Ditching life for dummies

May 3, 2021 Comments Off on Ditching life for dummies

Here’s a question I’ve gotten in various forms: “How were you able to ditch everything in your life, everything you valued, everything you worked for, everything that you represented and that represented you, and embark on a quest for happiness, understanding, enlightenment, and peace?”

The most common form of this question, however, has been “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Followed by, “Congratulations. You’re now a bum.”

The answer is simpler than either of the three questions. Great change only comes out of great crisis. It’s that easy. We cannot change without crisis of the spirit, of the mind, of the heart, of the body, or of the pocketbook, and frankly, to really walk away from life you need a crisis so profound that it encompasses all five.

No person willingly subjects themselves to such changes for purposes of change–those that do are suffering from pathology. The crisis must be external in that circumstances alter so profoundly that you must either double-triple-quadruple down on the status quo, or you must change.

Society exists to buffer us from those crises, and give us a framework within which we can rebuild the life that we lost. Society shuns the person who accepts crisis as a challenge to society, society has no place for the person who, broken into bits, refuses to rebuild what was and insists on continuing the disintegration that the crisis began until, with a clean piece of ground unencumbered by the shoulds, oughts, and musts of society, seeks to construct a life that is new.

Such people end up as the founders of religions, as martyrs, as nameless hoboes, as corpses under a freeway overpass. They never return to, say, accounting or the financial sector.

My crisis came after years of lying and deception about what I really wanted in life, which, in a word, was simply freedom.

From my earliest years I rebelled at authority, at rules, at orders, at things designed to reign in that most fundamental of all freedoms, the freedom to move where I wanted, when I wanted, in the fashion that pleased me most. I tried to run away from home, I got into fights at school, I disobeyed every teacher I ever had, I got suspended, expelled, spanked, beaten, threatened, had things taken away, had sick punishments visited upon me, and was always reminded that I would piss where I was told and nowhere else.

Nor do I speak of pissing idly. It had never occurred to me that being told where to piss was yet another restriction on my freedom until, at age 24, I was standing in the yard of the father-in-law of Jean Reigner, outside Angers. Jean spoke no English and didn’t need to.

“This,” he said, “is the land of my father-in-law. He is a good man and had only one daughter. When I married her, he said to me, ‘Jean, I have plenty of land. Why don’t you and Colette build a house on some of it?’ But of course I refused.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It is very simple. If I build the house, it is still his land. And I did not want that.”

“Why?”

“Because. My piece of land is very small. But you know what?”

“What?”

“If I am on my own land, and I want to piss here, I piss here. If I want to piss there, I piss there. I piss where I want.”

I’ve never forgotten that clearly expressed wisdom, as it sums up my entire life’s quest, simply to be able to piss where I want. And unlike Jean, I want to piss in far more places than a tiny homestead in the Loire Valley.

Despite knowing from age two that I wanted to be free, in one shape or another I have voluntarily ceded that freedom. The details don’t matter, but every person can relate to jobs and relationships that were inadequate. And almost every person can relate to accepting those inadequacies as the price you pay for fitting into what society calls a good spouse, a good parent, a good employee, a good person.

What people cannot accept is that they can still be good, and more importantly, live a good life, without also accepting the inadequacies. People can be happy. People can be satisfied. People can be free.

More radically, we were designed in nature to be all those things. We were engineered for happiness, satisfaction, and freedom; it took society and its blessings to convince us that we can stumble along until death with a life full of compromises, of unhappy moments/days/months/years, and that the only real freedom we deserve is the freedom that someone else tells us we can have.

There were so many signposts telling me that I was on the wrong path, but I was fortunate because my father, for all his shortcomings, steered me into philosophy as a freshman in college. The first course I ever took was an upper division class on Ancient Greek philosophy taught by Ed Allaire.

Tall, gaunt, chain-smoking Camel no-filters in class, on our first day he went straight into Plato’s “Euthypro.” Do we revere the gods because they are good, or are the gods good because we revere them?

It’s safe to say I never graduated from that first day. In various ways, I’ve asked that question and delighted in the non-answers for almost forty years. That gift of dad’s, the ability to question the nature of the belief itself and the origin of the belief, is what has allowed me to walk out of the rubble of my former life and, rather than return to it on bended knee, follow the string laid down by the unseen ball of twine.

Each night that I sleep under the sky and look at the stars it is driven home thus: “You are a complete fucking moron because you don’t even know the phases of the moon.”

Or, in wonderment: “You are so dumb that after a year of stargazing you still can’t locate Arcturus.”

More profoundly still: “You are part of the cosmos not apart from it. Your life is only an infinitesimally small particle existing for the smallest fraction of a nanosecond amidst the utter randomness of nature. Whether you die or live, whether you succeed or fail, whether you discover meaning or only empty space, in five hundred billion years only a relatively small number of people will be able to recall your birthday, your favorite color, or that KOM you fucking owned on Strava that until that little bitch stole it from you.”

None of which is to accept nihilism, any more than accepting that the sun’s core is 27 million degrees, and therefore I’m not wearing a coat when it snows.

Rather, great crisis led to great questioning, places where there are no firm moorings and where the answers shift, exactly the way my answers always used to in math class, where variety was exactly not the spice of life.

Paying your debts means recognizing the gift that my dead father gave me, and also the gift of my dead brother, which was the love of bicycling. As life fell apart, the only thing that seemed to provide stability was the most unstable thing of all, a device that falls over the minute you quit pedaling it. But faith is a funny thing and indeed, the more I’ve ridden, the more layers I’ve sloughed off so that within a year or two or five I will be down to the skin and bones of me. Each thing that falls by the wayside proves how unnecessary it ever was, both by the clang it makes as it rattles off into the ditch, and by the Subtraction Theory of Necessities: Take the thing away and see if you can still live well without it.

