Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Bicycle Ride: The End

The first time I left Texas, I mean really left Texas, on an adult trip, was when I was nineteen. My then girlfriend and I drove from the loose center of the Lone Star State to the loose center of the Grand Canyon State. We stopped at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico on the way; a two-mile meteor crater east of the actual Grand Canyon; the Grand Canyon itself; miles of “Indian” reservations; the remarkable ruins of ancient cultures that were either eradicated by foreign invasion or allowed to die by resettlement; and even the city of Tombstone, romanticized for people being shot through with bullets. I loved the southwest. I loved Arizona, and for a long time afterward, I boasted it my favorite state of the union. As a man cycling through it thirteen years later, I saw it for what it really is: a sprawling region of fat rednecks, brandishing American flags and automatic weapons under a grimy cloak of fascist racism. Of course, I’m generalizing. It’s still a physically beautiful state, rich in history, geology, and geography, but without brains, it’s just a bubbly pair of breasts and a pretty face. Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, fuck Arizona. If I never return there again, I’ll not miss the place. It’s a . . . pleasing sensation to discard, without hesitation, something you once treasured. It’s dynamic. It’s discovery. It’s growth, and I see now that the only reason I marveled over the place at all is because I was still a boy, so full of shit that it was impossible to see that I didn’t know shit. I’m still filled with said refuse but at least I know it now, and at least now I can finally think for myself. It’s liberating, this relatively new freedom from mental slavery. *clickety heels*

Minds, however, are not the only aspect of being human that change (or warp, depending on your perspective) with the passage of time, and from a darkening of the mind to a waning of the heart, the body is just another turn of the screw. Muscles inevitably weaken during their lifelong press against the imprisoning physics of gravity, and from behind the bars of our windowless cells, skin sags and spines curve our droopy faces too far out in front of the rest of our palsies, and then one day, if we are not careful, we are old, tapping around the perimeter of a mall in trembling orthopedic shoes, cursing a generation twice removed because it is unlike the shitty generation we thought we were a part of while watching it on our computers.

The worst part, however, is the sensation that there’s nothing left to discover. Curiosity’s last light has set over the western horizon and darkened the prehistoric striations of the Grand Canyon into one shade of apathy. Intrigue is as dilapidated as the mud bricks of a lost Native American structure, weathered by the destroyer of all culture: time. The proverbial curtain of this lifetime theater has been unexpectedly drawn to reveal a stage of nervous barkers caught in a private congress of despair, and once you recognize their cries as sympathetic attempts to distract you from the inescapable truth that you and everyone you know will die, there is nothing left to do but leave the show and master the one thing that will survive this carnival of brunches, luxury cruises, birthday parties, vinyl collections, . . . greed and greed and greed: your soul. There never again will be an Arizona to meet with nineteen-year-old swagger, for the screw is tightened and we’ve followed the velvet rope of convention to the summit of disrepair where we will each die in our own time, having forgotten to live.

On the morning of January 15th, the cycling portion of my journey ended. I had known it would potentially happen a few days before as I had used all but one of my spare inner tubes along that vicious westbound stretch of Interstate 10, and the harsh desert had receded the tread of my back tire to total baldness. A final bounce over a jagged rock deformed the shape of the same tire, and a tiny hint of its guts were wearing through. I knelt in the blazing afternoon that day, staring at the damaged rubber, trying to conjure the future while remembering the past few days. Frustration dripped from my eyebrows and beaded at the end of my nose, and in the spirit of the South, I squatted there like all the other knuckle-dragging denizens in their cages, confounded and angry at nothing and everything. I stood and looked toward the wavering horizons of the east and west. Nothing. Nothing near and nothing far, so I changed my inner tube and nervously continued riding on a tire whose life expectancy I accurately predicted to be two more days.

It wasn’t just the tire, however. I had burned through more savings than originally projected. Food was a big deal. Sometimes granola, fruit, and dried meat just wasn’t enough, and no matter how awful an omelet and stack of pancakes made me feel after a day of digestion, my imbecile body demanded the calories and whenever the opportunity presented itself, Rocinante the Third was leaned against some mom and pop café while I unapologetically stunk up a booth, juice, coffee, and a buffet of licked-clean plates piled strategically around my book and hunting knife. I also stayed in motels more often than anticipated. The mind is a curious thing. The complete mental resistance I had to sleeping in outside discomfort was unexpected and I can only attribute it to the fact that I wasn’t a springy youth full of milk and sweetness. My insides had soured. I perspired more and consequently, I smelled like hell. I ached more, and I was 1,000 times more concerned with monsters. What’s funny is that as soon as I was completely without a choice, I wasn’t bothered by it at all. Who knows? Had I been riding across country at 20 instead of hitchhiking, perhaps I’d have been just as averse. We’ll never know.

At a rest stop in the days following, I sat on a bench with a casino cup of hot chocolate, reflecting over my predicament, when an elderly traveler materialized at my side (as old ladies tend to do) and kindly bombarded me with a series of personal questions that culminated in a final and tremendous “but are you enjoying your ride?”

I didn’t have an answer.

