At the beginning of this trip I was chubby, weak, and stupid, like the average preschooler. Now, with 2,000 miles in my legs, I’m lean, strong, and genius, like a German astronaut. Somewhere on the road I absorbed the ability to tie 30 different knots. I can chew tobacco and then land my spit on a bulls-eye twenty yards away. I swallow aspirin without water and sleep without blankets or pillow.
Some of it’s true. I think I’d make a worthy astronaut. Fiction aside, this journey has made its mark. While I’ve gained a sliver more patience for the world in general and all of its miserable jokes, my aversion to talkative strangers has become more acute. The prize of this trip has been lengthy solitude paired with a few trusted and friendly faces – family, friends, the coastal raccoon that got my English muffins. The freedom to choose destinations and distances without consulting a partner has also been a great reward of traveling alone, although I’m incredibly indecisive and often burn daylight staring at the ground in lieu of making a decision.
I’ve always been a fan of coin flipping to make decisions. Any piece the size of a quarter or larger works best. Sometimes what the coin wants is exactly the opposite of what I want, which allows me to take satisfying action in defiance of the coin’s will. Other times the coin and I will completely agree and the decision is a smooth and harmonious one. Some say it’s strange to let outside events influence your choices, but some say it’s genius.
When FBI Agent Dale Cooper demonstrated his Tibetan Method in the woods near Twin Peaks during his investigation into the death of Laura Palmer, he was relying on a process of outward reflection to discover wisdom on an internal level. That’s why you and I love that particular special agent more than the ones who lock themselves in offices with files and folders waiting for logic or technology to prevail.
Suspend your disbelief while I invent similarities between Agent Cooper and myself. Cooper’s Tibetan Method vs. the traditional detective. Long-distance bicycle trek vs. two-hour plane trip. In both comparisons there is a fringe process contrasted with a commonly held standard practice. The traditional methods are oriented toward empirical evidence or efficiency while the fringe processes strive for a deeper meaning beyond simple solutions.
In the summer of 2012 I began to develop my own Tibetan Method. I found a clearing in the woods near one of my jogging routes. The space was a circle about 30 feet in diameter with an aspen tree somewhere off-center. It was secluded enough that I couldn’t see or be seen by anyone on the trail. I didn’t intend to start anything here, it just happened one day in the middle of a run. I stopped in the clearing, picked up four rocks that signified different things for me, and arranged them in a circle. I picked up one and rubbed it against my sweaty forehead and put it back in place. I looked around with the feeling that somehow this little circle could be the entire world. I let the idea sink in and then finished my run.
I went back almost every day. I would look at the rocks, pick them up and hold them, rearrange them, whatever felt right. I would sit for a while, not necessarily thinking about things, but just barely observing them. I sat with things that troubled me: a sputtering five year-old relationship, an increasingly ill mother, memories of regretful things that I’d done. I didn’t actively contemplate these issues; I just had them there with me. After a while I would stand up and open my awareness to any immediate insights. The process worked. Nature seemed to know what I wanted to accomplish and if there were any guidelines to follow they came naturally and seemed to closely adhere to my random actions. Some insights came so clearly that I almost thought I had already thought them before I sat down, and others were clouded with possibilities. I don’t want to get specific about how I interpreted my time in the clearing because it’s nonsensical and very special to me, but anything from a disturbed twig to an urge to throw my sweaty rock westward was valuable. The process transported me to another plane of analysis, presenting creative and new approaches to my traditional dilemmas. The small truths I would uncover in the clearing reflected a larger truth that, when approached, redirected to another question. In all of my insights, I never discovered any solutions to my problems, only different ways of understanding them.
One day in January I approached the clearing to find that the entire area had been bulldozed. Trees and stumps that I’d placed meaning on were uprooted and in a pile 100 yards away. My stones had vanished among the thousands of others. I searched the ground for a trace of something familiar but found nothing. “What does it mean?” I had no idea. I left feeling that I’d been silently robbed of absolutely nothing.
A few weeks later I held my mom’s hand as she took her final breath. She was scoured from the planet, wheeled through the front door and out of my life forever. I entered a barren, unrecognizable landscape.
When I left Denver in September of 2013, I would have been an idiot to think that riding my bicycle was an efficient method of transportation between point A and point B. The long path of a cycle tour exchanges patience for discovery. I would let my thoughts develop in my head, release them to wander or disappear, and then celebrate when a thought returned some time later with a slight discoloration. The progress was slow and my direction conformed to contours in the landscape rather than my urge to travel directly to the finish line. At times the road laid itself straight ahead of me for 30 miles at a stretch. There would be a twinge in my brain when I’d look up after an hour of pedaling to see that the small tree in the distance had only grown slightly larger. Three hours later I’d be standing next to the tree with a realization that hours of anticipating something’s arrival doesn’t always make the arrival poignant. By the time I reached the end of Nevada I was left with the impression that there was no meaning to gain from riding on those long roads, which felt similar to crawling across a massive blank canvas. I felt empty, neutral, and cleansed.
By the time I could see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance I didn’t have any more thoughts or questions to let wander. The simple act of trying to conjure a thought produced no more than the internal dialogue of, “I dunno, I just don’t know.”
Throughout this trip I’ve enjoyed remembering my mom who passed away on January 24, 2013 after a 10 year dance with cancer. I owe this journey and any that follow to her — she turned me on to writing, she inspired me to follow creativity, and she encouraged me to pursue hair-brained ideas. She was a barrel full of joy, wit, humor, sarcasm, darkness, and honesty – all the things I value in people. I’m baffled to think that these traits could reside in such great quantities within one person, and that that one person could so easily vanish. I have pushed my palms toward the sky many times during this journey and said “hi mom!” There’s been no resounding response from the heavens and no symbolic movements from earth. There’s just the steady, pulsing presence of something looking back at itself in bewilderment.
As a final gift to my readers, I’m attaching here an audio essay about death that I did with my mom in 2009. I’d been listening to a lot of This American Life, and I still get pangs of “oh god I’m so stupid” when I hear my opening and interluding narrative, but I’m happy to share my mom’s perspective, which I think you’ll appreciate whether you knew her well or not at all.
Great thanks to Steve Lawson and Will Duncan of Oblio Duo for the song Colt 45 at the end of this essay