As the things reduce in number, which were actually never that great to begin with, I’m left with some simplicities, the bare bones of shelter, clothing, food, bike, cell phone, and the occasional wi-fi connection. That’s actually quite a lot until you consider that the shelter is a small tent or nothing at all, the clothing is one set of wool everything, the food is something prepared and eaten in minutes, and the cell phone is primarily a camera and typewriter.

The reduction in things has been accompanied by, of course, a reduction in human relationships because the only way we can sustain myriad relationships is with myriad things. Study after study confirms the depressing effects of social media, and history confirms that people do best in small numbers and worst in large ones.

Without the “things” to hold those relationships together, they simply go away, and with them go the stresses, the uncertainties, the insecurities, the fears, the judgments, and the emotions–good and bad–attendant with each relationship. The thing we know innately, that it’s better to have one true friend than a thousand acquaintances, is borne out by my stripped down life. Some tiny number of people show me love and compassion for who and what I am, some other number … don’t.

So although Ditching Life for Dummies isn’t easy, it is simple, and in truth, I hope it never happens to you. Some pain is so great that the outcome isn’t rebirth, but death.

But if it does happen, and if you do have a chance to look at life with a fresh set of eyes, I’d (mostly) encourage you to take a long, solo bike ride somewhere far away. You’ll be surprised at the person you end up riding with.

END


A little recovery

April 24, 2021 Comments Off on A little recovery

Thirty-six days, about 1,500 miles, lots of up and down, a bunch of heat, a ration of cold, lots of people, countless cups of instant coffee, zero flats, one achy derailleur, twenty gallons of milk, and a billion or so stars … after all that, a fella needs a rest.

Oh, and death. Yeah, that.

When you keep turning away from the comforts of home, so much so that you begin to see comfort as an enemy, home as “a place to come from or go to, that you pray you’ll never reach,” that’s when you begin sloughing off the skin, layer by layer, and finally get to see what’s underneath. Pretty or not, it’s the real you.

In my case, what was underneath was tired. But along with the unraveling comes something else that Huck Finn knew as well as anyone, the inability to sleep indoors or in a bed. My recovery began at night on a pallet on the porch, staring fitfully at the stars. And of course it reminded me of Woody Guthrie and one of the songs that my dad used to always hum, “Make Me A Pallet Down on Your Floor.”

A couple of days later, Kristie decided that what I really needed was less “laying my head in a bed on her floor” and more “active recovery.”

“Let’s go for a hike,” she said. “I found a perfect campsite for later and want to show it to you!”

I didn’t ask whether it was going to be hard, long, and miserable, because walking with Kristie always is. The only thing I ever ask is that we not climb up and over granite faces, which is what she does when left to her own devices. I’m not afraid of dying, but I’m not going around knocking on the door, either.

It took us two-and-a-half hours to get to the campsite, going up fearsomely steep and sandy trails that, however hard they were to climb, promised to be lots harder going back down. This is one of the beauties of walking: All movement requires that some muscle somewhere contract. Unlike bicycling, where you work might and main to go up with the dessert of the downhill on the other side, walking applies equal misery equally, because walking downhill is every bit as hard as walking up.

“You did good!’ she said, which simply meant “You didn’t complain.”

Typically, she runs these impossible trails; what took me 2.5 hours to ascend she mountain goats up in an hour and a half.

The weather was perfect; cool and clear, and as we sat on the grassy knoll alone, so far from anyone or anything that “people” were simply an ideation, a gentle breeze kicked up. I made camp coffee and she whipped out some bananas and string cheese.

You probably know this about hiking and biking, but I’ll say it anyway. It makes you really hungry and the simplest things taste so good. This makes sense. People evolved eating things that tasted like crap, leaves and roots and bugs, and sour and bitter things with nary a shred of cumin or crushed black pepper to soften the blow to their tongues. Hunger was a way that the organism knew it was time for fuel, and also a mechanism to convince you that crap tasted great.

And what could be crappier than instant coffee and string cheese? Nothing, but it tasted sublime. Sancho Panza, my favorite traveler of all time, said it best: “Hunger is the best sauce.”

After the feast we lay down in the grass and napped in the sunshine until it felt like we should begin walking back down. As we got towards the bottom, Kristie asked, “How do your legs feel?”

“Exhausted. Sore. Tired.”

“Oh, that’s good. It means you’re in shape. If you’re sore the day of, you’ll be fine tomorrow. It’s the delayed soreness that’s the worst and the sign of being out of shape.”

I consoled myself with this professional advice the rest of the day, as my legs hurt like hell. The following day I awoke and could barely walk. “I thought my legs weren’t supposed to hurt?” I said.

“You’re just out of shape. But at least they won’t hurt tomorrow.”

And she was right. The following day they didn’t hurt, they were excruciatingly painful in places that no one ever gets sore: The area above my ankles. I didn’t even know that was a place.

A few days before getting back to Wofford Heights, I’d gotten a message through Warmshowers.org that a couple of Belgians were riding north and coming through town. “Could we camp at your place?” they asked.

“Of course,” I’d replied. Kristie gave them instructions on how to get into the house and when I arrived they were happily camped in the living room. However, there had been a few miscommunications that we had to iron out, which ironing basically involved them moving their shit outside.

They were 26, architects, and about as adventurous as it comes. They got to L.A. with a duffel bag, then started looking for a tandem on Craigslist.

“You’ll never find one,” they were told. “There are no bikes anywhere.”

So they immediately found a racing tandem that fit perfectly, bought some cheap touring wheels and a set of panniers, and off they went. “We wanted to ride to Canada,” they said, “but first we went to San Diego.”

This is the kind of misdirection I love. Heading north? Then for fuxake go south.

Lacking anything besides Google maps, they proceeded to take the worst roads they could find, ending up on the 14 freeway at one point, and for one terrible stretch pedaling endlessly into a desert headwind out of Victorville.

“We were so hot and tired that we threw our bike down against a wall abutting an RV park in the desert,” Martin said. “We hoped we wouldn’t get evicted.”

After a few minutes out came the owner of the park, a drunken Ukrainian. “Are you thirsty?” he asked.

“Yes,” they said.