To say yes would be mostly untrue, but to say no would change everything. How could I continue in the same manner as before after speaking aloud the hard words that I had fallen out of love? Still, I didn’t need to pollute the air with my admission. The old woman’s simple question wrecked my deniability by it’s very standing, and for the first time, I turned to see the straightening of my divine mountains and exquisite sea to the littered margins of a road most traveled. It was a good question. I could ask the same of you, in fact, and presume a comparable reaction. Are you enjoying your ride? Your day-to-day along your own personal highways? Are you happy or are you just existing? It’s an important question and not one I’d have expected from an old woman in a souvenir Arizona sweatshirt. “It’s . . . okay,” I told her with a shrug, and we parted ways.

It was that day that I remembered who I was cycling across the country for: myself. Two weeks prior, I had stopped telling strangers that I was “trying” to make it to Texas, as though I was protecting my ego from failure, and instead, I switched to I’m “going” to Texas because the question of willpower was answered affirmatively. It was doable, and I had no doubt, and still know that I could have rolled all the way to the Atlantic if I wanted to. It wasn’t hard. If you have two arms and two legs it can be done. If you’re missing any combination of appendages, still, it can be done. Like all things, you just can’t be afraid to try. Once my mind had conquered matter, I lost interest, and turned instead to what I was riding toward. My first and only baby niece whom I had never met; my elderly grandmother whom I wanted to kiss goodbye before embarking on my next adventure; and lastly, my reason for leaving the greatest city in North America: love.

My last morning as a cross-country cyclist.

Austin, Texas

I estimate my bike ride to have been around 1,200 miles when Rocinante the Third and I started hitchhiking, something I’ll perhaps post about. What’s next, you ask? Nach Berlin! Then Prague, where the world will continue turning again.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Bicycle Ride: 7

Days begin and days end, again and again. I straddle my conveyance furiously scribbling additional fiction for a book that I wrote a long, long time ago my ears blister and peel, burned by wind and sun cars stop so their drivers may fulfill an irrepressible curiosity and ask my business I meet a finely wrinkled cyclist with an unexpected kindness of discourse and the word “Aryan” tattooed into his neck my wheels turn wildly off course and suddenly I am on the 101 with objection and disquiet I read from One Hundred Years of Solitude in the pink dusk between cities at a midnight rest stop, a sorority voice delicately tells her dog, Ellie, to “get busy” over and over and over and over again until I want to unfold from my cocoon like a terrible butterfly and squeeze the shit out of Ellie myself our desperate measure of time advances from 2011 to 2012 and with perfect introspection, I have a quiet birthday.

I reached Los Angeles on Wednesday, January 4th, nine days after leaving San Francisco. Nine days is slow by cycling standards, but all inhibiting factors considered, it’s still a 500 mile bike ride (381 by automobile), so I was pleased with myself nonetheless.

Now, I could tell you of the mustard pollution that heralded the City of Angels miles before my arrival. I could tell you how I crossed the 100-mile sprawl of that coastal metropolis; how disconcerting it is to hear tires hiss with escaping air once a plague of desert thorns are plucked from their swell; how sandstorms would have choked and blinded me had I not had the foresight to wear goggles over my eyes and a bandana over my mouth; how different people treat those they perceive as socially marginalized; how the interstate was a loveless companion; how Phoenix gassed the same yellow pollution that L.A. did; how absolutely wonderful the embrace of an old friend feels after a decade apart; how hard and claustrophobic the back of a police car is; how real fear becomes you when you know there is life-threatening debris in the road, though it can’t be seen for the immovable night; how lovely a moonlight ride through the desert; I could tell you what it’s like to be padded after by an animal with the face of a wolf and fur as red as blood; how the cruel wind can on one day push you uphill then antagonize on another by forcing a downhill coast to an absolute standstill . . . all day; how a rushing semi-truck could momentarily disrupt the opposing wind and suction you a few blessed feet on it’s tailcoats or simply make you wobble from the sudden lack of resistance; how sand colludes with sweat to layer your sleeping face then grits in your teeth then finds its way into your eyes even when they are tightly shut and roaming in restless dreams; how much sand tenderizes fingertips and lips; how much sand actually hurts; how suffocating and hot and cold a bivy sack can be when you’re so congested that you have to unzip the night shroud to face a blistering torrent of sand, sand, sand to spit sand, then breathe in sand, and spit sand again before enclosing the new sand that has invaded the tiny shelter; how 75-cent hot chocolate from rest stop vending machines were tiny comforts that made the chill in my bones forgettable from the ephemeral brim to base of those little casino cups.

I could tell you all of this, in great detail, rich in description, provocative in rhetoric, sexy in prose, but a funny thing started happening when I reached Los Angeles, and it’s happening all over again as I reflect on the second half of this journey: I stopped caring for my bike ride. It would take the entire ride through Arizona and a wasted tire in New Mexico to fully accept this.

I couldn't get that asshole out of the picture.

What started out as a spider bite turned into wicked sun blisters

That's Scott. He's a decent and good man

Cotton. Lots of it.

Beginning of New Mexcico

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