Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fearsome Wonder


This really belongs in the previous post (but as a parallel to the ride) it was procrastinated to here. It is based on the lesson that was repeatedly brought home to me over the course of the journey: the only place anyone can start anything is from where they're at, and that requires taking a good look around.  As we started the ride, there were two important areas that we did not take a good look at: one was individual expectations and the other was perceived roles. Although it only became clearer as the trip went on that there were diverse (and wonderful!) reasons people had for taking the trip and a variety of roles they expected to fulfill towards themselves, other riders, and the people we met, those things (in my opinion) were never fleshed out to satisfaction. So while the other people's directions certainly affected my experience, guessing at them seems impractical. So I will just briefly review mine:

Expectations: I had heard/read stories of the bike tours during the surge in the 70's. My impression was that they really rode a divine wind, so to speak. The itineraries for those rides were loose and so instead of being focused on objectives (as we were), those riders' minds were open for adventure. The constant deadlines seemed to be invariably at the root of any dissatisfaction I had during the Trek. In fact, the same dissatisfaction caused one of my closest companions, Jack, to take his own route for much of the ride.

Role: I took on a sort of 'dad' persona which i will explore later. I think one of the main things I wanted to be was a member of a community of environmental discussion, which didn't happen partially due to self-imposed seclusion and partially because we were generally exhausted. I'm also not really sure how age actually played out, but I was one of the 'middle kids'.

Mind Meat

I think the two words of the title can even be taken separately as fear and wonder, very critically for at least the first part of the trip.

How far can we make it, after getting lost the first day?
What about joint pain? Cold weather? Hygiene?
If I get hit by a logging truck, will I still be able to ride my bike after I get out of the hospital?
Will the cooler holding a sleeping bag bungeed to the rack of a Gary Fisher pull through?
What happens if the B.O.B. trailer goes over 25 mi/hr?
Is anyone gonna hook up?

A lot of questions and I think we mostly agreed (at least in practice) that the answer was 'keep riding'. That remains a "for better and worse" case in my book. On the one hand riding seemed to shrink problems, either by distracting the mind from big issues or smoothing over the trivial ones. On the other hand, riding could really enhance enjoyable experience while also fitting adventures into a fabric of (not necessarily bad) monotony. I wouldn't go so far as to say cycling itself is a magic bullet for stress (it can certainly help), although I do think that traveling 5-6 hours a day under the steam of a human body for weeks at a time gives a lot of perspective which definitely helps with conflict. Slow release of frustration through riding was a recurring theme for me.
    I loved riding through Washington. This is mostly where the wonder came in for me. It was very sobering to ride through the Seattle, the Snohomish farm country, the former logging/mining towns, into the foothills, over the passes and rolling hills, the deserts of east, the days mostly getting warmer, all with a group of near-complete strangers and my dear friend Marty. It was intense, especially to climb through the mountains.
    For me each of the riders proved themselves to be astonishingly capable very early on. I rode the passes couched in my past trips on steeper hills in the surrounding area, and camping and hiking mountains in the same range. My whole experience was wrapped in an intimate knowledge of the environment and familiarity with the stages of a literal uphill struggle. Some of the others, however had never seen a mountain range like the cascades, and others were provided a crash course in shifting gears on day 1. By day 4 we had gone from sea level to over our first pass @ 5477 ft.
    Emotionally, this first week set a particular tone for me. In short, I assumed myself to be one the riders most experienced with biking, camping, and group facilitation and as a result made the mistake of going into what I term 'dad' mode. This is mostly based on my perspective of my own dad, which means that when confronted with a challenging situation, ensuring the physical safety (and comfort after that) of everyone while maintaining a unshakable stoicism is the order of the day. While both of those things are invaluable under certain circumstances, they are exhausting (to say the least) to maintain as a modus operandi, day in and day out. To complicate matters, I occasionally brought my personal disagreements with decisions made by the group or the leadership into this arena. This meant that I arrogantly perceived that my perspective was virtually unassailable, because I had:
A)  the most experience (which I too quickly assumed translated to the best judgement) in cases like these,
B) (at least nominally) the group safety and comfort at the top of my priorities, and
C) what I considered an objective state of mind (insubstantially argued to have come from my stoicism).

This whole mindset led to a sort of obsession with things that could go wrong, optimizing routes or experiences, and trying to anticipate what was going through people's heads without saying so much as a word to them. This mood, while it never entirely dominated my thoughts, was pervasive throughout the ride. This resulted in me failing to connect with others and myself as much as I . At points, my mind was so wrapped up in problem-solving or trying to figure out the "just right" way to act that I would ride for hours in busy silence, ironically driven by the simple desire just to sing or have a chat. It has generally only been through relating the stories of my ride that I realize some times were really great and interesting.

    Perhaps the saving grace of that whole thing is (not for the first time) realizing how important it is to just let go. I still get caught up in trying to author insane amounts of my own experiences. A much grander example was built by the guy who came up with The Trek to Reenergize America in the first place.He assumed (somewhat arbitrarily) the position of leadership and made it a strong point to stick to our daily itinerary and established routine. While such fidelity was appropriate in some situations, really astonishing amounts of tension rose in the group over issues ranging from swimming at a lunch break to taking a day or two detour. As far as I could tell, this generally meant that any improvisation or 'spirit' was dissent. Any freedom I won often turned out to be tainted at best. It was really frustrating, but a very, very powerful lesson in what happens when we don't let the things we love have a life of their own.