“Here, my best vodka.”

“We can’t. We’re still riding today.”

“Strong vodka make strong Ukrainian leg. Here, I give you water.” He went into the trailer and came out with two full glasses.

Martin and Mjelma sniffed the water. “It has vodka?”

“Of course it have vodka. But weak with water because not Ukrainian.”

After getting hassled by a pickup while they were on the freeway, they changed routes and ended up taking the Willow Springs-Tehachapi pass up through the wind farms. “We had difficulty,” Martin said with beautiful Belgian understatement, like Eddy saying after winning Paris-Roubaix, “I had difficulty.”

I knew. I had barely made it up that same pass on a bike, much less a 140-pound tandem.

“The next day we had more difficulty. Our base tape on the rim broke and the nipple flatted all our spares. We had just gotten over that big climb.”

He was referring to the 10-mile climb up Bodfish-Caliente Road. “What did you do?”

“We camped next to the road and the next day we got a ride here,” he said.

I asked them if they had any cycling maps, which they didn’t, so I gave them a copy of my Sierras-Cascades route to Canada. They photographed all the maps, ate all of our food, and cheerily set off the next day filled with optimism, confidence, and tummies stuffed with my best eggs and hash browns.

How can you not love two young people on a tandem riding to Canada cluelessly? How can you doubt that all you need in life is desire and will? How can you not smile when you play the tiniest role in some young person’s life memories?

This is the other thing about riding around on your bicycle. It’s a circle of kindness, only sometimes you’re the giver and sometimes you’re the beneficiary.

In my case, the penultimate day of riding deposited me in front of a supermarket in Tehachapi. It was late in the day, I was famished, and had no place to stay the night. There is a park that prohibits camping, so I figured I’d go there after dinner and set up camp when the sun went down.

Dinner in this case was bagels with peanut butter and ham, washed down with ice cream. I sat on a bench and spooned the chocolate concoction into my mouth.

A fellow walked up. “You made it,” he said.

“Sort of.”

“We saw you back on 90th and Rosamond. How’d you like that wind?”

“I think this would be a good place for a wind farm.” Tehachapi has about 10,000 wind turbines that you ride through as you climb the pass.

He laughed. “We wondered how you were going to get over the pass into that headwind, loaded down and everything.”

“Same way I get over every pass.”

“How’s that?”

“Keep pedaling. And cursing.”

He laughed again and began asking about my bike. I knew it. Another cyclist. “Where are you staying tonight?” he asked.

“I was going to camp illegally but all I need is a tiny space to lay down in. Don’t even need to pitch my tent, it’s not cold at all now. Any chance I could camp in your yard?”

His eyes twinkled and with no hesitation he said, “Absolutely. I live a couple of miles from here. You look pretty safe. Not too many mass murderers eat Ben & Jerry’s.”

Mark texted me directions, I finished dinner, and rode over.

He and his girlfriend Chris welcomed me with a perfect place to lie down, a fire pit, kabobs, and great stories. Mark had been in the navy and was now a science teacher; Chris was a private tutor in Las Vegas who was also working on her search-and-rescue diving certification.

They both ran marathons, and though Mark had almost been killed when clipped by a truck a few years ago, he still rode bikes, though sticking to off-road. The next morning I made breakfast, packed, and made the final leg back to Wofford Heights. The climbs were hard but I had tailwinds the entire day.

Isn’t there some saying somewhere about “May the wind always be at your back”? Well, it was. And it was mighty nice.

END


The ask

April 15, 2021 Comments Off on The ask

Shortly before my father died I began sending out a handful of texts and emails to people who I owed apologies.

It was an odd feeling to watch the replies trickle in, as well as the silences.

Some forgave quickly. One imposed impossible conditions. One called to talk. One forgave then, incredibly, asked forgiveness himself.

It’s trite but the apology and the plea for forgiveness are not for the offended but for the offender. Whether given or refused, it’s not being forgiven that cleanses, it’s the act of getting on your knees and begging.

Those who forgive want to uplift you and to validate in themselves that they are good people, that they believe in redemption. Those who prefer to rub your nose in your own shit, or let you twist in the wind, have their reasons: the hurt was too big, the apology was too small, the protection of anger is more important than the vulnerability of forgiveness, or simply that they don’t believe in it.

But when you’ve begged, you can’t then judge or condem the victim whatever his response. Beggars can’t, in truth, be choosers.

And for my part, the act of asking was enough.

Almost.

One person to whom I apologized, Rich Hirschinger, suggested that I could do it publicly. That stung but he was right. If you are willing to say “I’m truly sorry” in a whisper, you should be willing to say it in a shout.

Death isn’t an endpoint, it’s a reorganization. The person who was, is gone, and others seamlessly fill in the space he once occupied, be it a desk, a room, or the communications crackle of a phone line.

With that reorganization come new feelings and realizations, primarily sadness and regret. As one friend wrote, you become an orphan. In my case, there weren’t a lot of unsaid things between me and dad. But in the reorganization, I realized there were things unsaid to others.

As Lincoln famously said to Edwin Stanton, “The things I have said, I do not now unsay.” Because once said, it’s forever.

On the other hand, I can say to Rich and a handful of others, accepted or not, believed or not, understood or not, “I am truly sorry.”

To which he shot back these ancient Jewish words of condolence: “May your father’s memory be a blessing.”

END


Of shoes and ships and sealing wax

April 8, 2021 Comments Off on Of shoes and ships and sealing wax

I am happy.

The tiny crack on the horizon, letting in fingers of multihued sunlight split more perfectly than by any prism; the coos of mourning doves and the braying joy of grackles; the blustery night’s wind tamed to a gentle pre-dawn breeze … and time, uncurling at its own pace, unhurried by alarms, to-dos, notifications, meetings, phone calls, emails, texts, and the imperatives of modern enslavement, simply unrolling with the rising sun, beckoning, asking without rush or threat or command, “And what will you do TODAY?”

