On being back

Part of me is trying to take my routine from the road and cram my “real life” into it. One obvious reason why it doesn’t fit is, I just have too many possessions. They’re stacked around me. I need multiple rooms to hold them all.

And yet these are all needed for a typical life in one place. They save time and money. They’re valuable. Right now I am seeing them from a strange perspective. They remind me of the heaps of trash I saw on the lawns of the houses in small Kansas towns. Lives destroyed by poverty and methamphetamines. What good did their possessions do them?

Actually, let me pull the brakes on this whole train of thought, and grind it into reverse. Let me ask, “what does all this introspection and writing do for me?”

We both die, after our singular and cosmically ineffective lives, me and the tweeker with his garbage on the lawn. I am taking my own tendency to take things seriously too seriously. Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson from this trip: All of our lives, even the most important things we can identify in them, are transient.

I look around here at the environment I left behind, and I remember how I felt inside it, and I think, “It could be like the trip never happened at all. Here’s all my old stuff, and all my old unfinished business.” But I can now see the ways in which this old life chafes me, like a badly tailored suit.

So much activity – so much thought and observation – was crammed into every hour on the road, and I now feel a kind of revulsion at the slowness of life before it. Did I really spend entire days indoors, reading web pages and moving files around? Did I really consider a bicycle ride to the supermarket across town, less than two miles, to be too difficult? Too time consuming? Too much hassle? I just spent the last month riding 50 miles every day of the week, with 50 pounds of ballast, through wind and thunderstorms, and all it did me was good.

What were you thinking, previous me?

You must have been really twisted up inside yourself to see things that way.

Being unemployed has given me plenty of time to think but it has turned into a poison. I need to hammer at the dream of society building again. It’s time to get things done.

Post-trip ruminating

Oakland has its appeal, and for all the danger and grime I actually enjoy living there. But I hear stories about bears wandering along the shores of San Francisco Bay and I have trouble picturing it. They were all long gone before I was even born, and it never even occurred to me that they had been there. I was thinking about it, and I started to wonder: How much more can we lose, from generation to generation, and forget about, before we actually start to suffer, irrevocably, from the cumulative loss? Will we eventually reach a point where we will live our entire lives without ever seeing animals other than pets and livestock? The very idea of animals surviving independent of humans will seem absurd, since all the independence was bred out of them years ago. What will we miss? Can it be described? What will each of us do? I imagine one of my grandchildren standing in a grassy field. There are no birds, so to relieve the silence, she plays some music on her phone. There are no animals to encounter, so to relieve the loneliness, she starts texting one of her friends. All the plants look like the plants everywhere else, so to relieve the visual boredom, she starts playing a puzzle game. “Nature is boring, granddad. Why were you so into it, anyway?”

Packing Up The Bike

The key to taking apart a bicycle is to have one of these on hand. It’s a tiny adjustable wrench, small enough to carry in a toolkit and lock nuts in place, and just big enough to remove the pedals from a bicycle.

And, of course, you need a variety of hex wrenches!

IMG_0176

The key to transporting a bicycle once it’s in pieces is to use a sturdy box. After sinking a big chunk of money into the recumbent itself, I figured I could justify spending a chunk to get it home safely. I chose the Crateworks “tandem”-size box.

IMG_0184

It’s freaking enormous. 70 x 11 x 32 inches. Even so, it was just long enough for me to fit the main boom of the recumbent in diagonally. Around that I packed almost all of my gear – three of the bike bags, the clothing, the sleeping bag, the tools, the spare tire, and some remaining food. The fourth bike bag remained outside, so I could use it as carry-on baggage for the plane ride home.

IMG_0185

It took most of a day to break down the bike and install it in the box. The end result was close to 110 pounds, the ceiling for cross-country oversize shipping at the local FedEx depot.

The box is clearly labeled with arrows indicating “this side up”, but as far as I can tell, FedEx employees totally ignore these. When it arrived in Oakland six days later it was upside-down in the back of the truck, and the delivery agent dragged it out and lowered it by turning it end-over-end, leaving it upside-down on the sidewalk in front of me. At least he helped me carry it into the house.

