my face as I walked to that clear blue water. I fell to my knees and just sat there, sobbing and smiling. It was bittersweet, but the adventure was over. I had done it. I had biked across the United States.

First Impression Bias

Travelling the way we do creates a very unconventional and biased view of certain places. Little instances (like me almost getting hit by a car two days ago) will skew my opinion of a city so negatively that I don’t ever want to visit again. Even something as simple as the weather being rainy the whole visit can poison the city in my mind. This isn’t really fair, most negative events we face could easily happen anywhere in the world, but because it happened in a specific place that place is tainted for me. This first impression bias is something that I want to get over, I want to give places a fair chance and find the good in all of them.

The same first impression bias can be a positive thing as well. When we meet cool people, have good weather, or have a nice route into the city (even if it isn’t representative of the city as a whole) we end up discussing living there some day. This is particularly true if we meet or stay with super cool people. In fact, as I think about the cities I loved the most it is the people we stayed with that made it a great experience. Just knowing that a network of like-minded people exists in a city is enough to make it a potential place to live. I’m not sure if I should go out of my way to correct for these irrationally positive feelings.

I really do believe that most people can be happy just about anywhere as long as a few basic things are present, but what those things are kind of depends on the individual. Some people need wide open spaces, while others need some sort of active night life. Some need biological family nearby, while others need their logical family nearby. Some need to be able to own a multi-bedroom home, while others just need 9 sq. ft. to call their own. The first step to being happy in a place is recognizing the foundational elements that you need.

I think I’m pretty lucky in this regard, I can be pretty happy in any city of at least 90,000 people (but not too big). I don’t need a rocking night life, though I would like a decent number of food options and maybe a place to see a shitty band or listen to a comedian occasionally. Ideally, I’d like to have a smaller home with space for Higgins to play and a garden to grow vegetables. I want rent to be low enough that I can work part-time online without a supplemental job, and maybe a river or mountains within driving distance. Having a college in town would be a plus to bring a younger, more liberal and tolerant element to the city, and to provide continuing education opportunities. I’m not so concerned with the legal environment in most places, like Heinlein said “I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them.”

So far on this bike ride there are about 30 cities that meet this criteria with about half of them having a super positive impression in my mind. There are even some upcoming cities like Austin, TX and Asheville, NC that already have a positive view in my mind.

These are the cities that meet our basic criteria in the order in which we encountered them, with a * next to the ones we loved a lot:

  • San Luis Obispo, CA
  • Santa Cruz, CA
  • Santa Rosa, CA
  • Arcata, CA *
  • Ashland, OR
  • Eugene, OR *
  • Bend, OR *
  • Corvallis, OR
  • Astoria, OR
  • Olympia, WA *
  • Spokane, WA *
  • Missoula, MT *
  • Helena, MT
  • Bozeman, MT *
  • Billings, MT
  • Dickinson, ND
  • Bismarck, ND
  • Fargo, ND *
  • Cloud, MN *
  • Madison, WI *
  • Milwaukee, WI *
  • Green Bay, WI
  • Grand Rapids, MI
  • Kalamazoo, MI *
  • Bloomington, IN *
  • Louis, MO
  • Jefferson City, MO
  • Columbia, MO *
  • Tulsa, OK