Today is of course nothing more than yesterday’s memories, tomorrow’s expectations, and today’s necessities condensed into the mortal now. And yesterday, well, she was a doozy. My crib was a culvert beneath CA 111, southbound, and shared with a colony of greatly disturbed cliff swallows.

As the sun dipped they would twist, careen, and jet into the culvert for the safety of their adobe nests only to find human encamped at the far end. For a while they refused to roost, calling, warning, pirouetting, then racing back out to reconsider, reconnoiter, loudly chatter and complain.

I lay motionless in my sweat and waited for the dropping sun to do its work, forcing the swallows into the now-questionable safety of home. Because on the road, when done properly, you learn to wait. Things unfold, sweat dries, breezes spring up, and birds eventually roost. Immediately above my tent, in the failing rays, the last two holdouts wafted in and performed the most intricate ballet ever, rocketing from full speed to zero, wings folding, tiny feet opened to grasp the mud doorstep and, upside down, vanish into home.

Perfectly.

So tell me again about that quad you did on the ice that time …

My wake-up call was repeated throughout the night as BNSF blew its train horns ceaselessly until I got up, packed up, and started the 60-mile slog from Mecca to Brawley. The early morning air smelled so sweet and the breeze blew cool, pretending that desert, heat, dryness, and wind weren’t rattling the cage, roaring to be set free.

And they were.

CA 111 along the east coast of the Salton Sea is spectacular. There is nothing there but sand, water, sky, and an impeccably paved road with manicured shoulder and zero traffic. The absence of cars makes the heart grow fonder even against a hot headwind.

Routes like this, raw beauty, tough conditions, and a culvert for a hotel make you feel like you really are traveling. Call it touring or bikepacking or roughing it, but don’t call it easy, don’t call it scripted. After 24 days of hard traveling you either find the groove or you find the fastest way home that you can.

I was mulling this and other things when I saw a border patrol checkpoint. The shade beckoned and I was ready for a couple of oranges and some water. The agents graciously let me borrow bench and shade, and as I got ready to leave, up rolled two cyclists. To say that the Salton Sea is not a typical bike tour route is an understatement.

But these guys weren’t typical.

They had simply thrown some shit in a crate, strapped it on their bikes, slapped on a sombrero and started pedaling. Forget the gear, the hashtags, the branded clothing. Their brand was “Fuck let’s go,” and they had smiles pasted from ear to ear. The night before they had camped in Slab City, itself more adventure than a hundred culverts. Google it …

I found my campsite, $7 a day, but not before loading up on food at Niland. I drank a quart of milk and a quart of Gatorade, sitting in front of the grocery and watching the parade of desert people. I saw more hardened, DGAF, dirt poor, nonchalant, generally happy people in that half hour than I’ve ever seen in LA.

Why?

Well, one thing is things. The less you have, the happier you are. And as my life is distilling down to what I can physically carry, I’m nearing 190 proof, the capacity to carry only a few things but also to carry infinite love. Having no things seems to equate with having no-thing to do besides, you know, live.

My reward for the day’s sweat was a sunset performance without peer. Every diet should include daily helpings of sunrise and sunset. They help digest the day, reset your soul, make the cycle complete. And the only limit on how many servings you can have is the length of your life.

END


Day 23: High desert beauty

April 6, 2021 Comments Off on Day 23: High desert beauty

There are ditches, and there are ditches.

A few days spent with friends was enough to rejuvenate the legs and get some spectacular desert views.

Yesterday we returned to Joshua Tree National Park. There was a whipping tailwind all the way to the bottom of the 12-mile ascent, but cheery conversation and fresh legs made it pass in a flash. Of course beforehand we loaded up on necessaries like … water.

All the campgrounds were full, so we wandered off the road and improvised. When you don’t have a car or an RV, and the size of the park is bigger than Rhode Island, it’s easy to slip away. So we did! It was the ditch of all ditches.

We made camp coffee, drank some more water, then realized that we might not have enough. I walked back over to the road, stood on the shoulder, held up my empty bottle and begged. A nice couple stopped and gladly filled up my bottle for me. I walked back to the rock camp and we waited for the sun to descend. The giant stone we’d camped under threw a big cool shadow, so we sat and talked and whiled away the rest of the day.

When the colors began to get right, we got up and stomped around, taking pictures.

We put up the tent but left off the fly. “Let’s be quiet,” I said, “and see what we can hear.”

The only things we heard became our lullaby, coyotes barking mournfully at the moon, and the soughing of the wind.

END


Star blanket

April 3, 2021 Comments Off on Star blanket

When you lie on your back, with your eyes open into the black sky, the stars brighten, shimmer, and then clot the heaven so thickly that they float down upon your consciousness like a blanket. It is impossible to stargaze in this state; our millions of years of evolution take over, we are reminded that day is done, and the light from those countless distant suns slowly and gently presses your lids over your eyes, and then you are asleep.

The last image was the brilliance of some easily recognized constellation, the Big Dipper and Orion, with a smattering of Pleiades on the side.

We people were made to sleep outdoors, and sleep deeply, that is all.

My pavilion at Ocotillo Wells was starry for a while, then overtaken by the brilliant moon and the muppets in the RV across the way, revving their ATV toys as they sprinted to the toilets and back in between alcohols. I was up at six, and by 7:30 had begun the second day of my trek out of the mountains over to Joshua Tree.

A brisk tailwind had combined with the cool weather and the slight downhill to create the bicycling trifecta, and I was at the intersection of CA 86 in no time at all. I emptied two of my large water bottles to save weight, and transitioned from the quiet and pleasant back roads to the miserable racket, road trash, and 18-wheelers plowing along this freeway to Los Angeles.

The tailwind became a sidewind, the downhill became slightly up, and I toiled for an hour and a half to cover about fifteen miles. At Salton City I was rewarded with a Subway and chocolate milk.

Making good time I reached Mecca before one, and was completely wrung out from the heat, the wind, and the traffic. I whipped into a travel stop, deliriously thirsty, and downed a couple of bottles of Gatorade before going into Mecca to find a grocery store.