Interestingly enough, due to the seasonal discount on my plane ticket, it cost just as much to ship a 110-pound box home in a week as it cost to fly my 180-pound ass home in 12 hours.

After the Trinidad to Toledo ride: What would I keep; what would I change?

First things first: The recumbent was awesome! I would not use any other style of bike for such a long trip. I never had to worry about saddle sores, or aching wrists, or a kink in my neck. My wind profile was nice and low, and my luggage capacity was high. My decision to leave behind my tent was a good one, since there were almost no places to camp along the way. I suppose I could have asked strangers if I could camp in their yard or on their farmland, but as a lone traveler on a long haul with some expensive gear, I didn’t feel comfortable enough. With two people sharing a tent the variables are different, I’m sure. Other changes I would make: New gloves. My ski gloves didn’t block moisture, and that was a problem. I also needed some kind of waterproof over-sock, so I didn’t have to use plastic shopping bags. I used the bags even when it was dry out, to reduce windchill. I know there are waterproof covers for biking shoes, but I don’t like them for three reasons: First, they’d get beat up whenever I walk around off the bike. Second, they all have a hole in the bottom to expose the pedal clip, and on this recumbent, the soles of my feet go vertical during each pedal stroke. After half an hour of cycling into a rainstorm, the liners would fill with water. And third, I can’t find any in my size. Bah! So that’s still an unsolved problem. My water sack had a slow leak, so I couldn’t use it for this trip. I kept all my water in metal canteens instead. They didn’t seem to add much weight, and they could attach to the outsides of the bike. I never worried about dropping or puncturing them. Toolkit: The toolkit was great. I used the needle-nose pliers to remove thorns from my tires, pull my brake cables, cut zipties, loosen the valves on my tubes, and manipulate the wiring on my hub generator. I used the miniature wrench to adjust my headlamp, and attach and remove my rack, seat, tail light, and pedals. It would have been almost impossible to disassemble the bike without those. The plastic tire levers saved me a lot of trouble. I used a bunch of the zipties, and almost all of the chain oil. I used the hex keys, of course. I had a swiss army knife, and I used the knife, bottle opener, screwdriver, scissors, and saw (to cut a hat brim to extend my helmet). I used the tire pump a dozen times – totally worth it. (A spare tire is useless if you can’t get it inflated, right?) My set of folding scissors turned out to be completely frivolous. Those are out. I didn’t use the electrical tape, but I’m strangely reluctant to discard it. To my relief I didn’t need any of the spare parts (screws, washers, chain link, brake pads), or the tire repair kit, or my medical kit – but I’m keeping all those. I should probably add a chain tool, and a spare 20-inch tire to go with the tube. Tech toys: The laptop was very helpful in the evenings. It was powerful enough to deal with my photos, and the physical keyboard was great for my logs and correspondence. I researched my route on it from hotel rooms, with maps and weather reports and topography and restaurant menus all open in the web browser. The extra USB ports charged my gadgets at night. Doing all this stuff with a tablet – the iPad even – would have been much harder. It doesn’t have the horsepower, and even with a detachable keyboard, there is basically no concept of “keyboard navigation”, which would drive me bananas. In fact, I should have left the iPad at home. The only time it was uniquely useful on the trip was when I wanted to look at a map, and AT&T didn’t get a signal to my phone, but Verizon got a signal to the iPad. That’s it. Sure it made a good conversation piece and it was fun to watch The Daily Show on it in restaurants, but that didn’t make it worth the weight. Next time it’s staying home. I brought that Contour GPS camera along for the entire ride, but never turned it on once. It was just too easy to use the iPhone for taking video, and I knew that if I dug out the Contour I would have to wait at least 30 seconds for it to get a GPS lock. Then there would be the effort of importing, cropping, and transcoding the video… Next time I’ll just leave that thing at home. All my gadgets stayed dry, thanks to those waterproof “lok-saks”, and an overabundance of sandwich bags. I could have used another dry-sack for dirty laundry, instead of just cramming it straight into the pannier.

