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/

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People Rock!

We get warned by people, a lot. People in cities warn us about country folk. People in the country warn us about city folk. Suburban people warn us about everyone outside of their housing development. Violence happens everywhere. Well, except the place where we currently are. Everyone else is violent, but not here, people here are good. It is everyone else who is “crazy*”.

Often, people tell us to carry a gun or a knife or something. We have both of those things, including bear mace, but I’ve loaded the weapon less than 20 times in the last two years and kept it outside of the case even fewer times. Most of those times we were in areas with potentially dangerous wildlife like alligators or bears. The change of an attack is still miniscule, but I still feel more comfortable if I am ready.

I kind of understand everyone’s fear, particularly from people who haven’t spent a lot of time out of their hometowns. If you watch the news there is always someone committing an act of violence “out there”. Even fictional television shows encourage fear. Shows like Law & Order (and their seemingly hundreds of offshoots) come up with a case of rape, murder, and kidnapping every week. These crimes happen somewhere else and seem to reassure the general population that the only safe place is in their homes. Going outside is dangerous. Travelling is dangerous. Every mile you venture outside of your bubble your chances of being a victim is magnified tenfold.

Luckily, none of that has been our real experience. Despite all the warnings we have had an almost universally positive experience with everyone we have encountered. We really only had one personal experience that I would call bad, and it wasn’t a violent one, we were just accused of a crime by some people in North Dakota. Everyone else has been incredibly supportive. People offer us water, shelter, food, money, and weed all the time. When we use websites like Couchsurfing and Warmshowers (which do have varying levels of security) we are invited into stranger’s homes and often left there alone. Hell, the couple we are staying with now gave us a spare key after knowing us for less than three waking hours.

People are generally good. Out of thousands upon thousands of people we have encountered over the last two years of travelling none have gone out of their way to harm us. It would be easy to harm us too. We could be killed by a car on a lone road and nobody would be there to help us. We could have someone try to steal our bikes or equipment and we would be left alone without any support. But that hasn’t happened, we haven’t even felt like it is likely it would happen. Nearly all people on this planet want to go their whole lives without hurting another, cooperation is in our nature.

I do realize that there is an element of privilege in this. Anna and I are two white, relatively young, not completely unattractive, people who have access to showers, razors, and clean clothing. If we were a different race or much older or looked like unemployed transients it is possible that we would be open to more violence or, at the very least, being treated with less kindness. Though, overall, things are getting better. Violence is down. Crime is down. Prosperity is up. Opportunities are up. The improvement is not dispersed equally in the US (and definitely not in the world) but we are getting there, and I think we need to recognize that. Living in fear and seeing fellow humans as “the crazy other” is no way to live.

 

 

* As someone who has seem mental illness and has my own mental demons I hate when people use the word “crazy” when they mean “dangerous”. We could unpack this a lot. People who say this seem to be implying that in order to be violent you must have a mental illness, but that mental illness tends to be the sole problem of everyone else. The person talking is the only sane person in a sea of chaos, that is why we need things like the death penalty, police, the war on drugs, NSA surveillance, appeals to God as the foundation of morality, etc. We need these parental figures for everyone else, but not us. Blargh.

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

The Ride Begins Again…

Tomorrow morning I start on a 35,000 miles, 18-month bicycle ride around the United States and Canada with my partner (Anna), our friend (also named Anna), and our dog (Higgs-Bosom – The Dog Particle). I started this blog just over two years ago to track my (mostly) solo bicycle ride from Washington DC to Los Angeles. It is funny how things come full circle.

Anyway, because of the upcoming ride I will have some new writing responsibilities and this blog is going to change a bit. I will still write as often as possible in an uncensored way about the subjects I love (Burning Man, sex, spirituality, BDSM, LGBT, science, transhumanism, polyamory, open relationships, drug legalization, social issues, MDMA, anarchy, libertarianism, veganism, etc) but I really don’t know how much time I will have to spend writing. My Facebook page will probably also lack it’s normal traffic but if you want to add me there to see the articles and stuff I find interesting please do. If you are interested in following my other writing I will be blogging at two other sites:

  • Barely Functional Adults: This is going to be an uncensored blog about our bike ride. Because we are all adults and enjoy adult things (drugs, sex, being naked, swearing, sinning, etc) this blog will cover those things. Some highlights we are looking forward to include visiting nude beaches, going to festivals, the World Naked Bike Ride, Burning Man, and banging in every state. We will be updating 2-3 times per week. (www.BarelyFunctionalAdults.wordpress.com).
  • 10 Legs, Will Travel: This blog will be censored, updated daily, and basically rated “PG”. We all subscribe to the Dan Savage view of dealing with parents/family… basically, there are things parents have a right not to know about their adult children’s lives and they have a responsibility not to snoop. This blog will provide our families with a place to hear about our journey, look at pictures, and keep track of us without hearing about hanging out in the Orgy Dome or seeing our nipples, butts, pubic mounds, etc. (www.10LegsWillTravel.wordpress.com).
  • There are also other social networks:
    • Instagram: 10LegsWillTravel (we will probably take tons of pictures… the Anna’s are both great photographers)
    • SnapChat: pneiger (in case you want to send us pics of your junk)
    • Twitter: pneiger (though this is just my Facebook and blog linked, I don’t actually use it)
    • FourSquare: Peter Neiger

Anyway, I hope you will follow our other travels and still check out this blog from time to time. I will do my best to keep up with everything but it is likely I will only have internet access a couple of times a day… and I’m also working on college courses, Khan Academy, and some other writing so my downtime will be limited. Below is our basic route but if you have any advice on places to check out or know people with open lawn/floor space for us to sleep please shoot an email to 10LegsWillTravel@gmail.com . Much peace and love to you all.

Map Update (1)