There was a place in town called Leon’s Meat Market; I was the only white guy there. I had sandwich meat, oranges, milk, and beef jerky on my shopping list for dinner, but only found jerky and oranges as the milk was in one-gallon jugs. I sat out on the pavement cutting up the oranges as a very disturbed, mostly naked man wandered up and began screaming epithets in Spanish.

He didn’t pay any attention to me but continued to scream and curse. As he caught his breath I said, “Hey, man, are you okay? Do you need money?”

His screaming immediately ceased and he became completely normal. “Yeah, man, I’m fucking broke and starving hungry.”

“Here,” I said, and gave him some cash.

He took it. “Shit, thank you. That bitch that just drove off stole my drugs and now I’m off my medication and I have these fucking episodes. I’m so hungry. Thank you, man. What’s your name?”

“Seth.”

“I’m Pedro. That’s a bitching bike.”

“Thanks.”

“Is it carbon?”

“Yeah.”

“Sweet. I like the way you have it set up.”

We had a completely normal conversation, reminding me that “crazy homeless people” are, you know, people, and they have the same problems as everyone else, and when you address their immediate problems there is often nothing odd or frightening or weird about them at all. I remounted to go look for dinner, which I found at the Dollar General–a half-gallon of milk and a package of sliced turkey. The road was supposed to turn into Box Canyon Rd., where I was planning to camp, but after several miles there were still nothing but orchards, and it was fryingly hot. I was getting desperate because the barren landscape suggested that there wasn’t going to be any shade anywhere, i.e. the next five hours would be spent out in the open sunlight.

I briefly considered sneaking into one of the orchards and holing up beneath the trees but the “No Trespassing” signs everywhere seemed pretty serious.

The road finally turned into Box Canyon after a few hot and slogging and uphill miles, but nary a scrap of shade anywhere. Finally, about a quarter-mile up the road I spied a tree with shade. The white sand was so brilliant that the black spot of shade stood out from a great distance. I eagerly mashed the pedals.

As I got closer, my heart sank. A family had camped out beneath the tree and was picnicking. This is how it is in poor places with poor people. They will recreate on a barren patch of sand under a tree and be happy with it. I sure would have been …

A few hundred yards farther there was another tree, less shaded but with enough to provide cover until the sun went down. I pulled over and set up camp. One thing about bikepacking like this is that you often have several hours at a stretch with nothing to do, so you do what people have done since time immemorial: You sit around and watch. And you know what? When you watch, you see things. Funny, that.

In addition to a hummingbird in my tree, I realized that the “barren” landscape was awash with flowers, tiny but beautiful. And as the sun traced the sky, the colors changed on the rock faces, of the trees, even of the sand. I wandered over to the picnickers to see if they had extra water, as my ride the next day would be the queen stage through Joshua Tree National Park, but they had none to spare and instead offered me the coldest, best Coke I have ever drunk.

I stretched out my tarp, ate three turkey sandwiches, cooked up a cup of coffee, and watched the sun go down. I was covered with gnats, not of the biting variety, but we got along pretty well with me occasionally brushing them away out of principle more than anything else.

I got into my sleeping bag and looked up at the stars before nodding off. There were a few cars on the road until ten o’clock, after which it was a silent as only the desert can be, with a cool breeze blowing across my face the entire night long.

I was apprehensive about the next day’s ride. My friend John, who had offered me a patio to camp on for a couple of days in the town of Joshua Tree, had given me directions from Mecca. Box Canyon Road was a 15-mile gentle climb up to Interstate-10, and from there it was about 30 miles across Joshua Tree National Park to his house on the other side.

Something felt funny, though, and it was my experience riding in the last two days of heat. You go slow in the desert. The wind changes. The topography is never flat. There’s little food and water. It wouldn’t hurt to start early.

So I got up at 4:00 and set off at 5:30 under brilliant moonshine. I made good time, but it was still uphill, about 1,600 feet of climbing to the Interstate. I crossed over and was on the outskirts of the park. The sun was already doing its thing and it was hot. I had doubts about my water supply because I’d gotten a nasty shock: It was almost 50 miles to cross the park. I was thankful I’d started early.

A guy in an RV topped off my water bottles and gave me some great, mostly inaccurate information about what lay ahead. “You’re not riding your bike across the park, are you?”

“Yeah.”

“Man, I don’t know if I’d advise that. It’s all uphill until the last few miles.”

I always wonder about people who advise me not to ride my bike somewhere. Should I walk? “Well, I’ll give it a shot.”

“Here,” he said, jamming a couple of Clif Bars in my hand. “You’re gonna need it.”

And … he was right.

The first seven miles were into a 20 mph headwind, up a nasty grade that took an hour and a half to get over. Thankfully there was a visitor center atop the climb, so I stopped, got water, and made my newest creation: Oatfee, which is made by dumping instant coffee into your instant oatmeal. I was so hungry it actually tasted great.

Two ladies came up to me. “Excuse me,” said one.

“Yes?”

“We saw you toiling up that hill. My god, the wind was incredible. We could feel it pushing against the car. And on a bike? Oh, my god. And I said to Sally, ‘I bet that guy has a story.’ Do you mind me asking your story?”

I smiled and told her a story which was 100% true except for the parts that I made up.

Another guy came up to me to chat. He was from Georgia, traveling with his family. “I’m a cyclist,” he said, “and saw you riding up that hill. That didn’t look fun!”

“It wasn’t.”

We got to talking and he, too, wanted to know my story, so I told him one that was mostly true. I’ve changed my story a bit as I have changed, but basically it goes like this. “I’ve decided to spent the rest of my life doing what I love.”

“And what is that?”

“Riding my bike and Chaucer.”

“I think I understand the first part,” he said.

So I launched off into an explanation of my quest to memorize the Canterbury Tales in Middle English and how if he had six or seven hours I could entertain him with the parts I’ve memorized so far. Oddly, he preferred to talk about derailleurs and bikepacking gear, so I obliged. He was no David Treece.