Day 32 – The last day of riding on the Colorado to New York route

The day began like the rest; I had most of my gear already packed up the previous night, so all I needed to do was throw on clothing, stuff the sleeping bag into a pannier, and shove the bicycle outside to the parking lot. After an entire month of this I’ve gotten pretty efficient! The trip uptown was uneventful, though I had to pedal at 6 miles per hour the whole time because of the destroyed rim. The fellow at the rental station had my minivan ready in the parking lot. He showed me how to use the new-fangled electronic key, demonstrated the automatic doors, and helped me fold down the seats and load the bike inside. The stereo had a line-in jack, so my first stop was Wal-Mart to purchase a cable for wiring up my iPod. Then I hit the freeway! New York, here I come! As I drove along, bellowing lyrics to They Might Be Giants and then listening to electronic boopy and beepy music, I thought about my trip:
Q: So how many miles did I ride?
A: Somewhere around 1300 miles, from Trinidad, CO to Toldeo, OH. That works out to 43 miles per day. For comparison, my original route to New York was 1800 miles, and to make it there in 30 days I would have needed to ride 60 miles per day.
Q: Was it everything I’d hoped for?
A: Well, I had a pile of different plans and ideas for the trip, but when I got on the road I became focused mostly on enjoying each day as its own thing. That was probably the best approach – the most important, at least. I didn’t have any expectations about what I would find, but I had some personal goals: Relax, see new places, restore my health, and figure out what to do next. I think I met those goals.
Q: How did a bike trip work to restore my health?

A: Last year I developed a thyroid condition that pitched my metabolism into overdrive, burning my body down like a road flare. Then my thyroid swung hard in the other direction, and I gained a lot of weight, became very lethargic and depressed, and had huge difficulty concentrating at work.

The causes were both psychological and environmental, and to get healthy again I wanted to push everything off my calendar and do a lot of aerobic exercise outside in the fresh air. It was especially important that I stay away from my apartment, which had become a gas chamber of mold spores and dessicated rat crap. A long bike trip was a perfect activity, and it had the desired effect.

Q: Did it cost too much?

A: It certainly cost a lot. I planned a pretty loose budget, and I still went over it. A hundred bucks a day is serious money, especially when you’re not working. And as much as I’ve fantasized about the idea of biking across the country while I do contract-based computer work on a laptop, the real world is not very accommodating for it. I need long chunks of quiet time to write code, and the daily costs of sitting in place – hotel, food, and camping fees – appear to outweigh the benefits of using that time to work.

Better to drop anchor and work some place cheap – like an actual apartment that you can rent for the equivalent of 15 bucks a day – and save up the vacation time for later.

Q: Is that the kind of life I aspire to? Work a while, then bike somewhere new?
A: When you’ve been working 60 hours a week for five years, the idea sounds grand. But this trip has taught me that I’m too interested in planting roots and building things to be a seasonal nomad. There are plenty of people who bike around the world perpetually. Some have written books about it. I’m not going to be one of those people.
Q: If I was going to do it again, what would I do differently?
A: I would set a much longer deadline. I would budget for 30 miles a day – like I knew I should have – instead of 50. I’d save up a bit more money. I’d leave three months earlier. I’d have more time to explore, talk to people, and write. Less of a backlog.
Q: How did my equipment fare? What would I keep; what would I change?
A: The answer to this is long and warrants its own post. :D
Q: If I did this again, would I do it alone, or with other people?

A: I have never gone on a trip like this with other people. If I wanted to do so, there are organizations – web communities – that I could use to find companions pretty easily. Since I have never done so, I must conclude that there is something in me that prefers to go it alone. I can think of a few reasons why: It’s easier to plan and schedule a trip for one. I can go exactly as fast or slow as I want. I can listen to audiobooks for hours, since I don’t have to keep my ears open all the time.

Of course if I had a companion I could substitute audiobooks for conversation… And I’m sure we could save a lot of money and carry less weight… Maybe I’ll try it some time; who knows.

Q: What am I going to do next?
A: Enjoy the holidays, look for a better place to live, and get employed!
I arrived in Elmira after seven solid hours of driving. Erika’s parents greeted me and gave me a tour of their impressive home, then Richard and I caravanned to the airport so I could drop off the rental car. Business concluded! A little while after that, we all drove to the airport in Binghamton and met Erika. Smiles and hugs and tears of joy ensued!