The Unwinding - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

July 26, 2014

The Unwinding

It wasn't always this way. I used to work a typical American office job: eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. I had a salary, dental insurance, and a nameplate that slid into a gold-colored holder attached next to whatever you call the doorway-like thing you use to walk into a cubicle. I also had co-workers with hairstyles that hadn't changed since 1984, co-workers that would steal dishes out of said cubicle, and 60 minutes every day to think about the world and my place in it as I stared out the window of Metro bus route number five on the way to and from my apartment in the Greenwood neighborhood of North Seattle. I drove sports cars with huge motors, wide rear tires, snarling exhaust notes, and staggering monthly payments. I went on vacation to places like Puerto Vallarta and Honolulu and Phoenix. I wore polo shirts and khaki pants — not as a joke — at age 25. I had a Netflix membership, played video games, went to the gym, ate at the same three restaurants over and over again, and refined the skill that everyone who lives in Seattle must have: the ability to act aloof and indifferent toward anyone that you don't know.

I pushed myself far down the track that young guys from middle-class homes in American suburbs are encouraged to travel: crank out good grades in high school, go to a top-tier university, graduate, find a job that pays well, fall in love with someone, move in together, get married, buy a house, have a kid or two or three, work for 40-something years, retire, and then spend the time that's left playing with grandchildren and complaining about health problems and maybe buying a boat. It seemed like the right thing to do, because that's the path that so many happy, well-adjusted, productive people follow. It's a path that leads to a life focused on family and faith, on work and the home, and on finding a place within your community. It is in many ways the embodiment of the American Dream.

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It's also the kind of life where I always felt like something was missing.

But I didn't know what that something might look like. I didn't know where to look for it. I wasn't even sure that I should be searching for an answer in the first place.

In the end, none of those things turned out to matter, because the trouble found me. As I wrote in the introduction to one of my previous journals on this website, it was a marathon Internet browsing session that somehow dropped me off at a bicycle touring website called Crazy Guy on a Bike back in February of 2007.

That community opened my mind to a form of travel I never knew existed. From that point forward my life was never the same:

I don't remember what I set out to find, but I land on the journal of a Purdue University Ph. D. student named Joy Santee, who rode her bike all the way across America from Yorktown, Virginia to Florence, Oregon the summer before (CircumTrektion: TransAm 2006). I never knew people actually did that. But soon enough I learn all about the Transamerica Trail, how Joy got everything together for her big trip, and how she made her way to a beach on the coast of Virginia and started heading west. I don't read the entire journal that night, but it's close. I love the personality of the writing, the character of the pictures, and the stories about the interesting people she meets in the small towns along the way. It's smart, it's funny, and it's genuine. But it's not done by someone who really knew what they were doing, or who even seemed to be all that into biking beforehand. It makes the whole thing seem possible for anyone, even a 24-year-old guy like me who has ridden a bike exactly once since elementary school.

Several times in her writing she mentions the journal Mike Riscica wrote about his 2005 TransAm trip, so I check it out a day or two later. It's the same sort of thing: honest, entertaining, funny and fascinating, even in the standard bits about where he ate and the roads he took. I love it nearly as much as Joy's and plow through the thing in one night. By the time I finish I'm completely hooked and know I need to get a bike and see America.

Two years later, in the summer of 2009, I set out on my first long-distance ride. It was a three-week trip from Western Washington, south through Oregon, and on to Northern California. If ever there was a chance that I could fall back into the lockstep life of an average American adult, those three weeks crushed the possibility. Within a couple of months I quit my job and set my sights on running my own business. I wasn't sure what that work would look like, or how I was going to pay my bills after my savings ran out in a couple of months, but it didn't matter. I wanted the freedom to do things like riding across a continent on a bicycle — more than I had wanted anything else before — and I was willing to give up many parts of a comfortable life to make that happen.

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I made good use of that freedom in the spring and summer of 2011. That's when I rode almost 6,500 miles over four months between the far corners of the United States, from Key West, Florida to Neah Bay, Washington. Looking back at that trip, I remain amazed that I was able to cycle 30 to 100 miles every day, deal with all the logistical challenges of cycling across the country, and sleep outside most nights — while each day also taking dozens of photos, scribbling out three or four pages of notes by hand, writing up the previous day's three or four pages for the journal I was keeping, and editing all of the pictures that went along with it. I'm not sure I've ever been more busy in my life. I'm also not sure I've ever felt more satisfied in my life. It's such a rare thing to find yourself doing exactly what you want to be doing, day after day, week after week, month after month, backed by the support of friends and family and hundreds of people you've never met. But that's what the spring and summer of 2011 were to me. I'd never known anything like it. I still think about that trip every day.

When I returned, I got married, moved to a city where I had never before lived and where I knew no one, got a dog, and tried to settle back into the predictable routine of domestic life. I thought that the visions of pedaling over mountain passes would fade, that I'd stop wishing I could sleep along the banks of rushing creeks and rivers, that achieving my dream of riding across America would fulfill the need to cook up more grand experiences. I waited and waited and waited for the feelings to go away but they didn't. Instead, in what seemed like no time at all, the rumble that something was missing came back — although this time, there wasn't a question about what that something might be. That's what led me to set out on another cross-country ride in 2013.

Even though it was in many ways a failure — I only managed to reach Kansas before a long string of hardships crushed my resolve — that ride confirmed a simple but critical fact: I love traveling at low speed, for long stretches of time, to places I've never seen. I seek it out. I obsess over it. I can't be content without the promise of that kind of adventure, no matter how distant. Most people never find anything in life that makes them feel alive in a way that resonates all the way to the marrow of their bones, but somehow I did. And the more I thought about that fact, the more I became unwilling to let it go, because it was clear that the desire for novelty and uncertainty sat at the core of so many of my life's hopes and dreams. Yet to stay where I was, on the path down which my life was traveling, meant giving up on them forever.

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The short version of what followed goes like this: in the fall of last year I left home and started down the path of divorce, packed up my dog and what I could fit in my Volkswagen Vanagon, and returned to Western Washington and Edmonds, the town where I grew up. Soon after, my dog and I headed out for a few months on the road in the van, driving down the Pacific Coast through Oregon and California before turning around and following a similar path back to the north. But when I reached Seattle, the area where I've lived for almost all of my life, it no longer felt like I had come home. I'd never before experienced that. Rather than wait to see if the feeling would pass, I decided to move on and look for adventure somewhere else. For no reason other than it struck me as an interesting place to live, I headed a few hundred miles south to Portland, Oregon. That's where I find myself today.

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