After my oatfee I remounted and was delighted to find that my guide a few miles back was completely wrong, or rather, he was a motorist, which is kind of the same thing. Motorists and motorcyclists don’t understand the words “uphill” and “downhill.” Bicycle riders, of course, do, and it’s simple. If the road is mostly 0-degrees it is “flat.” If it is +degrees, it is “uphill,” and if it is -degrees, it is “downhill.”

From the visitor center it was a screaming, 15-mile descent, and by screaming I mean “screaming silently with happiness because -degrees.” To a motorist it might not have seemed downhill, but when you are spinning the eleven … it’s downhill. I kept overtaking a couple that was stopping at every “Exhibit Ahead” sign, so I finally pulled over and asked if they wanted me to take a picture of them together.

They were delighted and they were French. I snapped a few pictures and told them my story when prompted. They carefully listened. “This is very beautiful,” the man said. I don’t think he was talking about the thick crust of salt covering my face or the third-degree sunburn on my nose.

The next section of the park began, a 12-mile climb. There was no wind but it was a slog and my legs were twisted dead. After a couple of miles I stopped at the ultimate Muppet Farm, a roadside cholla cactus garden. I wheeled in to eat a Clif bar and drink more water.

The muppets were everywhere. One of them saw me and quickly whispered something to his wife like, “Look! Over there! An authentic crazy desert rat!”

“Oh, gosh, Mortimer! Just like in the guidebook! See if you can get his picture.”

So Mortimer from Culver City came over and asked if he could take my picture, with the same deferential tone you’d ask if you were trying to get a photo up close of someone’s face who didn’t have any teeth. “Sure, I said.”

About this time Sylvester from Beverly Hills drove up in his giant Mercedes. He stepped out, properly attired for the outback without seeming to notice that this curated little tourist stop was much more In Front than Outback. He carefully adjusted an expensive porkpie hat over his thinning locks, then drew out an Armani leather shoulder bag/harness, and, clearly having gotten the March catalog for “Rich Schlumps” had simply called in and said, “I want everything that the model is wearing on page 32. Size medium tummy.”

The model had been wearing a $5,000 pair of brushed suede-and-alligator, ankle-high bootlets, which, if you’d been driving by on a Moto Guzzi at 90 might have looked like desert wear, but at anything less than that looked so delicate and expensive that so much as a scuff mark would have reduced any normal person to tears.

Sylvester then stood in the parking lot and carefully rotated 1/4 turns to the audience, soaking up his moment on the tarmac runway surrounded by pricks, cactus and otherwise, knowing that he had killed the In Front. I watched him walk slowly along the pavement, snap a few pictures with his phone, then carefully pick his way back to the chariot. He could now say he had “done” Joshua Tree. I hoped it had been as good for the tree as it had been for him.

Joshua Tree is an interesting park because it is the size of Rhode Island, bigger, actually, and has only a couple of tiny campgrounds which are booked about 12 years in advance. At first it seems like the public isn’t getting the chance to enjoy the park until you realize that the “public” is Mortimer and Sylvester. Muppet enjoyment of nature is five minutes outdoors followed by a 2-hour drive through the park to the alcohols that await in town.

The trails were empty except for a couple of designated trailheads swollen with cars; but the fat and lazy profile of the muppets didn’t fool me at all. You could see clots of people at the trailhead, but gazing down the trails you could see they were as desolate as the rest of the park. Muppets don’t like no desert trek.

After the muppet stop I toiled another ten slow miles to the top of the park, then began an amazing 12-mile descent, maybe more, that ended in a 4 or 5-mile straight-line downhill into the town of 29 Palms. I hit the 7-11, delirious from heat and thirst, drank more Gatorade, and called John to get directions to his desert retreat.

“Just get on the main highway. We’re just 11 miles down the road. It’s not too bad, especially because there’s not much wind.”

Only eleven miles at the end of a brutal, windy, hot day is enough to break anyone, but it was nothing as to what awaited me at the turnoff to John’s place: 1-mile straight up climb in soft sand to his house, which abuts the northern border of the park. I struggled as hard up that last mile as I can remember struggling anywhere, but John met me about halfway and we rode up to the top together.

He fed me water and a giant cheeseburger, which I didn’t taste and simply swallowed. Following that he whipped up chicken and beef tacos for dinner, then showed me out to my chaise-longue on the patio.

It had a soft mattress and ushered in the sweetest sleep I’ve had in memory. I lay there for a few minutes before pulling the blanket of stars over my eyes and drifting off to sleep.

END


Miracle in the Desert

March 31, 2021 Comments Off on Miracle in the Desert

I was sitting out on the veranda of a coffee shop in Alpine and could not help eavesdropping on the conversation at the table next to mine. “The best bird of the day for sure was the Lewis’s woodpecker,” the lady said.

“Oh yes, for sure,” the other lady agreed.

I could not help butting in. It’s not every day that you hear people talking about woodpeckers over coffee. I asked them about their find and they lit up.

Then I asked, “How far is it?”

“It’s not far at all,” she said. “It’s about 15 or 20 minutes down the freeway and then…”

Of course 15 or 20 minutes down the freeway is nothing at all in a car but it’s quite something on a bicycle. So I told them I didn’t think I would be able to go see it today. They were both very good birders and immediately provided me with the details necessary for distinguishing a ladderbacked from a Nuttall’s woodpecker.

This is the kind of thing that happens when you eavesdrop and pedal around random places by bicycle.

After much consideration, I decided to forgo Mexico and instead to head north. I have stopped cooking and now simply eat whatever I can find at the supermarket, which is basically everything. It is so much easier to finish the day with a sandwich and some fruit than to have to cook dinner from raw ingredients. I miss the taste, but don’t appear to be missing much in the way of nutrients.

Milk, sandwich, fruit, jerky, dried fruit, and some other essentials seem to provide most of everything that I need.