To wrap up, I want to acknowledge that there is a part of me that is ambivalent about disclosing all of that. But, in the end, I think it's important for anyone reading this (let alone me writing it) to realize that I'm just a person, a brain in a body that rode, that is writing this. I am biased and subjective, so I figured instead of burning a lot of rubber in pursuit of some white rabbit objectivity, I'm just going to say it how I think it is, and try to present a pretty good picture explaining where those thoughts came from.


So! I'm tired after teasing all of that out, so I'm gonna close with some quick thoughts I around with over the first week:

Excessengineering - Excess consumption isn't really a new thought, but I felt like I got a pretty unique perspective on it during the first week. I started to view consumption in terms of infrastructure as opposed to goods and services. My first subject was roads. We stayed a night at the Pacific Biodiversity Institute (in Winthrop), and one of projects they did was publishing a map of all of the USA roadways accessible by vehicles without 4 wheel drive. It turns out there is something like 7 million miles of roads in this country alone. The map they created as visual representation based on the data really speaks for itself. It caused me to seriously question the structure of a society that 'needs' even further transportation development. My next thoughts focused on dams. Massive, massive walls of concrete in the path of a river are often put in a positive light because they generate electricity without emissions. But they have wrought really astonishing destruction on the surrounding ecosystem. They were basically dropped down as quick as possible during the 1920's and 1930's, 40-50 years before modern environmental concerns. Basically, while I don't have any hard facts at hand (although I did a cursory project on river dams in WA ~2 years ago, if you're interested), I'm going to take a wild guess and say that plunking 31 million tons of concrete (the Grand Coullee Dam) into the middle of a river doesn't come without some pretty profound consequences.

Youth of the West - This is mostly retrospective, after having been through the older part of the country. Washington has young mountains, young forests due to clearcut, and young development, as one of the most recent places to be settled by English Americans (my ancestors). I slowly realized, as I rode across, how unrefined this area is, and how fragile and transient, on cultural and environmental levels. This isn't inherently good or bad, but it helped me understand on of the most interesting challenges facing this country: in ways that affect policy, we are very diverse. And I don't mean that in a Oregonians wear Birkenstocks to opera way, but more in a 'it's been a long time in my family since consecutive generations were born within 100 miles of their grandparents'. This is important because ecosystems are wildly complex, and there is no getting around the fact that understanding them takes vast amounts of time. On the East Coast, put coarsely, it seems that they have spent their time understanding the ecosystem in order to dominate it. Over here, I don't think there's really a lot to say because we're basically the same people, but in the ways that we aren't, our culture is too young to really draw conclusions. Yesterdays dams might be tomorrow's equivalent of mountain top removal.

Food - Something we played around with on the Trek was eating well (that is frugally, naturally, and healthfully). It was a challenge on the bike trip, but it also helped me realize that food is one of the few things that more or less needs to be regularly "wasteful". To name a few superficial causes human bodies are far from 100% energy efficient and there are some parts of animals or plants that we can't digest at all. So there will be byproduct. I guess it just makes me think hard about 'zero waste' systems. I'm sure the people practicing them are very good at it, but I don't think I have a good handle on what stuff trails behind me as waste. On the flip side, it really gave me some perspective on crafting things that last or are repairable. Plastic products are usually pretty frustrating when it comes to reuse or repair, while iron/steel seems to have a lot more potential for being 're-something'ed.

Also, at the end of each post (for the first half of the trip, at least), I'm going to include some day-by-days. 'High' is the best part and 'low' is the worst part.

Day-by-Day Entries:

Colville, WA
high: hacky sack

low: burnt fingers
destroyed fork

- - -

Republic, WA
high: seeing/listening to rad kids
getting a sponge

low: not checking out a Western clothing store

- - -

high: playing MTG at lunch

low: getting dominated by the heat

- - -

high: sleeping in a house
eating a ton (ice cream)

low: loooong final 15 mi
just missed the homemade hand scooped ice cream

- - -

Diablo Dam
high: climbing on a locomotive engine
talking to a german dude playing hacky sack

low: failing at making a fire
not jumping in the river with JP

- - -

high: awesome dinner
reading in the sun

low: suffocating in my bivvy

- - -

high: Marty

low: not going to the goat farm

1 comment:

Kate said...

Hey Tim,

Excellent to read your first post! Essentially I had the same impressions as you in the first week of biking. For me the "Just keep going" urge was more prevalent and marked me deeper at that point than any other. On reflection I think almost everyone went into some kind of 'mode' similar to your dad mode, but it's interesting how it came out differently. For example, Sarah's 'mom' mode was wonderful in asking about everyone's emotional stability and trying to keep (shall we say, parental fighting?) away from the group. And Emily's cheerleader mode was a positive force to be reckoned with.

Keep 'em coming! Week two is when things got real interesting...