Leaving Alpine I headed for Descanso. It was warm and hilly. After a while the road went up and then it turned into dirt. As I was standing by the roadside snapping a picture, a group of riders zoomed down. But then something unusual happened. Instead of continuing downward with their zoom, they turned around and came back up to see if I was okay. It is the only time in my sojourns that a passing cyclist going downhill has stopped, turned around, and climbed back up in order to check on me. It’s a good feeling. Cyclists are people, too!

Turns out that we both knew Sam Ames, and they were prepping for the upcoming Rock Cobbler on April 10. I told them to be sure and tell Sam that they had seen his crazy friend Seth out in the middle of nowhere. They said they would, and they also provided me with excellent intel on the road ahead.

After Descanso I turned north onto California 79 and began climbing and climbing and climbing, which was a bit of a bore because I had already been climbing since I left San Diego. After several miles I came to the Rancho Cuyamaca state park. Fortunately it was closed and the campground had been shut down. There was a sign that said “next campground 5 miles.”

I was highly unenthused at the prospect of pedaling more miles more uphill to another campground that might or might not be open. So, I skirted the fence and entered the campground. I went down by the creek and set up camp. It is so stupid that campgrounds are closed to cyclists. But then I recall John Forrester’s description of our society as one that is subservient to “motordom” and it makes sense. Bad sense, anyway.

The following morning I sneaked out of the campground and headed towards Julian. Unsurprisingly the road went up again for about 14 miles, and then a couple of miles of downhill. Julian was infested with PCT hikers doing their best imitation of the Southbay crowd as it readies for departure on the Donut Ride. There was much preening, much pridefulness, and a lot of enthusiasm about the upcoming beatdown. Some would finish, most would quit. Just like the Donut!

I got peanut butter and fruit in Julian and continued on. Happily, the road was steeply downhill for the next 6 miles. Less happily, there was a massive headwind the entire way. The road continued downward and the wind continued faceward. I was planning to make Ocotillo Wells and call it a day, 33 miles or so from Julian. From there I hoped to make my way up to a buddy’s place at Joshua Tree over the next couple of days.

I was unhappy to find out that the route out of Ocotillo Wells can’t be ridden on a bicycle, which meant I had another 50 miles of riding in the desert before I could get back on track. There is a single store in Ocotillo Wells, and in the middle of the desert, guess what? Water is expensive! $3.50 for a small bottle. I bought two and was grateful, drank a quart of milk, ate another sandwich, and decided that I would ride until I found the right sized ditch with a twig or two of shade in which I could wait out the rest of the day.

My phone had little charge left and my auxiliary battery was dead. My hopes for finding power in the desert were zero. That’s when on the left I spied a giant pavilion with toilets, water, massive shade, and most incredibly of all, electrical outlets. That worked.

Of course there were the obligatory “no camping” and “closed” signs everywhere, but I simply treated them as invitations to come in, set up camp, wait for the sun to go down, and try to get the jump on tomorrow’s miles and tomorrow’s heat.

END


Surprised Not Surprised

March 29, 2021 § 1 Comment

Climbing up Torrey Pines I was not surprised to get passed by numerous ARCs, none of whom said a word. What surprised me was this guy, John Kaplan, who rides for PAA in Pasadena, because he slowed to chat. Some ARCs, when they see a bicycle, all they see is another bicycle. So cool. Of course we knew people in common and had a lovely conversation that made the grade go by before I even knew I was on it. When people are kind to you it makes you happy.

John and I split off and I continued along; the day’s destination was Alpine, CA. Along the roadside was a deep shag carpet of orange. I stopped to smell the flowers like the cliche says, but they were without fragrance, so I did the next best thing and drank them with my eyes. Bike touring or bikepacking or, as it’s best known, “dicking off,” is the world’s best way to see the world. As David Treese said the night before, “There’s nothing better than seeing the world at the speed of a bicycle.”

A bit farther on, the powers that be have almost-completed a segregated bikeway that I kind of like. I’ve ridden the road numerous times as a road and it’s never been much fun. But San Diego County is trying to put together the roughest of patchworks to make it possible to kinda-sorta get around the area without being in the cross-hairs of the motorists. Much as I think we should be putting our dollars on education, laws, enforcement, slower speeds, and creating the critical mass that will make cyclists a legitimate part of traffic, it was nonetheless cool to buzz along like this … sometimes the good is the enemy of the commonsensical, but in this case, well, it worked for me.

Shortly thereafter I got a personal guide to the next section of my route, thanks to Norm Guay and his buddy Jimmy. Norm too said, “Hi!” and wanted to know “the story.” I love people like this, kitted up and on a schedule but not too busy to slow down, chat, and then show me the shortcuts along the best paths.

After parting, well, I’m simply not surprised anymore, even though I am wondering, “Is this really happening?” Meet Bill Webb, a blog reader, who spied me, flipped around, and chased me down to say hello. I feel famous, but in reality I think I simply look so weird that anyone on two wheels is bound to do a second-take. Bill measures molecules at Scripps and we had a great chat before he turned around to go back to the lab to “feed his spectrometer.”

Getting out of town I met these two friendly guys along the way, who were likewise not too busy to take a break from their Tour prep and talk to a fuzzy ol’ wanker dragging a leaden bicycle. The were interested as hell in bikepacking, so we talked about camping, how to do it, and they showed me a couple of key turns before we parted.

On Mission Gorge Road, knowing I was going up a gorge, I swung over at the Vons and had lunch. Lots of big calories and a glimpse at the map, which was up, up, up, as it had been more or less since Torrey Pines. I knew I had some beautiful riding coming up but recalled this route when I rode to Houston and quite literally came unstitched. Today was a different day, so the heat didn’t bother me any more than the elevation.

The entrance to the trail was thoughtfully set up for bicycles with the placement of a giant stone that would tear your derailleur and crank off if you didn’t carefully lift and guide. After that it was beautiful, easy, sunny climbing, and soon enough I was in Santee.

After Santee, which was all up followed by more up, I stopped at a 7-11 for a Gatorade and met some cool faces on the way. These two guys were buying life’s essentials and they wanted to talk bikes, touring, and life. I obliged. We stood out there for ten minutes as they pumped, probed, and generally enjoyed the hell out of my yarn. People love an adventure, even–or especially–when they are on a beer run. After that I ran into Aaron, a U.S. Army vet who has been living under a bridge for the last two years. He was standing on the roadside next to his bike, winded and hot.

“You okay?”

“Oh, yeah. Just resting.”

“You okay for cash?”

“I’m broke, man.”

I handed him a few bucks and watched the appreciation play across his face. Then he said, “You’re welcome to join me at my camp if you don’t have anywhere to stay.”

I passed on the invitation since I wanted to make Alpine and still had a bit of riding to go, all uphill, but it struck me how it is often people with very little who are most open and willing to lend a hand to strangers. And then I thought something I’ve often thought, which is that people have an infinite capacity to endure difficulty, but we are absolutely unable to long endure ease, plenty, and wealth.

In Alpine I was worked, hot, thirsty, and ready for dinner. A plate of Mexican food later, a little bushwhacking, and I called it a day.

END

___________________

Dirt patch upgrade with Chaucer

March 28, 2021 Comments Off on Dirt patch upgrade with Chaucer

I had staked out a little patch of sand behind a sign that said “No Camping.” I was waiting for the sun to go down and for the last ranger patrol to do his walk-through before stretching out my tarp, dragging my bike into the bushes, and curling up in my sleeping bag.

As I sat there a surfer walked by. “Where you headed?”

“Mexico,” I said. “Or back to the Sierras.”

“That’s cool! I walked from here to San Francisco once. It is so awesome to be outdoors.”

We chatted. His name was Tyson, and when he heard of my camping plan, he said, “You’ll probably be okay. But the solid bet is to pedal a bit more to Solana Beach, past the Cardiff Kook, and then scoot off onto the nature trail that follows the lagoon. You can set up a proper camp there, you’ll be the only person, and no one will hassle you. That’s what I’d do.”

In addition to being a local and having the cred of wildcamping all the way to San Francisco, I was feeling nervous about my current choice. So I thanked him heartily and moved on.

The path had a lot of houses on it, but they thinned out after crossing the railroad tracks, which had a giant “SUICIDE HOTLINE” sign right where you would step in front of the train if you were so inclined. I supposed from the placement that many had been.

The other side of the tracks had a couple of very auspicious spots but I continued on until there were no buildings, nothing. “Sweet,” I hummed to myself.

Around the bend, though, it got salty. There was a giant warehouse converted into a brewery, with an open wall facing the lagoon and shoulder-to-shoulder patrons so close to the path I could have touched them as I slowly pedaled by. North County being North County, where everyone either has or is married to someone who has a $15k bike, many eyes followed my beard, my raggedy locks, and my rig. I was glad to be past.

A couple hundred yards away I found a perfect spot tucked up against some marsh reeds. There was a flat patch of sand, well, not flat, but not steep, either. I laid down my pack and got ready to wait the last fifteen or twenty minutes until sunset when I could lay things out. I looked out at the lagoon in the setting sun.

“Hey, Seth!” a voice called.

I turned, startled. It had sounded like he said, “Seth.” A guy was approaching. Then he said it again. “Seth!”

I didn’t recognize him. “Yes?”

“Dave. You don’t know me but I read your blog. I saw you ride by the brewery. Where are you staying?”

I pointed to the patch of sand. “You’re welcome to stay with me,” he said. “I have a patio if you prefer being outside.”

The serendipity washed over us both. He is from Ohio and has only been in SoCal for a few months. He’d been sitting with his wife and a friend when I rode by. “I know that guy!” he’d shouted, to everyone’s amazement, before dashing out the door. I don’t think it’s common in this area for residents to go dashing away after bicyclists who look like they are either recently paroled or evading the law.

Dave, Molly, and Allison were all on bikes and lived a mile or so away in Del Mar, atop one very hard climb followed by an even harder one. The whole way we marveled and laughed at the chance encounter, until I reflected on the wisdom of Bryan Kevan, my touring Buddha, who had said: “These serendipitous moments of chance encounter aren’t chance at all. They are what happen when you walk out the door and start touring.”

Dave and Molly fixed me a spectacular meal, far beyond the patio upgrade that I’d been expecting, and before that, Dave asked me to do something that only one person, my dad, has ever requested: A Chaucer recitation.

Flattered and elated, I delivered the first minute or so of the General Prologue, “Whan that Aprille …” Since we’re right around the corner from April, what could have been more apt?

I got up the next morning refreshed, made coffee and oatmeal, packed my bike, and got ready to roll out. As part of my Dirt Path to Del Mar Patio upgrade, Dave sent me off with a cup of gourmet pourover coffee, and Molly made the most delicious bowl of fruit and yogurt. Winston, one of their two pugs, kept me company as I ate and pondered the day’s route.

Not sure where I’m headed next. Mexico? Back to the Sierras? Either way, I’m pretty sure that Ms. Serendipity will be just around the bend.

END


Day 13: Goin’ south

March 27, 2021 § 1 Comment

Planned on camping at Bolsa Chica SP, but they had no tent or hiker-biker sites. More discrimination in favor of cars and junk haulers, and against cyclists, pedestrians, and people with no fixed address.

Still, it was a brilliant day with a crisp tailwind, so I sailed south through Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and San Clemente. The park there was also closed to bike campers, but that didn’t dint the sunshine or tailwind, either.

San Onofre was closed to all camping, and since the day was fading I hiked up a back trail to its dead end, threw down my tarp, ate dinner, made a cup of coffee, and slept out under the full moon. The tent may not be seeing much use in days to come …

I was back riding the next morning, made Cardiff and learned that all San Diego state parks are closed to hikers-bikers because of covid. However, you can pay the auto rate and get a site. Apparently the germs know the difference!

Had a sandwich and contemplated my route. “Southbound” is a long-ass word.

END


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